Notes from The Buffer Zone: The Cusp of Worlds

Yesterday, I spent an hour going through shelves and shelves of old books. I along with my husband, Dean Wesley Smith, happen to own those old books. Dean’s a well-known sf writer, but what most people don’t know about him is that he’s also a lifelong collector. When our dear friend, book dealer Bill Trojan, died in 2011, we inherited his collections as well.

We’ve sold some of his book collections, and are still selling items we find, like a pristine (still in the wrap) first-edition Neuromancer by William F. Gibson. You can find the sales information under Pop Culture Collectables on Facebook or popculturecollectableslc in eBay.

Why Pop Culture Collectables? It’s the name of the store Dean started in 2007, then sold in 2008, then bought back in 2014, filled with our collectibles, Bill’s collectibles, and collections that Dean and the store manager Billy Reese have found over the years. There’s an actual physical store, in Lincoln City, Oregon.

Now, we’re opening a second store (or rather, they are. I stay away from the collectibles), in a month or so, and a third might open in 2017, depending on how it all goes.

We finally have space to put out the books from Bill Trojan’s actual bookstore, not his collectibles. I was going through the shelves to pull any books of mine that might have gotten mixed in, along with books I need for some of my projects.

Bill’s store was an SF store, and he had a wide variety of SF books for sale, not just collectibles. Since I’m editing a series of projects that will use older sf stories, I want all of the sf anthologies I can find in my office. I went through, shelf by shelf, discovering books I remembered reading Way Back When, and books I’d never heard of.

I think I pulled fifty anthologies, with more to come in the future. The one sitting beside my computer has a yellow, red, and blue cover that looks modern. It looks modern because what’s old is new again, and retro-chic from the 1970s is in these days.

This book was published by Ballantine Books in 1974. I’d never seen the book before. It’s an anthology, edited by the great Leigh Brackett, called The Best of Planet Stories #1. Apparently there was no Best of Planet Stories #2 or #3 or any other Planet Stories collections that I can find.

Instead of losing this anthology in the big pile that I have to sort, I brought the anthology home because I want to read Brackett’s introduction. I’ve found, as I edited The Women of Futures Past, that I love reading Leigh Brackett’s essays on writing and science fiction. Her essays have an attitude (that’s also in her fiction)—a kind of “this is what we do” attitude that I really relate to.

As I went through the books, though, I found myself having a variety of emotional reactions. When I found a favorite title that I thought I had lost, like the paperback edition of Octavia Butler’s Kindred that I read over 35 years ago, I felt both joy at the discovery and whatever emotion I had felt when I read the book. I read Kindred at the right moment in my life: the book taught me how to use history, make it personal, and make it entertaining as well.

Other emotions that ran through me were much more complicated. I saw old books that I recalled seeing as new books on Bill’s store shelves. A lot of those writers have left the SF field entirely, names of the “hot young things” who had five years of a career and vanished. Then there are the writers who moved out of SF to other genres or, in the case of one writer, to comics.

I found books by friends who had been the hottest writers in the field in the late 1980s, who then couldn’t sell a word in the mid-1990s, went to Hollywood, made money, and have now returned to SF with a vengeance. They’re not hot any more, but they are good.

In my pile, I placed classic anthologies, books that changed the direction of the SF field—from Mirrorshades edited by Bruce Sterling to all of the Universe volumes edited by Terry Carr. I held anthologies I had heard of but never seen and anthologies I’d never heard of at all by editors whom Dean assures me were really famous in their day.

The entire history of the field, passing through my fingertips. It felt like touching the past.

The book industry has changed dramatically in my lifetime. Companies like Ballantine went from Mom-and-Pop companies run by the people who named them (like Ian and Betty Ballantine, whom I was lucky enough to meet) to imprints in a giant corporation to being long-vanished names.

That process is continuing this year, as Ace Books, which was a mainstay of my childhood, will be retired as a book imprint by Random Penguin or whatever that giant multimedia organization is calling its book arm these days. Roc Books went from being a brand-new imprint (that I made my first novel sale to!) to vanishing this year as well.

Names, receding into the past.

Yet, they’re not entirely gone. To write this column, I didn’t have to run to the shelves to double-check titles. I Googled the Planet Stories anthologies, so I could sound knowledgeable to y’all, and I looked up the correct title of Mirrorshades on Amazon—where I discovered I could order as many copies as I wanted, even though the book is officially out of print.

I like this new world. I like being able to get my hands on books I’d only heard about. But I also miss that moment of discovery—the moment when the book falls into my hands because I liked the cover or because I saw it in a spinner rack near the Mountain Dew in a grocery store, which was how I found Kindred.

There are no book spinner racks in most grocery stores (although one of our local stores has a spinner rack with used books—and a Bujold I’d never seen before), and what bookstores remain have very few mass market paperbacks which is still my preferred reading format.

I do read on my ereader, but I often forget what I have there. I like having the book on a shelf, nagging me, reminding me that I meant to read it right away.

Some of the books I pulled from our store shelves to take home are books that have been nagging me for decades. My books that got mixed in with Bill’s, books I plan to read Real Soon Now.

One of those emotions I mentioned was a bittersweet sense of confusion. When I was a child, I believed books were forever. I thought if a writer got published, that writer stayed published and everyone on the planet had a copy of that book. Books were the world to me. (They still are.)

But going through those shelves showed me just how quickly books and writers can disappear. Writers who started with me no longer write; their books are dusty pieces of history sitting on a shelf.

And yet . . . I can order a copy from anywhere. You can order a copy from my husband’s store with just a click of a mouse—or you will be able to once the books are priced in the next few weeks. And if you don’t get it from us, there are a thousand other booksellers around the world who probably have copies, and it takes very little effort for you to find the books.

The future—or rather, the present—has its good and bad points. It’s such a strange sensation to stand on the cusp of worlds, knowing that we’re crossing into the unknown.

I’d never had that feeling as clearly as I had it yesterday afternoon, going through dusty old books. So I thought I’d share.

 

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