Growing up I was a voracious reader. about age 7 I was allowed out of the children’s area of the library into the adults because I’d basically finished all of the SF for kids.
I’ve been meaning to say thank you to a lot of people, some of whom, unfortunately, aren’t around to hear it any more. But I’m well overdue to do this, and so I wanted to pull this together, and offer to the universe what I can only call my love letter to SF and Fantasy and the people who make it special.
The foundation of my love is define by four authors. They are unlikely to be a surprise, since they are a foundation for many around my age.
- Ray Bradbury: Bradbury has to be at the top of my list; an LA-based writer, he moved between SF and Fantasy and Horror with ease and often blurred the lines between them all, with a lyrical storytelling style. I met him once, when he spoke at the opening of our new city library. That was in the early 70’s, so I was probably ten or twelve. I remember none of the speech beyond his talking about crying in the shower and encouraging everyone to be willing to do that rather than hold it in; later, he signed autographs and was a patient and polite person with everyone in the line. I still have a signed paperback of October Country around here somewhere. Many got introduced to Bradbury through the Martian Chronicles or the Illustrated Man, but for me it was Dandelion Wine. And his story There Will Come Soft Rains plain old changed how I viewed society and the future and what fiction was capable of, and it’s still interesting and relevant today. Maybe more so.
But for me, the book that defines Ray Bradbury is Something Wicked This Way Comes, which was also a surprisingly not terrible moving starring Jason Robards. It’s supernatural or maybe horror, or something a bit of both, and it’s a bit odd, and very much the kind of story I think he was best at, which was telling a small story about an interesting and far from generic group of people involved in something a bit outside of their comfort zone.
- Arthur C. Clarke: A.C. Clarke introduced me to hard SF, I believe with Childhood’s End. His take on SF as future extrapolation intrigued me; if we look at today through the lens of his books, there were many things he seems to have figured out (and many others he didn’t, of course). I think if I had to pick any one book not named 2001, it’d be The City and the Stars.
And as it turns out, while I never met Clarke, we did end up in an ongoing correspondence. While working on the Nebula Awards for SFWA, I had to contact him about something or other, and so sent off a letter to him in Sri Lanka (kids: before email, letters were these things written on paper and sent away through physical transfer from location to location); a couple of months later, I got a return email with his answers, and after that, it just seemed like I would hear from him once or twice a year, and I’d answer his notes and write him back. That continued for a few years after I left the Nebulas and SFWA. he was always friendly and incredibly nice in his writings and it was a correspondence that I always cherished.
I must admit, though, that I ultimately faded away from his books, somewhere around 2010, which was also around when he started working more with collaborators and co-writers. Often his contribution to later books were an outline and a quick edit, and it showed. They weren’t bad books, but they just weren’t special to me. But that doesn’t at all limit how important he was in my formative years as I discovered the field.
- Larry Niven: The third key influence pulls me out of the Golden Age authors to someone a little more contemporary. If I were to define Arthur Clarke as Golden Age (or classic) Hard SF, then Larry Niven is contemporary hard SF, and of course the book I have to mention is Ringworld. Comparing the two is basically impossible, sort of like comparing Count Basie with the Beatles. There are clear influences from one to the other and echos within the works, but the two interpretations are unique. If I were asked which books of his mattered, I can pretty honestly say all of them, or perhaps his solo works; some of his collaborations I really liked, some less so. But to me, perhaps the bits of Niven’s universe I liked best were some of his more offbeat works, whether it’s The Magic Goes Away series, his Svetz books like All the Myriad Ways (is this SF? or Fantasy? or just genre bendingly interesting?) and I admit to a strong fondness for the Draco Tavern.
He is an author that could write pretty much anything, and anything he wrote turned out to be pretty good to me.
And, of course I have a Larry Niven story. Or two, maybe. Way back in the days when the Internet was still the Arpanet there were these computers at MIT, and if you figured out they existed and talked to the right people, you could get access. I used MIT-MC as an early home and my introduction to SF-Lovers; another one was MIT-MDL, which ran this funky game called Zork, but that was so hard on the hardware only one or two people at a time could run it. Also on that system were Jerry Pournelle (it’s where he and I first met and started arguing with each other, a tradition that would carry on until I left SFWA), and Larry was there some, but so was Marilyn, his wife, aka Fuzzy Pink.
But I didn’t really meet Larry until much later, when I was already in SFWA and running the Nebulas. One year at Baycon, the local bay area convention, I was wandering the halls and I happened to run into Niven and I decided to go up and say hi. I’d been dealing with and interacting with authors for a few years now and I think I’d had my first sale by then, so no problem, right?
Right. Of course, this was Niven. So I walked right up to him, said hello, and my brain melted, dripped out my ears onto the floor and I started speaking in tongues, to the amusement of Larry and a few around us. Because my inner fanboy just fried my circuits because I’d just met Larry Freaking Niven. After a bit of drooling and gibbering I got my act together a bit and settled down, and Larry was looking at me with a grin, and I just stood there, and then I said “Larry, I’m sorry. I’m sounding like such a fucking fan right now”.
And Larry Freaking Niven burst out laughing so hard I was afraid he was going to pee himself. At least I left him with a smile as I tried to exit with a what little honor I had left. Friends, bit of advice: if you meet one of the most important people from your formative years, please don’t make them pee themselves.
But if I were to meet him today, I’d bet even odds I’d melt down and do it again. That’s what Niven’s works meant to me then, and mean to me today.
- J.R.R. Tolkien: The fourth keystone of my formative authors is J.R.R. Tolkien and Lord of the Rings. It was my big introduction to Fantasy, and especially epic Fantasy, and I fell hard and to this day, it’s one of the few books I re-read every few years just to renew acquaintance with. And while my fantasy interests have widened in many directions, at the core, when I really want to disappear into a good book, it’ll probably be some epic fantasy.
And no, I don’t have a story about making Tolkien pee his pants or anything, but if I had ever met him, I bet I’d have melted down there, too. Proudly.
My true love is Science Fiction and Fantasy, it’s where my roots are, and it’s where my heart will always be. Coming out of High School I got involved in fandom, and it became my tribe, the place where I felt I fit in. I was very involved in fandom for a while, writing fanzines (and nominated for Hugos twice for mine). Back as far as I can remember, I wanted to write SF and Fantasy, and ultimately I did, and I sold a few stories, and I joined the Science Fiction Writers of America and worked for them for a while running the Nebula Awards, which allowed me to both get to know many of the authors I grew up in awe of, and to pay forward to those people who brought me such enjoyment and helped make me what I ultimately became.
I eventually realized I needed to make a choice, to write fiction for a little money or to write computer stuff for a lot more, and since I was equally happy doing both, I chose the money. I was also, to be honest, kind of burned out and needed a break, so I stopped writing and stepped away from the field for a while, just because I needed some distance. But I never really left, and it never left me.
The rest of my top ten
Here are the rest of the top ten authors of my early years, all key writers for shaping who I became as a writer and reader. As I look at this list, I see an incredible diversity in writing styles and types of material, and in some ways that’s probably responsible for my ending up with so many diverse areas of interest in the fiction world.
- Harlan Ellison – I wrote about Harlan when he passed away. Dangerous Visions was my gateway drug into modern fiction and the New Wave era, and his writing always came with an energy and power that I often tried to instill in my own work, and never did. He was, really, my introduction into SF/F as adult fiction.
Damon Knight: A major shift, but not so much as might seem. Damon Knight edited Orbit, and Orbit was an anthology that set much of the tone and direction for the New Wave era so as I grew up out of the classic golden era authors, it was Knight that opened up the doors to me for what was happening and possible with contemporary genre fiction of that day.
Robert Silverberg: I think my introduction to Silverberg was The World Inside, a dystopic future in which a massive sustained (and encouraged) population growth is managed by the building of thousand floor buildings in which everyone live without ever going outside. Come to think of it, Dystopic fiction was in general a big thing while I was growing up, and population problems were a key problem they tended to bring forward; thinking about Harry Harrison’s Make Room Make Room! (turned into the movie Soylent Green) or William Harrison’s Rollerball Murder (turned into the movie Rollerball). But the book that always means the most to me of his is Dying Inside, the story of a boy hitting puberty who can read minds, which isn’t the blessing you might think it is. And running into this book about the time I hit puberty, and having puberty hit back hard, it was a story I could relate to and which helped me sort out what was going on in my life at the time, and it’s one that has stayed with me since.
Roger Zelazny: Well hey, how about some more epic fantasy? As in, the ten volume books of Amber? But to call him the author of Amber is to ignore just how much else he did that was notable, such as Doorways in the Sand, Creatures of Light and Darkness and Lord of Light. If Tolkien made me a fan of epic fantasy, Zelazny taught me a bit of soap opera and a touch of humor could make it even more fun. One quick Zelazny story: it turned out the first time I was used as a cover blurb on a book was an Amber book reprint, which tickled me pink, and so I sent a copy off to Roger and asked him to autograph it, which tickled him pink. I still have the book around here somewhere as well.
Michael Moorcock: Elric of Melnibone. Gothic Fantasy. In many ways an editorial rebuttal to Tolkien. I have been on a slow re-read of the entire suite of Elric books, and have been enjoying them immensely; they hold up well, perhaps better than Tolkien’s work does in modern times. I know, heresy, but in some ways, isn’t that the essence of Moorcock’s work?
Fritz Leiber: Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. More epic, kinda gothic fantasy, sort of. How do I explain how much I love his work? One of my stories, Gord and Fnord Go to the Zoo, was a conscious pastiche of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser; it was also my most prestigious sale (Xanadu 3 by Jane Yolen) and maybe the story I am most proud of having written.
I could probably write a novel about the novels and authors that have been a big influence on me, but I’m going to try to avoid that, but there are definitely some more names that I need to at least call out and say thank you for impacting my life in some way.
- Spider Robinson: much like Dying Inside, his Callahan’s Bar stories hit me at a time when I really needed them and gave me a context to understand how I could fit in to the larger world. Special call out to The Time Traveller, which may or may not be an SF story, but it’s one of the most powerful pieces of fiction I’ve ever read.
- Gene Wolfe: Especially his New Urth books. Gene was the writer I always wanted to be, and knew would never be able to become. His books were the ones I reached for when I wanted something meaty that would challenge me, and he’s never let me down. And he’s a real sweetie of a person.
- James White: His Sector General books are the exact opposite; they are the fun and romping SF adventures you want when you want mind candy and to turn the brain off and just enjoy reading without thinking too hard. Same for Keith Laumer‘s Retief books.
- Robert A. Heinlein: It’s hard to have grown up when I did without Heinlein being an influential part of your world. True of me, and I was a big fan of some of his work growing up. I do think that Heinlein is an author of an era, and his works don’t hold up well in the way we view society today, and his later works were, well, inconsistent. But I’ve read a lot of Heinlein over the years and regretted very little of that reading.
- Steve Brust: Brust was, for a number of years, one of the few authors I would drop everything for when a new book came out. Today, I still do that for the Vlad Taltos books. I would say Steve’s style of writing is very much the style I most often wanted to adopt in my own writing, and sometimes even attained. (for those curious, John Scalzi has that honor today, and it’s not offered often or easily by me)
- Rosemary Sutcliffe and Jack Whyte: I have long been a serious fan of Arthurian fiction, but over time I shifted from the mythic Arthur of T.H. White and Mary Stewart to the historical Arthur, and that shift started when Beth Meacham of Tor books turned me onto Sword into Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliffe, one of the best historical Arthur books ever published. I recently re-read it within the last year and it held up wonderfully. Jack Whyte and his Camulod series is another historical Arthur author that I’ve loved reading over the years and who deserves special mention.
- Chelsea Quinn Yarbro: Yarbro has been writing a series of historical fiction/romance/horror books about the Count St. Germain. Each book in the series is set in a specific point in time, whether the Roman Empire or pre-WW II Germany or ancient Byzantium. St. Germain, you see, is a vampire, and so unless he is found out and killed, he lives forever and therefore is a useful character to use to study humans and society across the ages. And while St. Germain is a vampire, and that often becomes a plot point and part of the danger he has to escape to survive, these are not vampire books. They are glimpses into historical points in time, and sometimes, romances. That don’t always end well.
Also also: Ben Bova, Kevin O’Donnell, Jr. Jack Williamson, Connie Willis, Beth Meacham, Betsy Wollheim, Betsy Mitchell, Gardner Dozois, Stan Schmidt, Kris Kathryn Rusch, Jack Chalker, Jane Yolen, and Mike Resnick all the members of the old Over the Hill Gang writer’s group, and god, dozens and dozens more. These are people who I worked with during my SFWA years, were supportive of me in my fandom time, and/or encouraging and mentoring of me in my so-called writing career.
Finally, A special callout to Terry Carr. Westercon 31 (Westercone) in LA was my first SF convention beyond the one day events Bjo Trimble put on. And I went there and wandered around, had no idea what to expect, had no connection to any of it and was feeling rather lost and overwhelmed. And while wandering around, I had a man call me over; sitting in a hallway on the floor. He asked if this was my first con, and I said yes, and he had me sit down and we talked, and he kind of walked me through what to do, what to expect, where to mingle, pointed people out as the walked by and basically booted me into the world of fandom and conventions.
At the time I had no idea who he was. It wasn’t until much later, when I happened to be reading a book of his and saw the author picture published in it that I had this sudden realization who had taken me under his wing for a bit and made conventions fun and interesting instead of scary and lonely. Without Terry I never would have gone to another convention or gotten serious about fandom, I believe. And unfortunately, I never saw or talked to him again to thank him, so I’m going to do it now, with a quiet reminder to everyone to be open to finding the lost people and bringing them into the tribe when you can, and to be willing to pay forward into things that matter do you, because you never ever can pay back appropriately.
Terry took the time to teach me how to be a fan, embodied what it mean to be part of fandom, and is the kind of person we all should strive to be not only in our fannish times, but in how we deal with people throughout our lives. He didn’t need to grab me and spend part of an afternoon helping me get started and fit in; but he did. And he never identified who he was or asked for even a thank you. Unfortunately, he died before I could deliver that thank you, but now, at least, I can tell everyone else about it and remember him for it.