Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Influences, Part II

A few weeks ago I shared my most basic writing influences, those books that I credit for helping me learn that I wanted to be a writer -- and for helping me realize that this was, in fact, something I could do.

This week, I'd like to get a little more specific: my three favorite, most influential books of speculative fiction. Books that helped me tap into the strange and unnameable; that showed me other worlds and bizarre ways of thinking about the Universe at large.

1. The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

I was 16 years old the first time I sassed that hoopy Ford Prefect, and I've been hooked ever since. Up to that point I was pretty limited in the spec fic I read; it was around this time I discovered the Dragonlance books, too.

"Hitchhiker's Guide" not only introduced me to the sub-genre of comedy sci-fi, but opened me up to what I would come to recognize as a distinctly British sense of humor when it comes to speculative fiction. It's sort of "stiff upper lip" meets dark comedy; "Keep Calm and Carry On" no matter how bizarre things get. If this were a graph, a line could be drawn directly connecting when I picked this book up in 1992 and my level of obsessive appreciation for Neil Gaiman and "Doctor Who."

The rest of the books in the "Hitchhiker's" series become, in my opinion, increasingly bland, never quite measuring up to the original book. That doesn't take away from this one's humor and creativity, though. It's the first, it's the best.

It's probably hard to find a spec fic writer who hasn't been influenced, in some way, by Douglas Adams. The quirkiness doesn't feel forced, and that is so hard to do. The humor is intelligent. The science is pretty well thought-out. The parody is spot-on. It's a tribute to what a good book this is that, decades after it was published, it remains a solid read for fans of spec fic, British humor, or just good writing.

I never forget my towel. 42.

2. Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino

My husband brought this book to my attention, knowing it was exactly my kind of read: strange and beautiful. This collection of short stories takes something already enormous and amazing, the origins of the Universe, and turns it into a series of short, personal memoirs narrated by an entity called Qfwfq. In the story "All At One Point," Qfwfq shares with us how a woman in the singularity desired to make "such noodles for you boys!" and her love and imagination were so great she caused the Big Bang. He reminisces about his childhood playing with hydrogen atoms because they were, literally, the only things in the Universe.

But my favorite story in "Cosmicomics" is the one illustrated there on the cover, "The Distance of the Moon," a sad love story about a time when the moon was close enough to earth that people would row out to sea, climb ladders, and collect moon cheese. My husband and I have read this story out loud to each other; we've read it to our children. We've argued over who gets to have that illustration as a tattoo.

Cosmicomics was one of the first books I read that seamlessly combined fantasy with science fiction -- and fantasy with science fact. It's like fairy tales for the nerd set; fantasy for hardcore sci-fi fans. It's the very apex of everything good speculative fiction should be.

3. Blindness, by Jose Saramago

Another book brought to my attention thanks to my husband, I count this as the first dystopia I ever read. And I do count it as a dystopia, even though there's no cataclysmic, end-of-the-world event. In fact, it's a very simple premise: The whole story is a macabre and graphic "what if?" experiment, in which Jose Saramago takes something most of us take for granted - our sight - and has everyone in society lose theirs all at once. 

In that respect the spec fic element is slight, but important. There is never an explanation given for why everyone succumbs to the blindness, nor for why the character known in the book only as The Doctor's Wife seems to be the only person not stricken blind. That's all the book needs, though, this one terrible event that creeps up on the entire unnamed Everycity.

From there, the book delves into pretty traditional dystopia territory: The government, at first, locks up everyone stricken with the blindness in an empty hospital. The Doctor and his Wife are among the first patients there (she's lied about being blind in order to stay with her husband). For a while the story stays there, as more and more people come into the hospital and order and society are quickly stripped away in the name of basic survival. And with that, all the reasons why I enjoy dystopias come into play. The questions of morality and ethics, of where lines are drawn and who gets to draw them, what happens to those who cross the lines, and the ways in which we collectively and individually learn to cope with tragedy and move forward.

Blindness is a book that has stuck close to me in the years since I read it. I feel it's influence in my writing, I see its ghost in other dystopian literature I read and watch. Like my other favorite dystopian novel, "Soft Apocalypse," this one explores the concept of humanity being its own worst enemy. Like "The Stand," "The Walking Dead," or "Deep Impact," Saramago manages to show us what happens when the society we have come to depend on for survival is taken away from us, yet he's done it without zombies, meteors, war, aliens or a deadly plague. 

4. Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

I'm still waiting for the movie version of this book.

No, seriously, where is it? I've already cast it in my head. Let's get moving on this thing.

Like "Hitchhiker's Guide," above, "Good Omens" takes the subject of the impending end of the world (as we know it) and puts a quintessentially British humor (humour?) spin on it. Dry but biting wit and brilliant observations in the form of scathing parody. It's a lot like Kevin Smith's movie, "Dogma," which I've seen more times than I can count, but Englishier.

This book is so well-written, with such crystal clear characters, that even my non-spec fic-reading husband liked it. If a guy who brought this book to our honeymoon (no joke) can enjoy "Good Omens," then I'm pretty sure anyone can.

And whether she did it as a tribute or unintentionally, I couldn't help but think of the four motorcycle-riding Horsemen (Horsepeople) of the Apocalypse when I first watched this Janelle Monae video. (I absolutely adore her, btw. She's geeky and proud of it.)

What's your favorite spec fic? What did you read once and it stuck with you forever?

1 comment:

  1. Blindness! Blindness! Sometimes it feels like there are three people in the world (other than me) who loved this book. There are a few books that are very significant to me, and this is one of them.

    Hm. What else? It's hard to say, because some books I read 15+ years ago, and I don't know if they would have the same impact on me, today. "The Book of Nights" by Sylvie Germain, maybe? But that was kind of a gateway drug to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for me.

    I need to read more books like Blindness.