The first book I thought of is The Others by Thomas Tryon. I was probably 9 or 10 the first time I read it, which was probably way too young, considering that the novel is this horrific psychological thriller. But even back then I knew I wanted to be a writer, so I read everything I could get my hands on. I don’t want to say too much about the plot, in case people haven’t read it, but I will say that when I got to the end of the book, I was so scared and blown away that I cried. It wasn’t just the plot I was reacting to; it was this sudden realization that you could tell a story the way that Tryon tells a story. I hadn’t even know it was possible. I would love to go back and have that discovery again.
The other would be The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. It was one of the first genre novels I read as a young adult that had a strong female-based story. As a kid, I read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi novels with cool female protagonists–Madeleine L’Engle was one of my favorite authors–but then for whatever reason, most of the books I read as a young adult were very male focused. My then-boyfriend’s mom was an English teacher and gave me a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale. I read it in a single sitting. My brain didn’t even comprehend half of it, but my body understood it on some visceral level that made me feel dizzy and alive and also like I might throw up. It was like I could literally feel my world expanding while I was sitting there. That was a monumental moment for me, as a reader, as a woman– and as someone who knew she wanted to become a writer and change the world.
I wish I could read Scott Hawkins’s debut novel The Library at Mount Char, “for the first time” again. It isn’t that there is a gimmick or a twist, it’s just that it was so good, and unusual, that I would enjoy experiencing that sense of discovery again.
John Scalzi’s book Lock In got a lot of discussion about certain story-telling choices he made. That’s one I would like to experience for the first time again. In a related vein, I’d like to have that slight feeling of dislocation that I felt in the early pages of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, while my biased mind struggled with her pronoun choices. By halfway through the first book, I had adjusted, but at the beginning I had to engage consciously with the language. I liked that; and I liked how it made me think about our society, where people still, with a great degree of sincerity, say that words like “he” and “mankind” can be inclusive and non-gendered.
I recently reread Gene Wolfe’s book of linked novellas The Fifth Head of Cerberus, and I can say that it was like experiencing it for the first time. I had forgotten most of that story except for a few images and details; this time through, I was baffled but (somewhat) enlightened by the end. I realize that the first time I read it, a few decades ago, I really did miss most of the clues that Wolfe plants so brilliantly. I loved the unfolding revelations in China Mieville’s The City and The City, and that would be a great book to read for the first time again. One of my favorite scenes is when our protagonist makes a phone call to a number in the city (you know, that city)… and it’s a long-distance call.
William Gibson’s book The Peripheral took us into one near-future world, and then into another world. It would be great to have the novelty of experiencing that book again.
Another book I would love to experience as if new is Cathrynne Valente’s Palimpsest. The first time I was captivated by the beautiful imagery, and had no idea what was going on for a while. Then I thought I had a glimmer of what was going on. Then I was pretty sure what was going on, but I wasn’t sure that I was sure what was going on… what a thrill ride that first read was!
This is the first modern classic science fiction book I can remember reading, although I read nineteenth century authors like Wells and Verne even earlier. It would be wonderful to be able to fully recapture that first feeling of discovery that I, Robot gave me.
This collection of stories really opened both those universes to me and began my interest in artificial intelligence and cybernetics. Up until then, I tended to only associate robots with the kinds of killing machines that appeared in some stories, TV shows and movies. I also tended to think that science fiction occupied a completely different universe from philosophy.
In one of his prefaces to I, Robot, Asimov states that similar preconceptions were common when he was starting out in the 1940s. Robot stories typically dealt with mechanical monsters in simple action stories, or faithful servants of humanity in sentimental stories. After a brief bit of sentimentality at the start, I, Robot rapidly re-invents this sub-genre.
Starting always from the famous Three Laws of Robotics, these stories generate a challenging series of philosophical issues that play out as mysteries to be solved. They are a good example, I think, of how the application of reason to initial principles can be a creative process, and not merely a dry exercise.
I, Robot also showed me that female characters can have an important role in science fiction that goes well beyond being a mere love interest. The main character in the majority of stories is robopsychologist Dr Susan Calvin. Dr Calvin rigorously applies the Three Laws to solve various puzzles that arise during the development of advanced robots. Her decision to devote her life to her career and never marry or have children illuminates – in stories written in the 1940s – an ongoing feminist issue. Her original desire to be loved, and her consequent disillusionment, informs the background of one of the stories.
So, I, Robot opened many doors for me, for which I am grateful. It still stimulates me on re-reads, although it would be great to be able to experience that initial impact all over again.
Ishmael by Barbara Hambly. When we were kids we loved a show called Here Come the Brides. It’s set back when Seattle is a frontier town, population 152, and mostly male. The owners of the logging company (the Bolt brothers) have a hard time keeping workers in such a place. Jason Bolt comes up with a plan to bring 100 women to the settlement as potential wives for the men. The mill owner, Aaron Stemple, puts up the money; the agreement being that if all the women aren’t married or engaged before a year is out, then Stemple gets the mountain the Bolt brothers are logging.
The actor who played Aaron Stemple is Mark Lenard. Familiar name? Yes. He plays Sarek, Spock’s father, in Star Trek.
Ishmael is a “Star Trek” novel. In it, Spock uncovers a plan by the Klingons to go back to the 1800s and kill Aaron Stemple, who prevented the Klingons taking over Earth. Spock is caught, and ends up back in the 1800s. Meantime, back on the Enterprise, Captain Kirk is doing everything he can to find his friend.
We enjoyed “Star Trek”. We’d watched Here Come the Brides. And here was a novel that melded the two worlds together seamlessly. Wow. Hambly is a great writer, and the logic in the book was flawless. Spock lost his memory and didn’t regain it until close to the end of the book. The reason he didn’t regain his memory for so long wasn’t physical; it was simply that nothing in this world he’d arrived in was familiar to him. Wow and wow.
Cross-over novels were a lot rarer back then, and this one had three things we loved. Author, and both series. It made an impression. We’ve both re-read the book many times since, but nothing can quite take away from that first triple-whammy.
Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie. There’s a lot of good science fiction around at the moment. Even so, Leckie’s first novel stands out. It’s everything that great science fiction should be. Cool idea—people put into cold storage and later unthawed so they can become part of the ship. The ship itself, the Justice of Toren. Lots of moral issues—the Radch are rather repulsive in how they operate and in their civilisation, but Breq doesn’t question that. It’s left to the reader to do that outside of the story. A refreshing way of looking at gender.
When you close the book for the first time there are so many things to think about. That’s what the best science fiction does. It makes you think.
Fool’s Errand, by Robin Hobb. The first Robin Hobb novel we read was Fool’s Errand, which is book seven in the Realm of the Elderlings. Karen wasn’t going to read it, the beginning was so slow, but Sherylyn persisted (she will read longer into a book before she gives up) and said, “You have to read until you meet the Fool. You can stop after that if you want to.”
Of course, we both devoured the books after that.
The Fool is one of favorite characters ever, and there was something magical about meeting him for the first time. After we’d read the Tawny Man trilogy we went back and read the Assassin books (and after that the Rain Wild books, and of course everything since). It was fascinating, knowing the future, to go back into the past and see Fitz and the Fool, and watch them grow.
Picking a favorite book is always impossible for me—but I came up with an answer for this question IMMIDIATELY: the book I’d most want to experience again for the first time would be The First King of Shannara by Terry Brooks. It was the first full-blown, grown-up fantasy novel I’d ever read. I was in 4th grade, and saw it for sale at a library rummage. There was an ominous dude in a cloak, and a warrior-wizard looking guy fighting him off with a glowing sword. It looked cool and very much not-of-this-realm. I wanted it! I bought it. I started reading that night…and realized I didn’t know A LOT of the words. No problem, I thought—I’ll look ‘em up in the dictionary. But alas! The words I didn’t know were all names of cities, towns, characters, realms, magic artifacts, within the Shannara universe, and I just didn’t quite understand that at first. Once it clicked though, I was hooked—I never stopped reading; when my favorite character died, I cried violently. I got so caught up in this fantasy world full of elves and druids and battles; that was pretty much it for me. I’ve been a nerd ever since, a die-hard book lover and SFF nut…but I still wish I could go back and re-read The First King of Shannara for the first time, just with a better understanding of high fantasy jargon!
One of my favourite books of all time is Diana Wynne Jones The Lives of Christopher Chant, from her “Chrestomanci” series. This was the first book I bought with my own money at age 11 – I still own the same tattered paperback, it’s still always within reach and I still love it to bits. “The Chrestomanci” series, or “The Worlds of Chrestomanci,” are a series of seven books Wynne Jones wrote between 1977 and 2006, though I personally connect with a few of them more so than the others – The Lives of Christopher Chant, Conrad’s Fate, Charmed Life and The Magicians of Caprona.
Regardless of my personal favourites within the series, the entire lot is delightful. Writers like Gaiman (a very vocal fan and friend of Diana Wynne Jones) and JK Rowling both owe a great deal to the stories of Chrestomanci, the most powerful wizard in the world. Rowling in particular, owes Harry Potter to Christopher Chant, who, back in 1988 when The Lives of Christopher Chant was published, was an unhappy 12 year old with hidden magical abilities who would one day grow to be the most important enchanter in the world. Christopher, you see, had nine lives (not horcuxes!), something that is so rare and incredible, that he must be trained and protected and taught by the only other nine lived enchanter in world 12A: the existing Chrestomanci, a man who will show up if you say the title ‘Chrestomanci’ out loud – he is, quite literally, He Who Must Not Be Named.
When his abilities are discovered (in a magnificent scene involving ridding himself of all silver, including the braces on his teeth, commanding one item to float and instead sending an entire house and all its contents high into the sky when his powers are finally unleashed in a fury), Christopher is sent off to Chrestomanci castle, where he must learn how to use his power well, and train with others of magical abilities. It’s a school in a castle. He has a clever witch for a best friend. He has an uncle called Ralph who wants very much to exploit Christopher’s abilities. Someone is doing terrible things and Christopher is involved whether he wants to be or not. Tell me that’s not familiar? Well Wynne Jones did it first.
Christopher isn’t the most likeable of protagonists, not always. He, like any teenager, can be sullen and moody and rude. He isn’t the smartest young enchanter either – he makes plenty of mistakes, gets duped easily a few times by his uncle and is always losing his precious lives. All this makes him totally relatable, of course, and just such a joy to watch evolve and grow over the course of the books.
The entire series is utterly charming. It’s enchanting. It’s those words and more. It’s lovingly crafted, cleverly written and so, so full of joy that it each time I read any of the books again I’m reminded of the elation I felt reading them as a child for the first time. I don’t know how they’d hold up if I read them again afresh as an adult, but I firmly believe that Diana Wynne Jones’ magic has no age restrictions.