Saturday, December 18, 2021



I am going to talk about the first science fiction book I ever read; possibly the first real book I ever read. I am going to try to explain why it was my favourite book when I was a child, and what it was like coming back to it after very nearly fifty years. 

When I was four or five the grown-ups asked me what present I would like for my birthday. "Something to do with SPACE" I replied. I got a magnificent plastic space helmet, one size fits all, with a NASA logo and a visor you could raise and lower. It echoed, slightly, when you put it on your head so your voice seemed to be coming from the moon itself. I got a space suit to go with it: a silver pair of P.Js, really, with moon-shot patches and Stars and Stripes sewed into them. I can't remember wearing the suit, but I can remember sadly realising that I was getting too big for it.

I was born in 1965 so I would have been just about conscious of the moon landings. I think I was just barely aware of the Apollo 13 near disaster; I think my mum shielded me from watching the TV news in case it became too sad.

I suppose the choice is arbitrary. I decided I liked Space. I might just as well have decided that I liked Unicorns.

It is not hard to explain why, at the age of eight I went crazy for Spider-Man and at the age of twelve I went crazy for Star Wars. Maybe you went crazy for Pirates of the Caribbean or Toy Story or Jurassic Park. Spider-Man and Star Wars are texts. I was crazy about the stories that Steve Ditko and George Lucas were telling me.

But very small children know that they like Pirates or Dinosaurs long before they have encountered any actual texts. They don't like particular stories. They certainly don't care about letters of marque or paleontology. But they do know that Pirates and Dinosaurs are cool.

Space-rockets were cool. Daleks were cool, too, long before I knew that they came from Skaro or contained a disgusting mutant or wanted to rule the universe or even that they appeared in a TV series called Doctor Who. 

Children become obsessed with the oddest things: lifts or trucks or teapots or the colour pink. It's almost a form of imprinting. How many serious grown up interests started with pointless childhood fixations, I wonder? See a pony at the age of three; develop a serious interest in dressage and the Grand National at the age of sixteen. Get a toy turtle at two; get a junior black belt in Judo at the age of eleven.  

The overwhelming majority of grown-ups read stories about businessmen and lawyers and vets and village school teachers and middle class Italians and narcissistic Norwegians. They say that they literally cannot understand why any grown-up would want to read "all those crazy space stories". And crazy space story readers can't work out why anyone in their right mind would want to read a story about ordinary things happening to ordinary people in an ordinary world. Perhaps the grown-up majority just never fixated on space rockets or dinosaurs? 

Didn't Freud think that most kinks were perfectly normal elements of infantile sexuality that particular people never grew out of?

Some of the unpleasant far-right science fictions fans who called themselves Puppies believed that no-one really liked mainstream fiction: it was being forcibly imposed on a docile population by a feminist-academic cult, to make America more vulnerable to the communist take-over. Or something. Guardian cartoonist Tom Gaud drew a celebrated cartoon in which a science fiction reader imagined that mainstream fiction readers were dull sourpusses who were secretly jealous of all the fun he was having. 

Two mutually uncomprehending sub-cultures. Two people for whom "books" mean different things.

Yes; I know. There are dog people and cat people, but Mrs Smith down the road dotes on her poodle and her siamese.

We like Doctor Who because, when we were too young to know what Doctor Who was, we thought it was fun to run round the room shouting Ex! Term! In! Ate! in a silly voice.

We like Pirates of the Caribbean because when we were too young to know what a sailing ship was, we thought it was fun to run round the room shouting "Arrrr!" in a silly voice.

We are interested in equestrian sport because when we were too young to know what a horse was we thought it was fun to gallop around the room making clip-clop noises with our tongues.

It really was that simple. That was why I decided I liked Space. 

Not because of the adventure.

Not because I liked the idea of different worlds and aliens.

Because a rocket ship is a great, big, tall, willy-shaped firework.

And mostly because it is fun to run around the room shouting FIVE FOUR THREE TWO ONE BLAST OFF.

Not the real reason. Not the only reason. But the point of origin.

My first school was split between Infants and Juniors. The Infants were segregated off in their own corridor. I don't think there was ever an Infants Library. I suppose there must have been books, but I can't remember any particular ones. We were taught to read from Janet and John, of course. At home I had a fine collection of Ladybirds. I remember Magic Roundabout Annuals and a very dog-eared Disney Storybook. Doctor Seuss was disapproved of because he rhymed Zed with Bee and couldn't spell "colour". 

I think that Picture Books are a slightly more recent publishing phenomenon. I can recall Infant teachers reading to us from quite text-heavy books: Winnie the Pooh and Noddy and Alice in Wonderland and the Song of Hiawatha. I remember Miss Ward reading us Hans Andersen's Tinder Box and Miss Heinze reading us Jason and the Argonauts, both unexpurgated. The romance of human sacrifice and public execution kicked in quite early.

The rest of the school was the province of the Juniors, and the Juniors had their own library -- a tiny little cubby hole lined with what we would now call Chapter Books in A-B-C order of the writer's last name. We were presented with one of those old fashioned blue ticket-pockets which allowed us to take out (and take home) one book a week. Miss Beale allowed some of us more voracious readers to have two. I read the obvious: Doctor Doolittle, Mary Plane, Paddington Bear, the Wombles, Enid Blyton, who I never really took to, and Willard Price, a kind of entry-level Clive Cussler. But I gravitated to the very small section of Space Books; what I knew, at the ripe old age of seven or eight, to refer to as Science Fiction. 

I think that the publishers were commissioning big-name writers to write juvenile material, or scouring back-catalogues for kid-friendly material. I remember titles like Have Space Suit Will Travel (Heinlein); A Life for the Stars (Blish) and Islands in the Sky (Clarke.) I don't think Asimov wrote anything for for children.

I can date my Spider-Man infatuation precisely; the second week of February, 1973. (The Wombles came on TV the same week.) I don't have any reference point, but I suppose it was about the same time when I walked into the Junior library and pulled down a little tome, with small print, no pictures, and an abstract cover. 

A cover perfectly suited to fixation on five-four-three-two-one-blast-off. It was old fashioned and perhaps out of print when I read it. Libraries seemed to have copies; I never saw a paperback in a bookshop. For years I would have said it was my favourite book. I only read it once, and it's been out of print for decades. 

But the Internet is the Internet; and Orion Publishing has decreed that every science fiction novel ever written, however obscure, can be dowloaded into my Pocket Computer at the touch of button....


postodave said...

Yes, I've often wondered what made me a sci-fi reader. I think Fireball XL5 was the entry drug, and while it had space it also had funny puppets which must have been part of the appeal. Doctor Who grabbed me from early on, and although it was inspired by earlier writing I was looking for stuff like this like a Stones fan going back to find Muddy Waters. When I went to secondary school a teacher guided me towards the Hugh Walters books but I have no idea why these were thought to be especially good. But by that time I knew Science Fiction was what I liked. I read a lot of Ray Bradbury, guided by the same teacher. At 16 I read Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and was impressed, but I have not retuned to it in decades and have not read anything else by him. But around the same time I discovered Moorcock and have re-read him many times and read many things he recommended. What shapes our tastes? Space was a thing when I was tiny but a lot of the sci-fi I like is not about Space. Even when Phil Dick sets a novel on Mars it isn't really about space. So was space just an entry point?

Andrew Rilstone said...

Eegad, Sir, you hit near the mark, dashed near...

Paul King said...

Asimov wrote the Lucky Starr: Space Ranger series for younger readers.

I read a LOT of Andre Norton - in fact I read a lot of SF, including the books you mention. And fantasy, too. Alan Garner, Ursula LeGuin, and more. I read still remember reading Joy Chant’s Red Moon, Black Mountain in junior school, even if I can’t remember the book very well.

David Pulver said...

I was born in 1965 and from 1966-1972 lived in London, England.

From what I recall it was pretty hard to avoid being drawn into the mystique of NASA and the space race! Gerry Anderson and Dr Who drew me to Countdown magazine (or TV 21), and circa 1971-72 (when I was 5-6 ish) that was full of backup features on moon rockets and space stations and adds for Airfix space kits and moon men. I had some sort of orange action figure that came with a whole kit of space stuff, and a helmet (maybe the same model as yours?). No pajamas though.... Even the "ice lollies" (aka popsicles for the USA) as we used to call them (don't know if they still do in the UK) were space-themed, with the analogy being drawn between multiple flavors (e.g., orange, chocolate, vanilla) and the "stages" of a three-stage rocket! There was also an exhibition at one of the London museums with some Soviet spacecraft - I remember being impressed at how different, alien and sort of bug-like the rounded and antenna-laden Soviet designs were compared to the streamlined pointy American designs.

David Pulver said...

The first SF novels I had experience with were the Heinlein juveniles, which along with Asimov's robot books and Andre Norton's works, and John Wyndham's Chrysalids and Triffids, my mother read to me as bedtime stories. It is a great shame that Heinlein's later-period weirdness like Stranger in the Strange land turned off people; the best of his late 1950s juveniles like The Star Beast, Citizen of the Galaxy and Starman Jones are nothing like them, and still excellent reads today. Star Beast in particular was rather ahead of its time for the 1950s; in addition to a great story of first contact resolved through tense diplomacy rather than warfare, it has a quite diverse cast.

Gavin Burrows said...

Growing up as I did in a small bungalow in the Midlands in the late Sixties/ early Seventies, with parents who seemed pathologically averse to the notion of ever doing anything, there’s little surprise I was drawn to space as a concept. And I’m pretty sure I’d have said “space” then, above “science fiction”. Space seemed the opposite of and therefore antidote to my worldly life. While regular life was limited and constraining, space was expansive. Though of course I wouldn’t have articulated it in those terms at age six, space seemed a working metaphor for imagination.

The science in science fiction, the unavoidable fact you needed some scientific know-how to get into space, was just a necessary encumbrance. I’d read all the ‘hard science’ Clarke books along with the fantastical stuff, the ones about how an elevator from earth to a space station was actually quite a realistic proposition if you’d care to study the figures. But it was partly the lure of the label, the way the ice lollies with ‘rocket’ on the packet tasted better. And partly like having to finish all the sandwiches before you were allowed to start on your birthday cake. Cake was what birthdays were about, and imagination space.

I would have been too young to take in the space race, but I don’t recall taking to any actual space exploration as it happened. My Dad once tried to interest me in a later landing, being broadcast live on TV. “They’re always doing it”, I told him, and went off to play in the garden. Without the Daleks or the Mekon, what was the point? Adults were clearly stupid.

Aonghus Fallon said...

I was born in ’64, started out loving fantasy but ended up reading mostly SF. There are really only a handful of good fantasy novels. SF was more consistent. But I think the essence of its appeal at the time was that on some level people still believed we’d explore and colonise outer space and meet sundry other races. Landing on the moon and the space race was just the first step. I think Cyber-Punk - specifically Gibson - was the first acknowledgement that this wasn’t very likely. So SF was surfing the zeitgeist back then. Now? Now the future doesn’t look anywhere near as exciting or as bright (hence the popularity of fantasy, I guess).