So, we were talking with Jonathan Strahan and Ian McDonald at Worldcon about the shameful holes in our reading, and I ended up confessing I’d never ever read any Heinlein (and got a bunch of recommendations in return). And I realised that Heinlein was far from the only hole in my, er, SF pedigree, for want of a better word.
A lot of speculative fiction writers seem to have grown on a steady diet of Golden Age or New Wave SF/fantasy, and/or comic books–I was on a panel with someone (I think Saladin Ahmed) who mentioned D&D and classic sword-and-sorcery as a major influence when he was growing up.
Me? I’m a latecomer, both to English and to genre. The thing is, I didn’t seriously start reading in English until I was 14 or so; which means that a lot of my formative stuff (aka the one that always remains behind in the hindbrain and keeps cropping up in what you write) was in French. Which isn’t to say there was no SF in it: I gleefully devoured nearly all of Verne’s books, read about all of Isaac Asimov’s translated short stories, and even dipped into Patricia McKillip (Changeling was actually translated as a middle-grade book over in France). What there wasn’t, however, was genre: it wasn’t until I moved to the UK that I became aware of the SF/fantasy section of the bookstores. When I was growing up, my local library had a “general fiction” bookshelf, and that was pretty much it. You found Victor Hugo side-by-side with romance novels, or Zelazny’s Lord of Light. And believe me, I read and enjoyed a heck of lot of Victor Hugo (my fave is Ninety-Three, in case you’re wondering). Not so much Zelazny, as the French translation of Lord of Light sucked big time, and it basically put me off Zelazny for ten years (they recently re-issued that book in French, with a new and improved translation, which I’m told is much better).
Similarly, a lot of my speculative fiction didn’t come from comics, but from bandes dessinées (BD), the French comics (sort of. There are big differences, mainly about mainstream acceptance of BDs in France, but I won’t go into them here). I read Yoko Tsuno, about a Japanese tech in Brussels who faces down aliens, time-travelling megalomaniacs and weird creatures (it’s unabashedly centered on Yoko herself, to the point that her male sidekicks often appear totally incompetent); Thorgal, which is this odd mix of Viking-era sword-and-sorcery and science fiction (the eponymous Thorgal came via spaceship down to Earth); and a lot other more BDs which had supernatural or science-fictional elements, but which were always classified as mainstream. In fact, in my library, the main division for BDs was whether or not they were for adults (amusingly, Mandrake the Magician qualified as adult, as did most US comics. I can only presume it was because of the excessive violence) .
I didn’t really find out about comic books before I was 13 or so; and compared to the bandes dessinées I was reading at the time, the comic books of that era felt painfully underdrawn, with bad colouring, and a style that failed to engage me, as its conventions were so different from the French/Belgian ones. I grew up mostly uninterested by them, with one notable exception: X-Men (which must have appealed to my 13-year-old self because it so viscerally described people trapped between two worlds). They did remain a guilty pleasure, because even at 13 I found a lot of the available storylines too simple (especially in terms of morality), and because they were expensive, costing nearly as much as a BD but printed on much cheaper paper (by that time, I suspect what was being translated into French was 10 or 15 years late, which probably didn’t help either with the storylines or the art. A lot of it, now that I think back, was Cold-War era comics, and there was probably a cultural disconnect because I grew up mostly after the Cold War ended…)
As to classic sword-and-sorcery… The closest to that was actually Andre Norton’s Witch World, which I found via a circuitous road: I became a fan of Star Wars early on, though I was frustrated by the simplistic morality of the movies, and went foraging into the authorised novels, hoping to find something more suited to my tastes (I sort of did, but mainly I learnt a lot of cool vocabulary around lightsabers and spaceships). Around the time I was 12 or 13, Pocket, a big editor of SF in France, launched a new line for young adults: part of the lineup was some Kevin Anderson Star Wars novels (of which I soon owned the complete set), and the remainder was the Andre Norton books. I distinctly remembered picking one up, reading cover to cover, and thinking, “wow, I’ve never read anything like this”. So much for sword-and-sorcery. I didn’t read Leiber until I was 20; and I confess to still not having opened a Conan book (I think I’m too late for those, in any case. I strongly suspect they work better when you’re a teenager).
Basically, I read what was getting translated into French and available at my local library–and that means that some books just never made it into my repertoire. I read Silverberg, but only the Lord Valentine books; I read Asimov’s, but only the short stories; I read a lot of Bradbury, because his works were very popular in France (I remember a couple of his short stories gave me nightmares). I never opened a Heinlein, a Clarke, or a Van Vogt. I also read a lot of French originals, though I’d be hard-pressed to remember any names among those (I read a lot, and a lot of that stuff has just merged into an indistinct blur).
So, there you go: my influences, all laid out for you to lob tomatoes at. All that Golden Age stuff… Sorry, but it’s not just not in the hindbrain. I did do a massive amount of catch-up later, when I was in the UK and started voraciously reading genre from Blish to Le Guin to Gemmell (and yes, I did end up reading Clarke and Van Vogt), but that was only after I’d started reading in English, and way after the rest of that stuff had formed layers in my brain. I already had my own worlds, and they’re what tends to bubble up when I write SF–and I have no idea if they’re better or worse than the common grounds of SF, but they’re certainly very different.
What about you? What were your experiences of growing up with SF? Do you have the feeling there are classics you missed out on when you were a child?
 As an aside, if you want BDs, Cinebook has started translating some of the most successful series. The quality of the translation is… variable, and they sometimes make odd choices as to series order. But they’re still very much recommended, if only to get a glimpse into an art form not everyone will be familiar with (BDs and comics are very different beasts).