A Truncated Life In Books
by Ian R MacLeod
There were never many books at home when I was a child, and those that there were were generally kept on the top shelf of a cabinet in the kitchen next to the budgie seed. There was a paperback about passing your driving test in four weeks, and an old Automobile Association Book Of The Road, where the maps were separate cards that you could take out and put together like a jigsaw. There was a Superman annual, an old dictionary without its spine, a novel by Jeffery Farnol without any cover and half the last chapter missing, and a big blue-bound Children's Encyclopaedia which I imagined would tell me everything there was to know about the world if I could get past the pages on battleships and dinosaurs. A friend of mine at Junior School had actually read all of his Children's Encyclopaedia, and seemed to have access to every kind of secret knowledge as a result. He also had a thing about these lurid comics in which ladies were apparently kidnapped by green multi-armed creatures and placed in various kinds of magnifying glass coffins as more and more of their clothes were removed. I don't remember actually seeing one of these comics, but the image was vivid enough, and strangely fascinating, even if I didn't quite understand what the point of it all was.
Soon after, and as if sensing that something new was in the wind, a paperback copy the Kama Sutra made an inexplicable appearance beside the budgie seed on the cabinet's top shelf, and Doctor Who started on television. I loved Doctor Who from the first episode, and even wrote to Junior Points Of View to tell the BBC. I loved the sense of strange places, the hidden worlds, and I loved the fear. I loved it most of all when the Doctor's woman companion - the very first woman, who was called Barbara - screamed when she was confronted by something terrible and alien just beyond the edge of the screen at the end of each episode. I didn't realise then that I was hooked on Science Fiction, but I had worked out that something dark and mysterious out there was just coming within range. Between plunging through the African adventures of Willard Price's Hal and David in the junior section of the local library, I made furtive forays around the counter into the adult side, where there was a book with a black and white cover that had something to do with caterpillars crawling down a window in the rain, and many other hidden and half-hinted delights.
Apart from stories of natural disasters involving volcanoes, I wasn't a particularly voracious reader of children's books, as I always thought they were second best to something else. The "something else" was, at first, serious and apparently factual books about the haunting of the Borley Rectory which I found near the counter on the adult side and which nobody seemed to mind me taking out on my junior ticket, and of which I, desperate for strangeness in this seemingly mundane world, believed every word. Then there were collections of scary stories; the library was short on these, even in the adult side, and I never could quite find the book about the caterpillars, but my mates and I used to hang around in Woolworth's after school, and stuff one of the Pan Books Of Horror under our blazers before charging down the Stratford Road to collapse breathless by the football pitches in the park. More than the reading, the possession of these books was the main part of the illicit thrill. Like the crumpled photos of naked women we were also passing around, we hid these books under the park bushes like dogs with bones. The first adult novels that I got around to actually buying and reading in those days before teenage literature had taken hold were by Alistair MacLean. I used to paint the covers with household varnish, or wrap them in clear stickyback, parting the pages gently to avoid putting the slightest crack in the spine as I urged the story on, whilst wishing at the same time that it would never end.
Books had already become a special commodity to me by then, something that was quite separate from knowledge and school and study and the apparently boring real adult world that went on outside Woolworth's, and at home and in the newspapers. Books were something that was my own, to be shared sparingly, if at all, with one or two schoolfriends who had also discovered their mystery. I imagined that Alistair MacLean was quite esoteric. I also cultivated an interest in classical music, saving up to buy LPs by apparently obscure composers like Dvorak and Vivaldi despite a sneaking but unadmitted liking for pop music. I always liked to think that I was at least one step away from the crowd. Then my sister's new boyfriend suggested I might like to try reading John Wyndham, and took me to see 2001 at the local Odeon. Doctor Who by then was already getting into its knowingly funny phase, but this was something else again! Watching 2001, reading The Midwich Cuckoos, I experienced the tingle that all lovers of Science Fiction must recognise at the time of their first discovery; I'd been hooked for a long time, but now at last I knew what I was hooked on.
Raiding the local library, I soon discovered Clarke and Asimov and all the other names who were big then and mostly still seem to be big now. I bought their books in paperback when I could actually afford them, and then find the damn things on the newsagent's carousels. SF writers themselves seemed to be an interesting breed; clever, capable men who talked about their adventurous lives in the smoothly laconic way of airline pilots. I found the short story collections particularly enlightening. The stories were thrilling in themselves, and the introductory bits in italics were full of details of how these men met up and gave each other awards, and appeared in oddly-named magazines in distant America. Galaxy, If and The Magazine Of Fantasy and Science Fiction loomed big in my mind long before I ever set eyes on them. These SF men were disparaging about "mainstream fiction" - whatever that was - but reserved their especial venom for something called Fantasy, which sounded like a sleazy version of the kind of stuff I hadn't enjoyed reading that much when I was younger, and which involved pixies and elves, for God's sake! I was equally disparaging about Fantasy in the italic bits I had started to write in my own head, until a friend suggested in passing that the greatest work of Science Fiction ever written was by this character called Tolkien. The Lord Of The Rings had been there all along as a Novel Of Note in the adult section of the library, which meant that, unlike all the cheaply enjoyable stuff, you could take it out on a non-fiction ticket. Discovering through Tolkein what Fantasy really meant was at least as thrilling an experience as the shock of my first exposure to SF. In many ways, it was more so, because I was moved by his work in a deeper way. At this stage, and despite the fact that I was lagging well behind most of my friends, I was getting further into the physical changes of adolescence than I really wanted to go. For me, The Lord Of The Rings expressed a glorious sense of sadness and beauty, of the loss of a world which might once have been but would never return, which fitted my mood perfectly. The fact that there were, essentially, no other works of Fantasy available at that time, made the whole non-genre even more appealing. When I found a proper bookshop in Birmingham where a small corner blossomed with the tentative first appearances of Lin Carter's Ballantine Adult Fantasy series with their lovely other-worldly covers, I felt sure that I had at last discovered the hidden glade, the lost world, the place that I alone could enter and be safe and free.
The world itself, meanwhile, was behaving increasingly strangely. Men - an exceedingly boring event for any true SF aficionado - had landed on the Moon. Skirts had gone short and then long again. The Kama Sutra disappeared from the shelf by the budgie seed just as I was beginning to fully appreciate its merits. But there were compensations. There was, it seemed, something called the New Wave in SF. The bits in italics that these writers put at the start of their stories were getting far wilder - these people sounded more like rock stars than airline pilots - and the stories were getting pretty strange, too. Dangerous Visions, in particular, made a big impact on me; it got the first A+ ever in the reading record book I was keeping, and seemed to embody everything that was new and daring in life and literature. Old Isaac Asimov himself wrote a kind of introduction about these precocious new writers with exotic names like Harlan and Zelazny who were springing up beneath his feet, and how SF must move with the times and take risks and generally set about changing the entire world. Even Judith Merril flipped a bit in the normally sober italic bits of her yearly collections. Of course, all of this news was breaking pretty late on the shores of my particular world, but I reckoned I was, by now, far from sight of anyone I knew, and that was what counted. SF was mine! Fantasy was mine! No one else I knew had even heard of the New Wave! I never read anything else, and that was just how I wanted it.
I transferred from a secondary to a grammar school when I was sixteen. I'd never really had much patience with "real" science and was useless anyway at maths, so I opted to do English Literature as one of my scraped A levels, along with History (which I enjoyed) and Geography (which I and any other reasonable person would have hated). For the first time, I was actually expected to read this stuff that SF writers - even the new ones with the fancy names - called "mainstream". I remember soberly telling my teacher that I'd read some Daphne Du Maurier and one Neville Shute, which was true, and then of course there was Alistair MacLean, with whose works I had a broad familiarity. I reckoned that that would probably stand me in pretty good stead. In fact, most of this mainstream stuff I was required to read was just a boring as I'd expected, but on the other hand, some of it was pretty neat. The Waste Land, for example, had just the kind of fancy, multi-layered complexity that I was planning to incorporate into Lords Of The Earth, the novel I was working on set at the end of the Thousand Year Reich. The Great Gatsby wasn't bad either - at least short enough not to outstay its welcome - and, by about the third reading, I was falling in love with both Miriam and Clara in Sons And Lovers, and with the blazing reality of life that was conveyed in Lawrence's sensuous prose. The other thing was that one or two of these New Wave SF writers I was reading would occasionally toss in the names of writers who weren't SF as if their stuff was actually alright. Lin Carter, in his Adult Fantasy introductions, sometimes did the same. It was all both encouraging and confusing. I read, or tried to read, things like Gravity's Rainbow (searching that spineless dictionary in the cupboard to try to find out what a hardon was), and discovered John Fowles. Somewhere out there, it seemed, there was an even more dim and distant shore where all this good and sweet and scary stuff met up - the caterpillars and the hardons and Hal and the spaceships and the blazing reality and lovely infuriating Miriam and T S Eliot's fancy verbal jiggery-pokery. That, indeed, would be a place to be! Some modern writers, I reckoned - Silverberg and Le Guin and Keith Roberts in SF, and Fowles in "mainstream" - even got tolerably close to inhabiting it; and there was a feeling I got in the back of my throat when I felt the presence was there. I was sure, in fact, that it was the direction in which all modern literature was pointing, although no one else seemed to have the sense to realise it. Not that I was too bothered by that. By now, I was pretty sure that I'd be getting to write my own italic bits soon, and all the stories and novels that went with them. Neither rock star nor the airline pilot, I'd end up as a Grand Old Man living somewhere bright and hot and expensive, occasionally visited by keen and pretty young journalists who would nudge me towards apotheosis, or some other fancy word. A bit like the hero in a John Fowles story, or Robert Graves or Picasso.
Too shy to insist on going away, I lived at home when I was at college, and studied law because I liked the books and the old libraries, and because I didn't want to admit to the career officer that I was going to be a famous writer. For a few years, in fact, the whole famous-writerly business was almost forgotten. The world was, it seemed, really a pretty exciting place. I went to parties. I met girls. I tried playing the guitar. I still read books, and occasionally found variations of the words turning over in my head as if I was writing my own narrative, but generally they were just part of the background score. Rock music became important to me - lyrical singers like Joni Mitchell and Richard Thompson, and harder-edged stuff, especially Robert Fripp's King Crimson. A lot of people might have possessed a copy of In The Wake Of Posiden, but the darkly soaring free-form of the second side of Starless And Bible Black would always get just the right kind of incomprehending reaction at a party. Films, too, and above all Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now, sometimes managed to combine the feelings that I had about love and horror and strangeness and beauty. They all spoke to me of something darker and brighter out there that I still might just manage to reach.
The world of work beckoned, and soon after, the world of books began to loom larger for me again. I'd had it with law, and was briefly assured by the branch manager of a life insurance company that I'd have a fine career in sales just as long as I wasn't the kind of person who always had their head in a book, until I ended up comfortably marooned and slowly climbing my way along one of the more obscure branches of the Civil Service. Often bored in the long hot afternoons, I began to toy with writing again, and to read more avidly. I re-made closer contact with SF, although by now it was just one part of my diet. It seemed to me, anyway, that SF itself had changed when I wasn't looking, but not in the way that I'd imagined. The Nebula Award winning novels that I always made a point of reading each year were disappointing after the earlier thrills of The Left Hand Of Darkness and Dune. SF books were getting easier to find in the bookshops, but the books themselves were cosier, longer, less challenging. Fantasy was starting to spread across the shelves, too, as was horror. We were moving into the age of the multi-volume, the spin-off, the book written by one writer, but based on the idea of another who couldn't be bothered to actually write the thing.
I guess I was getting older, more twisted, more cynical; turning into the kind of person I sometimes am now, although I try hard not to be. The big readerly discoveries of your adult life rarely have the kind of impact of the books that you read when you're twelve or sixteen. The emphasis shifts, too, if you really want to be a writer. You're less tolerant of crap in case that crap infects your own work, and you're more envious of the successful and the brilliant. To list the books that have influenced me in the years leading up to now would be just that - a list. I plan ahead, I see things coming, I read around subjects that might or might not be worth a story or a novel. I know that there are people out there for whom books are still at least as precious as they were when they were young, but it isn't that way for me - although it's a sacrifice that I'm glad to make in exchange for the agonies and occasional glories of actually being a writer. But that's another story. Still, its a shame that writers aren't like airline pilots now, or rock stars, and that any ordinary word processor can print in italics. It's a pity that writers often seem like men and women on an odd career path, doing their best to help themselves or someone else with a more sensible job to meet the mortgage.
Me, when the mood still sometimes comes, I'm happier reaching out towards the caterpillars crawling on window, and whatever else lies beyond.
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© Ian R MacLeod, 29 July 1997