Some books change the world. Read at the right time, they have the power to change our thinking, to inspire us, and to change our lives. When we put them down, we are no longer the same people we were when we picked them up.
The books listed below are the books that have had the greatest impact on my life and my development as a writer. I’m not claiming that they’re the best books ever written (that’s a topic for a different article); but each holds a special place in my heart, and each has contributed something to the way I now see my relationship with the world around me. If I hadn’t read them when I did, I wouldn’t be the same person I am today.
Some books change the world; and these are the books that changed mine.
I found this book in the school library at the age of eleven. It was the first adult science fiction I’d ever come across. Up until that point, I’d been reading books aimed at children, such as Brian Earnshaw’s Dragonfall 5 series for younger readers, which used their otherworldly settings as backdrops for rollicking adventures. The stories in Of Time And Stars were different.
A lot of people talk about science fiction having a “sense of wonder”. The stories in Of Time And Stars blew into my brain like a whirlwind. To this day, I can still remember the awe I felt as I read “The Nine Billion Names of God”, “If I Forget Thee O Earth”, “All the Time in the World”, and “The Sentinel”.
Sitting there in my school uniform, clutching the paperback, I felt my mind expand and the scope of my imagination widen. Suddenly I knew that it was possible to articulate strange philosophical questions; that ideas could be communicated through fiction; and that the world was larger and more outlandish than I could possibly have hoped.
I only read the book once, but it was an important turning point for me; it was my own personal Damascus moment, and it set me firmly on the path that would eventually lead to me writing my own science fiction. It opened the door of my imagination and showed me wonders, and I was never quite the same after that.
At about the same time I read Of Time And Stars, I discovered this collection of short stories set among the pilots of the Royal Flying Corps, stationed in France in the latter years of World War One.
In those days, there was no radar or no radio, and a pilot had to survive on his wits alone, with no help from the ground. But this very isolation also afforded pilots great freedom, and as a pilot himself, Johns does a good job of describing the beauty of the French countryside and the exhilaration of flight. But despite this lyricism, the horrors of conflict are never far away and Johns does his best not to romanticise the War.
All that aside, the thing that really make these stories stand out from the usual “Boys Own” fare is the character of Biggles himself. He’s a practical man with a deep-seated sense of sportsmanship and fair play. Sometimes he exhibits great energy and enthusiasm; other times, a profound world-weariness. He’s brave and quick to anger, but he’s also reluctant to place himself in unnecessary danger, and he prefers to outwit his enemies rather than slaughter them.
Biggles taught me that heroes can think their way out of situations, using their intelligence rather than their brawn. When confronted with problems, they can pause to carefully consider a response, rather than simply diving in with all guns blazing.
The main character takes a similar approach in Robert Heinlein’s young adult novel Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. In both books, the emphasis is on problem solving and survival, rather than needless heroics.
Also recommended are Johns’ other two WWI collections: Biggles of 266 and Biggles Pioneer Air Fighter. Although Biggles’ career saw him still flying in WWII and beyond, these early stories rank among his very best.
As a teenager, this was probably my favourite book. I discovered it at my local library and must have read it at least a dozen times. It took the sense of wonder I’d found in Clarke’s stories and magnified it a thousand fold. Its pages were filled with beautiful vampires, flying cities, carnivorous sunflowers, ancient libraries, and dangerous aliens; and all the action took place on a hoop encircling a sun, with a surface area a trillion times that of the Earth.
In Louis Wu, Niven had also created a self-reliant, intellectual hero in the Biggles mould. Instead of violence, Louis used tools, reason and deduction to overcome the seemingly insurmountable problems facing him. To him, the whole world was a puzzle to be solved. Given enough time, there wasn’t anything he couldn’t figure out.
This book literally changed the way I thought about the world. It rekindled my fascination with science and learning, and prompted me to really start questioning the workings of everything I saw around me.
After reading The Ringworld Engineers, I devoured the rest of the books in Niven’s Known Space series, including the stories of the albino space pilot Beowulf Shaeffer, which were a direct influence on “A Long Way From Home”, the first proper short story I ever wrote, and the first one I typed on a typewriter.
In February 1988, Diana Wynne Jones reviewed “A Long Way From Home” as part of a local arts initiative to encourage young writers, and talked me through her comments over a cup of coffee at the Watershed in Bristol. It was the first professional feedback I’d ever received, and contained some invaluable pointers. I still have her handwritten notes and while I can’t recall the exact words she said, I do remember that coming away from the meeting filled with resolve and determined that one day I’d be a published science fiction writer.
I first read On The Road at the age of seventeen, a few months after meeting Diana Wynne Jones, and for a while it ruined all other books for me. It’s a vast, sprawling epic and a masterpiece of compelling narration, and I still rate it as my number one favourite book of all time. Every time I read it I see something new, and I’m struck again by the rhythm and poetry of the language, and the immediacy of Kerouac’s descriptions. When he writes about sleeping on a hot car roof in the sticky jungle, and the soft rain of bugs falling on his skin, you’re right there with him.
I think Kerouac’s a very misunderstood writer. People get caught up with the beatnik craziness, and they miss the sadness at the heart of the book: the unspeakable, inescapable loneliness of the American night.
I followed On The Road with a selection of Kerouac’s other works, such as Desolation Angels, Big Sur and The Dharma Bums – which in turn led to an obsession with the Beat Movement that heavily influenced the poetry and fiction I produced during my time studying creative writing and American literature at university, and which I still haven’t completely shaken off two decades later.
From reading Larry Niven and Arthur C. Clarke, I had this image of the future as a place of utopian technocratic expansion. Sure, there were aliens out there and the human race might get into trouble once in a while, but on the whole we were going to build spaceships, cure disease and death, and expand unstoppably into the galaxy.
Much as I enjoyed reading those stories, I couldn’t write them. I tried to write a few stories in that vein but struggled badly. I just couldn’t find anything original to say. It wasn’t until I read William Gibson’s first collection Burning Chrome that I realized there was another way to do it. This book blew my socks off. It took the pristine future I’d been used to and rubbed its nose in the dirt. It took everything down to the level of the street. The characters were flawed, selfish, and greedy, and out for themselves. But more than that, it was extremely well written, in a pared-down prose that taught me a lot about the value of brevity and narrative focus.
In many ways, Burning Chrome had the same effect on me as the Velvet Underground’s first album. It managed to simultaneously remake its own genre while still loving and respecting its roots and influences. At that point, I’d read nothing else like it.
It reinvigorated my enthusiasm for science fiction, and led me to discover Bruce Sterling and the rest of the Cyberpunk movement, as well as Raymond Chandler and Ernest Hemingway. It inspired me to get serious about my writing. Without it, I would never have written the stories in my first collection, The Last Reef and Other Stories.
If I had to point to the one book that had had the biggest impact on the development of my writing style, it would have to be this one.
While the six books above have had the most significant influence on my life and work, the books below have also played their part in my growth as both a writer and a human being.
- Generation X by Douglas Coupland
- The Collected Stories by Ernest Hemingway
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
- The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams
- Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
- Eon by Greg Bear
- The English Assassin by Michael Moorcock
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
- Nova Swing by M. John Harrison