Oh, I’d watched Twilight Zone and Outer Limits on television when I was a kid. That isn’t to say I always understood them; some of the stories went over my head. And I identified far too much with Will Robinson when watching Lost in Space. Oddly enough, I missed Star Trek until midway through its second season. My classmates were playing Star Trek on the jungle gym, and they told me I was Mr. Spock. (That tells you about my reputation as a kid.) So of course I had to find out who Mr. Spock was.
But I didn’t think of this stuff as being part of a category of stories until, somehow, I joined the Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club in third grade. Do people even know what that was? Doubleday was a publishing house that would take new and noteworthy science fiction and fantasy books, reprint them in one standard size hardcover format, and ship you one every month.[i] It was a “negative option” deal, so beloved of mail-order companies, where you got their monthly selection by default unless you sent them back a card saying you didn’t want it. Great way to increase sales. How I ever got my mother to co-sign for this (she wrote the checks that paid for the books) I don’t know. But for two years, I got a book every few months, a trip into worlds I’d never thought of before.
Was I a prescient reader, picking the hit books that would remain memorable for all time? Bah. I was, what, eight or nine when I started. I might have been reading way above my grade level, but that didn’t mean I had great taste or understanding. And deciding on a book from the one- or two-paragraph blurbs was a hit-or-miss affair anyhow. But that was beside the point. I read books that stretched my understanding and imagination. Lloyd Biggle Jr.’s detective Jan Darzek tackled an intergalactic conspiracy and offered an interesting take on the role of lying in Watchers of the Dark.[ii] James Blish and Norman L. Knight offered a view of an Earth with a trillion(!) people in A Torrent of Faces, and tossed in satire, romance, and social analysis, including a world government run by corporations. Probably the most fantastic story I read was L. P. Davies’ Psychogeist, which crossed the boundary between psychological thriller, occult fantasy, and space opera pulp by having a comic book story come to life by taking over a dead drifter.
The only book I remember reading that still has a reputation is Colossus, by D. F. Jones. It might best be described as a cross between the two movies Dr. Strangelove and Terminator III: The Rise of the Machines. The humans turn over their nuclear weapons to computers (Strangelove‘s doomsday device) who then proceed to place humanity under their control (Skynet from the Terminator movies). I was fascinated by computers, though it would be a few more years before I ever used one, so I just ate this story up. On the other hand, as I hadn’t yet reached puberty, the sexual subplot between two of the American scientists just passed me by at the time.
But the book that influenced me the most was Robert Silverberg’s The Time Hoppers, a story about people fleeing an overcrowded future dystopia through time travel. In those days, Silverberg had a reputation of being something of a copious hack writer, a reputation he was about to shuck with novels such as Thorns, Downward to the Earth, and Nightwings. The Time Hoppers is not among his best, and readers who know him primarily through the Majipoor stories will be shocked at how spare his writing style was in The Time Hoppers (rather reminiscent of early Asimov). But it was my first real time travel story, with all the wonder that provokes, and a minor plot element gave birth to my interest in forteana: odd things and events that are hard to explain.
After Doubleday’s negative option became a problem in several ways, my mother canceled my membership. It would be more than a decade before I read science fiction and fantasy books regularly again. One of my most pleasant rediscoveries was that Robert Silverberg was still writing.[iii] Not just writing, but still developing as a writer. I fell in love with Nightwings, was impressed with Dying Inside, and wallowed in the Majipoor stories.
Most importantly for this blog, I took Silverberg’s career as an encouraging example. If that man could develop as a writer over decades, if he could still be writing in his 60s, then maybe, though I was getting a late start, I could write something worth reading, too. So my hat’s off to the Doubleday Book Club and Robert Silverberg, because if it weren’t for them, you’d not be reading this blog!
[i] Doubleday is no longer an independent publisher, but an imprint in the Random House/Bertelsmann media empire, and while they still run a book club, the science fiction-specific book club seems to be defunct.
[ii] Watchers of the Dark was actually a sequel to All the Colors of Darkness. I think Doubleday left that little fact out of their book club blurb. Fortunately one doesn’t have to read its predecessor to understand it, apart from a few scattered allusions.
[iii] And unlike Doubleday’s Science Fiction Book Club, Robert Silverberg is not defunct, but still alive as I write this. Alas, he lives on the other coast, so I’m not likely to meet him.