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Made from books

Nerds of a feather have been running a series of posts by its members on “books that shaped me”, and I wondered what books I’d choose myself for such a post. And I started out doing just that but then it stopped being a listicle and more of a narrative, so I just went with it…

These will not be recent books – or, at least, the bulk of them won’t be. Because while people’s attitudes, sensibilities and tastes evolve over the years, some of the books I read back when I was a young teen obviously had more of an impact on me than a book I read, say, last week. Some of the following have in part shaped my taste in fiction, while some have inspired and shaped my writing. Some I read because they seemed a natural progression in my reading, some were books I read because they covered a subject that interest me, some I read because they were out of my comfort zone and I felt I needed to broaden my horizons…

Early explorations in sf
I read my first actual science fiction novel around 1976. Prior to that I’d been reading Dr Who novelisations, but a lad in my class at school lent me a copy of Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones. After that, another boy lent me some EE ‘Doc’ Smith, the Lensman books, I seem to recall (and probably some Asimov, although I don’t actually remember which ones). But during my early years exploring the genre I cottoned onto three particular authors: AE Van Vogt, James Blish and Clifford Simak. And the first books by those authors I recall reading were The Universe Maker, Jack of Eagles and Why Call Them Back From Heaven?. Actually, I may have read The Voyage of the Space Beagle before The Universe Maker, but something about the latter appealed to me more. Sadly, no women writers. A few years later I started reading Cherryh and Tiptree (and yes, I’ve always known Tiptree was a woman), but I suspect my choices were more a matter of availability – Cherryh was pretty much ubiquitous in UK book shops during the early 1980s.

starmanjones

Growing up the sf way
I remember a lad in the year below me at school reading Dune – that would be in 1978, I think – and it looked interesting, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I read it for myself. And immediately loved it. These days, my thoughts on Dune are somewhat different – it’s not Frank Herbert’s best novel, it’s not even the best novel in the Dune series (and we won’t mention the execrable sequels by his son and Kevin J Anderson)… but what Dune is, is probably the best piece of world-building the science fiction genre has ever produced. And then there’s Dhalgren, which I still love and is probably the sf novel I’ve reread the most times. It wasn’t my first Delany, but it remains my favourite. I still see it as a beacon of literary sensibilities in science fiction. Another discovery of this period was John Varley, whose stories pushed a lot of my buttons. His The Barbie Murders remains a favourite collection, and the title story is still a favourite story. Around this time one of the most important books to come into my hands was The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists by Malcolm Edwards and Maxim Jakubowski. It’s exactly what the title says – lists of sf and fantasy books and stories. But it was also a map to exploring the genre and, in an effort to find books and stories it mentioned, I started actively hunting down specific things I wanted to read. I was no longer browsing in WH Smith (back in the day when it was a major book seller) and grabbing something off the shelf that looked appealing. This was directed reading, and it’s pretty much how I’ve approached my reading ever since.

Explorations outside science fiction
The school I went to had a book shop that opened every Wednesday afternoon, and I bought loads of sf novels there (well, my parents bought them, as they were the ones paying the bills). But when I was on holiday, especially out in the Middle East, I was limited to reading what was available – which included the likes of Nelson De Mille, Eric Van Lustbader, Judith Krantz and Shirley Conran. I think it was my mother who’d been reading Sara Paretsky and it was from her I borrowed Guardian Angel, and so became a lifelong fan of Paretsky’s books. And after graduating from university and going to work in Abu Dhabi, the Daly Community Library, the subscription library I joined within a month or two of arriving, had I poor sf selection so I had to widen my reading. One of the books I borrowed was Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, and that turned me into a fan of his writing (although, to be honest, while my admiration of his writing remains undimmed, I’m no longer so keen on his novels… although I still have most of them in first edition). I also borrowed Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet from the Daly Community Library, but had it take back before I’d even started it. So I bought paperbacks copies of the four books during a trip to Dubai, and subsequently fell in love with Durrell’s writing. So much so that I began collecting his works – and now I have pretty much everything he wrote. Perversely, his lush prose has stopped me from trying it for myself – possibly because I know I couldn’t pull it off. Much as I treasure Durrell’s prose, it’s not what I write… but his occasional simple turns of phrase I find inspiring. Finally, two non-fiction works which have helped define my taste in non-fiction. While I was in Abu Dhabi, I borrowed Milton O Thompson’s At the Edge of Space from the Abu Dhabi Men’s College library. It’s a dry recitation of the various flights flown by the North American X-15 – and yes, I now own my own copy – but I found it fascinating. It wasn’t, however, until I read Andrew Smith’s Moondust, in which he tracks down and interviews the surviving nine people who walked on the Moon, that I really started collecting books about the Space Race. And then I decided it would be interesting to write fiction about it…

Ingredients for a writing life
When I originally started writing sf short stories, they were pretty well, er, generic. I’d read plenty of short fiction, and so I turned what I thought were neat ideas into neat little stories. None of them sold. So I spent several years having a bash at novels – A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders are products of those years, as well as a couple of trunk novels – and didn’t return to writing short fiction until 2008. It took a few goes before I found the kind of short fiction that worked for me, but it wasn’t until I wrote ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’ (see here) that I realised I’d found a, er, space I wanted to explore further in ficiton. I’d been partly inspired by Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, because its obsessive attention to detail really appealed to me – and when I started working on Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I wanted it to be like that. But I’d also read some Cormac McCarthy – The Road and All The Pretty Horses – and that gave me a handle for the prose style. I’ve jokingly referred to Adrift on the Sea of Rains as “Cormac McCarthy on the Moon” but that was always in my mind while I was writing it. And for the flashback sequences, I wanted a more discursive and roundabout style, so I turned to a book I’d recently read, Austerlitz by WG Sebald, and used that as my inspiration. And finally, there’s a point in astronaut Thomas Stafford’s autobiography, We Have Capture, in which he discusses the deaths of the three cosmonauts in the Soyuz 11 mission – Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev – and he mentions the 19 turns needed to manually close the valve which evacuated the air from their spacecraft, and that figure became sort of emblematic of my approach to writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It’s odd DNA for a science fiction novella – Stafford, Mercurio, McCarthy and Sebald – but there you go…

capture

The next two books of the Apollo Quartet were driven by the their plots, inasmuch as their inspirations were plot-related, and the only books which fed into them were the books I read for research. But I should definitely mention Malcolm Lowry, who I’d started reading around the time I launched Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and the titles of some of his books – Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid – inspired the titles of books two and three of the Apollo Quartet. But when it comes to book four, All That Outer Space Allows, well, obviously, Sirk’s movie All That Heaven Allows was a major influence, but so too was Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which showed me that breaking the fourth wall was a really interesting narrative technique to explore. But there’s also Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games, which inspired the whole breaking the fourth wall thing in the first place, and which led to me using art house films as inspiration for short stories, so that ‘Red Desert’ in Dreams of the Space Age and Space – Houston We Have A Problem was inspired by François Ozon’s Under the Sand, and I’m currently working on a story inspired by Lars von Trier’s Melancholia titled, er, ‘Melancholia’, and in which I take great pleasure in destroying the Earth.

Reading for pleasure
Despite all that above, there are authors whose works I read purely because I enjoy doing so. It’s true there might be a bit of DH Lawrence in All That Outer Space Allows, but if I had to pick a favourite Lawrence novel out of those I’ve read I’d be hard pressed to do so. I’ve mentioned Lowry already – for him, the one work I treasure is his novella ‘Through the Panama’ which appears in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. And with Karen Blixen, AKA Isak Dinesen, a new discovery for me and becoming a favourite, it’s her novella ‘Tempest’. But I don’t think she’s going to influence my writing much. Neither do I think the writings of Helen Simpson or Marilynne Robinson will do so either, although Simpson has paddled in genre. And much as I admire the writings of Gwyneth Jones, Paul Park and DG Compton, their writing is so unlike my own, their books are just a pure reading pleasure. Jenny Erpenbeck, on the other hand, I think might influence my writing, as I love her distant tone. And while I love the deep personal focus of Hanan al-Shaykh’s novels, she’s reading for pleasure.

hear_us

To some extent, I think, I treat books like movies. There are the disposable ones – commercial sf, in other words; and you can find many examples on the SF Masterwork list, which is more a reflection on the genre as a whole than it is on the SF Masterwork list. But I much prefer movies from other cultures, and while science fiction scratched that itch to some extent, even though its cultures were invented… the level of such invention wasn’t especially deep – and if I get more of a sense of estrangment out of a novel by Erpenbeck, a German woman, than I do from any random US sf writer, I see that as more a flaw of the genre than of its practitioners. Happily, things are changing, and a wider spectrum of voices are being heard in genre fiction. Not all of them will appeal to me, not all of them will earn my admiration. But I wholeheartedly support the fact of their existence. I do enjoy reading books like that but in the past I’ve had to read mainstream fiction – Mariama Bâ, Abdelrahman Munif, Magda Szabó, Elfriede Jelineck, Leila Aboulela, Chyngyz Aitmatov… as well as those mentioned previously. These are the books and movies which join my collection, and for which I am forever struggling to find shelf space.


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The 5 Most Influential Books in My Life

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).