My earliest memories of reading involve science fiction. In particular a series of books for children about an eccentric scientist who, as I recall, was rather short, but with a huge head. He might have been an alien, or an alien/human hybrid, but I don’t recall for sure. For years, all I could remember was his first name, Tycho (I assumed in homage to Tycho Brahe, the astronomer and alchemist). But I couldn’t recall his last name, or the names of any of the books, or any of the plots.
And then as I was writing this blog, Tycho’s last name came to me, not exactly in a flash, but rather suddenly nonetheless: Bass, Tycho Bass, the mysterious scientist in a series of books for kids ages 8-12 by Eleanor Cameron. First in the series is Journey to the Mushroom Planet. The entire series was reissued in 1988 with cool new covers straight out of the 1950s.
Vague as my memories of some of the particulars may be, I do remember vividly how I loved the mushroom planet series, and how bummed I was when I’d read them all and there were no more.
But then the whole world of science fiction lay before me, and I devoured the novels coming out back then by Asimov, Dick, Clarke, Spinrad, Heinlein, Simak, Bradbury, Leiber, Boucher, Zelazny, and to me perhaps one of the greatest novels of all time, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I mean, this novel holds up not just as science fiction, but, if you ask me, as literature in that it takes you someplace else, without pretension.
Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle is, for me, another book like Canticle, iconic. I continue to marvel at Dick’s ability to so thoroughly investigate the mind of the other. But then of course, the other is what good science fiction is all about.
For years, I refused to read anything other than science fiction. I mean, forget The Scarlet Letter! — yes, they were making us read Hawthorne! Hell, they still make kids read Hawthorne!
I was reading this stuff throughout my childhood and into adolescence, and so by the time I reached high school, I had some serious attitude problems. They were making us read Hawthorne and I’m wondering where the hell are the proton beam deflectors? Where are the mind-reading mutants? (Hint, see Eye in the Sky, by Philip K. Dick, and Slan by A.E. Van Vogt.)
We’re talking the 1950s, the 1960s, the Soviet threat, Khrushchev banging his cheap collective-made shoe on a podium, Sputnik, and nuclear attack drills in class and our teachers trying to convince us that we could survive an A-bomb blast if we just got under our desks quickly enough. I knew better, of course. I knew they were lying to us because I read science fiction! I knew about proton beams.
There was always something transgressive about science fiction. My teachers disapproved. So it was natural, I think, that from science fiction, the next step for me was to get political. Our teachers were lying to us? Hell, so was everyone else in power! Science fiction was about heroes who paid attention to the man behind the curtain. The war in Vietnam was escalating, Kennedy, then LBJ, then Nixon were lying to us, and so from science fiction it was on to Marcuse, Fannon, Camus, Soul on Ice, and all that. Still no Hawthorne, though. It became a point of pride for me that I’d get lousy grades in English, and my grades in English were very, very lousy.
In the years since, I haven’t read much science fiction, I’m afraid. By the time I was through my political phase and ready to get back to mutants and proton beams, science fiction seemed to have changed. Now it seemed as if there were an awful lot of dragons and guys with swords. Of course, this was no longer science fiction as I’d come to know and love it.
The odd thing is that one of the first short stories I wrote after getting into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop had a dragon in it. One most definitely did not commit genre at Iowa, especially your first year while you were still angling for position in the pecking order and hoping to get financial aid for your second year. I got away with my dragon because the dragon was ironic. As far as I know, Joe Haldeman was the only guy in the Workshop when I was there who was good enough to get away with committing blatant genre. Once I became familiar with Joe’s work, of course Forever War became, for me, another of those iconic works like Canticle and Castle. Joe later explained to me that “sci fi” was derogatory, and that one always said “science fiction,” or “speculative fiction” if you must.
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