Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Ten Most Influential Books in My Life

A friend recently hit me with the “10-Book Challenge” on Facebook to identify ten books that had influence on my life. Definitely not a trivial task for me. It took days of pondering to figure out what titles really had enough of an impact on me to say that they influenced me in some manner or another.
I chose not to waste this response on Facebook, where it would have been lost in all the noise. Instead, I decided to place it in my own blog where it can have better access for the curious and gain broader appeal.
The books I chose are those that stick in my mind for one reason or another. Only one book in particular can be credited with altering the course of my life. It isn’t so much what the book was about so much as what it did for me. (You can read about that book below.)


10. Grimm’s Fairytales, by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (aka The Brothers Grimm).
Most people refer to the collection created by the Brothers Grimm as Grimm's Fairytales. The true title was Kinder- und Hausmärchen, which translates to “Children’s and Household Tales.” The Grimm brothers researched exhaustively many folktales found in German culture when they realized that the stories were being lost to outside influences. Very forward thinking of two men in the 18th century.
I, and many other writers, use fairytales as source material for stories. Disney built an empire on using the fairytales from the Grimm collection. But there are far more fairytales than what the Grimm’s recorded. Every unique culture in the world has a collection of folktales to offer. Even Shakespeare drew on fairytales in many of his plays to add elements of the supernatural.
So, here I give the Brothers Grimm the nod as their efforts saved for us folktales that might otherwise have faded away and disappeared from us. Their efforts inspired others to do the same, and these stories now endure for all the ages.

9. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne. (Fr. “Vingt mille lieues sous les mers: Tour du monde sous-marin”)
This one is almost too easy. If you ask any writer of science fiction what authors influenced them, invariably Jules Verne will be on their list. So much so, that it is almost cliché. Many consider Jules Verne to be the father of modern science fiction.
There is more to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea than many give credit. The original English translation from Verne’s native French was done by Rev. Lewis Page Mercier in 1873 and this version is the one that most English-speaking people have read for more than a century. Unfortunately, Mercier’s translation was horrible. He badly mangled Verne’s prose, cut out more than 25% of the book, and drastically altered the story. To give you an idea of how bad it was, consider this factoid: Verne didn’t like the English and Mercier didn’t like the French. So you can well imagine what was cut out from the original during that translation.
Fortunately, three men, the team of Walter James Miller & Frederick Paul Walter, and independently, Dr. William Butcher, published their own translations of Verne’s masterpiece and they remained true to the original. F.P. Walter had published a earlier translation in 1991 and is available via Project Gutenberg. (I leave it to the reader to find this copy, with the idea in mind to encourage people to just go and buy the commercial version in the format they prefer. This will encourage more writers to go out and properly translate classics from other languages by helping them make a living at it!)
The Disney movie version gives an adequate cover of the story, but reading the original in all its glory opens up so much more. One little enticement I’ll throw at the reader: Captain Nemo’s identity. He sure as hell wasn’t English, French, or even European. I think most people will be very surprised to learn more about Captain Nemo.
The story of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was always with me as a child. I saw the Disney movie and fell in love with the Nautilus and had many dreams plying the seas in that amazing submarine. It was an amazing adventure and as a little boy, I loved adventure. But when I managed to catch the the movie when I was much older, I noticed that there were some darker overtones to the movie I hadn’t picked up on as a child. It wouldn’t be until I was an adult when I finally came across an accurate translation of the story and read it. I was blown away by how much richer the story was than I knew. Nemo wasn’t quite the hero that many attribute him to be, and had a richer and darker story that was so much more gripping. There are things that happen in the story that make the ending so much more understandable.
One thing I learned: movies can never do justice to most stories. If you really liked a movie, you should go out and read the book it was based on.
I’ve read many of Verne’s books, of which I hold up 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as merely the example of his other works. Verne didn’t like being called a science fiction author, or a prophet of the future. He merely wanted to write stories of where he imagined we might be using the tools of the day. Verne wasn’t writing about the technologies of tomorrow, he was writing adventurous stories where the characters interacted with each other, sometimes using technology of the day to accomplish their tasks. It’s just that Verne tended to extend the present day technology to its furthest possible ideal. He researched that information so carefully, that he often nailed just how far that technology would eventually extend when modern engineering was able to bring it to that point.
There is a lesson in that attention to detail. The best and most enduring stories in science fiction are those that are so plausible, that they could almost be regular fiction from tomorrow. In fact, this can apply to pretty much any genre. A story that is well thought out and complete will appeal to readers in any age.

8. Citizen of the Galaxy, Robert A. Heinlein
I’ve always been a fan of Heinlein’s work. I do prefer his earlier adventure stories as opposed to his later sociopolitical stories, but that is a different discussion. I think Citizen of the Galaxy is probably my favorite of his stories, followed closely by Have Spacesuit—Will Travel. So I use this as an example of Heinlein’s work and how it influenced me.
In these stories, Heinlein didn’t write about how technology magically saved the day, he wrote about characters who had to use their wits to get through things, as other characters in the story often had access to the same or better technology. This is what makes a story enduring, being character driven and not by what is trendy. A story that the reader can relate to as a person, and not as a rehash of the [insert your favorite decade here]. While technology might be interesting, the readers want to see how the characters use it and not be lectured how it works.
But more than technology, Heinlein loved to write and comment about society. Readers could equally accuse him of being socialist or fascist, liberal or conservative, religious or atheist, all while quoting the same work at the same time. Heinlein believed in individualism and believed the that good and broad education was necessary for someone to truly function as an individual. That anyone could do almost anything if they were properly educated. Heinlein is often quoted from one of his stories, “Specialization is for insects.”
In Citizen of the Galaxy, the lead character, Thorby, is able to adapt from one change in his life to another due to his adopted father making sure he was well educated. Kip Russell in Have Spacesuit—Will Travel is in a rut until his father forces him to take on real studies and improve his education. Only then does Kip’s life open up to new possibilities and prepares him for the misadventure he finds himself on. A sharp mind and quick wit is what Heinlein’s characters use to get out of one predicament after another.
I tend to echo this in my own characters. Better educated characters will often triumph over the lesser educated and dimwitted characters because they better understand how things truly work. They have more resources to draw from than their lesser-minded adversaries. A sharp-witted character can better adapt to change than one who isn’t. Of course, the foil to this is when a character is in an unfamiliar situation and doesn’t know quite how to respond to events. In this case, the character has to rely on another who is more familiar with the environment.

Yeah, again another cliché reference. Writers and the Bard. It’s like American politicians invoking the spirit of Abraham Lincoln. You want to groan in pain when it happens. But I must admit that Shakespeare’s plays influence my writing.
When I want to set the tone of dialogue between characters, in my mind I play back snippets of interactions between characters in Shakespeare’s plays. Not the lofty and heavy monologues of the major characters, but the witty exchanges done by the other characters. Mercutio teasing Juliet’s nurse, Falstaff trying to schmooze Prince Hal, the interplay of The Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There is a rhythm to these dialogues. This rhythm even appears in real life, when friends gather together and start tossing a private joke back and forth between them.
Ideas for scenes, interactions between characters, attitudes… There is a reason Shakespeare has remained popular all these centuries. The characters and scenes he created resonate with people. Thus, they serve as good examples when you need a particular character for one reason or another.
When you watch a Shakespeare play done by excellent actors, the words alone carry you into the story. I watched one group perform without any sets or props; just a naked stage. Yet while they acted, I could picture all the elements they referenced through their dialogue, their positions, and their motions.
That makes for a powerful example when writing.

6. The Witches of Karres, by James H. Schmitz.
I can’t remember when I first read this book. I think I was around nine or ten years in age. I do remember reading it three times before I returned it to the library.
Unlike other science fiction stories I had read up to that time, there was a certain humor to this story; a sparkle that the other stories didn’t have. It didn’t take itself seriously. The protagonist, Captain Pausert, wasn’t perfect. He made mistakes. Things didn’t go his way, and there were times he simply had no control over what was happening. Yet he did his best to try and do what was right even when he wasn’t sure what that entailed.
The story was broad and expansive, jumping from world to world across an entire galaxy. It was what we call a space opera
The Witches of Karres is a science fiction classic that seems sadly overlooked by fans of science fiction. This is a pity, because I feel a lot of people would really enjoy this book if they were only aware of it. In fact, the only people I know who have read The Witches of Karres are other authors of science fiction. Take a hint readers: if the authors are reading this and enjoying it, perhaps you should, too!
Schmitz had a great way of delivering a story. I liked his writing style, the editing of his book, and the way he balanced dialogue and prose. He set a good pace for the story and didn’t drop it from beginning to end. There were no breaks or awkward interludes bridging scenes. It flowed right from beginning to end.
I would have to say that Schmitz influences my writing style. I do use his book as a style reference when I feel my own writing is getting sloppy. Because I can read this book over and over and still enjoy it, its easy to grab it, read through a few pages, then get back to work.
After reading The Witches of Karres, I drifted away from reading short stories, graduating to full novels. Previously, most of my science fiction reading was in anthology collections my local library had. Because I enjoyed reading it so much, I stopped shying away from the larger and longer books and dove in to those more complex works.

5. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin.
I really had no interest in reading fantasy until I read Earthsea. Most fantasies I read up to that point struck me as rehashings of Tolkien’s work. She was so different from the others, so unique in the story, LeGuin had me captivated by her characters and her world.
One theme that stuck hard with me was how LeGuin handled dragons.  They were rare and distant from the world. They only spoke to elite people worthy of their attention in her stories. All that stuck with me.
That influence can be seen in Aggadeh. In the Aggadeh Empire, it is said that dragons only speak to those of the greatest power, powerful enough to potentially be the Emperor of Aggadeh. Of course, this is just a distortion of the truth. In that world, dragons can only make themselves understood to those who have a particular power. To make themselves understood by those who lack that ability is so difficult for dragons, they don’t bother trying.
Earthsea showed you don’t need to have elves and dwarves and fairies and trolls to create a world of magic. In LeGuin’s world, it wasn’t a battle between populations, it was a battle of balance within one’s mind. She taught me to consider other ways magic could be invoked.

4. The High King, by Lloyd Alexander
The last book of the Chronicles of Prydain and the only book to ever bring me to tears. If that doesn’t count for influence, I don’t know what does. (Don’t just read this one book, read the whole series or the ending will be lost on you.)
What makes a hero?
Alexander’s character, Taran, keeps trying and failing at just that: trying to become a hero. It gets worse when he meets a girl who is out of his reach, no matter what he tries to do. The more he tries, the more he seems to fail. Yet, in his failures, he becomes that hero.
Taran in my mind is a good model for a hero in a story. I will admit, I think there is a little bit of Taran in my own character, Nem Aster. Neither quite fits in with the other characters or their role in life. Both have humble beginnings, but have great affect on their worlds. Both, perhaps, are a little frustrated with their inability to control their lives.
Though, where Taran is searching for a way to be a hero and earn everyone’s respect, Nem is just trying to survive and keep up with the changes around him. Nem is not trying to be the hero, the role of hero is being thrust upon him as time goes by.

3. The White Dragon, by Anne McCaffrey
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but that’s what everybody does anyway.
I was utterly transfixed by the Michael Whelan cover of McCaffrey’s book. I can say that the book was bought even before my hand pulled it from the shelf. That image just reached out and grabbed me. McCaffrey herself commented that she felt she owed much of the success of the Dragonriders of Pern series to Michael Whelan’s artwork gracing her covers. I certainly don’t question her statement.
McCaffrey’s The White Dragon would become the most reread book in my library. To the point where the book finally fell apart when I picked it up for the last time.
It made me a fan of McCaffrey’s work. It wouldn’t be the only one of her books I wore out with reading too much. Most of the first books I purchased as ebooks were by McCaffrey. No more worn out book spines!
McCaffrey was the first writer of whom I could declare myself a fan. I enjoyed most of her stories that I read.
What’s funny is, I was a fan of her work for far longer than I thought…

2. The Smallest Dragonboy, by Anne McCaffrey
I read this when I was in third grade.
I had just gotten into reading, and this story was one of the first I read trying out new titles. I only read it once, yet to this day I remember the story clearly. But it wouldn’t be until years later when I would realize that the story was written by Anne McCaffrey and would show that I had been a McCaffrey fan from the beginning.
The vast majority of books I was reading were about people who were much older than I was. This was the first story I read that focused on a kid who was my age. So this had the impact of a meteor on my imagination.  Sure, the books we used for reading lessons were stories about children my age, but they were all horribly boring and tedious to read. This was in a book I chose to read. It showed there wasn’t just another world out there, it showed there were multiple universes to explore!
This story opened a new door for me by exposing me to other kinds of stories from the ones I was used to reading. My reading list broadened significantly and I began seeking out new titles to read.

At this moment, most of my high-literature friends are raising their eyebrows and and saying, “WTF? THIS is what you consider the most influential book in your life?!?”
My answer: absolutely. This is the one book that utterly changed the course of my life. This book defined who I would become.
For this is the book that made me a reader.
That singular moment is vividly imprinted in my memory. If it wasn’t for that book, I would never have become a reader and I would never have discovered writing. I would not be sitting here now writing this to you.
Nothing is more influential than that.
Thank you, Mr. Lawrence, from the bottom of my heart and the depths of my imagination.