The books that made me

Today’s blog comes from my metaphorical sickbed. This week I’ve spent four nights in hospital and have committed not a word to hard drive. Sorry. So, without a status update or any insights into the creative writing process, here instead is a quick canter through a few books and authors that I count as major influences on me and my writing. Hope you enjoy.

Sargasso of Space – Andre Norton

A half-remembered classic, one of my most formative experiences of science fiction. My Mum read this to me when I was but small – around 10, maybe. Looking back, I remember not the story so much as the atmosphere Norton created. First published in 1955, it’s a very British novel with such a different feel to the writing of Asimov or the other early American pioneers. It was my first introduction to the concept of ‘Terra’ and also contained the Psych test, now thoroughly ‘appropriated’ by me for the Night Shift novels. I reread one of her later novels recently and found it to be quite stiff, especially in dialogue – very much of her time. But her voice remained strong and her stories are always gripping.

Five Red Herrings – Dorothy L. Sayers 

Gaudy Night has the most beautiful writing. Murder Must Advertise is the classic crime novel. And yet this is the one that I have most admiration for. There are six suspects in a murder investigation: five of them are red herrings. That’s it. Beautifully plotted, I read it for the first time relatively recently and couldn’t help but smile at the deftness with which the story played with itself. Plus Wimsey really does stand up as a character, even in these cynical and proletarian times.

Caliban – Roger MacBride Allen/Isaac Asimov

Don’t be fooled by Asimov’s name – this is one of those ‘by Isaac Asimov, with RMA’ things where you know that all of the work was really done by the lesser name (are you listening, James Patterson?). This novel’s all but unknown now and that’s a shame because it deserves a lot better.

Asimov’s involvement is in the creation of the Three Laws of Robotics and in sketching out the consequences of these on humanity. He posits that they’d create an indolent, unproductive society, cosseted by an ever-worshipful army of dependent robots. But when a robot becomes lead suspect in a murder enquiry society might choose to sacrifice their planet for short-term comfort.

This, you’ll notice immediately, is classic speculative fiction: ‘so if things continue like this, how will they be in a century?’ It’s also a quality crime novel, and a massive, massive influence on the Night Shift trilogy. It’s also a series I’ve re-read many, many times and have lent to many, many people.

Archer’s Goon – Diana Wynne Jones

A confession: I watched the series before I read the book. Well, children’s TV was worth something in 1992. This is everything you want in junior fiction. It’s inventive, funny, thrilling, and a tour de force of the imagination. Howard, the young protagonist, arrives home after school to find a Goon in his kitchen. That’s it – no messing about, we’re right into a wonderfully surreal adventure in a town controlled by seven mysterious siblings, all with their different areas of responsibility.

A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick

I’ve written before about PKD. About how I’m not a fan of his writing – and, like Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, this is a story that might actually be better on screen. But the ideas – the ideas! Oh, I can’t tell you how this affected me when I first read it. Unsettling, terrifying, dislocating. I can’t tell you too much because I’ve stolen ideas liberally. Just, if you are going to read this, be prepared for some extreme scowling at the page as you try and decipher those hopelessly convoluted sentences.

Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

My first taste of Gaiman and still (alongside Good Omens) my favourite. With an everyman hero and a delightfully off-key world – at the same time larger-than-life and sad and tarnished – London Below is a beautiful labyrinth. It also has some of the best villains in literature. Don’t just take my word for that – ask Mr Pratchett, who lifted Croup and Vandemar wholesale for Discword novel The Truth. I’d have been a teenager when I first came across this, long before I knew I wanted to be a writer. Lenny Henry’s involvement was the big news, not Gaiman’s input. In hindsight it’s a wonder this didn’t make more of an impact because it captures the imagination like nothing else.

UnRoman Britain – Stuart, Laycock

Non-fiction time! And historically/archaeologically dubious non-fiction at that. Which is not to say this isn’t based on good solid evidence, just that the conclusions Laycock draws aren’t widely accepted in academia.

This matters not a jot. This is a fascinating work and one with a good strong story; that of the collapse of Roman culture after the last of the legions left Britain. I doubt you’re interested, but it fascinated me with its analysis of cultural change throughout (and before, and after) the Roman occupation. It strongly influenced Chivalry and, whether or not it all happened like Laycock posits, it really made me think how people react to authority. And what they might do when that authority is removed.

It’s the end of the world as we know it…

There’ve been many stories about the end of civilisation. Right back to War of the Worlds (Wells), through Day of the Triffids (Wyndham) and on to Mostly Harmless (Adams), writers have delighted in killing lots and lots of people. And the trend sees no sign of ending. Even my own work, Chivalry, has the end of nations as its backdrop.

 

Why is this? What is it in the imagination that leads us to such grim speculation?

 

I guess that part of it is that there’s something in all of us that shares the fear. There’s a common knowledge (rightly or wrongly) that we are constantly walking at the edge of the abyss. We all have so many worries, many stoked by the media, that we are about to enter a new Dark Age. So it’s easy to come up with a world-destroying mechanism that people will accept, will buy into. We’ve also learned so much more about our planet and the solar system we live in; we’re now so aware of the possibility of a supervolcano plunging us into an instant Ice Age or of a comet doing to us what one did for the dinosaurs so many years ago.

 

So destroying civilisation is easy and believable.

 

Another reason is that there are so many ways to tell the story. The hero can be trying to prevent the end of the world, or to rebuild some sort of society or just trying to survive. Or the story could pick up years later, like Tim Arnot’s story Wanted.

 

Maybe a lot of us subconsciously want society to fracture. We are, after all, a product of millions of years of evolution and for most of this time we’ve lived as small groups. It’s been suggested that humans struggle mentally when living with more that a hundred other people. Which is why most of us know, are related to, interact with, no more than that number despite being surrounded by so many more. And no, Facebook doesn’t count.

 

Of course, the world in microcosm has already ended many times. The Minoan civilisation ended as a (probable) consequence of the Santorini eruption around 1600 BCE. Believers in climatic determinism can cite a dozen more examples, and once upon a time I knew them too. I’m fairly certain that various collapses in Chinese dynastic history can be linked with periods of famine and environmental downturn.

 

These events, real or imagined, can provide great inspiration for writers. As well as a ‘true’ historical account of events at the time of great disasters, it’s at least moderately easy to transplant these disasters into different times or places. How about moving the effects of Santorini to Victorian London, or onto a brand new space-station posted at the edge of the solar system?

 

One of the major sources of inspiration for Chivalry was an academic book called Brittania: The Failed State. Written by Stuart Laycock, it tries to explain why the British abandoned the culture of Rome after the legions had gone. Maybe this is only of academic interest, but I find it fascinating. Laycock’s ideas may not be accepted by the people who matter, but it makes for a good convincing story.

 

For me, what really ‘clicked’ was the idea of people naturally reverting to old tribal boundaries once an overarching authority had been removed. And that’s what Chivalry became. Not the story: that always remained focussed on the small group of people I’d centred the tale around. But the background. The slow descent into anarchy.

 

I was always intending to write a sequel (which was going to be called Feudalism until someone said it was a not-very-good title) which showed the transition to a tribal society. That’s not happened. I did start it, and do some planning, but the idea’s stalled. The major problem for me is that I feel I’ve exhausted one of the main devices in Chivalry, which was to set part of the novel in a computer recreation of the Crusaders. Logically I can’t see a way to crowbar that sort of thing into a sequel. But without it I’m missing something; a spark, a flame – something to maintain the thrill of the first book.

 

Maybe my history books will provide the answer.