My life magically changed overnight at the end of the first semester of sophomore year of high-school, and the source was tremendously unexpected at the time.
My English teacher required us to read one thousand pages of books per semester. We could read anything, but to get our credit we had to sit down one-on-one to prove we’d read the book. I could have cheated, but he played it up like he was a master lie-detector and I bought it. I put it off until the last two weeks of the semester, and finally it came crunch time, and I knew there was no way for me to pass the class unless I started doing some serious reading.
I started with a book by David Eddings called The Ruby Knight, not realizing that it was the second book in the series and I needed the first to understand what was going on. I forced myself to read for four to six hours each night, and for the first night it was hell, but the second night, as I figured out what was going on in the story, I actually started to enjoy it. When I finally finished it, I remember thinking to myself “Damn! That was a really good book.”
So I was optimistic when I picked up the piece of literature that would change my life forever: a book called The Kingdoms of the Wall, by Robert Silverberg, a truly classic science fiction writer who I’d never heard of before. It didn’t get very good reviews from the critics, but somehow the story and characters caught me like magic. It’s a story of a group of forty primitive people from a shapeshifting race, who climb a massive mountain that encompasses half a continent because they believe their gods live at the top. If you ever plan on reading this, I suggest skipping the rest of this section because I’m going to give away some secrets. (I highly recommend Robert Silverberg, but if you want to read something of his, read A Time of Changes, which was more highly regarded by critics.) I read the first one hundred pages of The Kingdoms of the Wall the first night, and wasn’t too impressed. It didn’t seem like this book would come close to the David Eddings I’d just finished.
However, the second night, once they started moving up the mountain, and the months started passing in the story, I became more and more involved. I dreamt about it at night. I felt the character’s presence during school, and on the third night I couldn’t wait to get home and continue the story. I was one of them, sleeping under the stars, trying to get along with my companions, trying to agree, trying to avoid danger, and fighting each day to reach the top of the mountain. I remember having only three CD’s in my player while I read this book, which I played on random again and again, not wishing to change them because it would take time away from the story: Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy, Nine Inch Nail’s Pretty Hate Machine and Genesis’ We Can’t Dance. These albums all still bring me back to the world of Kosa Saag. I finished the book on the fourth night, about 11 PM, exhausted from reading for four hours straight every night for a week, and I recall coming to the climax with my hands shaking, to have my heart torn when discovering what truly lay at the top of the mountain. The CD player chose Fading Lights, off We Can’t Dance to close out the last few pages, as the theme of the novel sunk into my psyche.
“It will be our task to build wagons to carry us between villages, and then sky-wagons, and then star-wagons that will take us into the heavens; and then we will meet the gods again. But this time it will be as equals.” The theme was that no matter how hard anyone tries, they cannot find God. They can think they’ve found Him, but they can never truly find God. Instead of putting our faith in Gods, we humans must put faith in ourselves and use our two hands and our brains and muscle to make the universe a better place, and to accomplish our goals.
So as I got up to take a shower and go to bed, I found my knees weak, and I was barely able to hold back tears. Once in the shower, I found myself in a shocked daze, amazed at the disappointment of it all. “They gave their whole lives,” I said to myself. “They gave their lives, they lost their comrades, they tortured themselves… all for what…”
And I just had to stop, and hold myself up with a hand, and tell myself, “It’s just a book. They’re not real. None of those people are real. It’s just words on a page.” I repeated that to myself over and over. I knew it to be true, but I just couldn’t quite make myself beleive it. “Just words on a page. Little markings of black ink. That’s all it is, little black ink markings on a tree that’s been processed into sheets.”
And I stopped and thought to myself, Hey, I can make little black markings on paper too…
I knew in that moment that I wanted to be a science fiction writer and a writer in general.