mirror worlds

Long ago as a scruffy thirteen-year-old I was required to holiday with my parents for two weeks in a damp cabin at a rundown resort. Every day my parents went fishing. Every day I announced that I’d already gone fishing once and now I wanted to sit on the beach and read my book.

My parents let me escape. Leaning on a drift log, I read my book and read it again. Then I read the whole stack of National Geographics from the cabin. Finally I struck out into the drizzle and trudged along the beach frontage road, a potholed strip of asphalt miles from anywhere, till I saw an unpainted shed behind someone’s house. People were going inside, and a few came out with their hands full. When I followed an older teenager in, he didn’t tell me to buzz off. So I stepped out of the rain into Bob’s Books. Or maybe it was Bud’s Books, or Don’s Books. You might find its like in any backwater.

All four walls of the shed were lined with shallow shelves, and every shelf held rows and stacks of paperback books. On their covers cities with towering spires stood in mirrored landscapes, sleek rockets hung against spangled night skies and strange beings stalked unknown terrain. Every book in Bob’s shed was science fiction.

This was terra incognita. Usually I read historical fiction by Rosemary Sutcliff or Naomi Mitchison, having long outgrown the teen-girl books I was allowed to check out from the bookmobile at home. But here in the midst of nowhere was a whole shed full of books. I couldn’t believe my luck. If Bob sold only science fiction, I would read science fiction.

A few men and boys looked over the books, made their selections, then handed coins to a man behind a desk. It was standing room only; the owner sat in the only chair. Most of his customers were in work clothes. Everyone talked quietly. Two small windows steamed up until they were cracked open. Books were two for a quarter, and I had a quarter in my pocket. I got down to the serious business of picking books.

No one in Bob’s shed looked up as I sampled first pages that were full of adventure in far places and wild new ideas. There was science in these books, too, not just fiction. I learned about Möbius strips and three-body physics problems and why Earth’s sky is blue. One man helped me get a book from a top shelf. Another shuffled over to give me room. I was politely ignored; I was accepted. When I handed over my quarter, Bob murmured that if I brought both books back after I’d read them, I could choose one more. A quick calculation told me than when I got my weekly allowance, I’d have books to read for another eleven days. I was in a quiet, cozy book heaven.

Two weeks later I took my final two books home to Victoria and went looking for more. BC Electric buses allowed one hour between transfers, so I sprinted from Fort and Douglas down Johnson to Snowden’s Books—which was pretty much Bob’s Books in a downtown cubbyhole—made my choice, then sprinted back with a new book to read on the long bus ride home. I discovered Cordwainer Smith, Jack Vance, Zenna Henderson, John Wyndham and a score of other English and American writers.

Isaac Asimov I’d already encountered in grade two; when I tried to check out his kid book on exploring the moon, the bookmobile librarian gently suggested that we put that one back on the shelf in case a boy wanted it.

No one I knew used the word sexist back then, but I’d read Animal Farm and recognized Bob’s and Snowden’s as havens of equality. No one there cared who read the books.

In Bob’s shed and Snowden’s hole in the wall, and later in other shops, I came to equate science fiction with freedom to think and dream. Soon I also learned that science fiction was the mind playground of the brightest people I met, people with few pretensions but plenty of wit and curiosity. Science fiction was the home of the best human question, “What if?”

It was also the home of good storytelling. If a science fiction story wasn’t a good read, it was nothing. Some stories were tiresomely slapstick or hairy-chested, but most were theorems and corollaries in story form with interesting characters and settings and plots. A few books I also began to recognize as superb writing by any standard, starting with Samuel R. Delany and Ursula K. Le Guin. Another revelation was the existence and Canadian science fiction writers, starting with Phyllis Gotlieb and going on to Dave Duncan and Cory Doctorow.

Story is everything in books that are meant to be read. Readers who run from a polemic will sit still for a good story. Isaac Asimov relied on that in his 1960s Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine science columns, as Karl Johanson today relies on it in his Neo-Opsis Magazine editorials. Readers come for the stories, but they’ll hang around for facts and theories if they’re told as a story.

Science fiction also turns out to have a curious kinship with history. It’s a mirror image: history that hasn’t yet taken place. We balance at the now point. The past recedes behind us, the future rushes toward us, and here we stand weighing our options. That’s one reason we have utopian science fiction, dystopian science fiction, pacifist science fiction, feminist science fiction, diverse science fiction and environmental science fiction, to name a few. They invite us to consider our past experience and our coming challenges as a species and make wise choices.

My inception as a thinking person and as a writer started with science fiction. My first teenaged short story attempt was SF, though I didn’t succeed in telling a readable story for many years. I went on to write what I most wanted, book-length literary historical fiction and biography, and I came to see that the past is no more knowable than the future.  

When I eventually came home to the island to stay, I went back to look up Bob and say thanks, but his book shed had returned to being just an ordinary shed, mossy and locked up tight, and no one was coming and going with books. Still, whenever I drive along that beach frontage road, I slow in anticipation of seeing Bob’s book shrine in a backyard shed.

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