Cross Pollination by Len Vlahos
The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Rey was an entry-level drug for me. The book and I found each other in the fourth grade, changing both of our lives forever. I say that we “found each other,” because that’s how it is with books. They’re searching for you just as hard as you’re searching them.
Think about it. All those books lined up on all those bookshelves in all those libraries and bookstores and houses and warehouses, waiting like the forests from which they came—no strike that, not the forests from which they came—waiting like fields of wildflowers.
Because books pollinate.
An author breathes life onto the page in the form of an idea. It might be an idea about a grim future in which the State pits children against one another in battle for the amusement of the masses. Or perhaps it’s an idea about a college freshman who finds her center while writing fan fiction. Or maybe it’s an idea about a badly scarred teenage boy who is saved by music. In the case of Lester Del Rey, it was an idea about the bond between a boy and his robot.
Whatever the idea, it’s there, waiting; waiting for a passerby to take the pollen and spread it.
Sometimes it works. The pollen sticks and is carried from person to person, trying with each encounter to find a new host to take it farther and farther afield. As it travels, it meets and merges with new ideas and there is cross-pollination. The boy and sentient robot of Lester Del Rey’s imagination become the man and sentient supercomputer in Robert Heinlein’s Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, or perhaps HAL and the astronauts in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Those ideas in turn become SKYNET in the Terminator movies and The Matrix. And right now, somewhere, someone is writing something about the relationship between people and intelligent machines that is growing out of all that came before, even if he or she doesn’t know it.
For me, the idea of the boy and his robot became so many things over the years, but mostly it became a pathway to more and more books.
It didn’t happen overnight. I didn’t put The Runaway Robot down and start devouring every book I could find. It happened slowly. The idea—not the idea of the boy and robot, but the idea of the idea, of imagination—needed time to germinate.
It also started me on a path of loving science, science fiction, and machines. I became space and future obsessed. To this day, my wife, two sons, and I will watch every NASA launch online, and our favorite game to play at home is to pretend we’re astronauts.
Did any of the pollen from The Runaway Robot make its way into The Scar Boys? I don’t honestly know. After all, The Scar Boys is a rock and roll coming of age story; it has nothing to do with robots, science, or science fiction. I can’t point to a single passage in my book that harkens directly back to Lester Del Rey. But then how much of Robert Johnson’s guitar do you hear in The Shins, though you can draw a pretty straight line between the two?
No, Lester Del Rey is present in The Scar Boys, he has to be. His pollen is buried deep and now diluted, but he’s there. The Runaway Robot and I searched for and found each other without even knowing it, and thank goodness we did.
Over the years many other books and I have found each, and I hope that many more will. They make the world, or at least my corner of it, a beautiful place.
Len Vlahos is the Executive Director of BISG (Book Industry Study Group) and the former COO of the American Booksellers Association, where he worked for the past 20 years. Lenhas also worked in numerous bookstores, was an on-air personality for a commercial radio station in Atlantic City, and worked for a time for Internet marketing guru Seth Godin. THE SCAR BOYS is his first book. You can visit him online at www.lenvlahos.com and on Twitter @LenVlahos.