Elsewhere I mention the televisual influences in my formative years. They were more to get me on the SF track than to have any real influence on what or how I wrote. The one exception to this is Dr Who, which had a double effect: a lingering affection for time travel stories (I’m a sucker for ’em) and a respect for other lifeforms. Star Trek would respect them so long as they were possible candidates for entry into the Federation: the Doctor respected them because they were alive. Species and prestige mean nothing to the Doctor: because he despises all forms of authority equally, he’s at home with presidents or paupers.
But other than that my influences have been writers only. I couldn’t begin to count the writers I’ve read — not even the good ones — but I can name some of the big ones. Sadly they’ve all gone off the boil to greater or lesser degree, but in their days they were giants.
- Isaac Asimov
One of the writers who shaped the field. His forte was taking existing SF themes — the galactic empire, robots — and injecting intelligence into them. Other writers would have vast space fleets hammering each other with particle beams and forces that made atom bombs look like squibs: Asimov wrote about the unsung politicians behind the scenes, the ones who actually had an effect on what went on. Asimov, too, was strong on the intrinsic value of other humans: his experiences as a Russian Jewish emigre, growing up among the goyim in a Manhattan slum, coloured him that way, and his First Law of Robotics is that “no robot may harm, or through inaction allow harm to come to, a human being.” Although he usually wrote about Americans, they being the people with whom he was most familiar, national boundaries never meant a great deal to him.
Also from Asimov, I’ve inherited a habit of essentially writing mystery stories, though they might not look it at first. His respect for the scientific method meant that ultimately his stories are based on logic: you either start off with a mystery, which by the end the hero has come to understand; or you start off with an unsatisfactory situation and a desired ending, and the hero must use his nouse to get from one to the other. It means Asimov rarely wrote a romance or anything that explored human feelings (though his short story “Liar!” comes to mind as a welcome exception), but an Asimov story is usually intellectually satisfying.
- Arthur C. Clarke
Another field shaper. For me, Clarke’s strength lay in his sheer joy at being alive. Asimov would make things up: Clarke would take existing phenomena (or existing theory about them) and show them to the reader, nudging and winking and saying “see that? Isn’t it great?” with such an endearing, almost childlike enthusiasm that you had to agree. Also for Clarke there is the joy of discovery — treasuring each nugget of information that you find simply because it is information, and wonderful to behold.
Another strong point for Clarke, of course, is that he’s British. This isn’t meant to be racist, or even just patriotic, but he’s a Brit, I’m a Brit and I can see where he’s coming from. Everyone has an outlook typical of their country, and Clarke is no exception. Clarke would write with British restraint and understatement, and I’m very aware of these habits in my own stuff.
At the same time, Clarke is aware of cultural differences, and he brings these into his stories as well. Clarke is particularly strong on using Third World characters, no doubt drawn from his experience in his beloved Sri Lanka; not usually as the main character, but still important to the story in their own right, there to enrich the story with an extra dimension of cultural diversity and show up the point that we’re all citizens of planet Earth.
- Orson Scott Card
We jump forward in time twenty years. Clarke and Asimov are the ones I grew up with, and would read and re-read without ceasing: in my twenties, and with stories that were starting to sell, I discovered this bloke.
I wrote an appreciation of Card for Vector, the journal of the British Science Fiction Association, and you can read that for an in-depth look at how I feel about him. In short, I decided very early on that Card was the writer I would most like to be like. The first Card story I read was an extract from his novel Prentice Alvin, published as a self-contained story “Dowser” in Asimov’s. To cut a long story short the main character, Alvin, has to dig a well, and I found the sheer amount of spiritual commitment that Alvin puts into the well quite stunning. It’s not enough for Alvin to dig the well: to save his soul he must dig it from the right motives. Read the story (even better, read the Alvin series of which Prentice Alvin is book 3).
On the strength of “Dowser”, I read Card’s novels and found heavily resonant themes of spiritual commitment, and suffering and redemption, and I knew that we were on the same wavelength. He’s a Mormon, I’m not, but on things like sin and guilt and atonement we’re at one. I can only like a man who can write a novel like Ender’s Game, in which a 12-year-old boy is manipulated into becoming a xenocide and STILL gets to redeem himself without going completely doolally in the process; or a story like “Lost Boys”, a ghost story featuring the real Card family plus a fictitious elder son, Scotty, who is revealed to be the ghost, having been murdered by a child molester.
- Anne McCaffrey
I first heard of this woman when her dragon books were used as a special chosen subject on Mastermind. We all fell about laughing. Then I read some of her stuff myself and got hooked. She wanted to write about dragons and sell her stuff to a hard-SF magazine, and she pulled it off by combining the two. The early dragon books, before she went cross-eyed and started explaining the whole thing in words of one syllable, showed the people of the planet Pern gradually rediscovering their past and their heritage, all the way back to the original landing by settlers from Earth 2500 years earlier. Pern was a remarkable thing: an idyllic, non-industrial utopia on the one hand but with enough menace and nastiness on the other (the original novel, Dragonflight, is positively Gothic in places) to keep it interesting and, more important, plausible.
However, McCaffrey’s greatest influence on me was her use of women characters. Be as nice as you can about Clarke, Asimov and Card but you still have to admit they’re not exactly at the forefront of the sexual revolution. Neither is McCaffrey: characters like Lessa and Helga aren’t noble feminist warriors — they’re simply women who happen to believe (correctly, and they can prove it) that they’re the equal of the men around them. No better, no worse. Or as Aunt Eller puts it in Oklahoma! (to go off in a completely different genre for the moment): “I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else, but I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good!”