It seems fitting that an inaugural post at the new Kirkus science-fiction blog should talk about “firsts” and “books.” So I thought I’d kick things off with a discussion about the first science-fiction book I ever read.
This is the part where I’m supposed to sit up straight, clear my throat and proudly pronounce, “I was bitten by the science-fiction bug at the golden age of 12 when I first picked up a copy of [INSERT FIRST SF BOOK HERE]…” This would make a great (if unoriginal) story about how one science-fiction fan’s life changed forever. Except that’s not quite how it happened. My love of science fiction was atypically more gradual.
Throughout my grade-school career, I was constantly being force-fed books in English class, and while I must admit that it exposed me to many different types of writing, the title selections were, more often than not, ones that rarely interested me to any large degree. Sure, I enjoyed some selections like Inherit the Wind and Lord of the Flies, but Wuthering Heights was sheer torture. And Shakespeare? Pass! I do recall enjoying J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit in sixth grade—even going so far as to continue on with The Lord of the Rings trilogy on my own meager allowance the following summer—but still, it wasn’t long before the act of reading became associated with work. Why would I want to waste my free time on what felt like a chore when I could be playing video games instead? This is a silly and misguided notion, of course, one that I now attribute to the follies of being young. I know now that the problem wasn’t reading itself, which I did enjoy, but rather the material that I was required to read, which rarely interested me. Being required to read was also a bit of a downer.
However, along the road of force-fed literature, a couple of particular titles did spark my interest beyond all others, if only a little bit. One was Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. This was the novel version of Keyes’ Hugo-winning short story that debuted in 1959. It’s a truly wonderful story that still holds up today. (Hollywood thought it was good, too: it was filmed in 1968 as Charly with Cliff Robertson and Claire Bloom and went on to win an Academy Award.) The other novel I read as a school assignment was George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four, a book I was too young to fully appreciate and am now too old to remember. (Note to self: re-read Nineteen Eighty-Four.)
Something must have struck a chord somewhere along the line, because it wasn’t long before I found myself loitering in the science-fiction and fantasy aisle of a mall bookstore. Although, to be completely honest, I have to give some credit to the science-fiction films (like Star Wars and Star Trek) and TV (Battlestar Galactica, etc.) that caught my attention more than books at the time, but at least some part of me knew that I would derive significant pleasure from reading science fiction instead of watching it.
Whatever the reason, that was how I happened to stumble across the novel I generally consider to be my first science-fiction book: Ringworld by Larry Niven.
Ringworld is a great gateway novel to sci-fi, and it’s an excellent example of what draws me to the genre—sense of wonder. It’s the idea that there are no limits to the imagination, that the entire universe is out there waiting to be explored. I still remember Niven’s description of Ringworld using a ribbon and candle to describe its approximate dimensions. Plus, Ringworld included a fascinating plot that involved interesting human characters and even more intriguing aliens. All good books contain well-written characters and engaging plots, but only science fiction wraps all that up inside of fantastic speculation.
So, although I wouldn’t exactly say that I was bitten by the sci-fi bug, I did gravitate towards science fiction in my subsequent book purchases. Some of the other early titles I enjoyed were Asimov’s Robot and Foundation stories, Frederik Pohl’s Gateway, and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama books—all good stories that shaped my reading days to come. I’m still traveling down the road of science fiction and loving every minute of it.
How about you? What was your first science-fiction book?
John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. He also like bagels.