Sunday, May 13, 2018

How I Came to Science Fiction


Recently my son Gabe gave me back a book of mine he found on his shelf: Andre Norton's Star Rangers. This was quite a cool "reunion" for me because not only was this the first book by Andre Norton that I read — I've been a huge fan of hers for over half a century and have read most of her many, many works! — Star Rangers was the very first book of science fiction I read.


I remember distinctly that it was my first SF book (not counting comic books . . . a "book book," in other words) because I recall very clearly how I came to read it. During 5th grade at St. Agnes School in San Francisco (that would have been 1963-1964) we kids had been reading the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. This was not part of our schoolwork; it was like we were a book group before we knew book groups were a thing. We just all read the Oz books together for fun. After we got through the Oz books — 14 by Baum — we moved on to read The Borrowers series by Mary Norton.

We ran out of Borrower books pretty quickly; there were only 5 novels. I then discovered that right next to the Borrower books in our school library was a novel by another Norton: Andre's Star Rangers. I remember being captivated by the cover image, a spaceman poised on a rock spur points to our right, silhouetted against a bright orange and scarlet sky. Here's that entrancing cover.


Well, my 11-year-old self found the story pretty entrancing too: a crew of military spacemen crashland on a planet far off their star charts and must learn to survive there. I was a tenderfoot Boy Scout and so living off the land was probably something much on my mind at that time. My father, a U.S. Army soldier during WWII, a member of the elite Philippine Scouts, had told me Army stories since I was quite a young child, so the military themes of duty and honor in Star Rangers must have been attractive to me as well.

After devouring Star Rangers, I began to seek out other SF writers in our school library as well as in our neighborhood public library and also in the library at the Presidio of San Francisco (my father was a retired Army officer and so I could borrow books from that library). It was a heady time, discovering H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars, Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, and many others. You'll notice that all of the authors named here are men; the SF field was dominated by men at that time and women often had to publish under male pseudonyms. In fact, Andre Norton is the pen name of Alice Mary Norton, who was eventually the first woman to be inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.

Reading Star Rangers again now, what strikes me, given the US's current political climate vis-à-vis ethnicity and immigration, is the novel's central theme of racism and its ills: in this case, humans vs. "Bemmys" (i.e., nonhuman aliens). The phrase "Bemmy lover" even comes up in the story, a thinly disguised allusion to the phrase "n----r lover" that was current during the time I was reading Star Rangers, using the n-word to disparage European Americans who felt the oppression of African Americans was wrong and unjust. ("Bemmy" is a fascinating coinage, an acronym based on the contemporary phrase "Bug-Eyed Monster.")

When I first read Star Rangers as an 11-year-old, I'm fairly sure I didn't catch on to this theme. I hadn't yet personally encountered racism and discrimination as I would soon enough, in later years. However, I was certainly well aware of the presence of racial prejudice as something that came up in current events and was alluded to in my parents' dinner conversations, so the novel may well have piqued my interest in that regard somewhat. In any case, Star Rangers is an interesting read now, highlighting how in the 65 years since its 1953 publication our country has been unable to shed racism. "Make America Great Again," indeed.

Reading Andre Norton's Star Rangers at the age of 11 changed my life. I have loved science fiction ever since, in all its lovely and incandescent forms. That I am now the editor of Star*Line, the print journal of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association, comes directly from that moment.


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8 comments:

Jedediah Kurth said...

My first Andre Norton book was Breed to Come, though I think possibly her best work was the first couple of Witch World novels.

Vince Gotera said...

Thanks, Jed!

Akua Lezli Hope said...


I came to scifi in 4th grade through Animal Farm, 5th grade through 1984 and 6th grade through Brave New World and at home we all piled on the couch to watch The Twilight Zone. My 12th birthday presents included my very own subscription to Analog edited by John Campbell. But as I used to inhale books I can't say when everyone else I came to love arrived - a Wrinkle in Time, Mcccaffrey's Dragons, Zenna's People Series, Bradbury's everything, Asimov, then Tolkein and Frank Hebert, Poul Andersen... the 60s were an exciting time for sf reading I was hooked for life. I wrote my first two sf poems in the 6th grade one more fantasy inspired by Lewis Carroll's language manipulation and the other about the bomb... thank for reminiscing.







Herb Kauderer said...

While I had previously read plenty of children's books that qualified as SF, an important moment came in, I think sixth grade. The school library was one fair-sized room, and I started reading all the books from left to right. As it turns out, that meant I started with the non-fiction. I certainly didn't finish every book, but I gave them all a try, and the librarians realized this, and waived the borrowing limits for me. I took home 15 books every night. Of course, a lot of those books had only a few thousand words in them. Reading all that non-fiction certainly gave me a strong basis of 1960ish knowledge.

Around February, I got past the non-fiction and continued right on into the fiction. Eventually I hit the one-two punch of Heinlein and Kjelgaard. Previous fiction I'd read such as the Hardy Boys seemed as disposable as television. Heinlein and Kjelgaard were much deeper and more thoughtful, and the emotions seemed more genuine.

And Heinlein's juveniles were meaty books. I was learning to read full-sized books.

The corollary to this is that it always seemed bizarre to me that much of society around me wanted to segregate, and in some ways denigrate, SF. In the context of all that non-fiction, and Kjelgaard's animal stories and historicals, Heinlein seemed perfectly normal in subject matter, and superior in story-telling.

Happily, not far after Kjelgaard's books were Andre Norton's, showing me that Heinlein was not unique in superior story-telling of science fiction.

Lisa Timpf said...

My first exposure to science fiction came through Andre Norton as well. When I was in about grade six or so, a friend's older sister left her library-borrowed copy of Norton's "Storm over Warlock" lying around. I didn't really understand everything in "Storm over Warlock", but was sufficiently intrigued to pick up another Norton book, "The Stars are Ours", and was hooked. My favorite Norton books were the Beast Master series, the Zero Stone series, and some (but not all) of the Time Traders stories. Heinlein also became a favorite, particularly Farmer in the Sky.

Diane Severson Mori said...

Lovely post!

My first experience of real SF was The White mountains and the rest of the Tripod Trilogy by John Christopher. I too had read plenty of Fantasy for children, but this book was different and besides being cool awoke an awareness of oppression and that it should be combated and resisted at all costs.

If you can believe it, I’ve never read any Andre Norton. I’ve always meant to, and so maybe Star Rangers is the one I should start with.

maria teresa lejarde said...

Kuya i have not read your blogs but reading this article I was able to know a part of you and able to know about Uncle Martin. I love science fictions. This
Story is not only about Star Rangers and authors of sci-fi but you shed light on what racism is all about in USA. Beautifully written that I wanted more to read about you and SFO at the time. I always heard my parents that you were the brightest amongst our clan. I saw your pictures which my papa would show to us and say " He is a Gotera." indirectly claiming his bragging rights. You should write a novel...Can I share your article to my children? Regards Tess G Lejarde.

the queen said...

Analog 9, Answer Positive or Negative. A fun story about poetry.

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