It All Started When: Paul Di Filippo

Paul Di Filippo has written hundreds of short stories and a handful of novels over the years. His most recent novel is Roadside Bodhisattva, and his most recent collection is Harsh Oases, both from PS Publishing. He can be found blogging at The Inferior 4 + 1.

What inveterate reader has not, at one time or another, dreamed of becoming a librarian?  Those magical guardians of all things bookish, able to dispense infinite pleasures with a mere wave of their barcode scanner…?  Such an enviable occupation–especially charismatic in the eyes of a book-besotted youngster–seems almost a godlike destiny.  Forget Dr. Seuss’s If I Ran the Zoo.  Better to pretend If I Ran the Library. Well, in 1965, at the age of ten, having recently entered fifth grade, I fell into just such a dream job.   My teacher, Mrs. Mazzarelli, nominated me to be the official librarian for the classroom’s shelf of reading material.  Actually, our repository consisted of several shelves of books, mostly ancient, in an antique wooden case located in the hall just outside the classroom door.  To me, it was the equivalent of the Library of Congress holdings.  Thanks to my book-loving Mom, I had been a library patron for a few years already, so I knew just what to do.  I set about alphabetizing the books by author.  (Or maybe by title; memory is a little hazy on that score.)  I made and pasted cardboard pockets and withdrawal slips into the books. I promulgated draconian rules and penalties involving my printed charges.  Then I waited for the rush of fellow students to patronize my stock.

You might have guessed the ending.  None of my classmates bothered to borrow a single book.  Either the choices were too boring, or my self-serious demeanor too offputting.  In any case, I waited in vain for customers.

But my short stint as a librarian was not without reward, for on those shelves in the sorting process I discovered The Year When Stardust Fell, by Raymond F. Jones.  This book, part of the fabled Winston SF series, with its beautiful rocketship logo and unforgettable Alex Schomburg endpapers, was ostensibly a YA novel.  But to me, it was the first “adult” SF I had ever encountered, after years of comic books, Tom Swift and Hardy Boys novels, and Mushroom Planet romps.  The ideas and presentation were complex, haunting and rich, providing the key SF values of estrangement and mind-bending changes in civilized life.  I was hooked on the pure stuff, and immediately began to track down more such novels, quickly discovering Andre Norton, Heinlein’s juveniles, and even more advanced titles.

The name of Raymond F. Jones is nigh-forgotten today, recalled if at all as somehow connected with the film This Island Earth.  But to this reader, he was the gateway drug for nearly five subsequent intoxicated decades of reading and writing this strange thing we call science fiction.  And let me not forget to thank the shade of Mrs. Mazzarelli too, for recognizing that some kids dream not of conquering worlds, but  of stamping dates on index cards!

3 thoughts on “It All Started When: Paul Di Filippo

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  • January 14, 2011 at 6:43 am

    I don’t think I ever read thatparticular Jones novel, but I’m pretty sure that This Island Earth was the first time I realized, as a kid, that there might be a connection between the SF I was reading and the movies I was seeing. I honestly don’t remember which came first for me, the novel or the movie, but it was probably the movie. I think the novel was three or four years earlier, but when I read it I realized that the movie was based on the novel, not the other way round, and that the novel made a lot more sense.

    Most of what I remember about the movie now, apart from some very tacky apocalyptic imagery of Metaluna, is that all the actors pronounced “mutants” as “mute ants,” which for a while set me wondering if ants could really hear, and why they looked like that in the future. But I was, what, maybe 10?

  • January 15, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    Although Jones may be “nigh-forgotten”, something in the universe must be trying to bring him back to remembrance because this is about the third or fourth time in as many days that I have found myself reading about him. Must mean I need to check out his work.

    Those Winston series books sound wonderful, especially as Alex Schomburg is an artist I greatly admire.


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