Reading Now, Reading Then

These days, I’ve made a holiday project of finishing all the books I started prior to 2012, or at least trying to finish them — though I am also trying to get better about setting aside a book when I truly don’t like it after 100 pages or so.

Discussing my reading beyond that is a slightly uncomfortable subject, for a few reasons. One of them is that I am not a reviewer, and don’t find it particularly politic to slam stories I don’t like in public. I am all for praising the ones I did like, but that also feels a little like singling out the stories I didn’t like by my silence. I still feel relatively okay about saying whether I liked a novel or not, though I’m likelier to be kind about it; but published short stories, for some reason, are something I don’t feel too good about critiquing in public.

Anyway, I might post a roundup of the best short fiction of the year, sometime. That, at least, follows the (so-called) Thumperian Principle: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” There’s a story in the Asimov’s I read today, from a little over a year ago, that I just, well, I didn’t get the point of the decisions the author made, as they seemed (to me) to add nothing to it. And this isn’t the first time I’ve noted it about that author’s work. But does it do anyone any good in me saying it, considering I’m not a reviewer?

Also, there are vast chunks of the genre that I haven’t really explored, just because the writing hasn’t appealed to me, though it has to others. To many others. Who think it odd I don’t share their taste. So I have developed a new appreciation for the fact that certain kinds of stories just resonate more with certain kinds of people, and that I am not some of those kinds of people. Neither is my own audience when I am writing. That’s just life.

All of this reminds me of the fact that when I was a kid, I didn’t really read much as, or at least, I didn’t read as much SF as the SF readers and fans I know now seemed to have done. I read some, but it was mostly tangential stuff. Fantasy, I read a lot more of — but again, not “the classics” that my friends seem to have gotten into.

I read The Hobbit in middle school, two or three times in fact. I read a post-apocalyptic novel titled After the Zap by Michael Armstrong, which I remember because my teacher thought I’d made up the book, due to the fact my best friend at the time had the same name as the author. (Mr. Tomyn, if you’re out there, you revealed just how unimginative you are, as well as how little you though of one of your best students that year, assuming that I wouldn’t think to make up an author’s name if I was cheating on book reports.)

But in place of the Philip K. Dick, Heinlein, and Lovecraft that it seems most of my friends were reading back in those days, I was digging my way through books that I (mostly) knew were junk, but which entertained me an fascinated me precisely because they seemed to have been published under the pretense that they were about real life.

Books like the Seth books by Jane Roberts (and her husband, Robert F. Butts); like all those books Budd Hopkins put out about alien abduction. And the one author I read most often, perhaps because my town’s library had so many of his books, was Erich von Däniken, the popular crackpot author of Chariots of the Gods.

Indeed, von Däniken was the author my father turned to when I first raised doubts about the literal reality of what I’d been taught in Sunday School. He hadn’t attended church except on Christmas and Easter for as long as I could remember, and I figured I could turn to him for the straight dope on these ideas. (I think, vaguely, I was also trying to figure out why I had to go to Church when he didn’t, which seemed so unfair. And indeed, it was.) Well, and I think news was bubbling up into my world about scandals involving priests — molestation of kids, but also historical things: the selling of indulgences, church corruption, slaughter of the Cathars, and so on.

Me: “I know whenever I go to Church we’re supposed to just, you know, believe in God, and trust that the priest knows what he’s doing. But do you really think there’s a God out there?”

Dad: “Hmmm. Here, read this.”

What he handed me was a copy of Erich von Däniken’s Gods From Outer Space, which pretty much is a rehash of Chariots of the Gods, and close enough to any other of von Däniken’s work that you already know what it’s about. If you haven’t read von Däniken, but have read Lovecraft, just scoop out the horror bits and think of the Cthulhu mythos as a real history of the world, of all the religions we nowhave as the detritus of the cults in Lovecraft’s stories, and then pump in so many conspiracies that you can’t think of any more. Especially, assume that every complex ancient structures — pyramids, Nazca lines, everythng — and scriptures have to do with ancient astronauts coming to earth and genetically engineering humans to serve as slaves.

Maybe that was what made Lovecraft’s work appeal to me so strongly when I first read it — it was like a much more interesting, more-imaginative version of von Däniken, with style, flair, and some nutty fun along the way.

Lovecraft was, for me, the breath of fresh air that made me realize fantasy didn’t have to be in some world someone else had imagined, like Middle Earth or Greyhawk or The Forgotten Realms. (Gaming, I think, did me no end of good in some ways, but the canned worlds gaming companies put out did not; especially since I long remained a compleatist, studying their supplements with the zeal of a scientist working on a thesis in worldbuilding. Indeed, it also infected my fiction reading, as I read many of the novels set in these game worlds — some of them, at least good in my opinion at the time, but many of them decidedly otherwise.)

Lovecraft also was my path from fantasy and horror to SF. His work straddles all three areas, but it was the Cthulhu Mythos stories that hit me hardest, and got me thinking. So I asked my SF-reading friend Karen where I should start, and she told me she thought I would like David Brin’s work. Against her recommendation — she was a fan of his Uplift novels — I read the standalone novel Earth, and a good thing, too: Earth was much closer to my kind of SF than the Uplift books were, a fact just as true now as it was then.

I guess that’s how I got into SF. From there, it was just a short skip over to finding the SF authors I really liked best — Bruce Sterling, Maureen McHugh, Greg Egan were among the first, though many others have joined that list since.

And that is how I ended up being one of those rare critters who migrated into the land of SF without having once lived there (at least not very much) as a kid.

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