The story of how I got into speculative fiction is kinda funny. I was an seven-year old reader who went fairly regularly to the library to pick up mysteries. One time I went, I found this fascinating book in the mystery section entitled The Gods of Mars and the Warlord of Mars, which if you know anything about the series is a strange combination to put in a single omnibus. And if you know anything about the stories, you'll also note they are not mysteries. Fortunately, someone had mis-shelved the book and I stumbled across them, fascinated but completely confused by their lack of connection and the way Warlord is in many ways the third part of a three-part novel. Soon after reading it, I found the first six books in a slip case edition and ended up ordering the last five books with a coupon in the back of one of the first six.
At that time, my divorced Mom was regularly singing in the church choir and instead of hiring a baby-sitter for an hour, she would take me with her to the church. I would sit in a quiet corner of the choir loft and read my books. At it turns out there was a man in the choir who noticed the books I was reading and let me know that he was interested in the same kind of books. Soon thereafter, I was reading the Venus books and Caspak, and Pellucidar, all the Ace editions with the wonderful Frazetta covers. Over time, he loaned me E. E. Smith, then Clarke, and Heinlein, then Asimov. And when I got older, he was loaning me Farmer (the not very risqué stuff). And by that time, I had begun buying books on my own, reading more work by those same authors and then branching out into books that looked kind of cool on the shelf. I had also received a copy of the Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and used it as a resource to find out what the good books were and the classics.
Not only did Gene share his books with me, without any hesitation that at under ten years of age I might damage them, he talked about them with me. Perhaps he asked questions in part to gauge what else he could offer, but we ended up having discussions about what was probably pretty basic criticism—why did the character do what he did, for example. And sometimes, we would go out in the church parking lot and look up into the sky after choir practice, and Gene would point out to me constellations and planets, building on the basic knowledge I was getting of astronomy from the hard science fiction I was reading.
Once, when I was in my mid-teens, Gene loaned me one of the Lavalite World books by Farmer, with a typical Boris Vallejo cover with glistening over-muscled and skimpily clad bodies. I took it into church on a Sunday morning in order to return it to Gene, and Mom had a fit: there was no way that kind of trash could be allowed in the church. So, from then on, we made our trades in the parking lot, never telling Mom that the content of the books was sometimes far worse than the covers. I mean seriously—Dejah Thoris wears less in the novels than she does on the covers of the books she can be found in.
So, in 2001, when I put together a book group for the sole purpose of discussing speculative fiction, Gene was among the first people I asked to participate. And to my delight, he joined us. For more than seven years, he brought the book group a more mature and sometimes spiritual insight to our discussions, asking thoughtful questions and picking books that predated a lot of the people in the group.
But over time, he found it harder and harder to come to the book group. He had retired and had other interests, like his vacation home in the mountains and his grandson. He finally had time to travel, which made scheduling the book group a chore for him sometimes. And the book group tilted more and more to fantasy, which he didn't have a high tolerance for. To be honest, I find this last to be ironic—he is a huge fan of Lewis and Tolkien, but could never get into the newer things like Kay or Brust. But he persevered, reading what he could and taking part in our conversations. And our roles got a little reversed: I loaned him a number of DVDs of the classic speculative fiction movies and then some of the better recent things. He enjoyed Firefly for instance, but I don't think he really liked The Fifth Element. But that's the nature of taste. We have plenty of common interests, and we don't have to agree on everything.
Just before our last book group, Gene announced he was leaving our fellowship. I think it was a combination of things—not as much time and what time he did have he wanted to spend on reading the things he liked, not so much the fantasies we were delving into. My first reaction was to be a little hurt, but then I realized it would be worse if I tried to change his mind. So I thanked him for sharing his time and experience, and his insight and taste with us. But deep inside, I'm sad. We don't go to the same church any longer (indeed, I don't go to church any more at all, and he is okay with that—pretty remarkable for a man who was my Sunday school teacher for a while). I see him about twice a year when there is a reunion of the people who went to that church. And I see him when we go to funerals for shared friends. Those aren't remotely the same as sharing points of view about the books we love, laughing at shared jokes, and reveling in a relationship nearly forty years in the making. And soon, he may be moving permanently to his mountain home, or perhaps even to Norway, where his wife has family.
To recap. Gene introduced me to Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Farmer and Niven. But more importantly, he introduced me to the idea of not just sharing books, but sharing conversations about them. Which of course leads to sharing ideas in general. He grew my interest in astronomy, which led to an interest in science and technology. It is not stretch at all to say I would not be remotely be the man I am if he had not been in my life. He was a powerful influence in so many ways in my life, and a rudder to a young boy who had no male role models in his life.
Thank you, my friend, for showing me the world I live in, the worlds beyond it, and the universe they all inhabit. You were my Jubal Harshaw in your own inimitable fashion, my Gandalf, my Hari Seldon. Don't be a stranger.