Monday, June 13, 2005

It wasn't a specific injury that started GR as a voracious reader, but as he described it later, his uncertain health as a child played a defining role. He had a number of unexplained ailments: troubling breathing, weak and uncoordinated legs that made walking awkward, and even occasional seizures. So instead of sports and other physical activities, GR was more comfortable exploring through his imagination. He became an avid reader from the age of four.

When GR was born, his father was desperately looking for work. He left Texas, apparently riding the rails to Los Angeles, where his previous job as a railroad cop got him a job on the police force which was expanding in response to the fast-growing city. This job provided a steady but modest income and a home in a working class neighborhood. It was the Great Depression, and GR never forgot his father and mother's generosity towards neighbors and even strangers who weren't as lucky.

When he was old enough, GR took the streetcar to the public library to exchange one bundle of books for another. Back at home he might fortify himself with a stack of crackers held together with peanut butter, and go out on the front porch to sprawl on the old couch in the soft air of a southern California afternoon, and fall "into the dream world of books."

Like HG, GR took to reading with such fervor that his parents were worried he was overdoing it. "I have a terrible hunger for ideas," GR would say years later. " I've had it since my early years. In my youth, I realized I had this terrible hunger for knowledge-like an addict for knowledge. I remember that I just couldn't sit down without my mind working, without reading something, some experience. It seemed that this was more a flaw, this terrible hunger."

But it is common to intelligent children whose imaginations go beyond the boundaries of the expectations of their class. Though their childhoods were separated by 70 years, HG and GR read many of the same kinds of books---of exploration and adventure, both nonfiction and fiction---and read some of the very same books: tales of Robinson Crusoe and Huck Finn, D'Artagnan and Hawkeye, and Gulliver and his travels. This last in particular was to make a strong impression on both of them. And in later years, when they reached a critical point in their writing, they would both turn to the same author they recalled from childhood: Jonathan Swift.

HG and GR were also avid readers of cartoons and comic strips (HG wrote his own illustrated adventures.) But GR had a few sources of stories HG didn't: the movies (including the Flash '>Gordon serials) and the radio adventures of '>The Lone Ranger, '>The Shadow, and '>Buck Rogers of the Twenty-Fifth Century.
GR also had a type of reading that HG didn't: it was called science fiction, and one of its primary authors was H.G. Wells. This is where GR's ill health comes into play again. When GR was 11, there was a boy in his neighborhood who was witty and intelligent, but even more restricted by health problems and disabilities. GR knew what that was like, and befriended the boy, who introduced him to his own special avenue of escape and adventure: a treasure trove of magazines called Amazing, Astounding, and Science Wonder Stories.

These magazines had begun appearing in the late 1920s. It was only in 1929 (just three years before GR discovered them) that editor and writer Hugo Gernsback first used the term "science fiction" to describe the sort of story he was publishing in Amazing Stories.

Gernsback's pulps published new stories but also many of the classics, especially by Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe and H.G. Wells---six of his novels and 17 of his stories appeared in those Science Wonder Stories and Amazing Stories. These pulps not only created the sci-fi industry in America, they introduced Wells to new generations of readers, and writers.

So by the time he was working on ideas for his own science fiction television stories, GR probably absorbed much that came from Wells through other avenues, from other writers, from movies and TV shows that incorporated some Wellsian influence. Of course, GR had read Wells, and not just his scientific romances. Shortly before he completed his first Star Trek outline, Roddenberry had proposed a non-fiction TV series based on HG's The Outline of History.
But it all came very close to not happening. HG's discovery of the universe of stories, and his glimpses of another way of life, at first threatened to destroy him, just as his mother feared.

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