Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Seduced by SF

Books books books books
It's pretty safe to say we like our science fiction around here. But that wasn't always the case for me.

Yeah, I'll pause to let that sink in: I've always been fond of fantasy, but I didn't start out liking science fiction. Surprise, surprise.

In my defense, my first introduction to SF was through short story reprints in Boys' Life magazine, which my two brothers subscribed to back in their Scouting days. (They were frequently annoyed by their older sister stealing their magazine to read the stories.) Asimov and Clarke and Heinlein and their ilk were all right, I supposed, but they didn't invoke for me that sense of wonder so many fans report feeling on their first brush with the genre. Looking back on it, I sought out character development in my favorite stories, and some of those classic pulp tales barely sketched out characters so they could focus almost exclusively on the science end of things. In my mind, it was important to care about people first before you could get excited about their adventures. I much preferred the serialization of John Christopher's Tripods series, which seemed to do a better job of giving Will, Henry and Beanpole the human touch.

So for a long time I dropped the genre of science fiction almost completely from my reading, assuming that it just wasn't my cup of tea. (Yes, of course I read Ray Bradbury during this period -- as much as I could find, in fact. But most of Bradbury's creative output was fantasy, fictionalized memoirs, "weird tales" or soft SF. Bradbury himself freely admitted in interviews that he didn't write much science fiction. In fact, he considered Fahrenheit 451 to be his only novel that came anywhere near hard SF.) I was also told time and again by teachers and other adults that science fiction was the literary equivalent of junk food, and that I was better off reading high-quality literature rather than wasting my time on mindless pulp.

Then, in high school, I met Brad. Brad was a kindred spirit and a voracious reader, but unlike me, he'd fully embraced science fiction -- and he made frequent, enthusiastic recommendations of the stuff he was reading. He'd been spelunking in the stacks at the Provo Library and had come across a short story collection (I think it was The Anything Box) by a writer I'd never heard of, one Zenna Henderson, and he couldn't stop talking about it. Finally I told him I'd look into her stuff, just for the sake of changing the subject.

A few days later, at lunchtime, I nonchalantly made my way into the H section of the fiction shelves at the Provo High School library. Although they had no copy of The Anything Box, I did see a few books with "Henderson" on the spine. I randomly slid one off the shelf, and here's what met my eyes:

The cover of Pilgrimage: The Book of the People, by Zenna Henderson
...oh no.

Oh no oh no oh no.

There was no freaking way I was going to check this book out of the high school library. I mean, a farmer and his wife and a flying saucer on the cover? Complete. Social. Suicide. I was already awkward and unsure of myself, and I didn't need this book to help my classmates confirm that I was a total dweeb.

Well, maybe I'd just sit down, read a few pages and see. Maybe it wasn't that good.

I read a few pages. And frankly, at first it wasn't that good -- this deeply depressed and angsty young girl taking the bus out to the middle of nowhere to do away with herself -- and then, as I continued... I felt something stir in my head and chest... and I kept reading and pretty soon the bell rang and I had to go to class and I didn't want to put it down. But the words social suicide kept echoing in my head, so I slid the book back onto the shelf and sprinted to my next class.

The next two weeks or so I came home from school starving, because I skipped the cafeteria to spend my entire lunch hour (well, half-hour) curled in an obscure corner of the library with a small paperback whose cover I hid assiduously, because a) I still couldn't summon the nerve to check it out and b) I had to know what happened next. And when I got to the end of the book, I proceeded to plow through every other book by Zenna Henderson on the library shelves. And when I'd worked through all those, I went to Pioneer Book and looked for more.

Yes, I know. Zenna Henderson's work is still somewhat obscure, it's dated, it's considered very soft SF, and the interstitial tale that ties the stories together in Pilgrimage isn't very well-written. But her writing was my gateway drug. After that I stopped shying away from SF as a genre. In so doing I began finding authors like Connie Willis and Greg Bear and Nancy Kress and Michael Flynn and numerous others who wrote strong, compelling characters first and happened to put them in science fiction settings. And I also discovered that not all science fiction was serious, as I read Douglas Adams and others who wrote SF and space opera with a lot of goofy humor.

By the time I met Captain Midnight, I was well on the way to becoming a science fiction junkie. And that's partly how he lured me in -- he lent me books from his copious SF collection to read, and then asked me what I thought of them. (Clever man.)

When I write, I'm still drawn to writing fantasy. That's because I don't have a strong background in the hard sciences and I doubt my ability to write believable science fiction. But when I read, I no longer discriminate by genre. As long as it's a good tale, at least reasonably well-written and comes recommended by friends or other readers whose opinions I trust, I'll dive in. And thus I've learned that people who dismiss science fiction as cheap pulp work probably haven't read anything in the genre since 1955. Yes, there's still a lot of bad writing; Theodore Sturgeon, a science fiction author himself, famously admitted that "ninety percent of SF is crud," but then went on to aver that ninety percent of everything else is crud as well. The adventure of reading a new book is the possibility of discovering that elusive ten percent, the stuff that jolts your brain with explosions of beauty and wonder.

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