When I was a little turd, I wanted to be an astronaut. Then the Challenger explosion happened, Punkie Brewster aired A Very Special Episode™ about it, everyone at school cried, and I was cured of my aspirations to hitch a ride into space on a junker with less computing power than today’s calculators.
In a short piece for The Guardian, David Mitchell reveals he was dreaming of space as a kid, too — building “space cruisers out of shoeboxes, cotton reels, toilet rolls and UHU glue” for his action figures. Instead of an astronaut, Mitchell wanted to be an inventor, dreaming up new and exciting shades of effluent grey and android circuitry.
When that didn’t quite work out he imagined himself as a footballer, then a lighthouse keeper until a “smart aleck relative gleefully informed me that automation was making the profession extinct, so being a forester moved into pole position.” (That dream-crushing Hugo Lamb, what a jerk!)
The arrival of a brand new Sinclair ZX Spectrum steered the future Cloud Atlas author toward his eventual calling:
I programmed games in BASIC (the early computer language, not textual shouting) up to the limits of the Spectrum’s minuscule by today’s standards 48k (kilobytes not thousands of pounds) memory. They were complex quest adventure games, and one or two of them were reasonably inventive, if I remember correctly. But it was the narratives of the games and the imagining of the worlds they were set in that excited me more than the act of programming, which explains why I never advanced to learning machine code, or why I haven’t become a World of Warcraft multimillionaire.
Mitchell credits his lack of a clear career path for allowing him to wander and just stumble into becoming a novelist who writes as if he’s “at the helm of some perpetual dream machine,” in the words of one book critic. He ends the piece with characteristic Mitchellian humility, saying he’s been helped along by a bit of luck.
“A Japanese friend with limited English once told me, ‘No plan is plan,'” Mitchell writes, “and that’s not a bad description of my working life. For planlessness to work, however, you do need luck. I’ve had quite a bit. I’m duly grateful.”