When I was very young and first learning to read, I believe I caused the teachers some concern.
You see, my head was filled with the products of my vivid imagination – the monsters under my bed were a force to be reckoned with – and yet the reading material that was supposed to inspire me to learn to read, was little better than a collection of largely unrelated, stilted sentences of the “Janet and John” variety. You know the sort of thing: John has the beach ball. Up says John. Up. Up. Up.
It was all very strange to me, because I loved the bedtime stories my mom read to me, and I had somehow got the idea that books and stories were wonderfully glorious and special in every way. And John and his beach ball, and his apparently rudimentary grasp of conversational English, just didn't live up to my expectations. It's fair to say that I turned my nose up at these tatty facsimiles of books, but somewhere in my soul, the love of books still burned its quiet flame.
The unhappy result was that I just wasn't learning to read.
But then, along came Dr. Seuss and I was back on track. The world of books suddenly exploded into my mind, in a riot of colour, excitement and mischievous joy. Once I'd discovered that A was not for Apple, but for Ants in your pants, I was immersed in books and reading at every opportunity. I quickly became the most proficient reader in the class. But I never took to the Enid Blyton school of “Hoorah! We've defeated the pirates with a device made from string and now it's back to the nursery, and there's scones and jam for tea.” I liked my fictional characters to be more complex and interesting. This is still the basis of my gripe with the Harry Potter books I'm afraid but I'll draw a veil over that for now. Perhaps I've always been a non-conformist because I loved the mysterious characters that pushed at the boundaries of what was allowed: the Magic Pudding roared and misbehaved in my dreams, Stig lived in a rubbish dump just a short walk away, and I could be whisked away by The Phantom Tollbooth at any moment. I devoured children's books as fast as I possibly could, and read my favourites over and over until I knew them off by heart.
But soon the library held no new treasures for me. So what was I to read next?
YA fiction had not been invented, and so I made the transition to adult books at a young age. I discovered P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. Now, my imagination was populated with colourtul characters from the 1920's. It didn't matter that the strange world of the British aristocracy and upper middle classes of that period were outside my experience – that was part of their appeal. I read to explore, to travel, to drink in the details of other lives, other places, other times.
And then came a hiccup.
The musical film Oliver was very popular and I knew where I could lay my hands on an old copy of Oliver Twist. Oh dear. Children abused and starving half to death was too grim for me. Dickens knew how to paint a chilling scene and my imagination made it real. I was mortified. I set the book aside and vowed never to read Charles Dickens ever again. Don't worry, I got over it eventually – it just took several decades. But at the time, my desire to read challenging new fiction was thwarted.
But I wasn't just one of those kids with my head always in a story. I also had a love of science, so the books I took home from the library often included gems like this:
This book was a particular favourite and I was thrilled to find a picture of its cover on amazon.co.uk, but I recall that a great number of its experiments required methylated spirits – a highly flammable liquid that, fortunately, I was not allowed at that tender age.
I absorbed as much practical science as I could, and hoovered up scientific facts wherever I could get them, and that included watching the renowned astronomer, Sir Patrick Moore on the TV. And of course, as a child of the sixties, the Apollo moon landings were like catnip to me.
Now, I can't remember exactly when I first discovered that Patrick Moore had also written some fiction, and sadly, I can't find any of his books on my shelves, but I remember my surprise very clearly. I'm sure the first one I read was something to do with the moon, so it may have been Master of the Moon or Caverns of the Moon. You can see a list of his books here: www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/moore_patrick though I doubt if any are in print now.
5,4,3,2,1 – BLAST OFF! I DISCOVERED SCIENCE FICTION
OK, so that was a cheesy sub-heading, but cut me some slack. After all, I was reliving the moment when I found out there were adventure stories set in space! And they included some snippets of real science! I was home. And at the same time, I was getting my TV thrills with Doctor Who and Star Trek. Everything suddenly all tied together. Science Fiction offered me everything I wanted: a ton of new authors to discover, rip-roaring stories, imaginative plots and fascinating characters, some of whom weren't even human! And it all took place against awe inspiring backdrops such as the Moon, Mars, outer space, or even the future.
The featured image at the top of this post is a photo of the few books I still own from that time, but there were many more that I borrowed from the library. And here's the thing – Sci-Fi had its own shelf! Taking up sci-fi was like joining a club, and I still maintain that Sci-Fi readers are some of the nicest folks you could hope to meet. Perhaps Sci-Fi appeals to people who are open minded enough to question the status quo. Heck SF fans are prepared to question the past, the future, the very nature of our existence. “The secret is, John, there is no beach ball.”
I wish I could tell you exactly what titles I read and in what order, but here's a rough sequence with a few example titles. There were plenty of classic SF authors in the mix: Arthur C. Clarke (2001), H.G. Wells (The Time Machine), John Christopher (The Tripods trilogy), John Wyndham (The Day of the Triffids). Later, and not much later because I was an avid and progressive reader, there came Harry Harrison (Stainless Steel Rat), Michael Moorcock (The Winds of Limbo), lots of Ray Bradbury, and novelizations of some of the sci-fi films of the time, such as Star Wars, and Dark Star. Later still, and having a massive impact on me, there were the Dune books by Frank Herbert and Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlen.
These titles are just skimming the surface and if I've omitted one of your favourites, I'm sorry. The point is, when you take up a genre like science fiction, you have a very wide menu to select from. You can pursue any avenue you wish within the genre, exploring all the niches and sub-genres, and each book you read will have something to tell you. I really do believe that all good Sci-Fi has a message. SF uses the mechanism of an outlandish setting to explore our lives, our loves, our desire to carve out a better world for our descendants. And Sci-Fi has the scope to tackle the big questions that confront us as individuals and as a species.#SciFi has the scope to tackle the big questions that confront us as individuals and as a species. Click To Tweet
As a young boy, reading books in advance of my years, science fiction opened my eyes to the world, and inspired me to imagine other worlds, other intelligent life forms, other times, other realities. And it still does today. So keep the faith my companions in Sci-Fi: keep reading, keep speculating, and above all, keep asking awkward questions.
I'll see you down at the bookstore. And you know which department I'll be browsing.
If you're intrigued as to what sort of sci-fi I produce myself, please check out my latest sci-fi book on the Kindle Scout website. Kindle Scout is Amazon's reader-powered publishing platform, so your nomination could help to get a new sci-fi book published. And if it is successfully published, you get a free copy: mikeycampling.com/kindlescoutKindle Scout is Amazon's reader-powered publishing. Your nomination could help to get a new sci-fi book published. Click To Tweet
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With my readers' group, The Awkward Squad