Sci-Fi’s Cupid Arrow

Redhead, at the Little Red Reviewer, has recently posted an entertaining short science fiction story she wrote as a child, exemplifying delightful creativity applied to geology, astronomy, and interstellar planetary travel. In her post she asks, “When and how did you first become a Science Fiction fan?

I can tell you in one word: robots. All kinds of robots, anthropomorphized or not. Of course I was always into sci-fi cartoons for kids: Voltron, GoBots, Transformers, etc. But when I think about it, my love affair with science fiction developed concurrently with my love for robots, technology, and science fact.

Shall we play a game?

Words and technology were some of my best friends growing up. By the time I was 7, I was thoroughly enamoured with books and robots. I would ride my bicycle to the toy store and salivate over the electronics section, watching the Omnibot 2000 in its plexiglass case intently, wondering what it was really capable of, wondering what the remarkable looking little robot with the large luminescent eyes could do in my home. But the Omnibot 2000 was way out of our price range.

My first robot was a home computer. My parents procured for me a Commodore Vic-20, the first computer to sell a million units, and the predecessor of the Commodore 64. Billed by no other than William Shatner in a Commadore commercial as, “the wonder computer of the 1980s.” The 1980s definately had a sense of humor.

It was my first home computer. My own little robot. It had a keyboard for real computer stuff. You could also plug in many different peripherals – audio equipment, light pen, tape drives, and of course joysticks and cartridges to emulate dedicated video game consoles like the Atari.

The Vic-20 Programmer’s Reference Guide began with the welcoming tone:

The Friendly Computer deserves a Friendly Reference Book.
  That's why we wrote the VIC 20 PROGRAMMERS REFER-
ENCE GUIDE...a book that gives you more information about
your VIC 20 Personal Computer than any other source. This guide
was compiled from the experience of Commodore's international
Programming staffs in more than half a dozen countries, and is
designed to be used by first-time computerists as well as
experienced programmers.

It was friendly. I was a first time computerist. We were a go. I loved my Vic-20. I read through that reference guide with a dogged tolerance that would sometimes, later in life, exasperate my mom. I read that reference guide like a steamroller, just smoothing over all of the bits that I didn’t understand. I was about 7 years old when I got my Vic-20, so there was plenty I did not understand. Yet there was plenty that I did understand.

For me, the comic twist in the story, the testament to childhood ingenuity, is that my Vic-20 was an orphan. My dad procured it from some local talent who frequented his corner market. The item was probably hot, but definitely a computer. And now he didn’t have to buy me an Atari! But my orphan Vic-20 had nothing but its power cable and the user’s manual. Not a single periphery, not one ancillary piece of equipment or software – no joystick, games, tape drive, audio deck, etc. And I’ll tell you that I never needed them. No games? No bells and whistles? The Vic-20 Suited my 7 year old mind quite nicely, thank you.

It was a computer! The whole thing was a game, as far as I was concerned. Look how long I was able to play contentedly with a stick, a box, and dirt! This orphaned robot was fine by me. I remember in those early weeks of Vic-20 ownership, the rising anticipation I would feel at school as the clock swung into afternoon, and I was that much closer to getting home and booting up my Vic-20, painstakingly deciphering the friendly owner’s manual, and cautiously keying in a few lines of code.

Using my Vic-20, I was able to grasp and experiment with some rudimentary concepts of programming in BASIC. I absorbed the data manipulation and program flow keywords as best I could. Some of it made perfect sense to me, the numbered lines, the simple family of commands. Commands like LET, to assign a value, or IF…THEN…ELSE, to compare values and decide upon a next course, or GOTO to jump to a different numbered line,or GOSUB to temporarily detour to a different line, or DO … LOOP {WHILE} or {UNTIL} to repeat a set of lines, and the elegant and powerful, RUN.

What was a 7 year old able to do with an orphaned Vic-20? My crowning achievement was writing a program to animate a simple set of characters and make them flash through different colors. What do I mean? Well, picture this:

^●^

If you’re a kid, it is easy for those symbols to be a seagull. If you turn those symbols upside down, the seagull’s wings flap. I worked this bird motif for a while. I had one gull flapping, I had one gull flapping and changing colors. I remember one ecstatic afternoon when I had successfully adapted the basic commands enough to do something that was not just an example from the manual. I animated a whole screen full of flapping seagulls, scores of them, all changing colors.

I remember the moment of anticipation after typing in RUN, but before hitting Enter. I paused there with my finger over the Enter key and thought, “Here goes.” When the television screen lit up with what looked like hundreds of flying flashing colored birds, I stood up to celebrate. I was beaming and proud, dancing a little circle in front of the television, basking in my successful program.

I loved my little orphan robot. And I’ve fallen in love with all sorts of technology since then, the Omnibot, the Etch-A-Sketch Animator, Transformers, Atari, Nintendo, Walkmans, electronic typewriters, my first Mac, building my first PC, laptops, smartphones, etc. That Vic-20 lead in an unbroken chain of computer gadgets to where I am today, a science fiction writer, a man fascinated with the way technology mediates our human relationship to nature and reality, as well as an avid and enduring fan of the capacity for technology to be marvelous.

Thanks for the thought-provoking prompt, Little Red Reviewer!

And to you, dear reader, I pass on Redhead’s question: “When and how did you first become a Science Fiction fan?”

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About Suhail Rafidi

Suhail Rafidi is a novelist and educator whose works explore the destiny of human values in a technological landscape. You can find him on Twitter, too, @shelldive.
This entry was posted in Reflection and Personal Knowledge, Science Fiction, Technology and Culture and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sci-Fi’s Cupid Arrow

  1. Redhead says:

    What a wonderful story! and I remember that joystick, we had the same one for our commodore64 in the 80s. and the joys of learning basic! I never got my seagull to flap it’s wings, but I did manage to make the screen change colors and that was pretty exciting. I think we called that program “rainbow screen”, or something like that.

    isn’t nostalgia of our scifi youths just the most lovely thing?

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