When I was young, and I mean really young, my mother caught me reading the newspaper. That I could was just one of those things, like having brown hair and sticky-out teeth. I’m reliably informed it was something to do with the Rhodesia crisis (something you kids will have to look up for yourselves) – what it was isn’t important, but the fact of reading early, and apparently spontaneously, is. Fast forward a few years, and we’d moved towns and schools. So while most of my classmates were ploughing through their graded Ladybird books, I was pretty much left to my own devices. I have no recollection of what I read then. All sorts of stuff probably. But I do remember this: at some point (I must have been about nine) I was shown a rack of books and told to choose one, it didn’t matter which.
One in particular caught my eye. It had a man in a spacesuit on the cover which, as a child fascinated by the Apollo missions, was a big draw. And that was pretty much it for the next thirty-odd years. That book (and I’ve finally tracked it down – the 1976 Puffin edition of Spaceship Medic, by Harry Harrison) quite literally changed my life. Soon I was on the hard stuff: Clarke, Asimov, the Heinlein juveniles. Anderson. Pohl. Herbert. Aldiss. Anything with a spaceship on the front, and these were the days when Bob Foss was king – those spaceships were huge.
What fed my peculiar addiction was that my mum used to help run the village WI jumble sales. Before the doors had opened, the book stall had been scoured and any likely candidates picked off and paid for. Now – my mum’s not exactly a speculative fiction fan: she was going on the look of the book. Which meant I ended up with some wildly inappropriate reading matter for my age. I was old enough to understand the words themselves, for sure, but I also learnt about things that were, at the time, beyond me.
I ended up being the boy that science fiction built. Almost (I’d like to think I was exaggerating, but no, I really am that nerdy) everything I learnt, I learnt from SF. To be fair, some of those things were inexcusably wrong (I’m looking at you, John Norman), and some just plain batty (‘Doc’ Smith features highly here), but it was an education like no other. With no video games (too early), no music (wasn’t interested at the time), no girls (late developer), no sport (uncoordinated to an impressive degree) to distract me, I just read. Read and read and read.
I got interested in computers, back when they were just starting to be smaller than the room they were in. I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons. I became a scientist. I build stuff. I write. I even write SF these days. All these things are a join-the-dots exercise from that first Harry Harrison book.
WC Fields once said: “A woman drove me to drink and I didn’t even have the decency to thank her.” Which is a shocking lapse of manners, and one I’m not going to repeat.
Mr Harrison? Thank you.