MIND MELD: Who are Your Literary Influences in the Ongoing Conversation of Science Fiction?

Just as readers are sometimes influenced by the fiction they read, so, too, are writers. This week, we asked a bunch of writerly types:

Q: The ever-changing landscape of science fiction literature is said to be formed by the ongoing conversation between books; one book influences another, which influences another, and so on. Which books and writers have influenced your stories? What statements or challenges are asserted in your own work that you pass on to future writers?

Here’s what they said:

Tobias S. Buckell
Tobias S. Buckell is a Caribbean-born speculative fiction writer who grew up in Grenada, the British Virgin Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He has published stories in various magazines and anthologies. His novels include Crystal Rain, Sly Mongoose, Ragamuffin, and Halo: The Cole Protocol. Coming up isa short story collection titled Tides from the New Worlds.

I was quite influenced by the Cyberpunk writers. The view of the street, more blue collar heroes, that got my interest. It’s funny because even though they influenced me, I’m only just now getting around to writing a near-futur-ish novel of that sort. Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, they both used developing world countries as settings and characters and important players in the world in their books. That was revolutionary for me.

Bruce Sterling’s Islands in The Net is initially set on Grenada. For me it was a light bulb moment. I’d tasted a bit of this with Arthur C. Clarke’s novels, where he has Pacific-Ocean characters, Indian computer scientists, and so forth. Clarke and Sterling and Gibson felt like writers who used the world and the world’s people as a stage in a fundamental manner that I didn’t feel as much in other works.

As an author I have no idea what statement or challenge I’ve really thrown down to other writers coming after me. If pressed further, I think part of a message I have is that fiction written with non-white characters or by non-white authors doesn’t have to be magical realist or “literary” in nature. I get these “disappointed” letters every once in a while from people that I write straight up action/adventure. But then I get letters from people who expected “ethnic SF/F” (their words, not mine) to be boring, and were totally pumped by the action/adventure featuring Caribbean heroes. My statement/challenge is that there is no one true route to adding diversity to our field, but that that route should be diverse in and of itself. Adventure shouldn’t be a specialized field, and diversity isn’t a dirty word, it can be a great deal of explosive fun. So in addition to opening things up a little, I’m also hoping that writers who follow will realize that they can forge their own brand, and that they should, thus widening the field.

Mike Resnick
Mike Resnick is the author of 50 novels (the latest ones are his Starship series), 200 short stories, a pair of screenplays, and the editor of 50 anthologies, as well as the executive editor of Jim Baen’s Universe. According to Locus, he is the leading award winner, living or dead, of short fiction. His work has been translated into 22 languages.

My major literary influences from within the field would include Bob Sheckley, Cliff Simak, and Catherine L. Moore. My major guardian angels – those who helped me get started and always had good advice when I needed it – would include Bob Bloch, Gordy Dickson, Bob Sheckley, Jack Williamson, and Kelly Freas.

Actual books and stories that influenced me? Well, a lot influenced me UNfavorably, and I wrote my answers to them as everything from novels to short stories, but it would perhaps be impolitic to name them here. Books that influenced me most favorably, for one reason or another, would be Stapledon’s Star Maker (for the pure vastness and magnitude of the ideas), Simak’s City (for the way it handled emotion time after time without ever becoming maudlin), Jim White’s Sector General series (for creating a universe I wish I could live in, even if I’m a little too cynical to write about it), Barry Malzberg’s Herovit’s World (for a no-holds-barred portrayal of a science fiction writer’s existence), just about anything pre-1970 of Sheckley’s and especially Dimension of Miracles (for all the uses to which humor can be put in a science fiction story), Alfie Bester’s two classics (for pure technical wizardry), Catherine Moore’s solo stories from Northwest Smith right up through “Vintage Season” (for non-sexual eroticism [if that makes sense] and the best evocation of sense of wonder), and a lot of Ray Bradbury’s early work (for the incredibly effective use of what was at the time non-traditional subject matter, and for always choosing the human story).

If my work influences future writers in any way, I hope it’s the following:

  1. People are more important than anything else in your story (not always a popular notion in this field).
  2. Humor is never out of place, even in dramatic stories (also not a widely-held notion)
  3. If the writer doesn’t care deeply about his characters and his situations, there’s no reason why the reader should (widely held but not necessarily widely practiced).
  4. This isn’t literary, but: cherish your fans and treat them well. It won’t make much difference in their lives if you never write another book, but it’ll make a major difference in yours if they never buy another one of your books.
David D. Levine
David D. Levine is a lifelong SF reader whose midlife crisis was to take a sabbatical from his high-tech job to attend Clarion West in 2000. It seems to have worked. He made his first professional sale in 2001, won the Writers of the Future Contest in 2002, was nominated for the John W. Campbell award in 2003, was nominated for the Hugo Award and the Campbell again in 2004, and won a Hugo in 2006 (Best Short Story, for “Tk’Tk’Tk”). His “Titanium Mike Saves the Day” was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2008, and a collection of his short stories, Space Magic, is available from Wheatland Press. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, Kate Yule, with whom he edits the fanzine Bento, and their website is at http://www.BentoPress.com.

You are what you eat, they say, and what I ate growing up was the Golden Age SF of Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and Bradbury. My own fiction has often been called “old-timey” but I hope that, like a New Beetle or Mini-Cooper, it combines the fun and excitement of the old model with modern sensibilities and engineering.

I was also heavily influenced by James Blish’s Cities in Flight and an obscure book by one T.J. Bass called The Godwhale. I read an awful lot of Anne McCaffrey as a teenager, but as with Heinlein I hope that it hasn’t influenced my stuff too much. I loved Cordwainer Smith and my “Tale of the Golden Eagle” is an homage to his work. I buy every single book by Iain M. Banks as soon as it comes out, and in recent years I’ve been trying to emulate his scope. But I’d have to say that when I was a young person my absolute favorite writer, and the one I wanted most to be like, was Larry Niven. The brilliance and scientific plausibility of his ideas, the way the plots and characters followed naturally from the worldbuilding, and the clear evocative prose were an inspiration.

The things in my own work that I hope will influence other writers are the same things I liked in the stuff I read growing up: clear prose, fast-moving but comprehensible plots, characters and situations that couldn’t exist in any other world but the world of the story, and lots of aliens and spaceships. I don’t believe I’ve issued any statements or challenges to future writers in my work, though I try to offer critique and advice to newer writers as much as possible as my way of paying forward the help I got when I was starting out.

Paul Di Filippo
Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over 25 years, accumulating close to 150 stories and twenty-five books in the process. His newest book, Cosmocopia, will soon appear from Payseur & Schmidt, with art by Jim Woodring. His website can be found at www.pauldifilippo.com and he blogs at http://community.livejournal.com/theinferior4/.

I believe it was John Crowley who observed, “My books are made of other books.” I feel just the same. While not denigrating the immense role that our “real life” experiences have on our fiction (and isn’t reading itself a “real life” experience?), I have to maintain that writing literature is a gigantic game played within the confines of book covers (or web pages or Kindle screens these days too, I guess.) As such, literature is indeed like a series of tennis volleys, batting these ideational balls back and forth, even across the generations and centuries. (My next book might be an “answer” to Shakespeare or Walt Whitman!) SF in particular emphasizes this dialogue process.

I would be hard-pressed, simply because of time and space issues, to list all the authors who have influenced me and evoked a response. My whole book Lost Pages, for instance, engages very specifically a dozen or so authors by doing alternate-history homages to them. Instead, I have to characterize such incidents broadly, by saying that the authors who tend to evoke a response in me are those who offer the boldest ideas or the deepest emotions. The writers of extremes. After all, it’s hard to work up an impassioned conversation or debate with a lukewarm partner.

As for conversational hooks supplied by my own works, I’d like to think folks would pick up on these three themes, as exemplified by various fictions of mine.

  1. Why isn’t the world a better place, and how can we improve it?
  2. What are these crazy squishy meat things our minds inhabit, and how can we shape them differently, with what consequences?
  3. Why aren’t you laughing?
Julie E. Czerneda
Julie E. Czerneda is an award-winning, best-selling author and editor, with her first SF novel published in 1997, A Thousand Words for Stranger (DAW Books). A former biologist, she began writing professionally in 1985, contributing to over two hundred student and teacher resources, in all sciences, math, and career education. Since turning fulltime to fiction, she’s written a dozen SF novels (DAW), numerous short stories, and has edited several SF and fantasy anthologies. March 2009 will see the release of Ages of Wonder, a fantasy anthology co-edited with Rob St. Martin, and the conclusion of the Stratification trilogy, Rift in the Sky (July 09). A finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award (Distinguished SF) and the John W. Campbell Award (Best New Writer), Czerneda has won four Prix Aurora Awards (Canada’s top honour), the Golden Duck Award of Excellence for Science and Technology Education, and made the preliminary Nebula ballot. Active in the community, Czerneda has judged writing awards, conducted writers workshops, provided professional development for teachers and librarians across Canada and the US, and been a consultant for Science News. A sought-after speaker on scientific literacy, she received the Peel Award of Excellence in Education and is an Alumnus of Honour of the University of Waterloo. In 2008, Czerneda was awarded the Science in Society Award (Youth) for Polaris from the Science Writers Ass’n of Canada. In 2009, she will be Guest of Honour at ConScription, (New Zealand’s National Convention), guest at Conjecture ( Australia’s National Convention), and Master of Ceremonies for the World Science Fiction Convention in Montreal. (And hopes all her friends will be there, too!)

Every book and none of them. I’m not trying to be confusing, but as I’ve pondered your questions and thought of what I’ve read over the years, both are true. Everything I’ve read has added its voice to the chorus I hear when I think of science fiction, but no one book or author leaps forward to me as being more influential or louder or posing a question I had to answer. They’re more like background music. The only true conversation I had with an existing book was when I wrote an ending to the original Tarzan of the Apes, not realizing Burroughs had provided one. I do pay attention as I read. I love ideas that make me think. I enjoy writing that’s so eloquent or crisp I may despair but aspire. There are books and ideas of no interest to me and a few years ago I stopped trying to fight that. We learn. I’ve always written what I couldn’t find to read; in the conversation analogy, I’m the person in a corner talking to myself.

Still, I can point to authors whose approach to science fiction stuck in my head. Asimov, yes. Heinlein, no. Bradbury, yes. Laumer, yes. Simmons and Herbert, not so much. Norton and Cherryh, yes. Dickson and Bujold, yes. Anderson and Foster, no. Vance, yes. Clarke and Baxter, often, not always. When I say “no” it’s not that I don’t enjoy their work or value it, but the choices they made as writers to tell their stories didn’t satisfy me as a reader. Fair enough. I don’t expect my choices as author to satisfy every reader either. If they’re right for me, that’s where I go. Science fiction has this breathtaking room for that. There’s no other literature with so many and varied conversations underway at once. It’s quite wonderful.

Statements or challenges in my work, for other writers? Given what I’ve babbled here, the most obvious would be if you don’t like my approach, please, try your own, it’s fun. Other than that? Nothing I’m doing consciously, that’s for sure. My inner dialogue as I write is with the idea and that rarely ends, though I aim for some reasonable compromise with it in time to get that book published. If I’m thinking of other writers at all, it’s typically to worry about the reactions of the wise to my ever-evolving grammar. An experiment with semi-colons comes to mind. I’m sure ellipses have taken over my latest, sigh.

If my work was ever to talk to others, be an influence in any way, I’d hope it would be as encouragement. Encouragement to write what you want, the way you want, then see what happens. To be brave and throw in the strange details you find hilarious, without any assurance anyone else will. To read and enjoy all the conversations you can, but in the end, listen to yourself

Minister Faust
Minister Faust has been a dishwasher, a high school English teacher, a union delegate, a national television host and associate producer, and a celebrity judge on The 3-Day Novel Contest: The Series. Since 1989 he has been a programmer in community radio, and since 1991 has hosted and produced The Terrordome: The Afrika All-World News Service, an Africentric, pro-democracy radio show on CJSR FM-88 Edmonton, which has featured Minister Faust’s interviews with people such as Angela Davis, Steven Barnes, Nalo Hopkinson, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Michael Parenti, Tariq Ali, Vandana Shiva, Chuck D., Ice-T, Tom Fontana, Clark Johnson, Ernest Dickerson, Archbishop Pius Ncube, Martin Bernal, Richard Poe, Austin Clark, and many others. He’s the author of two critically-acclaimed SFF novels from Random House: The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad (shortlisted for the 2004 Compton-Crook, Locus Best First Novel and Philip K Dick, and on four top-ten lists) and From the Notebooks of Doctor Brain (runner-up for the 2007 Philip K. Dick). He currently writes for one of the world’s leading video game designers. A social justice activist since 1986, he recently wrote a manual on youth-leadership training via the arts for a multiculturalist agency. He lives in Edmonton with his wife and daughter.

In the SFF novels I’ve published so far, undeniably the biggest influences on me have been that of two comic book writers, Alan Moore and Frank Miller, although there are others.

When I was 10 or 11, reading Daredevil #180 (I think), that was the first time I’d read a story with more than one narrator, including a first-person narrator, and that opened my eyes to how dynamic and exciting such story and character revelation could be. I described The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, when I first wrote it as a screenplay in 1995, as “The Catcher in the Rye meets Repo-Man.” While that conveys the significance of J.D. Salinger (for strong voice) and Alex Cox (for freneticism) in Coyote Kings, it’s Miller’s introducing to me of multiple narrative first-person perspectives that allows for Coyote‘s structure, and were it not for that structure, I couldn’t have tuned the voices the way I did (which became a key element to the book’s success).

From Alan Moore I learned the importance of “re-installing” wonder. Moore’s work turned hum-drum superheroes (such as Swamp Thing and the Blue Beetle/Nite Owl) in the humdrum world of superheroes into dynamic, electrifying figures who had social, religious and political implications with psychological depth. His world-building powers, expressed magnificently in Watchmen and Top Ten, especially, have had as much an impact on me as Frank Herbert’s Dune (whose influence is more obvious in two large unpublished SF epics I’m hoping will soon be at a bookstore near you).

I’ll also throw in Daniel Keyes’ brilliant (an overused word, but one that’s entirely appropriate) novel Flowers for Algernon for its achievement of such profound psychological realism, dimension and nuance, John Gardner’s Grendel for its superb (pre-Watchmen) revisionist take on a classic which in turn inspires my own re-imaginative work, and Richard Wright’s stunning autobiography Black Boy for its superb language-craft, arc-construction and tone-poetry.

Other influences on my use of language (again, a key component of my work) include Malcolm X, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Linton Kwesi Johnson, the Last Poets, Chuck D., KRS-One and Mzwakhe Mbuli.

What the hell… a few more. I just re-read Bill Mantlo’s Micronauts #s 1-12 recently; it was the first comic I followed closely. Looking back at my unpublished novels, I can see a lot of Micronauts in my epic SF, as much as there is Dune. Also, Michael Mann’s Crime Story for epic scale, and Mann’s Manhunter for creating a monstrous villain who is ultimately sympathetic before being forced back into monstrosity, the original Star Trek (obviously) and Star Wars…oh, I guess I could go on forever.

Regarding “What statements or challenges are you making to future writers through your own stories?” I guess I hadn’t thought much about the possibility of influencing other writers through my writing, but why not?

My chief literary concerns are

  1. Using SFF allegories to animate and comment upon historical events of major significance that have been under-covered, erased or deceitfully represented in journalism and history (I’m obviously not the first to do that, but in terms of Africentric SFF, I’m one of the first),
  2. Encoding my SFF characters and their situations with psychological realism, and
  3. Animating my stories with rich language steeped in humour, tragedy, ancient-modern-global African literary traditions, and popular culture.

Now that you ask, I realise I do hope others will continue this project (a project I didn’t originate, by any means), especially in terms of rendering cultures into SFF that have been under- or misrepresented: East Africans, West Africans, North Africans, Central Africans, Southern Africans, Eastern Europeans, East Asians, South Asians, Central Asians, Canadian First Nations, American Indians…you get the idea.

Beyond this, I could say we must follow the ethic of two key Malcolm X statements: “If you’re afraid to tell the truth, you don’t even deserve freedom,” and from late in his life, “Don’t be in a hurry to condemn a man because he doesn’t do what you do or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”

Stephen Hunt
Stephen Hunt is the author of the Jackelian sequence of novels; they’re fantasy with a light dusting of science fiction, and include: The Court of the Air, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, and The Rise of the Iron Moon. HarperCollins publish his books in the UK, Canada and Australia, Tor handles the USA, with various other publishers translating in Spain, Portugal, China, Russia, Japan, France and Germany. His much neglected web site is www.StephenHunt.net.

Now there’s a very interesting question, as at no other time in history have so many stories and tales ever bombarded an author.

Not just books, although the perusal of any Waterstones, Borders or Barnes & Noble tells its own story in the mosaic of ever-changing covers every day that flick in and off the shelves with the life of hyperactive mating flies. Books are easy. Growing up reading in the 1970s and 1980s there was only a handful on fantasy and science fiction novels on the shelves. Moorcock, Vance, Silverberg, Asimov, Heinlein, EE Doc Smith, Jack Williamson, Stephen Goldin, David Gemmell, Bruce Sterling, Larry Niven – they all count as my influences.

No, the problem isn’t with the early material, it’s with the later stuff. Being an author these days feels less like a sprint against a handful of other writers and more like wading in against the jostling ten mile-long crowd of the London Marathon!

Us authors don’t just have books to influence us these days, we have graphic novels, comic books, RPGs, manga, anime, MMOG story-lines, 24-hour rolling news, soap operas, movies, direct-to-DVD film plots, cable TV, Trek, Galactica, Who, Firefly, Smallville, StarGate, RSS feeds, Twitter-fic, podcast fiction, YouTube v-logs, Kindle free texts.

Try to be original when you’re swimming in that sea! Just try to find the time to write, even. Is my new horror plot just a bit too Buffy? But then, it seems to work for Stephenie Meyer – she’s all over the Amazon best-seller charts. And that girl’s description I just wrote down, wasn’t she just like Chihiro in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away? But then Miyazaki was just doing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz – and Dorothy was just a reworking of Lewis Carroll’s Alice.

Arrrr, I’m turning Japanese, I really think so. My brain’s going to explode. But will it explode splatter-style like the heads in Scanners, or more metallic and CGI, like when Robert Patrick’s T-1000 takes a magazine’s worth of bullets to the skull? Maybe just a gory airlock blood-splatter as in the decompression scene in Outland, or all decapitated android-gooey like Bishop in Aliens? Choices, choices.

As to statements I’m making to future writers through SFF novels like The Court of the Air, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, and The Rise of the Iron Moon? Well, my works are just going to be pixels floating on the cyber-sea of eternity, a string of lonely zeros and ones stored next to season three of the X-Files, prodded by the search algorithms of an art historian’s A.I. every century or so. But then, hey, so are yours!

Welcome to the future of posterity, baby.

Jay Lake
Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay’s next book is Green, coming in June 2009 from Tor. Jay can be reached through his blog at jaylake.livejournal.com or his Web site at www.jlake.com.

In a very real sense, I’ve been influenced by everyone I’ve ever read, from the early Heinlein juveniles and Andre Norton Forerunner books right on through the Beth Bernobich book I finished yesterday. In a more conscious sense, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun is most directly responsible for inspiring me to become a genre writer. More recently I’ve been heavily influenced by K.J. Bishop, Jeffrey Ford, China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer, among others. For example, my book Trial of Flowers was a response to The Etched City, Perdido Street Station, and City of Saints and Madmen. I consider Ford’s short story “Creation” to be one of the best pieces of short fiction I’ve ever read.

As for my own work, I don’t know that I’m making statements or issuing challenges so much as telling stories I want to read. So if I have a message to future writers, it is only this: entertain yourself. If you’re not having fun with it, I’m sure as hell not going to.

S. Andrew Swann
S. Andrew Swann is the pen name of Steven Swiniarski. He’s married and lives in the Greater Cleveland area, where he has lived all of his adult life. He has a background in mechanical engineering and — besides writing — works as a database manager for one of the largest private child services agencies in the Cleveland area. He has published 17 novels with DAW books over the past 14 years, which include science fiction, fantasy, horror and thrillers. His latest novel is The Dwarves of Whiskey Island, a fantasy set in Cleveland, was published in October 2005. He has recently sold a pair of paranormal historical fantasy novels to Bantam. Upcoming books include Prophets (DAW Books, March 3rd), a sequel to the epic space opera Hostile Takeover Trilogy; Dragons and Dwarves (DAW, Aug 4th), an omnibus reprint of Dragons of the Cuyahoga and Dwarves of Whiskey Island; and Lilly’s Song, the first novel in the Wolfbreed series (Bantam, Aug 25th).

Of course the cheap answer: all of them. But, beyond the slow evolution of my style and ideas of an author- which necessarily is built upon everything I have read, everything I have seen- there are quite a few things I’ve written that are direct conversations with specific prior works.

The most direct reaction is my second novel, Emperors of the Twilight, which was written because I read Friday by Robert Heinlein and just didn’t buy the main character as a genetically engineered superwoman secret agent. In my opinion, my Evi would hand Friday’s ass back to her in a fair fight, and would be a tad more useful operationally. (This was back in 1993, before genetically engineered superwoman secret agents became a genre cliché.)

In a very different way, the work of Edgar Allen Poe (particularly “The House of Usher” and the “Masque of the Red Death”) indelibly became part of my vampire novel Raven. Not so much in plot or character, but Poe’s mood and imagery are imprinted on the books DNA. In addition to direct quotes and references, there are several passages and settings that deliberately echo passages and settings in Poe. Not to mention the title, of course.

More orthogonally, my fantasy The Dragons of the Cuyahoga was actually inspired by a SF novel, In The Cube by David Alexander Smith. This one requires a little explanation. In the Cube is a police procedural set in a future Boston that has been radically altered by alien visitors to become sort of an embassy/spaceport that has seceded from the U.S. The idea of a city becoming special because of some external invasion fascinated me, as did the political ramifications of such a power disparity between one urban region and the rest of the country. But in my take on the idea, instead of aliens landing, I opened a portal to another universe in Browns Stadium, letting elves, dwarves and dragons overrun Cleveland.

One last direct book-to-book relationship is my novel, The Omega Game, was directly inspired by Poul Anderson’s book The Devil’s Game. Both about people trapped on an island having to play by initially innocuous rules that become increasingly deadly. Both, I might note, predate Survivor and Lost. (The latter, perhaps not-so-coincidentally, my favorite TV series.)

As for what I leave other writers? That’s really hard to judge from this side of the page, a fish doesn’t see the water it is swimming in. Things I put on the page that I know someone may take issue with and want to respond to- the idea that the State is oppressive in almost all its incarnations, the idea that utopias and utopian thinking are at root totalitarian in nature, the idea that knowledge is both incredibly dangerous and incredibly hard to suppress, and the idea that human nature five hundred years from now is not going to be fundamentally different from what it is today.

Bio update: Upcoming books: Prophets, DAW Books March 3rd, Dragons and Dwarves, an omnibus reprint of Dragons of the Cuyahoga and Dwarves of Whiskey Island

due out by DAW Aug 4th. Also, Lilly’s Song, the first novel in the Wolfbreed series comes out from Bantam on Aug 25th.

Peter Watts
Peter Watts (Starfish, Maelstrom, Behemoth and Blindsight) is a disgruntled sf writer who has failed to win every major award for which he has ever been nominated. You might be surprised by how pleasant he can be in person, though.

As a tyke I imprinted like a Lorenz duckling onto John Brunner’s dystopias– Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, and to a lesser extent The Shockwave Rider. The breadth of those visions — the research, the pacing, the realpolitick, and the omnipresent, inevitable sense of Things Fucking Up– informs my attitude to this day. There are any number of authors whose writing I admired, whose prose I sought to emulate (Delany, Gibson, early Silverberg), but Brunner was formative.

More interactively, my work sometimes seems to almost comprise explicit rejoinders to my contemporaries. For example, when working out Blindsight‘s arguments on the utility of consciousness I was aware that Karl Schroeder was exploring similar territory in his novel Permanence. I hadn’t read the manuscript at that point but I hang out with Karl over beers, so we argued the theory. And while I have enormous respect for that dude’s writing, I never bought the logic that led to his “consciousness is a phase” riff– the evolutionary underpinnings were pretty weak– even though, ironically, I think he may have ended up in the right place. I addressed some of those issues in Blindsight — which can thus be regarded as one installment of an ongoing, explicit debate between Karl and I, some of which occurs in the pages of our novels, and some of which occurs over glasses of cranberry juice and pints of Rickards. In a broader sense, the book seems to have provoked a bit of a stir in the sf community at large, where it has been cited– along with the works of Greg Egan and Scott Bakker’s Neuropath — as an exemplar of some new movement variously called “neuropunk” or “hard-character sf”. (I prefer the term “neuronazi” myself.)

I’m also building a cycle of stories — the first of which appears in Gardner Dozois’ imminent space-opera anthology– which gives a good kick in the balls to all those novels and stories that rely on networks of FTL stargates conveniently left behind by long-vanished alien races. (Kind of an “antiStargate“, in the sense that Unforgiven was an “antiwestern”.) I’m designing it as both an episodic novel and (in my wildest dreams) a computer game, from the perspective of the poor blue-collar steel monkeys who actually have to *build* the fucking things: crawling for aeons at sublight speeds, waking up, building the damn gate, moving on while starfaring and stone-age civilisations rise and fall in their wake. And State of Grace, another work in progress, is at least partly a response to the Singularity fans and rapture nerds who seem to just assume that there’s going to be room for Humanity in a post-Human age. This would put it into dialog with about half the sf field these days, if anyone were actually willing to buy the damn thing. (Sadly, the same publishers who passed on Blindsight all seem to think that State of Grace is equally icky, so it may not happen. Publishing might be the only industry — except for fundamentalist religion, perhaps — in which it’s common to tell Orville that it’ll never fly the day *after* Kitty Hawk…)

Sean Williams
Sean Williams‘ latest books include the finale of his dark fantasy series for children (The Scarecrow), a space opera novel (Earth Ascendant), and his novelisation of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, the first game-related tie-in to debut at #1 on the New York Times hardback bestseller list.

Last week I finished my 29th novel. Looking back over those books, I’m starting see some kind of landscape rather than isolated points, and in the lay of that land I guess I might find the answer to this question. That ridge over there–what subterranean force brought it into being? That valley–what collapse?

One quarter of my published works–three series, ten novels and several short stories, over a million words, however you count it–is set in a fantasy universe inspired by the landscape of my home: South Australia. This desiccated, time-worn land has a magic all of its own, demanding stories somewhat removed from the Tolkienesque mode. Neither are they steampunk, however, or urban fantasy, or New Weird, or any of the other categories that have emerged since I started writing them. Were I as superb a writer as Ursula Le Guin, whose Earthsea books are undoubtedly a key influence, I would have carved a niche of my very own, but the bald fact is that these books have struggled to find a home outside Australia. And maybe that’s not entirely my fault. Perhaps the fantasy market is not ready for something quite so otherly, so nostalgic in a determinedly Antipodean way. And if the market is not, then that’s one challenge I’d leave to anyone following me: to mine the Outback for more than just iron, diamonds and uranium–or ghastly movies perpetuating absurd post-colonial myths–and bring the spaces we love so deeply to an appreciative audience.

What I am best known for outside Australia are space opera novels and Star Wars novels. Does one category belong to the other? Perhaps, perhaps not–and here lies the other great conversation I’ve been having with the genre for my entire career, if not my entire reading life. Writers like Terrance Dicks and Alan Dean Foster shaped my early imaginings of the genre just as profoundly as Larry Niven and Arthur C Clarke, and I’ve moved freely from original to franchise fiction throughout my career, applying the same amount of effort and affection in each instance. In my opinion, anyone who thinks “media” sf and “serious” sf don’t deserve places at the same table simply hasn’t read widely enough–and I further believe that each side of the genre “divide” can learn from the other, so one can be as artful as possible, and the other’s utter rejection of anything not completely original won’t drive it into backwaters where only those cognisant of the conventions have the slightest hope of understanding a word. How to encourage that, though? I see several writers of my generation tackling this question–authors like Karen Traviss, Tobias Buckell, and Karen Miller, all critically and commercially successful, all straddling both sides of the genre fence. There will be more, and I hope that in time that the great wound will be healed.

I am a restless writer, constantly roaming over the landscape I’ve charted and looking over the edge for new discoveries. Maybe I’ll look back one day and find that these twin peaks have fallen away, but for now they remain the dominant features of my desk-bound view.

Paul Levinson
Paul Levinson‘s The Silk Code, published by Tor Books, won the 2000 Locus Award for Best First Novel. Tor has since published his Borrowed Tides (2001), The Consciousness Plague (2002), The Pixel Eye (2003), and The Plot To Save Socrates (2006). His science fiction and mystery short stories have been nominated for Nebula, Hugo, Edgar, and Sturgeon Awards. “Unburning Alexandria,” the beginning of the sequel to The Plot to Save Socrates, was published in Analog in November 2008. Levinson’s eight nonfiction books, including The Soft Edge (1997), Digital McLuhan (1999), Realspace (2003), and Cellphone (2004), have been the subject of major articles in The New York Times, Wired, the Christian Science Monitor, and have been translated into ten languages. New New Media will be published in 2009. Paul Levinson appears on The O’Reilly Factor (Fox News), The CBS Evening News, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer (PBS), Nightline (ABC), and numerous national and international TV and radio programs. He reviews the best of television in his InfiniteRegress.tv blog. Paul Levinson is Professor of Communication & Media Studies at Fordham University in New York City.

Isaac Asimov influences just about every word of science fiction that I write. His Foundation trilogy, the robot stories, and The End of Eternity are the best in those genres – empire construction across millennia, robots, time travel. The precision of his style, the zest he takes in explaining a complex idea so it rings clear as a bell, are qualities I will always aspire to in my writing.

Other great writers and works have influenced me in more specific ways. When I write about people in the maze of time, I sometimes think of John Crowley’s lush, lyrical writing in Aegypt. I like Greg Bear’s crispness. I like Agatha Christie for how to write a detective.

What challenges are asserted in my own works?

First and foremost – tell a time travel story that does not shirk from a confrontation with the paradoxes. You can’t just give lip service to what would happen if you did something in the past that would prevent you from time traveling back to the past. I confronted every paradox I could in The Plot to Save Socrates, and in “Unburning Alexandria”. It’s a never ending task – but it can be exquisite fun. Tackle it, play with it, tease it out, and don’t feel you have to tie together every loose end – because you can’t possibly.

Next, choose a character, and stay with him or her for a lifetime – yours and your characters. I’ve told some of Phil D’Amato’s story in “The Chronology Protection Case,” “The Copyright Notice Case,” “The Mendelian Lamp Case,” and The Silk Code, The Consciousess Plague, and The Pixel Eye. And there’s more to tell – I have two new novels in draft, not to mention The Genesis Virus (a script for a TV pilot, that I wrote with Chuck Sterin and my wife Tina Vozick).

Last – all of my novels and stories were written from no outlines – I think the best part of writing is making it up as you go along…

David Louis Edelman
David Louis Edelman’s first novel, Infoquake, was called “the love child of Donald Trump and Vernor Vinge” by Barnes & Noble Explorations, and later named Barnes & Noble’s Top Science Fiction Book of 2006. The novel was also nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best Novel. The sequel, MultiReal, was also released to widespread acclaim. David is currently at work on the third and final book in the trilogy, Geosynchron.

In the science fiction realm, I’d have to say that the two authors that have most influenced my work are probably Frank Herbert and William Gibson.

Frank Herbert’s been an inspiration in the sheer scope and magnitude of his vision in the Dune books (particularly the first). Not only do the books take on a swath of history that covers thousands of years, but they also deal with multiple subjects: politics, environmentalism, genetics, Darwinism, philosophy, etc. They’re certainly not perfect novels, but Herbert’s given me the courage to think big and keep commercial considerations to the side.

William Gibson is peerless in his ability to confront age-old human problems in the modern digital era. The ideas are neat-o in themselves (geocoded art! AI’s masquerading as African gods! automobile hacking!), but to me it’s the characters that leave the greatest impressions. Spirited and spunky nobodies who try to maneuver and keep their ethical bearings in a world where they’re just pawns in the great games of higher, murkier powers.

What statements or challenges am I leaving for future writers? I dunno — how about the challenge to take your work utterly seriously and not let yourself be seduced by the lure of the simple and the facile? I think that’s sufficiently pretentious.

4 thoughts on “MIND MELD: Who are Your Literary Influences in the Ongoing Conversation of Science Fiction?”

  1. I made myself a writer one summer afternoon at age 8, when I wrote a story I didn’t have to, and had fun, and realized I could do what ever I wanted on the page.  

    Poe, Verne, Wells, and Doyle broke me out of fishing stories.

    Dickens inspired me to take it seriously.

    Harlan Ellison woke me up to coloring outside the lines.

    Hemingway showed me how less can be more.

    Pynchon dared me even to try.

    Now I write the stories that come to me as well as I can, for their sake.

    Looking back over 30 years plus, I discovered I’d been writing mystical realism all along.  What ever that means.  It was and is not conscious.  Just happens.

    I no longer believe in genre versus mainstream, etc.  Just good writing.  A good story well told.  Any kind of fiction can rise above the rest.  Market categories are labels and do not affect content, or quality.

  2. Just wanted to dorp a note to say this was a very interesting Mind Meld, and Mind Meld is a very interesting feature. The “conversation” of sci-fi always has seemed to be one of the distinguishing features of the genre.

Comments are closed.