It All Started When: Gary K. Wolfe

Gary K. Wolfe is a senior reviewer at Locus Magazine. He is the award-winning author of non-fiction work The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction. He is a professor at Roosevelt University, and his most recent book is Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature.


He titled this piece: “Used Shoes”

The first science fiction novels I remember reading were Andre Norton’s Star Man’s Son (1952) and Starship on Saddle Mountain (1955), by someone called Atlantis Hallam—apparently a real name, though I’ve been able to find out little else about this author other than that his full name was Samuel Benoni Atlantis Hallam (1915-1987) and that he published a handful of minor stories in Spaceways in the early 1950s.  But the book, which I came across in my little Bradburyesque public library, stuck with me, and along with the Norton it led me to track down other books that could offer something of the same frisson of wonder. (It was probably awful, but I haven’t seen a copy since.)  The first book I actually bought, I’m pretty sure, was a tattered paperback of Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, which cost a dime in a thrift shop that mostly specialized in used shoes. Some of the best places to find cheap used paperbacks, it turned out, were thrift shops with tables full of used shoes (this may have just been a Missouri thing, since no one I’ve met has had the same experience, yet it happened to me in three different towns).  The first new paperback I bought, from a drugstore spin rack, was an Avon reprint of Lovecraft’s The Lurking Fear, retitled Cry Horror! and including some of Lovecraft’s most famous stories.  So the first adult authors I knew by name were Bradbury and Lovecraft, and my first adult genre reading was mostly short fiction.

It wasn’t long before I’d joined the SF Book Club, with its terrific introductory offer (I chose Groff Conklin’s Omnibus of Science Fiction, John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction Anthology, and Harold Kuebler’s Treasury of Science Fiction Classics), all of which offered a kind of crash course in older SF and led me to track down Healy and McComas’s Adventures in Time and Space, which was still available in most bookstores under its Modern Library title Famous Science Fiction Stories.  And not long after that, I subscribed to Astounding, since it seemed to be the source of so many of the stories in those anthologies, and read my first serialized novel, Hal Clement’s Close to Critical, which struck me as pretty dense and not nearly as snappy as my favorite stories.  I was twelve, and I guess I was starting to make critical judgments of some sort.  Astounding didn’t seem quite the same magazine as the one that had yielded all those wonderful anthology stories, and at some point I let my subscription lapse and instead subscribed to F&SF, which seemed more to my tastes.

By then those tastes had begun to broaden beyond SF.  In high school I got an after-school job in a used bookstore, which meant I could borrow overnight just about any SF book I wanted, but there were so many other intriguing books coming into the store that I started borrowing them, too—from historical writers like Harold Lamb and Edison Marshall to Faulkner and Joyce, both of whom absolutely hypnotized me.  For some reason I fell in love with Dante through the Ciardi translation (I must have thought he was a kind of horror writer, which he was), and even did a term paper on his La Vita Nuova. I discovered weird new kinds of writers like William Burroughs and Alain Robbe-Grillet, and a few years later was delighted to find some of these techniques being imported into SF when I encountered the New Wave through Judith Merril’s excruciatingly titled England Swings SF.  I discovered fantasy through T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which became the first book I reread annually for three or four years.

The reading assignments involved in being an English major at the University of Kansas put a serious dent in my SF reading, but when it came time to write a senior honors thesis I asked to work with James Gunn, who at the time was the university’s PR director, to supervise my thesis on Bradbury.  Gunn not only put me in touch with Bradbury (who cheerfully answered my dumb letters), but opened all sorts of doors:  SF was more than books; it was a community of writers and fans, with its own conventions and ‘zines and even a nascent critical tradition (which included Gunn’s own earlier master’s thesis).  I started tracking down some of this nonfiction—first Moskowitz, then Blish and Knight—and looking for what seemed to me to be real criticism in the book review columns of magazines, which I found in the F&SF reviews of Joanna Russ and Algis Budrys.  I made contact with Budrys after moving to Chicago for graduate school (which put yet another serious dent in my SF reading), and he became my second mentor in the field, helping me develop a critical voice, working through problems and conundrums in essays and reviews that I was now beginning to publish, offering an entrée into the world of fan conventions.  With his real-world SF perspective, and the more scholarly perspective I was getting from a handful of non-judgmental University of Chicago professors—notably John Cawelti, Michael Murrin, and Wayne C. Booth—I began to figure out what I wanted to do.

10 thoughts on “It All Started When: Gary K. Wolfe

  • January 17, 2011 at 4:25 am
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    Unspoken here is that the groves of academe somehow did not squash your love of sf. Why? I’ve known many for which it did.

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  • January 17, 2011 at 12:14 pm
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    STAR MAN’S SON was one of the first SF novels I remember reading. I bought a copy of it a few years ago, in order to get the exact same edition I read when I was eleven or twelve — the British Gollancz hardcover of 1968. It still kind of scares and enthralls me, that cover with the mutant sitting there watching, the crashed aircraft wing behind it . . .

    I might steal the tag line for my next book too, “A Science Fiction Adventure”.

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  • January 19, 2011 at 4:39 pm
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    I’ve noticed the same thing about academia, Greg, and don’t really know the answer. Although this may sound like an alum talking, when I was at Chicago the English department seemed less concerned about what you read than with how WELL you read. They gave me almost no flak over a dissertation topic about fantasy (MacDonald, Lewis, and Lindsay), though I’d expected them to.

    And Garth, I’m fascinated that Norton’s influence reached all the way to Australia! I’d always assumed she was part of any SF reader’s childhood in the States, but it’s encouraging to find that you discovered her as well.

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  • January 20, 2011 at 3:20 am
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    Gary and I went through The System at pretty much the same time, and what I noticed was that there were those of us for whom SF/F was too basic a part of our reading history for any amount of disrespect to change. Not that I encountered any disrespect. Even though not everyone could enjoy the support (or tolerance) of a John Cawelti or (in my case) a Mark Hillegas or Eddie Epstein, there were still enough enthusiasts among grad students and younger faculty to populate SFRA conferences. And I taught courses in genre fiction by 1969 or so, which suggests that the old snobberies must have been waning in the late Sixties. Nor did I encounter any serious objections when I switched my dissertation area from medieval to the fantastic. (I suppose having Hillegas as my director didn’t hurt.) So at a top-tier and a state-system campus there was room for SF. (In fact, state-system schools were well-represented in both SFRA and Popular Culture Association membership when I joined.)

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  • January 20, 2011 at 11:27 pm
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    Andre Norton was very well represented in my local library and my school library, mostly in the Gollancz editions, but also some US editions. Even back in the early 70s Australian libraries were buying American editions as well as British ones. Robert Heinlein’s ‘juveniles’ were also all there, I would have read most of them and a good dozen or more Nortons by the time I was ten. Norton’s Cats-Eye was also published as a paperback by Puffin in 1967, which would have introduced her to many kids in Australia, the UK and Commonwealth via the Puffin Book club and also just being generally more available and cheaper than the hardcover.

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