When I was a child, I was allowed free access to almost all of my father’s books.  I would ask him first, and almost always the answer was, “Yes, you may read that.”

I’m not sure why, but of the copious science fiction on his shelves, the first thing I gravitated to was his collection of Robert A. Heinlein books.  He had almost all of them, including a few superb collections of essays and short stories that are now out of print.  I believe the first Heinlein book I read was The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, probably when I was about 8-10 years old.  I loved it, of course, and I remember loving how much I could think about the ideas in the books–I was fascinated by the discussion of the triangular covert revolutionary cells, and how the male-female ratio changed the basic ways that relationships worked.  It was the first book I read that invited me to think about its ideas, that made contemplation attractive.

I read more, and eventually reached a limit.  “I think you should wait a few years before you read this, but you can try it and see what you think.”  The book was something like Time Enough For Love, or Number of the Beast.  I tried it, and could tell that I would like it better later, and put it back on the shelf.  I never had any doubt, though, that I would get to it.  Robert Heinlein was exerting a really stunning amount of influence on the way I was developing.  It was during Starship Troopers that I began to really pay attention to when I agreed and disagreed with him, and why.  At first, though, I felt that if I disagreed I was surely in error.  I’ve come to believe that sometimes he was in fact wrong–but I still consider myself functionally illiterate because I can only read one language.

Once I’d reached the age where I could and was allowed to read all the Heinleins, another author caught my eye: Spider Robinson.  Specifically, the quotation from Ben Bova blazoned across so many of his covers; “I’d nominate Spider for the next Robert A. Heinlein!”  I had no idea who Ben Bova was, but I by God knew who Heinlein was.  In my infatuated opinion there was no way in hell this clown could touch Heinlein, but what the hell, I’d give him a shot.

And so of course Spider (and Jeanne) Robinson ended up having even more of an influence on me that Heinlein did.  I was always fairly given to a Heinleinesque worldview due to an overdeveloped sense of justice, but I never felt like I had too much in the way of compassion, and it wasn’t until I began reading the Callahan books that it began to dawn on me just what really big, deep compassion could look like.  To be honest, I’d had no clue there even was that much compassion in the world.  It was eye-opening.  The denizens of Callahan’s bar showed me compassion as a way of living, as a goal for being in the world.  I’d had no idea that was an option.  And one of the wonderful things about this world we live in, is that I am still being startled by how big compassion can be and the extent to which people can live it.

As a side note, one might lament that two of these earliest, strongest influences on me were men, and that there were no female role models, but in fact that’s not how it worked out.  Robert and Spider led me to their wives, Virginia and Jeanne, and those women have influenced me more than anyone but my mother.  The guys wrote, sure, but those women were stunningly accomplished.  Virginia spoke and read who knows how many languages, was two different kinds of chemist, an engineer, and she outranked her husband in the Navy.  Jeanne was a dancer and choreographer and a Buddhist monk–between the two of them, who could need more?

This has been a long post about two men who had an enormous impact of the shape of my life and mind (and the life of my mind).  Gone unsaid throughout, but inescapably there, has been the one man who is ultimately responsible: my Dad.

Thanks, Dad.  Consider this a late Father’s Day present.  I love you.

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