I worked in the early 70s as the children’s book buyer for an Austin bookstore called Grok Books. It was the predecessor to Bookpeople, the city’s highly successful indie bookstore, but I’m mentioning it here because of the name, which as the astute SF/F fans among you will recognize as coming from Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.
It was not a science fiction bookstore. There was some science fiction on the shelves, but it wasn’t a particular focus of the shop. The name was chosen because Stranger in a Strange Land was one of the books that everybody read and grok – as used in the book – had become current slang.
It wasn’t the only SF/F book that was wildly popular back then. Everyone also read Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (the original three books), Herbert’s Dune (though not necessarily the sequels), and – of course – The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
I remember enjoying the books, though truth be told, I can’t remember much about Stranger in a Strange Land. Dune definitely appealed to the psychedelic crowd and I adopted Salvor Hardin’s motto from Foundation: “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” I still have the backpack I embroidered it on. I believe I have explained elsewhere that I got through law school by rereading Tolkien every semester during finals.
Here’s what those books didn’t do: They didn’t make me a science fiction and fantasy reader. I don’t mean they made me avoid SF/F; I mean that I didn’t see them as the doorway to other stories I might like.
I got to wondering the other day if one reason I wasn’t attracted by the classic Golden Age SF was because I grew up so close to NASA. What is now the Johnson Space Center was about five miles from my house. I went to church with the head of Mission Control. My sister took gymnastics with the kids of astronauts.
Back in those heady days, I thought of NASA as turning science fiction into science fact.
Whatever the cause, I stumbled into serious SF/F reading much later, and the people who defined the genre for me were not Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, Clarke, or even Ray Bradbury. They were Le Guin, Delany, Tiptree, Russ, Cherryh, McIntyre, Zelazny, and Gibson.
And, a little later, Karen Joy Fowler. I have this memory of being in an SF/F store somewhere in Manhattan in the late 80s and discovering a Pulphouse Author’s Choice Monthly collection of Fowler’s stories. I’m not sure if I already knew her work and was looking for it, or if this was sheer serendipity. I do know that after I found that collection, I went looking for Fowler’s work everywhere.
I’ve been sick for the past couple of weeks, which means that I was scouting the bookshelves for books that I know well to read while lying around. One of the books I picked up was Fowler’s collection, Artificial Things, which contains one of my favorite stories of all time, “The View From Venus.”
Artificial Things is an amazing collection in general. Of the 13 stories in this 1986 book, 8 were reprints, and 7 of those appeared in either Asimov’s Science Fiction or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1985 or 1986. No question that Fowler was a hot author at the time. (Given that she won the PEN/Faulkner last year for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, she’s still a hot author.)
But “The View From Venus” was one of the originals. It’s a simple enough story. Some students, under the guidance of a professor, are “absorbing” the experiences of a young woman in 1969 in Berkeley for their course in Comparative Romance. The story never specifies who the observers (or absorbers) are. They pass themselves off as Venusians at one point, but they could be extraterrestrials from anywhere. Or even time travelers from the far future. Certainly they are well-versed in human culture.
We shift back and forth from watching the budding romance between Linda and Dave and the analysis provided by the professor guiding the student discussion. Here’s a passage in which the professor gives the students some context:
There are four women involved in this next Encounter, four relatively intelligent women, and yet all four share the same basic belief that anyone who looks at them closely will not love them. They feel that their energies in a relationship must go primarily to the task of preventing the male from ever seeing them clearly.
That resonated for me. I bet it resonated for a lot of women. And the story is full of gems like that.
This, to me, was what science fiction was for: a way to bend the rules to show us truth from another angle. This is what hooked me on the genre.