“Violence,” came the retort, “is the last refuge of the incompetent.” ~ FOUNDATION, The Encyclopedists, by Isaac Asimov, 1951
“To thine own self be true.” ~ Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3, by William Shakespeare, c 1623
Look, it’s pretty obvious I was a dipshit for about 20 years. Why in the name of God would I try to write something I wouldn’t even want to read? If you stay up 12 hours every night reading thrillers, then you need to be writing thrillers. If you’re mesmerized by Joyce Carol Oates’ sublime prose, then you need to be writing about the jagged edges of love. If you’re reading Playboy for the articles, then you’re lying.
Ever since I was a kid I’ve been mesmerized by the science fiction and fantasy section of bookstores. I’d wander in, mouth agape, eyes agog, images of spaceships and ray guns whirling around me.
I remember one store vividly –Adan’s Bookland, if I remember correctly – located at a mall here in Huntsville. As a comedian once mocked, this mall was called “The Mall,” and was located on a parkway called “The Parkway,” which is not too far from a mountain called “The Mountain.” Alas, my hometown is not renowned for its creativity. If you went into the bookstore from its sidewalk entrance, the science fiction (or SF) section was immediately to your right. My older brother, a brilliant hippie and headstrong physicist (or do I have that backwards) had turned me on to Star Trek and The Twilight Zone years before. He’d drive me to The Mall, then ditch me while he and his high school buddies looked for the latest LPs by Badfinger and Led Zeppelin at Hornbuckle’s Records. On one specific day – an icy-blue November Saturday – I’d just finished the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, devouring the copies of those three books that my brother had given me. I wasn’t quite sure I understood the story, and I was as enthralled with the cover art as I was with the mysterious story itself. The first book of the trilogy looked like this photo on the left.
To my surprise that morning, I spotted another book right away that looked like it was part of the same series. Its title was 50 Short Science Fiction Tales and it had Asimov’s name in bold font across the front – along with Geoff Conklin, whoever he was! At the time – I was only nine – I didn’t know publishers commissioned the artists to do covers for different novels. All I knew was the enigmatic cover art, so very similar to Foundation, was sitting there in front of me. It looked like this photo on the right.
So, it was perfectly natural for a fourth-grader to conclude he’d soon be reading even more about futuristic heroes like Hari Seldon, Hober Mallow, Salvor Hardin, and, of course, The Mule.
What was it about that art? Was it the eerie green glow? The spaceship-and-sun logo? The creepy man with the Roman nose and slanted eyes, the one who looked … Asian? On the way home I asked my brother about this. After all, every other SF book cover showcased men as white as Florida sand and shackled women as bikini-clad as Florida women. My brother didn’t need to mull over my question. He just flipped his hand flippantly (as it were) and said Asimov’s fiction took place 50-to-100 thousand years from now. By that time humans would’ve evolved (he said) toward an Asian countenance because of that culture’s science, technology and logic.
I cocked my head, confused. The entire population of Asia was composed of scientists and engineers who kicked their emotions to the curb like Mr. Spock? Everybody? There wasn’t a single pissed-off garbage man on the entire damn continent?
I encountered a lot of that type of weird stereotyping growing up, a half-insulting, half-complimenting broad-brushing of people who were “not like us,” whatever the hell that means. If you grew up in the ruins of the old Confederacy, as I did, you know what I’m talking about. You’ve learned to juggle these conflicting thoughts and feelings, contradictory morals and ethics. It goes with the territory, as it were.
But I digress. When I was nine if you’d asked me what I wanted to write when I grew up, I would’ve said science fiction without hesitation. Hell, if you’d asked me when I was 18 I would’ve said science fiction, until a strange series of events in the fall of 1982. I had started school at a small, liberal arts college with a tremendous academic reputation. Like most guys my age, my studies took a backseat to the twitchy, inexplicable and completely normal crush I’d developed on a cute blonde I met that first week. Things didn’t quite work out between her and me, mostly due to my awkward bungling of the whole affair. But the subsequent letdown affected me for a long time to come.
That probably translates to about one week in the taffy-time of your teen years.
Her rejection sent me scrambling back to the sanctuary of SF. I remember driving my old Plymouth to Brookwood Mall seeking solace. I went straight to section containing Asimov’s books. His literature was my comfort food, my meat and potatoes.
And what did I find that day? I found something that rattled me as hard as the rejection from the girl on campus: The cover art of the entire Foundation series had been changed. It had been updated.
It had been ruined.
Feeling lower than a man who’s just accidently shot his own dog, I dragged my sorry ass back to campus, realizing everything had changed, including me.
And that’s when I really became a dumbass, hiding behind a veil of dry humor, thinking I knew that SF was only for nerds. Now don’t get me wrong … I had fun. Or should I say, F-U-N! College was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I met my wife and made friends so dear they’re like family to this day. But I also gave up a piece of myself. I ditched SF, and for that, I made Keith Parker a synonym for dipshit. And I kept it that way until tragedy struck almost 20 years and two children later.
In February 2003 my brother – the one who’d given me the Foundation novels – dropped dead of a heart attack in his own kitchen. Under the crushing stress of grief, my mother’s subsequent strokes and Alzheimer’s dementia, the loss of a job, the death of my father-in-law, and countless other freaky setbacks, I found myself gravitating back that charming realm of SF, seeking the asylum I lost that autumn day in ’82.
Thankfully, I’ve rediscovered my roots. I know within a moral certainty that my writing has to be speculative fiction. There’s no other way for me to be me without it.
So no matter what your passion is
and you know what it is
do not ignore it. You’ll never write a successful novel, screenplay, short story, poem, haiku, or recipe without having the full weight of love behind it.
Oh, one last thing: Those copies of Foundation that my brother gave me? The ones with the “evolved” humans? Those novels are gone forever. Locked away. Buried. And I mean that literally. Without anyone looking, I put those copies into the memory box of my brother’s casket. I said goodbye. Sometimes you have to say goodbye in order to say hello again.
Thanks for reading.
Peace, from Keith
Copyright © 2012, Alan Keith Parker, All Rights Reserved. Images displayed under fair use laws.