Wednesday, January 14, 2009

For Pleasure (Fall/Winter Edition)

The books I read for pleasure this fall and the beginning of winter (i.e. "old books" I read not for review) look a lot like my summer reading. While I am currently reading "nonfiction"-- Northrup Frye's Spiritus Mundi--with great delight, most of what I read was fiction, and most of that was science fiction.

Some of it was by design: I continued to read H.G. Wells and utopian fiction, including the utopian future envisioned by Kim Stanley Robinson in the third of his California trilogy. This is partly for a long-term writing project that has to be qualified as "for pleasure" too, especially in this publishing/economic environment.

In fact I was reading Robinson's Pacific Edge at the same time as Wells' The Dream. (The other Wells utopia I read was Men Like Gods.) I went on to read the rest of the Robinson trilogy, The Wild Shore and The Gold Coast. Written in the late 1980s, they're three different visions of the same mid-21st century period in the same part of California, interrelated in various ways, not the least of which is that the post-apocalyptic future of the first volume is not all that different from the utopian future of the third. The middle volume is a "present trends continue" future: an Orange County of even bigger malls, double-decker freeways and military corporate complex. My admiration for Robinson (looking back, his Sixty Days and Counting was the best and most important book I read in 2008) has only increased.

George Zebrowski is another contemporary sf writer I admire, so I got one of his volumes of short stories, Swift Thoughts, which was largely excellent. But almost the most fun I had was the consequence of reading Lester Del Rey's The World of Science Fiction: The History of a Subculture-- a pleasure in itself that guided me back to some classic sf tales from the 1940s and 50s in an anthology published in 1970 called The Science Fiction Hall of Fame (Vol.1.) I'm not even halfway through it yet but some of these stories are startlingly good. In a way this is most unfortunate, though, because this is one of those books I picked up some time ago--at a used bookstore, thrift shop, recycling center, I don't remember--without knowing anything about it. And when I finally got around to reading it, it turned out to be great and otherwise hard to come by. That's really dangerous--because it only encourages me. I must try to concentrate on the hundreds of books piling up around here that I will never read!

But the absolute most fun I had was a used book I bought on the Internet. I believe I saw the title in a memorial piece on Arthur C. Clarke--it said that one of his first successful novels was what were called "juveniles": science fiction book for adolescents. This turned out to be a very lucrative market for sf writers, including greats like Robert Heinlein, who wrote what's probably the most famous of the juveniles, the classic Space Cadet.

Clarke's novel was part of the series of 35 novels published by the John C. Winston Company between 1952 and 1960--a series famous for its cover and inside cover art as well as the novels. It introduced sf to a new generation, which happened to be mine. They were among the first books I took out of the public library, and I can remember looking a long time at the two page inside cover illustration--the same in every volume--wondering what stories could go with the images.

These novels are now collected and highly prized, though volumes with the dust jacket illustrations are hard to find. I have one (acquired again at a thrift store), though the cover illustration is so worn away as to be not valuable to collectors. The Clarke novel I bought--Islands in the Sky--was a former library book, which is exactly what I wanted. When I got these books out of the Greensburg Public Library on Main Street, they didn't have dust jackets--if there was a cover illustration at all, it was on that hard library book for kids surface. This volume is perfect--complete with its card catalog card and its library card from Sweet Springs, Missouri, tucked in its sleeve. The first kid took it out in January 1953, and it circulated frequently through the 50s, then only once in the 60s, twice in the 70s until the last kid (perhaps a grownup kid) took it out in 1980.

It's a good story, too--lots of technical stuff, a bit of adventure, a teen hero interacting with adult men and women--perfect for the adolescent fascinated by space travel...Now I've got my eye on another one in the series out there, but I don't want to get obsessive about this.

No comments: