As a child, I was a voracious reader. Like, to the point where my parents had to restrict my reading time otherwise I would’ve read from the moment I got home from school to when I fell asleep. Funnily enough, they didn’t restrict me in terms of minutes but in terms of books read. I was only allowed to read one book a day. No more!
They did that because I read fast (and was proud of it, too). If I’d been a bit smarter I would’ve realized that all I needed to do to extend my reading time was slow down. But no, while S.C. might’ve read way above his age-grade and enjoyed throwing around big words nobody else in class knew, he wasn’t (isn’t) the sharpest tool in the life-hack shed.
But anyway, I loved reading. Primarily, I loved mysteries. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven series, then the Hardy Boys (until I realized that the formula involved Daddy saving them every time), followed by the Three Investigators (which I still go back and read on occasion), plus others.
However, by age 9-10 I wanted to broaden my reading horizons. I got into Agatha Christie and tried a few other adult mysteries (though it took me a while to come to terms with the fact that in grown-up fiction people actually got murdered, sometimes gruesomely). As an aside, I tried to write my first novel around then, a mystery that involved a museum jewelry heist and was told from the POV of both the robbers and the detective (and a couple other random people, IIRC). I made it to chapter 3 before it all got too much for me (I would realize, years and years later, that I’m one of those folks who writes best with an outline).
Still, despite the foray into adult fiction, I found my reading was going stale. Mysteries were great and all but they just weren’t exciting me like they used to. I began reading nonfiction, particularly history. And I began actively scouring the library for other genres. The adult section of the local library where we lived seemed to specialize in mysteries and romance, and 10 year-old S.C. quickly discovered romance wasn’t for him!
Then, one grey afternoon, my arms already laden with books (another reading rule my parents instituted: I could only check out from the library as many books as I could carry, otherwise there probably wouldn’t be any left for other kids), I stopped off in the young-adult section. I hadn’t frequented it much since moving on from the Hardy Boys and Three Investigators. Other than them it mostly just contained the Baby-Sitters Club and similar icky stuff.
Today, though, as I moved alphabetically through the books, a title and then a cover caught my attention. The title was Against the Fall of Night, and the cover contained a weird-looking city and a boy in some sort of red uniform. I was entranced. I read the blurb and the first page and realized this had been put in the YA section by mistake. I’d also never noticed it in the adult section, despite frequenting the ‘C’s (Agatha Christie; Arthur C. Clarke) but that might’ve been because there I generally just went for authors I knew so as to avoid accidentally checking out a romance.
I added the book to my pile, checked them all out, and went home with Mum.
Now, before going on, I have to say this: I’d never, ever read or seen science-fiction (or fantasy) before. Well, not future SF, anyway. We didn’t have a TV, so I hadn’t been exposed to the wonders of Star Wars, or seen Transformers or He-Man. I’d watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at a friend’s house and while it was pretty cool it was still present-day, just with some oversized, talking, martial-arts proficient turtles and rats.
Against the Fall of Night was something else entirely.
I got home, rushed my homework and other chores (what a waste of time when I could be curled up with a book!) and got to reading.
It’s funny how vivid some memories are, how they stick with you (and how much more you remember once you start digging them back up). We were renting an old, cold house across the road from an often stormy beach. The grey afternoon had turned to a windy, rainy night. Waves crashed on the rocks; rain pelted on the roof. Elsewhere in the house Mum and Dad were listening to an orchestral CD (I can hear the melodies as I type this). I lay on the couch, wrapped in a blanket.
That night I discovered that it was possible to imagine the future. The far future in this case, as Against the Fall of Night is set something like one billion years from now.
Doing this was something I’d never contemplated before. Fiction involved made-up people who often did things no ordinary people would do but they did them in the present or the past, never in the future. Yet somehow this story felt more real to me than any other fiction I’d ever read. That night I walked beside Alvin as he explored Diaspar, found his way to Lys, and then discovered there might be life beyond planet Earth. I grappled with the same things he grappled with, concepts as foreign and new to me as they were to him.
And when I finished – the house silent and dark except for the dim light above the couch in the lounge – I needed a few minutes to return to reality.
I’d never had a reading experience like it before and I’ve never had one since. From that moment forward, I was in love with science-fiction.
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