Books that changed my life: 03 – The Illustrated Man

Note: This blog originally appeared on tobinelliott.com.

This is the third in a series of blogs where I go back and examine the books that deeply affected me and became part of the foundation of the person I am now.

Click on the titles to read the others

01 – Chariots of the Gods?
02 – Rocket Ship Galileo / Space Cadet


I’d discovered Robert A. Heinlein’s books shortly after unlocking the secrets of the public school library. That was chronicled in my last blog. After a while, I exhausted the library’s supply of Heinlein books and I can distinctly remember thinking, well, now what?

Staying in the area I felt comfortable in, I looked again to the SF section. I’d previously dug out a book with a striking cover that captured my attention. A bald, naked man, tattooed from the neck down, sitting on a slapped-together platform against a red landscape. Was this Mars? Why was he on that platform? What was with the tattoos? What was with The Illustrated Man?

And who was this Ray Bradbury guy, who was quoted on the cover as “The world’s greatest science-fiction writer.” Surely that was Heinlein, not this Bradbury guy, wasn’t it?

I had to find out. And besides, this cover was easily the most eye-grabbing cover I’d ever seen on a book.

I quickly found out it was a book of short stories, something I had not yet read. Of course I knew of short stories, but short science fiction stories? Nope, that was a new one to this still-virginal reader. I was all of ten or eleven years old at the most.

And, even at that tender young age, even though much of the subtle nuance of the typical Bradbury story likely flew miles above my head, still…still, there was magic in these words.

Bradbury captured me quickly with The Veldt, a story that still crackles against my imagination to this day. A 3D nursery? Kids that don’t want it shut off? I could relate to that aspect, as my mother told me I watched far too much television. She was likely correct. But damn, what those kids did next…it was, to use an overused and undervalued expression, mindblowing to my pre-teen sensibilites.

Kaleidoscope showed me dying astronauts and a child watching falling stars. He caught me again with his subtle magic with The Highway and the couple that missed the end of the world.

The Long Rain, with its description of constant Venusian rain, enough to drive men to suicide…whoa.

Zero Hour was another one that hit me like The Veldt. The nation’s kids are all playing a game called Invasion, that the parents essentially wonder about, but ultimately pass off as a kid’s game. Then the invasion actually happens. Again with the creepy kids.

Then there was The Rocket Man. I’ll pull the Wikipedia description for this one:

Astronauts are few in number, so they work as they desire for high pay. One such astronaut goes off into space for three months at a time, only returning to earth for three consecutive days to spend time with his wife and son. The story is told from the perspective of the son, who holds an interest in one day also becoming an astronaut. Talking with his father, the son learns of the constant battle he faces with yearning for the stars at home while yearning for home while in space. Despite this he has several times attempted to quit, staying at home with his family as he realizes his constant absence has nearly destroyed his wife. At the end of the story the father takes off into space one last time, only to meet his end by the sun. His wife and son now avoid the daytime and become nocturnal.

The Rocket Man hit close to home…uncomfortably close. My father wasn’t a rocket man, but he did love flying and constantly left us to spend months in remote locations like Africa or the Arctic or Greenland. When he came home, he itched to leave like a heroin addict craving their next hit. And because of that, and a lot of other things, I lost him to divorce at the age of five. So, though I didn’t really understand the concept of allegory, I saw myself as the kid in that story.

The stories that I didn’t quite “get” at the time included The Other Foot, considering the young me had no real experience or interest at the time in interracial relations. The Man with its religious undertones also left me feeling nothing, having very little in the way of a religious upbringing at the time. The same goes for The Fire Balloons.

And of course, there were other stories in the collection. Eighteen in all. Each one a strange and wonderful world.

How did this book change my life?

These stories struck me in a strange way. Initially, when I read them, I found myself a little disappointed. Nothing big happened. There’s little violence and no battles and no explosions. The only monsters seemed to be human. Bradbury’s stories were…quiet. They seemed to be told with the volume down.

Then that disappointment turned to realization that stories didn’t always need explosions and violence to entertain. But more than that, Bradbury’s stories made me think. Actually think about people, about humans, about mankind. He was the first author that held up a mirror and showed me myself and those around me.

And he did it quietly, subtly and with a precise skill. And he did it in short stories, quick hits to my psyche. He didn’t even need the length of a novel to get to me. That was new.

In talking about the books that changed my life up to now, I also acknowledge that, if I went back and read them, I would no longer be entertained, challenged or engaged in them. But not so with Bradbury. He’s an author I continue to read. I keep going back to books like Farenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes and still, each time I read them, I marvel at the man’s style. Oh sure, his future isn’t what it used to be, his Mars and his Venus have been unveiled as fiction (albeit beautiful fiction), but still, the central ideas hold true.

For works that are six decades old, that’s impressive.

So, from Ray Bradbury, I got a different sense of wonder, a more reflective wonder. It’s something that I try to seed into my own fiction, though I’ll never reach the mastery of the late, great Ray Bradbury.

Thank you, Ray.


Did you ever read something that changed your life?

Did you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you hadn’t been able to read those words?

What if you couldn’t read? How different would your life be?

What if you couldn’t read Facebook status updates? What if you couldn’t read well enough to Google whatever you need to know? What if you couldn’t read to your kids? What if you couldn’t read a street sign? What if you couldn’t read the instructions on the pill bottle? What if you couldn’t fill out that job application?

What if you couldn’t read?

I’m the person I am now because I can read. I couldn’t imagine a life without a constant influx of words to entertain me, to irritate me, to make me laugh and make me cry.

But I know there’s many out there, and I’m trying to help them. Please, if you read and enjoyed this blog, or if it made you think back to a book that changed your life, please consider helping me help those who are trying to read.

I’m participating in the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a 72-hour event where 40 writers try and write as much as they can, while raising money to fund Literacy and Numeracy programs for adults in the Simcoe/Muskoka area. And the program works. One of the lucky people who went through their literacy program has now joined our group as a writer. How often can you donate money and look at the walking, talking, reading and writing result?

Any amount is sincerely appreciated.

To find out more about the Muskoka Novel Marathon, click here.
To donate, click here.

Please. Help me change someone’s life through reading.

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Books that changed my life: 02 – Rocket Ship Galileo / Space Cadet

Note: This post originally appeared on tobinelliott.com

This is the Second in a series of blogs where I go back and examine the books that deeply affected me and became part of the foundation of the person I am now.

Click on the titles to read the others

01 – Chariots of the Gods?


Somewhere around 1971 or 1972, the year I would have been in Grade Four, I somehow discovered the school library. Now, before that, of course we had been trooped down to the library regularly, and had books read to us by the librarian. But none of the books we’d been read had ever made an impression on me. None of them were as exciting as the science fiction movies I was regularly watching on television. How could some kid’s adventures on boring old Earth compete with spaceships and aliens?

I don’t remember what ultimately shook me from my stupor and got me to walk around the library to scan the books, but I do remember finally seeing a section that was labelled Science Fiction and I stopped dead in my tracks.

Wait a minute. Hold on. There’s actually science fiction books? No way!

I scanned the titles, with very little grabbing my attention. Some seemed just too…old…or boring…for me. Then I came across this author that seemed to not only have a bunch of books, but ones with titles that seemed to jump out and grab at my eyeballs. Robert A. Heinlein. How the heck was that even pronounced? Hyne-line? Heen-leen? Didn’t matter. He wrote what appeared to be cool books. I started with Rocket Ship Galileo, simply because it was about some kids that work with their uncle to convert a rocket ship and travel to the moon. So…here was a kid’s adventures…but mashed up with spaceships and aliens. Well, I wasn’t sure on the aliens, but still…spaceships!

It involved kids getting to the moon and discovering those dastardly Nazis had established a moon base. How evil! How unspeakably…cool!

I ripped through that book like Elvis through a fried-banana sammich. And I wanted more. More!

The next time I was in that library, I went straight over to the SF section again and quickly found the “H” authors. And the next book that called to me was Space Cadet. Okay, this one had a guy actually signing up for and becoming a Space Cadet.

Sidenote: Ah, the early Seventies. Back when Space Cadet was still a term that was considered cool (well, at least it was to me, then again, I was a nerd), instead of someone who’s shockingly lacking in the required volume of marbles. End of sidenote.

So this one had even more action and adventure. This one went farther than the Moon. Hell, we were out in the asteroids, we were on Venus. And…spaceships!

Over the next few weeks, I proceeded to burn through every single Heinlein book in that library. And when I ran out of his, then I moved on to…

Well, that’s for the next post, isn’t it?

How did these books change my life?

I lumped Rocket Ship Galileo and Space Cadet together because, quite frankly, I read them back to back with virtually no break in between. These were my first forays into literary SF, instead of the crazed aliens that wanted to take over our planet every Saturday night on television. And, aside from the Chariots of the Gods? book, these were the first novels I’d read.

Heinlein gave me characters a little older than myself that went on grand adventures throughout our solar system. He captured my attention with young protagonists, something a horror author would do a few years hence, and gave me a rollicking good story. Well, at least, a story that the almost ten-year-old me thought of as rollicking. I learned that novels didn’t just have to be about stuff that happened on Earth.

But more than that, he gave me imagination. Like I said, I hadn’t read anything like this before, so all my SF came from Star Trek reruns and SF movies from the 50s and 60s. I was so used to seeing the strings holding the spaceships, and the cardboard buildings wobbling under Godzilla’s rubber foot. I still loved the stories, but the visuals were flawed. I always had to force myself to ignore the zippers on the back of the beast and the cheesy special effects. But when I read…oh, when I read, the visuals were what I created in my head...and they were so much better.

Heinlein gave me that.

Heinlein showed me a universe that was vastly larger and more exciting than I had ever truly expected up to that point. Heinlein gave me wonder. He filled my mind with questions, with more worlds to explore. He gave me the hunger to read.

These days, if I’m ever asked who are my most influential authors, I’ll throw out a series of fairly well-known authors. I’ll talk about books I’ve read in the past couple of decades. But it occurs to me that, without Heinlein first hooking me, I may never have gone on to discover any of those others. He was the one that got me started. He’s the one who wrote the first novels that I actually found on my own or sought out and enjoyed.

Heinlein was my first discovery, and he planted seeds in a garden that continues to bloom more than four decades later. Hell, I’ve even begun planting my own seeds.

Thank you Robert.


Did you ever read something that changed your life?

Did you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you hadn’t been able to read? Stop and think about that for a second: what if you couldn’t read? How different would your life be?

What if you couldn’t read Facebook status updates? What if you couldn’t read well enough to Google whatever you need to know? What if you couldn’t read to your kids? What if you couldn’t read a street sign? What if you couldn’t read the instructions on the pill bottle? What if you couldn’t fill out that job application?

What if you couldn’t read?

I’m the person I am now because I can read. I couldn’t imagine a life without a constant influx of words to entertain me, to irritate me, to make me laugh and make me cry.

But I know there’s many out there that can’t read, or at least, can’t read well, and I’m trying to help them. Please, if you read and enjoyed this blog, or if it made you think back to a book that changed your life, please consider helping me help those who are trying to read.

I’m participating in the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a 72-hour event where 40 writers try and write as much as they can, while raising money to fund Literacy and Numeracy programs for adults in the Simcoe/Muskoka area. And the program works. One of the lucky people who went through their literacy program has now joined our group as a writer. How often can you donate money and look at the walking, talking, reading and writing result?

If you can donate, any amount is sincerely appreciated.

To find out more about the Muskoka Novel Marathon, click here.
To donate, click here.

Books that changed my life: 01 – Chariots of the Gods?

Note: This post originally appeared on tobinelliott.com

This is the first in a series of blogs where I go back and examine the books that deeply affected me and became part of the foundation of the person I am now.

Don’t you just LOVE those old style covers? I do.

One of the first books I’m conscious of reading, in fact, it may have been the first “adult” book I read cover to cover, was Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?

Let’s address the elephant in the blog right now: No, this is not a good book (despite that absolutely cool late 60s style of cover with the bold lettering…goddamn I loved those covers). In fact, it’s quite terrible .

And that’s part of why it was so influential for me.

The book was released in 1968 and it picked up a pretty decent buzz almost immediately, from what my memory can dredge up. I likely read it somewhere around 1969 or 1970, making me about seven years old. This was likely the best target market von Däniken could have wished for. Young, malleable, naive and wanting oh so desperately to believe. I had that whole Fox Mulder “I want to believe” schtick down decades before he put that poster up in his basement office of the FBI.

And besides, how cool is the name Erich von Däniken? Hell, the man even has an übër-cöol umlaut in his last name.

Erich’s looking for the umlaut in the hieroglyphics.

Sidenote: I always thought Umlaüt would be the best name for a metal band. End of sidenote.

Being that young, and being absolutely fascinated with anything that had anything to do with space–and really, why not? I was living in a world that had made it to the moon, but had not yet added footprints into that dusty satellite’s surface as yet. Neil Armstrong hadn’t yet buggered up what are some of man’s most iconic words: “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” Of course, he meant one small step for a man, but hey, give the guy a bit of slack…he was the first of us to set foot on something other than our own planet.

On the other hand, according to von Däniken, Armstrong and the rest of mankind were quite behind those who had, millenia earlier, visited our planet. If you buy into his theories (which I absolutely, wholeheartedly did), then some of our most amazing ancient structures, such as the pyramids and the Easter Island heads were put there by ancient aliens viewed as gods. He saw astronauts and spacecraft in ancient drawings. He saw a lot of stuff that could be explained by extraterrestrials in religion as well.

Reading (and believing) this book led me down years of reading and countless books on the various strange perceived mysteries of our world. UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, alien abductions, conspiracy theories…the fire was sparked from this book.

But another fire, one much more significant and long-lasting was as well. Not long after I’d devoured this book, my mother met, and eventually married a very intelligent man named Bob. You know that expression, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear? That’s exactly what happened here.

As I said, I bought the whole Chariots of the Gods stuff hook, line and sinker. Bob, on the other hand, thought it was all bullshit. So, I challenged him to refute some of the things I’d read. And he did. This common guy, with no stunning education or degrees behind his name, was able, mostly with common sense or a little deductive reasoning, to pretty much shoot holes through everything my beloved von Däniken had proposed.

I can’t remember much of the discussion anymore, but I remember that moment of deflation, of hearing what Bob said and knowing he was right. But I also remember stubbornly holding on to any bit of ancient alien visitation theory I could, even while it slipped away like sand through my fingers.

One of the best examples of Bob’s counterarguments–and bear in mind I’ll have to make this up because the book is long gone now–went something like this:

Von Däniken said something along the lines of, if you take the height of the great pyramids of Egypt and multiply them by some number, it will come out to the exact distance of the Earth from the sun, something the Egyptians could never have known.

I gotta tell you, at the time, that one rocked my socks.

Then Bob came along and, with his thick Scottish brogue, flapped a dismissive hand and said, “”That’s nae even worth refutin’!” I couldn’t understand why, even when he said, “You can do anything with math!” I still didn’t get it.

So he grabbed a piece of paper and a pen and proceeded to show me how, with the right multiplier, the height of our house, the height of the Empire State Building, or even my height could equal the distance from the Earth to the sun.

Well no shit.

How did this book change my life?

Today, I do believe there is life on other planets in other galaxies. Statistically, it’s ridiculous to believe otherwise. And while I love any story, novel or movie that deals with aliens on our world (the aforementioned X-Files is a personal favourite), I do not believe they have come to visit us as yet. Because I’ve learned a healthy skepticism from being sucked in by von Däniken and his ridiculous theories and by what Bob taught me to consider afterward.

It changed my life because it opened my eyes to all the snake oil salesmen this world offers up and how easily gullibility can be defeated with a little bit of logical thought.

Thanks Erich. Thanks Bob.