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by Rick Klaw

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Bring the Jubilee
The Man in the High Castle
I Am Legend
The Lathe Of Heaven
The Time Machine and War of the Worlds
Behold the Man
I recommend a lot of books. It's a big part of my job and the one aspect that I enjoy above all others. Today, a big fan of alternate histories approached me looking for suggestions. He believes he's read them all. Turtledove, Stirling, Foster, Forstchen... A few books came to mind.

This is where I need to step back a bit and explain the difficulties of suggesting books in a used book store. Recommending books to a customer in a new book store is like shooting fish in a barrel. It's just too easy. A used bookstore can be a bit trickier since the stock is a lot more fluid, so I'm never quite sure what we've got. In a new bookstore the control of the stock can be very precise, but in a used store it depends on public whim, whatever has been sold to the store lately. And on top of that, we rarely have more than one of my favorite suggestions.

I wandered the science fiction section perusing the shelves for something to suggest. Several ideas ran through my head. Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee, perhaps the greatest Civil War alternate history of them all. No luck there. The Hugo-winning The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, one of the first and finest "what if the Germans won WWII" novels. I never count on having PKD books. They tend to stay around for about twenty minutes. When I shelve his books, I worry about losing a finger since they sell so fast.1 Another perennial in this category is Kim Newman's Anno Dracula, but I knew we didn't have that since I buy all the copies we get and give them away to friends. (Not that it's all that common. I've seen one copy in little over a year.) And then there's Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock, an interesting twist on the whole alternate history thing. A young man goes back in time to witness the crucifixion of Christ, but he can't find him. This is one of the seminal works in the genre and a winner of the Nebula award. And most importantly we had one!

I gave the customer my whole spiel about the book. How wonderful it is. Classic... time travel... Christ... The whole time I didn't show him the cover. The only edition we had was the recent version that's part of The SF Masterworks series. There have been some particularly ugly versions2 of this book cover, but this may be the most hideous. With this in mind, I handed him the copy. He turned the book over in his hand. Felt for the heft. Without opening the book, he slid it back on the shelf. "Too small. I never read short books. I could read this in one day. I prefer big books." His response took me a back. Sure I have heard this before, though I've never quite understood it.

Size is rarely a concern for me. When deciding what to read, I first look at the plot and author. Did someone recommended it? Length is usually pretty far down the list.

Recently, I finished Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow. This skinny book might be the best first SF novel since Neuromancer and will probably end up on many "best of" lists. Sadly, this customer wouldn't have picked it up, never mind read it.

Looking at some of my favorite fantastic novels, and you'll find some mighty slim tomes.
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. Though not much more than a novella, this allegorical tale set as a "last man on Earth" story is about idea viruses including McCarthyism, Communism, and Nazism. The underlying meaning changes depending when the book is read.
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin. Another alternate history. This little book is full of powerful ideas and masterfully with the "absolute power corrupts absolutely" concept.
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. Still one of the best time travel books ever. I recently re-read this social commentary and it has lost none of its relevance. One hundred and eight years later and the rich are still eating the poor.
The Final Programme by Michael Moorcock. This is sort of an alternate history. (more of an alternate future, or perhaps more accurately, present) Full of politics, intrigue, parody, wacky science and the basic framework of what many would later call cyberpunk, this slim volume introduced the streetwise, melancholy, suave anti-hero Jerry Cornelius to the world.

Throw in the above-mentioned Behold the Man and Bring the Jubilee, and you'd have a mighty fine reading selection. I'd rather take an afternoon re-reading any of the above than most of the "big" books I've read (or attempted). Successful short books often have deeper and more focused concepts and ideas than their bigger cousins, but the stories tend to be more concise and tightly plotted. Stories like I Am Legend and Time Machine have no wasted words. Take Double Indemnity by James M. Cain. This tiny book is so well plotted and paced that I have recommended it to every beginning writer that I have ever worked with. There is not a scene, a word, or an action out of place or unnecessary. If I were to make list of my favorite science fiction books, only one large book would make the list: Dune.3

This customer will never experience the joys of these little gems. His loss. I did find him something to read though. He left with Mark Sumner's intriguing and enjoyable alternate western Devil's Engine and its sequel Devil's Tower. The customer was happy. After all, they're both average-sized books.

1 I did this buy of over a thousand science fiction paperbacks with five Philip K. Dick books. I mentioned in passing to a co-worker about the PKDs. A nearby customer overheard me and bought the books BEFORE I had a chance to shelve them. The store may have owned the books for all of five minutes.

2 I might be a bit biased in this area, since I edited what many consider to be the best looking version of Behold the Man. (Mojo Press 30th anniversary edition with cover and design by John Picacio)

3 This is not to say I won't read larger books. I'm currently reading The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand and I consider Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States one of the most important books I've ever read.

Copyright © 2003 Rick Klaw

Not content with just being a regular columnist for SF Site, Rick Klaw decided to collect his columns, essays, reviews, and other things Klaw in Geek Confidential: Echoes From the 21st Century (available September 2003 from Monkey Brains, Inc). As a freelance editor, former book buyer, managing editor, and bookstore manager, Rick has experience with most aspects of the book business. Ironically, he co-edited what, at the time, was the largest comic book of original material ever produced in the English language. With 56 creators and 23 stories, Weird Business weighed in at 420 pages and 2.5 pounds.

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