Baby steps in a spacesuit: my introduction to SF

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Part of my “old” SF: a 8 metre+ bookshelf around the top of my entrance hallway

This is going to be a bit like a disjointed trip through my SF reading history – which started, lo, these many decades ago.  Like in about 1964, with the Tom Swift series and Capt. WE Johns, from the Lusaka Municipal mobile library.  Then SF borrowed from a primary school teacher friend of my mother – thanks forever, Judy Drew!  Then, from a second-hand bookshop in the Central Arcade in Lusaka – which my wife-to-be also frequented, but we never noticed each other.  Then…other bookshops, other libraries, friends – and now via Kindle.

It’s nearly fifty years, then: time to mark the occasion!  I recently discovered a web site calling itself “Worlds Without End” – via a retweet – and have since obsessively been ticking off books I’ve read (over 710 on their site), and writing reviews for some of them.  And seeing as those reviews were turning into an episodic revisiting of mainly my very early reading, I thought I’d collect them in one place.

For my amusement, if not for yours.

Enjoy! Or not – I did, and that’s what counts.  Happy Xmas / Saturnalia / Solstice Festival, all!  Except for nicoleandmaggie, of course..ah, screw it, even for them.

Bill, the Galactic Hero – Harry Harrison

A teacher at my primary school – who introduced me to New Writings in SF, and Theodore Sturgeon – told me this was the best book she had ever read, and pressed it on me.  I thought so too, very quickly: what’s not to like?  Humour, military adventure, a colour-mismatched replacement arm put on the wrong way round (so he knocks himself out while saluting)…exactly what an 11-yr-old needs!

This 58-yr-old is a little more jaundiced, but still – this is a REALLY funny, satirical, well-structured book that is still eminently readable.  As an adult, you pick up on the satire better – but I’d still recommend it for nerdy 11-yr-olds!

And still a good kid’s introduction to SF.

The City and the Stars – Arthur C Clarke

THIS is where it started, for me: this is the first serious mainstream SF novel I ever read, after being (extensively) inducted into short-form SF via the New Writings in SF series, edited by John Carnell.  This is the book that whisked me off into the far future and across the galaxy, and lost me in wonder.

I think this is the finest thing Clarke ever wrote: nothing else I’ve read of his comes close to inspiring the kind of far future, galaxy-spanning awe this did.  Which is sad, and maybe reflective of the fact that I was young when I read it (13 or so) – but just about everything else has been a little disappointing in comparison.

And this comes from someone who has read damn near everything Clarke ever wrote.

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I, Robot – Isaac Asimov

This is some of the first adult SF I ever read, back in the 1960s – and while it impressed me with its cleverness then, it is sadly dated now.  I would strongly recommend other books for kids starting out these days.  Oh, sure, the stories are fiendishly well worked out, the logic is impeccable – but as ever with Asimov, sentences go no longer than eight words, there are never more than three syllables – and his male characterisations, let alone his females, are so two-dimensional as to be merely props for the storyline.

Expedition to Earth – Arthur C Clarke (short story collection)

I obviously read and was imprinted by a LOT of SF as an adolescent / young adult – because I haven’t seen this collection since the late 1970s (lost in a suitcase somewhere on a farm in Zambia), but I remember every story.

The Sentinel is brilliant – and a standalone precursor to 2001: ASO.  The title story was superb.  The rest – well, I plan to get another copy and read it again, through the revisionist lens of thinking Clarke’s characterisations were pretty poor, BUT I liked the stories well enough that I want to reexperience them.

Childhood’s End – Arthur C Clarke

This is close to where it started for me: when I stepped up from kid’s SF, to mainstream SF.  From Dr Who to “A for Andromeda”.  And from Isaac Asimov to AC Clarke.

This was an amazing book, for a 13-14 yr old to discover: the concept of remembering things that happen in the future; of engineering an entire planet to vegetarianism and peace, and – graduating all the children.  Awe-inspiring, epic, and sad.

Trader to the Stars – Poul Anderson

Oh, I remember this so well…van Rijn, the hard-drinking and womanising merchant; all the schemes and plotting and exotic locales a 14-yr-old could wish for – and excellent if slightly florid writing.  One of my first introductions to big-person SF short stories, back in the late 1960s – and still fondly recalled.  Very few did it better than Poul Anderson!

Though I imagine Nick van Rijn may not go down too well in this modern and PC age….

Flowers For Algernon – Daniel Keyes

I read this as a short story, then as a book, and then saw the film (Charly).  They were all brilliant: I think this has to be one of the all-time best SF novels, and I was hugely impressed that it was a set work in the South African matric syllabus recently – meaning even the SA educational authorities recognise its worth.

I think it is a heartbreakingly sad, uplifting, and compassionate account of how a man became a superman – and then fell all the way back down.  I am going to re-read it soon, because my daughter reminded me how much I liked it.

A Plague of Demons – Keith Laumer

In the many years since I first read this – I can still picture where it was in my bookshelf in Lusaka, so pre-1977 – I think I have bought three versions of it, and now a Kindle one as well.  This is an excellent book: a little dated in places, but superbly and tautly written, with an excellent storyline and characterisation.  Aliens among us, a semi-cyborg hero, grimy futurism.

And, of course, the near-invincible Bolos.  Love Bolos…B-)  I have followed them obsessively ever since.

The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth – Roger Zelazny

These stories introduced me in the early 1970s to the dazzling talent that is (or was) Roger Zelazny – who later partly frittered away his time with inconsequential and TOO SHORT! novels, but is here seen in all his awesome potential.  Truly brilliant, timeless, and very well worth reading.

The title story alone is worth the collection: he wrote the other-planet fishing story so well, and made his characters so human, that it has stayed with me vividly since I read it in the early 1970s.  The visualisation of the monster coming up on the deck of the barge…better than Lovecraft.

A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M Miller

I have to say up front that this is at or near the top of my all-time Best Books Ever Read list – and seeing as I am a quick reader, and have been reading largely SF for over 40 years, there are a LOT I could choose from.

I read “Canticle” sometime back in the late 1970s, and it had an immediate and profound impact on me – not least because I had in fact been schooled by monks and friars AND priests, and could identify with much of the desert abbey material. I was also in awe of how well Miller managed to take the reader along through future history with him, and how complete was his imagining of what it might look like.

I have re-read it a number of times in the decades since, and it still holds its appeal – unlike, for example, much of Asimov and Heinlein.  I sincerely and whole-heartedly recommend this book: it is a gentle, intelligent, funny and sad post- and pre-apocalyptic novel that will grab hold early, and not let go.

The Voyage of the Space Beagle – AE van Vogt

I read this as a teenager – back in the early 70s – and was immediately and deeply impressed.  Van Vogt managed to create one of the best-realised aliens I had ever met until then, and also inculcated in me a desire to do as the hero had: that is, think outside the box, and come up with unorthodox solutions to immediate and practical problems.

Still a book I would recommend to anyone.

Berserker – Fred Saberhagen (collection)

I first met the Berserker stories in one of the SF magazines – Analog or Astounding, I forget which – as a teenager.

When I read EVERYTHING SF-related I could get my hands on.

These stood out: they were highly technological, clever, well written – and they had big, nasty machines that just wanted to kill people.

I went on to find them in collections, and then – finally! – in book form, such as the one reviewed.  However, what I say for this goes for them all: this is a SUPERB series of stories, whether in novel, novella or short story format, and something every SF fan worth their salt should read.

I defy you to not be moved by “Masque of the Red Shift”; not to be caught up in the story arc of “Stone Place”; not to have shivers up your spine generally at the sheer and implacable enmity of berserkers.

They are Daleks for the adults – with a great story around every one.  And you may even come to feel a sneaking admiration for them.  I know I did.

Deathworld – Harry Harrison

I used to get a UK kid’s comic called “The Ranger” when I was around 12 or so – and one of the first illustrated SF stories they ran was derived from Deathworld 1. And I loved it: I can still remember the illustration of din Alt’s bicep ripping through his shirt as he demonstrated how well he had trained for the higher gravity; the foamy dressings used for repairing ravages of some of the beasts. They also ran “Dan Dare”, featuring the ORIGINAL Mekon… none of these parvenue punk bands, young Cann!

As with other experiences I have had with comic vs short story vs book length treatments of the same thing, this only enhanced my later enjoyment (as a young adult) of the book. It is a VERY well realised world, the plotline is great, and the characterisation excellent.

Still recommended!!

Casey Agonistes – Richard McKenna

Realising that this was the man who wrote “The Sand Pebbles” – I expected something different.  And I got it: this is a brilliant, sad, funny collection of stories by a master writer.  I read it in my twenties; I have dipped into it a number of times since (last 30 years), and have enjoyed every time.

The title story is a masterpiece: set in a hospital ward full of military vets, it is about what amounts to their shared hallucination – and it is heartbreakingly good.  As for the story which rivals “Deathworld” – well, you’ll just have to get the book.

2001: A Space Odyssey

This is another of those “read the short story, read the book, saw the movie” scenarios (like Flowers for Algernon) that I was fortunate enough to live through.  They’re ALL good – and for once, AC Clarke’s characterisations were good enough not to be two-dimensional (probably thanks to Kubrick), and the storyline is profound enough that it carries you with it effortlessly.  Still worth a read!

And if you haven’t seen the film yet, you haven’t lived.  I fondly remember seeing the film in the old 20th Century Cinema in Lusaka, with one Stefano Capriulo in about 1973 – who hadn’t read the book, so I got to explain everything to him in exquisite detail.  I THINK we both enjoyed it…B-)

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Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A Heinlein

I read this as an almost-adult, as a second-hand copy got from my swap shop in Lusaka, Zambia. For someone from that environment, and in the early 1970s, this book was as mind-blowing as it must have been for the hippies who adopted it (probably to the mild consternation of RAH) in the mid 1960s.

It represented such a departure for Heinlein – from the hard science, straight-up-and-down character-filled SF he had written – that I am sure some thought he had lost his mind.

I didn’t care; I thought the contrast to “Starship Troopers” was extreme and welcome; I grokked everything for at least six months, and probably drove friends crazy with recommending the book to them. It certainly opened my eyes to the new SF around at the time, and allowed me to make a seamless transition from the “Boy’s Wonder Magazine”-type SF I had been reading, into the New Age.

And now, 40+ years on: my copy finally disintegrated completely, AND got eaten by a dog. And I don’t think I will replace it: it was a great read at the time; it helped change and expand my world view – and I think re-reading it would just let me see all of the unsavoury aspects of Heinlein’s world view that I did not notice at the time. So, in summary – a must-read for folk interested in the history of SF, or for those who want to know what “grok” means, but just a signpost along the way otherwise.

Stormbringer – Michael Moorcock

This was the one of the first Moorcocks I ever read – and I was captivated. It was deep, dark, sad – and the imagery of a sould-eating sentient sword has stayed with me over 40 years and more. I think this is easily the best of the Elric of Melnibone books: strongly recommended, still.

Dune – Frank Herbert

I still have the copy I bought, back there in 1974, and which I read in a single sitting one rainy weekend in Cape Town, in my residence room.

I have lent it to numerous people, and it has always come back – and everyone I ever lent it to, or recommended it to, has had much the same reaction: Simply Awesome.

This was so good on so many levels, it is hard to know where to start. Herbert created a large and complex universe, with a complicated history – and then pitchforks you into it, right in amidst the intrigues of the Great Houses in the Imperium, and the machinations of the Bene Gesserit. The necessity of the spice from Arrakis for the functioning of FTL travel was interesting; so too the dependence on sentient Navigators for negotiating the strange galactic byways – and the use of human computers (mentats) in the place of AI was weirdly Luddite, but understandable in terms of the anti-technological Butlerian Jihad. With the use of that term predating any al-Qaeda references, note!

I was captivated by this book. I liked the sequel, too, which came out shortly after I bought Dune. The third, not so much. The rest of them? Stop with Dune Messiah: you’ll be glad you did. And under NO circumstances read the reboot by his son; it’s simply dreadful.

Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkein

In fact, I own several versions of this…they wear out, they got read and dipped into so often.  I read the original in one night-long, suspect green chocolate-fuelled orgy of fantasy (a week before Dune, in fact), with my little Sanyo cassette deck keeping me company (with Bad Company and The Doors) through the Marsh of the Dead and into Mordor.  I didn’t know what to do with myself for about three days afterwards, and I still associate certain songs, 40 years on, with specific sections of the book.

Quite simply, the best book I have ever read.

Ringworld – Larry Niven

This book hit me like a hammer: I had read some Niven previously (Known Space series), and liked it, but this was a step up and away and onward.  I actually borrowed the book from a friend’s father (thanks, Mr Hoal…B-) in about 1975, and was VERY loath to give it back – until I saw it in my then-favourite Cape Town bookshop, and bought my own.

Puppeteers.  Kzinti – up close, personal, and LIKEABLE.  The Ringworld itself.  Rishathra.  Niven created a universe for us, and I just wanted it to go on and on.

And then, much later, it DID.  An incredible read, and the wonderful thing is, there are a number of sequels.  And I love them ALL.

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About Ed Rybicki

Ed is a 60-ish virologist and biotechnologist, formerly a Zambian and presently a South African. He is into family, virology, biotechnology, science in general, science fiction in particular, photography, red wine, wearing loud shirts, 70s rock, blues and smooth jazz...and telling stories. Sometimes, interesting ones. And writing for his own amusement.
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4 Responses to Baby steps in a spacesuit: my introduction to SF

  1. AJ Cann says:

    At the same time I was taking almost the same journey in the public library in Plymouth (out library van didn’t have much SF at all). No John Wyndham on your list?
    What came next? For me it was Brian Aldiss, then onto to Aldous Huxley etc…

    • Ed Rybicki says:

      Oh, John Wyndham was definitely there: I think he was on our Grade 7 reading list, in fact. I thoroughly enjoyed them at the time, too – discovering Dr Who around the same time helped. Just not ever reviewed…on my list of 710, mind you. Along with Aldiss, Ballard…. Go play on the WWEnd site: you can lose yourself for hours. Days, even…must.stop.!!

  2. jameswharris says:

    Ed, I’m a little older than you, but we both see 1964 as a pivotal year in discovering science fiction. That’s when an 8th grade teacher introduced me to Robert A. Heinlein. I had been reading science fiction since the 4th grade, but it took me a while to discover it was a distinct genre. By that time I had discovered Tom Swift, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and several other science fiction writers and books not knowing they had a common ancestry. In 1964 I discovered Heinlein, and by the end of 1965 I had read his complete back list. I also discovered the science fiction sections at the public library, the Homestead Air Force Base Library, and how to search the shelves at my school library to pull out all the SF. Like you, I was hooked.

    I wonder how many people our age around the world have similar reading backgrounds to us?

    • Ed Rybicki says:

      I imagine quite a few: people in what could be construed as lonely environments, with few other distractions, a lively imagination…and a decent library!

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