Considering: Some science fiction and fantasy books that made my brain

Two years ago I came across the request “Which Science fiction or Fantasy book will make anyone smarter“, and as I considered what people had added to the list so far I found myself nodding – and sometimes shaking my head in disbelief, but hey, we’re all different – starting to think how some of these books had affected me.

As the list went on I also started to mentally add to it. And as I am rather bad at censoring myself the few ideas soon became a list of its own, and that list then became the backbone of this post.

Then it went into hibernation, courtesy of fatal illness and more in my immediate family. Then today, as Bob Dylan was announced as recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2016, I again – and not for the first time – thought about important books and authors.

So, finally, here it is – my list of SF/F books that made me the person I am. It is impossible to grade them – some would probably not even make it to a “best books read”-list – so instead I chose “order in which I first read them” –

Lord of the Rings, J.R.R Tolkien
If memory serves me right my father started to read The Fellowship of the Ring aloud for me when I was eight years old. Getting to the end took a mighty long time but it all ended with me reading LoTR, again and again, until I was about eleven or twelve.
However, that was not the only book that I read. And as I raided the local library of anything remotely readable I soon ran out of options, remembering a box of books in the cellar. It turned out to be my dad’s 50’s imported pulp paperback SF, and I realised that I had to start to read in English.
So, at 13 I borrowed the library’s original language edition (I can still remember the librarian warning me off – she thought it would be too difficult for me), thinking that if I read a book that I knew intimately I could focus on language instead of on story: my personal learning strategy (I was quite bad at English in school).
Definitely a monumental decision, at that time, as I had probably not proceeded to read the rest of the books mentioned here if not for this.

Space Cadet, Robert Heinlein
I first met with Heinlein’s YA fiction with the help of the municipality’s head librarian. I remember being highly suspicious of the book but I was running out of options at the library, plus he was class mate’s dad, which was a bit intimidating, so when he suggested it to me I grudgingly brought it home rather than saying no. I was already a kind of space freak, I had loved watching Space 1999 when it aired on Swedish television, and spent a lot of time watching the moon and the winter skies through my dad’s binoculars. All the SF that I had read that far had adult protagonists so while the kids in this one were older than me suddenly space was within my reach. And so the story became more engaging, on a personal level.
I went on to read almost all of Heinlein’s books, some of which I will admit went straight over my head back then. And later on I realised I have many objections to his way of depicting society (and maybe more importantly – gender). But – Space Cadet made space achievable for me, even if in my head only.

Childhood’s End, Arthur C Clarke
Of all Clarke’s book this is the one that stands out. As a kid I loved the quirkiness of The Sands of Mars (which I found among my dad’s boxed up books), or the seriousness of Fountains of Paradise (hunted down by inter-library loan), or his short story collections, but Childhood’s End is, in my personal opinion, his masterpiece. At a time when most SF that I had encountered could be considered space opera and optimistic about the what lay ahead of humankind this novel challenged not only my preconceptions of the future but of the place of humanity in the universe as a whole. Mind-bending.
After having read Childhood’s End I found the Rama books… insipid. Even as a young’un.

The Earthsea Trilogy, Ursula K Le Guin
As I remember it I first encountered Sparrowhawk in an anthology used at school – I think I might have been 14 or so – and I immediately got hold of the whole trilogy at the library. What I love about the trilogy has changed with the years, however.
Originally it was the goat herd turned Archmage story that got to me, and then the idea that a way with words might make you powerful. But as I grew older still what stayed with me was the message that we can’t win by running from what we fear; the only way to conquer what hunts you is to turn around, to face it, or you’ll have to run, afraid, for the rest of our life.
As I struggled with the experienced mismatch between who I was and what society thought a girl or young woman should be or not be I found great strength in Ged’s story – to be brave and face the fear and to grow into myself.
Later yet I returned to the idea of words and language as a key to power. So – seemingly an innocuous story of youthful adventure but in reality a tale of great impact.

Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin
Used as I was to stories that challenged society as we know it I never caught on to how provocative the concept of gender Le Guin presented in this tightly written tale about friendship, alienation, and power. Only when I lent my copy to a co-worker, and he returned it, slightly disgusted (this was in the early 90’s, and a truly techie-engineering white-male environment), did I realise that the fluid gender identities depicted could be perceived as threatening. But, while this book didn’t have a big impact on my own analytical models or on my world-view it certainly reinforced my personal values and I still think it is one of the most important SF books written. Ever.
Also, she’s one if the most important authors, ever, if I get a word in. Starting with LHoD it is possible to read almost all her works, long or short (even though I personally recommend the three short story collections Worlds of Exile and Illusion, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, and The Birthday of the World).

Neuromancer, William Gibson
The moment I stumbled over Neuromancer, finding the cyberpunk movement, was defining. Here was someone who didn’t depict a swash-buckling future ensconced in present-time ideals or ideas but the believable real life apocalypse of the present system. It is hard to remember this, it was such a long time ago, but this book, and its sequels, added a new dimension to the way SF was told, challenging what the collective do with the power that we have. Or not.
For me personally it started a long run of leaving all the traditional SF that I had read behind, breaking roads into new ways to understand and interpret society and the humans (or not?) that it’s made of.

Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
At the eve of the internet revolution, of the modern networked world, Snow Crash entered my life. The virtual, the power of meme’s – no one had seen Facebook yet, far in the future, or the power of the ever-changing plethora of social media. This was the first book that I was able to discuss with co-workers – a sign perhaps of where the world was headed, even if we were all in the incipient IT/web-business, just ahead of the boom. Those discussions led the way to more books, mainly factual ones retelling the history of computing, of the internet, and of gaming.
It was truly educational as well as inspirational, and all of it because a book of fiction.
Oh behold the power of words!

Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson
It is possible to have many objections against Stephenson and his writing. Among other things he is in dire need of an editor. Another valid objection is against his apparent interest in ideas and likewise disinterest in individuals. Those two combined leads to several of his books to have badly conceived endings, and long-winded discourses on matters only tangential to the story. The latter I first encountered in this book, which was the first book in recorded history which I actually just skipped a (large) number of pages. I still enjoyed it, very much so – the way it weaved an intertwined story, mixing timelines, revealing interconnection at the end. The impact was not so much the book in itself, though, as the interest it sparked: first, some reading up on the science of cryptography and crypt-analysis, and then, after having gifted my dad with a copy and getting pointers from him on were Stephenson had actually used real life events in his story, reading up on WWII history, on Enigma, and more. Again, educational – and I live to learn :-)

Cyteen, C.J Cherryh
I have no real memory of which of C.J’s books that I read first but I do think that it might have been Cyteen – it was either this, or Foreigner books 1-8, and then I got onto Cyteen while waiting for more Foreigner books (as they are written in 3-book arcs I wanted to have #9 in paperback, just as the previous – from #10 and on they’re first edition hardbacks). Either way it is a grand epic in societal design bleeding into engineering human(oid)s, viewed from the perspective of the individual/s, all the while questioning ethics, loyalties, and responsibility, not to mention cause and effect. The book wasn’t just good in and of itself, though. It opened up to the rest of her Alliance-Union Universe, with all its insightful stories depicting the impact of big politics on us small humans and our behaviour and the conditions under which we are forced to live our lives, many of them very different from each other and each offering a different perspective, from a different viewpoint, sometimes on the same events, and thus questioning “truth” as a definite concept.
The book – or books, I got on to read rather the lot of them – also signifies my move into the realm of internet friendship, in some ways. It was, together with a lot of books that came after, and both books next on this list, suggested to me by friends that I had never met but with whom I forged a connection none-the-less. In a real life were many looked with disdain and a raised eyebrow on my choice in reading material, thinking it childish and anti-intellectual (oh! those are probably the ones falling over themselves in sudden praise of Svenska Akademin’s choice of Bob Dylan: behold the hypocrisy!) that was worth the world. Many thanks to the Green Dragon crowd on LibraryThing, and the Shejidani, of the Cherryh fan-site Shejidan for that.

The Lions of Al-Rassan, Guy G Kay
There aren’t many works in the fantasy genre on any list I’ll ever conceive but thanks to a Green Dragon group read many years ago Kay’s Al-Rassan epic story about power, belief, and humaneness will always be up there. Kay’s language is exact and his prose stylistically self-conscious, almost verging on being purple – it is his skill that makes any of his books fly. Or not. Because he is also father to several books that I find barely endurable (such as Last Light of the Sun). This specific story, though, set in a fictional twin to the Iberian peninsula during the end of Moorish power, managed to capture my interest, and then some.
Even before reading this tale I had an interest in the Moors, in the impact the Moors has had on the formation of modern Europe, and thus having visited many of the key sites in Al-Andalus/modern Andalucía. Reading Lions got me searching for even more, looking deeper into historical detail than in the sweeping picture, deepening my understanding of the long-term effects of the Reconquista, and making me think. Which is a good thing.

Use of Weapons, Ian M Banks
It is not the Culture book that I love the most – that badge goes to Surface Detail; nor it is the best – that honour goes to Player of Games. And many of his books are gorier than this one, or weirder. But Use of Weapons is an utterly disturbing tale that, in retrospect, has made me think and rethink on how I judge and perceive the good or the bad, and how the perceived bad can, or not, redeem themselves – in their own eyes and in the eyes of the beholder.
At the heart of many of Banks’ Culture novels (I have not read his crime stories) resides the eternal question of what is human, of what features define humanity and what defines in/un/non humanity. Can a machine be more human than a two-legged carbon-based civilization-building entity from Tellus? Or not? Why? Is it even important?
Given the present-day seemingly world-wide chasm between people who want to feel more worthy and valuable than the rest and to achieve that build constructs of identity and race the question has actuality still. And probably up until and beyond humankind manages to implode on itself. Or not.

Until then, tales and stories that challenges set concepts and views, that inspires the seeking of knowledge, that interprets the world, is worth pursuing.

In hope of many more such tales, and in knowledge that many worthy works could had been included in this list.


White space – the absence of br… sorry, books?

For a while the family has been looking at other places to live. We’re reasonably comfortable in the flat we’re in but feel the neighbourhood – the county – is not our preferred social context. Rather the opposite, in fact – we have nothing in common with people who think that being moneyed equals a free card on behaviour and that laws are for the poor.

Anyway, in the course of this search for some other place to live I have looked at a gazillion of photos depicting the homes of other people. And you know what? Most of these homes are totally devoid of books!

I am not so deluded as to thinking everyone has thousands of books in their homes. But perhaps fifty wouldn’t be too bold?

Apparently it is. Because a huge lot of people doesn’t seem to own any books. And I mean ANY books. At all. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Nothing. Walls full of empty white space!!!

Here’s some ideas why this is so –

People who read and discard
Yes,  they exist. I know people who is like that. People who read and read and read but once a book is read it is given to charity or sent to the dustbin or passed on to someone else. So they don’t accumulate any books.
They do have books laying around, though, so aren’t truly bookless.

People who have moved to ebooks
ebooks are convenient. They doesn’t use up space, and they are extremely portable. So this could be why the visual absence of books. But as ebooks haven’t had much impact on the Swedish market – yet – I find it unbelievable that so many people should had discarded all their paper books in favour of ebooks.
But it IS an option.

People who doesn’t read
So, I do know they exist. But so MANY?! Perhaps they are cold rationalists, denying the “false” joys of the fictional novel? But then they ought to have non fictional works. Alas, they don’t. Perhaps they find reading hard? But many of these flats seems to be lived in by people who have incomes in the higher regions or they should not be able to afford either them or the designer furniture they display.
Do they get their mental challenges from the tabloid press and the teen-blog squad that writes about the woes of the designer handbag life?
I simply don’t know.

A mystery.

And a scary one.

A teacher I once had said “an empty desk is an empty brain” – she was about as keen on tidying up her workspace as I was. In other words – not at all. And I think that sentiment apply across a wast dimension of media and storage spaces, books and walls included.

Of course this is very judgemental of me. But I can’t help it. I just can’t.

Trying to finish that ****** book!

With only 32 pages left of the formal story in this my latest read I just cannot get myself rid of the very definite feeling that the main characters will die, whatever my personal preferences. As a consequence, because I cannot just put the book away, not after reading 418 pages filled with trials and gore, I now read in 2-page spurts.

This is not the first time this happens, and I wonder – am I such a sucker for happy endings? Am I better suited for bubblegum reads, were everyone ends up living happily ever after? I am determined that the answer is NO, so I slog on, reading in micro-instalments. Because the book, this far, has been very much worth the effort even if I still have no idea what to say when I’m asked what’s it all about, and I’m determined that there will be a good reason for the protagonist and his sidekick(s) to die, for the story to actually have some kind of meaning. In The End.

Whatever that may be.

But – isn’t it ironic that me, who definitely don’t believe in there being any meaning with life except the survival of the species (so better make the time worth it!), can’t stand a book without a message or idea?

No patience for fantasy

As a rule I have small patience for works in the fantasy genre. I have not stopped to analyse why; I just tend not to choose to read a work of fantasy, except if it has gotten raving good reviews by people who I trust.

Reading Eco‘s The Search for the Perfect Language has inadvertently provided me with some tools for analysing, though. While telling the story of the search for the perfect language the book also works as a rough catalogue listing different beliefs and concepts ruling the statesmen, intellectuals and the church of Europe, starting with the late Greeks and proceeding through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and into our own time.

This exposé of the evolution of ideas is extraordinary (and quite fun, Eco has a wry sense of humour and I do not agree with those deeming this a “dry” book). He connects the need for different ideological constructs with the economic history of Europe, the development of the nation states, etcetera, all the while telling the reader about one bizarre idea after another – ideas genuinely held as true, at least by the originator, some hundreds of years ago.

And as I said – it also helped me analyse my aversion against a lot of fantasy. Because there, in the clear open, lies a smorgasbord of ‘magical’ concepts commonly used in fantasy novels. Everyone of them justified, historically, by a lack of knowledge and a wealth of imagination, and a basketful of faith, in one god or another (but mainly one in number, lol, whatever the creed of the originator).

Today superstition can’t be justified, at all – it’s just ignorance, or wishful thinking. Of course, most fantasy isn’t about today, or about ‘here’. This means that if the concept is well executed and the characters are nicely done the book can be a highly enjoyable experience. If not it just becomes a hotchpotch with deus ex machina on deus ex machina – it’s just poor writing, nothing more. However famous the author.

Urban fantasy is even worse. It’s supposed to be here and now, with werewolves and demons and whathaveyou (zombies, now, are the worst – don’t get me started…). It’s just so unbelievable and… downright INANE.
I get very sad when authors I otherwise think highly of do this kind of book. Like Guy G Kay did with Ysabel

Most of these books are written as pure ‘entertainment’, many of them utilising the horror trope. I have no problems with that. Entertainment is good, I read a lot of books for entertainment, not to mention watching TV or films. Now, to me, of course, entertainment is not having to wince inwardly twice on every page, like I do when I read a Harry Dresden book. So it’s poor entertainment.

I accept that some people like these things. Everyone to his or her own. As far as I’m concerned, though, it’s NOT my cup of tea. At all. And now I know why.
Thank you, Umberto Eco, for that.

Creative minds

I’m of the firm belief that all human beings are born being creative and innovative. It’s a survival trait, we have to be able to solve hitherto unencountered problems to grow up and we often have to make do without the help of others. As time and socialisation works on us we learn to shed or hide that creativity. We learn to conform, to do as expected. We learn that some solutions are NOT valid in this particular society. IF we are lucky we can see that this is not the case universally but we’re still encouraged to do it the way we do it here. So to speak.
This is of course also a kind of survival trait. It works to unify a certain community, to make that community walk in step. This is what the community needs, and often it benefits the citizens of that community.

Sometimes it gets too strict, though. In our present time we get told that being creative is childish and irresponsible.

I think this is one of the reasons the mainstream despise the science fiction genre. Only the other day I had a conversation were the other part said he had enjoyed SF when he was a kid but then grew out of it, then going on to tell that what had been so great with it was how it showed other perspectives, other ideas, other ways to organise society. And believe it or not but he was talking of Flash Gordon! Science fiction is, at it’s root, creative, and demands a mentality that wants to make that journey, to explore the unknown.

Contrast this with the kind of mainstream books out on the market who works to explore certain relationships or characters (mother-daughter, father-son). Those books work to establish which step to walk in, and to assure the reader that other people have felt that way and it’s only normal.

Society needs balance. Society needs both a solid ground to stand on and creativity. Society needs both kinds of literature/fiction.

But it would be so much easier if those reading confirmation lit could acknowledge that while the explorative stuff is not their cup of tea at least it’s not unworthy of a grown up mind.

The use of books

Personally I enjoy books because they offer the possibility to explore hypothesises. I also enjoy stories that poses questions or that casts light on situations we no longer reflect over because we are so used to them. Too used to them, sometimes. Like the concept of humanity, or the role of religion in conflicts, or whose subjective ideas are viewed as objective truths. Like the concept of power, or history.
The best authors are those who manages to ask all these ‘what ifs’ while at the same time conjure believable characters and a page-turning story.
I’m not hardcore on the characterisation stuff, though. I really really want believable characters BUT sometimes the author makes such a good job with story and ideas that I can accept the thin personalities. Books by Neal Stephenson (this link goes to his Wiki page – this one is for his website) usually fits this last category, this latest book Anathem a point in case.

I also enjoy books for the comfort they bring. Some books are like old friends. Other books are made for reading while you’re sick or generally low. Some of them are the same as those above, but not necessarily so. I used to reread Good Omens whenever I felt down but nowadays when I am sick I mostly reread the Foreigner series.

Some books are stuffed with fast carbohydrates. Pleasurable while they last but leaving you feeling empty afterwards. I think the Dresden Files a typical specimen. It’s like fast food, fluff. Fun, and don’t bear scrutiny.

Others are elaborate, yes, byzantine!, mysteries that challenges the mind’s puzzle solving faculties.

Of course books can also be a source of knowledge. When you use them as such I think it important to look at them and ask when were they written and what are the objectives of the author. Because in some cases even textbooks and encyclopaedias can be prejudiced. Just pick any 100 year old encyclopaedia and check the word ‘Africa’ if you don’t believe me. Racial bias didn’t get non-PC until after wwII.

So many uses for books, and all statistics (from Statistics Sweden, in Swedish) show people read less and less.

Makes me sad.

Preference. It’s just that.

I prefer books that requires the brain do some work.

Of course I read a lot of light stuff as well. It’s just that (some of) those books are like candy – nice while eating them but leaving the stomach emptier than it started.

But that’s just MY preference. I’d never want to force it on someone else. Reading should be fun.

That makes it tricky to talk about books, though, because it’s inevitable that I voice my opinion and by doing that risk others taking it in a personal way.

“This books that you really liked is trash, and so are you”. Kind of.

So. It’s important to understand that preferences differ, just like we as human beings are different. But this also means that, yes, YOU liked that book but that don’t automatically suggests I will like it. At all.

Sometimes I think a reminder is in place. This IS the reminder.

Preference is personal.
Respect should be universal.

And don’t forget to ask who benefits from you thinking it shouldn’t be that way.