The Book You Don’t Know You’re Looking For

This past weekend I was in Chicago for Chicon 7, this year’s World Science Fiction Convention. It’s a huge gathering of fans, it’s full of my friends, everyone is talking about books, it’s wonderful. There’s this sense of coming home to fandom you only get when you’re absolutely surrounded by people who are about the same things you do — a three hundred person convention is in a city, Worldcon is a city, and sometimes it feels like the shining city on the hill with spaceships taking off just over the horizon. Chicago is great too. You should be here, that’s all that’s lacking.

So, Worldcon has a dealers room, and the dealers room has people selling all kinds of things from dragons to spaceships, and also books. I was looking along one of the many stalls of second hand books, the same kind where last year I picked up a Poul Anderson I hadn’t read since I was fifteen. There were some volumes of Eric Frank Russell, and I was looking at them and I thought “Why are you even looking, Jo? It’s not like there’s going to be any new Eric Frank Russell. He’s been dead since before you knew he was alive.” And there was a new Eric Frank Russell. I’m not joking. It’s called The Mindwarpers, and I bought it but I haven’t read it yet. I am delighted to have it. But I had no idea I wanted it because I had no idea it existed.

The Mindwarpers isn’t a rare book. There are copies of it all over the internet, some of them for only a few dollars. But because I didn’t know it existed, I wasn’t searching for it, because you can’t search for what you don’t know exists. I thought I had read all of Russell and so I wasn’t looking for any more. I don’t do online searches for authors who died in 1978 and all of whose books I’m sure I’ve read. It’s that being sure that tripped me up. It’s actually possible that I have read this once from the library under the U.K. title of “With a Strange Device” which sounds vaguely familiar. I’ve certainly never owned it.

I found it through pure serendipity and the massive gravitational pull of a Worldcon dealers room. Physical books sitting next to each other. But I was looking more out of nostalgia than anything else. There’s Wasp. There’s dear old Next of Kin. Wait! What on Earth is that? How did I miss it? Or did it fall through a wormhole from another dimension? Or have I slid into an alternate reality like The Stone Pillow in Robert Charles Wilson’s Divided by Infinity?

I may read The Mindwarpers and write about it soon, if I don’t wake up soon and discover I’m actually still fifteen. But there’s something so enticing and happy-making about having a new Eric Frank Russell, which I never thought I’d have again, that I may keep it on the shelf unread until I get diagnosed with something terminal. That’ll give me something to look forward to!

It makes me wonder what other old books might be lurking out there. Back to the dealers room to scour the shelves with attention!

Have you ever experienced the joy of serendipitously finding a book you didn’t know you were looking for? Did it work out well for you?


Jo Walton is in Worldcon with a new Eric Frank Russell book. She’s taking the time to write to you even so, because she wants you to be happy too.

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