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September 24, 2003

A Literary Half Life

Following up on Huck Finn, I started writing and couldn't stop. Here's what happened next:

I recently have come to recognize that I read more Heinlein than I knew, and that his influence on me was deeper than I imagined, especially 'Starman Jones'. Somehow I had forgotten it all. If you asked me if I had ever read a Heinlein book called 'The Rolling Stones' I would have said no. But if you asked me about having read a science fiction book with twins named Castor and Pollux, I'd have answered enthusiastically. Somehow all of the Heinlein I've read as a youth got sublimated into my personality without a trace. I also read at least 7 Star Trek paperbacks, certainly every one I could get my hands on.

I think this explains why I so deeply rejected science fiction by the time I graduated from high school and didn't return to the genre until my 30s with Delaney. There was a book whose title I would love to remember (it could probably be a Heinlein, go figure) that involved astronauts getting stranded on a planet of triped animals. There was some fantastic creature which resembled nothing so much as a huge triangular bear with three legs. How to outsmart the three legged creature on a planet far away. Then there was another (the same?) story about astronauts who faced the difficulty of being stuck on a planet run by a race of people who had very puritanical attitudes about eating. The astronauts had to observe incredibly detailed table manners or be imprisoned and starved...

At some point I started reading Roots and other fictions about American life, and it struck me that I was ingratiating myself with trekkie geeks and people who really believed that new worlds would equal new opportunities - that somehow scientists were better than other people. So where were the black astronauts in the real world? I read the 'Martian Chronicles' and '2001' and finally came to the conclusion that science fiction writers were dreamers. They put their novels in space because they couldn't deal with the conflicts of the real world, and that the best of them considering Bradbury and Clarke were dealing with human drama. So I finally began to reject science fiction. I was told that I should read 'Rendezvous with Rama' as an excellent book, but I had had it with the genre.

You might have expected that I would have turned to black authors immediately, but most of those books were over my head, speaking of my father's library. It turned out that between 1978 and 1980 I did very little reading at all. I dropped out of college for financial reasons and just got a job and partied like all the rest of the union types I became one of.

When I started reading again I wanted it to be about reality and moral conflict. For me, in those days of malaise, nothing exemplified this like Stephen King's 'The Stand'. So I read all of Stephen King. I also read all of Robert Ludlum, Woody Allen and Neil Simon. I was a working stiff. I wanted to be a New Yorker like one of Neil Simon's New York characters or one of Woody Allen's characters, but that too was a million miles away from my reality. I was missing the college experience between 78 and 82 and so I imagined that's what people became on the other side of higher education - California Suite.

I can't think of any black fiction that was published between 1978 and 1989. Even when I returned to college, it was all Amiri Baraka, Lorraine Hansberry, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Harlem Rennaisance, Negritude Poets, Slave Narratives. Distant, alienated. In college, I primarily read O'Neill, Baraka, Ayn Rand. Not much outside of the Computer Science curriculum. By the end of Sophomore year, I ditched fiction altogether, especially following a disasterous blowup I had with my drama teacher over her admonitions that we stay away from 'complicated' playwrights like Beckett. So I just concluded that the world was stupid. I read a lot of Henry Miller and came to view much of the American middle class as he did. Pompous fat idiot pricks.

So I went to non-fiction. There I revelled primarily in Hofstadter, Sowell's books and Malcolm X Speaks. And of course Tracy Kidder's 'Soul of the New Machine', plus 'Turing's Man'. The makings of a true afrofuturist.

Posted by mbowen at September 24, 2003 12:07 PM

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I remember going through a lot of Star Trek paperbacks by James Blish. You remember any author names for the ones you read bizzack in the dizzay?

Posted by: George at September 24, 2003 11:10 PM

Amazon reminds me that they were all Blish's transcriptions of the actual episodes. Can you believe that they are now the 25th anniversary editions? yike.

Posted by: Cobb at September 25, 2003 12:18 AM