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Geeks With Books
by Rick Klaw

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...And Now For Something Completely Different

As many of you know, my taste in reading is an eclectic mix of traditional and progressive in science fiction. I think Wells, Herbert, and Matheson are geniuses. So are Moorcock, Bester, and Ballard. The one thing all of my favorite writers have in common is their ability to expand the boundaries of their genre. These authors serve to diversify the reading experience, often leading the reader to unexpected destinations. Like a shark in water, it is important for the mind to always be on the move.

The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque Let's use my wife as a prime example. Brandy is nutty for Tolkien. Six months before the movie release of The Fellowship of the Ring, she re-read the entire frillin' trilogy! She also devours the endless Wheel of Time series, Harry Potter, and Philip Pullman. Now from that you would peg her for one of those types that only reads high fantasies. You would be wrong. Not only is she beautiful and intelligent, but Brandy revels in new experiences. She will go almost anywhere and try almost anything. She recently read and thoroughly enjoyed the amazing The Portrait Of Mrs. Charbuque by Jeffrey Ford (course after hearing me go on about it, how could she not?) and re-read Gaiman's American Gods, all of Terry Moore's Strangers In Paradise, several Buddhist texts as well as the advanced readers copy of the forthcoming Robert Parker crime novel. Her favorite science fiction novel is Colin Wilson's Mind Parasites. There is no way you would have guessed that. Like everything else, Brandy likes a depth and breadth in her reading. Routine is not good.

As a bookseller, one of my goals is to open new literary doors for my customers -- to shake up the foundations of their reading reality. It is a tricky thing but rewarding when it works. This is easiest with young adult readers. The teenage mind is ready for experimentation, and if they are already readers, they are eager for new literary experiences. Let's start with a 14 year-old who enjoyed Harry Potter. Invariably they request fantasy. If they haven't read Tolkien, then we start there. If they already have, I sell them the Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. From Pullman, it is not such a big leap to Michael Moorcock and other more experimental writers. The big key is to make sure they leave with two books (The other book must be a science fiction novel.) I usually recommend Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles for boys and McCaffrey's Dragonflight for girls. (You may think that I should be giving both sexes the same books, but at fourteen there are differences.) If they enjoy my selections, they will be back.

The Chronoliths The adult reader is a bit more challenging. The diversity of preferences is amazing. There are the military freaks, the time travel nuts, space opera snobs, the phat fantasy addicts, the high fantasy junkies, the humanists, the cyberpunks, the hard SF nut-n-bolters, and a zillion possible combinations. The first thing I do is determine what they have enjoyed. (NEVER answer the bookseller question "What do you read?" with "science fiction." And especially don't answer the corollary question "What type of SF?" with "All of it." Both are annoyingly vague, and in the case of the latter, a lie. Be specific.) Once I figure out what they read, my little mind goes t'workin'. I seem to know when to push the envelope. For this reason and many others, I will always appreciate Robert Charles Wilson. His brand of 21st century Wellsian fiction has made my job much easier. Since his work is grounded in a traditional style, Wilson's work is a comfortable bridge to unfamiliar subject territories.

Look To Windward Another of my favorites is Iain M. Banks. Banks writes humanist military science fiction. His Culture cycle is a well written account of the social implications of war wrapped in engaging series of adventure stories. Talk about a great way to introduce the Jerry Pournelle and David Weber fans to a new perspective. (This is not a knock on either Pournelle or Weber.) Banks is especially good since he writes in a variety of genres and styles. It gives the reader a lot of room to try new things yet stay with the familiar.

The king in this arena is Michael Moorcock. The Elric saga is one of the top five influential fantasy series of the 20th century (along with Lord of The Rings, Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and Gormenghast). Nearly every fantasy reader will read one of the Elric books. With a hundred or so novels (no one seems sure how many books he's written -- including Moorcock), Moorcock's Elric stories are but the tip of the iceberg. Just today I had a customer who had read all the Elric novels and was in search of other Moorcock books. Besides his fantasy work, Moorcock also created Jerry Cornelius (a primary influence on the cyberpunks), penned an alternate history about the life and death of Jesus (Behold The Man), wrote one of the most engaging tales ever about London (Mother London), and if not the creator (there is debate on the topic), Moorcock is indeed responsible for popularizing both the term and concept of the multiverse. I cannot think of a writer that has had a more diverse career than Moorcock.

There are others that make my job easier. Among them are Alfred Bester, Ursula K. Le Guin, Neal Barrett, Jr., J.G. Ballard, Jonathan Carroll, and Alan Moore -- the best single writer to get science fiction fans into comics (Sorry, Neil Gaiman fans). The way I usually do this is while talking to the customer, I peruse the shelves looking for something that strikes me as perfect for them. I hand the book to them and we discuss the title. (To learn about how I sell books check out one of my previous columns on bookselling.)

Brandy is constantly pushing me; encouraging me to broaden my experiences. Sometimes I resist, but often I give in. She recently won a major victory by getting me to eat and enjoy Indian food. She has me pegged, and with her help I have learned to like things that I never thought I would. The relationship between bookseller and customer should be so good. The next time you go into a bookstore, reach for something a bit different. Your mind will thank you. And who knows, you might even enjoy it.

Copyright © 2002 Rick Klaw

Not content with just being a regular columnist for SF Site, Rick Klaw is also the fiction editor for RevolutionSF. A freelance editor, former book buyer, managing editor, and bookstore manager, Rick has experience with most aspects of the book business. He will be one of the teachers for this year's ArmadilloCon Writers Workshop in Austin, TX on August 16. Register today!


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