Why the Hell Are These Books Out of Print?

About two years ago, I reviewed Raphael Carter’s The Fortunate Fall. I could not add a link that would allow readers to purchase the book because as far as I could tell, The Fortunate Fall has been out of print for more than twenty years. I was astounded because I had the impression that the book was warmly regarded. The evidence suggests it was warmly regarded by a small number of very vocal fans1.

I tend to expect that many others will love the same books that I do. I have been proved wrong again and again. Books that I love are not reprinted. Even in this era of ebooks, all but a few lucky books come forth like flowers and wither: they slip away like shadows and do not endure. Ah, the sorrows of the reader!

Not to mention the author….

But there is also a certain satisfaction in the quest for the nigh-unobtainable out-of-print volume almost certainly languishing in durance vile (undusted home bookshelf, dingy thrift shop), a volume that deserves to be loved and read. So I am asked “What books should we be striving (futilely) to add to our personal Mount Tsundokus?” Well, since you asked …

Chester Anderson’s 1967 The Butterfly Kid is the first volume in the Greenwich Trilogy. It is without a doubt the finest SF novel in which a collection of futuristic hippies band together to save the world from drugs, blue space lobsters, and the nefarious Laszlo Scott. Anderson and his friend Michael Kurland feature as protagonists. It’s a delightful, light-hearted romp—although apparently not delightful enough, because it has been out of print for decades. The Butterfly Kid was followed in 1969 by Michael Kurland’s The Unicorn Girl and in 1970 by T. A. Waters’ The Probability Pad, both of which are in print.

Liz Williams’ 2004 Banner of Souls is a science-fantasy adventure set in a distant future in which reproduction has been industrialized and affection harnessed, in a bid to control the proles. Also, the souls of the dead power trans-solar portals. It’s a grim story but well told. Why no recent edition?

John M. Ford’s Growing Up Weightless is one of the two best Heinlein juveniles not written by Heinlein (the other being Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage.). A lean, vividly imaged coming-of-age story set on the Moon, it should be a classic of science fiction. It isn’t (or at least, not one that’s easy to track down). Ford died tragically young without having designated a literary executor. The rights to his works reverted to his blood relatives, who seem intent on erasing evidence of Ford’s writing career. While Tor has done a masterful job of keeping their John M. Ford books, The Last Hot Time and Heat of Fusion and Other Stories in print, Growing Up Weightless was published by Bantam and is out of print.

Pamela Sargent edited three Women of Wonder anthologies in the 1970s, then a follow-up duology in the mid-1990s. The five book series showcased speculative fiction by women, from the golden age of SF to the then-present (now distant past; the most recent WoW anthology is even more ancient than Season One Xena: Warrior Princess). In this case, I do know why the books are out of print: obtaining the rights from all of the authors (or their estates) would be a daunting task. It’s a pity, because these were remarkable anthologies.

I mentioned Phyllis Eisenstein’s Born to Exile in Fighting Erasure: Women SF Writers of the 1970s, A Through F, which I read because I had previously reviewed 1979’s Shadow of Earth. While I have some issues with the worldbuilding, the central story—the struggle of a modern woman to escape the brutally patriarchal society into which she was sold by a duplicitous lover—is vivid and memorable. It’s one that could speak to modern audiences, if only they could find a copy.

2001’s Psychohistorical Crisis is Donald Kingsbury’s inventive re-imagination of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series. In it, a scholar robbed of much of his memory must navigate the dangerous word of the Second Empire, a world in which Imperial pretensions of a monopoly on the powerful tool of psychohistory are quite false. Psychohistorical Crisis was well-thought-of enough to win a Prometheus Award and yet it seems to have fallen out of print almost immediately2.

Like the previous entry, Pat Murphy’s 1999 There and Back Again reimagines a genre classic, recasting a well-known tale of a reclusive homeowner turned press-ganged burglar from epic fantasy to galactic-scale space opera. Pried out of his comfortable habitat, norbit Bailey Beldon is dragged off through a network of one-way wormholes to a life of adventure he never requested. I thought it was all great fun, but the book is definitely out of print.

Why choose one work by an author when I can see my way to promoting three? Joan D. Vinge’s 1991 omnibus Heaven Chronicles gathers 1978’s The Outcasts of Heaven’s Belt and a prequel, Legacy, which is a merger of the 1976 Media Man and its close sequel, Fool’s Gold. The series is set in the eponymous Heaven’s Belt, a once-prosperous asteroid-based civilization that found out the hard way why a shooting war in an environment where all life-support is artificial and fragile is a bad idea. With a slow, painful decline into extinction a real possibility, the handful of survivors are eager to seize any chance to escape their doom. Set in an early version of Vernor Vinge’s Zones of Thought, Joan D. Vinge’s novel presents desperate characters in a nuanced way, despite which The Heaven Chronicles have been out of print since the early 1990s.

The potential for change is a wonderful thing, however. You might, for example, be disheartened by a cold drizzle while out walking only to be delighted by the distraction of a pack of ravening wolves. Similarly, a book long out of print can very easily become a book which is in print!

Roger Zelazny’s 1975 Doorways in the Sand is not one of Zelazny’s Major-with-a-capital-M novels. It is, however, a perfect minor novel, an amusingly cheerful light confection in which the author never takes a wrong step. Readers liked it enough to nominate it for both the Hugo and the Nebula. It was with considerable surprise that I discovered in 2015 that Doorways in the Sand had been out of print since the early 1990s. I was delighted to learn, therefore, that Farrago Books had finally brought Doorways back into print. There’s always hope! And if not hope, hungry wolves.


1: I call this the Diet Pepsi Effect, from my experiences as Vice (party organizer and shenanigans facilitator) for a theatrical organization. My impression of how many people wanted Diet Pepsi at the parties was wildly off because their apparent numbers were inflated by how very firmly and how often they expressed their desire for Diet Pepsi. (I am using the singular they.)

2: Editor Karen Lofstrom’s note: I have this book. I like it despite the fact that there’s a subplot involving pedophilia and grooming.
Author’s note: Oh, right. It’s also on my list of “What the helling hell, author; or Hikaru Genji is not a role model” books.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.


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