Do you remember your first love? Of course you do. No one forgets their first love.
Today’s post is about the first novel I ever fell in love with. I mean head-over-heels, smitten, infatuated.
It’s a book I doubt many of you have ever heard of–Earthblood (1966)–a minor science fiction novel written by two not terribly well-known sci-fi writers, Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown.
I read the book in installments in If magazine during the spring and summer of 1966. (Before it was published in hardcover later that year, Earthblood was first serialized in the April, May, June, and July issues of If.)
I remember running to my local newspaper/magazine shop (yeah, they were still around back then) hungrily waiting for the new edition of If magazine to appear on its racks so I could continue the story.
My best friend at the time, Rick Agresta, and I would eagerly grab a copy each. If cost 50 cents, which seriously cut into the proceeds from my newspaper route, but I would gladly have sold any of my brothers and sisters for just a sneak peak at the next issue.
A quick word about Earthblood’s two authors:
Keith Laumer had a moderately successful sci-fi writing career, which was seriously disrupted by a stroke he suffered in 1971 at age 46. Rosel George Brown, one of the few female sci-fi writers of the period, authored some well-received stories and a few novels (she was nominated in 1959 for a Hugo Award for best new author). She was only 41 years old when she died tragically of lymphoma in 1967, the year after Earthblood’s publication.
Keith Laumer & Rosel George Brown
To be honest, there really is no reason why anyone today should have heard of Earthblood, Laumer and Brown’s one and only collaboration. Except that–back in the mid-Sixties, just as I was on the cusp of becoming an adult reader–it was the book that most mattered to me.
I’m taking a bit of a chance here, because up till now I’ve tried to make my Books That Mattered posts ultra-inclusive. The blog is about the books that helped shape the Baby Boom generation. So by definition, these are titles that have a wide currency. Many are still widely read; almost all are books most of us have at least heard of.
But Earthblood is a book that is hardly remembered today. A book that–even back when it was first published–may have really mattered only to me (and perhaps, Rick, my number one compadre back then).
But please don’t stop reading here. I’m hoping that these musings about my first literary love may resonate with some of you, perhaps get you thinking about your first literary love.
I promise there will be some fun stuff, even if you have never heard of Laumer or Brown or could care less about a forgotten sci-fi curiosity called Earthblood.
Here are 3 reasons why Earthblood became my first literary love:
Reason #1: Earthblood Came Along at Just the Right Moment
When I first read the novel in the spring and summer of 1966, I was just turning fourteen. I would graduate grammar school that June and was headed off to my freshman year of high school in the fall.
I was also ready to graduate from the books of childhood to something more . . . what? . . . I had no idea. But like the young hero of the novel, I knew in my soul there was more out there for me.
Let me make it clear right from the beginning: Earthblood is not on anyone’s list of great novels. Not even great sci-fi novels. Not even very good sci-fi novels.
In many ways it’s pretty standard pulp science fiction: featuring a young male protagonist of mysterious origins living in a backwater planet (Luke Skywalker, anyone?), a traveling space circus, space pirates, a dizzying array of alien life forms, swashbuckling adventures, pitched battles, ethereal beauties, etc., etc.
The plot is ludicrous, the characters broadly-drawn and clichéd, the writing pedestrian–but nonetheless I loved, loved, loved it.
Somehow it was just the right book at the right time. And it struck a resonant chord in my adolescent self that still vibrates–even if a bit faintly–all these years later.
Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown’s novel was an open doorway to a new universe of literature.
And once I opened that door, I found myself journeying deeper and deeper through a dizzying temple of books. One door would lead to another. From Earthblood to Childhood’s End to The Foundation Trilogy to Dune to Robert Heinlein to Ray Bradbury’s brilliant stories to Edgar Allan Poe . . . to ever more imaginative and substantial fare. All of which, of course, eventually led to mainstream literature and to many of the books I’ve been writing about, books that mattered.
Earthblood would prove to be my gateway drug.
Reason #2: Earthblood Was Our Little Secret
As with most adolescents, Rick and I were on a secret mission: a constant, never-ending quest for ways to define ourselves, to feel special, to forge experiences and make discoveries that were uniquely our own.
Earthblood was one such identity-defining discovery, but there were others.
I vividly remember that summer of 1966 because, besides Earthblood, we had uncovered this great Kinks song, “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.”
Of course, it was a B-side. The A-side was also a great song, “Sunny Afternoon,” which we both loved. But to its detriment, everyone else in the world was listening to “Sunny Afternoon” that summer–so it just didn’t have the allure and power of the song on the flip side.
No one else in the world was listening to “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” (or at least it felt that way to Rick and me). It belonged to just us.
Has there ever been a song more attuned to the yearnings and inner life of the adolescent than the Kink’s continuous growl:
I don’t want to ball about like everybody else,
And I don’t want to live my life like everybody else,
And I won’t say that I feel fine like everybody else,
Cause I’m not like everybody else,
I’m not like everybody else.
I remember Rick and I walking down the street, singing that song out at the top of our lungs: “I’m not like everybody else (like everybody else)/I’m not like everybody else (like everybody else).”
We must have sounded horrible–don’t recall if Rick could sing or not, but I can’t even manage to sing “Happy Birthday to You” without sounding like a scalded cat. But I guess–in the innocence of youth–it didn’t matter as much back then.
So Earthblood was part of something bigger and more profound going on with my friend and me: we were starting to figure out who we were. Discovering things for ourselves. Carving out an identity that was uniquely our own (or so we thought).
And if our new high school wanted us to read old chestnuts like Northwest Passage or Life on the Mississippi or Two Years Before the Mast (which were all books on the St. Peter’s Prep incoming freshman reading list that summer)–well we could carve out an alternative reading universe. Something all our own. Something like Earthblood.
It was our little secret.
Reason #3: Earthblood Is Not Just About Aliens and Space Adventures, But About Discovering the Best Part of Yourself
I wonder if George Lucas ever read Earthblood? If not, he probably read dozens of stories just like it, because Star Wars is Earthblood with somewhat better writing, a bit more humor, less violence and gore, and on a much larger scale.
Like Star Wars and countless other sci-fi stories, Earthblood is about a young hero of mysterious origins who, through the course of the story, finds out who he really is and what his mission in life really is.
All of which is, of course, catnip to your average fourteen-year-old.
The novel is set in a far distance future, after the vast thousands-year-old Terran Empire has been thwarted by the Niss, hostile aliens from the far side of the galaxy. After an epic war, the Terrans and the Niss have battled to a stalemate, with the Niss blockading the planet Terra (Earth).
By the time our hero, Roan Cornay, is born and the novel begins, the blockade of Terra has been going on for five thousand years. So long in fact, that many believe Terra is only a legend and does not really exist.
The novel follows Roan’s years-long quest to find his long-lost home planet of Terra, break the Niss blockade, and restore human beings to their rightful place in the cosmic order.
After many breathtaking adventures, Roan does indeed reach Terra and the novel ends with Roan and his small band of intrepid followers ready to begin to restore Terra to its former glory.
Not hard to see why a fourteen-year-old boy would gravitate toward the story. It has everything: a dashing and intrepid young hero, great adventures, weird alien life-forms, beautiful love interests for Roan, and a sense of his importance and destiny.
There’s so much about the book that speaks directly to adolescent yearnings and dreams.
Here’s Roan on his quest for Terra:
“Ma will know all about where I came from; maybe who my blood father and mother are. I have to find out. Then I’m going to Terra–”
“Roan–Terra’s just a mythical place! You can’t–”
“Yes, I can,” he said. “Terra’s a real place. I know it is. I can feel inside that it’s real. And it’s not like other worlds. On Terra everything is the way things should be . . . It’s where I belong.”
Roan constantly asks his adoptive alien parents why he feels so out of place, different, and less capable than his alien playmates–who have wings and make fun of Roan because he can’t fly:
He went down to dinner, but he didn’t look at the food on the table; he looked at Ma and Dad. And he asked, “What am I?” He always asked, but he never understood.
“You,” said Dad, “are a human being. And don’t you forget it.” That’s what he always said.
Roan looked at the steaming plate Ma put before him and didn’t want it. “Then that’s why I’m so stoopid. Why I can’t do anything the gracyls can do.”
Raff and Bella exchanged glances. . . .
“You were special,” Bella said. “Very special.”
Throughout the novel Roan proves again and again to be a fourteen-year-old’s ideal role model: decisive, resourceful, and brave. Someone with whom an insecure adolescent boy could eagerly identify.
Here’s a typical moment:
“We’re inside her defenses now,” he said. “They won’t be expecting any visitors in a hundred ton dinghy–”
“What do you mean?” a one-eyed crewman growled. “You’re asking–”
“I’m asking nothing,” Roan said harshly. “I’m telling you we’re going in to attack the Niss ship.”
And the experience of re-reading Earthblood after all these years?
Fun . . . and moving. It felt almost as if I were reading the book over the shoulder of my younger self. I can totally see why I fell in love with the book back then. And still love it.
But there were a few surprises.
The biggest surprise upon re-reading Earthblood is how different in tone the book is than I remember it.
For one thing, Roan is a much more complicated character than I recalled. He is, of course, intrepid and brave and resourceful. But he has some serious flaws. He has a nasty temper. Is dismissive and imperious with those around him. He even impulsively and needlessly kills the only other pure-blood human he has ever met, the pirate captain Henry Dread.
The other surprise is how violent and disturbing some of the action is. Roan’s first love, the exotically beautiful Stellaraire, is shockingly incinerated in a ship-board fire. In another scene, a slave girl is sadistically and gruesomely decapitated in front of Roan’s eyes during a banquet. Game of Thrones meets Star Wars.
All in all, Earthblood held up for me. It obviously met a need back when I was a gawky, awkward adolescent, trying to find his way in the world. And even today, after all these years, it is still a satisfying read.
So that’s the story of my first literary love. The first of many “books that mattered” that would nurture, guide and sustain me over the years. I would welcome hearing about some of your first literary loves.