Adventures In Reading, Part Two: Science Fiction

My family background was what is usually called working class, which means there weren’t many books in the house as I grew up (yeah, I’m generalising about working class people, but generally it’s true). I had to discover books and reading for myself. Just how I managed to do that when most of my siblings (three other sisters, two other brothers) didn’t is a mystery to me, but it might just come down to genes. Dad was seen to devour cowboy books from time to time, and at least one sister was a fan of Agatha Christie, but the others were pretty indifferent. I can’t stress how important all this is. I guess I was a fairly dreamy kid (still am!), always lost with his head in the clouds, living in my own worlds. So to find more make believe worlds in books was probably a natural destination for my head. Head in the clouds, head in a book, same difference. Well, one requires a bit more concentration.

From the first I was drawn to stories that went beyond the mundane. If it wasn’t fantasy creatures like ghosts and devil boys from my comics reading, it was spacemen and alien creatures from the worlds of science fiction. I discovered scifi early in high school when I started reading a series by a British author called Hugh Walters. I was enthralled by his juveniles featuring young astronaut Chris Walters and his intrepid journeys to the moon and most of the planets. The first book was Blast Off At Woomera, and the Australian connection was one of the things that drew me in. It was not straight scifi – more a thriller, an attempt at showing a realistic portrayal of a young astronaut in training and the mostly terrestrial dangers he faced. The science fiction element came more to the fore as the series progressed and Chris and his astronaut mates, who included Serge Smyslov, the Russian, Morrey (Morrison) Cant, the American, and Tony Hale, the British engineer (see, I remember them all!), began to explore the further reaches of the Solar System. There were signs of a previous civilisation found on the Moon, which brought a deadly alien bacteria with it that almost wiped out the Earth. And a ghostly presence was found on Mars. They were tentative discoveries, tantalising glimpses of other worlds, other possibilities, mirroring my own new-found discoveries in these books.

I wanted to read more, to know more, to get beyond the Solar System, to encounter actual aliens. I soon found them in my high school’s library. There was W.E. Johns’ Kings of Space saga, then the books of Alan E Nourse, then finally (drum roll) Mr Isaac Asimov. Once I found him and the other ‘golden era’ writers (Heinlein, Clarke, etc) I was hooked. My head was full of Asimov’s tales of the Foundation and I Robot stories, and Clarke’s Childhood’s End, and Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Stranger In a Strange Land. I even developed some critical awareness, noting that Heinlein’s later books in particular (I Will Fear No Evil, and Time Enough For Love) were nowhere near as good as the earlier ones, and that he was getting rather preachy and long-winded. Of course, in later years I have gone back to some of those old classics, and the writing, especially the characterisation in Asimov’s early work…oh dear. But I loved them at the time and they put me in good steed for later discoveries.

I soon acquired a couple of early science fiction encyclopedias that came out in the late seventies, namely The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by Brian Nash, and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (not the later, comprehensive one edited by Clute and Nichols), with consultant editor Robert Holdstock. They were essential guides in finding my way towards the best that science fiction had to offer. They helped me branch out into the more sophisticated writers, whose work built upon the golden era writers and added social criticism and social sciences: writers like Joe Haldeman (what a contrast The Forever War is from Starship Troopers!), Frank Herbert, JG Ballard, Michael Moorcock and especially Ursula Le Guin. Reading her A Wizard of Earthsa series, Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed books were character-forming experiences for me. To this day Le Guin’s works either define me or they reflect so much of who I am or who I want to be. I can’t emphasise her importance enough. The only other writer who comes close is Philip K Dick. His The Man In the High Castle still blows my mind with its alternate history narrative, and that amazingly meta ending (so much so that, sometimes when I’m down, I wonder if I’m caught living in the wrong timeline too).

But I should add two extraordinary anthologies, one called Classic Stories of Science Fiction’s Golden Age, and the other Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. From the first anthology I discovered groundbreaking stories like Murray Leinster’s First Contact, Asimov’s Nightfall, Frederic Brown’s Arena and Stanley G Weinbaum’s A Martian Odyssey. Really important stories in the development of the genre, breaking it away from the usual bug-eyed monsters and paranoia stereotypes of the pulp era. The second anthology was a fantastic introduction to so many of the great writers in the modern ‘new wave’ era (including Le Guin in the Again Dangerous Visions sequel).

The magazine Heavy Metal (see previous blog), in its pop culture columns, gave me a heads up on some of the new writers and movements that were happening in science fiction in the eighties. It clued me in to cyberpunk and the unavoidable William Gibson, including Bruce Sterling and the influence of films like Blade Runner. I suppose after that there was a bit of a lull, where during my college years I was pushed towards reading the Classics and more mainstream writers (I was, after all, doing a Language and Literature B/ed at the time). But all through it I know I kept reading Ursula Le Guin, catching up with her Orsinian Tales, and the amazing (though ‘difficult’) Always Coming Home. Two other authors who made an impression during that time were Michael Moorcock and Philip Jose Farmers. I especially loved Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius and Dancers At the End of Time series (the latter featuring a main character called Jherek Carnelian – Moorcock always liked to combine his fictional worlds). And I was so obsessed with Farmers’ Riverworld series that I edited and rearranged the damn thing to fit my own personal specifications. I especially took exception to the seemingly tacked on ending to the fourth novel in the series, The Magic Labyrinth, where his characters make it the tower at the planet’s north pole that they’d been trying to get to all along. I took the ending out and put it at the beginning of the fifth and final book, The Gods of Riverworld, where it really belonged. And I retitled The Magic Labyrinth as To Virolando, which I feel is more appropriate. I guess this all says more about me than about science fiction.

Through the nineties and most of the noughties my reading in science fiction went a little backwards. I backtracked to some earlier authors and books to fill in the gaps of what I’d missed. I read some classics by Arthur Conan Doyle, Clifford Simak, Frederick Pohl, Poul Anderson, Alfred Bester and George R Stewart’s sublime Earth Abides. I kept up with Le Guin’s works – the nineties were especially fruitful for her output – but I read very little scifi that was new, and didn’t pay much attention to the latest authors and developments. I think other mediums took over, especially television and visual works. I loved James Gurney’s fantasy work Dinotopia, and read the many sequel picture books he created, and the tie-in novels written by what can only be described as ‘the usual suspects’. Some were nice, most were pretty average. There was even a short-lived TV series which I enjoyed. Then there was Joss Whedon’s television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I became obsessed with. I even wrote some fan fiction based on it. Again, I read the tie-in novels from the series, again written by the usual suspects (especially those ubiquitous hacks, Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder – yes, I’m calling you hacks!).

Although it really goes beyond the remit of this blog’s topic, I can’t emphasise how important television has been for scifi and ‘genre’ fans like me in the last few decades. From Star Trek TNG to The X Files, and Babylon 5, Firefly (another great – though short-lived – Whedon series), Stargate, Star Wars: Clone Wars and the reboot of Battlestar Galactica and The Expanse and beyond, we’ve been spoiled for choice. Is it any wonder I’ve been reading less and watching more?

In 2012 I began writing my science fiction novel Eye of the Timegate. Because it was a time travel story I was reading a lot of similar-themed science fiction at the time to give me an idea of what others had done in that sub genre. One of these bits of ‘research’ was (Hugo award-winning author) Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book. It surprised me, because I thought it was terrible! I decided to self publish my novel, which in hindsight was probably a really bad idea, because the market is flooded with (mostly badly-written) self published works. I found that, unless you already have a name, or a good social media profile, it’s very hard to promote your self published work. You need publishers. Some people like Andy Weir have done it with his The Martian novel, and good luck to him, but I think he’s the exception to the rule.

Because of the novel, I also started being interested in what was going on in the field – what were the latest developments, themes, stylistic innovations, etc. Some of it was for purely professionial reasons – I needed to be up on my industry if I was going to enter into it. But most of it was pure enjoyment at rediscovering an old friend. There was so much I had missed out on, so many authors: Baxter, Benford, Bujold, Bear, Brin. Bloody hell! And Egan and Kress, and all the rest. And I discovered steampunk, very late! My gods, where had I been? When it was described to me (basically alternate world fiction where the industrial revolution of steam never really ended) I realised I’d already read some steampunk – before it was called that. Michael Moorcock’s Oswald Bastible stories are early steampunk, as is that fabulous novel A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah by Harry Harrison – one of my favourites. But what a fantastic sub-genre: corsets, dirigibles, cogs, clockwork, goggles, steam-powered gadgets, intrigue, craft, fashion, Victoriana. I love it. It brings style to the old genre. I’m presently working on a steampunk themed pair of bookends!

Science fiction is definitely a growth industry these days, and it’s hard to keep up. One way I cope with the sheer magnitude of the genre’s gowth is I read a lot of short story collections and magazines. I’m especially a fan of the local magazines here in Australia – namely, Aurealis and Andromeda Spaceways. Lots of good stuff, not just from Australia but around the world. I hope to get published in there one day. In the meantime, I have a lot of catching up to do!

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