I’m going to tell you a story, a true one, this time. Are you sitting comfortably? Cup of tea, maybe? Then I shall begin.
I discovered sci-fi in the Camborne library when I was about 8 years old. It was a book called Trillions by Nicholas Fisk and discovering that book and others like it changed my life.
But that’s not what this story is about. That’s a mini-prologue.
Let’s spool on a few years to when I was a teenager. I wasn’t particularly girly, I was in love with Harrison Ford whilst everyone else loved Bros and already feeling like the world did not have a place for girls like me. Then I discovered Back to the Future around the time that BTTF II came out. Doc Brown became (and still is) my hero. I adored him. Indiana Jones, whilst still loved (even now), disappeared from my walls and they were plastered with pictures of a young man and a scientist and a time machine.
But that’s not what this story is about. Let’s say that bit is…. An early chapter.
After my passionate devotion to Back to the Future had run its natural course, the next all-consuming passion in my life was for Star Trek: The Next Generation.
This is where the real story begins by the way. And you’d think that, as a novelist, I’d know where to start a damn story, right? But all of this is important. Bear with me.
Data was my favourite. I adored Picard. Troi irritated me and the rest I was happy to watch but didn’t obsess over. It was shown every week (I think on a Wednesday?) at 6pm and this was before the days of clever boxes that recorded stuff for you automatically. I had to be there, physically, to set the VHS to record and watch it at the same time and then watch it again afterwards.
It drove my Dad crazy sometimes. He wanted to watch the news and when he really, really wanted to watch the news he would try to compromise and ask if he could just watch the headlines and I would spiral into a crazed fidgeting bundle of stress with the remote control in my hand as the newsreader said boring real world stuff so fucking slowly, worrying that I would miss the teaser by the time I could switch over.
I must have been such a pain in the arse to live with.
But that time, every week, was the most important forty-five minutes of those seven days. It didn’t matter that I was taping it. I had to absorb it, totally, as quickly as possible.
Because it fed me.
It’s easy to dismiss intense fandom. I could easily look back on that time in my life and with a gentle eye roll say something about hormonal teenagers or geekery or something equally shallow. Instead, I look back on that time and I know – know – that my obsession with ST:TNG was the best way I could cope with my life at the time.
Let me fill in a few other details.
Some very traumatic family stuff happened between BTTF and ST:TNG which resulted in me moving from East Anglia back to Cornwall to live with my father instead of my mother and stepfather. Out of respect for my family, I’m not going to go into any more detail than that. But it’s important.
After living outside of Cornwall for a total of two years since I was born, I was considered an outsider – an emmet, in fact – and was not welcomed. At times I was actively bullied. I also found wonderful friends who changed my life, but on the whole, my school life was appalling.
I was dealing with that on top of the family shitstorm. I had no confidence, self-esteem lower than the depths of the Mariana Trench and I was the only person in the school who thought that time travel and space exploration were amazing. That I knew of, anyway.
Then my Dad got drafted away and I mostly took care of myself for a year. We had a lodger who in no sense was ever expected to be responsible for me – rightly so – and Dad came home to visit as much as he could at weekends.
It was… suboptimal.
This was when ST:TNG and my obsession with it deepened even further. It wasn’t just a sci-fi show. It became my sanctuary. Now I look back and know that the crew became my surrogate family when my real family life was being put through the mill. Of course I loved Data; I wanted to be him, I wanted to be free of emotions and in love with the idea of being human again. And he didn’t fuck people up with emotions either. He was safe. And Picard? Picard was always there. When I couldn’t sleep at night because the house was empty and scary I used to put on a tape of ST:TNG episodes and drown out the silence with the characters I loved and needed so much.
But this is only one part of the story.
During that heady time where I spent the majority of my waking moments writing fan fic or making scale models of the Enterprise and other ships, I used to have conversations with a dear friend of mine about how cool Melinda Snodgrass was. The legend was that she was wrote a script that the show loved so much they brought her onto the staff. And I used to see her name in the credits, in the stream of male names and think “She did it. She writes Star Trek.”
She was my hero. Not only because she was a woman writing the show that meant so much to me, but because of one episode in particular: “Measure of a Man”. In case you’re unfamiliar with the title, it’s the one where Picard has to help Data prove he is sentient so he has the right to exist and not be declared the property of Starfleet and then dissembled for science.
It is, in my opinion, a beautiful example of science-fiction. It considers the nature of sentience, the human condition, personal freedom, the pursuit of science, duty over friendship, slavery and the future ramifications of single critical decisions. In space. It gave Picard and Riker more depth and it was a Data episode, so obviously, a favourite.
More than that, it was the first episode on that VHS tape that I heard whilst trying to fall asleep. It comforted me, deeply. I knew it off by heart. I used to play it in my head when hiding somewhere in school so I wouldn’t have to deal with other people.
And then last year, I met Melinda Snodgrass properly. I got to shake her hand and thank her, very briefly, in Chicago at the 2012 Worldcon, but last year I got a chance to really talk to her.
It was at CONvergence in Minneapolis and I knew she was one of the highest profile guests there and I knew I would never be able to go and seek her out and strike up a conversation with her, because awkward British fangirl attack times ten. But it so happened we ran into each other in the bar and I was too drunk to dissolve into a puddle of my own insecurity.
We talked. More than that, we connected. I met my hero and she lived up to the ideal I had of her – no, more than that; she became a real person instead of a distant ideal and that real person is simply fabulous.
It took the encouragement of my friend and editor Lee Harris to summon up the courage to tell Melinda how important she was to me as a teenager, specifically Measure of a Man. It was over breakfast on the last day of the convention and we both cried and it was one of the most important moments in my life as a fan and as a professional writer. We are friends now. We correspond.
I correspond with my hero and that only happened because of fandom and a convention and science-fiction.
So why did I have to sit down today and write this out? Why have you read this to the end?
Because I love science-fiction. And I really needed to remember that today.