My friend Laurie called me today to ask, “Why do you read science fiction?” Laurie is a professor of reading education at the university where I work and she’s writing an article on book clubs and reading. She told me about an essay she read on why women read romance novels and she thought about me and my love of science fiction.
That’s a good question I told her. Why do any of us do the things we do? If you’re a college football fanatic can you explain why? If you’re a CPA, can you tell us about the path you took to get into that profession?
I am a lifelong science fiction fan. I don’t like mysteries. I don’t like thrillers. I don’t like romance novels. I love movie westerns but seldom read western novels. I like science fiction movies, but they aren’t my favorite movies. I think literary novels are the most rewarding books to read, yet I still spend most of my reading time consuming science fiction novels. Why?
Discovering the Science Fiction Genre
I assume, as a professor that specializes in reading, Laurie wants to know how to get kids and adults involved with reading. Maybe she assumes if she knew why bookworms want to read she could help non-readers find the books they will like. There is some truth to this. When I was in the third grade my teacher and parents sent me to summer school because they claimed I couldn’t read well. My problem wasn’t reading, but what to read.
I remember going to my first summer school reading class. It was cramped wedge shaped room, that was really a storage closet for books. There were few places to sit. The teacher told me to pick out a book from a twirling rack of paperbacks. I took my time and carefully selected Up Periscope that, if I remember right, was a Scholastic paperback for kids, meaning it was probably abridged. I started reading it. I got into it. As far as I can remember, the summer school teacher never gave me any lessons in reading – he just provided fun books to read. Hell, I knew how to read. Up till then I didn’t have anything worth reading.
So, starting in the fourth grade I began prowling the school library at Lake Forest Elementary in Hollywood, Florida for interesting books. Then we moved to Homestead Air Force Base in 1961, while I was in middle of 5th grade, and my dad took me to the base library. That’s where I discovered proto science fiction books. During these years Alan Shepard and John Glenn made their historic flights into space.
At this time I didn’t know there was a category of books called science fiction. As a kid growing up with television in the 1950s I saw a lot of science fiction movies and television shows. I’d watch The Wizard of Oz every year on television. I watched Topper and other fantasy and SF shows. They weren’t a special genre yet. I also loved cartoons, westerns, sitcoms and everything on TV pretty much.
The first books I remember discovering at the Air Force Base Library were the Oz books, and one of my favorites was The Patchwork Girl of Oz. I read all the Baum titles, but didn’t like the Thompson books that were written after Baum died. I then switched to Danny Dunn, Tom Swift, Tom Swift, Jr. and Hardy Boys books. I still didn’t know there was a genre called science fiction. My reading was unguided, but it was shaped by the books in the library. I guess access to books is a big factor.
In the sixth grade, my teacher Mrs. Saunders read us books after lunch, and she got me hooked on A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I think that got me to realize that there were far out books that weren’t part of a children’s book series. I remember going up and down the shelves at school looking for books that had space ships on the cover. There weren’t that many. I found Jules Verne and H. G. Wells this way though, but still didn’t realize there was a category of books called science fiction.
I suppose if Laurie knew exactly what book to give a potential reader she could capture them for life. But how does she know what book? Maybe that’s what her article will be about.
When I wasn’t reading I was watching TV shows like The Twilight Zone. It was wonderful. Beginning in the fall of 1963, when I was starting the 7th grade, and still only 12, The Outer Limits came on. I was addicted to it right from the start. We moved temporarily back to Hollywood, Florida, right around the time JFK was killed, and then to rural South Carolina, where we lived out in the country and I had a 35 mile school bus trip twice a day. During this time I got out of the reading habit. Playing in the woods every day was more exciting, but I still discovered Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Time Machine and Dolphin Island by Arthur C. Clarke that year.
This is another clue. I’ve always read less when I had more exciting things to do. If you want to hook people on books, get them to read when there’s not much to do.
Then in the second half of 1964 we returned to Florida, and I started 8th grade at Homestead Junior High where I had a very special English teacher. I wish I could remember her name, but she had one teaching technique that changed my life. She offered to raise any student’s grade one letter if they’d read 6 books, 6 magazine articles and 6 newspaper articles each 6 week period and write a report on them. And she provided a list of approved authors. On that list was Robert A. Heinlein, so I read The Red Planet for the first of many times. I wanted more Heinlein and rode my bicycle over to the Air Base Library and asked the librarian about Heinlein. The airman took me to the adult side of the library and showed me the science fiction section, which contained dozens of Heinlein novels.
This is when it all fell into place and I finally discovered a category of novels called science fiction. I had finally found my genre. Some people will read anything, and other people like to stick to what they like. How can you interview a person and quickly determine their genre?
The Importance of Teachers and Libraries
You will notice in the above narrative that three teachers played a very important role in helping me to discover science fiction. First, the summer school reading teacher, second Mrs. Saunders my 6th grade English teacher, and finally my name forgotten 8th grade English teacher. Later on my 12th grade English would turn me onto literary books like A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, The Stranger, Catcher in the Rye, etc. None of these teachers told me to read science fiction. They just presented a selection of great books and I responded to the ones that resonated with my soul.
Another factor in this narrative is libraries. I have very fond memories of libraries, especially the Homestead Air Force Base Library – it’s legendary in my memories. I needed libraries until I could earn my own money and go to bookstores. When I got my first punch the clock job at 16, I bought the 12 Heinlein juveniles directly from the publishers with my first paycheck. I was so hooked on reading at a young age that books were my primary form of entertainment. I’m not sure that can be quickly instilled in a grown person.
But Does This Answer Laurie’s Question?
My history so far explains how I discovered certain books, but it doesn’t explain why I wanted to read them in the first place. I loved my childhood, and I’m very nostalgic about growing up, but I had alcoholic parents and we moved around an awful lot. I went to a lot of different schools. If we play the home shrink self-examination game I have to figure I read books to escape a stressful environment. So why science fiction?
I was born in 1951, and Sputnik was launched when I was in 1st grade. We landed on the Moon the summer I finished the 12th grade. Alan Shepard took his 15 minute flight into history when I was in the 4th grade. I grew up with NASA and my formative school years covered Project Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. I was influenced by NASA, rock and roll, television and movies. The undercurrent of the 1960s was all about the future and revolutionary social change. How science fiction is that?
As a little kid I couldn’t buy into religion. I didn’t believe in heaven, but wished to go to outer space. I didn’t believe in God, but thought wise aliens might come down from the skies. I didn’t believe in life after death, but life extension might be possible. Science fiction promised a future reality that seemed far more real than the religion of the older generations.
Making Friends with Other Science Fiction Fans
Because my family moved around so much I got good at making friends, and I always found a best friend quickly. The quality I looked for most in a friend was the love of science fiction. I told Laurie if she wanted to understand this aspect of becoming a science fiction bookworm then all she needed to do was read Among Others by Jo Walton. There’s a reason why Among Others has won all the science fiction and fantasy awards – it speaks to my kind. Laurie, maybe you can hook people on books if you can find what books friends will read together?
Why Do I Continue to Read Science Fiction?
To be honest, I can easily find books I like better than science fiction, but I often stick to the genre because growing up programmed me to love science fiction. I keep reading science fiction hoping to find books that have the same sense of wonder I discovered in childhood. I don’t often find it, but sometimes I do, like with Ready Player One by Ernest Cline or Spin by Robert Charles Wilson.
Laurie, among science fiction fans we talk about a quality that makes science fiction great: sense of wonder. I grew up in an age of wonders, and science fiction just happened to have more wonder than any other form of literature. But I think science fiction represents a deeper desire. At least for me, science fiction promised travel to far out places, to greener pastures. It hasn’t delivered though.
To understand this very deep driving force Laurie, you’ll have to read a novella, “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. Follow the link to my review. It’s a story about people facing limitations. We’re all fish in an aquarium, poking our heads into a glass wall hoping to swim further. It was written by a young black gay man in the middle of the 1960s and he knew about limitations and used science fiction as a metaphor to explain the crush of living with barriers.
I think “The Star Pit” is the key to understanding how to find books that people will love – it requires finding stories people will identify with at a deep emotional level. “The Star Pit” is about a father who lost contact with his children due to alcoholism and wild living. Years of regret later, the man hires an older teenager who is wild and unmanageable, and tries to be his mentor. That kid is envious of an even younger teenager who is wilder still. All three characters are tortured by what they can’t have in life. I read this story when I was 16 and wanted far more from life than I could ever have, and “The Star Pit” made a lasting impression.
“The Star Pit” meant so much to me because I had an alcoholic father who couldn’t communicate with me, and I was a teenager who did drugs to go to far out places. I imagined my dad as a boy wanting to be a pilot, and I was a son that wanted to go into space, and neither one of us could ever get off the ground.
What readers want is emotional, intellectual and psychological resonance.
Starting with my earliest books I picked out stories about characters going on amazing fantastic adventures. Oz and Outer Space are otherworldly destinations that I can never reach. The reason why I loved “The Star Pit” at 16 is it helped me realize I’ll never get where I want to go and I have to learn to accept that. I knew my father, because of his drinking, failed to learn that.
Science fiction is a substitute for all the places I’ll never reach in this life.
JWH – 11/13/12