Stand by… was the first book in the “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet” series of juveniles based on a primordial American television show (I was too young to have seen the show; it aired in the early 1950s), Tom Corbett and his faithful sidekicks, cadets Roger Manning and Astro, endured thrilling adventures as they explored our solar system and nearby stars. For a youngster with a vivid imagination (not yet cognizant of the disparaging notoriety the term “space cadet” was achieving) the books hit home with synapse-bubbling intensity.
Somewhere in that time frame I also had a relatively short but intense fling with comic books, mainly of the superhero variety. I tended to gravitate to DC’s universe - Marvel was still in the early stages of its Stan Lee/Jack Kirby metamorphosis - and I found Superman, Green Lantern and The Flash enjoyable. But it was really the team comics that took hold, in particular, Justice League of America and Fantastic Four (my sole Marvel fave). Like all too many fans, I had most of the first ten or fifteen issues of both titles but through eventual disinterest, allowed my mom to throw them in the trash, thereby potentially disposing of the cost of a college education or two.
But my #1 fave of that era was a more obscure title: Challengers of the Unknown. A fearsome foursome - Prof, Ace, Red and Rocky - had no superpowers but cheated death on a regular basis by utilizing interlocking skill sets, thus saving the world from alien monsters, malignant humans and other dire threats.
Yet as pleasurable as those early comics were, it was the Tom Corbett novels that really stoked the fire and started a lifelong passion for the genre. Over the years, as my horizons expanded, I waded through rivers of SF novels, enjoying regular jaunts to the Northwest Library, a few blocks from our house in Reading, Pennsylvania, to borrow every SF title I could find.
My Uncle Eddie was a fan and lent me novels from his collection, most memorably, E.E. “Doc” Smith’s famed Lensmen series, originally published in the pulp magazines but later collected into a six-book set. The Lensmen was space opera at its grandest, with millions of alien races aligning with either the “good” Arisians - who developed the lens that gave its users great mental and telepathic abilities - or the power-hungry Eddorians. I’ve often wondered whether George Lucas read Smith’s books at a pivotal age. There are definite parallels to his Star Wars universe.
As my reading prowess grew, I discovered many authors who I later realized constituted the field’s acknowledged masters. Clarke, Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov and others were rapidly consumed, as was an early favorite, the effervescently strange A. E. Van Vogt. (His “Voyage of the Space Beagle” is an early prototype not only for Star Trek but for the first Alien movie.)
And speaking of movies, my early absorption of written SF was paralleled by an equally potent attraction to genre cinema. The 1950s produced a surfeit of filmed SF, most of which I saw years later on TV. Although their quality tended to be rather low in terms of character-driven storytelling and special effects, the better ones remain impactful to this day, especially The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing from Another World and Forbidden Planet.
(Part 2 to follow)