I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read.   Now I know that wasn’t the case.  I was not some child prodigy, but I was reading at an early age.  I know I was reading before I started school.  While I might not have always sailed through all my classes the one I always tested ahead of the curve was my ability to read.  I remember when I was in sixth grade, we took a reading comprehension test and I came back reading at college level.  It’s not because I was so smart, it was because I loved to read.

My Dad never finished high school.  He joined the Navy when he was 17 to get away from an abusive relationship at home.  It was always one of his biggest regrets and always made him think less of himself, when in reality my Dad was one of the smartest men I have ever know.

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”— Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

I always think of this quote when I think of how much my Dad could and did accomplish.   For him the best way to learn about something was to read.  My Dad always had a book in his hands.  At night when we’d be sitting around watching television, he’d be watching with us, but also with a book that he would be reading during commercials or boring times.  He instilled a fierce and dedicated love for the written word at an early age.

robert heinlein

While my Mom was never a reader she was a big believer in education.   She may not have shared my Dad’s love for books, but she knew it was a good thing for her son to be able to do.  So even though there were times when she would tell me to put the book away while we had dinner or maybe talk to everyone instead of hiding behind the pages of a book, she was as adamant as my Dad about reading.

One of the earliest books I can remember reading was Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel.  Thanks to my brother I still have the original copy of that book and while I have many other books that are worth more or cost me more, that book is priceless to me.   Before I started kindergarten I was in a book club.  I remember what seemed like every month (it probably wasn’t that often, I can’t see my parents being able to afford books that often) receiving a Dr. Seuss or similar title to read and enjoy.  This was amazing.  Getting books in the mail.  What could be better?

I read anything and everything I could get my hands on growing up.  I would read the back of a cereal box while I was eating breakfast.  I remember my brother and friends making fun of me because I was reading the TV Guide.  Hey, it had articles about the shows.  It was something else to read.   Someone along the way as I moved from elementary school to middle school and high school I discovered science ficiton.


I was captivated.  I’m not sure what my first science fiction reading was.  I could lay a good bet it was something by Isaac Asimov.  During school I had no job, my parents thought it more important that I worry about school and not a job, so what money I received was from doings chores and whatever else I could to earn a few dollars.  My parents were far from well off.  My Dad was in the Navy, my Mom always worked full time in a bank or office.  We never wanted for anything, but we didn’t have a lot of extras.   We shopped at the Navy Exchange.  My jeans during high school were the bell bottom blues that were part of the Navy.  Luckily this was before brand names became what everyone had to have.  Nike didn’t exist yet on the side of a shoe, so we wore Keds or Chuck Taylors.  So what money I did get was precious to me and I had to make sure I really wanted to spend it on whatever I was going to buy, because I wasn’t going to have a lot of it to throw around.

This was in the Seventies, before science fiction became as popular as it is now.  The bookstores, always at a Mall, usually a B. Daltons or Waldenbooks, I don’t ever remember seeing a Borders or Barnes & Noble at that time, had a science fiction section, but it was never that large, maybe eight feet, maybe ten feet, I doubt more than twelve feet of wall space.  Usually towards the back of the store, away from the better selling genres.   You didn’t see a lot of science fiction in hardback at that time, mostly what you found was paperbacks.  Which was great as far as I was concerned, I couldn’t afford the hardbacks anyways.  My dollar went a lot farther when I was buying paperbacks.

Whenever we’d go to the Mall I would leave my parents to where ever they were going to shop and head for the book store.  They knew I wasn’t going to wander off and not be able to be found.  They would normally be finished their shopping and come by the bookstore and tell me I had to hurry up, we were leaving, get my book and let’s go.  Asimov was one of those books I would get.  At the time my purchases would probably be one book at a time, until I had enough money to get another book.  So it was always a hard decision.   Still once I got that first Asimov book, it made the choices a little easier, now I just had to pick which Asimov book I wanted, until I had everything the bookstore had and I would move on to another writer.

harlan ellison 1

Somewhere along there one of those writers I moved onto was Harlan Ellison.  Now not strictly a science fiction writer, something he would argue with all his career, and really his stories were more a fantasy mode than strict science fiction, he was housed in the science fiction section at this time and was still considered part of the field.  Ellison changed my life.  His books, actually his stories, his books were collections of his short fictions, he rarely wrote novels, but his stories and his essays around his stories, were enough to, as they said back in the Sixties, blow my mind.  No one was writing like Ellison.  Well, there were others that were stretching what they considered the boundaries of the genre at that time, moving away from what was considered “hard” science fiction, work that had one foot in the old pulp stories that a lot of the older science fiction writers grew up writing, to an almost psychedelic style of writing.  Some of this new generation of writers wanted to move the field into what could possibly be called more of a literary scene.  But still no one wrote like Ellison.

As amazing and thought provoking and disturbing and  jaw dropping and just seat of my pants can’t wait to read the story the parts that he filled around the stories were just as interesting to me.  His words about where the story came from, what he was experiencing at the time, his life as a writer, his dating, the movies and tv shows he watched, his politics, his thoughts on just about anything and everything.  I think more than anyone he showed that writers were people, sometimes good, sometimes bad, always flawed, but striving to do better, but that you could write if you believed it and worked at it and didn’t take no for an answer.  Asimov wrote about his stories in his short stories collections also, but Ellison was one of the first and as much as I enjoyed Asimov’s tales of where the story came from, but reading Ellison’s was like slicing a vein and watching the blood drain.  Reading Ellison made me want to be a writer.  Or he cemented the fact that what I wanted to do in life was write and that maybe, just maybe I could do that.  Asimov helped get me there, Stan Lee provided a hand in that direction, but it was Ellison that said to me this was something I could do.  Something that if I was really a writer I would do, no matter if I was published or how many stories I sold, if I was a writer than I was going to write, no matter what, writing was a holy chore and not being very religious that spoke volumes to me and gave me something to hold onto.

clifford simak

I never subscribed to one side versus the other in the whole “New Thing” vs “Old School” during that day.  Writers aligned to one side or the other for the most part and for some things could get ugly.  Some of the Old School writers were called hacks, while on the other side some of the New Thing writers were considered incapable of writing a real story.  There were good and bad on both sides.  I loved the daring and genre busting of some of the newer writers, their ability to try new things, to try and push the genre into new directions, but it didn’t always work out.  Some of the pushing did turn out bad stories, not everything worked.  But I also was still reading and liking some of the old writers, writers like Clifford Simak, that learned his business of writing while earning a penny a word from the moldy pulp magazines of the 30’s and 40’s, even into the 50’s.  His stories were more grounded, if you can say that about any science fiction story where people traveled between stars and aliens were a mainstay, and his characters were more down to earth, everyday people that just happened to pilot a starship or be involved in an alien war.

It was too easy to label some of this type of writing as bad or expressing no new thoughts, but I enjoyed and found just as many new ideas and thoughts in some of these stories as I did in some of the newer writers.  And not all the new writers were part of the New Thing.  There were some of the newer writers that still held a love for the stories that were considered part of the history of the medium, what might be called hard science fiction, because it seemed to value the science over the people in the story.

larry niven

Just because a writer wanted to emphasize the science in the story, to try to make the fantastic elements in the tale grounded in what might or could be, didn’t mean the writer had to ignore the human condition.  Larry Niven was a young writer at the time, just starting out and making a name for himself, with the knowledge of the science behind what was going on in his stories as well as creating interesting and real characters to inhabit these new and future worlds.  In fact Niven created an entire universe around his stories, mapping a future out where each story or novel connected and how one event in a story might have effects farther along in a novel years later.

Other writers had their own universes of shared history among their stories, Asimov had his robot stories and his Foundation stories; Heinlein his future history, and some of these writers would work even harder to connect the dots between more of their work into a believable future, but I think Niven was one of the first to, if not create a future history, make it more believable and make the stories seem to all of a bigger part.  Some writers, you know when they started out, had no idea that this book would be part of the same universe as that other book they wrote, but as they wrote more books and connected these books together through a shared future history, decided to go back and join those older books and stories to what they were writing now.  It can be a good or bad thing, much like the fanatical in comics, screaming outrage over continuity, it can be a burden if a writer feels everything has to be connected, no matter how much it doesn’t need to be.

robert silverberg

And than there were those writers that seemed to be able to straddle both sides of the divide.  They could write a hard science fiction story that would have not been out of place in an old issue of Astounding Magazine  and than send a story to be accepted in what man consider the bible of the New Wave/New Thing, Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison.

harlan ellison 2

Robert Silverberg was a contemporary of Harlan Ellison, a friend, an early writing partner in some instances, a room mate on their struggle to earn a living as a writer.  He found success quicker than Ellison, writing more than just science fiction, more than just fiction, he seemed to take a page from Asimov who wrote on any and all subjects as well as his science fiction.   In the start of his career Silverberg wrote more along the lines of the Asimovs, the Simaks, and left the New Wave style of writing to others like Ellison.  But as he grew and continued to write Silverberg began to put a toe in the New Wave and then plunged his whole foot into the pool and was writing novels and stories that were far from their pulp origins.  And than he could go back to writing something that seemed to be everything that was not New Wave.

It was an exciting time to be reading science fiction.  You could have the best of both worlds.  Writers were stretching and wanting to expand their field of vision, not just the New Wave writers, but the writers of the older stories, the hard science fiction writers, the pulp writers, they wanted to push their words to the limits of their ability and see where it brought them.

For years the majority of my reading was science fiction.  It’s not like I never read anything outside the genre, but 90% of what I read and bought and re read was science fiction.  When I finally got my first job, right after graduation, one of the first things I did was join the Science Fiction Book Club.  I still remember two of the books I received in the first six (I think six, I could be mistaken with the fog of memory) books you got for like a dime with the deal you would buy so many in the upcoming year, the books were two hardbound collections of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars novels.  Between the two books it contained all of the Mars novels.  I’ve gotten rid of a lot of books I had than, but I still have those two books.  I built a pretty large collection of those hardbound books the SFBC put out, all the same size, so when they lined up on the bookshelves, they all looked to be of the same style, always usually a bit smaller than the typical hard bound book at the time, or so it seemed to me.   Over the next few years hardly a month would go by where I wasn’t ordering at least one book, if not two or three from the book club.

The pull of the written word was too strong and all I wanted to be was a writer.  I loved comic books and wanted to write them, but I wanted to write science fiction too.  My first efforts were short stories, not comic books, I think at the time writing a comic book, or more importantly getting a story published seemed out of my reach, the comic field hadn’t expanded as it did a few years later, their were no independents, no Eclipse, no First Comics, certainly no Image even thought of yet, and the comic industry was basically Marvel and DC and it was always the same writers writing the stories and you didn’t hear of new people breaking in.  The science fiction field seemed more inviting, the reality was that it was just as hard and you had to have just as much talent, but from the outside looking in I thought I had a better chance to getting published in a science fiction magazine than a comic book.

I have a file cabinet of stories and ideas for stories and half baked stories that were all science fiction stories.  I would write and put the story in one of those big envelopes, this was before email, and if you wanted someone to see and make a decision on your work, it had to be physically mailed to an editor in hopes of making the sale or having it returned to you because you always, always cannot be stressed enough here, enclosed a SASE, which was self addressed stamped envelope that the editor could slide your story back into and send back you way with the hopes that it wasn’t just a formal, same to everyone typed rejection but had a personal element, a few words that would give some hope, some tiny bit of maybe, just maybe I can do this and eventually I’ll have something published.

Always starting a new story as soon as the old one was finished and making its way through the postal system.  Don’t wait for it to come back.  You have to have as many different stories out there, making the rounds as you can possibly get, so that way when one comes back with that rejection, you don’t lose hope, you can tell yourself that you still have that story or that other story still out there and you’re sure one of them will be the one that gets accepted.  A few stories in a few small press publications, the first comics coming out that didn’t have a Marvel or DC logo on the cover and than it seemed that actually writing comic books could be a reality and the stories for the magazines were packed away in that file cabinet, with a huge folder of rejection slips, to remind me where I almost made it and where there never was a chance, but it was time to try and see what I could do with comic books.

For years I read as many science fiction books as I could.  And than somewhen, sometime, I don’t even know when exactly I stopped.  I would still pick up a book or collection of short stories by some of my favorite writers, anytime Ellison published something I was going to buy it, some of the other writers as well, but I found myself not as much, not as much rushing to the science fiction section whenever I went to the book store.  It seemed as the science fiction section in the book stores grew and started including more books and more writers, as the field seemed to be expanding and more and more new writers wanted to write science fiction, that I was slowly backing away from what I once loved and cherished so much as I was growing up.

I’m not going to say I grew up and moved away from science fiction, that is nowhere near the truth, I was reading science fiction as I was an adult and for years into what I laughingly call my adulthood.  It just seemed somewhere I blinked and when I would look at the science fiction section in the book store I didn’t recognize any of the names of the writers.   Oh, there was still some of my favorites, but they seemed to be putting out less and less and somewhere in there were names and writers that I had no idea of who they were and what type of stories they wrote.

Somewhere in that time I started reading Lawrence Block, Ed McBain, John D. MacDonald, oh m god, John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee.  Somehow I was reading mysteries, detective series, stories that had no futures, no space ships, no aliens and somehow as the more I read in this genre the less I read in my old favorite hangout, science fiction.   There shouldn’t, there doesn’t have to be an either/or here, there could have been an and, a reading of science fiction and mystery, but for some reason, somehow, it didn’t seem to be.

I still read a best of science fiction, sometimes I’ll go back and read some of my favorites, sometimes I’ll pick up something new, I’m not really sure the last time I did so, but today when I go to the book store and whenever I do, I still go the science fiction section and give it a look, there are so many names that I am not familiar with and I have no idea where to start if I want to jump back in, so I’ll just move over to the mystery section and pick up the new Laura Lippman or Michael Connelly and head to the register.

I still love science fiction, I love the concept, I love the words, I love what can be done and what has been done.  And I’ll never completely, ever fully,  leave the field.  I’ll find that writer I haven’t tried yet and before you know it I’ll be buying all his books and than deciding to give another writer in the science fiction section in the book store a try and it’ll be just like old times again.

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