posted by Karen Burnham at Sunday 23 January 2011 @ 9:57 pm BST
I was lucky to have parents who encouraged me as a reader right from the start – I was reading by myself before I went to kindergarten. They never once in my life criticised me for spending hours at a time with my nose in a book (although my other dreamy behaviour got some justifiable criticism), and if that were the only good thing they’d ever done for me, I’d still owe them everything I hold dear. I’d read anything, even if I couldn’t understand it. My mother’s dog magazines, my father’s programming manuals, the subtitles on old Open University TV programmes, the labels on household cleaning products – if something had words on it, I wanted to see ‘em. Until I was about nine or so, I’d focussed mostly on the regular stuff you read as a kid in those days – Dr. Seuss, Swallows and Amazons, Famous Five, all that jazz; plus comics (though not the ‘proper’ superhero stuff, things like Battle and Action Force – I was quite obsessed by military themes, as small boys so often are) and any non-fiction that crossed my path. I hammered libraries, both school and public (with my mother’s assistance). But then things changed. In 1985 my family decamped to Saudi Arabia for a few years, thanks to my father’s job.
The ex-pat community in Saudi was, by necessity, close-knit. Like my father, many of them were in the computer industry, and hence the ex-pat compounds were havens of geekdom. I grew up surrounded by home-built open-case PCs and jury-rigged technology of all stripes. And books, of course – Saudi TV was (and probably still is) pretty mind-numbing, so reading was a big pastime. This meant books were in the curious position of being almost sacred objects, but also common property of a sort. For the first year or so, I got by with my comics (airmailed from the UK) and what the library at the International School could supply. Then we moved to a different compound in a suburb of Riyadh. This had (I think) twenty-four villas, a sand-pit with swings, a swimming pool… and a common room containing a library of books left behind or shared by residents past and present.
Oh sure, I swam and I swung – I was nine, after all. But all those weird new books were magnetic. My parents had rather pedestrian reading tastes at the time (my father’s copy of Emmanuel notwithstanding – that was a shock), and I’d never seen books like this, with crazy stuff on the covers like robots, spaceships and dragons. Now, I’d seen Star Wars (it was released the year I was born, but I watched the version we Betamaxed from TV every day for about a year and a half, and went through the inevitable figurines phase too) but that was just a film. Books with cool stuff in? That was something I had to check out more closely.
And so I ate my way through the first two Pern trilogies by Anne McCaffrey in a few months. And then read them again, and again, developing a serious obsession (which my mother picked up in my wake – she’s still a major fantasy junkie to this day). I lived those books, utterly. The Hobbit went the same way, and a few Jack Vance and Asimov titles. And around about that time, a somewhat inebriated friend of my parents decided to play me Jeff Wayne’s musical War of the Worlds. I was petrified. I was hooked. Normal books just weren’t good enough any more; in fact I flunked a lot of English class reading assignments because I couldn’t be bothered to read the stuff we were given.
We left Saudi in ’87. As a parting gift, one of my father’s co-worker friends, a serious sf geek who found my bookish ways endearing, gave me the set of books that made my path irreversible – Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles. “These are a bit grown-up for you, but you’ll get there eventually if you keep at it,” he told me. He was right on both counts. Back in Britain, the first of the four books (The Golden Torc) took me three attempts and a year to finish; the other three took another year (interspersed with LOTR and countless magazines and non-fiction titles). Granted, I didn’t get half of the themes or undercurrents, but …Exiles sealed the deal. There was a whole universe in that box-set.
Along came secondary school, with RPGs and wargames in tow. The late 80s and early 90s were a golden age of RPG tie-in novels, and I borrowed or blagged the ones I couldn’t get bought for me. Nearing my late teens, I was doing the Gemmell/Eddings thing, naming my first vapourware band Gormenghast after Mervyn Peake’s gothic masterpiece, and preparing to be a careerist electronics and computer geek.
School done with, it was off to university, where the lures of sex, drugs, alcohol and music distracted me from doing much reading… until my girlfriend at the time handed me Jeff Noon’s Vurt, which I stayed up all night to finish with my brain on fire. That was the first moment I considered becoming a writer. Reading was still sparse for a few years though, for various reasons – suffice to say those were my wilderness years, featuring dropping out from education, erratic employment and aspirations of musicianship. (If I tell you I caught the second wave of the dance music revolution here in the UK, you’ll probably be able to fill in the gaps.) But in a period between jobs around 1998 there was little to do but read, as it was the only thing that didn’t cost anything. A friend had been feeding me Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, but that just wasn’t doing it for me at all. I spotted a book in his collection with a weird title: “What’s this Consider Phlebas like, then?” I took it home, and then returned it the next day to get Player of Games.
Wind on a few more years, and I’m buying a second-hand David Brin paperback which had an advert for a magazine called Interzone in the back of it. A subscription to said magazine introduced me to organised fandom (of which I had been totally unaware) and gave me my first break as a book reviewer, while some friends on the old Iain M Banks web forum told me that The Man Himself was appearing at something called an “Eastercon” in Glasgow. And it was all downhill from there…