I admit it: I was a nerd growing up. Rather than go out and play football with my friends, I barricaded myself in my bedroom and played on my trusty Commodore 64. Instead of sports, I had computer games, movies, and books. Especially books. One time, an adult friend quizzed me for fun things to do with friends–I think she was trying to come up with ideas for one of her kids’ birthday parties. I said, “Read books”. She laughed, and teased me–“oh, hey guys, let’s go have a reading party!”
She laughed, but I didn’t see what was funny. It sounded like a perfectly reasonable party to me. Now that I’m an adult, that’s still my idea of the perfect birthday party: maybe friends come over, maybe they don’t, either way I hole up in my room with a giant chocolate cake and a good book.
As an author, my writing is shaped by the books I read. While my favorite genre to read as an adult is fantasy, my favorites growing up were science fiction, and that’s where I got my education in the language of fiction. SciFi feels like a native language to me. I feel fluent in it, at least compared to something like contemporary mysteries or thrillers. Since I grew up reading so many, that was the genre I felt most comfortable writing in, it having shaped my vocabulary, my thought patterns, my sentence structure–everything.
And so I give you four pivotal SciFi novels I read growing up, and three that I’m currently reading (or just finished).
In 1992 I had a revelation. That revelation was a small 5″x8″ book that had a Wookiee on the cover. Let’s face it. This is not the great American novel. But to my 13-year-old mind, this was the bees-knees. Return of the Jedi had come out ten years ago when I was a little kid, and I had been starved of new Star Wars material for the rest of my childhood. Enter Timothy Zahn and the Thrawn trilogy. It was amazing. It was glorious. It was everything I could have ever hoped a sequel trilogy would be. I even casted the entire trilogy–I think I had Jack Nicholson as Grand Admiral Thrawn. Yeah–I was a nerd. And what I learned from reading Heir to the Empire was that I was proud to be a nerd.
Foundation, by Isaac Asimov, taught me that not only can a novel be driven by a main character as a protagonist, it can also be told from the perspective of an institution, whether it be a family, like in 100 Years of Solitude, a tribe of people like The Silmarillion, or a pan-galactic organization that Asimov created in his brilliant series. In fact, I think his later works suffered a little because he shifted back to a traditional character point of view for the story, rather than sticking with his “Institution-as-protagonist” style he had going on with his first 3 Foundation books.
To this day I go back and refer to his series as a gold standard for telling a story that makes you root not only for an individual, but for a concept.
I grew up watching Star Trek, and later, as a teenager, I discovered Star Trek books. As with the extended Star Wars universe, I dove right in and read everything. My favorite was Peter David’s novel Vendetta, which continued the Borg storyline started in Next Generation’s The Best of Both Worlds. With Vendetta, I remember learning as a teenager that in the fight against evil, you must not become that which you fight against. That’s more of a life lesson rather than an influence on my writing, but I’ve found in retrospect that this theme is interwoven in a lot of my work.
I’m going to cheat a little and include a book that I shamefully did not read until I was an adult. I had already written a book, and while my wife was in surgery one day I passed the time by reading Ender’s Game. Wow. How had I missed reading this one as a teenager? What struck me about this book was that it was not just another SciFi novel about a character in a plot, rather, it was a book of ideas. The emotional climax for me came not at the big revelation at the end, but rather around the 2/3’s mark where Ender says something like, “In order to defeat my enemy, I have to understand him. And at the moment I truly know my enemy well enough to completely understand him, I find that I love him. And having loved him, I now have to kill him.” Wow. I know a book is good when it makes me want to write. I know a book is even better when it makes me want to quit writing forever. This was one of those books.
And now for three books that I’m reading now, or just finished recently.
Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson, was captivating. Firmly in the “hard SciFi” subgenre, I learned that you can dive deep into technical detail in a book, and still build a fair amount of suspense and tension. I think I got a graduate level education in orbital mechanics reading Seveneves–it was clear Neal had done his homework. For people that like actually science in their novels, I can’t recommend it enough.
Currently, I’m working my way through The Expanse, by James S.A. Corey. This series has it all, and I wish I had written it–that’s how I know a book is not just good, but amazing. The science is accurate and plausible. The characters are exquisitely developed. The world built into something that feels gritty and organic and real. I can see why this made it to TV, and I’ve spent many late nights the past few weeks trying to sneak one more chapter in before bed.
What have I learned from reading the Expanse? Like Seveneves, it is possible to use plausible, accurate science in a space-based SciFi novel, and still tell a fast-paced story with urgency, excitement, and grit.
The last series I want to recommend is not strictly SciFi, but more of a Fantasy with Science Fiction elements. The Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson, while clearly a Fantasy, is actually quite firmly grounded in the “science” of the universe he’s writing in–something he calls the Cosmere. But what Sanderson excels at is world building. The level of detail is amazing, and yet he presents it all in a way that doesn’t distract from the story and slow the pace. I’ve never felt bogged down in the story–at the end of every chapter, I have to read the next one.
Which SciFi novels have stayed with you? Which ones have you learned from? Which ones left you in awe?