MIND MELD: Books That Are As Good Today As They Were The First Time
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
The setup: I recently started re-reading one of my all time favorite books, The Anubis Gates, and I realized the book is just as good now as it was the first time I read. That prompted the following question:
Here’s what they said…
My usual first answer to this question would be Julian May’s Saga Of The Exiles! but as I’ve waffled about that particular series at least once here at SF Signal (possible more than once), I’ll give it a rest and pick something else.
So: Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling. Now, I came pretty late to this one (looooong after it was originally published back in 1985), but what’s astonishing about it – what gives it that longevity we’re talking about – is that it still reads freshly today. Sure, you can go through it looking for Gibsonian what-no-cellphone moments (though they’re very few in number), but it was without precedent as a vision of a plausible posthuman civilisation – though in terms of plausibility I’m conveniently overlooking the alien visitors bit to focus on the core conflict between the Mechanists and Shapers.
It’s very telling that almost every posthuman future written since Schismatrix is indebted to it to a greater or lesser degree, acknowledged or otherwise. Al Reynolds cheerfully admits that the universe of his Revelation Space series owes a lot to Schismatrix, but you can see it lurking in Linda Nagata’s stuff, and more recently (though less overtly) in Stross and Doctorow and MacLeod and McDonald…
Why is Schismatrix such a lasting success? Partly it’s the level of detail, and Sterling’s mastery of using only the edges of ideas; there’s a vast imagined architecture to that universe which you never see straight on, but whose mass and complexity, lurking in the wings or backstage, is reflected in all the things you do get shown. Partly it’s the unflinching grittiness of (post)humanity utterly failing to shed the most flawed aspects of their humanity in spite of (or perhaps because of) their attempts to transcend it with technology. And partly it’s because it didn’t get rinsed out to a colourless rag by overuse: one brilliant novel (and a handful of short stories) from a universe that would nowadays be milked for sequel after phoned-in sequel.
(I honestly think the best way to make any cultural artefact keep its appeal is not to over-exploit it. Sadly, that belief is not well aligned with current business models.)
There are a few others worth mentioning: I always enjoy returning to an Iain M Banks novel, especially – though not exclusively – his Culture books; Jeff Noon’s first two books, Vurt and Pollen, still manage to inspire me with their sheer exuberance and uniquely British vibe (even if the stories themselves don’t impress quite so much as they did on discovery); and David Zindell’s Requiem For Homo Sapiens / Neverness sequence always has something new to show me (don’t be put off by his more recent and deeply disappointing excursion into cookiecutter high fantasy).
But finally, one of the few books that I first read quite young that still holds up now, and that’s Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy – still incredibly moving and magical, after (for me, anyway) close to 25 years. In fact, maybe all the more powerful now that I’m old enough to parse the deeper truths behind the surface story, not to mention a great antidote to the all-too-easily-justified claim that secondary-world fantasy and/or “YA fiction” is necessarily an inferior product.
For me, the benchmark of re-readable is Lord Of The Rings. It’s one of few books I ever re-read immediately upon finishing it the first time. It did take until another re-reading, when I was in college studying linguistics, for me to read the language appendices. Then I finally understood what a great work of language invention Tolkien had achieved.
A story can be just as good when read again for varied reasons. It can be a grand tale with great characters. It can conjure a world pleasant to revisit. It can have profundity that went unnoticed on the first read at a younger age. For my Master’s Thesis some while back, I re-read LeGuin’s Left Hand Of Darkness, parsed the the philosophical undercurrents, and came away rewarded all over again. Speaking of LeGuin, luminously well-written prose almost always rewards re-reading.
A couple of years ago I re-read Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama. Exploring the starship-world for the first time all over again was enjoyable. Clarke at his best has an spare elegance to his prose and a kind of transcendence to his future vision, and both qualities wear well. Also decades after the first read, I re-read James Schmitz’s Witches Of Karres. It was still a fun, supple story positioned so far into future that it borders on timeless fantasy. Last year I even re-read one of my favorite of Andre Norton’s juvenile books, which was asking for potential disappointment. Well: it seemed like a smaller story than I remembered. (In a similar way, the rooms and furniture in your childhood home loom large in memory. They are the same size as ever – you were the small one in what seemed like a great big room!) Nonetheless, Steel Magic was a pleasure to re-read. The story was very neatly constructed.
Good story craft fascinates a reader who’s also a writer. That’s my take on Lillian Stewart Carl’s new Jean Fairbairn-Alasdair Cameron mysteries, a series with romance and ghosts in addition to murders. Not long after the first read, I’m re-reading the series with just as much enjoyment in a different way. This is not violent, brash, thrill-ride storytelling: it’s thoughtful, beautiful, nuanced, and constructed with consummate skill across the whole arc.
I don’t get to re-read books that often–the pressure of “the new” is too constant. But I do acknowledge that even novels crafted as eternal works of literature can have hidden temporal flaws and biases that cause them to boast an unforeseen limited shelf life. This happens more often, I think, with books published in the reader’s own lifetime. The hot and critically lauded item published in 1990 that you loved looks lame twenty years later. For a counter-example, consider the work of Dickens. Everything bad, good and indifferent has been said about him already. He’s remote enough from us that his image is fixed pretty solidly when we first encounter him. To read Dickens in 1985 and then to re-read him in 2011 is hardly to add any “distance” at all to his work. There’s not enough parallax to afford a new perspective. If you liked him in 1985, you’ll probably like him just as much in 2011.
Of course, all of this ignores the aspect of our topic today which concerns how the individual reader changes over time, discarding old favorites and acquiring new ones, as her mind alters with experience. Also, of course, the culture does the same thing at large. Melville, famously, was abandoned then rediscovered.
In any case, all this theorizing is perhaps a stall to avoid naming names, so let me get to some examples of Stuff That Holds Up Well, based on my personal re-reading.
John Crowley’s Aegypt
Robert Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer
Philip Dick’s The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch and Ubik
Brian Aldiss’s Report On Probability A and Greybeard
A. E. van Vogt’s Slan and The World Of Null-A
Loved ‘em the first time around, and love ‘em still!
There’s always that sadness when you crack open a book that you loved as a teenager and find that now you recoil from it. Oddly enough, as fondly as I remember The A-Team, it turns out to be just horrible to watch now, nostalgia aside. And a lot of books end being about as pertinent to my life twenty years later as The A-Team, sadly.
But there are ‘evergreen’ books that I do turn to over and over again.
Probably my favorite evergreen is Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I still get sucked in once a year or so when I read the words “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
Heretically enough, I found that I could read Lord of The Rings only the first time. Every other time I’ve tried to take it up I’ve found it not nearly as charming and to the point as The Hobbit. The Hobbit I reread fairly frequently.
As Pamela Sargent, James Wallace Harris and Alex Irvine in the previous edition said, Philip K. Dick is an obvious choice. He was both ahead of, and well entrenched in his time (if that sounds paradoxical, well, PKD was often paradoxical), and there are strange, hidden layers in his best works.
An added complexity is that I first read PKD in Dutch translation–my father was a huge SF reader–when I was a teenager. I didn’t understand very much of it, but I found it fascinating.
Later I found out that these Dutch translations had a maximum word cap: so if a novel was longer than that, random pieces were just cut out. This had happened with several PKD novels that I’d read.
So when I re-read these a decade or so later, in English, I understood much more of them (as far as one can fully understand PKD), not only because I read them directly in English and I had gained more life experience, but also because they were complete.
Christopher Priest’s novels are both a pleasure and a challenge to get back to, especially The Glamour and The Separation. There are whole layers of deception and misdirection in his works, but once you get through layer 1 there is a rich reward in discovering the subtle workings of layer 2. Then if you break through layer 2… Etc. This requires concentration, dedication–don’t be distracted by other works–and hard work. But for the determined it pays back in spades.
John Brunner: Stand on Zanzibar (his most famous work), but even more so The Sheep Look Up and The Shockwave Rider. All three remain chillingly actual up to this day, and even if Brunner got some details wrong (and some particularly right, such as computer hacking/viruses in The Shockwave Rider), the overall picture was and is relentlessly sharp.
It took me a few tries to get a better grip on Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. I also read that one in Dutch first, also a randomly-cut version before re-reading the English original, and then it took me a second re-read to finally accept it as a masterpiece (sometimes I am quite slow). Strangely enough, I liked both Rocannon’s World and The Dispossessed at first read. So go figure.
On a lighter note, I still have a weakness for Fredric Brown’s short stories (collected in From These Ashes: The Complete Short SF of Fredric Brown): witty, poignant, funny, sometimes deep, sometimes sad. Call them flash-fiction-avant-la-lettre, and I wonder what Fredric Brown would have made of Twitter. (“Knock”, even if it’s the beginning of a story and not–as the apocryphal tale has it–the story itself, could even be considered Tweet Fiction avant-la-lettre.) (With apologies to the late Ernest Hemingway: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’.)
In all honesty, though, I don’t re-read that many works, as my to-be-read pile is huge and growing: I cannot keep up with what I buy, yet I keep buying. I must be addicted…;-).
Finally, one could mention SF/F/H works that were quite disappointing when you re-read them, but that’s a whole different can of worms.
I suppose I’m a reasonable candidate to discuss books that stay good. After all, I’ve reached middle age, that time when you start wondering about the stuff you read, watched, and heard as a kid, but forgot or put aside when you reached your twenties (“I loved the Carpenters in my teens – were they actually any good?” Better that I’d thought, actually; and now I realize that Richard Carpenter is one of us).
As for books that stay good, the first titles to pop into my mind are ones I’ve already discussed for Mind Meld. As my pick for underrated science fiction series, I chose Leigh Brackett’s dark, elegaic Skaith Trilogy (The Ginger Star, The Hounds of Skaith, and The Reavers of Skaith), starring her grim, feral interplanetary adventurer, Eric John Stark; but The Secret of Sinharat, The Sword of Rhiannon, and any of her other SF works (which pioneered the transition from two-dimensional pulp adventure SF to modern, sophisticated SF) hold up wonderfully.
I can make the same claim of the pioneering works of another early female SF/fantasy writer, C.L. Moore; the adventures of her dark interplanetary adventurer, Northwest Smith, have recently been compiled in Northwest of Earth: The Complete Northwest Smith, while the adventures of sword and sorcery’s first blade-bearing heroine, her relentless Jirel of Joiry, have been collected in Black God’s Kiss.
You’ve probably guessed that my teenage reading leaned toward the pulp end of SF/F. To be blunt, it largely consisted of crap so unmemorable, I truly can’t recall many titles I read, never mind their contents. But I remember Edgar Rice Burroughs. And when I re-read A Princess of Mars (the first book in the John Carter of Mars series) for a review a few years ago, I was flabbergasted at how well this novel (first published as Under the Moons of Mars in 1912) has held up. Now, perfect it ain’t (especially if you pay any attention to its colonial, sexual, or racial politics). But it’s a superior adventure story, and it’s gotten me interested in re-reading Tarzan of the Apes (though I don’t plan to test my decades-old memory of later books in both series as maddeningly formulaic).
In the same vein, I was pleasantly surprised by the strengths I found when reviewing The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, which collects numerous dark works by another favorite of my youth (but be warned that REH’s issues with race can make Burroughs look enlightened). Too, I enjoyed some recent graphic-novel collections of Marvel Comics’ Conan the Barbarian series; specifically, titles written by Roy Thomas and illustrated primarily by Barry Windsor-Smith (originally Barry Smith) and John Buscema. As for Fritz Leiber, creator of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and J.R.R. Tolkien, originator of the high fantasy novel and trilogy as we know them, I suspect many a Mind Meld contributor will discuss the multitudinous merits of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the Swords series.
On occasion I would accidentally read a work I thought would be a simple pulp fantasy or interplanetary romance, and wasn’t, which is how I encountered not only Leiber and Tolkien, but Jack Vance. In Big Planet, Vance expanded on Brackett’s and Moore’s sophistication of the interplanetary romance, thereby creating the first modern planetary romance, without which we probably would not have the Dune or Darkover series, never mind the many series they inspired. Vance’s follow-up to Big Planet, Showboat World, bore little resemblance to its prequel, as it followed the con-artist adventures of riverboat captains and performing-arts troupes; it also sophisticated Vance’s gift for inventing bizarre yet believable otherworldly cultures. Other smart, exotic Vance novels that hold up well include The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, and the Planet of Adventure Trilogy (City of the Chasch, Servants of the Wankh, The Dirdir, and The Pnume).
The Marvel Comics series Amazing Adventures: War of the Worlds (a mash-up of Robert E. Howard and H.G. Wells) started out pulpy. But when writer Don McGregor and artist P. Craig Russell took over, I unwittingly found myself reading my first comic book for grown-ups. For good and ill, you can find the entire War of the Worlds/Warrior of the Worlds/Killraven series collected in The Essential Killraven; fortunately, it finishes strong, with the McGregor/Russell material.
Probably the furthest afield I wandered from pulp adventure SF/F was the Earthsea Trilogy of Ursula K. Le Guin, which I frankly wasn’t sophisticated enough to enjoy. Too dark, too grim, and just plain too unpredictable for my pre-teen/early-teen tastes, the original Earthsea novels (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore) revealed themselves in my later years as one of the best fantasy series and young adult series of all time. Interestingly, I now see something that was opaque to me when I read them practically back to back: a major if subtle influence on the Earthsea Trilogy is Tolkien.
Well, I’ve indulged my nostalgia long enough. I look forward to reading the other contributions to this Mind Meld, and discovering great SF/F I missed the first time ’round.
Any book worth its salt should be able to withstand a second reading, but there are some that
excite and move me at every re-encounter. Here are a few:
Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard. A man finds himself stranded on a traffic island after a car crash. At first he can’t escape. And then he doesn’t want to. A powerful, deceptively simple updating of the Robinson Crusoe story.
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany. A man comes to a wounded American city, leaves as a hero-poet. After the fall of New Orleans, it’s more relevant than ever.
Libra by Don DeLillo. Oswald as tragic hero.
Neuromancer by William Gibson. Still fresh and startlingly original, despite a thousand imitators.
The Inheritors by William Golding. Neanderthals encounter modern humans, with fatal results. All of Golding is worth reading and rereading, but this is my favourite.
Climbers by M. John Harrison. A beautifully written, intricately structured memoir/novel about memory, obsession, and the unrelenting reality of the world.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin. Diagrammatic, yes, but the sections set on Anarres are truly powerful and moving, and it’s one of the few SF novels to attempt to portray a genuinely original society from the inside.
Child of God by Cormac McCarthy. America primeval.
Picnic on Paradise by Joanna Russ. Alyx, a barbarian kidnapped by the future, leads a gang of squabbling tourists across an alien wilderness. Alyx is the template for every tough, wisecracking kickass heroine in cyberpunk, the new space opera and much else, but she’s the original and best, tough and funny and tender and wise.
Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest by John Updike. The vastly detailed life and times of Updike’s American Everyman are, like America itself, inexhaustible.
The Once and Future King by T.H. White. A marvellously eccentric fantasy about King Arthur, the Round Table, and the Matter of Britain that begins as a juvenile comedy and ends in tragedy and renewal. The death of Beaumont gets me every time. And no one does
infodumps like White, who seems to know everything about Medieval Britain, which he remakes into a world that never was but should have been.
Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack. The fall of America, as told to her diary by a young girl. The best, and chronologically the first, of Womack’s Ambient
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