The coolest book you’ve never heard of…

It’s not often a publishing house gets to print a “first” anything. Journey Press has got a book that was the first for a lot of things.

In 1964, Ace Books published I Want the Stars, the first novel by a young science fiction author named Tom Purdom. It was about as humble a beginning as it gets, only half of a two-sided “Ace Double” (along with Ken Bulmer’s Demon World).

But what a revolution it sparked! Tom’s book, detailing the journey of Jenorden and his five friends/crew-mates as they search the galaxy for meaning in a post-utopian future, packs more progressive themes in its short length than a lot of books twice its size:

  • It’s the first science fiction novel to feature a protagonist explicitly of color.
  • It’s the first science fiction novel to portray a queer couple (in this case, two women) without judgement or negativity. They simply are.
  • It’s one of the first science fiction examples of implicit polyamory (Tom would go on to explore explicit polyamory in a short story published that year in Galaxy Science Fiction).

    Other earlier authors, like Ted Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, and Philip José Farmer, had flirted with progressive themes, making oblique references to homosexuality and exploring gender in alien races. But Tom laid it all out on the table in a way that had never been done before. It’s a ball Samuel R. Delany, a fellow Philadelphian and Ace Double author, would pick up and run with in works like Babel 17 (1966).

I Want the Stars ushered in a brand new era of science fiction, one that envisioned a society that had long since resolved any prejudice against queer, gender, and non-couple relationship models.

And that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Science fiction can be aspirational as well as cautionary, and when Tom wrote his first book, he knew the way to convincingly portray the future was to take the most progressive ideas of the time (ideas that are still progressive) and make them reality–in his stories. The result is a book that is nearly 60 years old, yet reads like it was written this year:

This is a fascinating book, not just because Purdom knows how to put together a well-paced, character-driven story but because of how modern it feels.

Hugo Finalist Alasdair Stuart, from The Full Lid

When we discovered this book back in 2019 as part of the reading we do for Galactic Journey, we immediately knew we’d found something special. So special that we reached out to Tom, delighted to find that he was (and is) not only still alive, but producing several stories a year for the big SF magazines. Indeed, he didn’t get his Hugo nomination until 2000–36 years after I Want the Stars came out!

Thankfully, Tom was more than happy to let his book come back into print, and he also contributed an autobiographical piece on the making of I Want the Stars, which we included when we republished the novel in June 2020.

In addition to appealing with a modern audience for its progressive mindset and compelling tale, many were quick to note another point of resonance:

It’s all-but impossible to view this in isolation from Star Trek and the way Jenorden and crew explore their experiences, without Starfleet’s comforting military framework, is engrossing precisely because of the fragility of the crew. Especially in their first interactions with the alien species, Horta.

Hugo Finalist Alasdair Stuart, from The Full Lid

That brings up another interesting point. I Want the Stars predated Star Trek by two years. We know Gene Roddenberry read science fiction. Many of the writers for Star Trek were science fiction authors. Is it just coincidence that two of the names for alien races in Tom’s book, ‘Horta’ and ‘Borg’, ended up on the shows?

Either way, there’s no question that I Want the Stars will appeal to fans of the hopeful Trek vibe, folks who like a ripping galactic adventure, and readers who want to see where the seeds of modern science fiction were first sown.

(Tom just celebrated his 87th birthday on April 19–what better gift to give him than picking up a copy of his first book and enjoying it anew!)

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