“City of a Thousand Suns,” Samuel R. Delany, 1965 ... “City of Illusions,” Ursula K. Le Guin, 1967 ... “City,” Clifford D. Simak, 1952.
I like to think I have a good instinct for this — brevity usually speaks of confidence — so “City” is the one I pull off the shelf. The pages have ripened to a caramel tan, and the front cover is bruised and tattered, though the art hasn’t lost its magic—a human figure seen in profile from the shoulders up, its green metal face framed by a space helmet. The helmet’s round silhouette is a frame through which beckons a gallery of worlds: a twilit house surrounded by the veiny branches of dead trees; a colony of gargantuan ants; a shaggy black dog exhaling a pearl necklace of alien planets. A golden sticker on the back cover: Winner of the HUGO AWARD for Science Fiction.
Never heard of it. I’m sold. But may as well clear it with the committee first.
Through the cinnamon-smelling alleys of high bookshelves, past uncountable sci-fi pulps, nonfictions, conspiracy theories, philosophical tomes, and ephemeral worlds all dissolving into sawdust at a geological pace (you can hear it if you strain your ears), I reach the front desk, where the orange lamp glow gives way to white summer light from the front windows. “Heard of this guy?” I hand City to the clerk over the counter. His answer is immediate.
“Oh yeah, Simak. He’s got some great imaginative settings but his plotting isn’t very good. There’s this one called ‘Cemetery World’ where Earth is a giant graveyard for interstellar travelers to have the honor of being buried in, and the only things living there are the maintenance robots until a ship crash-lands and the people inside have to find a way off the planet, and then nothing interesting happens.”
He meets my eyes as I take the book back, the shadow of a grin on his face. “But this one’s probably his best.”
From outside, the Curious Bookshop is low and narrow, squashed between the higher, newer places, like an attic shoebox shoved there in haste and forgotten. I turn away from the sun and hold the book up to the light. The clerk takes a phone call, and for one serendipitous instant, his silhouette aligns perfectly with the spaceman on the cover. Bookkeeper, gravetender, committee of one, with words and worlds alive inside his head.
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