In college, I rediscovered recreational reading when I learned to buy books that appealed to me instead of my English teachers. A friend suggested the book that kicked off this newfound hobby: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. No, wait; that’s not right. What was it? Oh yes, it was Conan the Barbarian by Robert E. Howard.
Okay, the exploits of Howard’s hero may not be as highbrow as War and Peace, but for some reason this book spoke to me like no other. I inhabited the main character, Conan, as he strode across a prehistoric Europe in a loincloth, sandals, and broadsword.
The society was like medieval Europe — but thousands of years before there was a medieval Europe. At the time of the stories, Europe featured a dry, desertlike Mediterranean basin — and the British Isles were connected to the continent.
There was sorcery, political intrigue, piracy, gods, and a hero who didn’t hew to the values of so-called civilization. He was a brute, but an intelligent one — equally comfortable in the roles of mercenary, thief, pirate, general, and even king.
I was sad when I read the last book in the series, but my appetite had been whetted for other material.
I went on to read different genres including thriller, political science, mystery, history, non-fiction, sports, and my favorite: science fiction. I read several notable series, with perhaps my favorites being The Foundation by Isaac Asimov; Berserkers by Fred Saberhagen; The Many Colored Land by Julian May; and a two-book set called Galactic Empires.
Galactic Empires is a special case. It’s a wondrous anthology of short stories written between 1941 and 1975. I’ve read them several times, and they always recall the fun and wonder I felt when I first discovered science fiction as a boy.
One of my favorite stories in Volume One is titled Protected Species by H. B. Fyfe. Imagine a vast construction project: to build a city on an alien shore. It had homes, administration buildings, and a dam a few miles upstream on a nearby river. It had all of the things necessary to support a human society. And it’s trillions of miles from Earth.
But the most awe-inspiring thing is that it’s being built next to the ruins of some long- absent race. Our hero, Jeff Otis, visits to inspect the construction, but he also becomes curious about the abandoned city. Cliffs had risen, and the course of the river had changed since the ancient city thrived; but whoever built it had chosen the location for the same reasons the current builders did. Proximity to the narrow bay and the freshwater river, among other things, made it an ideal location.
Some bored construction workers found sport in chasing some of the local animals, including skinny, gray apelike creatures. Jeff disapproves, but he begrudgingly accepts that the men need a diversion. He’s aghast, however, to find one of the apes stuffed and mounted. The animals looked enough like earth apes that he wondered if a travesty had been perpetrated on a semi-intelligent creature. Armed with speculation that the ruined city could’ve been built by these creatures’ ancestors, he issues an order to “protect the species.”
Just before he departs, Jeff decides to explore the ruins for a second time. Upon entering a chamber, he’s surprised to find himself face-to-face with one of the gray apes, who speaks to him in English. Otis is thunderstruck, but he eventually engages the alien and learns that the apes — called Myrbii — are not native to the planet. The Myrbi adds that he’s glad that humans are coming back to their old planets, and he regrets what happened between their two races long ago.
You see, the ruins are not Myrb; they’re human.
Wow! What a payoff to the mystery of the ruins! We learn from an alien that there was a spacefaring human civilization on Earth tens of thousands of years ago — and that it was nearly blasted to extinction in an interstellar war with these Myrbii.
They have since monitored humanity, and noted Jeff’s recent order to protect the species of gray apes. Based on this, they decided that Jeff was the best person to contact with the news that they, too, had issued a protect-the-species order. In their case, however, it was for the protection of mankind after both races fought a war several millennia ago.
That kind of impact ending isn’t common — particularly in modern Sci-Fi. That’s why I cherish books that make me go wow! They inspire me to deliver the same kind of experience to my readers.
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The main character, Cord Devlin, uses his fanboy knowledge of Star Trek to help U.S. Intelligence deal with otherworldly threats.
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