I read a lot when I was a kid. It was a habit fostered by my mum, who is – to this day – a proud feminist, environmentalist, and sci-fi fan (though she also read an equal amount of “literary fiction”). She would read me C.S. Lewis (Narnia), Enid Blyton (The Faraway Tree, Famous Five, Secret Seven), E. Nesbit (Five Children and It), A.A. Milne (Winnie-the-Pooh), J.R.R. Tolkien (The Hobbit), Richmal Crompton (Just William), Lynne Reid Banks (The Indian in the Cupboard), Mary Norton (The Borrowers), Roald Dahl (everything) and many, many others.
My dad also loves reading, but he’s more into books on Labour party politics, biographies, and obscure maths tomes. All heady stuff, but a bit above my level when I was a child.
Needless to say, there were books all over the house when I was growing up. Those wonderful old paperback books, with yellowed pages and lurid 1970s covers. I was also always checking books out of Bristol Central Library (which really is the most stupendous old Edwardian building), and vividly remember the satisfaction of finishing Frank Herbert’s Dune when I was about 11 or 12.
As well as writers like Douglas Adams, “Grant Naylor”, and Terry Pratchett, my favourite authors as a child included the likes of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Frank Herbert, and Isaac Asimov. Those latter four being among the group that drove Michael Moorcock into spluttering apoplexy in his essay Starship Stormtroopers:
“Tolkein (sic), C. S. Lewis, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov and the rest, bourgeois reactionaries to a man, Christian apologists, crypto-Stalinists…”
Moorcock can go suck an egg. I love Moorcock [Phwoar! – Ed.], but here he was being provocative for the sake of provocation. I dislike the idea of disparaging an author’s work simply because of their politics (which is why I’m a rabid H.P. Lovecraft fan despite holding his political views to be vile and odious). And, after all, Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play drew equally from Tolkien and Moorcock, and that worked out alright.
All of this to say, I read a bucketload of old sci-fi as a child. And I wasn’t particularly discerning. If it was a gaudy 1970s paperback, especially if it had robots, spaceships, and / or aliens on the cover, then I would read it. Thinking back, I read orders of magnitude more sci-fi than fantasy (and sci-fi seems to have generally been more popular than fantasy in the UK back in t’ day – or, at least, that was my impression).
But there was one series of books that really stuck in my head. It was some kind of pulp kung fu sci-fi I borrowed from the library. The synopsis was, essentially: space Bruce Lee versus space pirates. However, for the life of me I could never recall the title, nor the author. I’ve had a vague recollection of it for years, but could never quite pierce the fog of memory.
Well, last night I finally figured it out. I left a description of the book on r/whatsthatbook. While that didn’t produce any answers, thinking about it helped shake some details loose in my brain and, a couple of Google searches later, I had found this Stack Exchange question. Huzzah!
I was sad to read the author, Douglas Hill, passed away more than a decade ago (apparently struck by a double decker bus at a zebra crossing in London). He was born in Canada, but had lived in the UK since 1959 (and I get the sense his books were more popular in Britain and Commonwealth countries than in the States).
Wikipedia tells me that Hill was a “lifetime leftist”, and was briefly an assistant editor of New Worlds under Michael Moorcock in the 1960s. His article on Wikipedia also describes him (without providing even the sniff of a source or citation) as one of the “big three” for boys, alongside Michael Hardcastle and Dick King-Smith.
Does anyone else remember him? His book, The Blade of the Poisoner, was apparently adapted for radio by the BBC in 1991, and was rebroadcast as recently as October 2018. One obit said: “Before the arrival of Harry Potter he was the most popular children’s author in Britain”
His obituary in The Guardian reads:
“Hill’s loyal following among young adults – and the librarians who served them – enjoyed his action-packed stories with their powerful themes of man’s overwhelming desire for freedom, which can usually only be achieved by heroism underpinned by violence. Hill created wonderful heroes whom he matched with equally powerful heroines, a trend not so common among other children’s writers at the time.”
Finally, Wikipedia (again) says:
“His books were popular in schools as their straightforward action and sci-fi or sword-and-sorcery themes appealed to impatient or inattentive readers, particularly boys, who were increasingly difficult to engage in ‘reading for pleasure and leisure’ and above all they were relatively short-length books without a great deal of background waffle.”
I won’t pretend that Galactic Warlord was high art. But you already know my attitude towards so-called high art. I also don’t have much truck with the idea that adult fiction is somehow “better” than juvenile fiction. To me, it sounds like Douglas Hill believed something similar.
So, thank you very much, Douglas Hill. Thank you for Galactic Warlord. You got me (and, by the sounds of it, plenty of others) reading. That’s such a valuable gift, so cheers.