A recent SF Signal Mind Meld asked participants “what was your introduction to fantasy and science fiction?” I thought this was an interesting question because it illustrates the wide and varying entry points into the genre. But it also occurred to me that first impressions are not always good and a poorly suited book can just as easily turn a person off to the genre as a well-suited book might turn someone on. From there, my mind wandered a bit. I recalled a year ago when I’d just obtained the complete set of 1947 Astounding‘s for my Vacation in the Golden Age. I’d mentioned this acquisition to Barry Malzberg, who I think considers 1947 Astounding at its absolute peak. He suggested a I read T. L. Sherred‘s “E For Effort” right away. I told him that I would and he responded with something that has stuck with me ever since. It was something like, “I am envious that you are coming to this story fresh, that this is your first time reading it.”
You can read a story again and again, but there is only one first time. There is a moment before you start reading where you are holding a book that countless others before you have read and enjoyed and thought exceptional. You may even have some idea of what the book is about, but you have not yet immersed yourself in the story until you turn to that first page and begin reading.
And so I thought it would be interesting to share some of my own first-time experiences with classics of the genre. First-times can be uneven experience. Some are absolutely memorable, even life-changing events. Others can be somewhat disappointing. I’ve tried to list a mix of experiences.
- Foundation by Isaac Asimov. I think I picked this book up two or three times before I was twenty years old and read the first page or two and then set it back down. Who was interested in a book about a bunch of mathematicians? In 1994, while a senior in college, I’d read Isaac Asimov’s autobiography, I. Asimov, for the first time and became much more interested in his work. In late 1994, having graduated college and gotten a job (at the same company I am still with today, nearly 18 years later) I finally picked up Foundation and read it. I was at my parent’s temporary house. Their house had been severely damaged in the Northridge earthquake in 1994 and they had moved into a rental while their house was repaired. It was a weekend, very sunny out, and despite the sunshine, I sat in my bedroom and read the entire book straight through without stopping and I was hooked. The vision of the galactic empire as presented by Asimov is not something I had ever conceived of and it has stuck with me ever since. I have read the Foundation books 7 or 8 times since and returning to them is like getting back together with an old friend after a long absence. But it’s still not quite as good as that first time.
- The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. Over Thanksgiving weekend in 1996 I was visiting some friends at their house in Morro Bay, California. They had left for the weekend but allowed me to stay in their place and I sat up in a loft with a view of the bay. The sun was just starting to set, a kind of blood red color that provided a perfect backdrop to the first few pages of The Martian Chronicles. At the time, I’m not sure what impressed me more about the book, Bradbury’s vision of Mars (heavily influenced in my eyes by Michael Whelan‘s gorgeous cover) or his poetic writing.
- Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg. In the fall of 1997 I read David G. Hartwell‘s book Age of Wonders which provided a high level criticism of science fiction. The book was a laundry list of science fiction novels that I had never read. I decided to begin broadening my horizons and reading some of the books that Hartwell had commented on. One of the first was Silverberg’s Dying Inside. When I read the book, it was one of those rare times in my life when I was sick with the flu. I was home from work and couldn’t get out of bed. I hate just laying there doing nothing, so I picked up Silverberg’s book and started reading–and was immediately engrossed by it. His vision of David Selig, earning some extra money writing papers for students on the campus, his powers of perception slowing failing was my first encounter with anything like that. Ever since I’ve considered it one of the finest pieces of fiction I’ve ever read.
- Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. I was called to jury duty 3 times between the years 1996 and 2000, all of which took place at courthouses in the Los Angeles area. So I managed to get a lot of reading done on jury duty. I had just finished reading Clifford D. Simak‘s City, which at the time I thought was awful (I can recall sitting in my car in the courthouse parking lot before court opened, virtually banging my head on the steering wheel in disappointment. Way Station had been so good. I was certain I’d enjoy City.) I’d heard an awful lot about Starship Troopers but sitting in the jury room, waiting for my name to be called, I started reading. So engrossed did I get in that book that I failed to hear my name called the first two times.
- The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke. Just before my birthday in March 2001, I spent a weekend at a ski lodge up near the Bear Mountain ski resort east of Los Angeles. There, with a roaring fire in the fireplace and surrounded by dark woods, I started reading Clarke’s book about the construction of a space elevator. I had mixed feelings about the book at the time, parts of it seeming incredibly impressive, other parts seeming somewhat dull. I’d already read Rendezvous with Rama and it didn’t seem to have the same sense of wonder as that book. But the setting in which I read a book really helps focus that memory in my mind.
What about you? Do you remember your first time with a classic of science fiction?