First Contact With Science Fiction

Part 4: by Race Mathews

It was in the course of window-shopping for American comics that I came in touch for the first time with science fiction. The circumstances of the encounter were much the same as for Amis or Pohl. The year was 1944. I, too, was nine years old. Travelling to school involved a change of trams at the junction of Balaclava Road and High Street in St Kilda. Close by the tram stop, second-hand comics and magazines were sold by a down-at-heel shop with a verandah which carried in faded letters the word Saddler, alongside a lifesize wooden horsehead. Saddler in due course became my name for the equally down-at-heel proprietor. At first the daily wait for my change of trams was passed simply staring at such publications as found their way into Saddler’s window. American comics – when available – were given pride of place, on a special display stand. One Thursday, room had had to be made for a thicker magazine, with untrimmed edges. The cover featured a couple of bulbous red bipeds, directing something like an old-fashioned movie camera at a man and woman dressed for tropical exploration and confined in a cage. It was the tenth anniversary issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories, published five years earlier, in 1939. As in the case of the American comics, the price was 2/6.

The effect on me was instantaneous. No glittering prize in later life has ever beckoned me quite so alluringly. I lived on tenterhooks for the next two days, hoping against hope that no other buyer would appear before my pocket money came due on Saturday morning. In the event, no such disaster eventuated. The precious 2/6 passed across the counter to Saddler, and I walked back up High Street to the tram stop, engrossed in John Taine’s The Ultimate Catalyst. The issue also contained Dawn of Flame by Stanley Weinbaum, The Man Without a World by two sons of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and one of the Via series by Gordon A. Giles, which for years afterwards exercised a special grip on my imagination. As the weeks went by, further pre-war issues of Thrilling Wonder Stories made their appearance in Saddler’s window, along with occasional copies of Amazing, Startling Stories, Astounding and Famous Fantastic Mysteries. I bought all that I could afford, and, where all else failed, endured the exquisite agony of swapping from the among the least favoured items already in my possession.

The great McComas/Healy anthology Adventures in Time and Space and Groff Conklin’s The Best of Science Fiction were among my 1947 Christmas presents. Newsagents, I discovered. stocked the pitifully thin British reprint editions of Astounding and Unknown Worlds from which, unbeknown to Australian readers, the great serials of the 1940s – novels such as Slan, The Weapon Makers, The Children of the Lens and a dozen or so more of comparable quality – were consistently omitted. What remained was magical. For thirty and more years the memory has remained with me of savouring for the first time stories such as Clifford Simak’s City series; Vintage Season, Mimsy Were the Borogroves and the Baldy series by Henry Kuttner; Rescue Party by Arthur C. Clarke; Child’s Play by William Tenn; Tomorrow’s Children by Poul Anderson; Hobbyist by Eric Frank Russell; He Walked Around the Horses by H. Beam Piper; In Hiding by Wilmar H. Shiras; and Murray Leinster’s The Strange Case of John Kingman. It became my strong conviction that the test of a good piece of science fiction was whether the editor of Astounding, John W. Campbell Jr had a place for it in his magazine.

By 1950, I was buying my science fiction by mail from Britain. My suppliers were the Science Fantasy Service (SFS) – later Milcross Book Service – in Liverpool, and G. Ken Chapman of 23 Farnley Road, South Norwood, in London. SFS did business on a strictly impersonal basis, through addressograph plates and invoices on coloured duplicating paper. Ken by contrast was a bookseller of the old school, who corresponded voluminously in the style subsequently immortalised by Helene Hanff in her 84 Charing Cross Road. As with Frank Doel of Hanff’s Marks & Co, nothing was too much trouble for Ken, and I looked forward almost as much to his letters as to his parcels. Thirty years after our dealings lapsed in the early 1960s, I wrote to him again for some item which I was finding hard to get, and received an immediate response which took up where we had left off. We remained in touch until his death a year or so later.

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