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"That was an epiphany. . . ."

Mercedes Lackey

There's a commercial on cable stations lately that talks about moments of epiphany—moments when you understand something that changes your life.


I've had at least one of those moments—and when it was over, my life had been changed forever.


It was when, when I was eleven or thereabouts, I went looking in the living room for something to read.


Now, in my house, books were everywhere and there was very little my brother and I were forbidden to read. We both had library cards as soon as we got past "Run, Spot, run," and by the time I was nine I was coming home with armloads of books every week and still running out of things to read before the week was over. By the time I was ten, I had special permission to take books out of the adult section—yes, in those dark days, you needed a permission slip from your parents to read things that weren't in the children's section.


Now, the peculiar thing here is that although I read anything that looked like a fairy-tale and every piece of historical fiction I could find, I hadn't discovered classic juvenile science fiction. I can't think why—unless it was because my library didn't have any. It was a very small branch library, and I hadn't yet learned that you could request anything that was in the card-catalog for the whole county-wide system. It might also have been because my branch library had helpfully segregated the juvenile section into "Boys" and "Girls," and I wasn't brave enough to cross the invisible line-of-death dividing the two. I do recall reading two little books called Space Cat and Space Cat Meets Mars and loving them—and also something called City Under the Back Steps about a kid who gets shrunk and joins an ant colony—but that was in a different library, before we moved, and perhaps the books hadn't been so helpfully segregated there. Be that as it may, although I was knee-deep in the historical novels of Anya Seton and Rosemary Sutcliff by then, I hadn't ventured into the adult Science Fiction section. I hadn't fallen headfirst into Andre Norton's myriad worlds, I hadn't joined Heinlein's resourceful heroes, I hadn't discovered Anderson, Asimov, Clarke, Nourse, Simak. . . .


All that was about to change. Because my father had. 


My father was a science fiction reader; in our house, where library books were everywhere, it was my father who bought the paperbacks. They were divided pretty equally in thirds—suspense (including spy-novels), war, and science fiction.


It was the start of summer vacation, I had already bored through my stack of nine books, and we weren't going back to the library for another two days. I was desperate. I ventured into the living room, and picked up James Schmidt's Agent of Vega. 


I'm not sure why. It certainly wasn't the cover—in those days, science fiction books were sporting rather odd abstract paintings—possibly trying to divorce themselves from the Bug Eyed Monsters of the pulp covers so that they could be taken Seriously. That wasn't going to happen, not in the Sixties, but you couldn't fault the editors for trying. It wasn't the title—I hadn't a clue what, or who, Vega was, and I wasn't interested in the James Bond books (yet) that featured the only other "agent" I knew of. Perhaps it was just desperation. I asked politely if I could read it, was granted permission, and trotted away to my room with my prize.


Five minutes later, it was true love.


It was an epiphany.


Here was everything I had been looking for—exotic settings, thrills, adventure, heroines who were just as resourceful and brave as the heroes, and something more. There was a magic in the words, but there was more than that. It was imagination. 


No one, no one, since my fairy-tales, had written like this. This James Schmitz fellow seemed as familiar with androids and alien planets as I was with the ice-cream man and the streets of my home town.


And here, for the first time, I encountered psionics. 


Psi! There was even an abbreviation for it! Telepathy! Telekinesis! Teleportation! Empathy! Precognition!


Oh, these were words to conjure with! Better than the magic of the fairy-tales, these were scientific which meant that someone, somewhere (oh let it be me! Me!) might find a way to get one of these powers for himself!


Much has been made of the "sense of wonder" that science fiction evokes, and believe me, there was nothing to evoke that sense quite like the worlds of James Schmitz. Especially for someone who had never read anything like this before. The man had the right stuff; no doubt of it. By the time that I was done with that book, I was well and truly hooked.


And my life had just taken that irrevocable, epiphanal change.


There was no going back; when we got to the library, I flew to the science fiction section, and (once I had cleaned out the Schmitz) proceeded to work my way down the alphabet. I did the same in the school library (earning some peculiar looks from the librarian, I can tell you, since girls weren't supposed to like science fiction). Shortly after that, I discovered that there were whole stores devoted just to books—I had always lived in suburbs, and back in those days, there weren't Malls. There were a few—a very few—strip-malls, few of which devoted any space to anything other than stores with "Boutique" in the name, and there were no real chain bookstores. But we went to Chicago for dental and optometrist appointments, and there in Chicago were bookstores. 


And after that, thanks to the helpful little bits in the back of the books (oh, Ace Doubles! two books—all right, novellas—for the price of one!) I learned that you could actually order books from the company. 


Bliss limited only by my allowance!


But my allowance didn't allow me to buy all the books I craved, nor did the librarian oblige by ordering nothing but science fiction with the meager budget allocated to her. So, there was nothing for it.


I had to write my own.


Now, I never would have come to this moment, if not (again) for James Schmitz. The novels arranged in their imposing hard covers on the library shelves could not possibly have been written by mere human beings, right? I couldn't aspire to that. (Even if the dust jackets had actually featured any information about the authors, thus removing them to the realms of mortals, the librarian had helpfully taken them off because "they always got torn and dirty.") But there was lots of information on the paperback covers—and more, much more about those authors in the science fiction magazines I had discovered in the local drugstore! Why, they even argued with each other in the letter columns, sounding exactly like myself and my little brother in the midst of a squabble! Yes indeed, these books were written by human beings just like me. If they could write books, so could I.


So, thanks to James Schmitz, I became an author—first an under-the-bed author (who hid my notebooks full of illustrated stories under the bed where my brother wouldn't find them), then turning in my stories to high-school literary contests, then writing as a hobby in college—then writing fanfic and actually getting published (!!!).


And then, finally, actually, making the big leap into Professional Status.


Through it all, the memory of that book, that moment, has stayed with me. The sense of wonder and excitement has never faded, and never will.


Thank you, James Schmitz, wherever you are.


And thank you, Eric Flint and Jim Baen, for bringing his Right Stuff back again. Maybe some other kid, desperate for something to read, will have an epiphany of his or her own.


 


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