The Age of Innocence – “Sensawunda” and the Older Science Fiction Fan

Older sci-fi/SF fans (or “fen”, to give them their correct title), almost all have an incredibly developed Sense of Wonder, more often referred to in the SF world as “sensawunda”, that wide-eyed innocence and boundless enthusiasm, that willingness to see beyond the mundane world around us and embrace the infinite potential and possibilities of the universe, of all time and space.

It’s almost like a special extra sense, an ability to link to our “inner child”, something that makes us different from the rest of the mainstream “mundane” population, who seem to have lost that link to their childhood once they became adults. Many of those people would look at us and consider us “big kids”, adults who have refused to grow up and drop the obsessions and attitudes of childhood (or even something much less flattering). We, on the other hand, look at them and consider them boring, unimaginative old farts, having lost all the childish aspects that made life fun, and growing old long before their time.

Our sensawunda keeps us forever young. Unfortunately, very few of the younger generation these days seem to have it, at least once they grow out of the wide-eyed innocence of their childhood years. We older fen were instilled with a powerful essence of sensawunda from a time before we could even read or write. The kids these days have seen it all a thousand times, and have had everything handed to them since birth. They lose their sensawunda at a very early age, and today’s teenagers are for the most part very worldly-wise, cynical, and almost impossible to impress.

All of the things we saw on TV and at the cinema, way back when they were new and ground-breaking, are part of background culture for these kids. They don’t see anything remarkable about these great films and TV series, because they’ve “always been there”, as far as the kids are concerned. They miss out totally on one of the greatest aspects of geekhood, and we older geeks are so, so lucky to have lived through it all.

Back “when we were young”, every new sci-fi series, every new sci-fi cinema release, every new book release by Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov or other top SF writers, every new issue of the Spider-Man Comics Weekly, The Avengers, The Mighty World of Marvel, Countdown and TV Action, Lion and Thunder or any of our favourite comics, any and all of these geek objects were things of wonder, and we all waited on them obsessively, like addicts waiting on their next fix (but in a nice way, of course).

I try to compare cynical modern teens with the wide-eyed innocence and enthusiasm of my teenage self, sitting eagerly in front of the TV every week, waiting for the next episode of Star Trek or Doctor Who. Or sitting in the local cinema, mouth wide open, watching Star Wars for the first time, and listening in awe to the tie fighters roar all around me over the amazing new THX sound system. In the pre-video, pre-internet age, every new sci-fi TV series and sci-fi cinema release was SPECIAL. The newness and uniqueness of it all was overpowering.

In those far-off days, you saw a series episode or film ONCE, and then they were gone, forever. Now, with DVDs, streaming and all the modern recording techniques, you can watch anything, over and over again a hundred times. It may be amazingly convenient, and none of us would be without it, but it has also played a huge part in killing the magic, the sensawunda. It’s all become as common as muck, so easily accessible and available. There’s nothing special about any of it any more.

The current generation of kids, at least here in the West, are spoiled rotten. All of this great technology and sci-fi culture has been around since long before they were born, and they’ve grown up with it as an integral part of their lives. But you know the old saying – “Familiarity Breeds Contempt” – they just don’t appreciate it. It’s no big deal to them. We older fen, on the other hand, we were there when Star Trek first appeared in the 1960’s, when Star Wars ushered in the era of blockbuster sci-fi movies in the late-1970’s. Before that, with only a handful of exceptions, sci-fi movies were cheap B-movies, sneered at by everyone except the hardcore fans.

We were there for the first appearances of Blake’s 7, Battlestar Galactica, Blade Runner, Alien, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We were there when all of these great television shows and films (which are now familiar cultural icons) were new, fresh, and NOBODY had ever seen anything like them before. Some of us were even there for the first appearance of Doctor Who (although I don’t remember anything about it, as it was two weeks before my third birthday!). And the oldest fans were there for the three original Quatermass TV serials – The Quatermass Experiment (1953), Quatermass II (1955) and Quatermass and the Pit (1958), Captain Video and His Video Rangers, and even the sci-fi “pulps”. Well before my time, and I’m so envious of them.

All of us older fans, we’re starting to get on a bit (I’m 53). But the one great thing about being middle-aged or older is that we lived through the truly great eras of nearly EVERYTHING – sci-fi TV and cinema, the growth and explosion into popular culture of SF literature, the great eras of US and UK comics, and the great popular music eras of the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. We are SO lucky. We’re the most fortunate of all, because we lived through the one, true geek generation. We’ll never see its like again.

The kids these days missed out on all of that, and will NEVER experience anything like it. There are so many bright, shiny new fads these days, massive marketing machines making sure that they happen seemingly one right after another. And each of them lasts all of five minutes until the next one comes along. Nothing is unique or special any more. They’ve seen it all before.

To be honest, I’m not overly enthusiastic about the rapidly looming advance of my “senior years”. But being a geek is the one area in life where I can honestly say “It’s great to be old”. 🙂

When I Was Young – The Day I Fell in Love with Superhero Comics

There are certain defining moments in our lives, when we make a decision that greatly changes or influences the way things will turn out from that point onwards. For me, as a comics fan, one of those defining moments was the day I fell in love with superhero comics.

I remember it like it was yesterday, a cold, wet lunchtime at the start of November 1972. I was eleven years old, and had just started, only two months before, as a first year pupil at our local grammar school, the most prestigious school in the north-west of Ireland. We had no canteens in that old school, so we had to bring in a lunchpack. The long lunch break (well over an hour), after scoffing a few sandwiches, a bag of crisps, and a small bottle of lemonade, was a real drudge. We always had about an hour or more to kill before the start of class, so I would head out of the school grounds to do a bit of exploring.

The school was about a mile and a half from the city centre, which was an unfamiliar place to a young boy like myself. I lived several miles outside the city, and I very rarely went into town, and never without my father. However, that was all to change pretty soon. As I became more familiar with the surroundings of my school, I began to venture further and further away from it. At first it was just a half-mile up the road to the chippy, where I often supplemented my meagre lunch with a bag of chips (French Fries, for our transatlantic friends). But gradually I started exploring further and further away.

Then, as time went on, I’d venture up towards the top of Bishop Street, the very long road that wound its way past our school from the outskirts of the town, and extended all the way into the city centre. Eventually, a few weeks after I’d started at the new school, I nervously wandered into the centre of our town, determined to explore all the shops (what was left of them, that is). The “Troubles” in Northern Ireland were, by that time, in full swing, and the year 1972 is generally regarded as being the worst year of the Troubles. The city centre was not a safe place to be in those days, with bullets flying and bombs going off almost every day. It looked just like London, during the Blitz. Ruined buildings and gutted shops everywhere. It was a wasteland.

And William Street was one of the worst hit areas of them all. Even the City Cinema, where I’d watched many films as an even younger kid, was by this time a gutted ruin. There were barely three or four shops left intact in the entire street out of dozens. One of those lucky enough to remain untouched was McCool’s newsagents. I liked newsagents. They tended to stock lots of nice books and comics. This particular wet day, I went into McCool’s, mostly to escape the rain, which had soaked right through my overcoat and clothes to the bare skin, but also out of sheer curiousity, to see what comics were on the shelves.

I was an avid comics reader even then, although only of British weekly comics, particularly the more sci-fi oriented titles such as the Lion, the Valiant, the Eagle, and Countdown. I’d had very brief, fleeting encounters with US superheroes before, in the short-lived black and white Power Comics of the late-1960s, which published a mix of original British strips and reprints of US Marvel and DC superhero strips. Smash, Pow, Wham, Fantastic, and Terrific, were the direct inspiration for what was to come later, in the early 1970s, from Marvel UK. But I was too young when those were in the shops (only seven or eight years old), and so I paid very little attention to them.

I’d also seen a few of the much rarer import US colour superhero comics (Marvel and DC), which appeared sporadically during the late 1960s and early 1970s, in local newsagents, corner shops, petrol stations, and in the new breed of supermarkets springing up all over the place. I liked the look of these, but they were quite expensive. I had only very limited pocket money, there were so, so many comics out there, and I could only afford to buy two or three anyway. I usually just stuck with my regular diet of the same two or three British weeklies that I’d been buying regularly since I was four or five years old.

So up until the age of eleven, superheroes didn’t make any real impact whatsoever on my consciousness or buying habits. All that was to change that miserable, wet November day in McCool’s shop. I was scanning the shelves, looking for anything interesting, when I spotted a bright, colourful cover in among all the relatively drab British comics. The colours and quality of the comic stood out like a beacon. The incredible scene of four superheroes (who I later learned were the Fantastic Four) battling it out, seemingly in vain, against a huge green monster, with orange brow ridges and an orange mohican and lumps on its head, pulled me to this comic like a magnet.

MWOM 006

It was The Mighty World of Marvel #6, the very first of the classic Marvel UK weekly titles, and the start for me of a life-long love affair with superhero comics. A few minutes browsing through it, and I was hooked. I whipped out my 5p and paid for it (5p? – you’d pay a hundred times that – £5, if not more, for a UK comic these days). The 5p was part of my dinner money, but some days I didn’t bother going to the chip shop, and spent the money on comics instead. After this particular day, that was to become a much more frequent habit. I wrapped the comic in a plastic bag and put it into my schoolbag, making sure it was well covered so that it wouldn’t get damaged by any rain seeping in. Then I made my way back to school, getting there just as the bell rang for the end of lunch break.

I didn’t get a chance to read the comic until after school. When I got home, I rushed up the stairs to my bedroom, took it out of my bag, and, for the very first time, encountered the magical adventures of the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, and the Amazing Spider-Man. The only one of these that I vaguely recognized was Spider-Man, whom I had seen in an earlier British reprint comic (I think it was Smash), four or five years before.

These three sets of characters were to become, very quickly, a near-obsession with me (especially my favourite, the Hulk), and I was so caught up in it all that I nagged and nagged at my Dad until he gave me the money (all of 50p, and that’s including the cost of p&p) to send off for the first five back issues of MWOM, which I’d missed. When they arrived, a couple of weeks later (the wait seemed like forever), you’d have thought Christmas had come early :).

I’d become a superhero comic fanatic, and remained a regular reader of The Mighty World of Marvel for many years, at least up until the end of the 1970s. I also collected the newer spin-off Marvel UK comics such as Spider-Man Comics Weekly, and The Avengers, and I still have large collections of these as well. This obsession with collecting the Marvel UK b&w weeklies also started me on buying some of the US colour import Marvel and DC comics, whenever I could find them, that is (distribution of US imports was very unpredictable).

The irony was that while I was reading the classic Silver Age reprints of Marvel characters in the Marvel UK comics, at the very same time I was reading the then-current up-to-date Bronze Age adventures of the same characters in the US Marvel imports. I became a confirmed Marvel Junkie for the best part of a decade during the 1970s and early 1980s, and The Mighty World of Marvel and its successors were the direct cause of that.

Conversely I was never as big a fan of DC superheroes, with the exception of the Legion of Super-Heroes, which I loved, and the occasional issue of the Justice League of America and the Brave & the Bold. DC made the big mistake of not following Marvel’s example, and releasing a strong line of British reprint titles during the 1970s. Marvel had the entire UK superhero comics market to themselves.

After I started buying the Marvel UK comics, I dropped all of my earlier British weekly favourites, which now seemed pretty dull and old-fashioned compared to the colourful, exciting new superhero titles. Of course I now greatly regret doing that, and it certainly seems very short-sighted in hindsight (we all have 20-20 vision in hindsight). But I was young and stupid, and like I said, I only had so much pocket money to spend, and the Marvel UK comics took first priority back then, by quite some margin. Ironically, I’m now trying to track down back issues of some of the old non-Marvel UK comics that I was most fond of before I dropped them for the Marvel titles.

I still have all those early issues of The Mighty World of Marvel, an unbroken collection of the first 120 issues, locked away in storage. Every so often I pull them out and browse through them, drifting off on a sea of fond memories, a complete nostalgia rush. And every time I look at my old copy of The Mighty World of Marvel #6, in my memory I relive that cold and wet distant day in McCool’s shop, when I fell in love with superhero comics.

When I Was Young – Christmas 1975

I think it’s fair to say that spoiling children is not a good thing, as spoiled kids have absolutely no appreciation for anything that they’re given. It seems that the more you spend on them, the LESS they appreciate it.

Spoiled, ungrateful kids really piss me off. You know the sort I’m talking about, spoiled brats throwing a tantrum, hurling a £300 games console back at their parents because it isn’t what they wanted for Christmas. “I want an X-Box! You got the wrong one! Wahhh!” (I have actually seen this happening). If any kid of mine ever threw a tantrum like that, they would find themselves playing with Lego and not a £300 games console. Those kids need a good, swift kick up the arse, if you ask me. And the parents need an even swifter, harder boot to the rear end for making their kids turn out like that in the first place.

Modern society has become so materialistic that it sickens me. It’s all about (for both kids and adults) how many nice, shiny, expensive new things you can acquire. I get so angry when I see how much more is spent on Christmas presents these days compared to when we were kids, and the complete lack of gratitude on the part of most of those kids receiving those expensive presents. Speaking as an Old Phart, I can state with some authority that back “in our day” we got a heckuva lot less, but we appreciated it a lot more. Which brings me to Christmas 1975, and one of the best Christmas presents I ever received.

I came from a very poor family (I could give you a “We were so poor that… ” story, but you get the picture). My Dad had to to raise five kids on his own, after he and my Mum split up. He gave up his job to look after us, and, as a typical working-class man in the early-1970s, he was very ill-equipped to do so. Indeed, he almost gave up on many occasions, but he loved us, so he hung in there against all the odds, refusing to leave us hanging high and dry, where many other men would’ve given up altogether.

The worst part of all this was that our lives were a constant struggle against poverty. Life on the dole in Northern Ireland at the start of the 1970’s was no laughing matter, especially if you had to raise a family on it. Maybe it wasn’t exactly Bangladesh, but it was as near as a so-called advanced western society came to it. We managed to eat, just about, and very poorly. Meat only two or three times a week at most (I got real sick of chips ‘n’ beans), and chicken only very rarely, on special occasions (like Christmas and New Year). Buying clothes for the kids and paying the bills and debtors was a major problem. What we would take for granted today as the everyday little luxuries in life were totally out of the question for us back then.

And, most of all, Dad dreaded Christmas, with a passion that even I could only imagine, for all my strong dislike of the Festive Season. Christmas meant extra spending on food and presents. But how could you spend extra when you didn’t have it in the first place? Trying to feed the kids and buy a few cheap presents to give at least an impression that it was Christmas was a recurring nightmare for my father. And this went on every year for at least a decade (until we were old enough to work and contribute to the household ourselves). He’d buy a few little toys and confectionery items for the younger kids, but I was older, and toys didn’t do much for me. He knew I liked books, but wasn’t too sure what kind of books. So he’d usually pick up something on space or prehistoric animals, which he knew I had a thing for, and that generally kept me quiet.

Then one year he struck gold. I remember it well. Christmas Eve, 1975. He landed back late with the Christmas presents, and handed them out to us. Nobody in our family believed in Santa, aside from the two youngest, who were very young and already in bed. I was fourteen years old, and the other two brothers were twelve and eleven, so we were too old to believe in Santa. We knew Dad was the Man with the presents, and we were waiting like hawks when he came in the door.

The younger brothers got their usual ration of toys and sweets, which kept them very happy indeed. Then he handed me my present, obviously a book of some kind, large format and hardback. I ripped off the wrapping paper eagerly, expecting another book on dinosaurs, or spaceships, or Doctor Who. But I was in for a real surprise. It was an Annual, and not just any old Annual. It was the Avengers Annual 1975. I’d already been a crazy superhero fan for several years by that stage, and collected all three Marvel UK weekly comics, the (Mighty World of Marvel, Spider-Man Comics Weekly, and The Avengers), even if it meant walking the four miles home from school every day in order to save my bus money for them (no such thing as pocket money for poor kids like us in those days). But I’d never been able to afford the expense of any of the Marvel Annuals, which, at nearly £1, almost twenty times the price of the average Marvel weekly, were well outside my budget at that time.

And here was my father handing to me the Avengers Annual 1975! He might as well have been giving me the Crown Jewels. I threw my arms around him and gave him a big hug. He was very taken aback by this, as he wasn’t one to display much overt affection in public (Real Men didn’t do that kind of thing back then), although we all knew that he loved us. But he was obviously surprised and delighted that I was so happy with the present. He’d taken a chance on it, thinking that I might like it, being a fan of superhero comics. But the degree of joy I’d shown was completely unexpected. He shook his head in bewilderment, smiling, as I rushed off to find a quiet spot to read my new found treasure.

You wouldn’t even have known I was in the room, as I sat in that corner, reading the annual over and over again for hours on end. I was captivated by the gaudy front cover, with Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and the Vision smashing through a wall. And the even better back cover with all the Avengers together in one pin-up. There were more pin-ups inside. And the stories! Wow! The first one was a great Steve Englehart/Don Heck strip featuring The Mighty Avengers and The Uncanny X-Men at the mercy of Magneto.

The second strip was part two of the same story, with the three remaining Avengers, plus Daredevil, and the Black Widow, all taking on the power of Magneto and his mind-slaves (namely all the other Avengers plus the X-Men). In another strip, the Avengers took on the Lion-God, my least-favourite of the stories in the annual, but still interesting. But the greatest eye-opener for me was a classic Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Captain America and Bucky strip, set during World War II. I loved that one! I’d never seen any stories in a Golden Age setting before, and I found it completely fascinating.

Overall, this was a fantastic gift from my father, and out of all the Christmas presents I have ever received, that Avengers Annual from 1975 has always meant the most to me. And the cost of that amazing present? A cool ninety pence. That’s right, not even one lousy English pound. Sometimes the value of something, no matter how cheap, goes way beyond anything monetary. Which is a big reason why I get so riled these days by spoiled kids and their lack of gratitude for the vastly more expensive things they get, and the stupidity of their dumb parents for splashing out so much money on the ungrateful little brats.

I still have it, that 1975 Avengers Annual, and all the other annuals that my father made sure to buy me for the next few Christmases after that. I wouldn’t part with any of them, not for any amount of money, even though they’re aren’t really worth a lot in money terms. They mean too much to me, carry too many fond memories for me of my late father, and all those Christmases from long ago, when we struggled just to survive the Festive Season, when we were lucky to get fed, let alone receive presents.

That cheap little present still means more to me than anything I’ve gotten for Christmas in all the years since then. There are some things that money simply can’t buy!

It’s a Geek’s Life… (Part Three)

This one has been a long time coming, far too long. But better late than never, I suppose… 🙂

The Barren Years – The Near-Death of Geekery During the Eighties

All throughout the first half of the 1970’s, I was in geek heaven, having seemingly unlimited time to spend on my obsessions with comics, sf literature, telefantasy and sci-fi films. But by 1977-78, things began to change considerably.

I began my A-Levels at college in September 1977, two years of brutal, non-stop studying, followed immediately by another four years of more of the same as I pursued an Honours Degree at university. This intensive studying at college and university during the 1977-83 timeframe drastically curtailed my free time. Except for a few short weeks over the summer breaks, I had no free time at all.

Added to this, there was the rapidly declining health of my father and the ever-growing responsibilities that I had looking after both him and my disabled brother. My father was being increasingly crippled by severe rheumatoid arthritis and other debilitating health problems, and within a few short years, by the time I was in my first year at university, he was a wheelchair-bound invalid. I was now responsible not only for looking after two disabled adults, but for also somehow trying to miraculously find the time to study for an Honours Degree as well.

The result of all this was that my geek hobbies pretty much died in the early Eighties, or were put on life support for quite a few years, at the very least. This prolonged period of sheer, relentless drudgery totally broke two out of three of my longest-standing geek hobbies – reading comics and SF literature. Only the sci-fi television and film obsession escaped relatively unscathed, and my sci-fi TV and film watching habit has remained relatively constant over the years.

It took me a long time to recover from those years, particularly when it came to reading SF. Sure, I still read a fair bit of SF today, but, even now, my SF reading habit hasn’t quite recovered to its former frequency, and is certainly nowhere near the obsessive marathon levels it had been at during my teens. Unlike back then, I rarely read novels at all these days, although I still read short fiction regularly. I used to be an obsessive reader of novels back in my teens, but that all ended back in the early-1980’s, and I no longer have the time, the patience, focus or powers of concentration to devote to reading novels on a regular basis. I guess I just fell out of the habit. Maybe I can get back into it again.

These days, when I do occasionally read a novel, I focus only on a very narrow range of sub-genres, usually Classic Space Opera, Hard SF, and their mutant offspring, New Space Opera. Even back when I was an avid SF novel reader, I was never as fond of softer, more sociological, political or anthropological SF as I was of Hard SF and Space Opera. With the exception of a few Alternate Histories and anything to do with Time Travel or Temporal Paradoxes, I rarely read any Soft SF at all these days. My novel reading consists mainly of the latest novels by the likes of Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Peter F. Hamilton, Charles Stross, Greg Egan, Peter Watts, Linda Nagata and a few other similar authors.

For the past two decades or more, at least ninety-five percent of my SF reading has been short fiction, usually multi-author anthologies, although I do read the occasional single-author short fiction collection. I did read the SF magazines circa 1997-2003, Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone and SF Age, but SF Age folded, and Interzone changed hands and I didn’t like the new direction it took after David Pringle gave it up. And even worse, the US magazines Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF were all dropped by my local newsagents, which meant that I no longer collected ANY science fiction magazines. These days, I collect the various “Year’s Best” SF anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois, David G. Hartwell, Rich Horton and a few others. These, plus a few interesting “theme” anthologies, allow me to keep up to date with the cream of modern short SF. However, by far the vast majority of the SF anthologies that I read are collections of classic and vintage SF, pre-New Wave (I did NOT like most of the fiction from the New Wave era), and mainly material from the Golden Age and pre-Golden Age of Science Fiction.

As for comics, I actually gave up reading them altogether for a full decade, from 1982-1991. I’d been reading comics continuously since I was about three or four years old (1964-65), starting off with the British weekly comics such as Lion, Valiant and Eagle. Then, in late-1972, I discovered the Mighty World of Marvel, followed soon after by Spider-Man Comics Weekly and the Avengers, and became a fanatical reader of the black and white Marvel UK reprints throughout the rest of the 70’s. I also started reading the colour Marvel US comics (which I bought via mail order) about a year or two afterwards, and all through the 1970’s I read both US and UK Marvel comics side-by-side. But by the end of the 1970’s, in my opinion, both Marvel UK and Marvel US had gone into decline (or maybe I was just getting fed up with or “growing out of” them), and once I began my A-Levels (1977-79), followed by university (1979-83), the immense pressures of study meant that I had to give up on reading all but a handful of my favourite comics.

I had given up on the Marvel UK titles altogether by about 1979, and stopped reading all but three or four of the US Marvel titles, dropping them altogether by about 1980-81. My final comic of that era was the classic UK comic Warrior, and when it folded in 1982, and with 1982-83 being the year of my “finals” at university, I stopped reading comics altogether for a long, long time, the first period in my life that I hadn’t read comics since I was a very young child. I came back to them sporadically during 1991-1992 and 1994-1995, but I only really became a serious comics collector again from about late-1997 onwards. However, the good news is that my comics reading habit has actually grown again in recent years to a level that greatly surpasses what it was even back in my teens.

I’m still a hardcore geek, and always will be. But those dark years back at the end of the 1970’s and during most of the 1980’s almost totally ruined it for me on a permanent basis. Luckily I’ve now pretty much fully recovered most of my geek cred and activities. Mostly.

But as much fun as being a geek still is today, the one thing that I can regretfully never rediscover is that wide-eyed innocence, enthusiasm and sense of sheer joy that I experienced way back in my early teens, when I first became a serious geek. It’s like being a virgin. Once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. 🙂

It’s all just not quite as wondrous and pure any more when you’re a middle-aged cynic. 🙂

It’s a Geek’s Life… (Part Three)

The Barren Years – The Near-Death of Geekery During the Eighties

All throughout the first half of the 1970’s, I was in geek heaven, having seemingly unlimited time to spend on my obsessions with comics, sf literature, telefantasy and sci-fi films. But by 1977-78, things began to change considerably.

I began my A-Levels at college in September 1977, two years of brutal, non-stop studying, followed immediately by another four years of more of the same as I pursued an Honours Degree at university. This intensive studying at college and university during the 1977-83 timeframe drastically curtailed my free time. Except for a few short weeks over the summer breaks, I had no free time at all.

Added to this, there was the rapidly declining health of my father and the ever-growing responsibilities that I had looking after both him and my disabled brother. My father was being increasingly crippled by severe rheumatoid arthritis and other debilitating health problems, and within a few short years, by the time I was in my first year at university, he was a wheelchair-bound invalid. I was now responsible not only for looking after two disabled adults, but for also somehow trying to miraculously find the time to study for an Honours Degree as well.

The result of all this was that my geek hobbies pretty much died in the early Eighties, or were put on life support for quite a few years, at the very least. This prolonged period of sheer, relentless drudgery totally broke two out of three of my longest-standing geek hobbies – reading comics and SF literature. Only the sci-fi television and film obsession escaped relatively unscathed, and my sci-fi TV and film watching habit has remained relatively constant over the years.

It took me a long time to recover from those years, particularly when it came to reading SF. Sure, I still read a fair bit of SF today, but, even now, my SF reading habit hasn’t quite recovered to its former frequency, and is certainly nowhere near the obsessive marathon levels it had been at during my teens. Unlike back then, I rarely read novels at all these days, although I still read short fiction regularly. I used to be an obsessive reader of novels back in my teens, but that all ended back in the early-1980’s, and I no longer have the time, the patience, focus or powers of concentration to devote to reading novels on a regular basis. I guess I just fell out of the habit. Maybe I can get back into it again.

These days, when I do occasionally read a novel, I focus only on a very narrow range of sub-genres, usually Classic Space Opera, Hard SF, and their mutant offspring, New Space Opera. Even back when I was an avid SF novel reader, I was never as fond of softer, more sociological, political or anthropological SF as I was of Hard SF and Space Opera. With the exception of a few Alternate Histories and anything to do with Time Travel or Temporal Paradoxes, I rarely read any Soft SF at all these days. My novel reading consists mainly of the latest novels by the likes of Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Peter F. Hamilton, Charles Stross, Greg Egan, Peter Watts, Linda Nagata and a few other similar authors.

For the past two decades or more, at least ninety-five percent of my SF reading has been short fiction, usually multi-author anthologies, although I do read the occasional single-author short fiction collection. I did read the SF magazines circa 1997-2003, Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone and SF Age, but SF Age folded, and Interzone changed hands and I didn’t like the new direction it took after David Pringle gave it up. And even worse, the US magazines Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF were all dropped by my local newsagents, which meant that I no longer collected ANY science fiction magazines. These days, I collect the various “Year’s Best” SF anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois, David G. Hartwell, Rich Horton and a few others. These, plus a few interesting “theme” anthologies, allow me to keep up to date with the cream of modern short SF. However, by far the vast majority of the SF anthologies that I read are collections of classic and vintage SF, pre-New Wave (I did NOT like most of the fiction from the New Wave era), and mainly material from the Golden Age and pre-Golden Age of Science Fiction.

As for comics, I actually gave up reading them altogether for a full decade, from 1982-1991. I’d been reading comics continuously since I was about three or four years old (1964-65), starting off with the British weekly comics such as Lion, Valiant and Eagle. Then, in late-1972, I discovered the Mighty World of Marvel, followed soon after by Spider-Man Comics Weekly and the Avengers, and became a fanatical reader of the black and white Marvel UK reprints throughout the rest of the 70’s. I also started reading the colour Marvel US comics (which I bought via mail order) about a year or two afterwards, and all through the 1970’s I read both US and UK Marvel comics side-by-side. But by the end of the 1970’s, in my opinion, both Marvel UK and Marvel US had gone into decline (or maybe I was just getting fed up with or “growing out of” them), and once I began my A-Levels (1977-79), followed by university (1979-83), the immense pressures of study meant that I had to give up on reading all but a handful of my favourite comics.

I had given up on the Marvel UK titles altogether by about 1979, and stopped reading all but three or four of the US Marvel titles, dropping them altogether by about 1980-81. My final comic of that era was the classic UK comic Warrior, and when it folded in 1982, and with 1982-83 being the year of my “finals” at university, I stopped reading comics altogether for a long, long time, the first period in my life that I hadn’t read comics since I was a very young child. I came back to them sporadically during 1991-1992 and 1994-1995, but I only really became a serious comics collector again from about late-1997 onwards. However, the good news is that my comics reading habit has actually grown again in recent years to a level that greatly surpasses what it was even back in my teens.

I’m still a hardcore geek, and always will be. But those dark years back at the end of the 1970’s and during most of the 1980’s almost totally ruined it for me on a permanent basis. Luckily I’ve now pretty much fully recovered most of my geek cred and activities. Mostly.

But as much fun as being a geek still is today, the one thing that I can regretfully never rediscover is that wide-eyed innocence, enthusiasm and sense of sheer joy that I experienced way back in my early teens, when I first became a serious geek. It’s like being a virgin. Once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. 🙂

It’s all just not quite as wondrous and pure any more when you’re a middle-aged cynic. 🙂