Greetings, Earthlings! Prudence here. We’re surrounded by books for your March boxes, and a good double handful more that wrangled their way through the door of our little bookcrammed home in the name of ‘research’, and it’s a beautiful way to be.
Today, it’s Prudence and the Crow and sci-fi, or, why we’re offering a sci-fi genre-specific subscription box. There are as many reasons as humans, of course, and whyever you’d want to subscribe to our box is more than perfect to us, but there are two gaps we wanted to fill: the sci-fi newbie, and the bundle-loving geek girl. I say this as someone who’s been both in their lives, probably from about age three. I’m 31 now, and sometimes I still feel like the former, and I hope never to stop being the latter. Is there anything better than glorious packages constructed around something you really want? But back to the former, for today’s piece!
There are few things I love so much as the vast and glorious collection of vintage sci-fi paperbacks I’ve accumulated ever the years. Even before you get to their content, there’s no book cover quite like the 1950s-1980s science fiction paperback book cover. Spanning the illustrative junket from pulp to technical drawing, there’s every permutation of rocket, desert, monster, lurid technicolour fontery, hero, fail!hero, damsel in distress, moon, space doll and imagined surface of Venus/Mars/Thalassa, etc. If you’ve not had the pleasure, or, indeed, if you have and want more of it, I heartily recommend this excellent blog packed with scans, analysis, and excellent info on all manner of such book covers: Science Fiction Ruminations – Cover Art. If you’re taken by the aesthetic, do feel free to specify as much as you like about such covers in your PatC box questionnaire – I’ll be sure to keep my beady eyes peeled for extra ridiculous/awesome/geometric/terrifying works!
But the aesthetic, the cover, all that is just the beginning of the world of sci-fi. One of the things the Crow and I discussed at length when beginning our little subscription box service was how difficult it was to ‘unlock’ the world of science fiction, if you haven’t had the joy and privilege of growing up in a household full of it. Everyone might be easily able to find the names and works of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, or have worked with H.G. Wells or Jules Verne at school (if you’re lucky enough to have that kind of curriculum – I was over the moon to legitimately dissect The Invisible Man at GCSE-level), but in the land of such vintage paperbacks, misleading covers, hyperbolic blurbs and drastically inconsistent quality of writing amongst many popular and prolific authors can mean anything from picking up a book that seems like it’ll be about a beautiful unicorn, only to find that it’s actually the exceptionally distressing account of the end of Earth with no survivors, to assuming you’re about to sit down with some masterful, hardline techy masters of the universe…and finding you hold in your hands a rambly slew of stream-of-consciousness nonsense, populated by the most hateable, irredeemable characters of all-time.
It’s easy to be put off sci-fi by experiences like this; put off the whole concept of picking up these strange and beautiful novels, novellas, collections. One bad experience can tar the genre, or stick you with some really icky thoughts that you can’t quite shake.
There’s a new audience coming to a lot of old sci-fi, a thing which joys and thrills me beyond all experiences I have and hear of the world of books and reading. The dystopian YA successes of recent years have opened the door to reading magnificent world-building amidst great and terrible technological innovation. The sheer length, credibility and complexity of popular series means a generation has the stomach to read stuff that wouldn’t necessarily have floated to the top of the must-read category in anyone’s personal library. Then, on top of that, oh joyful confluence, the space films, the Marvel films, and then the actual progress that is the stuff of science fact – the astronauts tweeting from real life in space…the appetites are all there, loud and clear, for the stories we told each other over the last century, whilst we waited for the genre to come back from niche to mainstream again.
For me, the important things in literally learning to love this kind of sci-fi were a) the grounding in the best stuff, the aforementioned authors of note, seeing the greatest possibilities of and b) reading all the non-fiction about it, the biographies and the articles, the wonderful hive of such reasonably factual content that was a hefty slice of the early internet (very much my teenage playground). Understanding the publishers, the demand, the audience of the time, the strange variety of cult authors, popular authors, teams of editor-author-artist-publisher, of one-off books of a lifetime which were either never followed up at all, or, worse, were followed by book after book of unspeakable tripe, all this was important to me. It helped me see how drivel led to greatness, and vice versa, how trends came and went in the genre, how some writers wrote to a ‘formula’, and others told the same story over and over with different names.
These things don’t have to be important to everyone. It’s fine to pick something up, read it, or stop after a couple of pages, and then move on. But there’s a point at which the back catalogue is so vast, so epic and so capable of being massively disappointing, that it can get a bit to the point where you might as well not bother, or you might give up and go back to whatever’s out this year, which is also fine. (let it always be known that both I and the Crow fully believe that any and all reading is fine, always, there is no superior reading, no ‘better’ book, and nothing, come to that, wrong with reading the back of a cereal packet of a morning instead of the newspaper…you might just find more facts in it…but I digress…) But the point, my point, our Prudence and the Crow point is: if you’ve found yourself wondering about the older stuff, the vintage stuff, the strange stuff, the infinite worlds of weird and wonderful and awful writing that shaped the both the world we live in, and the worlds we read about, it’d be nice, wouldn’t it, if there was someone to choose a book from the entire history of the stuff for you, to place said book in your hand, tell you the key things about it and why they’d chosen it for you, to give you a way in, an opportunity, a chance to see for yourself what you think. And then, the next month, they’ll do the same thing again, but with something else, or, if you like, more of the same. And then after that, and after that. And before you know if, you’ve a library of thoughts, content, and context and, you’ve become a user of, we hope, a genuine and human service that enables discovery and enjoyment.
And if you came here genuinely hoping to know where to start in sci-fi, and are feeling none the wiser at the end of this, why, of course I’d love you to sign up for a Prudence and the Crow box of your very own, but in the meantime, here are my five most generic recommendations from the vintage world for those just starting out at looking back! I’d love to know any more of your favourite recs, or, indeed, any of your thoughts!
- The New Accelerator, by H. G. Wells. Available here as an MP3 reading, along with many other choice Wells short stories. This story occupies a huge space inside my head. I’d love to see it as a film.
- Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke. A great way into Clarke’s brilliance; I love that the man himself considered this one of his favourites. A strong story that’s hardly aged, about the flip from Utopia to dystopia and the power of children.
- The Last Question, by Isaac Asimov I love the Multivac-verse, centred as it is around a magnificent computer, and this simple, effective short story is nothing but a masterclass in every aspect of sci-fi, and, indeed, the form of the short story itself. Link is to an excellent YouTube reading.
- The Moon Voyage, by Jules Verne. A composite of From the Earth to the Moon, and Around the Moon, two of my favourite early sci-fi reads. The perfect ‘men in a rocket’ read, made better still, as Three Men in a Boat was a few decades later, by the addition of a dog.
- Chocky, by John Wyndham. Perfect perspective writing: a father observes his son’s interactions with his imaginary friend, which grow more and more disturbing. Link is to the classic 1967 dramatisation. A small novella, brilliantly executed.