FOR my birthday, I got myself a toy and a book. The toy is a cylindrically-shaped speaker with an unbelievable sound for its size. It connects to my phone via Bluetooth and can be used as a speakerphone as well as to belt out my favorite tunes. Added to that, it can survive a drop into the fishpond or a pool as it is also waterproof. It is with me now as I write this on an early Thursday morning wet with rain, bridging decades as it plays the jazz masterpieces of Thelonius Monk and the guitar solos of Andy McKee.
The book I got is a collection of speeches, articles and other essays by one of my favorite fiction writers, Neil Gaiman, entitled “The View From The Cheap Seats”. I have only begun to read it. Gaiman’s nonfiction is as magical as his fiction. I am still at page 48 (out of 500 pages) and already I have been brought back to my childhood when I found hours and hours of pleasure reading. Fortunately, there was no shortage of reading materials at our house. We had bookshelves filled with all sorts of books.
Gaiman writes in a genre called SF & F or Science Fiction and Fantasy and also children’s books (although many adults also find much pleasure in these). I have long been a fan of science fiction and fantasy. Even today, when I wander into any bookstore, I make sure to go and check the SF & F shelves to see if anything new and interesting has come out. I also get to see many books that I have already read. Sometimes I pick those out and hold them in my hand, or I just run my fingers over the spine as they sit there, sort of like greeting old friends.
Being the youngest in the family, I was fortunate to have older sisters to read stories aloud to me when I was too young to read. We had this huge collection of booklets called Children’s Digest which was like Reader’s Digest (for those who remember this), only it was, obviously, for children. Each issue of Children’s Digest had a regular comic strip which told the adventures of Twinkle the Star. Twink had a huge star-shaped head and he had on a shirt that was black on one side and white on the other.
I don’t know how many times I bugged my sisters (each had their own turn) to read stories of Twink day after day and night after night. I think they were relieved when I finally learned how to read. I was also relieved because I could now pick out whatever issue of Children’s Digest I liked and read to my heart’s content without waiting for someone to read to me.
Our old house had a room we called the “Study Room” that was adjacent to the bedroom I shared with my dad. The two rooms were separated by a screen mesh so that anyone in the study room could take a peek in our room and vice versa. It was my dad’s habit to wake up very early in the morning (he was already up at two-thirty or three o’clock) and start working in his table at the study room, usually checking invoices from the store or writing stuff I did not understand on sheets of paper.
So I would very often wake up early as well because the lights were on. Sometimes, I found it hard to go back to sleep so I would go to the study room and sit on my dad’s rocking chair reading anything I could get my hands on in the bookshelf. There was this series of books called Bible Friends which told stories from the Bible -- Noah’s Ark, Samson and Delilah, Moses and the Red Sea, the miracles of Jesus, and so on. There was also this thick volume of fairy tales where I got introduced to Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Goldilocks, and so many others.
As I got older, I learned to read longer stories that spanned an entire book. I remember seeing a cartoon version of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe on TV and it fascinated me to no end. Imagine my delight when my sister told me she had the book (and the rest of the series). I devoured those books and read them over and over until I knew Narnia like the back of my hand.
I got introduced to more of the same genre when I read the Guardians of the Stone series by Moyra Caldecott, a magical tale which I believe was inspired by the mysterious rock formations at Stonehenge. And then there was Thongor of Lemuria by Lin Carter which featured a god-like warrior-king. The most fascinating idea I found in that world was a magical metal that fell upwards instead of down, which the people learned to shape into flying machines by using counterweights.
When I was in college, I remember my dad asking me for an accounting of my allowance. I told him I had spent some money on books. He asked what books and I rattled off the titles. He then dismissed them with a wave of his hand and said, “Bah, that’s just science fiction.”
In the book I’m currently reading, Gaiman recounts a trip to China in 2007 to attend the first-ever state-sponsored science fiction convention. He got to speak to a Chinese official and asked him why China was now holding such a convention when it has been known in the past that its leaders disapprove of science fiction. What had changed? He would like to know.
The official responded, “Oh, you know for years we’ve been making wonderful things. We make your iPods. We make phones. We make them better than anybody else, but we don’t come up with any of these ideas. You bring us things and then we make them. So we went on a tour of America talking to people at Microsoft, at Google, at Apple, and we asked them a lot of questions about themselves, just the people working there. And we discovered that they all read science fiction when they were teenagers. So we think maybe it’s a good thing.”
As I finish writing this, I am moving my feet to music coming out of a device that is invisibly connected to my phone. I can control how loud or soft I want the music to be at the touch of a button. At another touch, I can make it switch to the next song, or the one before it, or a totally random one. And if I spill my morning tea on it, it will still keep on playing as if nothing happened.
A few decades ago, this device would have been the stuff of science fiction. Today, it’s reality and it’s absolutely magical.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.