The discussions triggered by Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Asimov's piece, various responses, (including Charlie's fascinating technogeek thoughts) seem to have died down, though it's been fun, and I'm still reflecting on that aspect of the debate I find most relevant - how do you grow the ranks of our readers?
Recently, a friend suggest that, in an effort to attract new readers, it might be instructive to re-examine what brought us into the field as readers ourselves. So:
How did I get into SF?
When I was a very small child, I remember my father reading SF novels, though he soon got to busy and this (along with his weekly basketball game) was abandoned due to the pressure of work. But the idea of SF as something my dad did was impressed on me. Plus, the books had strange, sophisticated covers - some of them illustrated by Richard Powers -that reinforced my idea that SF was a serious, modern, adult genre. I remember when he brought home Alan Dean Foster's Splinter of the Mind's Eye - the very first Star Wars novel, written before even Empire Strikes Back came out (and only featuring Luke and Lea, since the idea was it could form the basis of a cheap sequel if one was commissioned and Harrison Ford wasn't yet signed). I didn't read it - it was over my head then, or at least out of my range of interests, but I remember being impressed that Star Wars had spawned an actual book - because books were sacred and important and thus leant authenticity to a subject matter.
My father read me The Chronicles of Narnia aloud several times, which were also read at my school (which was a fundamentalist church school), but there wasn't really a lot of other SF. However, I remember reading a Ben Bova novel I found in the school library, as well as several of James Blish's novelizations of Star Trek: TOS. And I read Batman comics through sixth grade, but when I was a preteen, sometime in 1978-1980, my father took me in a B.Daltons and handed me Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, and said, "Here, read this." I was going through a phase where I didn't do anything my father said out of principal. And since he is a lawyer, and that meant we were allowed to argue with his judgments, I took a look at the Michael Whelan painting of Deja Thoris and said, "But it has a naked woman on the cover."
"I know it has a naked woman on the cover," he replied (we both pronounced it "nekked"), "But it's still a good book and you're going to read it."He forced me to, and I did so furious and reluctant, but I read all 11 books in the series over the next few months. I ended up reading everything by Burroughs then available - in those days, the SF section was almost solid with books by ERB, Michael Moorcock, and John Borman (who I never read, as my father informed me that this time the nekked woman on the cover was indication of a bad book). I worked my way through Burroughs entire Mars, Venus, Earth's Core and Tarzan series, and read the 20 or so stand-alone novels that were also out (The Eternal Savage, in which Lord Greystoke has a bit part but isn't revealed as Tarzan, is still a favorite). I also read a lot of Moorcock - the Elric, Corum and (some) Hawkmoon series, and I read Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar books and some of Robert E. Howard's Conan. I didn't read much SF - though I read my father's battered copy of Dune when I was 15, and I found the three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthologies in the basement of my grandmother' s house and read all of those. I also read several Isaac Asimov collections, an anthologies, but only read I, Robot from his novel works.
I was heavy into The Lord of the Rings thanks to the Ralph Bakshi film, though I stopped reading the actual book midway through The Two Towers, switched to The Silmarillion, and chunked it for The Tolkien Companion. So I painted hundreds of pewter orcs and memorized banner emblems and weapon types, but was more into the taxonomy of Middle Earth than the writing. AD&D hit me at just the right angle, too. I did read a lot of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, and even tried for a while to play TSR's unplayable Top Secret spy game.
I didn't read (or game) much after I got my driver's license, however, and though I did read Alan Dean Foster's entire SpellSinger series one summer in college, my favorite authors then were John Irving (especially The World According to Garp and Cider House Rules, one of which made me want to be a writer and the other changed my views on abortion) and Tom Robbins. But mostly college - and English 101 and 102 - made me hate books, and I didn't read much of anything for a while. I did return to comics with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, but I did theatre in my last years of college and was more into live performance than anything else (though, it should be said, that I hated realism - the genre - as I felt it failed to take advantage of theatre's potential for transformation and its roots in ritual and magic - there is a reason that the Church persecuted actors - they steal the stage from the priests!)
After college I studied theatre in London, then directed theatre in Chicago, which lead to Los Angeles, where I hung out on movie set. On the way there, I'd gotten interested in Doctor Who, but by way of the novels rather than the television show, which I'd always hated for giving my UK friends the opinion that SF television was kid stuff. But I was struck by Kate Orman's The Left Handed Hummingbird, which pulled me heavily into Who one summer, and I'd managed to establish email relationships with several Doctor Who authors - email being only a couple years old as a real phenomena that people did, btw. So when the production assistant work dried up in Hollywood - my last gig was dumping buckets of fake dollar bills on a rap band standing in an alley - and my dad said "I"ll send you money for a plane ticket home if you agree to go to law school," I took a 3 hour jog in which I wracked my brains for a way to stay in LA. I came back from the jog, went and bought 5 science ficiton media magazines, and wrote all five of them offering them an article on the Doctor Who authors I knew. Only one responded - Sci Fi Universe - one of the few non-porn magazines owned by Larry Flint. They said they could care less about Doctor Who, but there was a convention in Anaheim I could attend on their behalf if I wanted. I went, met Jean-Marc L'officier, then connected with the in-development Fox TV Doctor Who movie, and interviewed him for the magazine. He called me a week later, saying that Titan Magazines in the UK was looking for an LA journalist to be their point man on a new Star Trek magazine and he'd recommended me. So, with one interview under my belt that had yet to see print, I told Titan Magazine with a straight face, "You will never find a better Star Trek journalist in all of Los Angeles than me." At the time I said this, I did not watch the show and barely knew how to write an article. But they hired me, and over the next five years, I busted my ass to make it the truth, writing over 500 articles for their magazines, hanging out on the sets and offices of SF TV, primarily Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 (Look for me as an extra in the penultimate episode of the latter show).
I used to have to watch something like 6 hours of SF television a week to keep up, and I saw about two movies a week on average, but in 99, when B5 and Trek ended and everything was moving to Vancouver or New Zealand, I accepted a job to work for an old friend as the editor of an online publishing startup called Bookface.com. Operating on the assumption that SF people were early adapters, they sent me around to conventions to smooze SF&F writers into digitizing their stories and placing them online, which is how, when the bubble burst, I came to a great deal of good people in the publishing field and transitioned into literary SF. Somewhere in that process, I had become appalled at the disparity between the TV variety and the works I was being exposed to, though, of course, I'm a big proponent of the renaissance in television occurring now.
That's the long answer.
The short answer surprises me when I look back at what I've written - a school library, a parent's recommendation, cinema, and media tie-in work. Apparently, I wasn't born with a copy of Dhalgren in my hand after all. How about you?