MIND MELD: What Was Your Introduction to Fantasy and Science Fiction?
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
Where and how people (fans, reviewers and authors alike) were first introduced to genre often gives insight into how they think and write about genre. With that in mind, we asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
My dad introduced me to genre. He’d been what I guess you’d call a fan since the 1920s. The specific incident I recall was when he took me to the White Plains (New York) Public Library, back when I was in first or second grade, and we checked out Have Space Suit Will Travel and Sea Siege.
The circumstances are such that this is a particularly easy question for me to answer. I was around 8 years old – or whatever age you generally are in grade 3. My family lived in Toronto at the time, and my brother Oscar started telling me about this book he thought I should read called The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I was so impressed with what he was telling me that I could hardly wait for the next time my class walked down to the Riverdale Boys and Girls Library.
I was so focused on getting the book that I went straight up to the librarian who was supposed to be helping us choose books and asked for it. I remember now that she tried to dissuade me, no doubt thinking that I wouldn’t be able to read it. I was adamant, and I think my teacher supported me. A male classmate overheard me asking for the book, and was so impressed that he asked me what it was about. After I’d finished telling him, he signed up to read it next. Not only that, but he asked if he could walk me home from school, and call for me the next day.
So not only did I have one of the best reading experiences of my life, but my first actual boyfriend as well. (I don’t count the boy who kissed me in Kindergarten).
I don’t think it was more than a year or so later that Oscar recommended a book called Have Space Suit – Will Travel, by Robert Heinlein. That started me off on a life-long love of SF.
Over the next few years I read and re-read all the YA (or juveniles as they were called then) that I could get my hands on. All the Lewis, the Heinlein, Andre Norton, E. Nesbit – anyone and everyone I could find. This was pre-Harry Potter, and there wasn’t a great deal available in YA, so I also read a books that wouldn’t be considered YA by anyone’s standards – luckily the grownups didn’t know that most of the F and SF being written was actually for adults. I know I first read Tolkien at age 11, and had read all the Leiber I could get my hands on by 15 or 16. Unfortunately I don’t have the space to tell you who else I was reading (and in some cases read still).
And in case you’re interested, I started reading mystery novels when I was 14. I picked up a copy of Christie’s Mystery on the Blue Train, the only English language book available in a Spanish train station shop.
My brother is still recommending books for me to read, by the way. He owns Novel Idea, the only independent bookstore in Kingston, Ontario. He doesn’t read much fantasy these days (except for mine, he hastens to add) but he’s still reading a ton of SF.
My grandmother and mother were avid readers, of anything and everything, and they instilled that in me early. My first genre was mystery, and not just Nancy Drew. When I was little there were a lot of mysteries for kids options, including The Three Investigators, and I read them all. I moved pretty quickly into adult mysteries, starting with Sherlock Holmes. But my grandmother was a HUGE science fiction fan, and she also introduced me to science fiction early. My first science fiction was probably A Wrinkle In Time. I found some old Robert Benchley books in our garage when I was nine and fell in love with both his writing and humor as a genre.
I was raised to believe that a book was a book — worthy of being read cover to cover before judgment was passed, regardless of where it shelved in the library or bookstore.
So, the short answer (too late!) is my grandmother and mother, at home, and by the time I was nine years old.
Fantasy fiction played a strong role throughout my childhood, as it does in most people’s childhoods (I assume), since so much literature aimed at kids is fantastical. I think there was a hiatus of several years between reading Narnia and then picking up books like T.H. White’s The Once and Future King and John Bellairs’ The Face in the Frost, so I suppose someone would say those latter books were my intro to fantasy reading. But, really, I regard fantasy literature as a continual presence in my life, without a remembered introduction or a startling transition between childhood and adulthood.
Science fiction, on the other hand… WELL.
My father, Mike Resnick, is a lifelong science fiction reader and was already a science fiction writer by the time I was old enough to start processing bedtime stories. Instead of reading to me, my dad would invent bedtime stories wherein I was the heroine who rescued Tarzan, John Carter of Mars, Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man from their misadventures. That was my introduction to story, though not my introduction to reading–
And, in fact, I had trouble learning to read when I got to school; nothing that required a tutor or created concern, but I struggled with reading throughout first grade. Part of the problem (one now knows) was that I was just about the youngest kid in my class, and 4-6-8 months of brain development makes a big difference at that age. But I’ve always believed that the main reason I struggled with learning to read is that school made it so BORING! God Good, man, who CARES if Sally sees Jane, or if Dick and Spot run up the hill? Are you KIDDING me? This was someone’s idea of a STORY? Fugghedaboudit. My idea of a story was one wherein I rescued Tarzan from some terrible fate. So reading didn’t engage me at all.
However, when I was seven years old, a friend put a Nancy Drew mystery into my hands, and that turned me into a reader. The story has a sinister mansion, a trip to Amish country, a mysterious hex symbol, and a teenage girl try to catch a cunning thief. Now that was my idea of a story! And I’ve been a reader of mysteries and adventures ever since—and particularly a reader of stories with bold and capable female protagonists, rather than stories with women who are just handy accessories for the hero.
But I never became a science fiction reader. This is in large part because, even before I could read, my dad was trying to get me to read science fiction novels—or at least to let him read them to me. And very little science fiction can hold the attention of a four year old. So I usually vetoed his suggestions (his nagging, his pleading, his exhortations, his bargaining, his attempts to trick me, etc.) to agree to a hearing a science fiction novel as my bedtime story.
After I learned to read, my dad’s nagging to read science fiction got worse. Thus, by the time I was eight years old, I hated science fiction. As a pastime, reading science fiction ranked right down there with cleaning my room or doing my homework. In the decades since then, I’ve occasionally tried to read a science fiction novel… but I’ve never overcome my childhood sense of it as a chore forced on me by my father.
Let that be a lesson to the old man—and to naggy parents everywhere!
The first genre books I remember taking out of the Yonkers (where we moved to) public library were The Wonderful Trip to the Mushroom Planet and Mr. Bass’s Planetoid, both written by Eleanor Cameron.
When I was a little older I read the books my parents owned: A big Bullfinch’s Mythology, The Odyssey (not the Iliad though–no obvious fantasy in it and so I found it boring), Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories (these latter two in their Modern Library editions).
Basically, I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t reading genre fiction.
Wow. I don’t ever recall either not reading (I was three when I started reading) or not reading genre. The very first genre books I have a memory of reading are Madeline L’Engle’s wonderful A Wrinkle in Time, and the Oz books (many of them in first editions, which I unfortunately over-read, to put what I did to those books in a kind light). I think I was about seven when I destroyed a whole shelf of Oz books by carrying them everywhere with me. The next two genre books that I read and re-read and re-read where Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land which described exactly what I wanted (Money by the door, a hot tub fill of friends who’d always have your back, and a lot of guilt-free love), and Dune.
I suppose in a way my father introduced me to the stuff. I don’t remember which of them taught me to read, but my dad is a rocket scientist (yes, he still works in the field), and that was a powerful pull for an imaginative little girl. Dad worked at Douglas at the time and we lived in Southern California. And by the way, for those of who know how awful and over-freewayed and ugly it is now, the California of the 60’s and 70’s was beautiful and not nearly so crowded nor so broken. I rode horses for hours without crossing roads and raced through orange groves throwing green oranges at boys. All of that is gone now, but it was a lovely place to sit about and read in the sunshine and daydream about far off planets.
I was an asthmatic kid who learned how to read at an early age, and some of that material included Spider-Man comics, especially Spidey, the title Marvel created with the Electric Company on PBS. My father had read lots of comics growing up too, and he always encouraged me to read anything I liked. To him and my mother, the subject didn’t matter nearly as much as inculcating a love for reading.
I used to visit a pediatric asthma specialist in Madison, Wisconsin — Dr. Marcus Cohen, who saved my life — and on the way back from the appointments, my mother would take me to Capital City Comics as a reward. Once my father brought me there and decided to stop by a bookstore in town instead. He described my reading habits to the bookseller and asked about fantasy novels that might be good for me. She recommended Patricia McKillip’s The Riddle-Master of Hed.
I’d never read anything like it before, and it hooked me good. It wasn’t long before I was tearing up the shelves reading all sorts of science-fiction and fantasy. My local library in Beloit, Wisconsin, had a section dedicated to genre books, and I made it my plan to read them all. I don’t think I came close to taking on even half of them, but I had a wonderful time trying.
My first real science fiction reading experience followed my 8th birthday party. One of my friends gave me a a copy of A PRIVATE COSMOS by Philip Jose Farmer. I devoured it and loved it, read the rest of the books in his WORLD OF TIERS series, and went on to read the Riverworld books, and about anything by Farmer I could find at the bookstore or library. THE LOVERS wasn’t exactly normal reading for a 4th grader, but I loved it also. From there it was Lord of the Rings, Dune, John Carter of Mars, and many hundreds of books since then.
Children generally start off reading genre fiction, and I was no different. I devoured almost all of L. Frank Baum’s books and carried The Hunchback of Notre-Dame around as if it were a bible. My mother gave me this latter, when I was around eight. My father also always read strange books to me and told me strange stories, generally involving supernatural powers, lost races, animals that could talk and so forth.
Later I pretty much abandoned reading things of that sort and only read ‘serious’ literature—dark Russian novels, early American realism, and French romances. It was this latter however that re-ignited my interest in genre. The romantics led me to the decadents and the decadents to the symbolists. Inevitably many of these stories were clear fantasy, clear horror. And from the classy prose of Huysmans it was easy enough to lose my footing and descend to the delightfully debased novels of Ponson du Terrail, Gustave Le Rouge, and Paul Féval.
What comes to my mind are a series of early memories mapping the start of my preference for speculative fiction. Since my family moved around quite a bit (plus I was a fairly shy child) my introduction to the sf genre came by way of it’s prevalence in my familial environment and from my own independent explorations in libraries and book stores.
My childhood was immersed in speculative fiction tv and movies: Flash Gordon, Dr Who, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, Star Trek, The Hobbit, The Black Hole, Krull, Willow, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Star Wars, The NeverEnding Story, etc. Deeply imprinted on my young mind was the imagery of the other-world; weaponry, costuming and creatures that reflected a fantastic realm outside of my mundane life.
There was this time in elementary school when we were drawing life-sized self portraits. (Remember having your outline traced on a big piece of butcher paper then drawing in the details?) Well I somehow got it into my head that a little creative license was expected and therefore decked out my “self” portrait with a fancy winged headdress, dramatic flowing robes and lots of mystical looking bling. I can’t remember if I gave myself a magical staff or a sword. One of the two. Anyhow, I finally looked up from my creation to discover that all the rest of my classmates had merely drawn nice conservative replications of what they were wearing that day. Oh… Hm…
I have memories of my mom reading to us every night from the likes of C.S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L’Engle, or J.R.R. Tolkien . She’d read a chapter and everyone else would go to bed, but I’d grab the book and continue reading on through the night. Later on while perusing school and public libraries for my own reads, I found I had a sweet spot for dragons: Michael Whelan’s cover art plunged me into Anne McCafferey’s world of Dragonriders. Likewise Darrell K Sweet’s cover of Dragon on a Pedestal was my gateway drug into Piers Anthony’s Xanth universe. (Incidentally, Micheal Whelan also did some of those Xanth covers).
The only time I recall being specifically introduced to a particular book or author was when a boyfriend insisted I *had* to read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time saga. (More Darrel K. Sweet artwork, btw.) I stayed with the series longer than I stayed with the boyfriend. (Though I eventually had to cut Robert loose too. Just too long and winding.)
My reading tastes are eclectic, ranging through fiction, non-fiction and across many genres. However I have retained a persistent sweet-spot for the speculative that, if not hardwired from birth, was certainly cemented at a very young age.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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