Classic Science Fiction Hard to Find
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Last year, I marathoned Harlan Ellison’s Watching, a commentary series that ran on the Sci-Fi channel in the 1990’s (an easy feat, the whole show takes about two hours to watch). In Episode Two of the show, Ellison lists several science-fiction authors that he thinks readers should be familiar with, before anyone talks to him about the genre. The authors were: Charles Beaumont, Walter M. Miller, Cordwainer Smith, Murray Leinster, Henry Kuttner, Richard Matheson, C.M. Kornbluth, Leigh Brackett, Stanley G. Weinbaum, Jack Finney, and Avram Davidson.
Today is New Year’s Day, and I drove into Boulder with family to visit the Barnes & Noble bookstore. I wanted to see how many of Ellison’s recommendations were on the shelves, and the answer was… one.
There were no Ellison books on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, not even his anthology Dangerous Visions, considered one of the best short story collections in SF. The only author from Ellison’s list I could find was Richard Matheson, who had three or so titles in the Horror section.
For classic science fiction, there was a healthy supply of Asimov, Bradbury, and Frank Herbert. Still, if you want to dig just a little bit deeper than the fundamentals, you’d be out of luck at Barnes & Noble.
Still, if you looked hard enough on the shelves, you could find some points of encouragement. One of Ellison’s proteges, Octavia Butler, is very well-represented in the science-ficton section, as is Connie Wills, who Ellison considered one of the finest writers of her generation. I found Dhalgren, a novel by Samuel “Chip” Delany, who co-wrote the short story The Power of the Nail with Ellison, and the posthumous novel Uranus by Ellison’s contemporary Ben Bova. Robert Bloch was in the Horror section, of course, with a lone copy of Psycho.
I should emphasize that Barnes & Noble does not exist to preserve human knowledge and promote cultural literacy, rather, it exists to make a profit. It’s in the business of selling books that are going to, well, sell. If someone wants to dig deep into the history of a genre, America’s largest (and pretty much only) national bookstore chain will not help too much, they will need to do their digging at the small independent and/or used bookstores around the country. In the Boulder area, this will include The Read Queen and Noble Treasures and the Lafayette Flea Market in Lafayette, Barbed Wire Books and the Book Emporium in Longmont, Blue Owl Books in Nederland, and MacDonald Bookshop in Estes Park.
I also believe Nantucket E-Books has a role to play in getting the works of forgotten authors out to the public. E-Books do not have the same economies-of-scale that physical book publishing has, and Nantucket E-Books are easier to share, with a little bit more culture in their presentation, than other free-culture e-books one could name. In 2023, you can expect more short story collections from genre authors. We can expect the works of the authors Ellison found so essential getting a new lease on life, and then some!
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