Science Fiction

I don’t know when I started reading science fiction, but I can say that I don’t remember a time when I didn’t read it. That is not to say that I don’t remember reading other things as well: I certainly remember reading the Walter Farley books about horses, and some images from that have stuck in my brain. But when I think of my early love affair with books, it is about reading science fiction and occasionally fantasy. I was a voracious reader. I remember living in Buffalo when I would have been 9 or 10, and my mother taking me on a weekly trip to the library, where I would check out a stack of books for my week’s reading. Or rather, my mother would check them out. Kids my age were not allowed to check out so many books, and most of them considered adult level, so she had to do it for me. And while we lived in a suburb of Buffalo called Amherst, I remember taking a trip downtown to the main Buffalo library, and thinking it was the most awesome place I had ever been. My own private fantasy involved sneaking into a corner, getting locked in for the night, and just reading the whole time.

I know I read many of the Tom Swift books, then moved to what were called the “juvenile” books by established authors. I think today we would call them Young Adult. Heinlein wrote a number of juveniles that still excellent, many of which I have reread as an adult and still enjoyed. And Asimov did a series called Lucky Starr that was a virtual trip through the solar system (e.g. Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids; Lucky Starr and the moons of Jupiter). I joined the Science Fiction Book Club, and got the Foundation Trilogy by Asimov in a single volume that I kept for years and reread many times.

Then I discovered E.E. “Doc” Smith. I think his work would look a bit old-fashioned now, but to me it was what I loved. There is a saying in the fandom circles of science fiction that “the golden of science fiction is 14”, because that is approximately the age when so many of use became life-long fans. I am still a fan of Doc Smith, and the domain name of this site is taken from his Lensman series which I think I first encountered around the time I was 14, so that fits. I have read everything of his I could get my hands on, including a book that is not science fiction called Have Trenchcoat, Will Travel. I would bet very few people have even heard of it, and then only the devoted fans of Doc Smith. He has two well known major series, the Lensman series already mentioned, and the Skylark series, but he has a couple of two book series and a number of stand-alone science fiction novels. He also contributed ideas or even an initial piece to two series that were picked up by other authors. The Family D’Alembert series was based on an idea by Smith, but mostly written by Stephen Goldin (though Smith’s name is what you mostly see on the cover. Similarly, the Lord Tedric series was based on a novelette by Smith, but mostly written by Gordon Eklund. Smith is what people frequently point to as representing classic Space Opera, meaning science fiction on a large scale, with lots of action and not much in the way of introspection. Think of it as the print equivalent of Star Wars and you won’t go far wrong.

I also read fantasy. I know read the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit. And another favorite author was Andre Norton, who wrote both fantasy and science fiction. I tended to lean more towards science fiction, but a good story is the most important thing and the boundaries can be blurred. Heinlein, for instance, wrote a number of pure fantasies, but is usually considered a science fiction writer. But his Glory Road and Job: A Comedy of Justice are pure fantasy. And sometimes what looks like fantasy can turn out to be science fiction, as with the classic Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey.

Which means it may be time to define terms. I could just say I know it when I see it, but I will try to do better. Science Fiction is story that is based on plausible technology, even if far in the future. It does not involve anything magical, or anything flat-out impossible. It may be far-fetched in some ways, such as involving time travel or faster-than-light travel; these are considered to be unlikely, but are still being plausibly discussed by real scientists as something that we may be able to do in some future time. The science may not age particularly well. Doc Smith’s “inertialess drive” from the Lensman series, while clever for its time, would not be a good example today of a potentially plausible technology, but he wrote this a long time ago.

Fantasy, on the other hand, has no rules. Magic is just fine, ghosts are great, and the only real requirement is that your story finds an audience that likes it. Even things that look like science fiction can turn out to be fantasy when looked at this way. A classic example is Star Wars. Yes, it has spaceships and technology in it, but when you bring in the Force, you are talking fantasy now. In the other direction, the Dragonriders of Pern initially presents itself as high fantasy, with people in a medieval-like setting riding dragons that fly through the air and breathe fire. But then later in the series McCaffrey “retcons” this by having the people be descendants of folks who came here on spaceships, and they bred the dragons using genetic engineering from native life forms, and so on. Retcon is term you hear often in science fiction fandom circles, and it stands for “retroactive continuity”. Here is the dictionary definition:

Retcon is a shortened form of retroactive continuity, and refers to a literary device in which the form or content of a previously established narrative is changed.

I also enjoyed more visual arts. I think my first exposure would have been The Twilight Zone (1959), followed by The Outer Limits (1963). Lost in Space was next in 1965. But the real breakthrough for me was Star Trek (1966). I still love it, and I have the DVD box set of the original three season series with Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Sulu. I watched it when it first came on, I watched it in syndicated reruns, and it never grew old. I haven’t managed to keep up with all of the spin-offs, because there are only so many hours in the day, but I have watched the first two seasons of Picard and have the third one waiting as a DVD set. And one of the all-time great science fiction movies came out in 1968: 2001: A Space Odyssey. Based on a story by Arthur C. Clarke, and directed by Stanley Kubrick, it felt like the first time that a serious science fiction movie for adults was on offer.

Then in the early 1970s in Boston I found a strange program on a UHF channel called Doctor Who. It was clearly a British program, with a fellow called the Doctor. He had on evening clothes and a cape, and he drove around in a yellow classic car he called Bessie. I fell in love with the program and started to tune in regularly. Then one day I tuned in, and instead of the Doctor there was some goofy-looking guy in a floppy hat and a long scarf who claimed to be the Doctor, but I wasn’t having any of it. I knew better! Some years later I got a clue and have become a dedicated fan of the show, and we will definitely talk about that in this series. It is still going on, and in 2023 celebrated its 60th anniversary, having first aired on November 23, 1963.

Later in the 1970s movies also started to get interesting again. In 1977 I saw Star Wars, which was very exciting, and then in 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture. After the first three of the Star Wars movies my interest started to fall off. I think I have seen two of the others. I have seen most of the Star Trek movies, but probably missed a few of them.

Right now for my fiction reading I am in the middle of reading the Amber series by Roger Zelazny, a wonderful writer. This is a purely fantasy series about the true world Amber, of which our Earth is only a shadow. And I got to hear him read from his book A Night in the Lonesome October, another fantasy novel, at a science fiction convention. As for what I am watching right now, I am mostly watching Doctor Who. With 60 years of material I still haven’t seen all of it yet. And I recently started on a British TV show called Sapphire and Steel, from 1979.

While I have ongoing technical and academic interests (for example, I am currently in 2024 reading Thomas Piketty’s excellent book Capital in the Twenty-first Century), but when I read fiction it is almost always science fiction or fantasy. And these are the tings I want to discuss more in this series.

 Save as PDF

Comments are closed.