“Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself. …Science fiction is central to everything we’ve ever done, and people who make fun of science fiction writers don’t know what they’re talking about.” ― Ray Bradbury
When I was a little boy, between the ages of 7 and 10, I would make starships out of construction paper. I would fly them all around my room making the sounds I had heard from one of various science fiction shows I had watched on television. Star Trek, Battlestar Gallactica, Buck Rodgers, Star Wars. I loved anything that was sci-fi. I would spend hours drawing futuristic cities set on earth or different planets I would create in my imagination. I would invent alien languages and symbols. Devise plots that had to do with characters encountering other species. I had built an entire galaxy in my head.
In those years, I wanted so badly to live on one of those fictional worlds. If a time travel machine suddenly appeared I knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that I would be whisking myself away into the future. At night, I would lie in my bed thinking of space and alien planets. And I would try to force dreams to involve this fantastic universe I had thought up.
Like most kids, I shared some of my creations with my parents. And, like many kids, I experienced the pang of disappointment when they either seemed disinterested or would laugh. The laughing was the worst. It made that small boy feel even smaller. My mother was loving, but I knew she thought most of it was silly and didn’t have any curiosity. My father would often call the books and programs I loved “fairy tales.” And this was not a compliment. It was a way to disparage and denigrate them. Fairy tales, beloved by children since time immemorial, were not held in high regard in my home growing up.
When we grow older, we often think we have surpassed the impact of those formative years. We think the wounds we experience when we are young are gone because they often become layered with the concerns and responsibilities of adulthood. But this is a falsehood. More often than not, those wounds still sting when we encounter something that reminds us of them. A remark or an askew glance, and suddenly I can see that little boy again in my mind, desperately trying to act nonchalant and hide any tears that might be welling up inside.
Those kinds of things have an impact. For me, they crushed any ambition I had to write science fiction. Later in my teenage years, I briefly entertained working on the sets of sci-fi movies because I have always loved making dioramas and miniatures. But that notion fled rapidly from my mind thanks to the conditioning I had received and had internalized. I would go on for a “proper” education in a “respectable” field that provided the means for living a life like everyone else.
I gained a lot from the career I chose, but writing never left me. And over the years, I have been fortunate to have written a lot on things I care about. Our ecological crisis, human rights, war, art and culture. I don’t regret any of this, but I do regret not pursuing the life I really desired. Lately, I have tried to explore this further and work on some new projects. But I’ve come to realize that the hurt feelings of that little boy sometimes linger.
I was afraid of my father when I was little. Without a doubt, he was a good provider and he sacrificed so much for us. There were also tender moments. But he was easily angered and I mostly thought of him as a bully to be avoided. It was only later, when I was in my senior year of high school and then college, that we began to grow closer. He had mellowed and I had gained confidence to stand my ground. It is those later years that I cherish. And I think he began to feel some regret for the missed opportunities he had in encouraging me more.
He was a child of the Great Depression and his parents, immigrants from Greece, were dirt poor. He was born in a tenement in Manhattan and had to get a job as soon as he could to help. He didn’t have toys and I doubt his father encouraged him to play very much. Later, after serving in the US Navy, he worked for decades at a job he hated because it provided a good salary for our family. But I think he may have begun to question if that narrative was entirely true or more of what society told him was true. I was able to gain empathy for my father. But that didn’t mean that I could forget my wounds, because I know they altered my path.
It has taken decades for me to face these things with some measure of honesty. My father died several years ago, so I no longer have the option of discussing them with him. And now my mother has dementia and is unable to talk about such things at all. So, it often feels like a betrayal to divulge how I felt when I was a kid. Indeed, we cannot blame others for the choices we make in life, but children absorb every bit of our bitterness, anger, disappointment, ridicule and shame. And they unconsciously guide how we decide things.
Years into my adulthood I was lucky to discover a host of science fiction writers who defied critics of the genre and wrote brilliant pieces of literature that explored difficult and complex topics of racism, misogyny, religious bigotry, homophobia, war, ecological destruction, technological conundrums and capitalist exploitation. My favourites, Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury, Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula K. Le Guin, all helped me release any morsel of embarrassment I might have held on to from my childhood.
It isn’t easy to face the shadows of our past, especially from our childhood. But I think it is necessary if we want to attain any peace or perspective about who we are in this life. I don’t know if I would have been successful at writing science fiction. And I don’t know if I will attempt it now. But I know that material success or notoriety isn’t really the goal. Fulfillment is. And I have gained too much compassion for that little boy with his paper starships and drawings of futuristic cities to give up just yet.
Kenn Orphan, February 2022
Title painting is entitled Sanseriah and is by me.
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