I sometimes realize, with a jolt of dismay, that almost no one who knows me now realizes that I grew up addicted to science fiction.
I think I started from a fascination with the possibilities of science itself (Marie Curie was my first hero and most of my nonfiction reading involved medical breakthroughs; as a little sprout I revered the names of Pasteur, Lister, Banting and Harvey, and at ten I read a book titled The History of Surgery until the cover came off).
I loved paleontology, digging for minerals, and astronomy — the absolute luminous infinity of the night sky — so that eventually, I was fired by even the crudest imaginings about things like new elements with dramatic properties, or voyages into interstellar space. I remember stating, as a tweenager full of intense opinions, that any fiction about something which we knew for sure could actually happen was a waste of time. And to this day, I have no patience with what I used to describe as “books about people walking around and talking to each other” — the deadly, soporific chronicles of people’s fitful and fidgety negotiations with relatives, co-workers, neighbors and so on that seem to make up most of the New York Times top-reviewed list. I don’t want to read about how some woman realizes at forty-six that she needs to separate from her husband but still loves her children and finds peace learning the secret dreams of her deceased father. Get it away from me. NOW.
I haunted the one aisle of the library packed with science-fiction novels and “best of” collections from pulp magazines. My English teachers would have gulped to realize how much of literature I first found in their pages. And found again. Has anyone asked the question about what gender means to us as effectively as LeGuin did in The Left Hand of Darkness? Long before I would understand it in my own life, I learned about grief and loss and clinging, and the ruthlessness of time, from Bob Shaw in Light of Other Days. I began that story young and finished it old and sober, about a quarter of an hour later.
Sci-fi stories provided me with vistas of glorious imaginary worlds, double suns over endless forests, singing stones. At some point the genre seemed to become obsessed with slave girls and series novels whose characters were all based on the author’s friends and moved at a glacial pace through some sort of political intrigue altogether as boring as real life; one day I realized I wasn’t haunting that familiar aisle any more. But I still go down to the glass-fronted bookcase in the cellar and take out books by Larry Niven and Philip K. Dick, or Isaac Asimov, whose characters were barely more than paper cutouts but what a whirlwind of intellectual fun!
Now people watch the rebooted Star Trek and debate the way it handles the original material. They seem amusingly young to me. And meanwhile, casual acquaintances suspect me of being normal.