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War In the Closed World 31

Sunday Night Journal — January 11, 2011

Until I was sixteen or so, and began working for my uncle on the family farm, my summers were very idle and isolated. We didn’t live within walking distance of any of my school friends, so they only other young people around were my siblings and cousins, and there was a limit to how much time we wanted to spend together. I read a great deal, mostly fairly simple stuff that I went through quickly. So it was very important that I have a steady supply of books.

Into my life one wonderful day came a very wonderful thing: the bookmobile. I believe it was at school that I first encountered it—I don’t recall our little school having a library—but it was most important to me when it stopped near our house in the summer. It occurs to me now that I don’t know where it came from, that is, which library. The phrase “Wheeler Basin Regional Library” floats into my mind. I don’t remember a specific library by that name, so perhaps it was a consortium of libraries. The region in general was (is) known as the Tennessee (River) Valley, and Wheeler Lake was the nearest of the many lakes created by hydroelectric dams built on the Tennessee by the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federal agency born of the New Deal.

But it doesn’t matter. As far as I was concerned, the bookmobile seemed to have fallen from heaven. It was a sort of van or panel truck with closed sides and folding windowed doors, like those on buses, at the front and rear on one side. I believe it was air-conditioned; at any rate it had, in the burning Alabama summers, a cool look, with blue-green glass in the doors and blue-green carpet on the floor. Was there also a sort of skylight of the same tinted glass? I’m not sure, but the interior was well-lit. The side walls…and perhaps the rear?...were lined with wooden bookshelves.

Every few weeks—or at some interval which seemed very long to me—in the summer, the bookmobile arrived in Greenbrier and parked in the east end of the parking lot of Greenbrier Barbecue. Our house was about a quarter-mile away, across an open pasture, and from the porch or the yard I could just make out the bookmobile as a gleam that was not normally there. (I want to say it was blue-white, which makes me think perhaps there really was a skylight.) On the day it was due to arrive I watched for it with a near-Christmas level of excitement.

It was in the bookmobile on one of its summer visits that I first encountered science fiction, when the mere title on the spine of a book caught my attention: Citizen of the Galaxy. Those words did something to me, came to me as a sort of call, suggesting distance and mystery. I no longer remember anything at all of the plot beyond a vague picture of a young man having adventures across the galaxy. But I was enchanted, and looked for more books like it. The name of the author, Robert Heinlein, meant nothing to me. And I don’t think I knew the term “science fiction.” But I looked for more books like it, more books involving space travel, the distant future and its technological marvels, and the magical strangeness of alien worlds. Citizen of the Galaxy was soon followed by Rocket to Limbo, by Alan E. Nourse, and Star Gate, by André Norton.

This was the beginning of a sort of love affair that went on for several years. I read all the science fiction I could get my hands on, including novels and stories by all the big names of the genre prior to 1965 or so—Heinlein, Clarke, Bradbury, Asimov—and others less well-known outside of sci-fi fandom: A.E. van Vogt, Damon Knight, James Blish, Frederick Pohl, Poul Anderson, and Clifford Simak are some of the names I remember, though I cannot now name a single work by any of them.

One day my mother took some of us children with her (not her normal practice) when she went to shop at the Post Exchange on the army base in Huntsville, a privilege afforded by my father’s service in World War II. The PX had a bigger selection of magazines than I had ever seen, and in browsing it I had something like a repeat of my bookmobile experience. I saw the cover of a magazine called Analog: Science Fact – Science Fiction. I snatched it up, bought it, and read it in total fascination. Not only was it full of great stories, it was full of what seemed to me very sophisticated and fascinating ideas, including a certain amount of hard science and what I now see to be some fairly ordinary empirical philosophical talk. But the empiricism itself (of course I didn’t know the word) was appealing to me, because it was an attempt to question and understand the world rationally. I immediately subscribed to Analog, and soon afterward joined the Science Fiction Book Club, which I saw advertised in the magazine.

Some time after my conversion to atheism, my mother and older sister and I were on a long drive at night—I forget the circumstances—and, as it often does in that situation, when there is nothing else to do, the talk turned toward weighty matters: religion, morality, the meaning of it all. They must have been challenging my anti-religious views, because one of the two or three specific things I recall from this conversation is my sister asserting that “Mac’s problem is he reads too much science fiction.” I was so astonished by this, and thought it so entirely stupid, that I could only laugh.  

But thinking back on it now, I believe she had a point. Science fiction had not in any way persuaded me to atheism, but had abetted the process in a subtle way, by providing me with an alternative means of investing the mundane world with mystery, wonder, and significance. For as long as I can remember I have wanted to believe that the world we see around us is not all there is, and that somehow one ought to be able to escape it for a better one. Science fiction gave me a substitute for the supernatural in which I had ceased to believe. Its imagined future and alien civilizations were marvelous enough to fascinate me, but they didn’t require believing in the implausible God. I could in fact believe, or at least hope, that something like them really was out there somewhere in space and time. In its appeal to reason, imagination, and hope, it was like a cheap imitation of the Catholic faith.

The magic lasted for only a few years, though. By the time I was a senior in high school I was growing bored with science fiction, its marvels beginning to seem drab and rickety, with some very mundane machinery visible behind the fanciful scenery, like the sight of a Mardi Gras float sitting still in broad daylight, so that you can’t avoid noticing that it’s only a sort of crude sculpture sitting on a truck, or a movie theater with all the lights on.


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It's interesting to me how atheism often has its own eschatology, this belief that things will keep getting better and better. A kind of evolutionary optimism. And you see this in a lot of science fiction. The writers who question this idea, like H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, though they dabble in science fiction, are really horror writers. In a way, horror is the inverse of science fiction--you can see the two genres clashing in Alien.

Did I ever send you my science fiction syllabus?

I'd like to see the science fiction syllabus. I read a half dozen books of H.G. Wells, but I don't know what to try next.

What's that Eliot line about "...superficial ideas of evolution / which become in the popular mind / a means of disowning the past"?

But that kind of sci-fi really ceased to own the genre sometime after 1970--I'm not sure, because I read hardly any of it after 1966 or so. Although the scientific progress remained, a decidedly dark take on it developed. Sometimes it seems like horror & scifi merged rather than clashed. I remember getting annoyed some years ago that almost everything in the scifi section at the video store was actually horror.

No, you didn't send me the syllabus, though you talked about it on fb, and I couldn't remember enough of Neuromancer to discuss it.:-(

If you email me at ... I can send it to you. :)

Yeah, you're right about the dark take and the merging--I was thinking more about the scientific progress side of it. I need to look up that Eliot line now.

The science fiction author who's grown on me the most since I was an undergraduate is Ursula K. Le Guin. I don't agree with her much, but she knows what she's doing with her world-painting.

Thanks, Ryan. I've emailed you.

Mac, you should probably take that address down before the spam spiders get it.

There was 'secularist romanticism' (or romantic secularism) even in non-fictional scientific adventures of the 1960s, such as the space program. My father, who worked on Apollo, tried to persuade people at the time to explore the bottom of the sea but they were not interested. It had to be 'outer space.'

The space program was hugely romantic, especially if you were young. My father worked in it for a few years, too. I suppose proximity may have made it less romantic, unless you were an astronaut--at any rate he didn't seem to feel especially romantic about it. For me it was more the sense that this was the beginning of the world the sci-fi writers envisioned. I mean, what was actually happening seemed like fairly small stuff, but great things were sure to follow.

Mac, your response to science fiction and its effect on you remind me very strongly of C. S. Lewis and his "Northernness."

I started reading SF when I was quite young--maybe 3rd grade. I think that the first SF book I read was "Zip-Zip and His Flying Saucer." This was my favorite series of books. I have a couple now and they don't hold up too well. ;-) I'm interested to see what my grandsons will think about them.

Probably the first adult SF I read was a collection of short stories by Asimov. I was just thinking about this yesterday. In the introduction he talked about how no matter how many books and stories he wrote, everyone always liked his first story, "Nightfall," the best. I have read the great majority of his SF and I have to say that I agree. I would imagine that must be a little discouraging.

I don't think that SF had any negative effect on me and I wonder if it was because, being a girl, I was more interested in the interaction of the characters than the technology. The technology made it more interesting, but I cared more about the story.

I can't remember if I've ever asked here if anyone was familiar with Cordwainer Smith.


That's true, Anne-Marie, I guess it was a very similar phenomenon, though Lewis had classier tastes...but then he ended up writing some sci-fi.

Janet, I think I may have read some books of that sort at that age, but they didn't push the button that got pushed later. Re Asimov: he really wasn't a very good writer, all in all. I think I must have read Nightfall but am not sure. I think I've mentioned that my wife & daughter and I tried listening to some Asimov stories on tape while travelling a couple of years ago and gave up because they were *so* bad. I've read a little Cordwainer Smith, maybe more in that teen period but I don't remember. I know the name was around then.

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