My folks taught me to read when I was four or five, and by the time I was in first grade I was reading on a third or fourth grade level. Nothing unusual about that in a subculture made up of readers, of course, but it got me sidelong glances and furrowed brows from a few of my classmates during my formative years. Got my butt kicked once or twice (or a hundred times), too, because those of us who read are not only suspected by those who don’t, but we also tend to be smart-asses.
I began raiding the school library early on. The librarians loved me, because I checked out the maximum number every week and brought them back on time to get more. Librarians like that sort of thing in kids, even today.
I began reading mythology (well, after I had exhausted all the Dr. Seuss1 and the like), fairy tales, tall tales, that sort of thing. I also had a strong interest in science; this being the beginning of the Space Age, and it was inevitable that I’d start noticing all those books with rockets and atoms on the spines. Boy, did I get hooked.
I read pretty much whatever sf I could find in the school and public libraries, and when my family moved in with my aunt on her farm in the country, the lady who drove the bookmobile began loading extra science fiction on her weekly pass through Botetourt County so I wouldn’t pout.
I’ll jump ahead, since this is less about me than it is about what I’m doing, both here and elsewhere.
I think it’s only natural for those of us who read to make lists of our favorites; those writers who make our eyes widen, who set our minds to wondering, who haunt us even when their books are shut and on a shelf.
We not only make lists, but construct whole pantheons alive with literary gods and demiurges, and when we’re young, we gather like acolytes and sing their praises, shunning infidels and splitting quasi-Talmudic hairs over who did the best aliens and why Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or a Modern Prometheus wasn’t really science fiction. We sat at lunch, trays or bags in front of us, being so gosh-wow about it all that I feel embarrassed even today.
And who were those deities who held us in thrall?
Oh, they were many and varied, were they, and their names rang in our minds like an otherworldly carillon: Heinlein, Clarke, Doc Smith, Lovecraft, del Rey, Leinster, Williamson, Asimov, Bradbury, and on and on and on, ad astra per verba.
When I was twelve, see, I didn’t know that these guys were just, well, guys. They put their space-suits on one leg at a time and farted in the bathtub just like I did. To me, they were like Leonardo da Vinci – bearded, with high foreheads and robes.
(That came to a screeching halt after I started going to conventions, but that’s not germane here.)
In the early 1970s I began writing my fanzine and sending it out for Letters of Comment from other fans. As I went along, I began adding the addresses of several pro writers to my mailing list, and even received letters from a number of them, including Fritz Leiber, Harlan Ellison, Gordon Dickson and Gene Wolfe. That, in a very real way, was my genesis as both a writer and a stfnal historian.
Even then, I was collecting books, writing about them, getting deeply involved with edition points and all the ephemera of the book-tweak. I spent a couple of days in the Barrett Collection at the University of Virginia Library poring over their collection of H. P. Lovecraft books, pamphlets, and amateur press booklets, creating my very first bibliographic article. I made a lot of mistakes, looking back at it now, but my heart was in the right place.2
All of that has led to writing about matters concerning the bound codex for increasingly well-paying markets, which itself led directly to that Pantheon I mentioned earlier. (Somewhere in there I began writing and selling my own fiction, too, but again, not the point here.)
Since I began writing seriously3 about the history of science fiction, it has become possible for me to approach those quasi-deities I read as a kid: writers like Robert Silverberg, Harry Harrison, Harlan Ellison, Fred Pohl; and while they were still with us, Jack Williamson, Damon Knight, and William Tenn.
Had anyone back in my faan-boy days ever told me I’d be on a first-name basis with these worthies, exchanging witticisms and puns, prying anecdotes and secrets about their careers I’d have widdled myself laughing.
And yet, here I am, and please believe me that even at the age of almost six decades, that faan-boy is still in there and threatening to embarrass me again when I send one of these guys an e-mail asking about some abstruse event or story from 1947. With luck, he always will be.
1 Pronounced “Soice”, by the way. Hey, it could be worse. When I was a kid I thought it was “SEE-us.”
2 In a jar under my bed. HAH! It’s the way I tell ’em.
3 Well, as seriously as I write anything, I guess.