Yeah, yeah, I see your befuddled expression, Constant Reader. So let me back things up a little for you: I was rummaging through my desk the other day (okay, excavating the archive) and came across the little gem in the picture above. And when I say little, I mean it: the paperback book measures all of three and a half by five inches.
I’ve had Strangers in Space (SIS) a very long time: the flyleaf informs me the story was printed in 1967, and nine-year-old me crudely printed my name and elementary school room number on the inside cover (room 7, apparently, in case you’re wondering… although exactly why I included this strangely random bit of information is lost to the mists of time). Spitfire Books was evidently an imprint of William Collins and Sons, a well-known UK publisher. (My good friend, the Google, was remarkably/regrettably unhelpful in providing information regarding Spitfire Books. It kept wanting to refer me to sites concerning the legendary Second World War British fighter plane… except for one mercenary entry on good old Amazon, bless its black little greedy heart, which informed me I could have another copy of the book for the amazingly low, low price of only 5 pounds! --- which I thought perhaps a tad outrageous, given I purchased my copy lo, these many years ago, for the princely sum (at the time, and to a nine-year-old who was scraping by with an allowance of 25 cents a week) of 29 cents.
If memory serves (which it pretty much always does, he observed smugly), I bought SIS at my childhood local K-Mart --- located just across the street from the nearest public library. And I want to immediately reassure you, horrified Constant Reader, that K-Mart was not my destination of choice for book purchases. Never was. It’s been half a century since I last set foot in a K-Mart, but I still remember the unique kind of vibe to it --- sort of an unintended shrine to North American tacky consumerism (even to young me, discerning consumer that I was) --- and I vividly recall the place reeking of stale popcorn every time I passed its portals.
Knowing young me pretty well, even all these decades later, I can instantly tell you what would have attracted me to the book:
1) It was obviously science fiction, and I was, even at that tender age, a voracious consumer of all things SF. I mean, as a genre, it was just sooooo… cool. (Okay, I may have been something of a nerd. We neither confirm nor deny.)
2) The cover was pretty cool, too, even though the spaceship in the lower right corner bears a remarkable, more-than-passing resemblance (the kind that makes copyright lawyers glance up in sudden sharp suspicion) to the submarine Proteus, featured in the 1966 SF film Fantastic Voyage. (Which, yes, of course, I’d already seen. Work with me, here.) And regarding the book, yes, Virginia, it was neither the first nor the last time in my life I (literally) judged a book by its cover. You have, too, so wipe that sanctimonious look off your face.
3) It was so small. It was so compact. It was… a book. Measuring three and a half by five. Neat! Way cool! I’d never run across anything like that. (We lived in such simple times, then. Sigh.)
By the way, I fully understand that items two and three are hardly very cerebral reasons. Well, maybe for a typical nine-year-old. But I Was No Typical Nine-Year-Old, he said with pride. No, sir! Today, I’d probably add a fourth reason that builds on the third but is ‘way more defensible. It relates to Lemony Snicket’s pithy little dictum that I like to think I live by (to my wife’s unending annoyance --- but she’s not an introvert): never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them. And SIS made it so easy to bring a book along! It fit into a pocket! How cool was that? And, obviously, I did take it many places, because, highly unusually for me --- Compleat Bibliophile that I am --- the binding on SIS is pretty trashed. (This was in the Dark Ages before cell phones and e-readers, remember. And yes, Virginia, there was such a time. How did you all manage? you gasp incredulously. Well, we just did --- admittedly, with extreme difficulty --- but it’s why us old people are all so twisted and bitter. Now you know. You’re welcome.)
What’s that? The story itself? Oh… yeah… it wasn’t too bad. I just reread it. I understand why it never won the Man Booker, but it was and is an entertaining read. (Actually, don’t get me started on the Man Booker. Lately, I’ve been reading several works either shortlisted or which won it, and I’ve been asking myself… why? Why did they win? Whose conception of entertaining literature --- great entertaining literature --- oh, never mind. That can be another day’s musings/rant.)
Anyway. Strangers in Space clocks in (by my unofficial count) at around 23,000 words --- novella country, which I used to define for my students as works ranging from 10,000-50,000 words. But it tells a complete story, and does so in an uncomplicated, no-nonsense, no-frills kind of way. I’ve been aware of the novella since Pontius was a Pilate, of course, but… Strangers in Space kind of opened my eyes, for reasons entirely different than the ones I bought it for, over fifty years ago. 25,000 words, I mused to myself. Or so. Might be an interesting challenge. Different from the Magnum Opus. (My first novel, Gryphon’s Heir, clocked in at 186,000-and-change words, and my current WIP, its sequel, presently sits at roughly 170,000 words-in-the-home-stretch-dontcha-know.) So… what kind of tale --- either set in the same world or another --- could I tell in 25,000 words? Might be an interesting challenge/change of pace/change of style, indeed.
Watch this (Strangers in) Space. Film at eleven.