Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #26 of 107: “Grandpa” by James H. Schmitz

Science fiction fans usually discover the genre when young, enchanted by its sense of wonder, even becoming addicted to the fantastic for the rest of their lives. I can understand why I was captivated by tall tales in my adolescence but why didn’t I ever outgrow them? After forty years of adult reality, why do I still enjoy children’s fantasies?

This is my second reading of “Grandpa” by James H. Schmitz during the past year. Last July I read it in The Great SF Stories 17 (1955) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. “Grandpa” was first published in the February 1955 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, and it’s been well anthologized since. This was a great pick by the VanderMeers because “Grandpa” deserves preserving, and Schmitz deserves better recognition. And it allows me to bring up the topic of young adult (YA) literature in science fiction.

“Grandpa” has never been marketed as YA, but the protagonist is just 15. In 1955 there was quite a lot of YA science fiction being published. Literary critics considered the whole genre aimed at adolescents. Heinlein had his much-loved novels from Charles Scribner’s (the Heinlein Juveniles), Andre “Alice” Norton’s novels were popular, as were the Winston Science Fiction series, and Isaac Asimov had his Lucky Starr series. Plus quite a few SF writers were cranking out books intended for young readers. Most of the many SF magazines knew their audience ran young. The early days of television had a number of popular science fiction adventure shows aimed at kids. I’d say the 1950s and 1960s was a transition time for American childhood, as kids switched from dreaming of becoming cowboys when they grew up, to hoping to become spacemen. (I know I should say cowpeople and spacepeople but it just doesn’t sound right.)

YA lit is all about having young protagonists for young readers to identify. That’s why I call “Grandpa” YA fiction. “Grandpa” is an engaging adventure story that would be empowering to a teenage reader, the kind who cast themselves as action heros in their daydreaming. I’d also call Schmitz’s most famous story, “The Witches of Karres” YA too. And the Telzey Amberdon series is based on a female character who started out as a 15-year-old character.

“Grandpa” is part of The Hub series that ran mainly in Astounding and Analog, a science fiction magazine aimed at adults, but I believe most of its readers got hooked on it in their teens, I know I did. Grandpa, the title character, is a giant floating beast that’s usable as a watercraft. That’s incredibly cool. This world is full of strange symbiotic pairs, and that’s really neat too. And the biology and ecology of this world is rich and complicated and far from understood. Far out. Aren’t these elements the common denominator of science fiction? My favorite YA books of childhood were Heinlein’s juveniles, and they certainly had all these elements and more.

“Grandpa” has everything a teen reader loves about science fiction. Space explorers, colonists on an alien worlds, exotic animals that are both dangerous and pet worthy, freedom from parents, carrying a gun and getting to use it, life and death struggles, belonging to an elite organization while still being a rogue free thinker. This applies to most of the YA science fiction I read in junior high. It’s still the basis for many popular science fiction movies today.

We should ask ourselves: Why does this formula appeal so to us? It’s often been observed how YA fiction finds ways to get young protagonists free of their parents. Cord is just fifteen in this story, and I expect a lot of fifteen-year-olds would love to be out on their own like him. But at that age we really don’t want to join the 9-to-5 mundane world of work. Space is our fairyland. Mars would be great, but we really want a world teaming with endless lifeforms, but not many humans. A few intelligent aliens might be fun, but not too many of those either. We want a world where we can roam and explore without too many responsibilities, and especially without adult supervision.

As adult readers, we still want this kind of adventure too. But at 70, how can I identify with a 15-year-old protagonist? Why is this story still fun? Why am I even nostalgic for this type of fiction? Which I am. And if I crave such adventures why not just go have real adventures? When I was a teen growing up in Miami I would sometimes visit my Uncle Jack out at the Conservation Club in the Everglades. I got to ride swamp buggies and airboats and see giant alligators and other wildlife — not too different from Cord’s fictional adventures. But I preferred saying home and reading science fiction. What’s that all about? My only adventures in nature today are when I visit the Botanic Gardens for a walk. Why do I prefer imaginary worlds to the real world? What’s in fiction adventures that keep us addicted to them our whole life?

Now it’s one thing for a teenager to read “Grandpa,” but it should be a whole different experience for a old guy like me to read. It wasn’t. It made me wish I was fifteen again, and living Cord’s adventure. When I was a teenager I hoped when I grew up space travel would be common and I could have such adventures. That’s why the recent SpaceX Inspiration4 mission was so exciting to people.

However, I have to wonder, what would be age appropriate science fiction for me to read at seventy? I guess that’s why people are so excited about 90-year-old William Shatner going into space in a couple of weeks, we never want to give up that dream about the final frontier.

James H. Schmitz was popular at Astounding/Analog and often got the cover, but he is seldom remembered today. He did write a lot of books, many still in print, but I seldom meet people who talk about them. I wonder if they appeal to girls because he often used female protagonists? (And did boys like having those girl characters?) I found this essay by Mercedes Lackey writing about Schmitz in the introduction to Agent of Vega and Other Stories. I don’t know if it’s cool or legal to quote so much, but I she expresses exactly how we get captured by science fiction when young:

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 hometown.  

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.  

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 10/7/21

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