This past weekend, Jim and I were chatting about science fiction and fantasy with our friends Kris Dorland and Kennard Wilson. Eventually, the subject ambled around to those books that are special to individual readers because the ideas hit them at a particularly receptive point and the world starts opening up.
Just a few books…
Kris spoke movingly about how much Anne McCaffery’s Menolly books had meant to her, when she discovered them as a fifteen-year-old who didn’t quite fit in. However, almost as important were the discussions she had about books with two friends, one of whom was devoted to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “Darkover” novels and another to Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant tales . Those lively discussions comparing and contrasting approaches were important, too.
Ken – who is a chemist at Los Alamos National Labs – began his journey as a reader of “hard” SF. However, anyone who knows his lively personality will be unsurprised to find out that he appreciated Fantasy as well and remains an avid reader of both.
The book I mentioned as having a huge impact on me was Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. This was given to me when I was fifteen by a law school classmate of my mom’s. I already read SF/F and had even read Heinlein. (Space Cadet was a lot of fun.) However, Stranger exposed me to so many things I’d never really thought about before – and no, it wasn’t just the group marriage concept, although I’ll admit that was rather mind-blowing to a student at an all-girl’s Catholic high school.
I was fascinated by the concept of the Fair Witness, trained to report precisely what occurred, without all the unconscious editorial information we usually add to our descriptions. Since I had grown up in Washington, D.C., I’d seen a lot of statues, but it was Jubal Harshaw’s comment “’Statues’ are dead politicians. This is ‘sculpture.’” that made me see the difference between the categories of sculpture and statuary. And I loved the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering, something that helped make sense of cryptic comments I’d heard all my life as my parents and their friends discussed politics.
I could go on just about this one book, but I thought it would be fun to ask some friends about the books that made a difference for them. Since Jim was sitting across from me in our office, I started with him. He couldn’t narrow it down to one book and finally settled on “Reading a lot of Andre Norton in seventh grade and thereafter opened my mind to what the future might be, both technologically and socially.”
John Maddox Roberts (author of both SF/F and mystery fiction) told this wonderful tale: “September 1959, 1st day of 7th grade, South Junior High School, Kalamazoo, MI. I was already a reader, and went to check out the new school’s library. Went in the door, turned left, found myself in the fiction section. Came to the H’s and found an intriguing title: Space Cadet. Checked it out, along with another: Red Planet. Read them both that night, came back the next day and checked out the rest by the author whose name I couldn’t pronounce yet. I was hooked. Proceeded to the N’s and read all the Andre Norton books. 12 years old, the golden age of SF.
“In the years since, I’ve often wondered how my life might have been different if I’d turned right that day.”
Sally Gwylan (author of A Wind Out of Cannan) was already a devoted SF/F reader (the Oz books, Red Planet, A Wrinkle in Time were all favorites) when she read Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea: “The book that changed my life.” She says, “That book told me to turn around and face what you fear and made it believable. LeGuin made it clear that there would be a high price. That book led to me getting out of an abusive home.”
Suzy McKee Charnas (author of many SF/F novels) had a fascinatingly diverse list: “Gunner Cade (don’t know who wrote it)[collaboration between C.M. Kornbluth and Judith Merrill; thank you Gardner Dozois], More Than Human (Sturgeon), Earth Abides (Stewart), Judgment Night (Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore), and Against the Fall of Night (Clarke, also titled The City and the Stars). But it all started, for me, with an illustrated edition of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island that we had in the house.”
She went on to say: “Gunner Cade sticks as a clear, uncluttered example of the basic SF plot of the naive young man completely integrated into his authoritarian society’s soldier class (or other take-orders stratum) who, unfairly ejected from his familiar environment by the plot, is nabbed by ‘the resistance’ under whose aegis the scales fall from his eyes, and he ends up leading the violent overthrow of the wicked ruling regime. It was and is *everywhere* in SF – I just picked up a forthcoming first novel called Red Rising, and there it is again, only nowadays it apparently takes three volumes to cover the same ground that flew by so satisfyingly in the form of one skinny paperback. Come to think of it, when I used it myself, in Walk to the End of the World, that was a skinny paperback, too.”
Steve Gould (SF author and current president of SFWA) contributed a nice, juicy list: “First sip was The Runaway Robot by Lester del Rey. Then, out of sequence, I found my grandfather’s copy of The Gods of Mars, followed by Warlord of Mars. Didn’t read Princess of Mars for another five years. Time Traders by Andre Norton. Think my first Heinlein juvenile was Red Planet but once I found that I rolled through them all in time to hit Starship Troopers when it came out and then Stranger [in a Strange Land].”
Laura Mixon-Gould (who also writes as M.J. Locke) had a somewhat different selection: “I had a summer of discovery when I was 11. Clifford D. Simak’s Ring Around the Sun and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time were the first two that did it for me, followed by Asimov’s I, Robot, then Burroughs’s ‘Mars’ books, followed by C.L. Moore’s ‘Jirel of Joiry’ stories, Jack Vance’s stuff, and, of course, the Heinlein juveniles.”
Editor Ellen Datlow had an interesting list, especially for someone who would become an award-winning editor of horror: “Eleanor Cameron’s Mushroom Planet books when very young, then Bradbury short stories, Dangerous Visions, and much later (college-independent study course) some novels like Dune, The Left Hand of Darkness, Slan, The Humanoids, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Creatures of Light and Darkness.”
Another editor, Gardner Dozois, weighed in with a long list that covered his later high school reading as well: “… my first taste of Sword & Sorcery came in De Camp’s Swords and Sorcery, and also in Dan Benson’s Unknown. De Camp’s The Incomplete Enchanter and Castle of Iron were important to me, as were his historical novels The Bronze Gods of Rhodes and An Elephant for Aristotle. The Heinlein “juveniles,” of course. (I actually hit the Andre Norton juveniles first, but soon decided the Heinleins were better, and moved on. ) Hal Clement’s Cycle of Fire and Mission of Gravity. James Schmidt’s Agent of Vega and Van Vogt’s The War Against the Rull. A bit later on, the stories in Cordwainer Smith’s Space Lords blew my mind, as did Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination and Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time. Jack Vance’s The Star Kings and The Killing Time. Delany’s The Towers of Toron trilogy, little read these days… I’d read The Hobbit years before I ran into the pirated Ace edition of The Fellowship of the Rings, but when I did, it had a major impact on me. Le Guin’s early novels, Avram Davidson’s Rork and Masters of the Maze.
“First book that made a big impact on me might have been Kipling’s The Jungle Books. At about that age, I gobbled up Burroughs’s Tarzan books too, although I didn’t read his Martian stuff until much later.”
George R.R. Martin (author of SF/F and Horror) weighed in with a diverse list:
“Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit Will Travel introduced me to SF.
“A couple of anthologies did the same for fantasy and horror – Swords and Sorcery, edited by L. Sprague de Camp, and Boris Karloff’s Favorite Horror Stories, edited (allegedly) by Boris Karloff. The former was my first taste of Conan and REH [Robert E. Howard], the latter my first taste of HPL [H. P. Lovecraft].
“And then, of course, Lord of the Rings.
“I also read a lot of Andre Norton and/or Andrew North in the early days. Star Guard, Star Man’s Son, Plague Ship were particular favorites.”
Pennsylvania area fan David Axler shaped his comment to make an interesting point: “Pre-teen stuff for me included the original Tom Swift books (the Boys’ Club in Binghamton NY had a full set in its library, along with a pile of first-edition Burroughs ((which must be worth a fortune now if they’re still around) and an odd mix of other stuff published mostly before WW2)), the Mushroom Planet series that Ellen mentioned, the Winston juvenile series (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winston_Science_Fiction), and a bunch of Verne and Wells. Andre Norton, of course, as well as Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time and its successors.
“I think it might be just as important to note the best book SOURCES from my childhood, because availability played such an important part in the amount of sf/f I read.
“My family moved from Binghamton to the Philly suburbs in ’58, and into the city proper two years later. The Philadelphia school system at that time was a big supporter of the Scholastic Book Clubs, and a fair chunk of my allowance went into sf/f they made available.
“That was also a time when the Philadelphia public schools had both libraries and librarians, and many of the latter made sure that their fiction sections included a fair amount of sf/f.
“I also have to give immense credit to the Philadelphia Free Library, which sponsored a Vacation Reading Club that was a big part of my summer reading experiences.
“Through the latter, I encountered a lot of the ‘classic’ anthologies from the 40’s, 50’s, and early 60s, which led to a major expansion of my overall reading list — any time I liked a story, I wrote down the author’s name so I could look for more on my next visit to the library.”
My query received many shorter replies as well, many that duplicated the above lists. Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton won as “gateway authors” – which may reflect the generation of my research pool, as well as these authors’ undoubted popularity. However, what was wonderful was how diverse a selection of authors were represented. Edward Eager, T.H. White, Edgar Pangborn, and Ray Bradbury were just a few.
So what are your special books? Where did you find them? Did programs like Scholastic Book Clubs have an impact? (They did for me!) Was there a person who handed you a special book?