MIND MELD: What Book Introduced You to Science Fiction?
We always remember our first. (Yes, I’m talking about reading!) We asked this week’s panelists:
Check below to see their responses. And tell us what book got you started!
Back when I was 9 or 10 years old, I was reading one of the EC horror comics, and my mother chanced to look over my shoulder, and it must have been a typically gruesome EC panel that she saw, because she ripped it out of my hands and took it away from me.
I argued that this was censorship, which she had always told me she was against, and she, dancing on the head of a pin, explained that it wasn’t censorship because the pictures would give me nightmares, and that she would never think of censoring my reading, just my looking (which, she pointed out, Hollywood’s code did all the time and no adults objected, or at least not any she knew of), and I could buy any horror book I wanted, just no more horror comics.
I went right out to the bookstore with a quarter clutched in my outraged little hand. I’m sure she thought I’d pick up something like Frankenstein, which is all but unreadable to the average ten-year- old…but instead I bought the first “horror” title I came across, which was the Groff Conklin anthology, Science Fiction Terror Tales. I still remember the first three stories: Ray Bradbury’s “Punishment Without Crime”; Fred Brown’s “Arena”; and Bob Sheckley’s “The Leech”. By the time I had read them, I was hooked on science fiction — and I remain hooked to this very day.
So I am now 58 novels, 14 collections, 236 stories, 2 screenplays, 1 comic book, 163 articles and essays, and 47 edited anthologies into my science fiction career, all thanks an unread horror comic and a read-again-and-again-and-again science fiction anthology.
The book that introduced me to science fiction was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It remains one of my all time favorite novels. I even give it a subtle (well, not that subtle) shout-out in my first novel, Zahrah the Windseeker.
I was about twelve when I discovered The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When I was growing up, I wasn’t aware of the categories of science fiction and fantasy. However, I naturally gravitated toward books with speculative elements. I also liked nonfiction science books. My introduction to Isaac Asimov was through his nonfiction science books, not his science fiction.
I picked up The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the library because it had that green circle monster with the big grin on it. This creature highly amused me. I thought it was cute, funny, mysterious and strange. I didn’t know what the book was about at ALL.
I’ve never been too fond of stories about people on spaceships. They make me feel claustrophobic, as does the very idea of space travel. But this wasn’t the case with the story of Arthur, Ford, Zaphod, and Trillion. There was lots of breathable space in this novel, even within the ship, ha ha.
When I picked up this novel, I was really really into all the animal field guides. The idea of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, a constantly evolving field guide about everything…I LOVED that; the very idea sent my mind soaring. Also, my strongest subjects were math and science and even back then, I had a love for illogical logic. I went on to read all the books in the series, of course.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was the first book to make me laugh really hard out loud. And I thought hard about the Infinite Improbability Drive. The whale and the petunias…priceless on so many levels. I played that scene over and over again in my head for years.
Because I wasn’t familiar with the science fiction tradition that the book was mocking, I read the book in a different way. It wasn’t a satire to me, it was just this really f*cking weird hilarious novel that was different from everything else I’d read. Oh and I have to mention that because it had lots of aliens, I felt included. I was reading tons of novels (genre and non-genre fiction) and none of what I was picking up had any people of color in them. This bothered me on a subconscious level. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was about BEING alien. Arthur lost his whole planet and then he was thrust into a “world” bigger than his earth and it was full of truly diverse “aliens”. It was a refreshing read for someone like me.
I first read it as a library copy. It was not until I was in my late teens that I got one of those copies with all the books in one volume. I now own several copies of the series along with an old original cassette recording of the BBC radio series (used book sales can be so awesome!).
A few days ago my 6-year-old daughter said, “I really want to fly! Mommy, how do I fly?” What did I tell her? “Anyaugo, just throw yourself at the ground and miss!” That kept her busy for about an hour. Ha ha ha!
Lastly, YES I plan to read the forthcoming And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer, the sixth installment in the series. It’s not Adams, but it is Colfer doing Adam’s characters, so I’ll bite.
When people usually talk about the ‘first’ sf book they ever read, it tends to be treated in isolation, as if they had never been exposed to such ideas before. The story is familiar: a kid walks into a library. Picks up a book with a spaceship on the spine. Starts reading. Gets hooked. Continue for ten years, lightly season with a regional sf convention or two.
No, that’s not quite right. That first encounter becomes, in most people’s recollection, a revelatory experience of Damascene proportions:
Kid walks into a library. The sf book, glowing with INNER LIGHT, magically slides out of the shelf before TRANSPORTING itself into the hands of the young ingénue, as if they have been PREPARING FOR THIS MOMENT ALL THEIR LIFE, accompanied by HARPS and the sound of ANGELS SINGING.
Which is how people remember it anyway, including me, and my own story is as boringly familiar as they come: go to library, find Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, start reading, lightly season with etc., etc…
But that’s kind of ingenuous. I didn’t really come across the Heinlein in isolation. I grew up watching Star Trek and Doctor Who long before anything even resembling a critical bone had developed in my body. If you’re my age, you were still somewhere between the first moon landing and the launch of the Voyager probes at the time. Then there were all those dusty old black and white Marvel UK reprints of American superhero comics, featuring characters like Spiderman, Mr Fantastic and the Incredible Hulk, all of whom started out as super-intelligent scientists, and most of whom used their brains as much as, if not more than, their brawn. To some extent, I took these characters as my young role models.
When you take all that into consideration, how can you isolate one single book and say this is where it all started, when the reality is that my entire existence has taken place in a cloud of information, both factual and fictional, all based around the ongoing exploration of the nature of reality? Is that Heinlein juvenile really the precise beginning? Or is that just how I choose to remember it, from the perspective of some decades on, when the reality was probably far less straightforward?
I know I enjoyed the Heinlein, but perhaps no more or less than the latest Three Detectives book (particularly ‘The Case of the Laughing Dragon’), or the latest issue of Fireball comic (at least, I think that was what it was called. All I remember is a super-spy character with a dodgy Seventies ‘tache). It’s all mixed together in my memory, along with watching Marine Boy cartoons on Saturday afternoons, or reading badly researched pop-sci features in the Daily Record about how we were all going to be living underground by 1985 to escape the UV radiation from a vanished ozone layer. And there was Look & Learn magazine, which ran colour reprints of an old comic serial called The Trigan Empire (I recently rediscovered it online, and my golly is it a bit…well, ‘dodgy’ would be the kindest word).
But somewhere at the centre of all this, nonetheless, remains that absolutely typical Heinlein juvenile. I can’t be absolutely sure it was the first sf novel I read, but it’s the earliest I can remember at any rate. I can almost make out the cover in my mind’s eye, and the dark stained wood shelves it was sitting on, and the smell of the Pollokshields Library where my Dad had to take me into the adults section so I could get stuff that I was supposedly too young to read (or maybe they didn’t care, my memory is hazy here).
But there’s another book even before the Heinlein – an Ur-book, if you were, that at that time was probably six or seven times as old as I was when I first encountered it and constituted my first dose of Really Weird Shit:
Ripley’s Believe it or Not.
It’s still around, on my bookshelves back home, admittedly in absolute tatters. I’m not sure just when my copy was printed, but I figure somewhere around 1920. I’m tempted to get it repaired one of these days. Despite having a missing spine, it’s somehow held together, and the pages are still strong thanks to being printed on paper that didn’t involve the use of acids in the manufacturing process. I used to stare at the pictures long before I could even read.
Somewhere in that book, I think, lie my roots as a science fiction writer. It said the world is not only stranger than it seems, it’s stranger than anything you can think up on your own, times ten. The benefit of hindsight makes it clear that a lot of it is sheer bunkum, but not all. There were mathematical and scientific wonders as well as articles and illustrations featuring wildly stereotyped non-caucasians that make the modern reader wince with shame and regret. The Heinlein was a slow-burning fuse, with the Ripley’s book standing in as a detonator. But the real explosion came later, with Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, and even JG Ballard (specifically The Terminal Beach) — and after that, there was no looking back.
I think one of the earliest science fiction books I read was The Forgotten Door (1965), by Alexander Key. It was a Scholastic book about a boy who falls from his home planet through a door to Earth. The kid can communicate with animals, and he has strange clothes, and comes from a peaceful world. I had probably already seen episodes of Twilight Zone, so these concepts weren’t unfamiliar to me, but I was very excited by this book. I continue to be fascinated by psi powers and interdimensional portals even now.
As I’ve been scurrying around the inter-webs plastering word of the new books, this kept popping into my mind. The first, oddly eludes me.
Granted the definition of Science Fiction could be extended quite broadly when dealing with ‘Young Fiction’. My mother read The Hobbit to me when I was quite young (six probably), and I insisted that she “keep going” when the end of the book was reached. “But that’s the end of the book”, she explained. I wished for her to continue reading the series to me, however. Reluctantly, she started reading the trilogy to me, and it’s likely that we got half-way through the second book before she stopped after I began having nightmares of hooded men riding horses through forests after me.
That series of works, however, is the principle defining example of Fantasy. This, plus the simple test ‘is there a dragon on the cover?’ probably begun with Smaug.
Science Fiction in a true-ish form – robots, future time, technology, spaceships – was probably first dipped into via Robert A. Heinlein’s Red Planet, which then led to Have Space Suit-Will Travel, and then Farmer in the Sky, and quite possibly Starman Jones (not sure if that one got read, frankly). Oddly, my father was very much into SF during his youth in the 1950s, and there’s even a few pulp anthology magazines at my parents’ house somewhere downstairs. He never really shoved that literary knowledge at me, however, letting me find my own taste in a fairly un-restricted fashion.
I had read the original Star Wars novel twice before seeing the film a good six-to-eight months after it was released, so I’d be 11 by the time the SF bug really turned into a solid, all-powerful, controlling influence.
Reading the novel adaptation of 2001: a Space Odyssey was revelation when in my late teens: the end suddenly meant sense! Dave wasn’t in some bizarre LSD trip, he was an alien experiment! Somewhere around here The Hitchhikers’ Guide… series was inhaled on a regular basis , as well as Fail Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler in its original paperback edition, (arguable Science Fiction, but definitely Speculative Fiction) and then on to things like Asimov’s Foundation series and so on.
The principle attraction to me in any story – SF, mystery, straight fiction, horror – is always the characters. Much like Shakespeare’s play, the setting and events of the plot’s causation are of little matter; the characters must behave in ways that make sense to the reader. They may be venal, or noble, or incapable of coping with the reality of the situation. They could be on a rocket, they could be on the moon, they could be 8,000 leagues under the sea, they could have twelve arms and no mouth… It really doesn’t matter a damn. At the end of the book/movie/play I have sit back and think to myself ‘well, that was worth the time’. If the tale was entertaining, or thought-provoking, or full of un-predictable twists – ideally it’s all these things – then the place, time, and species of the characters matters not. When an author writes about Human Nature, and their characters represent this truly, then mistakes are nigh-on impossible to make, mo matter what ‘genre’ the story employs.
Frankly, when I choose something to read or publish, the last thing I worry about is ‘what genre is this going to fit in?’ If someone wants to call the original 1960s show The Prisoner “SF”, or a “Thriller”, or a “Spy Story”, that’s fine with me. I’ll watch it because it’s really good! John LeCarré’s Tinker Tailor… series is hardly a ‘spy story’, but it deals with espionage. Just because there’s an underground global high-speed train system in Jasper Fforde’s novels doesn’t mean it gets slapped with an SF label in the book shop.
We need to expose more people to SF without using that term to raise pre-determined images of Martian Plague Zombies wandering London feeding on the populace.
One of the things that my parents made sure of was my having free reign when choosing books, regardless of the style content. Any book, as long as it’s good, is fair play to my mind.
I can’t remember the first Science Fiction novel that I read.
Which is a bit strange.
I do however, know that I liked Science Fiction, and Star Wars was the reason. (Please take arguments about whether Star Wars is SF elsewhere, I have my fingers in my ears and I’m singing LA LA LA.)
And because of Star Wars, the first SF book I ever read was the Star Wars 1978 annual. I vividly remember reading it, again and again and again. Not only did the annual have the Marvel adaptation of Star Wars but it also had background articles on the characters, George Lucas, the filming process and tantalising snippets of speculation. The annual starts with an article in black and white, with photos, then the comic starts, in black and white. After a while the comic changes to colour, although it’s the harsh colours of 70’s Marvel. The annual ends with more articles and black and white photos. I guess the partial colour must have been done for cost reasons? Whatever the reason it adds a strange, exciting Wizard Of Oz effect as the coloured panels start.
From then on subscribed to the Marvel Star Wars comic, in which our heroes partook in lots of adventures which then made no sense when Empire came out! I remember vividly sitting at the top of the stairs in my parents’ house, staring at the letterbox of the door, waiting for the comics to drop through. See here for more detail.
The comic contained original adventures and the comic adaptations of the films, but also comic adaptations of other films, I remember reading Blade Runner in comic form many years before I saw the film. I’m pretty sure that Indian Jones was serialised too.
Once the Star Wars comic stopped publication I started reading 2000AD, and SF novels such as Neuromancer and Snow Crash were not too many years more down the line…
I honestly don’t recall now which came first, but when I was far too young to know any better, my parents handed me a bunch of books to read. Among them were The Hobbit, the Earthsea trilogy, and several of Robert A. Heinlein’s juveniles — as well as several P.G. Wodehouse Jeeves novels and short-story collections.
I was completely enchanted by the wondrous tales of other worlds — well, the world of the early-20th-century British aristocracy certainly seemed like another world, and Wodehouse…
Oh. Science fiction. Right.
All the books listed utterly captivated me, thrusting me into several very different worlds, whether it was a Mars colony or Earthsea or Middle Earth — and the worlds were so vividly created. I think that’s what sucked me into this stuff so thoroughly at so impressionable an age. I mean, it’s one thing to have characters you’ve never met before, that’s to be expected, but =settings= you’ve never seen before? That’s just cool!
It was all downhill from there…
My mother Barb pointed me in the direction of SF and fantasy from early childhood. One of the first books she gave me was Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time; I eagerly devoured it, and its sequels. When I was a bit older, she gave me her well-thumbed copy of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man and Dandelion Wine. Having a chance to read the stories Barb loved as a girl was a real gift; one, obviously, that had a considerable influence on the shape of my future. I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, and those early visions of worlds with tesseracts, magic, spaceships and monsters certainly steered me into the orbit of speculative fiction writing.
Looking back fifty years, deep into the murkiest of my memories, the first book I can ever remember reading, and even then my mother read it to me, was Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. That was 1959, and I was in the third grade living in New Jersey. The next book that’s etched in the chemical structure of my mind is The Wizard of Oz, a fat old volume I discovered in 1961, at the library at Homestead Air Force Base in southern Florida, while in the 5th grade. By then I was reading on my own, addicted to books, but for the life of me I can’t remember any specific titles between those two memories. The Wizard of Oz isn’t science fiction, but it’s the book that programmed me to crave sense of wonder fiction. My tiny tyke mind had been hammered by the yearly telecast of the classic 1939 film, so my brain was like an unprotected computer, ready for the viral infection of the fourteen canonical L. Frank Baum Oz books that I devoured.
Little Jimmy me in 1961 didn’t know that science fiction existed as a category for books, movies and television shows – all I knew at age nine was I had a hunger for the fantastic, a craving for the far out, a deep rooted need for more of my new lifelong drug addiction. I was a little fellah pumped up on wild ideas and crazed for more.
Way back when, I was confined to the children’s section of the base library – if I had only known that in the opposite wing where the adults lurked, a whole section stuffed with Gnome, Shasta and Fantasy Press editions waited to be discovered. I systematically roamed up and down the children’s shelves looking for books to feed my habit. Near Baum I discovered Appleton’s ancient water stained copies of Tom Swift, old and worn without dust jackets stacked against newer Tom Swift Jr. titles, with dazzling space action covers. Nearby still, I found Mr. Abrashkin and his Danny Dunn books. These two series were my first science fiction books even though I didn’t know adults had a magic phrase to point them out.
I wouldn’t discover Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein until after grade school, but it was The Wizard of Oz that prepared me for those books when I finally stumbled upon them in junior high. The last book I can remember reading in 6th grade was A Wrinkle in Time. Mrs. Saunders, my teacher started reading Madeleine L’Engle to us one day after lunch, but I couldn’t wait and got a copy from the school library and finished it that night. In elementary school I used to check out piles of books each time I went to the library, but it’s only these few fantastic titles I can dredge up in my memories now. I wish I could remember how those science fiction and fantasy children books affected my thoughts during my innocent years, as they introduced me to the concepts of space travel, robots, anti-gravity, aliens from outer space, time travel, and all those other sense of wonder head trips that I’d eventually call science fiction.
Heinlein didn’t do it for me. When I was a little kid a big green van rolled into the neighborhood once every two weeks and parked at the top of the street. This was the bookmobile, operated by the county library system. I must have been eight years old or so the first time I went by myself with my new library card. Almost paralytically shy, I stood mute in the overly warm book-smelling van, waiting for inspiration, or the librarian, to strike me over the head. It was the librarian. “Do you like Science Fiction?” I nodded and mumbled, and she handed me Have Space Suit, Will Travel. Loved the cover. Took it home and hated the book. Tried again, oh, thirty-five years later. Same reaction.
I remember my mom reading Isaac Asimov’s novel-version of Fantastic Voyage, as it was serialized in Look magazine, or the Saturday Evening Post, those slick dinosaurs tottering on the verge of extinction. It impressed me that she was reading Science Fiction. I tried it but must have been too young to get it, or more likely my sensibilities were geared too much toward visual media, of which Fantastic Voyage was a prime Cinematic example of the day.
But my real first SF book was Galactic Derelict by Andre Norton. I had no idea it was a sequel. I had no idea about anything, except I liked the cover of the old Ace paperback as it swung around on the spinner rack in a local used book store. Anyway, it lit up in my mind from the first page. Who knows why? From there I jumped to other SF writers and began to discover my life-long obsession.
Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein. Now, I’m pretty sure this is NOT the first science fiction I ever read – I was three when I started reading, and I read everything I could get my hands on. But this is the first one I read over and over and over again. I still have at least three copies of it. Throughout Junior High, I carried this book around, and J.A Krishnamurti’s Think on These Things. These two books were my bible of those formative years.
And here’s the odd bit. I didn’t grow up wanting to be Valentine Michael Smith – even as a teenager I could see he was Jesus reborn and who wants that much responsibility? I didn’t want to be Anne the Fair Witness or Jillian the nurse, although I never have agreed with the large pile of women who consider Heinlein sexist (I always thought his women characters were sexy and – here is the important part – smart. Who doesn’t want to be sexy and smart?). Nope – of all the people in that book, I wanted to be the most competent one of all. When I was a thirteen-year-old girl, I wanted to grow up and be Jubal Harschaw.
Now, I also wanted water bothers and water sisters. The tattooed and naked-except-for-the-snake Patty Paiwonski would have all right to be, too, by the way. But to be Jubal would have been heaven. And you know, I never have liked the babble box. So maybe I kept a little Jubal with me as I grew up.
In my youth, Science Fiction was more a courtship than an infatuation.
In a sense, it was an arranged marriage: My parents read to me as a child, so I was immersed in Narnia, in Middle Earth, and the eerie world of Meg Murry long before I knew that there was such a thing as science fiction. (In fact, it would be many years before I learned that people wrote about stories that were *not* fantastic.)
On my own, supported by a library full of juvenile junk, I devoured the Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown, the Three Investigators, and, of course, Tom Swift. These were primarily mystery stories, although the demographics of the day assumed (spot on in my case) that boys of a certain age would like a good dose of science (or pseudo science) with their whodunit.
But then, a day came, when something changed. When books weren’t just what you did after TV hours were over. I don’t know which was first, but there are three titles that solidified–and defined–my relationship with Science Fiction.
The first was Sirius by Olaf Stapledon. I remember it as a heartbreaking tale, a terrible injustice of the ignorant perpetrated upon those with deeper sensibilities. Although not quite as definitive as the other two, Sirius opened a world of moral and emotional complexity that I have been exploring ever since.
The second book was Ben Bova’s End of Exile. At the time, I did not know that it was the conclusion of a trilogy, but it worked on its own. I doubt it was the first story to describe interstellar colonists on a generation ship who have lost all knowledge of their circumstances. In the story, their world is a dark and limited one, and their concerns are trivial social hierarchies until one boy begins to discover mysteries about this world, and then to unravel them.
Although I had read hundreds of mystery stories, End of Exile introduced me to something more enduring: Mystery itself. The Mystery of the unknown. The Mystery of secret knowledge. The Mystery that only logical, rational, open-minded exploration can unravel.
I have never re-read this book, and I don’t want to. I have revisited the trope of the generation ship in many wonderful incarnations*, and I want the memory of this first encounter to stand unsullied by my more analytic eye.
The final book I cannot name, but is instructive because it takes a similar theme: again, it was the slow reveal of Mystery infused with profound wonder that captured my imagination. In this tale, a society is again confined to a strange, dark place with very odd rules. The scope of their world is very limited, and in this small world, things are starting to deteriorate. Following clues, the only specific memory of which I now have is that it involved the sideways-eight symbol for infinity, a small group of children break the rules and eventually discover that they have, in fact, been in a bunker complex, sealed away from the nuclear wasteland of a world–but long after the world has recovered. Just as End of Exile concludes with the young boy leading his astonished people into an open, green planet, so to the children of this last book lead their people into a verdant, recovered Earth.
So: an arranged marriage of boy with genre found consummation in stories of emotional and moral complexity tempered by a firm belief that when Mystery of the most magical nature is finally revealed, it is an even more wonderful reality, the reality of honesty, and of scientific discovery. Science Fiction in these stories, probably unbearably primitive to my adult eye, nonetheless established a fantastic possibility: that logic and common sense could somehow triumph over ignorance, and that in that triumph more wonder and beauty would be revealed than any mundane expectation could hold.
* Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun must be eternally regarded as the pinnacle of Capital-M Mystery involving a generational ship; Wolfe being Wolfe, the Mystery of unraveling the world itself is only the starting point in his deeply layered material.
Tagged with: A.M. Dellamonica • Bluejack • Brenda Cooper • Gary Gibson • Ian Alexander Martin • Jack Skillingstead • James Bloomer • James Wallace Harris • Keith R.A. DeCandido • Mike Resnick • Nina Kiriki Hoffman • Nnedi Okorafor
Filed under: Mind Meld
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