I didn’t start out as a science fiction & fantasy fan. Up until the 10th grade my favorite genre had always been Historical Fiction. I think the nearest brush with speculative fiction I’d ever had was a 6th grade ambitious attempt to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. I don’t remember if I finished it and to be honest I was much too young and inexperienced to really appreciate it at the time. Of fantasy I’d read hardly anything beyond the Narnia books. Thanks to a dyslexic mother who’d taught me to read when I was five, I was already an obsessive reader but I wasn’t a self-aware reader. I enjoyed the stories but I never thought about what the words meant.
But in 10th grade I met Ms. Lockhart. Now I’ve had great teachers before and after her but for some reason or other I felt more comfortable talking with her than I had any other teacher since a very charismatic second grade young miss. I was already a suspicious and moody teenager prone to read the worst into someone’s words no matter their intentions but through some slow, possibly supernatural method Ms. Lockhart gained first my respect, then my trust and admiration– though I am uncertain she was ever really aware of it. In other Literature classes I’d always enjoyed reading the assignments but I found the class discussions boring and the conclusions obvious, but Ms Lockhart didn’t ask the obvious questions and I found myself thinking and debating about my beloved books in a manner quite different than I had ever done before.
In particular she began walking us through the development of literary movements; ancient myths & epic poetry, medieval chivalric ballads, the Romantic era, the Transcendental, etc. She helped us see how each movement fed into the next, how their art influenced the culture around it and formed the next succeeding movement. She showed us how the earliest writers of the Romantic era at first produced their art instinctively and later identified it’s differences from older styles and formed an established idea of stylistic expectations for their new genre, which the next generation in turn experimented with breaking. It was all absolutely fascinating.
The second thing that happened was I received a very strange Christmas gift. I received a battered copy of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. It was from a step-relative who didn’t talk much to anyone. At first I thought the gift was some sort of passive aggressive snub, like he’d been pressured to give me something at the last minute and pulled an old copy off the shelf. But the man wasn’t by nature passive aggressive. In fact he remains the most painfully shy man I have ever met in my life. I think in the decade that I knew him I heard him speak only about five sentences. (Of course it might also be because he married one of the most talkative people I’ve ever met so it’s not like he had much opportunity to talk in the first place.) Even when I later told him I’d read the book the result wasn’t a newfound common interest upon which we could build a friendship. In fact when I told him that I had fallen head over heals for the story he only blushed a brilliant coral crimson that started at the tip of his knobbly nose and bloomed across his predominant cheekbones. Then he retreated to the other part of the house to refill his glass of sweet tea.
But I didn’t need a guide after that. Having tasted this strange new world or imagination I decided that one science fiction book wasn’t enough. After all, perhaps I only liked Ray Bradbury’s style rather than the genre? So to test myself I pulled down the book my Uncle had given my brother that same Christmas; the novelization of Star Wars Episode One, The Phantom Menace by Terry Brooks.
YES- You read that correctly. Something good came out of the existence of Star Wars Episode 1.
See it’s not that my parents hadn’t tried. They’d done their best to raise me right. When I was six years old they took me to a fancy theater screening of the original series. When the alien in the bar got his hand cut off I got up and walked out of the theater. When they talked me into going to see The Empire Strikes Back a little while later it was even worse! This time Luke got his hand cut off! I think I was more horrified by that than anything that Darth-guy was saying. Needless to say my personal tolerance for gore and body horror has gotten better but is still VERY low. (It wasn’t until a college escapade with H.P. Lovecraft that I began to fall in love with horror but even now I like the psychological creepy-crawly stuff. I can’t do torture or rape scenes).
Now before you go judging me on that understand that Brooks actually does a pretty solid job at the novelization and fixes a lot of the problems present in the movie. Also keep in mind that until this point I was only vaguely aware of Star Wars. I quickly corrected that later and my parents still have several shelves worth of my Star Wars book collections in their bookcase.
Only two books in and I knew that this wasn’t going to just be a literary crush I’d indulge in over the summer. This was the beginning of a life-long love affair.
I started asking myself the questions that Ms. Lockhart had taught me to ask. Where did this strange genre come from? How did it form it’s identity? What influences caused it? We were still in the midst of studying literature from the 1800’s so I assumed we’d keep moving forward in history and eventually get to it. I was very interested in hearing what my teacher would have to say on it but didn’t know if I could wait that long. So I asked her one day when we would start studying this strange new genre of science fiction.
We weren’t going to apparently. The answer stunned me. Why would a person be sent to school if we were expected to skip over a major movement in history? Also a lot of the questions about a literary movement’s origin were difficult to know with certainty simply because the movements we studied were developed so long ago. Surely we’d learn some valuable insights about all of literature by studying the development of something so recent?!
Added to all this was a streak of American pride. I’d read about how from my nation’s onset there had been a quiet obsession among American writers to produce something to set them apart from the long European tradition. And this, science fiction seemed to be the answer. When I searched for classic Science Fiction literature most of the authors I found listed were American ones, with the occasional Russian.
So I decided then that if school were not going to educate me I’d teach myself. I looked up a list of classic authors and determined to read a little bit by every single one of them. So I read through some of Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Herbert and of course as much of Ray Bradbury as I could get my hands on.
It wasn’t until I got to college that I started to get a grasp on the answers to my questions and found others with the same strange interest. In fact if you’re interested in origin and development of the scifi genre identity I recommend The James Gunn Center for Science Fiction. They get into these things much deeper than I ever could.
But in the spirit of that inquiry I do think that I will write some articles tracing some of the more recent sub-movements of science fiction that catch my eye, Cyberpunk and it’s strange little sister Solarpunk to name two. Perhaps I’ll even get around to dissected the strange rules of the Scifi Mystery sub-genre.