Way back when I first started out to be a writer– no, not back in 2001. Before that. Nope, before that. before that– yep, back in the late 80s, when I began University and first set out to myself the idea that I might do this writing lark for actual monies, I was a simple boy from a working class background with a very mainstream and staid set of cultural influences.
Except in two regards: one was music, because I had my own boombox and could absorb the late night programs on the FM channels that were still fighting for ascendancy with my parents’ easy listening AM mainstays, and using progressive programming and an aggressively contemporary– still mainstream and radio friendly, but at least up-to-date– playlist aimed at attracting a younger audience.
The other was reading. My mother was a keen reader, and although we didn’t have many books in the house, she was an avid user of the local libraries, and our house had pretty much an ‘if you can reach it, you can read it’ system in place. Consequently, I was exposed to a wide range of what passed for literature in Rockingham libraries in the 80s (lots of Zane Grey and Jackie Collins, maybe not quite so much Don De Lillo and Jorge Luis Borges…) So I read Lord of the Rings at ten, was openly reading Erica Jong before I finished primary school, became a lifelong fan of Dick Francis and Robert Ludlum at a time when my peers were still reading Roald Dahl and John Marsden, and generally had the run of the local libraries. At a time when you could get a maximum of 2 books out if you were under 15, and 4 if you were over, I had a “how many this week?” relationship with the staff at the little library in Safety Bay that worked wonders for both my imagination and my biceps.
And then there was science fiction. SF was the genre that gave me the hunger, the one that opened my mind to not only what was being done in literature, but just what could be done. When I first started to write, seriously, with intent, in those early years of University, when all my horizons were limitless and my ambitions stretched light years beyond my abilities, I wrote science fiction. And when it came to influences, these were the gods I carried in my back pocket, whose words shaped the style of writer I wanted to be. Earlier on, I discussed 5 writers whose work I love and who influence my current ambitions. Now it’s time to look backwards, and talk about those who influenced my early steps.
Five for Friday: Earliest Influences
1. Isaac Asimov
For readers of my vintage, it seems that Isaac Asimov was a nearly ubiquitous gateway drug. It’s hardly surprising: he wrote umpty billion books, and his straightforward prose, liner plotting and classic structuring make his short stories particularly easy to assimilate for a reader still learning the dictates of the genre. By the time I reached University I was an avid collector– the second-hand bookstores were thick with well-thumbed, cheap copies of his work. I soon moved on to more sophisticated exponents, but for a while his industry, work ethic, and ability to mine seams of thought were a template for what I wanted to achieve.
2. Ray Bradbury
I first read Bradbury in primary school. The Golden Apples of the Sun was the book that captured me, A Sound of Thunder and The Golden Apples of the Sun the stories that sank their hooks into me and refused to let go. Bradbury was SF’s first great poet, with a style and lyrical simplicity that has rarely been equalled. No other writer of my youth could entrance, frighten, seduce and horrify me simultaneously the way he did. Even now, very few writers can. There was something special about him, something I could not define but that I wanted to capture. Several of my published stories (Murderworld— about a man trapped in a murderous reality show who chooses instead to walk naked amongst the heavily-armed combatants and persuade them to help him plant a garden– is the one that springs most immediately to mind) have tried.
3. Harry Harrison
I’ve blogged before about the SF collection I received for my 8th birthday, and which changed my life. One of the stories in that collection was an excerpt from The Stainless Steel Rat. Once I understood what an excerpt was, I sought out the book. And the next. And the next. Because, dammit, while they were simply told stories, and never pretended they were nothing more than good old-fashioned pulp fun, they were fun. Those stories were the first time I understood the power of voice, of having a distinct and understandable style that could provide a context greater than the simple progression of words on the page. I’ve dabbled in humour all my life. This was one of the earliest of my influences in that direction.
4. Roger Zelazny
I read Eye of Cat when I was thirteen, and I was never the same again. Zelazny was one of those rare writers whose works never seemed to duplicate what came before. Isle of the Dead and Lord of Light are masterpieces. His collaboration with Philip K Dick, Deus Irae, is delightfully insane. And his short stories, particularly A Rose for Ecclesiastes and The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth blew the lid of my mind. To my unformed reader’s mind he was a fucking wizard, and he remains a seminal influence– looking back, my Father Muerte stories, in particular, owe a lot to his ability to meld different influences into a narrative. When my story, The Glow of His Eyes, the Depths of his Gaze was published, a friend sent me a text that simply said “Zelazny wannabe :)”. It was the nicest compliment I received that day……
5. Brian Aldiss
Very early in my University days, I discovered the extensive collection of New Wave SF works in the Uni’s library. I fell in love with the works of Harlan Ellison, in particular, as well as Spinrad, Lafferty, Rucker, and Sladek, amongst others. But it was Brian Aldiss who inspired me as a writer: Ellison’s looping, hyperactive anger was such a singular voice that I could never hope to recreate it. The others had shades of what I was looking for (particularly Sladek, who could easily have made this list). Aldiss– more reserved, more analytical– produced works as equally outrageous, but there was meat on the bones that I could study. Hothouse and Barefoot in the Head were particular favourites– I still, in fact, occasionally use the latter title as a way of describing someone I think a bit off-kilter. His peak is shorter and less flamboyant than Ellison’s, less intensely personal than Sladek’s, less outright loopy than Lafferty’s. But for giving me a framework in which to start critiquing myself, and tying outrageous flights of imagination to a clear narrative structure, I have Aldiss to thank.