If you’ve been around here for a while, you might remember that my favorite writing podcast is Writing Excuses. In Episode 17.7, the team discussed dissecting your influences.
We all have stories we love, whether they be books, shows or movies. The idea of this episode was that it can be useful to take apart our favorite things and figure out why we like them, because it guides us toward things that matter to us. The themes and ideas that draw us to these works will often be fertile ground for our own writing. And while it may seem obvious that we all know exactly what we like in media, the truth is that we often leave those stones unturned. It might even be surprising to dig into what really brings us joy in a favorite movie or book.
After listening to this episode, I started compiling a list of my own favorite media. It wasn’t hard to start. In fact, it was hard to stop. The things closest to mind were mostly books I had read recently or old favorites that I’ve been re-reading with my kids. But I soon started to remember books from childhood, poetry, and even influences outside fiction altogether.
With this list in hand, and continuing to add to it, I thought it might be fun to dissect my own writer brain in public. I have to limit myself to a reasonable size for a blog post, so I’m going to pick a somewhat arbitrary classification to pull out a handful of entries.
The Grown-Up Sci-Fi of My Childhood
That’s right, it’s some of my first loves in science fiction, way back when I was still in school. The actual dates of publication vary quite a bit, from 1965 to 1994, and these are all novels aimed at adults. One of the things that drew me into these books was the faintly illicit idea that I, as a child, could read stories intended for grown-ups. It felt like a window into ideas and worlds I wasn’t yet allowed to enter. Going from “Choose Your Own Adventure” and Goosebumps to heady books like Dune is a real shock to the system.
On that note, let’s start with Herbert’s masterpiece.
Having read this book at least three times—and one of those times quite recently—I have a hard time going back to the headspace I was in when I read it originally. I think I was in high school, and I’m pretty sure the reason I started reading it was because I saw a mention of it where someone said it was as influential in science-fiction as Lord of the Rings was in fantasy.
I think Dune is a pretty great book for young people who are starting to get into science fiction. On the one hand, it reduces the many political and economic complexities of the far future into a feudal culture where the only thing that matters are the machinations of a handful of powerful factions. The protagonist, Paul, is a ducal heir with adult responsibilities, but he’s still not quite an adult. Interestingly, the whole feudal system and it’s quasi-European royalty end up falling apart by the end of the book, with young Paul engineering their downfall at the hands of colonized people.
I remember this book being interesting because it sets up a world where people and decisions hundreds of years previous can have profound and complicated effects on the present. It’s a world of complex, interrelated systems that nobody can completely understand, and even a single person putting a wrench in the gears in just the right way can totally change the universe.
I also genuinely love Paul’s relationship with his own psychic powers. He hates them. He is constantly vacillating between seeing the future and being unable to steer it, or losing that sight and the fear of not knowing. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that handled that kind of power in quite the same way.
I have to at least mention the other books in the (original) Dune series. I read them all, although not right away. I don’t think any of them quite measure up to the original, but I appreciate how strange they are, and Herbert’s audacity in choosing to set them thousands of years apart in far-flung futures that are less and less similar to our own modern lives.
Another book with a child protagonist? Possibly a theme. Ender in this book is much younger than Paul is at the beginning of Dune, but he deals with some comparable drama. This is another book that I re-read recently with my kids.
This book was astounding in a few different ways. Firstly, while it’s not exactly dystopic fiction, it does depict a world where war with aliens has resulted in hardship for average people and a government with dictatorial power. We learn early on that Ender is special because he’s a “third.” In a world where the government limits how many children each couple can have, he is a rarity.
All of the main characters are children: Ender and his siblings, and all of the kids at the battle school. Parents and adults are present, but they have little time “on-screen.” Like the dictatorial government, they show up periodically and force some seemingly arbitrary and often cruel new rules onto the children, but it’s the children and their relationships that matter. This is a book that understands what it feels like to be a child, to feel like adults don’t give you all the information and many decisions are left completely out of your hands.
Ender is bred to be a soldier and a leader. He’s trained for it. He is subjected to insane cruelty, to the point where he ends up having to kill other children to defend himself, all because it’s part of the program. But the ultimate cruelty happens at the end of the book, when he discovers that the supposedly wise adults who forced this horrible life on him didn’t even understand the enemy that they trained him to kill. The entire war is nothing more than an interspecies miscommunication, and he finds out by accident.
And then he leaves. He finds the one person he loves and who loves him: his sister. They get on a spaceship and fly away. He leaves behind all the systems of abuse and control that defined his entire life. Maybe a metaphor for growing up.
The “Ender” series continues on. Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind are all great books, but again I feel like the original is still the best. The series is similar to Dune in the way it jumps large spans of time in a wildly changing galaxy. The Dune series eventually had a bunch of new books written much later, by Herbert’s son. I heard they were terrible and I never read them. The “Ender” series, on the other hand, had more and more books still written by Orson Scott Card, but I got to the point where I just wasn’t that interested by yet another rehash of the same story from a different secondary character’s perspective.
Before we move on, it’s worth mentioning that I’m still disappointed that Orson Scott Card turned out to be a homophobe and the sort of person who politely states their deeply held and hateful beliefs. Card was one of my early writing heroes, and I still hold his books on writing in high esteem, but as a person, he really bums me out. He kind of did the whole “J.K. Rowling” thing before Rowling.
The Uplift Saga
While the above two entries are the first (and I would argue, most important) books in a series, David Brin’s “Uplift” books are inseparable in my mind. There are six of them, in a pair of trilogies:
- Startide Rising
- The Uplift War
- Heaven’s Reach
- Brightness Reef
- Infinity’s Shore
I suspect this series might be the most influential set of books in my childhood, but I came at them in a very weird way. I’m honestly not sure if I even remember it correctly. I know I read them out of order, because I bought one of these books at a garage sale, completely unaware that it was part of a series. I can’t be sure, but I think it was The Uplift War, the third book in the first trilogy.
That might sound a little insane to some readers, but it’s something I did multiple times as a kid. I even read through the fifth book in a series once, and didn’t realize it was part of a series until the ending completely failed to resolve the plot. One of the crazy things about being a child is that the world makes no sense. Every time you open a “grown-up” book, it’s like being transported into a completely new universe. Of course it’s confusing. Everything is confusing when you’re a child. It’s the ultimate introduction to the concept of “in media res.”
While Dune imagines a sci-fi future with no aliens whatsoever, and Ender’s Game has only the buggers, who seem to be mindless insectoid killing machines, the Uplift books are absolutely chockablock with all sorts of aliens. They are not your usual little green men. They are crabby things with 360° vision or energy creatures that live in the corona of the sun. They are varied and logical for the environment they came from.
The Uplift books depict a humanity that has just made contact with a galaxy full of aliens. There is a galactic culture. It is full of aliens who are much more advanced and powerful than humans, and we are forced to very abruptly change our own assessment of how awesome we are.
Humanity has started the process of advancing the intelligence of chimpanzees, dogs, gorillas and dolphins through genetic manipulation and technology. It turns out this is a pretty damn important concept to all the aliens, who call it “Uplift.” In fact, it’s the glue that binds all these different cultures together, as the uplifted races are forced into millennia-long servitude to the race that gave them the gift of sentience, and the races providing “Uplift” have a higher social position. Of course, the top dogs of the galaxy aren’t excited to see the newcomers, humanity, get that kind of respect, let alone the servitude of multiple freshly uplifted species.
Again, we have a fictional world that is too big for its characters. Hell, even the entire human race (and super-dogs/chimps/gorillas) is just trying to keep from drowning in a galaxy where almost everything is out of their control. I think, as a child, I was fascinated by the idea that everything we know and have ever known on planet Earth might be utterly inconsequential in the wider universe.
I have to admit, when I started writing this article I thought I might not have that much to say. Now I’m almost 2,000 words into this, everyone has probably stopped reading, and I only made it through half the books I intended.
I’m going to call it here. I found this to be a really fun exercise, but I’m curious if anyone else will be interested. I got more out of it than I thought I would, not the least of which is the desire to go and re-read the entire Uplift series. If anyone enjoys this, I might make it a regular feature. I have a lot of books, shows, and movies on my list.