While but a callow youth, I subscribed to the Science Fiction Book Club. The club, wise in the ways of procrastination, would send each month’s selection of books to subscribers UNLESS the subscribers had sent the club a card informing the SFBC that one did not want the books in question. All too often I planned to send the card off, only to realize (once again), when a box of books arrived, that intent is not at all the same thing as action.
Thus, I received books that I would not have chosen but, once in possession, I read and enjoyed them. All praise to the SFBC and the power of procrastination! Here are five of my favorite unintended reading experiences…
The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner (1972)
Regardless of how prolific or well known an author might be—and Brunner was very prolific—or how widely read a reader is, for each reader there has to be a first novel from any given author. I’d never heard of Brunner and the cover of this book did not appeal.
Thanks to my inability to send mail promptly, the hardcover arrived nonetheless.
Brunner was rarely what one would call a cheerful author and the quartet of books to which this belonged, each addressing a different Big Issue of the era, was no exception. The Sheep Look Up is a contender for the bleakest of Brunner’s major books. In it, humans wrestle with the problem of environmental degradation—or more exactly, the problem that while not doing anything was a recipe for extinction, actually doing anything about it might be economically inconvenient in the short term. I think we’re all agreed that short term economic disruption is the worst possible outcome.
Not to spoil the book, but humanity does not win any medals for collective prudence in The Sheep Look Up. On the plus side, having read Sheep, I wanted to read more Brunner. On the plus plus side, having read Sheep, pretty much everything else he’d published seemed upbeat by comparison.
Three Hainish Novels by Ursula K. Le Guin (1978)
Because Waterloo Public Library consigned all of Le Guin to the children’s section and because the first book of hers I looked at was an Earthsea I didn’t particularly grok, I was under the impression she was an author of juvenile fantasy novels. I wanted rockets, so no Le Guin for me! Until a certain card failed to go into a post box and this omnibus arrived.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Le Guin wrote science fiction about alien cultures divided by gulfs of space and time.
- Rocannon’s World is about an effort to confound interstellar imperialism.
- Planet of Exile concerns a community of humans on a world not particularly suitable for human occupation.
- City of Illusions recounts an amnesiac’s quest on Shing-occupied Earth.
These books are early Le Guins; they are much less polished than her later works. But they were intriguing enough to get me to try her other books.
Riddle of Stars by Patricia A. McKillip (1979)
Teen me strongly preferred proper science fiction, with its entirely plausible telepathy, faster-than-light travel, and orthogenesis rather than implausible fantasy. I would never have chosen to buy a McKillip book, no matter how many World Fantasy Awards she won. Sure, awards, but this was—ack! thbbpt!—fantasy. But sloth and procrastination sent the Quest of the Riddle-Master trilogy heading my way.
The omnibus contains all three volumes of the story: The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976), Heir of Sea and Fire (1977), and Harpist in the Wind (1979). Plot: Prince Morgon of Hed, a prince of a minor holding who has intellectual ambitions, discovers he has inadvertently become engaged to Raederle, the second most beautiful woman in the world. Dire consequences follow and the stakes escalate. All is told in an elegant style that was completely wasted on a Canadian teen who thought Harry Harrison’s prose was the bee’s knees. I have since repented.
Triplicity by Thomas M. Disch (1980)
Not having read Disch, I gathered from magazine reviews that he was a suspiciously literary SF author, the sort of self-admitted New Wave writer who probably didn’t even own a slide rule. I might have steered a careful path around Disch except, as you may have guessed, I probably would have neglected to send in that card even if I had known that I would be beheaded if I didn’t. Youthful heedlessness!
Triplicity offered a selection of early Disch novels: Echo Round His Bones (1967), The Genocides (1965), and The Puppies of Terra (1966).
- The first involves a man discovering the hard way that teleportation has some undocumented, undesirable side-effects.
- The second is a bleak tale of gradual human extermination as an unnoticed side-effect of alien appropriation of Earth.
- The third concerns a humanity liberated from oppressive free will by alien overlords.
The last book reminded me of John Sladek, whom I did like, so I started collecting Disch’s fiction. I made an exception for the uncultured fellow, who probably would not have known the differences between Picketts and Keuffel & Esserzs.
Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials by Wayne Douglas Barlowe, Ian Summers, and Beth Meacham (1979)
This is an art book. While I had no animus towards art, I also didn’t collect it. Not that my tastes mattered as long as that little response-requested card was gathering dust somewhere.
Barlowe and Summers (as well as editor Beth Meacham, who provided the text for the book but wasn’t listed as an author until the second edition) offered an assortment of aliens as interpreted by the artist. Many were familiar from books, thus giving me the pleasure of figuring out exactly what the artist got wrong (must follow the text!). Other aliens had featured in books of which I had never heard. As a result, my list of books to hunt down and buy got that much longer.
Originally published January 2021.
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 a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.