The Gateway Drug
Any child of Nancy Reagan’s misguided “Just Say No” campaign has scoffed at her idea of a gateway drug. In this pint-sized-preacher-with-a-freakishly-large-head’s temperance-filled world, the kid who dared smoke a marijuana cigarette would end up strung-out on the big city’s mean streets, selling his or her body to the highest bidder just to get another hit. The path was a short one; once you set foot on it, ruin became your only possible destination.
The campaign, while well-meaning, failed to acknowledge some fairly basic facts about not only addiction but about the country at the time. Most of the kids targeted by “Just Say No” didn’t have access to the narcotics du jour, like cocaine and liquor. Reagan never really focused on the hazards of legal recreations, like three-martini lunches, Marlboros and astrology. As an analogy for patterns of self-abuse that shredded the country’s moral fiber, the gateway drug concept never found traction with my generation, especially once we were old enough to realize that the country’s downward spiral had more to do with Nancy’s husband than with what we might be doing behind the gym.
Still, the concept might still have some legs. Most genre fans can point to one book that led to their own descent into speculative fiction addiction. It’s generational, of course. For some, it might have been Wells, Verne or Burroughs. Others might point to Lem or the other Burroughs or Moorcock. Twenty years from now, it’s hard to know who might be cited. Gibson, maybe, or Gaiman. Despite the fact that it makes old-school hard-assed fans bite their fists, I’d like to think that it might be Rowling who draws the next batch into the fold.
The name that comes up most frequently, however, is Heinlein. Robert A. was my own gateway drug and I still have vivid memories of my first hit. It was in my local library (the Northland library in Pittsburgh, if you’re scoring at home), where I spent most of my late-elementary school summers, checking out enough books each week to cause the librarian to ask “are you really going to read all of those?” every time she checked them out. I’d read virtually everything in the juvenile section that held any interest. Some I’d read half-a-dozen times, like Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, which is still one of my all-time favorites.
Emboldened by boredom, I decided to venture around the wall that separated the kid’s books from the library proper. As fate would have it, the science fiction paperbacks were just around that corner and I pulled out three or four before a cover caught my eye. It was Heinlein’s Friday, the one with the Michael Whelan illustration of the buxom butt-kicking sex-kitten on the cover. I read the first 50 pages while leaning against the shelves and ignored the raised eyebrows of the librarian as she scanned it and my card. In the intervening 25-ish years, I’ve read it 20 times at least. This story of a genetically engineered galactic courier is like comfort food to me. Despite my adult interpretations (and, honestly, misgivings about) of some of the larger Heinlein canon, I own every last book the man wrote. Plus, I can’t turn my back on Friday. She was my first -- and best.
Others followed, of course. Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan was next, snagged from my father’s massive bookshelves. Dune and Dick came shortly thereafter, fillers while I waited for all of the Heinlein books in the library’s catalog to make it back from loan and onto the shelves. Now I can’t get enough of the high-brow sci-fi like Lethem and Banks (his new one, The Algebraist, is truly amazing) and Stephenson. More action-packed or fluff-filled frolics fill the urge, too, like Vinge (Joan, that is, not Vernor) and Adams and Varley. Hard- or soft-core, my addiction to the stuff started right there, in that section of the library just on the other side of the wall. I wonder what would have happened had that section been filled with dusty tomes about molecular biology or comparative archeology. Some mysteries are best left unanswered.
I am not alone in Heinlein being my gateway to the form, of course. Spider Robinson, who is no slouch of a writer in his own right, has frequently and publicly stated his love for the old man’s works. One wonders what would have happened had Robinson not had one of Heinlein’s juveniles, Rocketship Galileo, fall into his hands at just the right time. Would the delightful Callahan universe still found its way to existence had Robinson read The Scarlet Letter instead? How about the resonant Night of Power or the trippy Time Pressure? My universe, at least, would be more bleak without these books – and could argue that the genre as a whole would be as well.
Which makes it interesting that Robinson’s most recent sale is Variable Star to Tor books. Star is based on a detailed outline and notes made by Heinlein in 1955; Robinson has completed what the Grand Master had set out to do. The experience was a heady one, according to Robinson on his personal website, and one that may provide the gateway for yet another reader jump into the many tentacled arms of speculative fiction. Somewhere, Nancy Reagan is screaming.