Let’s see, where did it all start. Television, obviously — Stingray, Thunderbirds, Star Trek and Dr Who. At first, fun to watch more for their special effects than the SF content (which in the case of the first two was fairly minimal at best, anyway).
I don’t know when, but an awareness began to creep in that Star Trek and Dr Who contained ideas that couldn’t really happen in the world as I knew it. Gerry Anderson too, but his shows were essentially the technology of today writ bigger and better — and with more explosions — for tomorrow, but Dr Who and Star Trek . . . they had something else. The transporter from Star Trek. The Doctor’s TARDIS, a bigger-inside-than-out time machine disguised as a police box. The plots of both shows, involving aliens or telepathy or strange exotic minerals or . . .
And it was this, I think, that sparked in my infant mind the concept of what if? The ability to look at an aspect of our world and imagine it differently. This works just as well for fantasy as for science fiction: you can imagine what if magic were possible just as well as what if we could travel to the stars. For some reason, though, fantasy never really took off with me, apart from obligatory staples like The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings (I can still remember my father refusing to read me Noddy as a bedtime story. I asked if he’d read a chapter of The Hobbit and he said OK). Perhaps it’s because the science of SF, at bottom, is basically understandable in concept, however impossible in reality; for example, the dilithium crystal matter/antimatter reaction that powers the Federation’s starships. Magic in fantasy, on the other hand, basically works because it works. There are grey areas, where SF and fantasy merge into each other and can be described as either, but the point is that for me, a liking for and sympathy with SF became embedded at an early age.
(This was also at a time when a lot of SF was actually coming true. If you can watch men walking on the Moon, and then change channels to Star Trek, you begin to wonder what else might not actually happen one day.)
And there it might have stayed, if a friend at school hadn’t lent me a Dr Who novelisation. The adventure in question was “Day of the Daleks” and my friend was named David Barrow. Neither name is of relevance to this particular discourse, but the fact that I remember shows the impact both had on me. This had a wondrous effect on me because I realised that now my favourite genre was available in my favourite medium, the written word.
And so I started to read the stuff: not just the entire Target range of Dr Who novelisations (which I managed) but non-televisual material too. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and umpteen other authors that I can’t remember. SF in my mind followed a typically evolutionary pattern: that which was good remained and led to better, that which was bad was dumped. Over the years it became possible to tell the good from the bad. (Other opinions may vary, but my general definition of good SF is a story based around realistic, well-described characters who just happen to be living in an SF environment; bad SF is where the gadgets take precedence. But there again, there’s nothing like a good space battle between starships, ray guns blazing in all directions, to clear the mind.)
Gradually I settled down on Asimov and Clarke; two staples that actually became a bit of a disadvantage, because even now I can write a perfectly good 1950s-era Clarke pastiche which is no good at all if I want to sell it in the 1990s. Clarke, especially, wrote an SF then that still appeals: an SF that delights in being alive in this wonderful, mysterious universe so full of delights and joys. Read The Deep Range, Rendezvous with Rama and The City and the Stars to see what I mean.
However, both these two had a more serious effect on me. They delighted in talking to their readers. Asimov especially, in his short story collections, would include little authorial essays describing the genesis and selling of the story I was about to read, and this introduced me to the world of editors and magazines and publishers. He also gave me numerous hints and tips on the writer’s art: I learnt, for example, that no one owes you a living — no one has to buy your story; or, that a writer should develop a skin thick enough to resist gamma rays, because you are going to be rejected a lot more than you are accepted.
Between them, these two set me on the path to being an SF writer myself.