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The 5 Most Influential Books in My Life

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I saw Martin Lewis and Niall Harrison tweeting about this in response to, I think, this post from Aidan Moher. And since I love me a good book-related meme, I thought I’d have a go. It would have been too easy to pick the books I admire the most and claim they have influenced me in some fashion – which no doubt they have. But they’ve hardly directed my reading, or helped form my taste in literature, or shaped my conception of science fiction. Of the following five books, three I do indeed admire. But two are bad. They all, however, led to what I read and how I read it.

Starman Jones, Robert A Heinlein
The first sf novel I recall reading was a novelisation of Doctor Who and the Zarbi, which my parents bought me for Christmas. For years afterward, I received Dr Who novelisations for Christmas and birthday. I’d also buy them with my pocket money. I think I had about two dozen by the time I eventually grew out of them. However, the first proper sf novel I read was by Robert Heinlein. I remember it quite clearly. It was 1976, I was in Form 3A at prep school. A lad in the same class pulled a book out of his desk and gave it to me because he thought I might like it (I think we’d been discussing Dr Who or something). It was Starman Jones. I loved it. Later, a second former introduced me to the works of EE ‘Doc’ Smith, and from then on I was hooked on science fiction. And I’ve been reading it ever since – but not Heinlein or EE ‘Doc’ Smith.

Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany
Some time during the mid-1980s, the family went on holiday to Paris. We stayed in a flat belonging to a director of the company for which my father worked. I vaguely remember buying an English book in a book shop somewhere in the city. It was Driftglass, a collection by Samuel R Delany. I bought it because I was reading The Ballad of Beta-2 / Empire Star, a Delany double, and I thought it was brilliant – especially ‘Empire Star’. Delany’s fiction showed me that sf wasn’t all Heinleinesque rational men heroes and Asimovian cardboard-cutouts characters, it didn’t have to privilege the central idea at the expense of everything else, it could be beautifully written. I was a big fan of Delany’s writing for many years, but nothing blew me away as much as ‘Empire Star’ had done… until I read Dhalgren. It was just so completely not everything I thought sf was – it was wilfully irrational, it was immediate and real and dirty, it wasn’t about manly, or intellectual, white men doing manly and intellectual things in space or on some alien planet… Dhalgren is still one of my favourite novels, and I’ve probably reread it more times than any other book I own – yes, even more times than Dune.

Knight Moves, Walter Jon Williams
I’ve never been a fan of Williams’ books, though I’ve read several of them over the years. I think Knight Moves might be the first book by him I read, however. It was published in 1985, and I’m fairly sure I read it in 1988. I’d joined the British Science Fiction Association that year, or perhaps the year before, and when Paperback Inferno – the BSFA’s paperback review magazine as was – put out a call for more reviewers, I volunteered. Andy Sawyer, the editor, asked me to send him a sample review, so I did a demolition job on Knight Moves. I can remember almost nothing of the book – except that I thought it was terrible – but as a result of my review of it I became book reviewer for the BSFA… and I’ve been reviewing books and commenting on science fiction ever since.

The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell
As a teenager, my first choice of reading had always been science fiction, but I didn’t always have access to it. When I spent the holidays with my parents in the Middle East, my reading was often limited to the books they owned. Which meant I read some right crap – Judith Krantz, Shirley Conran, Jackie Collins, Nelson DeMille, Eric van Lustbader – and a few good books (though none of the titles immediately spring to mind). When I moved to Abu Dhabi in 1994, one of the first things I did was join the Daly Community Library. It had only a small number of science fiction titles, so I was forced to widen my reading. That’s how I discovered Anthony Burgess, Angela Carter, David Lodge, Nicholas Monsarrat, Rose Tremain, Lawrence Norfolk, Hanan al-Shaykh, Helen Simpson, Margaret Atwood, and several other authors I still read. One of the books I took out of the library was The Alexandria Quartet. But I didn’t actually get around to reading it, and eventually took it back unread. So I bought paperback copies of the books on a visit to Dubai. I read it, and immediately became a fan of Durrell’s writing… and subsequently a collector of his books. Durrell is not the first author I hunted down first editions of their books so I’d own them all – that would probably be Gwyneth Jones – but my book collecting certainly turned more serious as a result of reading Durrell. so much so, in fact, that I now own a first edition of Durrell’s first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, which is extremely rare…

Moondust, Andrew Smith
I was only three when the late Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon – in fact, the only Apollo mission I recall watching was ASTP in July 1975. But I was very much fascinated by space exploration as kid. I remember having a large poster of a Saturn V and an astronaut on my bedroom wall in Dubai. But then I become more involved in science fiction and lost my interest in science fact. Every now and again, I’d read something related to space exploration – one year as a Christmas present, I was given one of those big Octopus coffee table books on the topic; while I was living in Abu Dhabi, a local book shop stocked a number of Apogee Books’ NASA Mission Reports, and I bought several of them; I read At the Edge of Space by Milton O Thompson, about the X-15 programme, and found it surprisingly interesting. Then, five years ago I read Moondust. I no longer recall what prompted me to read it. But it re-ignited my interest in space exploration, and especially the Apollo programme. So I started buying books on the subject – often signed first editions. I created a blog, A Space About Books About Space, to review the books I bought. I built up quite a library – and it’s still growing – on human space exploration and spacecraft. And all those books have also come in really useful in my science fiction writing (just look at the bibliography in Adrift on the Sea of Rains).

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6 thoughts on “The 5 Most Influential Books in My Life

  1. I am meh on Delany (shame, I know). I find it interesting that the Williams was a negative influence, in that it was a book whose negative reaction forged your career path.

  2. I find him changeable. I couldn’t get into ‘Babel 17′, but found the title story of ‘Driftglass’ quite remarkable, it hasn’t aged at all, you could believe it was written yesterday. I also very much liked “Time considered as a Helix of semi-precious stones.” I should chase down more of his short fiction.

    Haven’t got around to reading ‘Dhalgren’ though, after being disappointed with ‘Babel 17′.

    • I still haven’t read 3 of the Neveryon books after finding the first one a bit dull. And Stars In My Pocket, Like Grains of Sands it took me three goes to finish. But I did like Babel-17, and Nova, and Empire Star… and quite a lot of his short fiction.

  3. Pingback: The 5 Most Influential Books in My Life - Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: forums

  4. Hi, Ian !

    I liked a lot your article “The Hugos are broken, science fiction is broken, everything is broken”.
    Kindly allow me to translate it and to post it on the Romanian Science Fiction&Fantasy Site : http://www.srsff.ro/
    You’ll be credited as author, your blog will be mentioned as the original site and we’ll insert a link towards the original article.
    Thank you very much.

    Best regards,
    Cristian Tamas

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