On the very fine SF Squeecast, panelists Lynne M. Thomas, Seanan McGuire, Elizabeth Bear, Paul Cornell, and Catherynne M. Valente always ask their guest some questions, one of which is, “What is the first book you read on your own as a child?”
I have plumbed my memory, but really have no idea. I was fortunate in that learning to read was like learning to walk and talk for me. I just did it. From age three, I remember asking my parents to read street signs for me. “Stop,” “Yield,” “No Left Turn.” In those ancient days, no official attempt was made to teach kids to read until first grade, after spending all of kindergarten teaching them the alphabet and how to write our first names. My memory of first grade is that I sat down in the reading group and started reading Dick, Spot, and Jane with no fuss, muss, or sweat.
I don’t remember the first book I read on my own, but I do remember the most important childhood book that I owned. That book is The Golden Book of Astronomy–A Child’s Introduction to the Wonders of Space. I still have it, the only book I have from my childhood.
The original publication date is 1955, and I have the second edition from 1958. We had not yet been to the moon. We had not yet launched a human to orbit. On page 86, in the chapter, “Man-Made Satellites,” we learn that on October 4, 1957, Russia shot Sputnik I into space. Also, “Since then, more artificial satellites have been launched by Russia and the United States. And more are coming.” (My writer’s sense is that those words were penned immediately after Sputnik, but before anything else was actually launched.)
One of my favorite chapters is on Mercury. In those days, we thought Mercury’s period of rotation was the same as the length of its year, hence, that the same side of the planet always faced the sun. The Golden Book therefore speaks of a pernament “twilight zone,” where a spaceship could land. How bummed-out I was find out Mercury’s rotation was nearly twice that of its year.
This is confusing as well as disheartening. No twilight zone. No way for humans to take a trip to Mercury.
The Golden Book goes on to present relatively appealing scenes of a desert-like Venus reminiscent of the Venus depicted in Queen of Outer Space, which I think was filmed in the Hollywood Hills.
Mars is given two pages, and gives a glowing account of the strong possibility of life, running water, and changing seasons. There is the rather hilarious sentence, “There are no mountains on Mars. If there were, their shadows would show.”
There is less information about the outer planets. The Golden Book seems not to have considered landing on any of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, and what moons are mentioned are not all of them. Jupiter was supposed to have twelve; Saturn, nine. Uranus and Neptune share a chapter, and are moonless. Pluto, while still a planet, is only a dot in the sky. Charon had not yet been discovered.
I read and read this book until the binding was shattered. As time went on, I mourned–just a little–as reality took over my childhood fantasies.
Enter Kim Stanley Robinson and 2312. This is the book I have longed for since childhood, a sequel of sorts, to my beloved Golden Book.
Much of the novel takes place on Mercury, and this might be the greatest delight of all, for Robinson has managed to bring back my twilight zone by having Mercury’s city, Terminator, move on tracks, ever fleeing the dawn. Better yet, because the rotation is so slow, and the planet so small, bands of humans can walk around Mercury for sport, always staying just ahead of the rising sun. Oh man, this makes my nine-year-old heart beat faster.
KSR has managed to do something with hellhole Venus! Okay, it doesn’t quite look like Griffith Park, but they’re beginning the long and controversial process of terraforming. It’s not as nice as Mars, but you can walk on it.
Speaking of Mars, it is fabulous. Magnificent, and totally worthy of The Golden Book. Robinson has already terraformed the planet in his Mars trilogy, and now its citizens and civilization are thriving. Oh wow, I want to go there.
I never wanted to go to space to be a pioneer, suffer hardship, be brave, or risk death. I wanted to go once the hotels were built, and the top-tier restaurants in place. I want those mints on my pillow. That’s why 2312 is for me. I enjoyed the story and characters a lot, but the main thing for me is the setting, our magnificent solar system.
We visit as well the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. We visit asteroids. We also visit fabulous terreria constructed from small asteroids, and in some ways, these are the most fabulous worlds of all. We also see what planet Earth is up to, and Robinson does spend some time on political and social concerns, and a wild attempt to begin to put Earth’s ecology right again.
This is the trend–more space fiction taking place within our solar system, the systems of other stars being just too far away to reach in a human lifetime. But with a solar system like this, why go anywhere else?