Saved by Science Fiction

I started reading science fiction in Junior High School. It was a matter of survival. My Junior High School career began inauspiciously with a punch in the gut. I was standing outside the door to the gym and feeling awkward on the first day of class when a giant walked up and punched me in the stomach. “Nice shoes,” he said as he turned to walk away. I don’t think he meant it. Later I learned that his name was Greg Savage. Somehow it seemed appropriate.

If this had been a movie, the two of us would have been forced to sit together in a class where we would eventually become best friends. Oh, sure, we would suffer a falling out over the same girl, but in the end, true friendship would win out. We would dump the girl and stick with our friendship, or the girl would decide it was better to be a buddy to us both, or another girl would come along and we would all walk into the sunset holding hands. You know how the story goes. But, of course, it wasn’t a movie, so I pretty much tried to steer clear of Greg for the next two years.

Unfortunately, there were plenty of other predators roaming the halls of the blackboard jungle. Someone once told me that a disproportionate number of our alumni were incarcerated. I could easily believe it. The school seemed like a war zone to me. In gym class, new fish like me were subjected to daily flicks, tweaks, and the occasional kick down the bleachers from upperclassmen, who always managed to carry out their assaults when the teacher was looking the other way. You don’t want to know what they did to the guy in the locker room who asked what the athletic supporter was supposed to be used for. Of course, this was all in addition to faculty enforced and federally mandated group nakedness in the showers, a function of the government’s desire to see that the youth of America were more physically fit than the Russians.

Between these two activities, the first of which took place at the beginning of the period as the teacher took roll and the other serving as the closing ceremony for the day’s class, we were regularly subjected to a demanding regimen of exercises and games which seemed especially designed to shine a spotlight on students like me. They laid bare the soft underbelly of the rising baby boom which was quickly filling up the school’s halls, proving why we would never be worthy of epithets like “the greatest generation.” We were the weak link in American culture. We were out of shape and lacked stamina. We couldn’t climb the rope. We threw the ball like a girl. Unless of course, you were a girl. If the Russians had invaded, we would have been sunk. In other words, gym class, like the rest of Junior High School, was basically Lord of the Flies and I was Piggy.

But it was study hall, not gym class that was my real undoing in Junior High. Because it was there that I was smitten by a vision of loveliness two rows away named Jeannie. I just kept staring. I couldn’t help myself. At first, it was because I was stunned by the sight. Then it was because I figured it was the best way to get noticed. It worked. After about ten minutes, Jeannie glared back at me and stuck out her tongue. If this had been a movie, she would have hated me at first. We would have traded witty barbs for a few months. Eventually, we would have attended the Junior High Prom with someone else as our date. But by the end of the night, we would have left hand in hand, while our original dates were out on the dance floor falling in love with each other. You know how the story goes. But, of course, it wasn’t a movie, so things pretty much went from awkward to downright embarrassing.

A guy from gym class told me that Jeannie “liked” me. He said she wanted me to write her a note and tell her about my feelings. I know, I should have seen through his ruse. But I thought I had seen this movie before. I knew how the story was supposed to go. I wrote the note. It got passed around the school. When I tried to start a conversation with Jeannie in study hall, she screamed and ran away. By the time it was all done, I was generally regarded as a weirdo. I felt like a weirdo too. I desperately wished I was living someone else’s life.

This is where Robert Heinlein, the dean of science fiction writers, enters the story. He rescued me. Actually, I didn’t know it was him. It was just some book, Podkayne of Mars. I’m not sure why I picked it up. It might have been the title. Or maybe it was the cover. I started reading it in class when I should have been paying attention. Suddenly, I was transported. I felt like I was a different person. Clever. Brave. Funny. I felt like I was living in a world where the underdog wins the day and the misunderstood weirdo proves to be a hero. I spent the rest of the year reading Robert Heinlein along with a lot of other science fiction authors too: Theodore Sturgeon, Andre Norton, and Isaac Asimov.

But Heinlein was my favorite. I read so many of his books, it got so I could recognize his voice. He seemed like a favorite uncle to me. If I met him, I was pretty sure he would be my friend. If this were a movie, I would have written a letter to Robert Heinlein. We would have struck up a correspondence. He would have become a mentor to me. Today I would be a science fiction writer. But life is not a movie. It never occurred to me to write.

I went to the library’s annual used book sale the other day. There in the stacks was a weather-beaten copy of Podkayne of Mars. It was only a dollar. I picked it up and smiled. For a minute, I thought about buying it. But the truth is, I’ve already got a copy. Thanks, Mr. Heinlein. You never knew it, but you and your friends probably saved my life.