Reading-wise, I had a deprived childhood. Or a blessed one, depending on your point of view. Once the groundwork of learning to read had been covered, like any other avid young bookworm (or nerd) I reached for what was to hand. As a result, while my contemporaries were enjoying children’s classics like Swallows and Amazons and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, or even just the Famous Five, I was tearing my way through Asimov, Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, A. E. van Vogt and other giants of the golden age of science fiction (like I said, nerd).
The reason was my father. Beneath the quiet, blue-collar exterior beat the heart of a space adventurer. Well, at the very least he was ‘space-curious’ and since his teenage years, he’d been buying pulp sci-fi by the bucketload – Frederick Pohl, Cyril Kornbluth, Robert Silverberg, Clifford D. Simak, Frank Herbert, he was impressively voracious. Suffice to say, that by the time I was literate, he had a bookcase bulging with musty paperbacks just waiting for me to discover them. So, let me here share a random five classic titles in no particular order, chosen only because they’re weird, wonderful and you may well not have heard of them and there’s nothing finer than introducing people to new pleasures…
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. – Sirens of Titan: For a guy who said he wanted to get away from the “SF” tag, Vonnegut wasn’t trying too hard in this, his second novel. Various aliens, artificial intelligence, a chrono-synclastic infundibulum (WTF?) and a Martian invasion, all spiraling around themes of free will and predestination and the world’s luckiest man.
Samuel R. Delany – The Einstein Intersection: This is weird in the best possible way – Earth is populated by aliens (or maybe mutated humanity, who knows?) who are caught up in a gender-confused replaying of classical myth and tragedy. Interspersed with excerpts from the author’s journal from traveling round Europe and sleeping with Greek sailors.
Alfred Bester – The Demolished Man: Okay, we’ve seen psychic law enforcement in Minority Report, but Bester did it first in this 1953 futuristic police procedural. The 50s dialogue is all part of the charm and if you can ignore the discomforting plot-line of a grown man falling in love with a woman with the mind of a child (hey, don’t worry it’s SF, she recovers her faculties… mainly through the parental care of the guy who’s falling for her – yep, that is creepy) then you’ll probably enjoy this influential novel.
Philip K. Dick – Clans of the Alphane Moon: Nobody does weird like PKD but this one is strange even by his standards. The backdrop is a moon inhabited by inmates from an asylum who have separated into tribes according to their different mental illnesses. Against this, our protagonist is an emasculated husband involved in an elaborate plot to kill his soon-to-be-ex-wife. Oh, and one of the main supporting characters is a sentient mold called Lord Running Clam – if that doesn’t send you to Amazon, nothing will.
Michael Moorcock – Behold the Man: Karl, a religious obsessive is dumped by his Marxist girlfriend and decides to time travel back to 29 AD in an effort to meet with Christ. Trouble is, Jesus turns out to have the mental age of a three-year-old and Mary is something of a tart. If Karl is going to rescue his faith, he’s going to have to step up and act the role himself…
As for my father, now in his 70s he remains a sci-fi nut. Before every birthday or Christmas, there’s a list of multi-volume space operas to be bought and wrapped. The bookcase continues to bulge and on one sad day in the future, my brother and I will probably fight to the death over who gets to inherit it.