A guy came up to me tonight, holding Elizabeth Bear's novel, Dust. "Are you a science fiction reader then?" I asked. He stared at me for a little while, and then he said, "Yes." And, because I was feeling relatively friendly, I said, "Oh, what kind of science fiction do you like to read?" (I like to establish that I won't make a fool of myself by leaping blind into a conversation at the deep, unfamiliar end of the spectrum where real science fiction fans reside and where I feel like an imposter.)
The guy was a nice-looking, ordinary-seeming guy, but after considering the question for a little while, he told me that "it's hard to put into words." Then he wandered off while I was still trying to decide what to add to, "oh."
A little while later, when I had forgotten about him and the limping scrap of failed of conversation, he returned with his (I assume) girlfriend who was buying Cormac McCarthy's The Road. We were talking about McCarthy when, suddenly, he said, "Dark ones."
There are times when I fall off the edge of a conversation. Falling through nonsense, Alice-in-Wonderland-style, without anything in sight to grab onto. My eyebrows tend to make funny shapes when this happens.
"Dark ones, where people die."
Eyebrows. Eyebrows. Eyebrows. It was very quiet.
Eventually, the girlfriend said, "Uhm. I think he's answering your question. That one, from before. That one about science fiction?"
Five minutes before the store closed, a small man hurried up to me and said he needed a book. And that was it. He didn't blink very much, just looked at me and waited.
"A book?" I said. It's at times like this that you notice the thickly populated shelves looming at the corners of your eyes. "What kind of book?"
"Just a book. I need a book."
"Yes, fiction works." He waited, and I felt like he wanted me to produce The Book--the perfect and longed for without knowing you longed for it, but if you read it, it would complete your happiness--(that Book) by waving my hands and tugging it from a silk handkerchief.
When there are thousands of books in easy reach, it helps to plead for the winnowing power of specifics. "Mystery? Suspense? Funny? Sad?"
He shrugged, actually shrugged, and said: "Funny is good. I like suspense. Not too sad. Anything. I only have five minutes."
It was an opportunity to change someone's life, or at least their night, by picking that one perfect book that would explode in their head and make them fall madly in love with all the glittering, luscious shrapnel.
In the face of that crippling possibility, I turned away and picked up the most ridiculous book I could see. It was called My Goat Ate Its Own Legs. It has a violently yellow cover with two halves of a red goat.
He bought it.
My favourite quote of the day, from an interview with the fantastic Lev Grossman on Flavorwire:
"I do think people in cities need fantasy more. I have a pet theory about this, which is that the modern fantasy tradition started out as a response to the mass urbanization of the early 20th century. Cars replaced horses. Electric light replaced gaslight. Everything, at least in cities, abruptly became crap. A longing for something that was not crap sprang up, and expressed itself in the form of fantasy. I think that longing is still very much alive."
Fantasy as a longing for things not crap. Awesome.