The Smallest Dragonboy Formative Essay

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The Smallest Dragonboy

by Anne McCaffrey

When the marvelous Anne McCaffrey died at the age of 85 in 2011, she left a huge hole in the science fiction field. Fortunately, she gave us hundreds of novels, essays, and short stories to help fill some of that hole, although new readers will never get the chance to see her in person, which was always a treat.

Anne McCaffrey is one of science fiction’s most popular authors. After her novel, The White Dragon, (1978) became one of the first science fiction novels to ever hit The New York Times bestseller list, Anne’s work remained a staple of bestseller lists for decades.

Most non-readers of McCaffrey associate her with the Dragonriders of Pern series and, because the series has “dragon” in the title, erroneously believe the series is fantasy. Instead, it examines human history on a planet called Pern. Science fiction tropes abound—a planet with an odd orbit, spaceships, telepathy, lost (but useful) technology, as well as the existence of the Other on two levels—the dragons themselves and the dragonriders, who bond with those dragons.

If Pern were the only thing Anne McCaffrey ever wrote, it would cement her place in science fiction forever. But it’s not. She also wrote the Brain & Brawn Ship series, which features such classic tales as The Ship Who Sang, the Catteni series, the Talents universe, and more series than I can name in this brief introduction.

McCaffrey’s importance to the field cannot be understated. She is the first woman to win a Hugo for fiction. (The first woman to win a Hugo period was Elinor Busby who, along with F. M. Busby, Burnett Toskey, and Wally Weber, won the Best Fanzine award in 1960.) McCaffrey was also the first woman to win the Nebula Award, winning it in the fourth year the award was given out.

Her awards are too numerous to list here, but they include the Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master award, several lifetime achievement awards, and the Golden Pen award, which is given by children to their favorite author.

With such a vast array of excellent fiction to choose from, I found it hard to pick the best story for this volume. McCaffrey excels at the novella length, and my favorites of hers are the longer pieces. Because of my word-length constraints for this volume, I spent a lot of happy hours reading her shorter stories.

And then I came across “The Smallest Dragonboy,” which I had not read before. It does everything I wanted in the perfect McCaffrey story. It’s entertaining, touching, and compelling. And it’s in her best known series.

If you’ve never read any of Anne McCaffrey’s work, this story will open doors for you that will keep you reading her excellent fiction for decades to come.

* * *

Although Keevan lengthened his walking stride as far as his legs would stretch, he couldn’t quite keep up with the other candidates. He knew he would be teased again.

Just as he knew many other things that his foster mother told him he ought not to know, Keevan knew that Beterli, the most senior of the boys, set that spanking pace just to embarrass him, the smallest dragonboy. Keevan would arrive, tail fork-end of the group, breathless, chest heaving, and maybe get a stem look from the instructing wing-second.

Dragonriders, even if they were still only hopeful candidates for the glowing eggs which were hardening on the hot sands of the Hatching Ground cavern, were expected to be punctual and prepared. Sloth was not tolerated by the Weyrleader of Benden Weyr. A good record was especially important now. It was very near hatching time, when the baby dragons would crack their mottled shells, and stagger forth to choose their lifetime companions. The very thought of that glorious moment made Keevan’s breath catch in his throat. To be chosen—to be a dragonrider! To sit astride the neck of a winged beast with jeweled eyes: to be his friend, in telepathic communion with him for life; to be his companion in good times and fighting extremes; to fly effortlessly over the lands of Pern! Or, thrillingly, between to any point anywhere on the world! Flying between was done on dragonback or not at all, and it was dangerous.

Keevan glanced upward, past the black mouths of the weyr caves in which grown dragons and their chosen riders lived, toward the Star Stones that crowned the ridge of the old volcano that was Benden Weyr. On the height, the blue watch dragon, his rider mounted on his neck, stretched the great transparent pinions that carried him on the winds of Pern to fight the evil Thread that fell at certain times from the skies. The many-faceted rainbow jewels of his eyes glistened fleet-ingly in the greeny sun. He folded his great wings to his back, and the watch pair resumed their statuelike pose of alertness.

Then the enticing view was obscured as Keevan passed into the Hatching Ground cavern. The sands underfoot were hot, even through heavy wher-hide boots. How the bootmaker had protested having to sew so small! Keeven was forced to wonder why being small was reprehensible. People were always calling him “babe” and shooing him away as being “too small” or “too young” for this or that. Keevan was constantly working, twice as hard as any other boy his age, to prove himself capable. What if his muscles weren’t as big as Beterli’s? They were just as hard. And if he couldn’t overpower anyone in a wrestling match, he could outdistance everyone in a footrace.

“Maybe if you run fast enough,” Beterli had jeered on the occasion when Keevan had been goaded to boast of his swiftness, “you could catch a dragon. That’s the only way you’ll make a dragonrider!”

“You just wait and see, Beterli, you just wait,” Keevan had replied. He would have liked to wipe the con-temptuous smile from Beterli’s face, but the guy didn’t fight fair even when a wingsecond was watching. “No one knows what Impresses a dragon!”

“They’ve got to be able to find you first, babe!”

Yes, being the smallest candidate was not an enviable position. It was therefore imperative that Keevan Impress a dragon in his first hatching. That would wipe the smile off every face in the cavern, and accord him the respect due any dragonrider, even the smallest one.

Besides, no one knew exactly what Impressed the baby dragons as they struggled from their shells in search of their lifetime partners.

“I like to believe that dragons see into a man’s heart,” Keevan’s foster mother, Mende, told him. “If they find goodness, honesty, a flexible mind, patience, courage—and you’ve got that in quantity, dear Keevan—that’s what dragons look for. I’ve seen many a well-grown lad left standing on the sands., Hatching Day, in favor of someone not so strong or tall or handsome. And if my memory serves me”—which it usually did: Mende knew every word of every Harper’s tale worth telling, although Keevan did not interrupt her to say so—”I don’t believe that F’lar, our Weyrleader, was all that tall when bronze Mnementh chose him. And Mnementh was the only bronze dragon of that hatching.”

Dreams of Impressing a bronze were beyond Keevan’s boldest reflections, although that goal dominated the thoughts of every other hopeful candidate. Green dragons were small and fast and more numerous. There was more prestige to Impressing a blue or brown than a green. Being practical, Keevan seldom dreamed as high as a big fighting brown, like Canth, F’nor’s fine fellow, the biggest brown on all Pern. But to fly a bronze? Bronzes were almost as big as the queen, and only they took the air when a queen flew at mating time. A bronze rider could aspire to become Weyrleader! Well, Keevan would console himself, brown riders could aspire to become wingseconds, and that wasn’t bad. He’d even settle for a green dragon: they were small, but so was he. No matter! He simply had to Impress a dragon his first time in the Hatching Ground. Then no one in the Weyr would taunt him anymore for being so small.

Shells, Keevan thought now, but the sands are hot!

“Impression time is imminent, candidates,” the wingsecond was saying as everyone crowded respectfully close to him. “See the extent of the striations on this promising egg.” The stretch marks were larger than yesterday.

Everyone leaned forward and nodded thoughtfully. That particular egg was the one Beterli had marked as his own, and no other candidate dared, on pain of being beaten by Beterli at his first opportunity, to approach it. The egg was marked by a large yellowish splotch in the shape of a dragon backwinging to land, talons outstretched to grasp rock. Everyone knew that bronze eggs bore distinctive markings. And naturally, Beterli, who’d been presented at eight Impressions already and was the biggest of the candidates, had chosen it.

“I’d say that the great opening day is almost upon us,” the wingsecond went on, and then his face assumed a grave expression. “As we well know, there are only forty eggs and seventy-two candidates. Some of you may be disappointed on the great day. That doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t dragonrider material, just that the dragon for you hasn’t been shelled. You’ll have other hatchings, and it’s no disgrace to be left behind an Impression or two. Or more.”

Keevan was positive that the wingsecond’s eyes rested on Beterli, who’d been stood off at so many Impressions already. Keevan tried to squinch down so the wingsecond wouldn’t notice him. Keevan had been reminded too often that he was eligible to be a candidate by one day only. He, of all the hopefuls, was most likely to be left standing on the great day. One more reason why he simply had to Impress at his first hatching.

“Now move about among the eggs,” the wingsecond said. “Touch them. We don’t know that it does any good, but it certainly doesn’t do any harm.”

Some of the boys laughed nervously, but everyone immediately began to circulate among the eggs. Berterli stepped up officiously to “his” egg, daring anyone to come near it. Keevan smiled, because he had already touched it—every inspection day, when the others were leaving the Hatching Ground and no one could see him crouch to stroke it.

Keevan had an egg he concentrated on, too, one drawn slightly to the far side of the others. The shell had a soft greenish-blue tinge with a faint creamy swirl design. The consensus was that this egg contained a mere green, so Keevan was rarely bothered by rivals.  He was somewhat perturbed then to see Beterli wandering over to him.

“I don’t know why you’re allowed in this Impression, Keevan. There are enough of us without a babe,” Beterli said, shaking his head.

“I’m of age.” Keevan kept his voice level, telling himself not to be bothered by mere words.

“Yah!” Beterli made a show of standing in his toetips. “You can’t even see over an egg; Hatching Day, you better get in front or the dragons won’t see you at all. ‘Course, you could get run down that way in the mad scramble. Oh, I forget, you can run fast, can’t you?”

“You’d better make sure a dragon sees you, this time, Beterli,” Keevan replied. “You’re almost overage, aren’t you?”

Beterli flushed and took a step forward, hand half-raised. Keevan stood his ground, but if Beterli advanced one more step, he would call the wingsecond. No one fought on the Hatching Ground. Surely Beterli knew that much.

Fortunately, at that moment, the wingsecond called the boys together and led them from the Hatching Ground to start on evening chores. There were “glows” to be replenished in the main kitchen caverns and sleeping cubicles, the major hallways, and the queen’s apartment. Firestone sacks had to be filled against Thread attack, and black rock brought to the kitchen hearths. The boys fell to their chores, tantalized by the odors of roasting meat. The population of the Weyr began to assemble for the evening meal, and the drag-onriders came in from the Feeding Ground on their sweep checks.

It was the time of day Keevan liked best: once the chores were done but before dinner was served, a fellow could often get close enough to the dragonriders to hear their talk. Tonight, Keevan’s father, K’last, was at the main dragonrider table. It puzzled Keevan how his father, a brown rider and a tall man, could be his father—because he, Keevan, was so small. It obviously puzzled K’last, too, when he deigned to notice his small son: “In a few more Turns, you’ll be as tall as I am—or taller!”

K’last was pouring Benden wine all around the table. The dragonriders were relaxing. There’d be no Thread attack for three more days, and they’d be in the mood to tell tall tales, better than Harper yarns, about impossible maneuvers they’d done a-dragonback. When Thread attack was closer, their talk would change to a discussion of tactics of evasion, of going between, how long to suspend there until the burning but fragile Thread would freeze and crack and fall harmlessly off dragon and man. They would dispute the exact moment to feed firestone to the dragon so he’d have the best flame ready to sear Thread midair and render it harmless to ground—and man—below. There was such a lot to know and understand about being a dragonrider that sometimes Keevan was overwhelmed. How would he ever be able to remember everything he ought to know at the right moment? He couldn’t dare ask such a question; this would only have given additional weight to the notion that he was too young yet to be a dragonrider.

“Having older candidates makes good sense,” L’vel was saying, as Keevan settled down near the table. “Why waste four to five years of a dragon’s fighting prime until his rider grows up enough to stand the rigors?” L’vel had Impressed a blue of Ramoth’s first clutch. Most of the candidates thought L’vel was marvelous because he spoke up in front of the older riders, who awed them. “That was well enough in the Interval when you didn’t need to mount the full Weyr complement to fight Thread. But not now. Not with more eligible candidates than ever. Let the babes wait.”

“Any boy who is over twelve Turns has the right to stand in the Hatching Ground,” K’last replied, a slight smile on his face. He never argued or got angry. Keevan wished he were more like his father. And oh, how he wished he were a brown rider! “Only a dragon—each particular dragon—knows what he wants in a rider. We certainly can’t tell. Time and again the theorists,” K’last’s smile deepened as his eyes swept those at the table, “are surprised by dragon choice. They never seem to make mistakes, however.”

“Now, K’last, just look at the roster this Impression. Seventy-two boys and only forty eggs. Drop off the twelve youngest, and there’s still a good field for the hatchlings to choose from. Shells! There are a couple of weyrlings unable to see over a wher egg much less a dragon! And years before they can ride Thread.”

“True enough, but the Weyr is scarcely under fighting strength, and if the youngest Impress, they’ll be old enough to fight when the oldest of our current dragons go between from senility.”

“Half the Weyr-bred lads have already been through several Impressions,” one of the bronze riders said then. “I’d say drop some of them off this time. Give the untried a chance.”

“There’s nothing wrong in presenting a clutch with as wide a choice as possible,” said the Weyrleader, who had joined the table with Lessa, the Weyrwoman.

“Has there ever been a case,” she said, smiling in her odd way at the riders, “where a hatchling didn’t choose?”

Her suggestion was almost heretical and drew astonished gasps from everyone, including the boys.

F’lar laughed. “You say the most outrageous things, Lessa.”

“Well, has there ever been a case where a dragon didn’t choose?”

“Can’t say as I recall one,” K’last replied.

“Then we continue in this tradition,” Lessa said firmly, as if that ended the matter.

But it didn’t. The argument ranged from one table to the other all through dinner, with some favoring a weeding out of the candidates to the most likely, lopping off those who were very young or who had had multiple opportunities to Impress. All the candidates were in a swivet, though such a departure from tradition would be to the advantage of many. As the evening progressed, more riders were favoring eliminating the youngest and those who’d passed four or more Impressions unchosen. Keevan felt he could bear such a dictum only if Beterli were also eliminated. But this seemed less likely than that Keevan would be turfed out, since the Weyr’s need was for fighting dragons and riders.

By the time the evening meal was over, no decision had been reached, although the Weyrleader had promised to give the matter due consideration.

He might have slept on the problem, but few of the candidates did. Tempers were uncertain in the sleeping caverns next morning as the boys were routed out of their beds to carry water and black rock and cover the “glows.” Twice Mende had to call Keevan to order for clumsiness.

“Whatever is the matter with you, boy?” she demanded in exasperation when he tipped blackrock short of the bin and sooted up the hearth.

“They’re going to keep me from this Impression.”

“What?” Mende stared at him. “Who?”

“You heard them talking at dinner last night. They’re going to turf the babes from the hatching.”

Mende regarded him a moment longer before touching his arm gently. “There’s lots of talk around a supper table, Keevan. And it cools as soon as the supper. I’ve heard the same nonsense before every hatching, but nothing is ever changed.”

“There’s always a first time,” Keevan answered, copying one of her own phrases.

“That’ll be enough of that, Keevan. Finish your job. If the clutch does hatch today, we’ll need full rock bins for the feast, and you won’t be around to do the filling. All my fosterlings make dragonriders.”

“The first time?” Keevan was bold enough to ask as he scooted off with the rockbarrow.

Perhaps, Keevan thought later, if he hadn’t been on that chore just when Beterli was also fetching black rock, things might have turned out differently. But he had dutifully trundled the barrow to the outdoor bunker for another load just as Beterli arrived on a similar errand.

“Heard the news, babe?” Beterli asked. He was grinning from ear to ear, and he put an unnecessary emphasis on the final insulting word.

“The eggs are cracking?” Keevan all but dropped the loaded shovel. Several anxieties flicked through his mind then: he was black with rock dust—would he have time to wash before donning the white tunic of candidacy? And if the eggs were hatching, why hadn’t the candidates been recalled by the wingsecond?

“Naw! Guess again!” Beterli was much too pleased with himself.

With a sinking heart, Keevan knew what the news must be, and he could only stare with intense desolation at the older boy.

“C’mon! Guess, babe!”

“I’ve no time for guessing games,” Keevan managed to say with indifference. He began to shovel black rock into the barrow as fast as he could.

“I said, guess.” Beterli grabbed the shovel.

“And I said I have no time for guessing games.”

Beterli wrenched the shovel from Keevan’s hands. “Guess!”

“I’ll have that shovel back, Beterli.” Keevan straightened up, but he didn’t come to Beterli’s bulky shoulder. From somewhere, other boys appeared, some with barrows, some mysteriously alerted to the prospect of a confrontation among their numbers.

“Babes don’t give orders to candidates around here, babe!”

Someone sniggered and Keevan, incredulous, knew that he must’ve been dropped from the candidacy.

He yanked the shovel from Beterli’s loosened grasp. Snarling, the older boy tried to regain possession, but Keevan clung with all his strength to the handle, dragged back and forth as the stronger boy jerked the shovel about.

With a sudden, unexpected movement, Beterli rammed the handle into Keevan’s chest, knocking him over the barrow handles. Keevan felt a sharp, painful jab behind his left ear, an unbearable pain in his left shin, and then a painless nothingness.

Mende’s angry voice roused him, and startled, he tried to throw back the covers, thinking he’d overslept. But he couldn’t move, so firmly was he tucked into his bed. And then the constriction of a bandage on his head and the dull sickishness in his leg brought back recent occurrences.

“Hatching?” he cried.

“No, lovey,” Mende said in a kind voice. Her hand was cool and gentle on his forehead. “Though there’s some as won’t be at any hatching again.” Her voice took on a stern edge.

Keevan looked beyond her to see the Weyrwoman, who was frowning with irritation.

“Keevan, will you tell me what occurred at the black-rock bunker?” asked Lessa in an even voice.

He remembered Beterli now and the quarrel over the shovel and . . . what had Mende said about some not being at any hatching? Much as he hated Beterli, he couldn’t bring himself to tattle on Beterli and force him out of candidacy.

“Come, lad,” and a note of impatience crept into the Weyrwoman’s voice. “I merely want to know what happened from you, too. Mende said she sent you for black rock. Beterli—and every Weyrling in the cavern—seems to have been on the same errand. What happened?”

“Beterli took my shovel. I hadn’t finished with it.”

“There’s more than one shovel. What did he say to you?”

“He’d heard the news.”

“What news?” The Weyrwoman was suddenly amused.

“That . . . that . . . there’d been changes.”

“Is that what he said?”

“Not exactly”

“What did he say? C’mon, lad, I’ve heard from everyone else, you know.”

“He said for me to guess the news.”

“And you fell for that old gag?” The Weyrwoman’s irritation returned.

“Consider all the talk last night at supper, Lessa,” Mende said. “Of course the boy would think he’d been eliminated.”

“In effect, he is, with a broken skull and leg.” Lessa touched his arm in a rare gesture of sympathy. “Be that as it may, Keevan, you’ll have other Impressions. Beterli will not. There are certain rules that must be observed by all candidates, and his conduct proves him unacceptable to the Weyr.”

She smiled at Mende and then left.

“I’m still a candidate?” Keevan asked urgently.

“Well, you are and you aren’t, lovey,” his foster mother said. “Is the numbweed working?” she asked, and when he nodded, she said, “You just rest. I’ll bring you some nice broth.”

At any other time in his life, Keevan would have relished such cosseting, but now he just lay there worrying. Beterli had been dismissed. Would the others think it was his fault? But everyone was there! Beterli provoked that fight. His worry increased, because although he heard excited comings and goings in the passageway, no one tweaked back the curtain across the sleeping alcove he shared with five other boys. Surely one of them would have to come in sometime.  No, they were all avoiding him. And something else was wrong. Only he didn’t know what.

Mende returned with broth and beachberry bread. “Why doesn’t anyone come see me, Mende? I haven’t done anything wrong, have I? I didn’t ask to have Beterli turfed out.”

Mende soothed him, saying everyone was busy with noontime chores and no one was angry with him. They were giving him a chance to rest in quiet. The numbweed made him drowsy, and her words were fair enough. He permitted his fears to dissipate. Until he heard a hum. Actually, he felt it first, in the broken shin bone and his sore head. The hum began to grow. Two things registered suddenly in Keevan’s groggy mind: the only white candidate’s robe still on the pegs in the chamber was his; and the dragons hummed when a clutch was being laid or being hatched. Impression! And he was flat abed.

Bitter, bitter disappointment turned the warm broth sour in his belly. Even the small voice telling him that he’d have other opportunities failed to alleviate his crushing depression. This was the Impression that mattered! This was his chance to show everyone, from Mende to K’last to L’vel and even the Weyrleader that he, Keevan, was worthy of being a dragonrider.

He twisted in bed, fighting against the tears that threatened to choke him. Dragonmen don’t cry! Dragonmen learn to live with pain.

Pain? The leg didn’t actually pain him as he rolled about on his bedding. His head felt sort of stiff from the tightness of the bandage. He sat up, an effort in itself since the numbweed made exertion difficult. He touched the splinted leg; the knee was unhampered. He had no feeling in his bone, really. He swung himself carefully to the side of his bed and stood slowly. The room wanted to swim about him. He closed his eyes, which made the dizziness worse, and he had to clutch the wall.

Gingerly, he took a step. The broken leg dragged. It hurt in spite of the numbweed, but what was pain to a dragonman?

No one had said he couldn’t go to the Impression. “You are and you aren’t,” were Mende’s exact words.

Clinging to the wall, he jerked off his bedshirt. Stretching his arm to the utmost, he jerked his white candidate’s tunic from the peg. Jamming first one arm and then the other into the holes, he pulled it over his head. Too bad about the belt. He couldn’t wait. He hobbled to the door, hung on to the curtain to steady himself. The weight on his leg was unwieldy. He wouldn’t get very far without something to lean on. Down by the bathing pool was one of the long crooknecked poles used to retrieve clothes from the hot washing troughs. But it was down there, and he was on the level above. And there was no one nearby to come to his aid: everyone would be in the Hatching Ground right now, eagerly waiting for the first egg to crack.

The humming increased in volume and tempo, an urgency to which Keevan responded, knowing that his time was all too limited if he was to join the ranks of the hopeful boys standing around the cracking eggs. But if he hurried down the ramp, he’d fall flat on his face.

He could, of course, go flat on his rear end, the way crawling children did. He sat down, sending a jarring stab of pain through his leg and up to the wound on the back of his head. Gritting his teeth and blinking away tears, Keevan scrabbled down the ramp. He had to wait a moment at the bottom to catch his breath. He got to one knee, the injured leg straight out in front of him. Somehow, he managed to push himself erect, though the room seemed about to tip over his ears. It wasn’t far to the crooked stick, but it seemed an age before he had it in his hand.

Then the humming stopped!

Keevan cried out and began to hobble frantically across the cavern, out to the bowl of the Weyr. Never had the distance between living caverns and the Hatching Ground seemed so great. Never had the Weyr been so breathlessly silent. It was as if the multitude of people and dragons watching the hatching held every breath in suspense. Not even the wind muttered down the steep sides of the bowl. The only sounds to break the stillness were Keevan’s ragged gasps and the thump-thud of his stick on the hard-packed ground. Sometimes he had to hop twice on his good leg to maintain his balance. Twice he fell into the sand and had to pull himself up on the stick, his white tunic no longer spotless. Once he jarred himself so badly he couldn’t get up immediately.

Then he heard the first exhalation of the crowd, the oohs, the muted cheer, the susurrus of excited whispers. An egg had cracked, and the dragon had chosen his rider. Desperation increased Keevan’s hobble. Would he never reach the arching mouth of the Hatching Ground?

Another cheer and an excited spate of applause spurred Keevan to greater effort. If he didn’t get there in moments, there’d be no unpaired hatchling left. Then he was actually staggering into the Hatchling Ground, the sands hot on his bare feet.

No one noticed his entrance or his halting progress. And Keevan could see nothing but the backs of the white-robed candidates, seventy of them ringing the area around the eggs. Then one side would surge forward or back and there’d be a cheer. Another dragon had been Impressed. Suddenly a large gap appeared in the white human wall, and Keevan had his first sight of the eggs. There didn’t seem to be any left uncracked, and he could see the lucky boys standing beside wobble-legged dragons. He could hear the unmistakable plaintive crooning of hatchlings and their squawks of protest as they’d fall awkwardly in the sand.

Suddenly he wished that he hadn’t left his bed, that he’d stayed away from the Hatching Ground. Now everyone would see his ignominious failure. So he scrambled as desperately to reach the shadowy walls of the Hatching Ground as he had struggled to cross the bowl. He mustn’t be seen.

He didn’t notice, therefore, that the shifting group of boys remaining had begun to drift in his direction. The hard pace he had set himself and his cruel disappointment took their double toll of Keevan. He tripped and collapsed sobbing to the warm sands. He didn’t see the consternation in the watching Weyrfolk above the Hatching Ground, nor did he hear the excited whispers of speculation. He didn’t know that the Weyrleader and Weyrwoman had dropped to the arena and were making their way toward the knot of boys slowly moving in the direction of the entrance.

“Never seen anything like it,” the Weyrleader was saying. “Only thirty-nine riders chosen. And the bronze trying to leave the Hatching Ground without making Impression.”

“A case in point of what I said last night,” the Weyrwoman replied, “where a hatchling makes no choice because the right boy isn’t there.”

“There’s only Beterli and K’last’s young one missing. And there’s a full wing of likely boys to choose from. . .”

“None acceptable, apparently. Where is the creature going? He’s not heading for the entrance after all. Oh, what have we there, in the shadows?”

Keevan heard with dismay the sound of voices nearing him. He tried to burrow into the sand. The mere thought of how he would be teased and taunted now was unbearable.

Don’t worry! Please don’t worry! The thought was urgent, but not his own.

Someone kicked sand over Keevan and butted roughly against him.

“Go away. Leave me alone!” he cried.

Why? was the injured-sounding question inserted into his mind. There was no voice, no tone, but the question was there, perfectly clear, in his head.

Incredulous, Keevan lifted his head and stared into the glowing jeweled eyes of a small bronze dragon. His wings were wet, the tips drooping in the sand. And he sagged in the middle on his unsteady legs, although he was making a great effort to keep erect.

Keevan dragged himself to his knees, oblivious of the pain in his leg. He wasn’t even aware that he was ringed by the boys passed over, while thirty-one pairs of resentful eyes watched him Impress the dragon. The Weyrmen looked on, amused, and surprised at the draconic choice, which could not be forced. Could not be questioned. Could not be changed.

Why? asked the dragon again. Don’t you like me? His eyes whirled with anxiety, and his tone was so piteous that Keevan staggered forward and threw his arms around the dragon’s neck, stroking his eye ridges, patting the damp, soft hide, opening the fragile-looking wings to dry them, and wordlessly assuring the hatchling over and over again that he was the most perfect, most beautiful, most beloved dragon in the Weyr, in all the Weyrs of Pern.

“What’s his name, K’van?” asked Lessa, smiling warmly at the new dragonrider. K’van stared up at her for a long moment. Lessa would know as soon as he did. Lessa was the only person who could “receive” from all dragons, not only her own Ramoth. Then he gave her a radiant smile, recognizing the traditional shortening of his name that raised him forever to the rank of dragonrider.

My name is Heth, the dragon thought mildly, then hiccuped in sudden urgency. I’m hungry.

“Dragons are born hungry,” said Lessa, laughing. “F’lar, give the boy a hand. He can barely manage his own legs, much less a dragon’s.”

K’van remembered his stick and drew himself up. “We’ll be Just fine, thank you.”

“You may be the smallest dragonrider ever, young K’van,” Flar said, “but you’re one of the bravest!”

And Heth agreed! Pride and joy so leaped in both chests that K’van wondered if his heart would burst right out of his body. He looped an arm around Heth’s neck and the pair, the smallest dragonboy and the hatchling who wouldn’t choose anybody else, walked out of the Hatching Ground together forever.

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Framed

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For each one of us, there is a book, or a series, that hooked us on genre fiction. Maybe it was the first SF book you read, maybe you had to read a couple before you hit the one that hooked you.

Tell me what book got you to become a fan of SFF, and why?

This is what they said…

Gail Carriger

Gail Carriger writes comedic steampunk mixed with urbane fantasy in 3 series: two adult, the Parasol Protectorate and the Custard Protocol, and one YA, the Finishing School series. Her books are published in 18 different languages. She has 12 NYT bestsellers via 7 different lists (including #1 in Manga). She was once an archaeologist and is overly fond of shoes, hedgehogs, and tea. www.gailcarriger.com

Thirty some odd years ago I wandered into a bookstore, picked up a newly released hard back with a red head, two horses, and a sword on the cover and managed to persuade my rather poor parents to see to the exorbitant expense by simply refusing to let that book out of my grasp.

I was eight when I brought Alanna: The First Adventure home with me and it could have been yesterday. Until that moment, immured in a world full of Tolkien, Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Water Babies, and Wind in the Willows (AKA men writing about men for boys) I did not know a woman in fantasy could be strong, smart, stubborn, witty, and courageous. Alanna is responsible for changing who I was as a reader, but also who I was as a female.

Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet defined my young adulthood, the final book in the series released as I entered junior high. They literally (and I do mean literally – pun intended) changed my life. Because of Alanna I have defined myself, ever since, as a reader of the SF/F genre. In high school, a mutual love of Tamora Pierce cemented my relationship with the girl who would become the woman who is one of my best friends in the entire world. That same friend still beta reads my novels for me, and still keeps me honest to the tenants of the Lioness as we see them: women with the courage to be themselves. She is also the friend who took me to my first science fiction convention. She was with me when we finally got to meet Tamora Pierce in person at my first WorldCon. We still share book recommendations.

Ask me to name my favorite series of all time and I still don’t have to think about it. If I could read nothing else for the rest of my life it would be the Song of the Lioness quartet.

The reason I write, is to be that author for someone else.

Tansy Rayner Roberts

Tansy Rayner Roberts is an Australian SF & fantasy author, and a Hugo Award winning blogger and Hugo Award winning podcaster. Tansy recently completed a serialised novel, Musketeer Space, available to read for free on her blog, and her latest piece of published short fiction is“Fake Geek Girl” at the Australian Review of Fiction. She writes crime fiction under the pen-name of Livia Day. Come and find TansyRR on Twitter or Tumblr, sign up for her Author Newsletter, or listen to the Verity! podcast and Galactic Suburbia!

I started reading epic fantasy because of peer pressure. I went away to England for half a year in Grade 8, and came home to find that my friends were all obsessively reading The Belgariad. I honestly had to read the books out of self-defence, because they kept quoting funny bits and I wanted to find out who Ce’Nedra was.

The same friends introduced me to Blake’s 7, and the combination of all that sarcasm, and the heroes-with-banter-and-mountain-climbing style of David and Leigh Eddings, made something go fzzt in my head.

It was a slippery slope from there – by the time my fourteenth birthday rolled around, I was immersed in Jennifer Roberson’s Cheysuli series and already plotting my own ten-book epic fantasy series that was basically Blake’s 7 in a forest.

All of this is true, though I was already so far down the Doctor Who rabbit hole by the time I hit high school that I can’t mark a time when that particular attachment began (my mother took me along to a Doctor Who fan club as a kid – they made me secretary when I was about 7).

SFF doesn’t have a starting point for me, but epic fantasy does, very strongly – The Belgariad was the beginning, and it shaped and defined the genre for me (it was another decade before I would successfully make it through Lord of the Rings). The later books of the Malloreon and the Tamuli were still coming out, once a year, through my high school years, and I remember the agony of waiting and the joy of acquiring.

Most important of all, though, was the experience of reading the books with my friends, talking them over, bitching about the cover art, waiting for the next one in real time. We read and shared a bunch of books over those high school/college years, introducing each other to so many different authors. Still, it was the Belgariad, the Elenium and their sequel series which stand out for me as the works that not only introduced me to epic fantasy as a genre, but introduced me to the gleeful experience of reading the same books at the same time with people I like.

Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee’s collection Conservation of Shadows came out in 2013, and his space opera novel Ninefox Gambit is due out in June 2016 from Solaris Books. His stories have appeared in Tor.com, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other venues. He lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy cat, and has not yet been eaten by gators.

For me this was Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight, which I read because my best friend in 3rd grade was reading another McCaffrey novel (Dragonsong) and I wanted to try something by the same author. While I like dragons fine, what I really loved was the world–I spent the next several years writing dreadful stories that started off with copycat prologues about the star systems the stories were set in–and the way that Lessa’s use of time travel completely blew my mind. I spent the next several years reading all the McCaffrey I could get my hands on, but nothing matched the sheer wonder of my first exposure to a time travel plot.

Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky is an American literary, speculative fiction and fantasy writer, poet, and editor living in California.

My parents were huge science fiction and fantasy fans before I was born. They have a large bookshelf that they built themselves into their bedroom wall with heights perfect to accommodate their accumulating paperbacks. The top shelf which spans all the way to the ceiling has vertical piles of old Asimov’s magazines dating back to the 70s. A couple years ago, I was able to introduce them to Sheila Williams, and I know it really thrilled them to show her their shelves containing the weight of Asimovs history.

As science fiction and fantasy fans, my parents provided me a lot of that type of fiction in my early reading/listening material. I heard a fair amount of Anne McCaffrey, and while some of the sexual subtext went over my head, I really grooved on the ideas of hatchings and different colored dragons. They also read me Bradbury and Eleanor Cameron and a bunch of other things.

I was always going to be in a web of science fiction and fantasy after that, but I can remember two other huge draws that changed my interaction with media. One was Fairy Tale Theatre by Shelley Duval which introduced me to the concept of fairy tales built with character and humor, shaped by whimsical and intelligent hands. Another was Star Trek which I came on when I was eleven and which sent me into many day dreams about departing on space ships.

I suppose, if I were being reductionist, I could even point everything all the way back to Sondheim’s Into the Woods which I’ve known as long as I can remember. It’s a musical that’s also a fantasy about reweaving cultural narratives to discover deeper emotional truths–and that’s a good summary of one of the things that inspires me most as a reader and writer.

This is not, of course, a tidy answer to your question. Sorry about that.

Beth Cato

Beth Cato is the author of The Clockwork Dagger steampunk fantasy series from Harper Voyager. Her short fiction is in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Daily Science Fiction. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.

Dragonlance. I was twelve years old. It was 1992. I had fallen in love with Final Fantasy II for Super Nintendo a few months before, and had already sought out medieval historical fiction at the library. My big brother’s best friend lent us copies of the first two Dragonlance Chronicles books. As soon as my brother set the first book down, I started reading. I couldn’t wait for my brother to go back to high school to ask his friend for the third book. I went to the mall and squealed in delight that B. Dalton had it on the shelf. That was the first one I bought.

I shared the growing collection of Dragonlance books with my brother, and we agreed that the Chronicles and Legends books were the best. I mean, Raistlin. Hello. I had some Dragonlance calendars and one of them had Larry Elmore’s Legends 1 cover as the centerfold. Raistlin Majere’s eerie hourglass eyes watched me as I slept for years.

My teen years were spent firmly entrenched in the fantasy genre. I read some other TSR series like Forgotten Realms and Ravenloft, and so many other series and authors. The ones I re-read the most were Dragonlance and the series authors’ other trilogy, The Rose of the Prophet. Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s worlds helped me survive some rough times.

Tehani Wessely

Tehani Wessely was a founding member of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine in 2001 and started her own boutique publishing house, FableCroft Publishing, in 2010. Now firmly entrenched in Australian speculative fiction and independent press, she has judged for several national literary awards and reads far more in one genre than is healthy.

In some ways, I’ve always been hooked on genre. I mean, all those teenage years reading historical fiction was really just preparation for a love of high fantasy, right? I wove my way from horse books through romance to Virginia Andrews, Stephen King and Dean Koontz, all of which paved the way for my passion for speculative fiction later, for my mind.

I remember adoring the Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce at about 15 and reading Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin at about the same time but it wasn’t until I was 19 and a friend handed me Magician by Raymond Feist that I was truly hooked. It was Christmas, and I remember staying up until 3am reading because I couldn’t put them darn thing down. It was a case of the right book at the right time — I went on to devour every Feist I could get my hands on, and when the same friend said, “well if you like that, you’ll probably like David Eddings too”, I went on to gorge on the Tamuli, Elenium, Belgariad and Mallorean (yes, in that order — yes, I’m a little odd). And, hard as it is to comprehend in this age when I practically live at my computer, when I first used the internet at university in 1995, Eddings and Feist were the first sites I ever looked up.

But the real clincher, the author whose books meant I was always going to be a speculative fiction reader, the one whose fandom I first became a real part of (who remembers The Kitchen Table?) was Anne McCaffrey. Believe it or not, the owner of my local corner store at the time was the one who speared me into these — I went in once with an Eddings book in my hand (see, this is one of the reasons print books are still useful!) and he insisted on loaning me a copy of The White Dragon — my McCaffrey collection exploded from there. I have every single one of her books, and the collaborations, and even the Atlas of Pern and the artbook too! It was love, and while I may still venture outside speculative fiction at various times (hello, regency romance binge earlier this year), I always come back.

Always.

Alan Baxter

Alan Baxter is a British-Australian author who writes dark fantasy, horror and sci-fi, rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He also teaches Kung Fu. He lives among dairy paddocks on the beautiful south coast of NSW, Australia, with his wife, son, dog and cat. He’s the award-winning author of six novels and over sixty short stories and novellas. So far. Read extracts from his novels, a novella and short stories at his website – www.warriorscribe.com – or find him on Twitter @AlanBaxter and Facebook, and feel free to tell him what you think. About anything.

I read a lot of big fat fantasy from about the age of ten or eleven. I can’t remember the order in which I read certain things which became absolutely formative for me as a reader and a writer. And as a person! The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were in there, of course, but they came later. The original Shannara books and the Belgariad were certainly transporting sagas. Feist’s Magician and its sequels, and the ongoing books with Janny Wurts rate highly for the period. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books blew my mind and caused me to write my first fan letter. And she wrote back, by hand, on a postcard. One of my most treasured possessions.

But all of those things, whatever order I may have read them in, don’t have quite the impact of one book that bent my tiny mind and still lives inside me. At around the same time as I was reading the stuff mentioned above, and others, and before I moved on to include science fiction and horror quite extensively, I read The Chronicles of Morgaine. I didn’t realise at the time, but that volume was an omnibus edition of C J Cherryh’s first novel, Gate of Ivrel (1976), Well of Shiuan (1978) and Fires of Azeroth (1979).

I read the saga thinking of it as fantasy, when they’re perhaps better classified as science fiction, given that the gates, time-travel, multiple worlds and so on are clearly SF tropes. But each of the worlds is largely fantasy, with faux-medieval settings and low levels of tech and industry. Sometimes the books are listed as science fantasy and that’s fine with me, but Cherryh herself calls them fantasy novels, so I’m sticking with that. Regardless, the scope and epic nature of the story is staggering and perhaps it’s the genre-mashing that really appealed to me. As a writer, I’ve been a genre-masher ever since. And I knew I was a rusted on fan of SFF after reading that book. I even DM’d an extensive AD&D game right after reading it, shamelessly plagiarising the plot and devices, which was perhaps my own first foray into epic storytelling. Morgaine herself is one of the best characters in fantasy, so different to anyone else I’d read about at the time. And the story was really quite dark, which appealed to me greatly then and still does!

Whenever I think about formative novels of my youth, Morgaine always rides high. And now I want to read it again!

Sarah Hendrix

Sarah Hendrix would like to think she’s awesome, but her kids would wink and tell her: “No you’re not, dude, don’t lie.” To spite them, she does a little bit of everything from publicist work for Apex Publications to slush reading for Dagan Books and co-hosting #sffwrtcht on Twitter. She staves off insanity by untangling her kitten from yarn and working with tiny beads. Despite her heavy workload, she still finds time to write and edit her own stories and game with her fiancé. Her stories can be found in the In Situ and the FISHanthology, both from Dagan Books. You can follow her on her blog

In my grade school we had only a small library and I was one of those kids who went through books like many go through flavors of bubble gum. When I was about 8 I began reading mysteries– Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys–and fell in love with horses and read every Walter Farley book I could get my hands on. But I soon ran out of books to read.

It was then I discovered the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books through those book flyers that every parent dreads seeing. The first ones I found were mystery related but then I got a hold of some SF and Fantasy themed ones and I was hooked. I read and reread those until they started falling apart.

Over the summer that year I helped my baby sitter show cattle at various fairs. She read and knew I loved books and let me choose one to take home with me.

The book I chose was a Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. It had a unicorn and a kid on the cover. (Heck the cover was enough to convince me to pick the book up.) The back hinted of mystery and an adventure. I spent my free time and secretly stayed up late to read it.

It was the first real SFF book I read. It had a huge impact on me. While I didn’t really connect with Meg or Charles, the book opened up questions that most 8 or 9 year olds probably don’t spend evenings pondering. Was travel across time and through different universes possible? Was magic real? Are magical creatures out there? Wondering “what if” wasn’t just a random event anymore.

From there I sought out other genre books. I read very quickly and eventually had little to read in the school library. I then began to devour what was in the county library, jumping grade levels until I was reading Stephen King’s It in 7th grade.

On occasion I go back and skim through A Wrinkle In Time. It’s not the same book for me as it was when I was 8, but it’s still important. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be writing and exploring worlds if I had never picked up that book.

Olivia Waite

Olivia Waite writes romance, historical fiction, fantasy, and sci-fi — often at the same time, but not necessarily in that order. Her workshops for writers are consistently popular and well-reputed, and she contributed an essay to the Speculative Fiction 2014 anthology. A talented overthinker and world-class prodigy of self-doubt, she can be found in Seattle and on Twitter as @O_Waite.

My appalling confession: I was guided to genre by the chalk-dusted hand of elementary education. One of my grade-school English textbooks was a board-approved anthology of poems and age-appropriate shorts, meant to develop facility with language and the written word. Among all the Poe and Kipling and “To Build a Fire” — and way, way too much O. Henry, damn him — some crafty genre fan had slipped in Anne McCaffrey’s “The Smallest Dragonboy.” Battered, lonely kid finds unconditional love from a fire-breathing, mind-speaking, flying pet he can ride? I was hooked. I would tune out my teacher and flip the pages to that story, reading it over and over and letting Mark Twain happen to other people.

There was some Bradbury in the book, too, I recall — but it was the one where all the kids are super-mean to Margot about rain and my tender young heart rebelled against it on principle.

I went questing for more McCaffrey and found the lime-green wonder that was Dragonflight, with its bratty, mistrustful heroine and admittedly messy sexual politics. And in the front, a map, and a timeline. This was the first time I’d found a series that had created a whole complete world for the exploring, with a rich history behind it. There were so many different kinds of stories in the series: large-scale planet-saving epics with Lessa and F’lar, stories of gifted, deeply lonely teens like Menolly, the prequels that revealed the sci-fi underpinnings of the fantasy world. So many things were happening, and we got to see them all. It is no exaggeration to say I dreamed of living there. Still do, sometimes. Later I would find Valdemar, and Discworld my one true love, but Pern was my first — and you never forget your first.

Anthony Cardno

Anthony R. Cardno calls northwest New Jersey home when he’s not traveling the country as an instructor on regulatory compliance. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Shroud, A Thousand Words for War, Willard & Maple, Chelsea Station, Beyond the Sun, Oomph (A Little Super Goes A Long Way), Tales of the Shadowmen, Vol. 10, Full Throttle Space Tales Vol 6, and Galactic Games. He published the charity anthology The Many Tortures of Anthony Cardno, with work by twenty-two genre authors, and wrote a short Christmas novel, The Firflake. He can usually be found on Twitter as @talekyn and on anthonycardno.com.

The first science fiction book I remember reading, in fifth or sixth grade, was Robert Silverberg’s long-out-of-print To Open the Sky, a group of linked novellas about the rise of two new science-based religions whose goals are the extension of human life/immortality and the conquest of the stars. The main characters are the men who move up through the ranks of the opposing religions (one a splinter from the other); major characters from early novellas becoming supporting cast for later stories. I particularly identified with Christopher Mondschein, the central character of the second novella, although I didn’t realize why at that first reading. (Mondschein allows himself to be brainwashed into being someone he’s not, and then has to deal with the repercussions of his choices for the rest of his life.) But beyond Mondschein, the book was the first to really make me see that super-powers and space-faring didn’t have to be kept separate (Superman can’t meet Star Trek! Super-powered aliens have to join the Legion of Super-Heroes!); to my mind at the time, Silverberg melded those two seamlessly and that was the most exciting part of the book. I’ve re-read it every four years or so since that first reading (and yes, I still have the same tattered paperback), and I notice something new every time. The book isn’t perfect, particularly where it comes to women: there are only three female characters who have even nominal importance and at least one of those goes nameless for the entire book. But it captured my imagination early, and continues to give me things to think about.

The first series that pulled me in was the Perry Rhodan books, translated by Forry Ackerman. Introduced to them by a friend in high school, I bought every volume I could find. (Also promptly lost them in a move, and have recently almost completed rebuilding the set, but that’s another story). Space opera to the nth degree, with tons of huge personalities, even huger set pieces, and plenty of action. Just pure unadulterated fun. Also a product of their time and country of origin, no doubt, but for me they were the bridge from television (Star Trek reruns and Star Blazers in translation) to print SF. I swear I’m going to reread them once I’ve got the complete set, and we’ll see if the haze of nostalgia parts. And yes, I know, the volumes Ackerman translated barely skim the surface compared to the amount of Perry Rhodan material available in the original German. If I spoke/read German, the collector in me would probably be seeking those volumes out, too, to see how the series progressed and changed over the intervening decades.

Ann Vandermeer

Ann VanderMeer currently serves as an acquiring fiction editor for Tor.com, Cheeky Frawg Books, and weirdfictionreview.com. She was the editor-in-chief for Weird Tales for five years, during which time she was nominated three times for the Hugo Award, winning one. Along with multiple nominations for the Shirley Jackson Award, she also has won a World Fantasy Award and a British Fantasy Award for co-editing The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. Other projects have included Best American Fantasy, three Steampunk anthologies, and a humor book, The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals. Her latest anthologies include The Time Traveler’s Almanac, Sisters of the Revolution, an anthology of feminist speculative fiction and The Bestiary, an anthology of original fiction and art. Upcoming in 2016 is The Big Book of Science Fiction.

The Oz books by L. Frank Baum is the series that started me on this adventure. My father had the complete collection of 14 volumes, with the original artwork by John R. Neil, when he was a boy and I was lucky enough that he held onto them into adulthood so that I could enjoy them as well. I believe my dad still has them. Truly a treasure.

My dad is a huge fan of fantastical literature, including science fiction, fantasy and also adventure. In addition to the Oz books, he had all the Jules Verne books as well as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. I read them all, but it was the Oz books that spoke to me first and loudest.

I found those books to be so intriguing. I was introduced to so many strange characters and places. The way Baum presented them made me feel excited and a bit scared. You have to admit, not everything that happens in Oz is glorious and magical. Some of those characters were evil – but not just one-dimensional. They still held your interest and sometimes even earned your pity. Looking back on those books now, what strikes me the most is how all these weird and wonderful creatures and situations were introduced and just accepted. Dorothy seemed to go through life unfazed about it all. So in a way, it made me look at the world from the same perspective. To take each individual as they are, to see beyond the outer weirdness and simply embrace all the strangeness.

My parents were divorced when I was very young so I didn’t see my father as often as I wanted. There was a time when we were completely estranged from each other and it broke my heart. Those books, really any fantastical literature, brought us back together. It was (and still is) a shared love. Isn’t it fitting that Mr. Baum primarily wrote those books to entertain his own children?

I was inspired to pursue speculative literature as my passion. And since my talents are more in the reading of fiction than in the writing of it, what better way to follow my dreams than as an editor, anthologist and educator? I get the opportunity to share the stories that I love with the world. How cool is that? And I can’t tell you how happy I am whenever I place one of my books in my father’s hands. I don’t know if it would have happened without the Oz books. Thank you, L. Frank Baum.

Sarah Williams

Sarah Williams is a reader, a computer programmer, a role-playing gamer, and a horse lover. Despite a truly alarming number of attempts, she has not yet properly thrown herself at the ground and missed.

I had to stop and think about this one, because I don’t remember a specific book; I remember a shelf.

My dad is a big SFF fan, and he kept his books on this one tiny shelf in the house I grew up in. I remember being terribly excited and proud when he said I could borrow some of those books, because I was thirsty for words. (I was the kid who left the library with a stack of books too tall to see over and returned them all, read, two weeks later.) From that shelf, I read some of Asprin’s Myth books at an age where I know there was humor I wasn’t equipped to understand; I read Rick Cook’s Wizardry books before I actually understood what Unix was. I read the one Ringworld book my dad kept there. I read Phule’s Company and Phule’s Paradise and the Lord of the Rings. I even remember some of the more obscure ones – Bicycling Through Space and Time and The 22nd Gear by Mike Sirota, anyone?

If I had to pick a single book or series out of that shelf, though – the thing that I keep coming back to, decades later, and the thing that holds a special place in my heart? Write my name down next to Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I grew up on a steady diet of bad science fiction movies and good British comedy, and the Guide hits all the best funny bones. That was the enormous tome I carried around for months, at a time when most of my peers were reading Babysitter’s Club and Goosebumps. It was strange and weird and wacky, and I had no idea that proper adults published books like that. My search for more lead me first to Xanth and then to Esther Friesner and the Chicks in Chainmail anthologies. Then I realized that there were authors like Mercedes Lackey and Judith Tarr out there, writing books and stories with horses, and – well, all bets were off at that point.

Pamela Sargent

Pamela Sargent has won the Nebula and Locus Awards and was honored in 2012 with the Pilgrim Award, given by the Science Fiction Research Association for lifetime contributions to sf and fantasy scholarship. Her many novels include Venus of Dreams, Ruler of the Sky, The Shore of Women, and Climb the Wind, all available from Open Road Media; she is also editor of the Women of Wonder anthologies. Her new novel, Season of the Cats, is just out from Wildside Press in hardcover and her Seed Trilogy (Earthseed, Farseed, and Seed Seeker) was published by Tor. Her website is at www.pamelasargent.com.

The first science fiction novel I recall reading was Man of Many Minds by E. Everett Evans and that was by accident. My elementary school was part of a program that let kids order paperbacks at a bargain price, presumably to encourage reading, and a copy of Man of Many Minds was included by mistake in one of my packages along with the historical and Gothic novels that were my preferred reading at that age. But much as I enjoyed the Evans novel, which was my introduction to such exotic and strange ideas as mental telepathy, space travel, and alien worlds, that wasn’t the book that hooked me.

Some time after that, I encountered Nine Tomorrows, a collection of short fiction by Isaac Asimov, which included such classics as “The Ugly Little Boy” and “The Last Question.” This was another accident; I spotted this volume on the bookshelf of neighbors while babysitting their two small children and pored over the stories, fascinated, while the kids were sleeping. Moved as I was by the self-sacrificing Miss Fellowes, the nurse caring for a Neanderthal child brought into the present by time travel researchers in “The Ugly Little Boy,” and thrilled as I was by the blasphemy of “The Last Question” (that’s the story that ends with the vast artificial intelligence saying, “Let there be light”), that wasn’t the book that totally hooked me on science fiction, either. Neither was Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars; although that Clarke novel did lead me to seek out some more science fiction, as did H.G. Wells, another of my early favorite sf writers, and Philip K. Dick some time later.

The book that finally did the trick was Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.

I read that novel during an especially dark time in my adolescence. I’ve written about that time elsewhere so won’t go into it here, but once again I was reading a book I had come upon by accident. I treasured that book, a beat-up old paperback, and carried it with me at all times out of fear of losing what had become a kind of talisman. The tale of Gully Foyle, a tormented man who could “jaunt” or teleport himself from one place to another, immediately spoke to the messed-up kid I was then and also gave me a metaphor that helped me past that dark time. I began to imagine a future self, an adult self who had jaunted past that time and escaped, who could look back at her youth from a safe distance. This wasn’t the most sophisticated way to read a novel, but it may be that The Stars My Destination helped save my life. It was also the book that finally made me a true fan of science fiction but I didn’t see that until years later, looking back from that safe distance.

Jaye Wells

Jaye Wells is a USA Today-bestselling author of urban fantasy and speculative crime fiction. Her most recent novel is Deadly Spells, in which Detective Kate Prospero and her Magic Enforcement Agency task force try to stop a coven war from breaking out in Babylon, Ohio, following the murder of a major potion kingpin. When Jaye’s not opening random doors hoping to find a magical land filled with talking lions and ice queens, she loves to travel, drink good bourbon, and do things that scare her so she can put them in her books. For more about Jaye and her books check out www.jayewells.com.

The book that started it all for me was The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. I read it in elementary school, and it totally captivated me. Looking back, I think that was where the roots of my love for urban fantasy were planted. The idea that magic exists in the world, but you just have to open the right door to find it are at the root of a lot of the fiction I love to read and to write. What’s more, I was swept away by the idea that even normal people are capable of overcoming great odds and changing the world if they’re willing to answer the call to adventure. From the moment the Lucy Pevensie went through the wardrobe and met the faun, Tumnus, by the light post, I was hooked and never looked back. Even now, I still hope that one day, if I am lucky, I’ll find my own door to Narnia.

Mike Glyer

Mike Glyer writes the File 770 science fiction news blog. He has won six Hugos for Best Fanzine, and three Hugos as Best Fan Writer. His sole claim to literary fame is “The Men Who Corflued Mohammed,” a fannish homage to Alfred Bester’s “Man Who Murdered Mohammed” which appeared in Alternate Worldcons edited by Mike Resnick. Mike also chaired L.A.Con III, the 1996 Worldcon held in Anaheim, CA.

I read all kinds of things from an early age — history, biography, mythology, Dr. Seuss, Hardy Boys mysteries, Freddy the Pig, Sherlock Holmes, science books, even Willy Ley’s Conquest of Space with the Bonestell cover that inspired the original Hugo rocket design. However, I had many early encounters with science fiction before discovering it was a genre, and that it was possible to read stories like that all the time if I looked in the right place.

Louis Slobodkin’s The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree may have been the first sf book I ever read. Whether it’s precisely the one I’m remembering is uncertain. From what Google shows me it looks familiar. The book I recall had a spaceship, and an alien who may have called himself Tex-Star — at least, that was somebody’s name in the story.

The chapter books that attracted me in grade school involved a kid trying to work out some practical, real world purpose – like every business Henry Reed tried to start, from truffle-hunting, to the fireworks investment that went bad. They had a certain internal logic that prepared me to appreciate the “rigorous” quality of John W. Campbell’s Analog later on.

And if a story with a fantastical element processed it with the same tone, I liked that very well, for example, The Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth, about a hen that lays a dinosaur egg – and when it hatches, all the challenges that logically follow, from how to feed it to where it can be safely housed.

I got familiar with the adventures of Tom Swift Jr., and volumes like Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine. On TV I loved those space exploration episodes of TV’s Disneyland, saw Godzilla run every afternoon for a week on channel 9’s “Million Dollar Movie,” and followed serials like Rocky Jones, Space Ranger. When Star Trek came on, I watched that, too. And yet I hadn’t learned there was a thing called “science fiction.”

That awaited a friend of mine from the junior high school chess club who, hearing some of what I enjoyed about Star Trek, told me about a series of novels set in a space empire with battles between massed fleets of ships – the Lensman series by E. E. “Doc” Smith. I was then 14, a perfect age for the uncritical enjoyment of pulp space adventures. I used interlibrary loan to get all those books. And there I found the line that hooked me on science fiction forever — “Two thousand million or so years ago two galaxies were colliding; or, rather, were passing through each other….”

Sabrina Vourvolias

Sabrina Vourvoulias is the author of Ink (Crossed Genres, 2012), a speculative novel that draws on her memories of Guatemala’s armed internal conflict, and of the Latin experience in the United States. Her short story “Collateral Memory” appeared in Strange Horizons in June 2013; “La Gorda and the City of Silver” appeared in the anthology Fat Girl in a Strange Land (Holt and Leib, eds.) in February 2012; and she has a story in the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. She is the managing editor of Al Día News in Philadelphia, and was the editor of Al Día’s book 200 Years of Latino History in Philadelphia (Temple University Press, 2012). Follow her on Twitter: @followthelede.

I think this is impossible to answer.

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading and rereading fairy tales or child versions of the Greek myths, the Popol Vuh, The Odyssey and Alice in Wonderland, or even the Little Prince, all of which — if you tip your head and squint your eyes — could be classified as SFF.

The first books I read and loved that are genuinely considered part of genre were The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. I read them one after the other because, as I recall, many of my elementary school classmates were reading them, and declaring themselves either Narnia fans or Hobbit fans, never the twain to meet. It’s funny for me to think now that initially I fell solidly in the Narnia camp, because in later years the Lord of Rings would become my beloved, comfort-food read. I’ve lost count of how many times I read it. But it didn’t make me a genre reader. It stood alone, a universe to itself, leading nowhere but further inward to its seemingly unplumbable depths.

My younger brother, initially the real genre reader of the family, introduced me to the Dune series, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and the Wizard of Earthsea — and I read most of what he recommended, liked some (Le Guin a lot, Herbert a little less), avidly disliked others (Donaldson) or decided not to venture (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe), but again, none of it led me to genre. I read widely but scattershot — one week it would be Le Guin, the next Milan Kundera and Amy Tan; the week after that I’d find myself rereading my favorite Latin American Boom writers and then I’d follow it up with Margaret Atwood.

So then, how did I land here? And when?

Late, much later in life than most genre readers first discover their love for SFF.

I was in my 30s and started working at a small Central New York library whose director, Nanette Wilcox, was a diehard and widely read SFF fan. At some point I must have asked her for a reading recommendation and since she knew I liked Atwood and Gabriel García Márquez, she led me to the SF section.

I know I looked at her dubiously. I might have even visibly curled my lip. I was pretty certain I had read the only Science Fiction or Fantasy writers that “transcended” what I thought was a limited genre full of pulp and Tolkien’s bastard children.

A smart and cagey SFF fan, Wilcox started me out with Charles de Lint, whose work is contemporary, both urban and rural, and character-centered. After blowing through Memory and Dream, Moonheart, the Wild Wood (my favorite de Lint) and all of the Newford collections the library had in circulation, I was hooked on genre at last.

In short order, went on to read Beagle, McKillip, Snyder, Bull, Zelazny, Starhawk, all of the Windling-Datlow anthologies available in the Mid-York Library system, Lackey, Heinlein, Dick, Peake, more Le Guin — you name it. Not only had Wilcox cured me of any “shame” in being seen reading books with the bright pink (and I do mean BRIGHT PINK) SF shelving labels, she had led me to the subdued yellow-labeled Young Adult books as well, and Garner, Cooper and Pullman joined the ranks of genre writers I was reading.

Thank goodness for librarians.

And thank goodness for a genre that keeps supplying me writers like N.K. Jemisen and Octavia Butler and Nnedi Okorafor who, when I “discover” them, send me down the familiar, beloved SFF aisles with renewed vigor and fresh eyes.

Kerry Schafer

Kerry Schafer writes fantasy with its teeth sunk into reality, mystery that delves into the paranormal, and women’s fiction that embraces the dark and twisty realms of humanity. She is the author of the fantasy trilogy The Books of the Between (Penguin/Ace Books) and the paranormal mystery Dead Before Dying, releasing through Diversion Books in February 2016. She also writes women’s fiction as Kerry Anne King.

I can’t remember a time when books weren’t a part of my life. Apparently I could recite my favorite picture book– The Poky Little Puppy – by memory by the time I was three. My mother read me bedtime stories every night until I was old enough to want to read books by myself.

Mom always disliked fairy tales. She was a staunch, conservative Christian who believed from the depths of her honest heart that fantasy and Sci Fi led to the dark side, so our bedtime reading never ventured into the realm of fairytales. The closest we ever came to magic were fanciful and imaginative stories of talking animals, and these we read in plenty. My brother and I committed entire sections of Winnie the Pooh to heart, pulling phrases into every day conversation. To this day, instead of an ordinary thank you to someone who lends a helping hand, I catch myself wanting to tell them, “You’re a real friend, Pooh. Not like some.” Many a kitchen mouse owes his life to Thornton W. Burgess, since I always think of Danny Meadow Mouse and can’t find it in my heart to bring out the killing traps.

Magic is magic, and it will always find a way in, even where it’s forbidden.

In addition to books, we had a few vinyl albums of narrated tales. On one of them there was a story called, I think, Schnapsie and the Magic Button. It featured a dog who could ride on rainbows thanks to the magic button given to him by a fairy or elf or some such. My mother didn’t approve of this story, but I wasn’t forbidden to listen to it. I loved that elf, and the magic button, and the whole idea of secret worlds that nobody else could see.

As soon as I had access to libraries I was always hunting down magic. I read tales of King Arthur and the Brothers Grimm and all of the fairy tales I could find. I worked my way through Ivanhoe and even navigated an account of Gawain and the Green Knight, written in middle English. I read and re-read Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. But my childhood teachings were thoroughly ingrained and kept me away from venturing into true fantasy fiction.

It finally happened on a bus, during a high school band tour to a destination long forgotten. One of the guys was reading a big fat book called The Fellowship of the Ring. I happened to be between books at the moment and asked if I could read it when he was done, to which he kindly agreed.

And that, my friends, was it. I read the words, “three rings for the Elven-kings under the sky” and that was all it took to hook me. I dove into that book and barely surfaced until it was over. I felt as though Middle-earth had always been a part of me, something longed for and sought after, and finally I had come home. Fortunately my friend was a fast reader, and I was able to read the next two books of the trilogy as he finished them. I don’t remember anything else about that trip, but I’ll never forget the feeling of being fully immersed in Tolkien for the very first time.

Every book I read leaves something with me, alters me in some small way. But this was a transformational experience. Sauron took my innocence. Aragorn had my love. I grieved for Lothlórien lost and the elves gone out of the world, even as I exulted in Frodo’s triumph and the ring destroyed.

And I’ve been seeking ever since to find my way back.

When I sit down to write books of my own, some part of me is still trying to re-create that first real immersion into magic. Even my straight up tales set in the real world are infused with at least a hint of something beyond what I can sense or touch from my every day world.

Any kind of magic tugs at me, but the books I love and return to over and over again are the ones that remind me of Middle-earth.

Jim Henley

Jim Henley is a life-long fan of science fiction, fantasy, comics and roleplaying games, and a petty dabbler in poetry (The Hudson Review, Poetry Ireland), essays (The New Republic, reason) and game design (Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society, The Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide). He started the politics and culture blog, Unqualified Offerings in 2001 and still occasionally blogs there. He is co-editor of The 20 by 20′ Room with Amy Sutedja. Find him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/uojim.

I’m a fannish cliché in that my entry into SF came via a Heinlein juvenile, Red Planet, which an 8th-grade friend got me to read in exchange for trying some of the comic books I loved. I could write quite a bit about the merits of Heinlein’s books for kids, but I’m not sure that they, alone, would have made me a *science-fiction and fantasy* fan. Much as I loved them, they fit well enough into the ethos of the Hardy Boys and Rick Brant books I was already reading that they might not have stood out as a durable *something else* as I aged out of children’s adventure fiction. I think what sealed the deal for me was some combination of the four-book whammy that was the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, edited by Silverberg and Bova, and the Asimov-edited Hugo Winners anthologies, each series then in two volumes. I don’t remember if I got them all from the school library, all as a premium for joining the Science Fiction Book Club, or some here and others there in combination. To fit the topic, I’ll concentrate on Volume 1 of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

Even now, this is a hell of a book. It starts with Stanley G. Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” and ends with Roger Zelazny’s “A Rose for Ecclesiastes”. That’s some clever book-ending by Bova and Silverberg, a microcosm of the growth of the genre’s sensibilities and even the growth of my own as I progressed from story to story. We go from something recognizable as the boy’s adventure fiction I was used to, just a lot funnier (“VEE ARE FRIENDS!”), to something that looks like it’ll pass for (older) boy’s adventure fiction that gets undercut by realpolitik and female agency (to the extent Zelazny understood it at the time). And along the way, the anthology took me very far from the Hardy Boys and Rick Brant indeed.

Just consider all the unhappy endings and shocking revelations, for one. Nowadays we understand some of them – rightly! – as problematic for various reasons. But I was 12. This stuff started me thinking laterally from the tracks laid down for a rural Pennsylvanian life. Sometimes the universe or just society were going to be too big for anybody’s pluck and derring-do (“The Nine-Billion Names of God”; “Nightfall”; ). Sometimes things were going to be too painful to acknowledge (“That Only a Mother”). Sometimes good intentions were going to go awry (“The Little Black Bag”). Clifford D. Simak’s “Huddling Place” hit me like the Tunguska meteorite. *You mean he’s going to let his friend die? Just because of fear?* Look around what our online lives are becoming and tell me “Huddling Place” isn’t one of the few genuinely prophetic stories the genre has produced. “Microcosmic God” just took me someplace I never imagined I might go, making me realize there must be many more such places. And that I wanted to go to all of them.

Reading these stories as a kid was always enthralling but wasn’t always comfortable, and not just because “What if my mom finds out what’s in Fritz Leiber’s “Coming Attraction.” It was uncomfortable because these stories were pushing my imagination *and my conscience* places neither had thought to go before. And that twin push – intellectual and ethical – set my expectations for the genre ever since. I could probably write a whole separate essay on the problematic sexual politics of “The Cold Equations” today, had plenty of other people not already written it. But one reason I could do that is that I read “The Cold Equations” back then. I got used to questioning my comfortable assumptions from Silverbob and Bova’s collection, and as the genre itself began to question racial assumptions, and gender assumptions and sexuality assumptions, I was ready. Because prodding the mind and the conscience is what our genre has always been able to do. I learned that when I was twelve years old.

Melanie Meadors

A writer of speculative fiction and lover of geeky things, Melanie R. Meadors lives in a one hundred-year-old New England house full of quirks and surprises. She’s been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on on more than one occasion. Melanie is the Publicity Coordinator at Ragnarok Publications and also a core contributor to the GeekMom website.

In the third grade I tied with a boy for winning a spelling bee, and the teacher had two books we could choose from for our prize. She said, “Ladies first,” and the book that caught my eye had a dragon on the cover, and fire, and a horse, and a brave warrior (the other was pink and decidedly not my taste). I didn’t notice the title or author, they didn’t matter. I didn’t even see what the other choice of a prize was. I immediately grabbed that book.

During recess, I started to read it. The book was called The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley. The heroine of the story had flame colored hair, which immediately grabbed my attention. But she was also kind of an outsider, people didn’t know what to make of her. She was a little clumsy as far as not doing the things that proper ladies were supposed to. But she was great with her father’s retired war horse, and got grease on her dress, and did real work. She went out and fought dragons, and then she went out and fought one of the biggest dragons of all and almost died from it. I remember thinking, THIS is the person I want to be. If I could be like Aerin, it wouldn’t matter if I was a dork. I could be brave and work hard like she did, and it wouldn’t matter what other people thought. And Aerin’s world was so full of awesome things, like an evil wizard and a possessed dragon skull, water that made one “not quite mortal” and an ointment that one could make that was fire proof. There were mysterious mages and handsome princes. And for the first time, I learned that all stories didn’t have a perfectly happy ending–and that made them even better. I learned about sacrifice.

Because I loved Aerin so much, I moved on to others, like Ged (A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin), and Schmendrick and Molly Grue (The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle) and more. But I read The Hero and the Crown to shreds, and have gone through three copies since then. That was definitely my gateway drug–I mean book–into the world of fantasy fiction.

Sometimes I wonder what pink book that poor boy ended up with…

M.L. Brennan

M L Brennan cut her baby bibliophile teeth on her older brother’s collection of Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert, but it was a chance encounter with Emma Bull’s War For The Oaks as a teenager that led to genre true love. Today, Brennan’ll read everything from Mary Roach’s non-fiction to Brandon Sanderson’s epic fantasies, but will still drop everything for vampires and werewolves in the big city.

Looking back at my extremely pale, unpopular childhood and the love of SF/F that pervaded it, I can’t point to just one series that led to what has remained a steady, lifelong love-affair. As near as I can determine, it was a perfect storm of books that I happened to read between the ages of about eight and eleven that just rocked my tiny, prepubescent brain. Here are the culprits:

The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey – This oversized paperback collection of the first three books in McCaffrey’s epic series arrived as a Christmas present, and let me tell you – it felt absolutely enormous. This was my first introduction to a doorstopper fantasy, and it had everything – telepathic dragons who imprinted on humans at birth like flame-expelling teleporting geese, a world that was absolutely cemented in feudalism yet was actually the remains of a star-traveling democracy, bad poetry, kind of a lot of jerks as central characters, and perhaps more sexuality than was perhaps appropriate for an eight-year-old. God, I loved this.

Dune by Frank Herbert – Who cared if about three-quarters of the intricacies of intergalactic trade went over my head? This had knife-fights, prophesy, almost-magic, gigantic sandworms that the main characters rode around like desert taxis, and the original Duncan Idaho (before he was cloned 5,000 times and inbred to a few times for good measure). And baby sister Abomination. Such good times.

The Belgariad by David Eddings – Magic! Secret heirs! A female sorceress with a white streak in her black hair who could turn into an owl at will! Cranky grandfathers! Wolves! More magic! So much intrusive prophesy that it does not hold up particularly well when you revisit the series twenty years later! But, honestly, five excellent books for nine-year-old me. And another five books in the companion series, so this was just hours of high-fantasy classic-quest entertainment!

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card – I think there are two kinds of Ender fans – the kind who read this book as adults, and the kind who read it as children. When I read Ender’s Game at around eight-ish, it worked for me in a way that so many books with child characters did not, because these were children who just didn’t think of themselves as children – and I understood that. I liked Ender, I empathized with him, and the dynamics he had with the other kids around him felt extremely realistic to me. Plus, space military school on an accelerated pace in order to defeat insectoid aliens? Brilliant. Bummer about the genocide, Ender.

The Darkangel Trilogy by Meredith Ann Pierce – This trilogy is just magical, as is everything Pierce writes. She has the most amazing tone, pacing, and language, and her books are among the few that I loved as a child, reread as an adult, and actually loved even more. Also, for the record, this was my first introduction to the storyline of girl meets boy, boy kidnaps girl’s best friend and murders her, boy returns to kidnap girl but only to serve as general maid for his murdered wives because girl is hella ugly, girl serves as housekeeper and gathers information for how to kill boy and save souls of murdered friend, boy is murder-y yet strangely sexy in a way that is probably unhealthy for reader but let’s go with it, girl escapes and lives in the desert for many months during which time she becomes fit and awesome, girl returns to boy and boy realizes that she is now fit and awesome and expresses his newfound attraction, girl murders boy but actually just releases him from a curse so they kiss and spoon. Concerns about potentially problematic themes should be shelved, because it’s amazing and so are both sequels.

Meghan B.

Meghan B. is a founding member of Stellar Four and an aspiring writer. Books are her true love but she is also an unrepentant geek with an almost eidetic memory for internet memes and pop culture minutia. Her passion for science fiction and fantasy in all its forms runs bone deep and she spends her days with her nose in a book, shouting obscenities at video games and trying to tame her eldritch hair. She can be found as @EldritchGirl and will be one of the first in line to have her Twitter feed surgically grafted onto her irises when the technology becomes available. She is made of 100% pure, high quality awesome.

Genre fiction obsession hit me like a truck named Tamara Pierce when I was nine years of age. My family had just moved across the country and my mother let me go wild in a bookstore before we left. I bought eight books, all by Tamora Pierce, because I liked the covers. They were beautiful and ethereal, featuring lovely women in armor and riding horses. I treasured them.

They were two series, four books each, both set in the same universe. One was about an incredible warrior woman named Alanna, called the Lioness and the Woman Who Rides Like A Man. The other was about a woman named Diane who could speak to animals and do feats of astonishing magic. It was medieval fantasy, knights and mages and such, but women were the main characters and they blew my mind. I read those books cover to cover over and over again. They made indelible marks on my soul. Alanna taught bravery and that a girl could do anything, even be a knight. Diane taught compassion and perseverance.

I’ve read everything by Tamora Pierce and I owe much to her. I still have those original eight paperbacks! Without them I would never have become a fan of fantasy novels. I would never have grown into the woman I am without them. They are incredible novels and everyone should read them.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Jon Courtenay Grimwood is a British Fantasy and SF Author best known for his Blade and Arabesk series. He writes contemporary fiction as Jonathan Grimwood.

‘ I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a spear carrier in somebody else’s story…’

The book that brought me into SF was Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage featuring Mia Havero. A smart and funny girl who’s a little arrogant in her intelligence. It’s the story of her trial, a rite of passage she must undertake at fourteen to be accounted as adult and allowed to continue her privileged existence on the ship that brought humans to the colony worlds.

In the book Mia is a self styled dark little thing, with black eyes and black hair. On the cover of my tatty old paperback, she has blue eyes and translucent skin. I noticed that but at first didn’t wonder why.

To have a child in Mia’s world you need permission from the ship’s eugenicist; and if your earlier children failed the trial that is refused. The trial is how the ship retains its intellectual, physical and moral rigour. It’s a cold, brutal and elitist ethic. But I was in my earlyish teens and it took me a couple of readings to realise that. All I saw on first reading was rebellious and unhappy adolescents fighting their families, the system and themselves.

These days pretty much YA Standard Tropes 101.

But for me as an unhappy child locked down in the cold, brutal and elitist privilege of an English prep school since the age of six it was a revelation. For God sake, the book had spaceships and socialist ideas and romance and a little mild and gentle sex. It dropped me into another world and made me think. It made me feel too. A warm undefined fuzziness for Mia Havero.

Mostly though, it made me question. Why this world? Why not another?

The brakes were off after that and I read all the SF I could get my hands on, including the bad stuff, sometimes especially the bad stuff. The book that brought me back to genre, after I’d satiated myself to the point of sickness and self disgust, was Neuromancer.

My life was a mess, my first marriage rocky, my job as a commissioning editor far less glamorous than it looked from the outside. The UK, and the company I worked for, were in the process of being asset stripped. There were riots, deserved riots, on the streets of half a dozen British cities.

And I found myself in a cafe on the South Coast reading Gibson, transported to Chiba City and not giving a fuck about the rest of it. I was hooked back into SF in a single afternoon. Quickly discovering Pat Cadigan and Bruce Sterling and hunting down a video of Akira because I’d heard it sort of fitted.

Always, for me, the books that really resonate are the ones that help the world make sense at a point I’m about to stop caring if it makes sense or not. Rites of Passage, Bulgakov’s Master & Margarita, Gibson’s Neuromancer. And, of course, Tove Jansson’s Moominland Midwinter, probably the best accidentally perfect existential children’s novel ever written.

All brilliant in their way.

All deservedly fileable under the heading weirdshit.

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