For each one of us, there is a book, or a series, that hooked us on genre fiction. Maybe it was the first SF book you read, maybe you had to read a couple before you hit the one that hooked you.
This is what they said…
Thirty some odd years ago I wandered into a bookstore, picked up a newly released hard back with a red head, two horses, and a sword on the cover and managed to persuade my rather poor parents to see to the exorbitant expense by simply refusing to let that book out of my grasp.
I was eight when I brought Alanna: The First Adventure home with me and it could have been yesterday. Until that moment, immured in a world full of Tolkien, Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Water Babies, and Wind in the Willows (AKA men writing about men for boys) I did not know a woman in fantasy could be strong, smart, stubborn, witty, and courageous. Alanna is responsible for changing who I was as a reader, but also who I was as a female.
Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet defined my young adulthood, the final book in the series released as I entered junior high. They literally (and I do mean literally – pun intended) changed my life. Because of Alanna I have defined myself, ever since, as a reader of the SF/F genre. In high school, a mutual love of Tamora Pierce cemented my relationship with the girl who would become the woman who is one of my best friends in the entire world. That same friend still beta reads my novels for me, and still keeps me honest to the tenants of the Lioness as we see them: women with the courage to be themselves. She is also the friend who took me to my first science fiction convention. She was with me when we finally got to meet Tamora Pierce in person at my first WorldCon. We still share book recommendations.
Ask me to name my favorite series of all time and I still don’t have to think about it. If I could read nothing else for the rest of my life it would be the Song of the Lioness quartet.
The reason I write, is to be that author for someone else.
I started reading epic fantasy because of peer pressure. I went away to England for half a year in Grade 8, and came home to find that my friends were all obsessively reading The Belgariad. I honestly had to read the books out of self-defence, because they kept quoting funny bits and I wanted to find out who Ce’Nedra was.
The same friends introduced me to Blake’s 7, and the combination of all that sarcasm, and the heroes-with-banter-and-mountain-climbing style of David and Leigh Eddings, made something go fzzt in my head.
It was a slippery slope from there – by the time my fourteenth birthday rolled around, I was immersed in Jennifer Roberson’s Cheysuli series and already plotting my own ten-book epic fantasy series that was basically Blake’s 7 in a forest.
All of this is true, though I was already so far down the Doctor Who rabbit hole by the time I hit high school that I can’t mark a time when that particular attachment began (my mother took me along to a Doctor Who fan club as a kid – they made me secretary when I was about 7).
SFF doesn’t have a starting point for me, but epic fantasy does, very strongly – The Belgariad was the beginning, and it shaped and defined the genre for me (it was another decade before I would successfully make it through Lord of the Rings). The later books of the Malloreon and the Tamuli were still coming out, once a year, through my high school years, and I remember the agony of waiting and the joy of acquiring.
Most important of all, though, was the experience of reading the books with my friends, talking them over, bitching about the cover art, waiting for the next one in real time. We read and shared a bunch of books over those high school/college years, introducing each other to so many different authors. Still, it was the Belgariad, the Elenium and their sequel series which stand out for me as the works that not only introduced me to epic fantasy as a genre, but introduced me to the gleeful experience of reading the same books at the same time with people I like.
For me this was Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight, which I read because my best friend in 3rd grade was reading another McCaffrey novel (Dragonsong) and I wanted to try something by the same author. While I like dragons fine, what I really loved was the world–I spent the next several years writing dreadful stories that started off with copycat prologues about the star systems the stories were set in–and the way that Lessa’s use of time travel completely blew my mind. I spent the next several years reading all the McCaffrey I could get my hands on, but nothing matched the sheer wonder of my first exposure to a time travel plot.
My parents were huge science fiction and fantasy fans before I was born. They have a large bookshelf that they built themselves into their bedroom wall with heights perfect to accommodate their accumulating paperbacks. The top shelf which spans all the way to the ceiling has vertical piles of old Asimov’s magazines dating back to the 70s. A couple years ago, I was able to introduce them to Sheila Williams, and I know it really thrilled them to show her their shelves containing the weight of Asimovs history.
As science fiction and fantasy fans, my parents provided me a lot of that type of fiction in my early reading/listening material. I heard a fair amount of Anne McCaffrey, and while some of the sexual subtext went over my head, I really grooved on the ideas of hatchings and different colored dragons. They also read me Bradbury and Eleanor Cameron and a bunch of other things.
I was always going to be in a web of science fiction and fantasy after that, but I can remember two other huge draws that changed my interaction with media. One was Fairy Tale Theatre by Shelley Duval which introduced me to the concept of fairy tales built with character and humor, shaped by whimsical and intelligent hands. Another was Star Trek which I came on when I was eleven and which sent me into many day dreams about departing on space ships.
I suppose, if I were being reductionist, I could even point everything all the way back to Sondheim’s Into the Woods which I’ve known as long as I can remember. It’s a musical that’s also a fantasy about reweaving cultural narratives to discover deeper emotional truths–and that’s a good summary of one of the things that inspires me most as a reader and writer.
This is not, of course, a tidy answer to your question. Sorry about that.
Dragonlance. I was twelve years old. It was 1992. I had fallen in love with Final Fantasy II for Super Nintendo a few months before, and had already sought out medieval historical fiction at the library. My big brother’s best friend lent us copies of the first two Dragonlance Chronicles books. As soon as my brother set the first book down, I started reading. I couldn’t wait for my brother to go back to high school to ask his friend for the third book. I went to the mall and squealed in delight that B. Dalton had it on the shelf. That was the first one I bought.
I shared the growing collection of Dragonlance books with my brother, and we agreed that the Chronicles and Legends books were the best. I mean, Raistlin. Hello. I had some Dragonlance calendars and one of them had Larry Elmore’s Legends 1 cover as the centerfold. Raistlin Majere’s eerie hourglass eyes watched me as I slept for years.
My teen years were spent firmly entrenched in the fantasy genre. I read some other TSR series like Forgotten Realms and Ravenloft, and so many other series and authors. The ones I re-read the most were Dragonlance and the series authors’ other trilogy, The Rose of the Prophet. Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s worlds helped me survive some rough times.
In some ways, I’ve always been hooked on genre. I mean, all those teenage years reading historical fiction was really just preparation for a love of high fantasy, right? I wove my way from horse books through romance to Virginia Andrews, Stephen King and Dean Koontz, all of which paved the way for my passion for speculative fiction later, for my mind.
I remember adoring the Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce at about 15 and reading Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin at about the same time but it wasn’t until I was 19 and a friend handed me Magician by Raymond Feist that I was truly hooked. It was Christmas, and I remember staying up until 3am reading because I couldn’t put them darn thing down. It was a case of the right book at the right time — I went on to devour every Feist I could get my hands on, and when the same friend said, “well if you like that, you’ll probably like David Eddings too”, I went on to gorge on the Tamuli, Elenium, Belgariad and Mallorean (yes, in that order — yes, I’m a little odd). And, hard as it is to comprehend in this age when I practically live at my computer, when I first used the internet at university in 1995, Eddings and Feist were the first sites I ever looked up.
But the real clincher, the author whose books meant I was always going to be a speculative fiction reader, the one whose fandom I first became a real part of (who remembers The Kitchen Table?) was Anne McCaffrey. Believe it or not, the owner of my local corner store at the time was the one who speared me into these — I went in once with an Eddings book in my hand (see, this is one of the reasons print books are still useful!) and he insisted on loaning me a copy of The White Dragon — my McCaffrey collection exploded from there. I have every single one of her books, and the collaborations, and even the Atlas of Pern and the artbook too! It was love, and while I may still venture outside speculative fiction at various times (hello, regency romance binge earlier this year), I always come back.
I read a lot of big fat fantasy from about the age of ten or eleven. I can’t remember the order in which I read certain things which became absolutely formative for me as a reader and a writer. And as a person! The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were in there, of course, but they came later. The original Shannara books and the Belgariad were certainly transporting sagas. Feist’s Magician and its sequels, and the ongoing books with Janny Wurts rate highly for the period. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books blew my mind and caused me to write my first fan letter. And she wrote back, by hand, on a postcard. One of my most treasured possessions.
But all of those things, whatever order I may have read them in, don’t have quite the impact of one book that bent my tiny mind and still lives inside me. At around the same time as I was reading the stuff mentioned above, and others, and before I moved on to include science fiction and horror quite extensively, I read The Chronicles of Morgaine. I didn’t realise at the time, but that volume was an omnibus edition of C J Cherryh’s first novel, Gate of Ivrel (1976), Well of Shiuan (1978) and Fires of Azeroth (1979).
I read the saga thinking of it as fantasy, when they’re perhaps better classified as science fiction, given that the gates, time-travel, multiple worlds and so on are clearly SF tropes. But each of the worlds is largely fantasy, with faux-medieval settings and low levels of tech and industry. Sometimes the books are listed as science fantasy and that’s fine with me, but Cherryh herself calls them fantasy novels, so I’m sticking with that. Regardless, the scope and epic nature of the story is staggering and perhaps it’s the genre-mashing that really appealed to me. As a writer, I’ve been a genre-masher ever since. And I knew I was a rusted on fan of SFF after reading that book. I even DM’d an extensive AD&D game right after reading it, shamelessly plagiarising the plot and devices, which was perhaps my own first foray into epic storytelling. Morgaine herself is one of the best characters in fantasy, so different to anyone else I’d read about at the time. And the story was really quite dark, which appealed to me greatly then and still does!
Whenever I think about formative novels of my youth, Morgaine always rides high. And now I want to read it again!
In my grade school we had only a small library and I was one of those kids who went through books like many go through flavors of bubble gum. When I was about 8 I began reading mysteries– Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys–and fell in love with horses and read every Walter Farley book I could get my hands on. But I soon ran out of books to read.
It was then I discovered the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books through those book flyers that every parent dreads seeing. The first ones I found were mystery related but then I got a hold of some SF and Fantasy themed ones and I was hooked. I read and reread those until they started falling apart.
Over the summer that year I helped my baby sitter show cattle at various fairs. She read and knew I loved books and let me choose one to take home with me.
The book I chose was a Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. It had a unicorn and a kid on the cover. (Heck the cover was enough to convince me to pick the book up.) The back hinted of mystery and an adventure. I spent my free time and secretly stayed up late to read it.
It was the first real SFF book I read. It had a huge impact on me. While I didn’t really connect with Meg or Charles, the book opened up questions that most 8 or 9 year olds probably don’t spend evenings pondering. Was travel across time and through different universes possible? Was magic real? Are magical creatures out there? Wondering “what if” wasn’t just a random event anymore.
From there I sought out other genre books. I read very quickly and eventually had little to read in the school library. I then began to devour what was in the county library, jumping grade levels until I was reading Stephen King’s It in 7th grade.
On occasion I go back and skim through A Wrinkle In Time. It’s not the same book for me as it was when I was 8, but it’s still important. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be writing and exploring worlds if I had never picked up that book.
My appalling confession: I was guided to genre by the chalk-dusted hand of elementary education. One of my grade-school English textbooks was a board-approved anthology of poems and age-appropriate shorts, meant to develop facility with language and the written word. Among all the Poe and Kipling and “To Build a Fire” — and way, way too much O. Henry, damn him — some crafty genre fan had slipped in Anne McCaffrey’s “The Smallest Dragonboy.” Battered, lonely kid finds unconditional love from a fire-breathing, mind-speaking, flying pet he can ride? I was hooked. I would tune out my teacher and flip the pages to that story, reading it over and over and letting Mark Twain happen to other people.
There was some Bradbury in the book, too, I recall — but it was the one where all the kids are super-mean to Margot about rain and my tender young heart rebelled against it on principle.
I went questing for more McCaffrey and found the lime-green wonder that was Dragonflight, with its bratty, mistrustful heroine and admittedly messy sexual politics. And in the front, a map, and a timeline. This was the first time I’d found a series that had created a whole complete world for the exploring, with a rich history behind it. There were so many different kinds of stories in the series: large-scale planet-saving epics with Lessa and F’lar, stories of gifted, deeply lonely teens like Menolly, the prequels that revealed the sci-fi underpinnings of the fantasy world. So many things were happening, and we got to see them all. It is no exaggeration to say I dreamed of living there. Still do, sometimes. Later I would find Valdemar, and Discworld my one true love, but Pern was my first — and you never forget your first.
The first science fiction book I remember reading, in fifth or sixth grade, was Robert Silverberg’s long-out-of-print To Open the Sky, a group of linked novellas about the rise of two new science-based religions whose goals are the extension of human life/immortality and the conquest of the stars. The main characters are the men who move up through the ranks of the opposing religions (one a splinter from the other); major characters from early novellas becoming supporting cast for later stories. I particularly identified with Christopher Mondschein, the central character of the second novella, although I didn’t realize why at that first reading. (Mondschein allows himself to be brainwashed into being someone he’s not, and then has to deal with the repercussions of his choices for the rest of his life.) But beyond Mondschein, the book was the first to really make me see that super-powers and space-faring didn’t have to be kept separate (Superman can’t meet Star Trek! Super-powered aliens have to join the Legion of Super-Heroes!); to my mind at the time, Silverberg melded those two seamlessly and that was the most exciting part of the book. I’ve re-read it every four years or so since that first reading (and yes, I still have the same tattered paperback), and I notice something new every time. The book isn’t perfect, particularly where it comes to women: there are only three female characters who have even nominal importance and at least one of those goes nameless for the entire book. But it captured my imagination early, and continues to give me things to think about.
The first series that pulled me in was the Perry Rhodan books, translated by Forry Ackerman. Introduced to them by a friend in high school, I bought every volume I could find. (Also promptly lost them in a move, and have recently almost completed rebuilding the set, but that’s another story). Space opera to the nth degree, with tons of huge personalities, even huger set pieces, and plenty of action. Just pure unadulterated fun. Also a product of their time and country of origin, no doubt, but for me they were the bridge from television (Star Trek reruns and Star Blazers in translation) to print SF. I swear I’m going to reread them once I’ve got the complete set, and we’ll see if the haze of nostalgia parts. And yes, I know, the volumes Ackerman translated barely skim the surface compared to the amount of Perry Rhodan material available in the original German. If I spoke/read German, the collector in me would probably be seeking those volumes out, too, to see how the series progressed and changed over the intervening decades.
The Oz books by L. Frank Baum is the series that started me on this adventure. My father had the complete collection of 14 volumes, with the original artwork by John R. Neil, when he was a boy and I was lucky enough that he held onto them into adulthood so that I could enjoy them as well. I believe my dad still has them. Truly a treasure.
My dad is a huge fan of fantastical literature, including science fiction, fantasy and also adventure. In addition to the Oz books, he had all the Jules Verne books as well as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. I read them all, but it was the Oz books that spoke to me first and loudest.
I found those books to be so intriguing. I was introduced to so many strange characters and places. The way Baum presented them made me feel excited and a bit scared. You have to admit, not everything that happens in Oz is glorious and magical. Some of those characters were evil – but not just one-dimensional. They still held your interest and sometimes even earned your pity. Looking back on those books now, what strikes me the most is how all these weird and wonderful creatures and situations were introduced and just accepted. Dorothy seemed to go through life unfazed about it all. So in a way, it made me look at the world from the same perspective. To take each individual as they are, to see beyond the outer weirdness and simply embrace all the strangeness.
My parents were divorced when I was very young so I didn’t see my father as often as I wanted. There was a time when we were completely estranged from each other and it broke my heart. Those books, really any fantastical literature, brought us back together. It was (and still is) a shared love. Isn’t it fitting that Mr. Baum primarily wrote those books to entertain his own children?
I was inspired to pursue speculative literature as my passion. And since my talents are more in the reading of fiction than in the writing of it, what better way to follow my dreams than as an editor, anthologist and educator? I get the opportunity to share the stories that I love with the world. How cool is that? And I can’t tell you how happy I am whenever I place one of my books in my father’s hands. I don’t know if it would have happened without the Oz books. Thank you, L. Frank Baum.
My dad is a big SFF fan, and he kept his books on this one tiny shelf in the house I grew up in. I remember being terribly excited and proud when he said I could borrow some of those books, because I was thirsty for words. (I was the kid who left the library with a stack of books too tall to see over and returned them all, read, two weeks later.) From that shelf, I read some of Asprin’s Myth books at an age where I know there was humor I wasn’t equipped to understand; I read Rick Cook’s Wizardry books before I actually understood what Unix was. I read the one Ringworld book my dad kept there. I read Phule’s Company and Phule’s Paradise and the Lord of the Rings. I even remember some of the more obscure ones – Bicycling Through Space and Time and The 22nd Gear by Mike Sirota, anyone?
If I had to pick a single book or series out of that shelf, though – the thing that I keep coming back to, decades later, and the thing that holds a special place in my heart? Write my name down next to Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I grew up on a steady diet of bad science fiction movies and good British comedy, and the Guide hits all the best funny bones. That was the enormous tome I carried around for months, at a time when most of my peers were reading Babysitter’s Club and Goosebumps. It was strange and weird and wacky, and I had no idea that proper adults published books like that. My search for more lead me first to Xanth and then to Esther Friesner and the Chicks in Chainmail anthologies. Then I realized that there were authors like Mercedes Lackey and Judith Tarr out there, writing books and stories with horses, and – well, all bets were off at that point.
The first science fiction novel I recall reading was Man of Many Minds by E. Everett Evans and that was by accident. My elementary school was part of a program that let kids order paperbacks at a bargain price, presumably to encourage reading, and a copy of Man of Many Minds was included by mistake in one of my packages along with the historical and Gothic novels that were my preferred reading at that age. But much as I enjoyed the Evans novel, which was my introduction to such exotic and strange ideas as mental telepathy, space travel, and alien worlds, that wasn’t the book that hooked me.
Some time after that, I encountered Nine Tomorrows, a collection of short fiction by Isaac Asimov, which included such classics as “The Ugly Little Boy” and “The Last Question.” This was another accident; I spotted this volume on the bookshelf of neighbors while babysitting their two small children and pored over the stories, fascinated, while the kids were sleeping. Moved as I was by the self-sacrificing Miss Fellowes, the nurse caring for a Neanderthal child brought into the present by time travel researchers in “The Ugly Little Boy,” and thrilled as I was by the blasphemy of “The Last Question” (that’s the story that ends with the vast artificial intelligence saying, “Let there be light”), that wasn’t the book that totally hooked me on science fiction, either. Neither was Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars; although that Clarke novel did lead me to seek out some more science fiction, as did H.G. Wells, another of my early favorite sf writers, and Philip K. Dick some time later.
The book that finally did the trick was Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.
I read that novel during an especially dark time in my adolescence. I’ve written about that time elsewhere so won’t go into it here, but once again I was reading a book I had come upon by accident. I treasured that book, a beat-up old paperback, and carried it with me at all times out of fear of losing what had become a kind of talisman. The tale of Gully Foyle, a tormented man who could “jaunt” or teleport himself from one place to another, immediately spoke to the messed-up kid I was then and also gave me a metaphor that helped me past that dark time. I began to imagine a future self, an adult self who had jaunted past that time and escaped, who could look back at her youth from a safe distance. This wasn’t the most sophisticated way to read a novel, but it may be that The Stars My Destination helped save my life. It was also the book that finally made me a true fan of science fiction but I didn’t see that until years later, looking back from that safe distance.
The book that started it all for me was The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. I read it in elementary school, and it totally captivated me. Looking back, I think that was where the roots of my love for urban fantasy were planted. The idea that magic exists in the world, but you just have to open the right door to find it are at the root of a lot of the fiction I love to read and to write. What’s more, I was swept away by the idea that even normal people are capable of overcoming great odds and changing the world if they’re willing to answer the call to adventure. From the moment the Lucy Pevensie went through the wardrobe and met the faun, Tumnus, by the light post, I was hooked and never looked back. Even now, I still hope that one day, if I am lucky, I’ll find my own door to Narnia.
I read all kinds of things from an early age — history, biography, mythology, Dr. Seuss, Hardy Boys mysteries, Freddy the Pig, Sherlock Holmes, science books, even Willy Ley’s Conquest of Space with the Bonestell cover that inspired the original Hugo rocket design. However, I had many early encounters with science fiction before discovering it was a genre, and that it was possible to read stories like that all the time if I looked in the right place.
Louis Slobodkin’s The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree may have been the first sf book I ever read. Whether it’s precisely the one I’m remembering is uncertain. From what Google shows me it looks familiar. The book I recall had a spaceship, and an alien who may have called himself Tex-Star — at least, that was somebody’s name in the story.
The chapter books that attracted me in grade school involved a kid trying to work out some practical, real world purpose – like every business Henry Reed tried to start, from truffle-hunting, to the fireworks investment that went bad. They had a certain internal logic that prepared me to appreciate the “rigorous” quality of John W. Campbell’s Analog later on.
And if a story with a fantastical element processed it with the same tone, I liked that very well, for example, The Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth, about a hen that lays a dinosaur egg – and when it hatches, all the challenges that logically follow, from how to feed it to where it can be safely housed.
I got familiar with the adventures of Tom Swift Jr., and volumes like Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine. On TV I loved those space exploration episodes of TV’s Disneyland, saw Godzilla run every afternoon for a week on channel 9’s “Million Dollar Movie,” and followed serials like Rocky Jones, Space Ranger. When Star Trek came on, I watched that, too. And yet I hadn’t learned there was a thing called “science fiction.”
That awaited a friend of mine from the junior high school chess club who, hearing some of what I enjoyed about Star Trek, told me about a series of novels set in a space empire with battles between massed fleets of ships – the Lensman series by E. E. “Doc” Smith. I was then 14, a perfect age for the uncritical enjoyment of pulp space adventures. I used interlibrary loan to get all those books. And there I found the line that hooked me on science fiction forever — “Two thousand million or so years ago two galaxies were colliding; or, rather, were passing through each other….”
I think this is impossible to answer.
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading and rereading fairy tales or child versions of the Greek myths, the Popol Vuh, The Odyssey and Alice in Wonderland, or even the Little Prince, all of which — if you tip your head and squint your eyes — could be classified as SFF.
The first books I read and loved that are genuinely considered part of genre were The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. I read them one after the other because, as I recall, many of my elementary school classmates were reading them, and declaring themselves either Narnia fans or Hobbit fans, never the twain to meet. It’s funny for me to think now that initially I fell solidly in the Narnia camp, because in later years the Lord of Rings would become my beloved, comfort-food read. I’ve lost count of how many times I read it. But it didn’t make me a genre reader. It stood alone, a universe to itself, leading nowhere but further inward to its seemingly unplumbable depths.
My younger brother, initially the real genre reader of the family, introduced me to the Dune series, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and the Wizard of Earthsea — and I read most of what he recommended, liked some (Le Guin a lot, Herbert a little less), avidly disliked others (Donaldson) or decided not to venture (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe), but again, none of it led me to genre. I read widely but scattershot — one week it would be Le Guin, the next Milan Kundera and Amy Tan; the week after that I’d find myself rereading my favorite Latin American Boom writers and then I’d follow it up with Margaret Atwood.
So then, how did I land here? And when?
Late, much later in life than most genre readers first discover their love for SFF.
I was in my 30s and started working at a small Central New York library whose director, Nanette Wilcox, was a diehard and widely read SFF fan. At some point I must have asked her for a reading recommendation and since she knew I liked Atwood and Gabriel García Márquez, she led me to the SF section.
I know I looked at her dubiously. I might have even visibly curled my lip. I was pretty certain I had read the only Science Fiction or Fantasy writers that “transcended” what I thought was a limited genre full of pulp and Tolkien’s bastard children.
A smart and cagey SFF fan, Wilcox started me out with Charles de Lint, whose work is contemporary, both urban and rural, and character-centered. After blowing through Memory and Dream, Moonheart, the Wild Wood (my favorite de Lint) and all of the Newford collections the library had in circulation, I was hooked on genre at last.
In short order, went on to read Beagle, McKillip, Snyder, Bull, Zelazny, Starhawk, all of the Windling-Datlow anthologies available in the Mid-York Library system, Lackey, Heinlein, Dick, Peake, more Le Guin — you name it. Not only had Wilcox cured me of any “shame” in being seen reading books with the bright pink (and I do mean BRIGHT PINK) SF shelving labels, she had led me to the subdued yellow-labeled Young Adult books as well, and Garner, Cooper and Pullman joined the ranks of genre writers I was reading.
Thank goodness for librarians.
And thank goodness for a genre that keeps supplying me writers like N.K. Jemisen and Octavia Butler and Nnedi Okorafor who, when I “discover” them, send me down the familiar, beloved SFF aisles with renewed vigor and fresh eyes.
I can’t remember a time when books weren’t a part of my life. Apparently I could recite my favorite picture book– The Poky Little Puppy – by memory by the time I was three. My mother read me bedtime stories every night until I was old enough to want to read books by myself.
Mom always disliked fairy tales. She was a staunch, conservative Christian who believed from the depths of her honest heart that fantasy and Sci Fi led to the dark side, so our bedtime reading never ventured into the realm of fairytales. The closest we ever came to magic were fanciful and imaginative stories of talking animals, and these we read in plenty. My brother and I committed entire sections of Winnie the Pooh to heart, pulling phrases into every day conversation. To this day, instead of an ordinary thank you to someone who lends a helping hand, I catch myself wanting to tell them, “You’re a real friend, Pooh. Not like some.” Many a kitchen mouse owes his life to Thornton W. Burgess, since I always think of Danny Meadow Mouse and can’t find it in my heart to bring out the killing traps.
Magic is magic, and it will always find a way in, even where it’s forbidden.
In addition to books, we had a few vinyl albums of narrated tales. On one of them there was a story called, I think, Schnapsie and the Magic Button. It featured a dog who could ride on rainbows thanks to the magic button given to him by a fairy or elf or some such. My mother didn’t approve of this story, but I wasn’t forbidden to listen to it. I loved that elf, and the magic button, and the whole idea of secret worlds that nobody else could see.
As soon as I had access to libraries I was always hunting down magic. I read tales of King Arthur and the Brothers Grimm and all of the fairy tales I could find. I worked my way through Ivanhoe and even navigated an account of Gawain and the Green Knight, written in middle English. I read and re-read Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. But my childhood teachings were thoroughly ingrained and kept me away from venturing into true fantasy fiction.
It finally happened on a bus, during a high school band tour to a destination long forgotten. One of the guys was reading a big fat book called The Fellowship of the Ring. I happened to be between books at the moment and asked if I could read it when he was done, to which he kindly agreed.
And that, my friends, was it. I read the words, “three rings for the Elven-kings under the sky” and that was all it took to hook me. I dove into that book and barely surfaced until it was over. I felt as though Middle-earth had always been a part of me, something longed for and sought after, and finally I had come home. Fortunately my friend was a fast reader, and I was able to read the next two books of the trilogy as he finished them. I don’t remember anything else about that trip, but I’ll never forget the feeling of being fully immersed in Tolkien for the very first time.
Every book I read leaves something with me, alters me in some small way. But this was a transformational experience. Sauron took my innocence. Aragorn had my love. I grieved for Lothlórien lost and the elves gone out of the world, even as I exulted in Frodo’s triumph and the ring destroyed.
And I’ve been seeking ever since to find my way back.
When I sit down to write books of my own, some part of me is still trying to re-create that first real immersion into magic. Even my straight up tales set in the real world are infused with at least a hint of something beyond what I can sense or touch from my every day world.
Any kind of magic tugs at me, but the books I love and return to over and over again are the ones that remind me of Middle-earth.
I’m a fannish cliché in that my entry into SF came via a Heinlein juvenile, Red Planet, which an 8th-grade friend got me to read in exchange for trying some of the comic books I loved. I could write quite a bit about the merits of Heinlein’s books for kids, but I’m not sure that they, alone, would have made me a *science-fiction and fantasy* fan. Much as I loved them, they fit well enough into the ethos of the Hardy Boys and Rick Brant books I was already reading that they might not have stood out as a durable *something else* as I aged out of children’s adventure fiction. I think what sealed the deal for me was some combination of the four-book whammy that was the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, edited by Silverberg and Bova, and the Asimov-edited Hugo Winners anthologies, each series then in two volumes. I don’t remember if I got them all from the school library, all as a premium for joining the Science Fiction Book Club, or some here and others there in combination. To fit the topic, I’ll concentrate on Volume 1 of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.
Even now, this is a hell of a book. It starts with Stanley G. Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” and ends with Roger Zelazny’s “A Rose for Ecclesiastes”. That’s some clever book-ending by Bova and Silverberg, a microcosm of the growth of the genre’s sensibilities and even the growth of my own as I progressed from story to story. We go from something recognizable as the boy’s adventure fiction I was used to, just a lot funnier (“VEE ARE FRIENDS!”), to something that looks like it’ll pass for (older) boy’s adventure fiction that gets undercut by realpolitik and female agency (to the extent Zelazny understood it at the time). And along the way, the anthology took me very far from the Hardy Boys and Rick Brant indeed.
Just consider all the unhappy endings and shocking revelations, for one. Nowadays we understand some of them – rightly! – as problematic for various reasons. But I was 12. This stuff started me thinking laterally from the tracks laid down for a rural Pennsylvanian life. Sometimes the universe or just society were going to be too big for anybody’s pluck and derring-do (“The Nine-Billion Names of God”; “Nightfall”; ). Sometimes things were going to be too painful to acknowledge (“That Only a Mother”). Sometimes good intentions were going to go awry (“The Little Black Bag”). Clifford D. Simak’s “Huddling Place” hit me like the Tunguska meteorite. *You mean he’s going to let his friend die? Just because of fear?* Look around what our online lives are becoming and tell me “Huddling Place” isn’t one of the few genuinely prophetic stories the genre has produced. “Microcosmic God” just took me someplace I never imagined I might go, making me realize there must be many more such places. And that I wanted to go to all of them.
Reading these stories as a kid was always enthralling but wasn’t always comfortable, and not just because “What if my mom finds out what’s in Fritz Leiber’s “Coming Attraction.” It was uncomfortable because these stories were pushing my imagination *and my conscience* places neither had thought to go before. And that twin push – intellectual and ethical – set my expectations for the genre ever since. I could probably write a whole separate essay on the problematic sexual politics of “The Cold Equations” today, had plenty of other people not already written it. But one reason I could do that is that I read “The Cold Equations” back then. I got used to questioning my comfortable assumptions from Silverbob and Bova’s collection, and as the genre itself began to question racial assumptions, and gender assumptions and sexuality assumptions, I was ready. Because prodding the mind and the conscience is what our genre has always been able to do. I learned that when I was twelve years old.
In the third grade I tied with a boy for winning a spelling bee, and the teacher had two books we could choose from for our prize. She said, “Ladies first,” and the book that caught my eye had a dragon on the cover, and fire, and a horse, and a brave warrior (the other was pink and decidedly not my taste). I didn’t notice the title or author, they didn’t matter. I didn’t even see what the other choice of a prize was. I immediately grabbed that book.
During recess, I started to read it. The book was called The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley. The heroine of the story had flame colored hair, which immediately grabbed my attention. But she was also kind of an outsider, people didn’t know what to make of her. She was a little clumsy as far as not doing the things that proper ladies were supposed to. But she was great with her father’s retired war horse, and got grease on her dress, and did real work. She went out and fought dragons, and then she went out and fought one of the biggest dragons of all and almost died from it. I remember thinking, THIS is the person I want to be. If I could be like Aerin, it wouldn’t matter if I was a dork. I could be brave and work hard like she did, and it wouldn’t matter what other people thought. And Aerin’s world was so full of awesome things, like an evil wizard and a possessed dragon skull, water that made one “not quite mortal” and an ointment that one could make that was fire proof. There were mysterious mages and handsome princes. And for the first time, I learned that all stories didn’t have a perfectly happy ending–and that made them even better. I learned about sacrifice.
Because I loved Aerin so much, I moved on to others, like Ged (A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin), and Schmendrick and Molly Grue (The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle) and more. But I read The Hero and the Crown to shreds, and have gone through three copies since then. That was definitely my gateway drug–I mean book–into the world of fantasy fiction.
Sometimes I wonder what pink book that poor boy ended up with…
Looking back at my extremely pale, unpopular childhood and the love of SF/F that pervaded it, I can’t point to just one series that led to what has remained a steady, lifelong love-affair. As near as I can determine, it was a perfect storm of books that I happened to read between the ages of about eight and eleven that just rocked my tiny, prepubescent brain. Here are the culprits:
The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey – This oversized paperback collection of the first three books in McCaffrey’s epic series arrived as a Christmas present, and let me tell you – it felt absolutely enormous. This was my first introduction to a doorstopper fantasy, and it had everything – telepathic dragons who imprinted on humans at birth like flame-expelling teleporting geese, a world that was absolutely cemented in feudalism yet was actually the remains of a star-traveling democracy, bad poetry, kind of a lot of jerks as central characters, and perhaps more sexuality than was perhaps appropriate for an eight-year-old. God, I loved this.
Dune by Frank Herbert – Who cared if about three-quarters of the intricacies of intergalactic trade went over my head? This had knife-fights, prophesy, almost-magic, gigantic sandworms that the main characters rode around like desert taxis, and the original Duncan Idaho (before he was cloned 5,000 times and inbred to a few times for good measure). And baby sister Abomination. Such good times.
The Belgariad by David Eddings – Magic! Secret heirs! A female sorceress with a white streak in her black hair who could turn into an owl at will! Cranky grandfathers! Wolves! More magic! So much intrusive prophesy that it does not hold up particularly well when you revisit the series twenty years later! But, honestly, five excellent books for nine-year-old me. And another five books in the companion series, so this was just hours of high-fantasy classic-quest entertainment!
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card – I think there are two kinds of Ender fans – the kind who read this book as adults, and the kind who read it as children. When I read Ender’s Game at around eight-ish, it worked for me in a way that so many books with child characters did not, because these were children who just didn’t think of themselves as children – and I understood that. I liked Ender, I empathized with him, and the dynamics he had with the other kids around him felt extremely realistic to me. Plus, space military school on an accelerated pace in order to defeat insectoid aliens? Brilliant. Bummer about the genocide, Ender.
The Darkangel Trilogy by Meredith Ann Pierce – This trilogy is just magical, as is everything Pierce writes. She has the most amazing tone, pacing, and language, and her books are among the few that I loved as a child, reread as an adult, and actually loved even more. Also, for the record, this was my first introduction to the storyline of girl meets boy, boy kidnaps girl’s best friend and murders her, boy returns to kidnap girl but only to serve as general maid for his murdered wives because girl is hella ugly, girl serves as housekeeper and gathers information for how to kill boy and save souls of murdered friend, boy is murder-y yet strangely sexy in a way that is probably unhealthy for reader but let’s go with it, girl escapes and lives in the desert for many months during which time she becomes fit and awesome, girl returns to boy and boy realizes that she is now fit and awesome and expresses his newfound attraction, girl murders boy but actually just releases him from a curse so they kiss and spoon. Concerns about potentially problematic themes should be shelved, because it’s amazing and so are both sequels.
Genre fiction obsession hit me like a truck named Tamara Pierce when I was nine years of age. My family had just moved across the country and my mother let me go wild in a bookstore before we left. I bought eight books, all by Tamora Pierce, because I liked the covers. They were beautiful and ethereal, featuring lovely women in armor and riding horses. I treasured them.
They were two series, four books each, both set in the same universe. One was about an incredible warrior woman named Alanna, called the Lioness and the Woman Who Rides Like A Man. The other was about a woman named Diane who could speak to animals and do feats of astonishing magic. It was medieval fantasy, knights and mages and such, but women were the main characters and they blew my mind. I read those books cover to cover over and over again. They made indelible marks on my soul. Alanna taught bravery and that a girl could do anything, even be a knight. Diane taught compassion and perseverance.
I’ve read everything by Tamora Pierce and I owe much to her. I still have those original eight paperbacks! Without them I would never have become a fan of fantasy novels. I would never have grown into the woman I am without them. They are incredible novels and everyone should read them.
‘ I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a spear carrier in somebody else’s story…’
The book that brought me into SF was Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage featuring Mia Havero. A smart and funny girl who’s a little arrogant in her intelligence. It’s the story of her trial, a rite of passage she must undertake at fourteen to be accounted as adult and allowed to continue her privileged existence on the ship that brought humans to the colony worlds.
In the book Mia is a self styled dark little thing, with black eyes and black hair. On the cover of my tatty old paperback, she has blue eyes and translucent skin. I noticed that but at first didn’t wonder why.
To have a child in Mia’s world you need permission from the ship’s eugenicist; and if your earlier children failed the trial that is refused. The trial is how the ship retains its intellectual, physical and moral rigour. It’s a cold, brutal and elitist ethic. But I was in my earlyish teens and it took me a couple of readings to realise that. All I saw on first reading was rebellious and unhappy adolescents fighting their families, the system and themselves.
These days pretty much YA Standard Tropes 101.
But for me as an unhappy child locked down in the cold, brutal and elitist privilege of an English prep school since the age of six it was a revelation. For God sake, the book had spaceships and socialist ideas and romance and a little mild and gentle sex. It dropped me into another world and made me think. It made me feel too. A warm undefined fuzziness for Mia Havero.
Mostly though, it made me question. Why this world? Why not another?
The brakes were off after that and I read all the SF I could get my hands on, including the bad stuff, sometimes especially the bad stuff. The book that brought me back to genre, after I’d satiated myself to the point of sickness and self disgust, was Neuromancer.
My life was a mess, my first marriage rocky, my job as a commissioning editor far less glamorous than it looked from the outside. The UK, and the company I worked for, were in the process of being asset stripped. There were riots, deserved riots, on the streets of half a dozen British cities.
And I found myself in a cafe on the South Coast reading Gibson, transported to Chiba City and not giving a fuck about the rest of it. I was hooked back into SF in a single afternoon. Quickly discovering Pat Cadigan and Bruce Sterling and hunting down a video of Akira because I’d heard it sort of fitted.
Always, for me, the books that really resonate are the ones that help the world make sense at a point I’m about to stop caring if it makes sense or not. Rites of Passage, Bulgakov’s Master & Margarita, Gibson’s Neuromancer. And, of course, Tove Jansson’s Moominland Midwinter, probably the best accidentally perfect existential children’s novel ever written.
All brilliant in their way.
All deservedly fileable under the heading weirdshit.