What Speculative Fiction has Taught Zachary Jernigan

About the Author

Yo! I’m Zack, a 33-year-old, quarter-Hungarian, typically shaven-headed male. I’ve lived in Northern Arizona, where the weather is nice and the political decisions are horrifying, since 1990, with occasional forays into the wetter and colder world.
My favorite activities include: listening to 70s-00s punk and post-punk music, cooking and then eating delicious and often unhealthy foods, riding human-powered vehicles of all varieties (though hardly well), talking and/or arguing about religion, watching sitcoms, night-swimming, and jumping on and off stuff.
During my depressingly rare periods of productivity, I write science fiction and fantasy. No Return , my first novel, came out in March of 2013 from Night Shade Books. My short stories have appeared in a variety of places, including Asimov’s Science FictionCrossed Genres, and Escape Pod



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What I’ve Learned is What I Want to Be

Zachary Jernigan

One of my go-to claims is this:

“I read science fiction because I lost religion.”

It always requires explanation, even though I think it’s fairly clear what I mean — up until the point where I really think about it, that is. For the person who practices a religion (or is spiritual, if you prefer; no, I won’t split hairs), the world is full of a particular kind of wonder. There is a god, or gods, or a universal presence, etc., and that’s pretty darn cool, right? For the person who has never had a religion, on the other hand, the world is as full and meaningful as it’s always been.

But for the dude who rejected the faith of his upbringing? Well, for him the world will always be a little less cool — but still cool, mind; science rules! — because it lacks all the really neat stuff that a theological view of the world provides.

Just for some context, I was raised, much like the owner of this blog, in the LDS (Mormon) church, so you know I’m missing out on the belief in a bunch of really cool junk (for men, that is). I mean, being a god with a perfected, ageless body after death? Who wouldn’t want to believe that’s gonna happen?

Still, the fact is clear: I can’t make myself believe things, no matter how cool they might be to believe.

And so, long and short of it, I read science fiction (and, to a lesser extent, fantasy). Instead of going to church and praying, I go to a library and find a book where godlike beings can exist and travel the universe, or where ordinary people meet dragons and get swords of power. I escape, in both an “escapist’ and an intellectual way, into worlds of wonder. I take inspiration from the imaginations of others in the way a religious person might take inspiration from hearing about the plan of salvation.

I know that some people — religious, atheist, not giving a crap one way or the other — know what I mean when I say this, because, really, reading itself is an act of faith. It is an exercise in trust. You put yourself in the hands of someone you (probably) don’t know and say, “Okay. I give my brain over to these three hundred pages: take it where you will, Author Person!”

You live, for that brief time — or long time, if you’re a slow reader like me — in the creation of the author.

You do this because it feels good to be taken somewhere.

And me? I like to be taken to the awesomest places. I like to see things that no one’s ever seen or going to see. I like that feeling of my brain pulsing under the thin barrier of my skull, growing new wrinkles as it attempts to wrap itself around a novel description, a new kind of person or mode of expression. In the best moments, I come closer to the transcendent than I ever did praying, or hearing about the gospel, and though that fact might make some believers sad for me, to me it is the most wonderful validation I can imagine.

The universe is no cold, dead place, not while I’ve got a good science fiction book in my hand. Oh, no; at the best moments during reading, being inside my head is literally the best place for a human being to be. (And I don’t say that lightly, because my brain’s sort of a mess.)

This is why science fiction matters to me: This is what I’ve learned: It is no small thing to have happen, sitting in a room while all of existence explodes around you, over and over again, reorganizing itself in incredible ways, lending a true sense of awe, of fear and majesty.

All due to some words, man. Words.

And so now I’m an author, doing the most frightening thing in the world — to me, anyway. The fact that I even try to recreate in the minds of a reader the kind of experiences I’ve had reading proves how foolish a mere mortal can be. I’m trying to paint, word by insufficient word, something that exists only on the palette between my two ears, something born of the unique obsession to show the reader something they’ve never before seen. I’m trying to do what my heroes, the priestesses and shamans of my homespun anti-religion, did to make me the man I am today — a supremely flawed human being, but at least one who has seen the edge of the universe and come away smiling at the sight.

13 Responses

  • What a fantastic confession! 😀 I love this particular para – “I like that feeling of my brain pulsing under the thin barrier of my skull, growing new wrinkles as it attempts to wrap itself around a novel description, a new kind of person or mode of expression” – Beautifully put!!

    Good Luck Zachary in this endeavor of yours to “get more wrinkles” in your brain 🙂 (Am still to read the No Return but I read first few pages and am super excited about it!! ) and Thank you Sarah for this wonderful new initiative. Ever a Fan of yours.

    – A long time SFF Fan, still unearthing and finding new reasons to love this ever-expanding ever-evolving genre.

    • Well, thank you, Sachin! What an excellent and positive response! I appreciate the encouragement, and it’s shot right back at you. You strike me as having a similar goal in reading.

      And I’m happy you’re excited about my book! That’s so cool to hear.

      As for you, Sarah, thanks for once again having me on here. It’s an honor to be asked.

  • Thanks, Zachary!

    Sensawunda indeed can be a transportative experience.

  • I do not hate this.

  • Well said, Zack. Even as a person of faith, I still cherish the moments where spec fiction has taken me to amazing worlds outside of my seemingly stagnant one. My first Fantasy read, Dragons of Autumn Twilight, was given to me while on one of my favorite vacations growing up. Sure it was with my mom and her boyfriend and his family (awkward), but we did some really fun stuff at the pond, including a four-ish hour canoe ride from the pond through connecting rivers and out into Lake Michigan. Arguably the most fun I had that trip was the down time when I could read sword and sorcery come to life.

    Thank you for your contribution to my mind’s desire for otherworldly adventure with NO Return. You inspire me to give you a similarly awesome one in return.

    • Thanks, Tim! And yes, I very much hope it didn’t come across as exclusionary, what I said. Of course folks of all stripes can feel what I feel when I read great, mind-expanding literature of the speculative variety. That’s a great story of connection with a book, by the way. I love to hear about that first moment when things opened up because of a book.

      And of course you’re welcome! I anxiously await your answer, in return!

      • You didn’t come across at all that way, I was just commenting how we have that in common.

        • Oh, well that’s good. Honestly, I think we have a lot in common. You seem to be searching for a lot of the same things in fiction that I search for.

          • We do have a lot in common, and I’m very glad for that.

  • Well this was a surprise, and I’ve never had sci-fi and fantasy pitched to me in this way. But I like it. Independent of faith, sci-fi and fantasy celebrate the ingenuity of humanity, the deepness of our minds, the triumph of our spirits. Novels in general also explore moral decisions, and they allow us to experience difficult situations that we might have to confront in our own lives. In all, a value-laden form of entertainment.

    • Ah! I like that response, A.E., and this description in particualr: “a value-laden form of entertainment.”

      Very well said.

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