MIND MELD: Books That Have Had a Profound Effect on Readers and Writers
Books have the power to make us laugh, cry, and everything in between, and there are those books (you know what I’m talking about) that can actually change the way we think and influence us in very powerful ways, even changing the course of our lives. I asked our panel this question:
Here’s what they had to say…
When I was little my Dad read The Lord of the Rings to me at bedtime, and my fate was sealed. I was hooked by the language and lost in the world, and even then I knew what I wanted to do – I wanted to make my own worlds, and I wanted to spend my life getting lost in them. So I guess I have to say The Lord of the Rings has had the most influence over my life. It shaped me into a fan, and ultimately an author.
I don’t remember how old I was when I got bored of the kids’ section in the library, drifted over to SFF and discovered David Eddings’ The Diamond Throne on the shelf. It started an obsession with David (and Leigh!) Eddings’ work that built on Tolkien’s solid foundation. I devoured The Elenium, went back through The Belgariad and Malloreon, and practically stalked the staff at the local bookshop when the Tamuli started to come out. Sparhawk was quite possibly the coolest person ever. I wanted to be Polgara. I still love those books, despite their flaws, because of that sense of excitement and absolute fixation on those characters. But probably the most important thing reading Eddings’ taught me, was that maybe I could do this too. They were just so accessible, and yet so addictive. I’d always made up stories in my head, and I enjoyed writing them at school, but it was because of Sparhawk that I first tried to write a book. (I didn’t get very far, and I think it was about Pegasus, but that’s not the point.)
Tolkien and Eddings turned me into a SFF fan, and made me want to become an author. But there are certainly other books that have influenced me, and my life outside of writing! In high-school English we studied a unit called “Utopia and Dystopia”, and we read Utopia, 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale. Can you imagine a better combination for a highly curious but already skeptical teenage mind? I can say, without a doubt, as that these books helped shape the way I view the world. Gender relations, religious extremism, political communication – they taught me to analyze the world around me, to question motives, and never take anything at face value. That “perfect” lies well and truly in the eye of whoever happens to have the power, and that the line between utopia and dystopia is blurred at best. I imagine they’ve influenced my writing as well – actually I just have to look at the veche and the Legate, two governing bodies in the Veiled World books, to know this is the case!
A more recent example would have to be Future Babble by Dan Gardner. My husband read this and wouldn’t shut up about it until I’d read it too, and I’m grateful for his persistence. It’s about predictions and experts, why they so often fail but we always go back for more, and the powerful human need for certainty. Fascinating stuff, and it’s totally changed the way I look at the media in particular. You know whenever there’s a catastrophe, or an accident, or the share market goes down (or up) and the news trots out the same speaking heads who make bold statements with absolute confidence despite the fact that they got it totally wrong last time? Yeah, that. I’m sure it’s also turned me (and my husband!) into irritating people who use terms like “quorum response” or “cognitive dissonance” in everyday conversation. But you take the good with the bad.
It really depends on the day just what books I’ll talk about in response to a question like this, but today I went with Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series.
Lynch’s book, The Undertaking, is actually a collection of essays about death. Lynch himself is an undertaker, while also a poet, essayist, and fiction writer, and the essays in the Undertaking focus on his experience with death as an intimate who answers the calls of the family and as a business man who has worked death on a professional since childhood (his father was also an undertaker, if I remember correctly). At times funny, at times insightful, always well written, I found it a really fascinating, and generous book, and it has lingered in a lot of ways in me. Lynch’s subsequent books have been a bit of a mixed bag – his strong Catholicism comes out in some – but he’s always excellent, and always interesting.
Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is the first book of Butler’s that I read. Set in the future amongst social breakdown and violence due to widespread poverty and resource scarcity, the book centres on a young woman, Lauren, who has a psychic empathy ability. During the book, she begins her own religion, but it was the interplay of race, politics and narrative that really stayed with me. Butler’s novel revealed to me how you could run your conversations on those topics in the background and shift them back and forth as required, while also holding to narrative that serves the book before the author. It was a very impressive novel in a number of ways.
Originally, for a third book, I was going to talk about Haruki Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, or perhaps even Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire, both of which are very excellent books (for some reason I thought there ought to be three, though I could have listed many others). But then I thought, nah, I’d finish this little list with Fritz Leiber’s series of stories about the barbarian Fafhrd and the thief, the Gray Mouser.
Depending on how you find the books nowadays, it’s either two volumes, four volumes, six, or seven. But any which way you buy them, they’re fantastic: deftly written, sly, funny, and intelligent. Leiber’s series were the first pieces of fantasy literature I ever read that were really good, while also filled with swords and wizards (it is said that the term ‘sword and sorcery’ came from these books). I’d grown up reading a lot of the big fantasy books and franchise fantasy series of my youth, and it began a long affair with fantasy fiction on my part. But most of it was juvenile stuff – not all that surprising, given the age I was reading it at, but Leiber’s work was, without a doubt, adult. From the repetition of Fafhrd and Mouser’s first tragic loves in partners, to the moral ambiguity of the two themselves, to the very fine writing that was through Leiber’s body of work, the assorted short stories, novelettes, novellas and one, perhaps two, novels, of Fafhrd and the Mouser really changed my opinion of fantasy.
I remember standing inside a bookstore with my father, possibly at age 11. He told me to pick out three books and said he’d pay for them, but when I brought them over, he refused to. “Why are they all about sex and killing people?” he asked. (I think the books in question included a James Bond novel, a Vampirella novel and some sort of SF novel with people in jumpsuits on the cover.) I think that was the moment when I learned that if I wanted to read the things I was drawn to, I’d obviously have to buy them myself. It was also when I learned to be ashamed of exactly what I was drawn to, because it was probably trash. Getting over that took a while, but it definitely helped when I realized that most of what he read for fun also mainly consisted of SF novels with people in jumpsuits on the cover.
Soon after that, I fell deeply in love with two of those same SF novels. One was Robert Silverberg’s space opera Thorns, which chronicles a pan-galactic reality TV relationship between two outcasts set up by the empathy-vampire who wants to consume the pain their dysfunctional love produces as a byproduct, while the other was Roger Zelazney’s Creatures of Light and Darkness, a whackadoodle slice of hipster mythpunk which re-imagines the gods of Ancient Egypt as alien mad scientists who do things like punish their enemies by threading their nervous systems into carpets and then jumping up and down on them. Both were florid, sensorily-driven, stupidly cross-referential triumphs of style over substance, yet both also had a certain core of emotional truth to them–definitely full of sex and violence, but also full of random quotes from John Donne, Chaucer and the Bible. Very adult books, or so they seemed, at the time.
Similarly, like everybody else I knew, I was into comics and the Star Wars movies, which was why I ended up buying Samuel R. Delaney’s Empire, a graphic novel illustrated by Howard V. Chaykin. It taught me a bunch of interesting lessons, mainly about subversion of narrative expectations: Chaykin had done the earliest tie-in Star Wars comics, and in a lot of ways, Empire read as though he and Delaney were trying to deconstruct George Lucas’s deceptively simple ideas from the bottom up, asking how exactly one might go about conquering a whole galaxy/universe full of planets, when each one would have to be at least as complex as Earth itself. Not to mention how the “hero” character was more of a damsel in distress, the leader of the rebellion was an older, roguish woman full of bisexual charm, and the plot mechanisms spun as much on coincidence and mistake as they did on strategy and morality.
One way or the other, though I didn’t stay in that particular genre for very long, I learned a lot from what I saw there…in specific, that there apparently wasn’t any real need to not write out of your own obsessions for fear no one but you would be able to “get” what you were driving at. Looking back, I realize that half the time I didn’t even know what was going on in those books from page to page, but it certainly didn’t stop me from reading (and re-reading) them until the pieces finally clicked into place.
From SF I ended up in Fantasy, where my drug of choice quickly became the writing of Tanith Lee, “God-Empress of the Hot Read.” Along with Elizabeth A. Lynn’s The Sardonyx Net, Lee’s Flat Earth series–Night’s Master, Death Master, Delirium’s Master, et al–were the first books in which I recall encountering moments where I thought: “oh yeah, it’s not like this is going anywhere,” only to have queer relationships suddenly bloom up from between the cracks of the story into full-blown, narratively acknowledged life. For Lee’s characters, the world was already weird enough without adding sexual/gender panic in on top–gods and magicians ran rampant, doing what they wanted and paying the price in elaborate, poetical, awful ways. Those books kicked open another sort of door, opening me up to the possibility of writing directly about things I’d previously thought (Delaney aside) could only be approached obliquely, and I never went back.
Eventually, however, I made the final transition from SF to fantasy to horror, possibly because it seemed somehow more “realistic” than the other two–a way to write about the world around me, albeit metaphorically; to examine all the stuff I kept on learning outside the literary sphere, yet still keep a certain modicum of (black) magic in play. The route into what would become my home-genre can be charted through four books: Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, Michael McDowell’s The Elementals, Peter Straub’s Floating Dragon and Kathe Koja’s Skin. With each, I consolidated the themes, mood and mechanics I was most attracted to, the spectrum of darkness which runs from sharp shock to creeping dread, culminating in a crowning moment of awful which nevertheless retains some element of true awe: transcendence, mystery, the numinous.
That’s where I’ve stayed ever since, to one degree or another. That’s where I expect to always stay.
This is one of those questions that could easily generate a list, but I’d like to focus on just one book – and it’s not even a genre novel. The more I think about it the more I realise that Alex Haley’s Roots had a profound impact on me; even though (or maybe because) I read it when I was around ten years old.
I was a voracious reader, and one who did not, thankfully, have to put up with any ‘that’s not for kids’ hogwash. I read whatever I wanted and could get my hands on. But at that age, and living in a remote village in Jamaica, I had little sense of how books came into existence; they just were. The authorial role had yet to really register on my consciousness. Until my parents befriended an older African-American man named Alex who had rented a cottage on the beach for some months so that he could, I was told, ‘finish working on a book.’
My memories of Alex are very vague: a kindly acquaintance, who was quite taken with the precocious kid who read everything. For my part I remember being fascinated by the notion that here was someone who made stories; and insistent that I wanted to read the book he had just finished polishing up for publication. In retrospect there may have been a bit of disbelief in me, a bit of ‘you, a regular person sitting and chatting under the mango tree, creates books? Prove it.’ But in any event a book arrived in our home not long after Alex had left town; a serialised Reader’s Digest version which contained only the first half of Roots. I devoured it, and begged for the rest. It seemed to take a very long time, and I now suspect that what I had read predated the actual hardback publication, because what I eventually got were unbound sheets; the second half of Roots in galley form, rescued I think from Alex’s beach cottage, and delivered a few miles up the road to satisfy the demands of an insatiable, impatient little girl.
I remember Roots as a gripping, immersive story; a cracking read, as full of hope as it is of horror. It was the first ‘true story’ that engaged my imagination and emotions, that worked on me the way fiction worked. But of course it meant far more. Reading it brought the legacy of slavery home in a way that I think nothing else had done up to that point. By making the connection between Kunta Kinte as a character in the way-back-when and our friend Alex in the here-and-now, it made history real. I knew this story was also my own history. I felt it in my bones, and I understood the world differently as a result; I understood that prejudice, self-interest, violence and arrogance had created the world I inhabited.
That understanding is intrinsic to the novels that I now write. Because that was the third lesson Roots taught me: that books are written by regular people, the kind who sit and chat under mango trees. People like me.
The first one, Frederik Pohl’s Gateway, evoked sadness. There was a situation where two lovers were separated forever by the time dilation effects of space travel. At the time I read it, I was in my teens and had just gone through a bad breakup with a girlfriend. When I came across that part of the book, I recall being touched very deeply by it.
The second book, Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer, evoked annoyance — specifically over the actions of a character I liked. One of the reasons I liked the character was because of the awesome relationship he had with his wife. At one point, he puts that relationship in jeopardy. I became so annoyed at this fictional character that I had to put the book down and walk away.
I read The Plague Dogs when I was twelve or so, having devoured Watership Down, and I sobbed all the way through it. Actually, this is an understatement, I felt physically sick and traumatised, and I didn’t buy the happy ending for a second (I suspect this was tacked on by the publishers to stop readers slitting their wrists). The novel opens as Rowf, a gentle black Labrador, who’s a subject in an animal testing facility, is being repeatedly dunked in a filthy water tank. Later, he and his friend, a terrier whose brain has been damaged after extensive experimentation, manage to escape the facility and go on the run. They encounter a non-stop horror show of human cruelty, and are helped by The Tod, a wonderfully cocky fox, who later dies – off page, which is somehow worse – at the hands of a bunch of bloody-thirsty fox hunters.
I suspect that a lot of the nuances in the novel went right over my head at the time. I wasn’t worldly enough to pick up on the black humour (for example, the testing facility’s acronym is A.R.S.E), and apparently Adams was at pains to show both sides of the animal testing argument by including a scene with a dying child, but I will never read it again, or see the (apparently excellent) animated film adaptation. I’m not brave enough. This may sound melodramatic, but the novel sparked off a lifelong interest in animal rights’ activism and a decade of veganism (which was a nightmare in early eighties’ Britain, especially as meat was my family’s main food group). As far as I’m concerned the novel did its job: It’s partly responsible for why my house is now bursting at the seams with rescue animals.
So when I think of the most important books in my life, most of them were read when I was young: The Phantom Toll Booth; The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles; any comic featuring Captain America. In high school it was Sturgeon’s More than Human, the short stories of Harlan Ellison (every one I could get my hands on), and Zelazny’s Lord of Light. Later still, I would stumble across Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint and Valis, and those would blow… my… mind.
I also read lots and lots of crap.
(There’s probably another essay to be written here about how the mind wants what it wants, and how much of the time it’s not the most nutritional material, so that despite the best efforts of teachers and parents we often find the most satisfying stuff by foraging through bookshelves on our own and stealing from other kids’ plates. Can we do a Mind Meld about the most influential terrible books? But I digress.)
As I got older, the books that affected me were more likely to be non-fiction. Starting about fifteen years ago, I’ve had my mind rearranged on a regular basis by books by neuroscientists and philosophers—folks like Antonio Damasio, Daniel Dennett, Oliver Sacks, and Daniel Wegner. The books tackled the illusion of the self, moral reasoning, free will, the possible neurological basis of religious experience… in short, a host of questions that would not only make me think differently about my life, but also form the basis of many of my short stories and my latest novel.
Looking through my shelves, I couldn’t decide which of the books by these men was the tipping point, the single one that made the most difference. But if forced to pick (and that’s what this Mind Meld is about), I’d go with V.S. Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, coauthored with Sandra Blakeslee.
Ramachandran is a neurologist, and Phantoms is a kind of detective’s casebook, with patients seeking solutions to some strange problems. Ramachandran often does some very low-tech experiments to find out what’s going on, then offers (sometimes) some very clever solutions.
For example, one man with an amputated arm felt like his phantom fist was constantly clenched, causing him intense pain. Ramachandran created a mirror box to allow the man to “control” the phantom hand and unclench it, relieving his pain. The cure for a delusion turned out to be deluding the brain.
Some of Ramachandran’s patients are afflicted with blindsight, others are feeling religious ecstasy from temporal lobe epilepsy, but all are experiencing delusions of various types. These delusions are like windows into the brain; by understanding what’s going wrong, we can figure out what the brain is really doing when it’s functioning normally.
If there’s one lesson from this book, and from the others on my neurophilosophy shelf, it’s that the brain is deceiving us all the time—but if we know how it’s deceiving us, we can take corrective steps when the illusions don’t serve us.
I realize now that all those science fiction books I read when I was young were preparing me to be open to these questions. Read Lord of Light and you’ll have trouble taking religious myths at face value. Read PKD and you’ll be questioning reality itself. It’s difficult to say how, exactly, these books changed my life, because I’m not sure who I’d be without them, but I can say that they helped make it.
I’ve read many books over the course of my life and more than a few stand out as major markers during that time. When Kristin sent me the question, the difficult problem, as I’m sure some of my fellow Melders here may have encountered, is not rattling off too many books. That said, here goes…As kid, I was I thoroughly enthralled with The Three Investigators series of books, which initially featured Alfred Hitchcock as mentor to young investigators Pete Crenshaw, Bob Andrews, and Jupiter Jones. This series introduced me to the concept of series and recurring characters in fiction (outside of comics and TV, that is). I’m going to go out on a limb and say that either the fourth in the series: The Mystery of the Green Ghost, or the first in the series: The Secret of Terror Castle was my introduction to the series.
Stephen King’s books appear on this roadmap twice, the first of which is Cujo. My parents were two of his many constant readers and Cujo was the first of his that I read, oh maybe around fifth grade? Why Cujo? While my mom was always a big reader my dad was not. That is, until he read Cujo (quite frankly he still isn’t unless King or Joe Hill wrote the book), so naturally, this was the one I gravitated towards and it was the first true for-grown-ups book I read.
The next step on my little roadmap would probably be Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. This is the book that set me into the world of Fantasy (and later Science Fiction) for the remainder of my life. A close friend, who also happened to be our group’s Dungeon Master, had the books I asked if I could borrow the first and was hooked. After returning the book to him, I went out bought the Big White Omnibus so I could finish the series.
In college, I didn’t read quite as much outside of what I was assigned for class but one other King book stands out – Needful Things. Many of his constant readers may not think of this as one of his better novels, but I recall (perhaps apocryphally) that a young lady on one of the Rutgers University busses was reading Needful Things. (For those who don’t know, Rutgers University spans a couple of neighboring cities and has a bus system so the students can take classes across those campuses) I did not get her name at the time though I commented that it was a good book, but I remembered her face and her appearance. A semester or two later in Science Fiction Literature class, I wound up meeting a young lady who bore a very striking resemblance to the young lady I remembered from the bus and we began a study group together. The two most impactful books I read in that class were Frank Herbert’s Dune for the amazing scope Herbert inspired and Octavia Butler’s Dawn for the sheer power of Butler’s dual vision of nightmare and survival. I would later share another class with that young lady, which featured the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, as well as some of his contemporaries. I eventually married that young lady as you might have guessed. My wife did confirm that she read Needful Things around that time so things do sync up.
Once college was completed, I was able to devote more time to casual reading and one of the first books I dove into was The Eye of the World which fully entrenched me in the genre and shortly thereafter the online genre community. Once I was more entrenched in the online genre community (primarily hanging out and moderating the forums at SFFWorld, and later being asked to contribute “official reviews” to the site), the work of Matthew Woodring Stover came to my attention with Heroes Die. This is the book in the genre I use as a measuring stick to judge most of everything else I read in the genre nowadays. It is a book I’ve re-read a couple of times and one that clicks with every reading sensibility I’ve developed over my life and brought together the (sometimes) disparate elements of Fantasy and Science Fiction together in one book like no other I’ve read before or since.
So there you have it. (though given this question at a different time, I could likely have some different books)
I read Jacqueline Carey’s The Sundering duology (Banewreaker and Godslayer) a number of years ago, and to this day, I still remember the pain of that ending. The mad dash to a computer to search for a third instalment. The leap onto Amazon to check the page count of my edition on the hopes my copy was missing a chapter. The tight feeling in my chest when my search turned up nothing. The sinking sensation in my gut when I realized THAT was the end, and nothing could change it.
This pair of novels has been described as a retelling of The Lord of the Rings from the point of view of Sauron; and as such, they have an unfortunate ending for the hero. I say that without fear of spoiling the novels, as Ms. Carey herself has said that she wished they had been marketed in such a way that people knew they were a “great big crashing crescendo of a tragedy.” I can certainly see why she might feel this way, because I think readers expect, if not a happy ending, at least one where the main character has achieved some level of success. An ending might be bittersweet, but never just…bitter. As a reader, it fascinated me that I could love the story so much and yet be so unsatisfied with it. As a writer, I became captivated by the emotional reaction one could elicit with a tragic ending. (All my readers are probably now eyeing me nervously!)
The Sundering also opened my eyes to the idea of antagonists as protagonists, and the realization that good vs. evil is often a matter of perspective. Carey provides something Tolkien did not: a justification for “evil’s” actions. A backstory for the villain. A well-developed motive for a character’s turn to the dark side. And she does it in such a compelling way that I found myself hoping for the triumph of evil. As a writer, these novels provided a textbook-perfect example of how a well-developed antagonist adds depth and ambiguity to a story. The Sundering is certainly not the most popular of Carey’s novels, but they are without a doubt my favourites.
First things first, when I was in high school I randomly picked up The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I don’t think I even knew what “fantasy” or “science fiction” was at the time. I just dug the legends of King Arthur and his crew, and wanted to read a book about them. Well, The Mists of Avalon really opened the speculative fiction floodgates for me, and it also showed me how interesting the untold side of any story can be. The Mists of Avalon is the legend of King Arthur told from female points of view, and it was absolutely fascinating to me to see how these women, who were portrayed as so evil in the stories I had heard, actually came across in a very sympathetic light. The book really empowered me and made me feel proud of my femininity for the first time. The Mists of Avalon also made me interested in learning about the side of the story that I don’t typically hear about, and it made me absolutely fascinated in speculative fiction.
And we can all see how that turned out….
Along with speculative fiction, I also read a lot of biographies and memoirs. I seem to drift to those kinds of books when I’m fighting some sort of health crisis. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China is a book I have read during each of my battles with cancer. The author’s family has been through so much, and it really boosted me when I needed it. That book gave me the courage to fight, because if the author and her family could make it through everything they’ve been through, I sure as hell could make it through (another) round of cancer treatment. I never really realized how important it was for me to know that someone else had been through hell, and survived, until I was fighting cancer. Wild Swans is incredibly hard to read, and can be an absolute emotional drain sometimes (yeah, it gets pretty depressing) but the point is, the author made it through, and if she could do it, so could I.
One of my absolute favorite quotes is really applicable toward how I relate to Wild Swans:
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” – James Baldwin
And lastly, I’m going to talk about two books which have altered my perceptions of what is capable in both epic fantasy and science fiction. They are Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson and the Night’s Dawn series by Peter F. Hamilton.
First, Memories of Ice is one of the first books, and one of the only, that reduced me to tears as I read it. I cried like a baby. Before that book, epic and military fantasy was something full of blood, tough people, and sarcasm. Memories of Ice showed me that epic fantasy can be full of so much more, including absolutely heart wrenching emotions, and really altered how I perceived what epic fantasy is really capable of. It can be full of battles and politics and blood and guts, but Erikson proved that it can also be jammed full of epic levels of emotion.
The Night’s Dawn trilogy is one of the first science fiction series I ever read. I was incredibly intimidated at first (seriously, have you seen how long those books are?), but I quickly got over it. This series showed me that SciFi isn’t something to be afraid of, nor is it really intimidating. It’s a epic series in every sense of the word, but it is a lot of fun, very thought provoking, and made me truly hungry for more science in the books I read. This is also the series that kicked off my yearly goal where I focus on exploring another speculative fiction sub-genre that I don’t typically read each year. Night’s Dawn showed me how being daring and trying something new can have a huge payoff.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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