In praise of middle school teachers (or, how I found science fiction)

In the 1970s, we lived in Vienna for five wonderful years. I loved it, but all my experiences fall into one mental time frame, and I have trouble remembering what came first. So, I know that I was reading whatever was on my parents’ shelves, including a lot of Gogol, Dickens, and, for reasons known only to my father, The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini (he assured me I’d need it for college. I didn’t.) I also, of course, read Penelope Farmer, Nina Bawden, Betty Macdonald, Laura Lee Hope, and a whole lot of other things. Presumably some came before the others, but I don’t remember, and I wasn’t too discriminating. I just liked to read.

A pivotal change came when my uncle and aunt sent a Christmas gift – the complete Barsoom series. I recall that I said something excited about A Princess of Mars, and my father mockingly noted that I’d certainly never heard of it. (It’s that kind of family, but in a good way.) He was right, and I think I was probably more excited by the sheer number of books than anything else. But I dug into them, and was enthralled. I think that was probably step 1 towards science fiction. But I also read Narnia around that time, and Out of the Silent Planet.

During my last three years in Vienna, I was in middle school. Had I stayed one more year, I’d have had Jonathan Carroll for English, as my brother did. (My family makes a flash appearance in his first book, but that’s a different story.) In middle school, however, I had different teachers. One, I think, was either a substitute or a part-time teacher. I’ve never been able to track down her name. She was part Native American, which at the time seemed a pretty exotic concept, and I remember thinking that everyone had immigrated from somewhere. I don’t remember much more about her than that – except one thing.

Ms. X had a boyfriend. Never met him, never saw him. But he read science fiction. And when Ms. X somehow found out about my burgeoning interest, she gave me his old pulp magazines. He must have really loved her, because those copies of Analog and F&SF had some of the best stories I’ve ever read in them. I remember them to this day.

The stories included a serialized section of Wolfhead by Charles Harness, “Nation Without Walls” by David Drake, “The Cold Cash War” by Robert Lynn Asprin, “Rotating Cylinders and the Possibility of Global Causality Violation” by Larry Niven, “The Screwfly Solution” by James Tiptree/Raccoona Sheldon, and “Sparklebugs, Holly and Love” by Michael Coney.

In short, they had boatloads of fantastic stuff in them. But even beyond the above great stories, they had two others that confirmed me as a lifelong science fiction reader (and eventually writer).

First, there was the last part of “After the Festival”, by George R. R. Martin, published in book form as Dying of the Light. I’ve written elsewhere about how great a story that was – even just reading the last part of four, it touched me deeply.

Second, one of those pulpy, magical magazines had “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card. I was stunned by it. It was probably the perfect story for an 11 year old kid to read, and it brought me into science fiction like nothing had until then.

I guess I’d have ended up reading a lot of science fiction anyway. My great-aunt was a big fan, and introduced me indirectly to a grey Lensman or two. But I have to give a lot of credit to Ms. X. By the time I left Vienna, I was so focused on science fiction that a friend of mine thought The Early Asimov, Vol I would be just the thing to steal from a bookstore for me as a farewell gift. (I didn’t know he’d stolen it until later.) I still have all those old pulps (and that Early Asimov). They’re in ratty condition, so I doubt they’re worth anything. But they still hold a lot of value for me.

Thanks, Ms. X – and to your loving boyfriend, too!

PS for those who are curious, here are some of the magazines she gave me. Click for a full list of contents.

Analog, June 1977
Analog, August 1977
F&SF, December 1977

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