February 01, 2008

Those Responsible

by Alan Beatts

I'm not a big one for blaming other people for how my life has turned out. At this point, I'm pretty much sure that where I've ended up is completely a consequence of the choices I've made. And really, I'm OK with that.

But, there are a few people who I feel comfortable blaming for my love of SF, fantasy and horror. When I was young I hated reading (and school in general) with a fiery passion. I wasn't very good at reading and I was way behind the rest of my class. That, added to being a discipline problem and trouble maker, didn't produce much affection on my part for school (and believe me, the schools I went to didn't love me much either). When I was ten or so, I suddenly learned how to read. I don't remember what did it or what I started off reading but I got very good at it and very fast. But, nothing really interested me much. Stevenson was OK (I think I read Kidnapped because I wanted to know about the character I was named after. And by the way, I don't think that namesake worked out quite the way my father planned . . . or perhaps it did) and I liked Sherlock Holmes but nothing really lit a fire in me.
Then that summer my family took a trip to visit a friend of my dad's. My sister and I stayed in the "den" on a sofa-bed. Above that sofa-bed was a whole wall of bookshelves that were completely filled with copies of Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine. I picked one at random and I started reading it because I liked the picture on the cover. It had a serious looking young man in a big, red spacesuit in the foreground, a young boy (I thought) with a teddy bear in the middle-ground, and the background was the surface of the moon. That was a cool cover. The spacesuit didn't look . . . wimpy . . . it looked like armor. It looked . . . important.

That afternoon I read the first part of Have Spacesuit, Will Travel by Robert Heinlein. I remember thinking at the time that it was, without a doubt, the best thing I had ever read. Then I got to the end AND IT WASN'T ALL THERE! The novel had been broken into three parts. I was incensed. How could they do this to me?

Imagine if you will, a scrawny, short, ten year old standing in front of a bookshelf that's at least eight feet high and ten or more feet long and completely jammed with issues of F&SF. And they aren't in any discernible order at all. Looking back I don't know why I didn't ask for help. I know that my dad or my mom would have been happy to help me look for the next two issues. But I didn't ask. Instead I spent hours looking through those magazines and I never did find the other two issues.

Months later, I was bored during lunch and wandering around the school library. You know how this ends, right? Yeah. There was a copy on the shelf. I grabbed it, spent the rest of the day sneaking in a page here and a page there during class. When I got home I locked myself in my room and finished it off. In the months that followed I read everything the library had by Heinlein.

He's the first one that I'm going to blame.

The next two people who I'm going to blame came as a set. Months after the Heinlein binge I was out with my mom while she was shopping. By this point I had started to get the clue that there was some pretty cool stuff to be found in books. But, I was cautious. Reading a whole novel was a big time investment. When I was ten or eleven, life had been so very short that hours passed the way that days do now, a day was like a week, and a week was an eternity. The time that a novel took was a significant chunk of my eleven-year old life.

But still, books were cool. So, while she shopped, I would look around the bookstore. And that day I came across a row of books with these really bright, yellow spines. On their own they looked pretty boring but all together like that they really caught my eye so I grabbed one at random. The cover took my breath away. It was a ship and in the bow was this fierce-looking guy with really pale skin and red eyes. He was wearing baroque armor and held a huge, black sword. I started looking through some of the other books with yellow spines and the covers on all of them were great. And then I noticed that they were all by the same guy. I was definitely going to give him a try but I didn't know which one to get. So, I grabbed the first one that I had picked up.

People say don't judge a book by the cover but, as a bookseller, let me tell you -- everyone does. That day I made the right judgement. There was a magic to those covers that I'd never experienced before and I've only rarely felt since. So, I'm going to blame Michael Whelan for making me pick up that book.

But I'm also going to blame Mike Moorcock for finishing the job that Heinlein started . . . making me a junkie. See, I could have marked Heinlein off as a one-time fluke. But after burning my way through pretty much all of the Moorcock novels that DAW books had in print (and, damn, there were a lot) I knew that there were people writing this stuff who could give me a great read pretty much without fail. So why would I want to read anything else? And so, from then on, about 90% of what I read for pleasure was SF, fantasy, and (once a science teacher of mine introduced me to H.P. Lovecraft) horror. And if that hadn't been true the chances that I would be running Borderlands are about par with a snowball's in hell.

Two Mikes and a Robert. I blame them. And, in a very carefully no-I'm-not-a-stalker way, I've been able to tell both Mikes how much their work has meant to me. Heinlein was long gone before I got into this business but, hell, two out of three isn't bad.

No comments:

Post a Comment