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Archive for the ‘science fiction’ Category

Fantasy has vampires prolonging their life by drinking blood, while science fiction offers medical immortality or the uplifting of consciousness to machines. Readers, quite obviously, like to play with the idea of living forever. Yet the more I think about the possibility, the less I’m convinced that everyone is suited to immortality.

Of course, if immortality (and a reasonable degree of youth) ever becomes a possibility, I imagine that it will be reserved for the rich. I imagine, too, that if immortals are in charge of the process that created them, the selection process will be rigorous. There’s an issue of Garth Ennis’ graphical novel Preacher in which the vampire Cassidy meets the first other vampire in over a century. To Cassidy’s disappointment, his fellow vampire turns out to be “a bit of a wanker. ” After trying to reform him, Cassidy ends up leaving him to be destroyed by the rising sun – an ending that is only sensible if you stop to think about it. A long life is going to lose much of its zest if you have to spend it with highly annoying people, so immortals would want to choose their peers with care.

However, what I am really thinking of is that most people are simply not equipped for a long life. For the kind of person for whom time is something to fill – the kind who spends their weekend shopping, or their evenings at a bar – living seventy years or so can must be hellish enough. Several centuries of filling time would probably end with such people committing suicide, or perhaps turning violent in the hopes of finding another thrill.

Either seems a waste of immortality and a source of unhappiness for everyone. I suspect that good candidates for immortality would be those who know how to keep busy, and never have enough time for everything – artists and artisans of all sorts, and scholars.

Yet even being inner-directed might not be enough for immortals. Many artists do not have seventy years of work in them, much less several thousand.

It strikes me that a well-adjusted immortal would have to maintain a fine balance. On the one hand, they would need a strong tolerance for routine. The English playwright Christopher Fry remarked that the problem with being 94 was that time seemed to move so fast that he seemed to be eating breakfast every five minutes, and the problem would probably only get worse with the centuries. A well-adjusted immortal would have to be able to endure all the repetitive eating, urination, sleeping, grooming and sex without boredom setting in. Better yet, routine would need to be a comfort for them.

Yet, on the other hand, a suitable immortal would also need to accept change without falling into the traps of condemning or embracing everything new or living in nostalgia and gradually falling hopelessly out of touch. This is a balance that ordinary mortals struggle with, but I imagine that successful immortals would be those who could live the same routine for twenty or thirty years, then shake it off and find a new routine to settle into.

However, perhaps all this is beside the point. Perhaps the human brain and/or consciousness simply isn’t equipped for a longer life span. Perhaps a point arrives for everyone at 70, 90, or 110 when the sense of self simply collapses into senility, overloaded with memories and perceptions. But if humans ever manage to live significantly longer, those who manage to do so with any degree of contentment will be only a very small percentage of the population. For many immortals, the mental torment might make them think Tithonus had things good, living forever but aging into a cricket.

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The idea that I could outgrow a book surprises me. My tastes are liberal, encompassing everything from nineteenth century classics to the latest graphic novel, and I can largely separate personal taste from artistic sensibility. Yet, sadly, that is what has happened with Nevil Shute’s On the Beach.

I first read On the Beach as a young teenager. Its years as a bestseller were about a decade in the past, but it seemed to me a bridge between mainstream and science fiction – something I was making a conscious effort to find, since examples were few in number. I read it two or three times, finding myself haunted by its depiction of the last humans waiting their unavoidable death from radiation poisoning after a nuclear war.

The book survived all my moves, yet somehow in the intervening decades, I never took it off the shelf to read again until yesterday. Something of the effectiveness of the setting remained, but I found it a clumsy, almost unreadable book. Part of what bothered me was Shute’s fondness for telling rather than showing, and his painfully obvious red herrings, but what bothered me most was the shallow characterization of the two main female characters.

Not, you understand, that Shute depicted his male characters with any skill. The first is Dwight Towers, the captain of the last American submarine. He is dull as most characters defined by their dedication to duty are. He might generate a little pathos in his continued devotion to his deceased family, but since that devotion makes him reject any but the most Platonic relationship with the Australian woman he loves – despite their impending fate – he comes across as a cad instead. Still, he comes off better than Peter Holmes, the Australian liaison officer with the submarine, who has no observable personality beyond being a newly married man with a young baby.

The men, however, are masterpieces of Shakespearean subtlety compared to the women in their lives. Moira Davidson, the woman Towers spends time with when he is off duty, is a hard-drinking party-goer in her mid-twenties, with a reputation – apparently undeserved – for being a loose woman that is based mostly on her risque talk. Influenced by Towers, she responds to his nobility by discovering her own.

In ordinary circumstances, she confides to the other woman, she would do all she could to seduce him away from his wife. “’It’d be worth doing her dirt if it meant having Dwight for good, and children, and a home, and full life,’” Davidson says. “’But to do her dirt just for three month’s pleasure and nothing at the end of it – that’s another thing.’” I may be a loose woman, but I don’t know that I’m all that loose.’” Instead, she supports his doublethink about his family still being alive, and follows his suggestion that she take secretarial classes to give purpose to her life in the brief time that remains.

As for Mary Holmes, an examination of her mental competence would have no sure outcome. Her only interest is her new baby and her home, and, while some allowance must be made for denial she makes no effort to understand what is happening. Her stupidity gives her husband Peter an excuse to lecture the readers through her, but she is genuinely surprised when the radiation arrives, and wonders if cough drops would protect her from it. “’I’m glad we haven’t got newspapers now,’” she says shortly before they die. “’It’s been much nicer without them.’” She is humored by her husband, and, needless to say, no help at all when the family commits suicide to avoid suffering the lingering death through radiation. Instead, she follows her husband’s lead, and only in her last moments shows any understanding of what is happening.

These female characters are despicable in themselves. But what is worse is that, despite their very different attitudes, they have no trouble confiding in each other for no better reason than the fact that their men are at sea. In reality, two such women would despise each other. Yet Shute assumes that because they are women, they want the same thing, which allows them to become confidants.

Even worse, Shute seems to consider Mary Holmes an example for Davidson. Despite Davidson’s greater intelligence, she ends up much the same, following her man into death without a thought of her own.

Naturally, it would be wrong to blame Shute for setting On the Beach in a time when gender roles – especially for women – were so limited. But I do blame him, very much, for accepting those roles without any question, and being unable to see past them and depict the women in his novel as individuals. A more talented writer would have had Davidson resisting the transformation into a good woman, perhaps even tempting Dwight unsuccessfully and uncertain whether to be angry at him.

Similarly, Mary would be more human if she showed more awareness, and a scene or two revealed that she was playing the role she thought necessary for her husband’s well-being, or wished she had more time for herself. The gender atmosphere of the novel might still have been uncomfortable for a reader today, but at least it wouldn’t have seemed so much the result of an impoverished imagination.

I dislike discarding a book; it always feels close to censorship. But I found On the Beach so distasteful that I know that I’ve read it for the last time.

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When I’m an invalid, I want reading that is light, long, and  moderately intelligent. Last week when my left knee decided to complain about its lack of cartilage, my choice was the first half dozen books of Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire or 1632 series. Mostly, the choice fit my requirements, although I have a few reservations about the books.

The premise of the series is simple: A small town in West Virginia suddenly finds itself in Germany in the middle of the Thirty Years’ War. With its technological edge, the town rapidly becomes a major power, allying itself with Gustav Adolphus of Sweden, and history begins to change. Originally a single book, the series has expanded as Flint has thrown open the series to other writers and encouraged fan fiction set in the same universe.

Beyond the actual pages, the series is also interesting because Flint is one of the first science fiction writers to see the possibility in ebooks and free downloads. Although he doesn’t go so far as Cory Doctorow and make all his books available for free downloads, Flint has seen the advantage of releasing his earlier works to keep them available, which means that the first two books in the series are free ebooks.

The series’ attractions are not stylistic ones. Flint and his growing list of co-authors are competent writers at best, and fall into the category of storytellers rather than artists or even strong plotters. Not that there is anything wrong with that; I respect an intelligent light read, and appreciate one in certain moods, such as coming home on public transit at the end of the day or — as recently, when I was doped on ibuprofen.

Rather, the series is interesting for two reasons. First, it deals with European history, a topic that most of his English-speaking audience is likely to know little about. Since the era includes such larger than life characters as Gustav Adolphus, Oliver Cromwell, and Cardinal Richelieu, there is plenty to entertain and inform, although obviously these characters soon start acting in non-historical ways. However, if you do know the characters who appear on its pages, then seeing where and how they depart from our history becomes intriguing – all the more so since Flint and the other writers largely resist the temptation to make antagonists outright or villains.

Second, the early books of the series focus on the West Virginian’s survival strategies. Their technological advantage is limited because they lack the infrastructure to support it, so much of their planning involves figuring how to downgrade their knowledge – for example, they decide to focus on 19th Century firearms rather than modern ones. These survival efforts are all the more interesting because the emergent leader and many of his supporters are unionists, and express a vision of the future that is more idealistic than the conscious or unconscious free market philosophy of most American science fiction.

However, as often happens when you read a series (or a chunk of it) in one sitting, The Ring of Fire series soon reveals itself as formula fiction. Each of the books I have read in the series revolves around a plot against the West Virginians by political opponents. Through devious means and native ingenuity, these opponents seek to even the technological odds against them, but, although these efforts keep the books from being a completely adolescent power fantasy, there is never much doubt that the moderns and their allies will win, amalgamating their noble enemies and forcing the rest into retreat. In other words, American imperialism is still very much a part of these books — even if it is a liberal imperialism — and the outcome is never much in doubt.

Another problem is that the scenes in each book tend to be one of two kinds: talking heads – often politicians – and loving descriptions of battles and action that I can only describe as war-porn.

I can mostly endure the talking heads, although I wouldn’t mind more variation in technique. However, the war porn soon becomes tedious.

By “war porn” I do not mean graphic, nauseating descriptions of violence – which are mostly absent in the series – but a devotion to action sequences for their own sake. For the most part, battles in the Ring of Fire series are not described to give background to individual characters’ actions or to make clear why other events are happening, the way they are in Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series. Instead, from the tone and the undue length of the descriptions, I get the impression that readers are assumed to be as fascinated with the descriptions as the writers are. I’m not, and often amuse myself in them by deciding which scenes could be deleted and thereby speed up the pace of the books.

Yet another problem is the depiction of women. The series is by no means overtly sexist –  although so far, no one has mentioned how family planning might fit into the priorities of the stranded moderns. Rather, the depiction of women tends to be token and limited. With no exception that I can readily recall, major female characters tend have one-note in a way that the male characters don’t: One is an old activist, another wise, another full of revolutionary fervor, and so on. Mostly, too, they tend to be introduced in a quirky love story, after which any attempt to develop them comes to an abrupt halt. I suppose that Flint and the others deserve points for trying, but I’d still like to see one of them tackle a story about a woman with her own concerns someday.

Some of this criticism is probably due to an overdose. After all, no series is supposed to be read over a few days. Still, while I will probably return to the series some time when I want intelligent light reading, for now I find myself in no great hurry to do so.

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I love science fiction and fantasy. They were the bulk of my reading in childhood, and they are still a sizable chunk of my fiction reading. When I go to a movie, it is almost always science fiction or fantasy. In young adulthood, I even went to conventions, although I was never much into fandom. Yet I have a confession that I will be lucky to make without being flamed and receiving death-threats: I’ve never warmed to Star Trek. I much prefer Doctor Who, that other long-running series.

My distaste for Star Trek began with the original series, and has remained largely unchanged in all the subsequent incarnations and movies. With a few exceptions, the scripts are primitive by print standards, with plots barely a step above the pulps of the 1930s and heavy-handed humor. In later incarnations, the quality of the scripts is sometimes hidden by a quotation or reference, but these are like gingerbread along the roof line of a Victorian house – non-functional decoration that fails to fit into anything around it. Mostly, they seem heavy-handed or gimmicky, such as having Stephen Hawking play himself.

As for the characters, how anyone can believe the pudgy and sententious James Kirk as an action hero or a leader is beyond me. Nor am I enthralled by the one-dimensional Spock, whom I suspect must have suffered regular wedgies outside his locker at the Academy. True, Patrick Stewart deserves credit for delivering the clumsy lines that were dumped upon him with some degree of conviction, but he is the only one of the supernumeraries and re-treads who deserves any respect.

But the real problem for me is the military gloss and doctrine of American liberal expansionism that runs through all the series, despite some recent efforts at revisionism. For all the change of costumes, the Star Trek universe has not progressed far beyond the John F. Kennedy era in which it was conceived: The rest of the world (or the universe) needs fixing, and Americans (or humans) are just the ones to do so – for everyone’s own good, of course, but with a firm hand if necessary. This connection is so close that the first series even had an episode in which Kirk encountered a post-holocaust duplicate of the United States, which he helped to put on track by reciting the American Declaration of Independence. Much of the time, Star Trek is all too ponderously self-important for me to take seriously for a moment.

But Doctor Who – that series is everything that Star Trek is not. Even limited as it was by being a TV serial for children for much of its run, Doctor Who has consistently shown more imagination than anything on Star Trek. Whoever invented the silly yet frightening Daleks was a borderline genius – they are frightening even to adults precisely because they are silly. As for the fact that The Doctor periodically regenerates into someone entirely different, that may have been a plot element introduced to explain the change in actors, but it’s an ingenious example of turning a liability into an asset.

Yes, Doctor Who has had its share of weak scripts and poor production values. But what has been surprising is how often, despite the cheap sets, the scripts have managed to be interesting, thoughtful, and even provocative. That is especially true of the modern revival under the direction of Russell T. Davies, which has maintained a level of excellence unparalleled in science fiction TV, and often turned the storyline into a critique of the series itself. But before everything else, Doctor Who has always been about character – not just about the anarchic and eccentric Doctor himself, but about those around him as well. It’s a subtlety that Star Trek’s producers rarely understand.

I have sometimes heard people suggest that Doctor Who captures the spirit of post-empire England, compared to Star Trek‘s echoes of the jingoistic American Empire. I suspect that may be true, but, whatever its origins, the spirit of Doctor Who is far more appealing than Star Trek‘s.

For me, the difference was captured in one episode a couple of decades ago when his arch-enemy The Master invited him to assist in conquering the galaxy. “But I don’t want to conquer the galaxy,” The Doctor replied (or something very similar). “I just want to see it.”

Essentially, Doctor Who is a humanistic view of the cosmos. And while in Star Trek, The Prime Directive seems like a marketing gloss on an essentially militaristic outlook, The Doctor’s ethos suffers from no such contradiction, being consistent all the way through. It is an ethos of loyalty, of being engaged, and of trying despite trauma and odds. Always, it is a story of individuals against bureaucrats and hierarchy — a story that Star Trek could only match if it was about a group of aliens resisting the encroachment of The Federation.

But, just to keep this mix from being too grim, there is always a flamboyant self-mockery in the central figure, from the recorder of the Patrick Troughton Doctor to the scarf of Tom Baker and the verbal free association of David Tennant. Brooding, mecurial, and brilliant, The Doctor in all his incarnations has a complexity that Kirk, Spock, Picard and the others can never match, for all their detailed back stories.

No, give me Doctor Who over Star Trek any day. For me, Star Trek is just cardboard characters moving dully against a rote background. I’ll watch it occasionally, but I have less and less time for it as I grow older. But Doctor Who fires my imagination, remaining fresh where Star Trek long ago went stale.

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I’m almost getting afraid to look at a newspaper or any other traditional print media. Every time I do, some writer or other seems to be belittling an Internet phenomena such as blogging, Facebook, or Second Life. These days, such complaints seems a requirement of being a middle-aged writer, especially if you have literary aspirations. But, if so, this is one middle-aged, literary-minded writer who is sitting out the trend.

The Globe and Mail seems especially prone to this belittling. Recently, its columnists have given us the shocking revelations that most bloggers are amateurs, that Facebook friendships are shallow, and that, when people are interacting through their avatars on Second Life, they’re really at their keyboards pressing keys. Where a decade ago, traditional media seemed to have a tireless fascination with computer viruses, now they can’t stop criticizing the social aspects of the Internet.

I suppose that these writers are only playing to their audiences. After all, newspaper readers tend to be over forty, and Internet trends are generally picked up those under thirty-five. I guess that, when you’re not supposed to understand things, putting them down makes you feel better if you’re a certain kind of person.

Also, of course, many columnists, especially those who aspire to be among the literati, see the rise of the Internet as eroding both their audiences and their chances of making a living. So, very likely, there’s not only incomprehension but a primal dose of fear behind the criticism that deserves sympathy.

At first glance, I should sympathize with them. I’m in their age group, share something of their aspirations, and I’m cool to much of the social networking that has sprung up in recent years. Yet somehow, I don’t.

For one thing, having been on the Internet several years longer than anybody else, I learned long ago that communities exist for almost everyone. If you don’t care for Facebook, you can find another site where you’re comfortable. If you dislike IRC, you can find a mail forum. If you can’t find a blog that is insightful and meaningful, you probably haven’t been looking around enough, but surely the Pepys’ Diary page will satisfy the most intellectual and literary-minded person out there. So I suspect that many of those complaining are still unfamiliar enough with the technology that they don’t really know all that’s via the Internet.

Moreover, although I ignore large chunks of the Internet, my only regret is that it hadn’t developed ten or fifteen years earlier so that I could have been a young adult when it became popular.

Despite, my age, the Internet has been the making of me. It’s helped to make the fantasy and science fiction milieu that I discovered as a boy become mainstream– and if that means people are watching pseudo-profundities like Battlestar Galactica, it also means that a few are watching movies Neil Gaiman’s Stardust or Beowulf and moving on to discover the stories and novels that really fuel the fields. It’s given me a cause worth focusing on in free software, and a job as an online journalist that already has been one of the longest lasting of my life, and that still doesn’t bore me. Without the Internet, I just wouldn’t be the person I am today.

Nor, I suspect, would I like that alternate-universe me very much.

Having absorbed the toleration that underlies much of the Internet, I can’t help feeling that criticizing other people’s browsing habits shows a lack of manners and graciousness that is grounds for shame rather self-righteousness. But, in my case, it would show a lack of gratitude as well.

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Recovering from a leg injury and facing a delayed article and a heavy autumn rain, I was delighted to find Benjamin Szumskyj’s Fritz Leiber: Critical Essays in the mail box today. I still have to read the contents in detail, but my first romp through the context was a combination of pride in my contribution, nostalgia, and the feeling that whatever critical heritage I had generated had passed into safe hands.

For those who don’t know, Fritz Leiber is one of my favorite science fiction writers, and, when I say that my short book Witches of the Mind remains the definitive study of his works, I am only stating the truth (although I have to confess that the field of Leiber studies is not very large).

Fritz Leiber: Critical Essays is the first major scholarly work since mine, and I caught a few glimpses of its creation, so naturally I would feel a certain grandfatherly interest in it under any circumstances. But the collection also marks my first academic paper in over a decade, an effort that I was only persuaded to by Szumskyj’s unrelenting badgering and against my natural sense of caution (there were men with dark glasses, I swear. And tire irons).

(And grocery store coupons!).

So I was seriously torn between anticipation and apprehension when I opened this afternoon’s parcel. I wanted to say honestly that it was first-rate effort, but I was nervous that I would have to lie – and, even worse, that I had contributed nonsense.

With the typical vanity of a writer, my first act was to turn to my own essay, “The Allure of the Eccentric in the Poetry and Prose of Fritz Leiber.” Were there any typos? Had I said anything stupid? I’d hardly dared to look at the article since I submitted it, and perhaps some unintentional double entendre had slipped past Ben’s watchful editorial eye.

Mercifully, I saw nothing at first pass that made me wince. Once or twice, I thought I even sounded sensible – but that could be the Ibuprofen talking.

My next step was to see the references to me in the index. The point was not so much vanity as to catch up with what Leiber scholars were saying. Had my ideas from all those years ago been superseded? Another new paradigm (or trio of nickels) generated?
“No” was the answer to both questions. But several writers had expanded into areas where I had lacked the space to explore and others had struck out in interesting new directions. The community of Leiber scholars might be small, but it was evidently thriving.

Remembering Justin Leiber’s earlier rambling and charmingly digressive articles on his father, one of the first pieces I read in full was his contribution. Not only was it everything his earlier articles had been, but it got me thinking about the couple of times that I had met him – once at a World Fantasy Convention in Seattle, and again in San Francisco shortly before his father’s death. These were in many ways a golden era in my life, in which I had the privilege of knowing Fritz and his second wife Margo Skinner, I was a semi-regular at Diana Paxson and Paul Edwin Zimmer’s Greyhaven, and my own study was receiving attention and award nominations.

With two years, I had turned my back on that world and, become a technical writer and started sliding into the worst circumstances so far of my life. At the time, I thought my chief concern was the need to earn a better living, but today I wonder whether experiencing Fritz’s last days hadn’t influenced my choice not so subtlely.
And what, I wonder, might have happened if I had stayed in academia? Would I have slipped on to the tenure track, or at least found a permanent lectureship? Or would I still be grubbing for contracts and growing increasingly embittered with each semester?

And would I have done any more work on Leiber? There was a time when I was the one thinking about doing essay collections on Leiber.

But that all seems a long time ago, and, although Szumskyj, Australian that he is, keeps hinting at dire uses of Vegemite if I don’t contribute to his studies of other authors, I only have one academic project that I’d like to finish in the remaining half of my life.

Besides, I’m not altogether sure that I could hold my own. The essays in Fritz Leiber: Critical Essays seem awfully literate and penetrating to me. So, although I’m still a relatively young man (a phrase that, as I write, I eerily remember reading Leiber using of himself at about the same age), I think that, for the most part, I will take the grandfather option, expressing pleasure in the fact that I made a small contribution to scholarship, and others still find it interesting enough to improve on it.

All joking aside, thanks for an excellent collection, Ben – you’ve done Fritz proud.

Now, put away the Gnutella and the fire ants, and I promise to do anything you say.

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In the summer between grades five and six, I discovered the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. The encounter inspired a love of fantasy and science fiction that endures to this day.

I was always precocious reader. By the end of Grade 1, I was devouring the Hardy Boy books. by Grade 2, I had discovered Alexander Dumas and historical fiction, and I first read Moby Dick in Grade 3. This precociousness alarmed my mother, who had at least one conference with my teacher, and eventually decided that, if I came across anything remotely racy, I would probably just skip over it. It also meant that I was so busy reading works like Mutiny on the Bounty that I missed a number of children’s classics until in the early years of high school, including Harriet the Spy, The Wind in the Willows, and, of course, Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

I was a first generation book addict, with nothing except the occasional suggestion from the school librarian to indicate that I was missing a wealth of treasures. I wouldn’t even have known The Wizard of Oz except for the movie and the fact that I played the Cowardly Lion in the class play (a most moving performance, I thought, in which I had a mane that made me look like a dandelion, and developed the business of wiping my eyes with the tip of my tail when I pretended to cry),

I do remember hearing my brother talk about his teacher reading The Hobbit to his class. And in grade five, I saw a black and white sketch in a school book club catalog showing Frodo and Sam on Mount Doom, and was intrigued. What were the Hobbits mentioned in the caption? They didn’t seem much different than humans to me. But, at the same time, stripped to a couple of sentences, the plot seemed ludicrous.

That summer, I came across a paperback three volume set of The Lord of the Rings with the abstract cover full of banners and snake-like heads. But the price was high for my allowance, and I put it aside. That was at The Bookstall, where I lived during many long summer afternoons of my childhood.

The owner seemed to appreciate my enthusiasm, and tolerated my horde of unbought treasures. Yet, every once and a while, his patience thinned, and I had to make at least an effort to buy what I had reserved. Cunningly, I said that I would take the first volume, figuring to satisfy the owner’s strange insistence on making sales without too much financial damage to myself.

As I rode home on my bicycle, I stopped every few blocks to read a page or two. By the time I got home, I was thoroughly hooked, and descended to the downstairs basement that I was using that summer to read stretched out on my bed.

That was on Friday afternoon. I must have had dinner and other meals on Saturday, but what I mostly remember is constantly shifting position on the bed, physically restless yet so unable to put the book down that I might been a fool of a Took snared by Sauron’s glance in the Palantir.

The experience remains vivid now, and is the main source of my contempt for those who dismiss Tolkien as an archaic or mediocre writer. Those terms might apply to all but the best of his poetry, but, for me, Tolkien remains the universal standard for atmosphere and building tension. Opening with the forced cheeriness of a children’s tale, Tolkien slowly drops those tones, until suddenly, without realizing quite how you got there, you are in a middle of an altogether more dangerous story, and are afraid to go to the washroom without turning on the lights in the hopes of warding off the Black Riders. And that night, I heard a cat’s yowl a few yards over that left me lying awake, half-expecting to hear the sound of horses’ hooves coming down the street. The Black Riders might be looking for hobbits, I was thinking, but they would probably be just as happy with children.

Twenty-six hours after I bought the first volume, I had finished it, and was ready for more. I spent a sleepless night in anticipation, and cycled down to The Bookstall only to find that it was closed on Sundays. I’m not sure how I lasted the day, let alone the night, with my tormented thoughts that somehow the other volumes might have been sold in my absence, but on Monday morning I was on the doorstep at opening time. This time, I bought both the remaining volumes, having learned my lesson. Two days later, I had finished both, and was seriously debating starting again – something I have almost never done at any age.

For the rest of the summer, I was wild about Tolkien. I read his other works, including The Hobbit, but most of them were like methadone to a serious addict – satisfying, but missing something. I drew my own maps of the areas beyond the edges of Tolkien’s maps, and searched the story and the appendices for hooks to hang a story on. I fantasized about one day backpacking to Oxford and meeting Tolkien in his study. But none of it was enough. In desperation, I started branching out into other fantasy and science fiction writers like Fritz Leiber and Robert Heinlein, and so a lifelong taste was born.

My appreciation of literature has broadened since then to include the classics, foreign literature, graphic novels and selected mysteries. Yet for all the discoveries that have delighted me, none quite compared to those four days in which I read Tolkien for the first time.

When, shortly after, I began to have my first crushes on the girls in my class, the feeling wasn’t strange at all. I’d already experienced that intensity of emotions in the pages of three paperback books.

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