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March 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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Growing up, probably no other author affected my love of reading more than Robert A. Heinlein.
I started with Citizen of the Galaxy (1957), a hardback copy that had been my grandfather’s, passed to my father, and then to me. It was the first “big” book that I read, all 302 pages, and it was the first time I truly loved a book. I’d read others. Tom Swift. Hardy Boys. Charlotte’s Web. But something in Heinlein’s story of a slave boy, bought by a beggar and destined for much more, captured me. I returned to it, year after year, and then went hunting for more of Heinlein’s work.
Citizen of the Galaxy was one of Heinlein’s so-called juvenile novels, written in the 1950s for young readers, though it was shelved in the adult section of the bookstore. I didn’t know anything about marketing or shelving, I just knew that I wanted to read these adventure stories about boys (and almost always it was boys), because they were all about kids just a little older than me, going out into the world and forging their place in it: boys who ran away from home to become starship navigators; boys joining their first military expedition; boys trapped on strange worlds with no way to get home. Heinlein’s juvenile novels focused on kids taking their first steps into the wider adult world, learning about adult politics, adult wars, adult betrayals, adult failures, adult wisdom, and ultimately, becoming adults themselves.
Heinlein’s heroes were often studious, they learned as much as they acted, thought as much as they fought, and they were almost always passionate about pursuing their dreams. Heinlein described his tales as “the boy who learned better.” His characters learned lessons of duty and of loyalty, loss and triumph, honor and diligence, and those stories functioned for me not only as adventures but also as templates, guiding my own mind as the kind of young man that I wanted to be.
There are any number of criticisms that can be legitimately leveled at Heinlein’s work, but for me, growing up, his juvenile novels formed a backbone of understanding for me about the world and its vicissitudes. They were adventure, they were escape, and they were a window into what it meant to grow up and to become a man.
There’s a scene in Citizen of the Galaxy where Thorby, assigned as a missile-guidance officer, must shoot down an attacking slave ship. Adventure plots seldom revolve around math, but Heinlein manages to create a sense of dread and anticipation as Thorby begins working the mathematical calculations necessary to target the slavers. Like many of Heinlein’s heroes, Thorby is good at math (slide rules abound in Heinleinian works), and as he focuses deeper and deeper on the targeting problem, the reader waits with bated breath, as vulnerable as him and all his family. And then Thorby presses a button knowing that he has committed everything to a single solution, and he will either succeed or his family will all die and be enslaved.
I still remember the bated-breath moment when he pushes the button.
A second later, the slave ship winks out of existence, pulverized by the nuclear missiles that he’s launched.
And yet, interestingly, Thorby feels very little triumph. He has saved his adoptive family, but he’s also annihilated others, and he’s sensitive enough to be aware that what he did in necessity is not something that he can celebrate. That nuance of war and survival stuck with me for a long time. A lifetime, in fact.
I became a reader thanks to those early stories about boys finding their way in the world, and became a writer after, and years later, when my wife—a schoolteacher—said she was having trouble with some students who weren’t excited about reading, I went back to those Heinlein novels that had inspired me, thinking that I’d donate mine to the classroom.
A few of those stories held up, but many seemed long in the tooth. But still, I remembered the sense of adventure in those books, the lessons learned, and how good it felt to read them. I decided that I’d try my hand at writing something similar—Heinlein, but updated.
Some of my lessons are going to be different from Heinlein’s, and some of my characters very much so, but at root, it’s always the same thing: giving a young person the joy of seeing someone like them on the page, giving them a suggestion of how they might forge their own path into the world of adulthood that awaits, and hopefully, inspiring a love of reading as well.
Every once in a while, I get a letter from a reader that starts with the line, “I don’t like books very much, but I read yours all the way through!”
I know that feeling.
PAOLO BACIGALUPI’S HONOR ROLL
Citizen of the Galaxy, by Robert A. Heinlein (1957)
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
Empire of the Sun, by J. G. Ballard (1984)
King Rat, by James Clavell (1962)
Mona Lisa Overdrive, by William Gibson (1988)
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