If I don’t count the Dr. Seuss book that taught me to read, THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH has probably influenced my life more than any other. My fifth-grade teacher read it aloud to her class, and the idea that words, sounds, or numbers might be alive, inhabiting a particular place, or able to act for themselves knocked me flat. I’d read fantasy before —my copy of THE BORROWERS was tattered and I had a friend I visited specifically for her copy of JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH—but TOLLBOOTH was a step beyond because it described not just a make-believe world, but a radically different way of looking at and being in the world right before us. I went through a tollbooth of my own without looking back.
Words and ideas became playthings for me on a Tollbooth level, not the spelling, grammar, and summer-vacation-essay level. A dimension fell open before me, one in which I could imagine cartoons leaking into the mundane world (REALITY LEAK), numbers that made sounds (THE HUMMING OF NUMBERS), or senses beyond the usual half-dozen (THE FARWALKER’S QUEST). I’m fascinated by books that breach the fourth wall (from playful picture books to Marcus Zusak’s I AM THE MESSENGER). Boundaries like that are for crossing, IMO. Toll optional.
Consider a boundary in your view of the world. (They’re sneaky; we tend to be constrained by them without actually seeing them.) The sky, the definition of what is human, and the boundary we see as death are several that typically inform spec fic, though there’s always room for fresh eyes. Just as Star Trek has probably influenced the development of communication devices, popular spec fic concepts soon erect boundaries of their own. And what about other boundaries such as birth, the sense of self, the delimiter between macro and quantum physics? Or our expectations of time, which I have yet to see handled in a book in any ground-breaking way, despite scientific suspicion that it doesn’t exist, at least not as we experience it. (Loads of time-travel books work within our fiction-created expectations, but I don’t know any that actually explode the forward/backward model, do you? DUNE may come the closest.)
Hand over your toll and walk through. That’s the hard part. After that, writing about what you see on the far side is easy.
Joni Sensel, who gets in trouble for crossing boundaries such as wet paint signs.