Books change lives, right? Well, they certainly changed mine. Books have been a part of my life since I was a kid, though I honestly didn’t understand their true value until much later in life. They were entertainment in my younger years. I read Goosebumps and Hardy Boys because they provided quick, fun narratives (and some of the former were actually kinda scary at times — they seem ridiculous today, of course). I even read comic books as a kid, for the same reasons everyone read comics in their youth: fun! But I wasn’t a literature nut in my younger years. I wanted to play video games or do stupid things on my bike — I honestly don’t know how I survived childhood, because I used to do some monumentally stupid things on my bike.
Despite all of that, books eventually smacked me upside the head and changed the way I viewed them and the way I viewed life in general. I read or discovered these books during what I would consider to be pivotal moments of my life. Some of those moments were dark times; others were quite happy and exciting. But none of them were exactly same.
The first adult fantasy book I ever read was Richard A. Knaak’s Dragonlance novel, The Legend of Huma. I won’t pretend it’s a great work of art, or a great piece of fantasy (well, it’s a fun piece of fantasy, but Dragonlance isn’t exactly known for the best writing in the universe). I would later go on to read his DragonRealm series — a much more interesting and well-written set of relatively short fantasy novels. I think it’s fair to say that I was always a reader or viewer of genre fiction, having watched Star Wars so many times as a child that I eventually had to justify owning three different VHS copies to prevent ruining my really good copy (the Leonard Maltin versions, which I still own). But I had never really grown fond of SF/F literature. That was until someone introduced me to Dragonlance. The Legend of Huma introduced me to a whole new sea of stories, and reading that particular book would one day give me fuel for an interest in writing genre fiction (I’ve never wanted to write anything else, really). Without that book, I don’t know what I would be like today. A genre fan? Probably. A scholar in the field and a wannabe writer of SF/F? Probably not.
(This is a familiar narrative, no?)
I also discovered the wonders of science fiction in high school. However, rather than having George Orwell’s incredible and canonical novel 1984 thrust at me by my friends, I had the novel thrust on me by a teacher (duh). And lucky me. I attended two high schools as a teenager: one in Oak Harbor, Washington, and another in Placerville, California. Of all the English classes I took while in Oak Harbor, only one managed to make reading interesting. That class had us reading things like Watership Down by Richard Adams, A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare, and, of course, 1984. And since that class, I’ve re-read Orwell’s novel at least six times. The book made me realized that literature could have depth, that re-reading a work could actually change your experience of it. That book also helped turn me into a science fiction nut. And every time I re-read the book (less frequently now than when I was in my early 20s), I discover something new. That’s the mark of a good book, if you ask me! I think it’s safe to say that my interest in literature as an academic subject began here.
The short version of the story goes like this: during my senior year of high school, my English teacher assigned Beowulf, as often happens in high school. Instead of having us write straight literary analysis, however, she asked us to take the core themes of the story and come up with our own poetic versions. Thus began a month-long journey to rewrite Beowulf (with a friend). The weird part? We actually took it quite seriously, while others in our class sort of dilly daddled the way a lot people do when it comes to these kinds of assignments. We went to the library and looked up British history (the place where we intended to set our version of the story), dug up maps of the pre-Norman-invasion British Isles, and tried our best to fit our re-worked version into that new world (Grendel’s lair ended up on the Isle of Man). We plotted the entire story, developed all of the characters, and then I started writing. And then came the all-nighters.
After a weekend of intense writing (in what I then thought was proper “Old English” style — heh), I strolled into class on Monday with a 31-page epic poem in tow. I still have a vivid memory of my teacher’s eyes opening wider than should have been humanly possible at the sight of our work. She had expected something like 5-10 pages, not 31. And we got an A.
You might be wondering how this changed my life. Throughout my youth, I recall writing a lot of stories. For the most part, these were horror stories (I still think that movie with the evil severed hand somehow stole my ideas); they weren’t very good. But it wasn’t until that Beowulf assignment that I realized I really had the writing bug. From that point on, I started writing with more fervor. Clearly that bug never truly left, because I still write fiction as often as I can (not as much right now due to PhD work, though). Without Beowulf, I’m not sure I’d be where I am right now: an English major and a published writer.
I’ve written about my experiences with cancer here, here and here. There is a lot more to tell about my cancer, so I won’t ruin all of it here. However, what I will say is that Alan Garner’s fantasy novels were the only positive things I remember about being stuck in the hospital thinking I was going to die. That’s about all I remember, actually. The narratives have since left my mind. If you shoved one of his books in front of me with the title and author removed from every page, I probably wouldn’t recognize the writing. I blame it all on the drugs.
But that doesn’t mean Garner’s work didn’t influence me in some significant way. His books were a welcome distraction from what is an understandably terrifying experience. Some folks like to say that escapism is bad for us, but I think escapism is just what we need from time to time. When the world descends into darkness, it’s actually good for us to wander off into other places (in our minds). It just so happens that Garner was that distraction (others would follow him, of course). It’s hard to argue with the awesome feeling of escapist relief, no?
One of the first science fiction courses I ever took at UC Santa Cruz was an American Studies course on African American fiction and the Other (I can’t remember the exact title). Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick is an obvious choice for such a course (especially when coupled with something like Sun Ra’s Space is the Place). We read a lot of things in that class, including work by Tananarive Due, Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, and many others. But it was Philip K. Dick’s novel that acted as the catalyst for my academic career.
Up until that point, I had always intended to study science fiction in college. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of courses on the stuff when I first entered the college system, and so I had never been exposed to PKD (or other great writers, for that matter), nor had I been given the impression that I could actually study what I wanted. But that class completely changed things for me, and PKD more so than anyone else at the time. I would go on to take an independent study with the same professor (Prof. Ramirez!), in which I read several more works by PKD, including Ubik (my favorite of his novels, actually — I need to assign that for a class one of these days). Basically, by the time I finished my B.A., I had done so much work on the Other and science fiction that it would define my academic interests for a nearly half a decade (see Buckell and Hopkinson below for the shift in my these interests). PKD exposed me to an entirely different world of SF — where the human question is always in flux. There’s a reason why he’s so popular these days…his work is just too damned good.
As I’ve already mentioned, I had the privilege to read Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler in college. I don’t know what it is about Butler’s work. Even a story as simple as “Speech Sounds” captivates me as a reader and as an academic. Whatever her allure, reading Butler showed me a different world of science fiction (and, by extension, fantasy): one in which people of color are central. I got to see science fiction from an entirely different perspective, which not only helped me round out my academic work, but also helped foster an insatiable appetite for fiction about experiences relevant to people of color (and women, too). From Butler, I grew the guts to take an intensive graduate course in feminist and queer theory (as an undergrad), and to extend that same desire to broaden my horizons by taking a similarly intensive course on the Harlem Renaissance (as a grad student — this is actually one of my favorite periods of literary history). The amount of work that I devoured because of Butler’s amazing fiction is too long to list here. I am just forever thankful that Prof. Ramirez assigned Parable of the Sower, and I am likewise thankful to Butler for sharing so many wonderful stories with all of us — especially me.
I’ll address these two in order of exposure. The first Hopkinson novel I ever read was Brown Girl in the Ring. While this is not my favorite of her work (Midnight Robber is her best science fiction novel thus far, and you’re not allowed to ask me to pick a favorite from her list of fantasy novels), it certainly did for me many of the same things as Butler’s Parable of the Sower. But while Butler exposed me to a world of PoC writers and who were writing about issues about which I would become increasingly more interested, Hopkinson proved to be a gateway “drug” to SF/F by people outside of the traditional Western sphere. True, Hopkinson has spent a great deal of her life living in Canada (and now the U.S.), but her work has always been about fusing and exploring the depths of Caribbean experiences. In another year, I would have read work by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (not a Caribbean writer, obviously), Amitav Ghosh (perhaps closer to a magical realist than a regular genre writer), Salman Rushdie, and many others. And her novel, Midnight Robber, would eventually become one of two primary texts for my M.A. at the University of Florida. In a way, Hopkinson completely changed the direction of my work as an academic and my habits as a reader.
But she wasn’t alone. At some point during all the madness of school, I discovered Tobias S. Buckell. I started reading his work as a reviewer. While Crystal Rain is not my favorite of his books (though it is probably the most tightly plotted), the melding of peoples in his first Xenowealth book seemed novel to my younger self. From there, I went on to Ragamuffin (my favorite of his Xenowealth novels, though Sly Mongoose and The Apocalypse Ocean are quite good too), which showed me a completely different side to Caribbean-influenced SF. Whereas Hopkinson stayed firmly in the realm of what we might call “da serious genre fiction,” Buckell took his mixed bag of characters to the wondrous world of Space Opera.* I love Space Opera, and even more so because Buckell’s work did something with the genre I’d never seen before: he stuck Caribbean people and other racial groups right in the middle of it all. I’d never read anything like it, and since then, I’ve craved more like it (please recommend stuff to me). I’d read so many novels about white guys doing what white guys do in space that I’d sort of forgotten what the future might actually look like (Butler helped with all of this too, though her work has a tendency to remain fixated on the Earth — exceptions exist, of course).
Without Buckell and Hopkinson, my academic career wouldn’t be where it is today. I’m studying Caribbean literature, and I intend to continue studying postcolonial science fiction from around the globe. But they also changed the way I viewed literature, so much so that by the time the whole World SF thing became a big deal (at least, on the Internets), I was already riding the world train. Now, when I see genre fiction by people from elsewhere in the globe, I pause and think to myself: I wonder how they write about SF tropes or explore their own experiences in relation to genre (sometimes their explorations aren’t all that different from my own, which is interesting and important too). That’s a good thought to have, I think.
There you go. That’s my rough list. There are a lot of other writers I could stick in here, but I think eight is plenty enough for now.
What about you? Which SF/F authors changed your life?
*I am not suggesting that Buckell’s works aren’t “serious genre fiction.” Rather, I am pointing out the difference in tone, which has a lot to do with what I think of as underlying cultural echoes of Space Opera’s history as “that silly subgenre.” The Xenowealth novels are actually quite serious, but they do use a lot of the tropes of Space Opera to get to its serious points. I think this is actually a great thing. Whereas Hopkinson’s work tends to look at the experiences of Caribbean peoples within the sphere of our real world experiences, Buckell’s work seems to suggest that the somewhat more cognitively estranged world of Space Opera and interstellar empires is just as fitting a space for those same individuals.
P.S.: I am well aware that this list is largely male-centric. In all honesty, I did not read a lot of work by women during most of the events described above. This wasn’t a deliberate choice, but it was certainly an oversight I failed to recognize at the time. People like Joanna Russ and James Tiptree, Jr. have had a profound impact on me, but because I discovered their work so recently, I don’t feel like I can properly gauge their influence in objective terms. Other great female writers have influenced me too: Karen Miller, Karen Lord, Lauren Beukes, and Stina Leicht, to name a few. There have also been quite a few women who have had impacts on my life for things other than writing — people like my mother and grandmother, my best friend Jen, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Alisa Krasnostein (for their feminist criticism), and Julia Rios (a fairly recent influence). I may have to make a completely different list one day for those non-writer folks!
P.S.S.: I really should include Ginn Hale, too, though I don’t think it is fair to attribute my interest in SF/F featuring LGBT characters or concerns only to her. Christopher Barzak and JoSelle Vanderhooft were involved in that development too.