Belonging

I went to my first science fiction convention when I was 11 years old.

It was a Star Trek convention (no surprise, given the fans in my household). I had a book with me – I don’t remember which one – and at one point in the afternoon I snuck into an unpopulated ballroom so I could sit and read. I noticed, after a while, that the room was getting crowded, to the point that people were sitting in the aisles. Low-level chit-chat had become very loud. I wondered what was going on. And then the lights went down, and they played the infamous Star Trek blooper reel.

I heard much later that they’d closed the room because it was over-capacity, and that there were people who never had the opportunity to see the blooper reel because of that. I saw it by chance, just because I was looking for a quiet corner to sit alone for a while.

My dad bought me a tribble at that convention. I slept with it for years. I still have it somewhere. And today the blooper reels are all on YouTube, where nobody has to violate fire codes to watch them.

In 1977, shortly before I turned 13, my dad packed us all in the car one night to drive into the city to see a movie. Some war film. I was grumpy. Even back then I was a homebody, preferring, with few exceptions, an evening left to my own devices in my room. As always I brought a book, since my dad was a big believer in arriving early to movies (just in case). I expected I’d be sitting in a nearly-empty movie theater for an hour while I waited for the show to start.

My mom had to meet us there, and my dad bought her a ticket and saved a seat. (I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t permit this today.) I settled back with my book…and the theater started to fill. It started to fill a LOT. My dad had to defend the seat he’d saved for my mother.

And then there was darkness, and the music came on, and there were these odd, rolling credits…and then a gorgeous starship that grew and grew and GREW. And then a battle scene, with people shooting at each other along a hallway. When two robots managed to scurry across the hallway without getting hit by the crossfire, the audience broke up laughing, and the movie had me.

During its numerous theatrical re-releases, I paid to see Star Wars fourteen times. I was furious at the end of The Empire Strikes Back because I had to wait three years to find out what happened next. I embraced the happily-ever-after silliness of Return of the Jedi, because these were my characters, and I wanted a good resolution for them, even if it was sappy.

There were other movies. I saw Alien 1-1/2 times in the movie theater (I left in the middle the first time because I couldn’t take it, and later I made my brother tell me what happened). I remember watching Terminator 2 on the 4th of July with a friend of mine, and hearing the audience say “Whoa!” when the Terminator rose out of the floor. I remember the first Star Trek movie (disappointing) and the second (made me cry like a baby), and the third (trivialized too much, and killed people for convenience). I remember Blade Runner – another dragged-by-my-dad experience, but I had learned to trust him by this point – which was beautiful and tragic and upsetting on so many levels.

And the books. Let us not forget the books, although I’ve forgotten so many. When I was 12 I started buying paperbacks on my way home from school instead of candy bars, and I’d often bring home four or five books a week. Amazingly, I missed a lot of the big names; but over the years I found LeGuin and Pohl and Bradbury and Hambly. I loved A Wizard of Earthsea, but The Tombs of Atuan was always my favorite – I was fascinated by the girl who knew the feel of a place so well that she never needed light to know where she was. I loved Gateway, which turned the concept of time dilation into personal tragedy. I loved Something Wicked This Way Comes, a wistful story of childhood, loss, and the nature of good and evil. I brought The Time of the Dark with me on vacation and nearly threw the book across the room when I was done with it – I’d left the sequels at home.

I read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and adored it. (My brain skipped over every “the” and “an” in what I was reading for a month afterward.) I read A Spell for Chameleon and laughed myself silly. I read Lord Foul’s Bane, with its horrible protagonist, and all of the sequels. (Disclosure: I think the second trilogy is better.) I read a hundred science fiction and fantasy books that I can’t remember (although most of them are still in boxes in my basement).

I didn’t read The Mote in God’s Eye until my honeymoon. I still haven’t read Dune or Ringworld or Fahrenheit 451 or the Foundation trilogy. Or Red Mars, or Dhalgren, or Doomsday Book, or The Dispossessed. I’ve missed a lot.

But it’s all home to me. In my teens and twenties, I would spend hours, sometimes, browsing the Science Fiction and Fantasy section of whatever bookstore was closest. I still remember that sense of internal quiet, the peace that comes from knowing you are surrounded by something familiar, that you are in a place where you belong.

I go to my local Barnes and Noble these days (my daughter prefers physical books, although like her mama she buys far more than she ever manages to read), and I visit my “friends” – books by authors I love, books by authors I’ve met, books by authors I follow on Twitter or Facebook. I’m pleased when new copies appear; I’m pleased when I go back and they’re gone, because that means someone else has discovered them. Another tendril of familiarity heading out into the world. Another faint, tentative connection between humans who may never actually meet.

I’ve been wondering lately, now and then, how many of my experiences were illusion. I’ve been wondering if all this time I’ve felt at home I’ve somehow been deluding myself. That I don’t actually belong, that I’m actually some unrecognizable alien Other in all of those situations where I feel most myself. I wandered the shelves at Barnes and Noble a few days ago, and I felt a creeping dread as my eyes scanned the names. What if there is no connection? What if I don’t belong here after all?

And then my eyes hit a copy of a book I know, and I thought: Wow, they’re almost all gone. Somewhere, someone’s reading that book for the very first time.

Of course there is a connection. Of course there is.

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