Five of the Best Books I Never Meant to Read

While I was still a weak kid, I subscribed to the Science Fiction Book Club. The club, being smart about the procrastination, sent the selection of books to subscribers each month, unless the subscribers had sent the club a card informing the SFBC that they did not want the books in question . All too often I intended to mail the card only to realize (again) that a box of books was arriving

This gave me books that I would not have chosen, but once I got them, I read and enjoyed them. All praise to the SFBC and the power of procrastination! Here are five of my favorite accidental reading experiences …

The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner (1972)

Regardless of how productive or well-known an author may be – and Brunner was very productive – or how widespread a reader is, there must be a first novel by a particular author for every reader. I had never heard of Brunner before, and I didn’t like the cover of that book.

Since I was unable to send emails immediately, the hardcover arrived anyway.

The Sheep Look Up is a contender for the most desolate of Brunner’s main books. In it, people grapple with the problem of environmental degradation – or, more precisely, the problem that in the short term it might be economically impractical not to do anything about it, even though it was a recipe for extinction. I think we can all agree that short-term economic disruptions are the worst outcome.

Not to spoil the book, but humanity doesn’t win medals for collective cleverness in The Sheep Look Up. On the plus side, after reading Sheep, I wanted to read more Brunner. On the positive side, after reading Sheep, pretty much everything else he’d published seemed upbeat by comparison.


Three Hainic novels by Ursula K. Le Guin (1978)

Since the Waterloo Public Library was moving all of Le Guin to the children’s department and the first book I looked at was an Earthsea I didn’t particularly love, I got the impression that she was a writer of teen fantasy novels. I wanted missiles, so no Le Guin for me! Until a certain card did not go into a mailbox and this omnibus arrived.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Le Guin was writing science fiction about foreign cultures separated by spatial and temporal gaps.

  • Rocannon’s world is about confusing interstellar imperialism.
  • Planet of Exile affects a community of people in a world that is not particularly suited to human occupation.
  • City of Illusions tells of the search for an amnesia on Shing-occupied earth.

These books are early Le Guins; They are much less polished than their later work. But they were fascinating enough to make me want to try their other books.


Riddles of the Stars by Patricia A. McKillip (1979)

As a teenager, I strongly preferred proper science fiction, with its completely plausible telepathy, traveling faster than light, and the orthogenesis of the implausible imagination. I would never have picked a McKillip book, no matter how many World Fantasy Awards it won. Sure, awards, but that was – ack! thbbpt! – Fantasy. But laziness and procrastination let the quest of the riddle master trilogy come my way.

The omnibus contains all three volumes of the story: The Riddle Master of Hed (1976), Legacy of Sea and Fire (1977) and Harpist in the Wind (1979). Synopsis: Prince Morgon von Hed, a prince of a small holding company with intellectual ambitions, discovers that he accidentally got engaged to Raederle, the second most beautiful woman in the world. The consequences are dire and the operations escalate. Everything is told in an elegant style that was utterly wasted on a Canadian teenager who mistook Harry Harrison’s prose for the bee’s knees. I have since repented.


Threefoldness by Thomas M. Disch (1980)

After I hadn’t read Disch, I learned from magazine reviews that he was a suspiciously literary SF writer, a self-admitted New Wave writer who probably didn’t even have a slide rule. I might have taken a careful route around Disch, except, as you may have guessed, I probably would have neglected to send this card in, even if I had known I would be beheaded if I hadn’t. Youthful carelessness!

Triplicity featured a selection of early Disch novels: Echo Round His Bones (1967), The Genocides (1965) and The Puppies of Terra (1966).

  • The first involves a man discovering how difficult it is that teleportation has some undocumented, undesirable side effects.
  • The second is a desolate story of the gradual extermination of humans as an unnoticed side effect of the alien appropriation of the earth.
  • The third concerns a human race freed from oppressive free will by extraterrestrial overlords.

The last book reminded me of John Sladek, whom I liked, so I started collecting Disch’s fiction. I made an exception for the uncultivated guy who probably wouldn’t have known


Barlowe’s Guide to Aliens by Wayne Douglas Barlowe, Ian Summers and Beth Meacham (1979)

This is an art book. I didn’t have an animus for art, but I didn’t collect it either. Not that my taste mattered as long as that little card asked for an answer was gathering dust somewhere.

Barlowe and Summers (as well as the editor Beth Meacham, who provided the text for the book but was not listed as author until the second edition) offered a selection of aliens as interpreted by the artist. Many were known from books, so I had the pleasure of finding out exactly what the artist did wrong (has to follow the text!). Other aliens had mentioned in books that I had never heard of. As a result, my list of books to find and buy grew much longer.


Book purchase serendipity (or perhaps I should say acquisition) can occur in a number of ways. I’m sure some of you have books that weren’t chosen on purpose but were still fun. Feel free to tell us about it in the comments.

In the words of the Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book critic and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable noticeability”. His work has been featured in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times, as well as on his own websites. James Nicoll Reviews and Young people read old SFF(where he is supported by the editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Hugo Award for best fan author and surprisingly flammable.

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