Friday, June 01, 2018

Desert Island Books

One of the neat things I did as the guest of honour at the Satellite 6 convention last weekend was talk about my desert island books, in an interview with a format similar to the venerable Desert Island Discs radio programme. If I was cast away on a remote island in the tropics, what essential volumes would I take with me ? Here they are:

1) On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin (1859). I used to be a research biologist -- how could I not choose this, the most famous and most important book on biology yet published? Based on evidence gathered from his voyage on The Beagle and years of observations, ideas and experimental work in the years since, this is the keystone of Darwin's theory of evolution, explaining in beautifully lucid prose the simple principles by which the vast complex diversity of life on this planet developed. It was controversial when it was published, and is still in certain quarters, but has survived every challenge and test, and is one of science's greatest achievements.

2) The Adventure of Alyx, by Joanna Russ (1967 - 1970). Back in the formative years of my science fiction reading, in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, there were far more women working in the field than some would have you believe. Joanna Russ was one of the best, and although The Female Man is perhaps her finest novel, I have a soft spot for Alyx. Independent, clever, determined, adaptable, clear-minded, ready to mete out violence when it's needed -- in short, a typical hero of sword-and-sorcery stories, except that she's a woman. In the early stories collected here she's a barbarian working on the shady side of an ancient Hellenic milieu, much like Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (who are mentioned glancingly in one of the stories). In the short novel Picnic on Paradise, having been accidentally scooped up by archaeologists from the far future, she's tasked with escorting bunch of hapless tourists across a war-torn planet. Scornful of the blandly pleasant utopia in which she finds herself, she's the original of scores of kick-ass heroines, redeemed from cliche by Russ's sharp prose and observations. If you want to know why so many of the protagonists in my novels are women, here's a major reason.

3) Pavane, by Keith Roberts (1968). At age 13 or so, I found the US paperback edition of Roberts's masterpiece in a local jumble sale. I have no idea how it got there -- accident, luck, fate -- but it instantly became one of my favourite books. It's set in an alternate history where Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated and the Roman Catholic Church regained control of Britain and the development and use of technology. A patchwork of stories develop a portrait of England where wolves and a hidden race of Old Ones still roam forests, messages are transmitted through chains of semaphore towers, the printing press is banned, the church uses the inquisition to suppress the spread of clandestine knowledge, and rebellion is slowly growing. It's a haunting, detailed portrait of Deep England and lives straining against the fetters of power: Roberts's best work, and the best alternate history yet written. My alternate history novel, Pasquale's Angel, in which the great engineer Leonardo Da Vinci kickstarts the industrial revolution a couple of centuries early, is in part a mirror-image homage.

4) Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy (1985). Sub-titled The Evening Redness in the West, a major theme of McCarthy's novel, based on historical events, is man's propensity for war and gleeful ruin. Two characters, the unlettered Kid, and an all-knowing Judge, join the Glanton gang of scalphunters that murder their way along the Mexican-US border. Only the Kid and the Judge survive, until a final encounter years later. Unsparing descriptions of violence and the vast and unforgiving landscapes of the American West are vividly conveyed in McCarthy's sparse Biblical prose; history is revisioned as a fantastic nightmare from which which reason struggles to wake. Widely praised as McCarthy's best novel, and one of the best American novels of the twentieth century it's a challenging benchmark that I admire intensely. It isn't exactly an influence, but it is one of the books I dip into when my inspiration needs a stiffener.

5) Hav, by Jan Morris (omnibus volume collecting Last Letters From Hav (1985) and Hav (2006)). Jan Morris is best known for her travel writing; this linked pair of novels are an outsider's exploration of the Mediterranean principality of Hav, where West and East coexist in a city whose deep history is underpinned by a variety of secrets and unique customs. The first novel chronicles the author's attempts to penetrate Hav's mysteries; the second her return to a city despoiled by revolution and the intrusion of the instruments of late-stage capitalism, yet where stubborn elements of its strangeness have resisted change. A fantasy venue populated by lovingly-drawn eccentrics that holds up a mirror to our own world and its colonial 'global culture'; a brilliant, detailed piece of world building.

6) The Collected Stories of J.G. Ballard (2001). I mentioned that my formative years as a science-fiction reader were the late 1960s and early 1970s. That's when the New Wave was still a major agent of change in the genre, and J.G. Ballard was the new waviest of all the New Wave writers. This monumental volume contains all the stories that blew my teenage mind back then, with early examples of Ballard's condensed novels, later assembled into The Atrocity Exhibition, and precursors of Empire of the Sun, drawing on his childhood experiences in a prisoner-of-war camp in Shanghai. Prescient, weird, essential stuff, hugely expanding the possibilities of the genre, before transcending it.

7) Get In Trouble, by Kelly Link (2015). A terrific collection of short stories by one of the finest fabulists of our time. I started out writing short stories, I'm still writing short stories, I still want to learn how to do better, and Kelly Link is one of the best short-story writers working today. Reading one of her stories is like watching the performance a table magician: although the trick is done right in front of you, you can't quite see how it subverts reality. They mostly feature girls and young women on the cusp of claiming their own lives, drawing on familiar tropes and making them new, often by relocating them in our digitally-dominated panopticon. Her characters may be haunted by ghosts and troubled by vampires and werewolves, but they're also hip to fantasy lore, and there's always some kind of grounding in actual and emotional reality. Link's three other collections are terrific too, but this one is the latest, was nominated for a Pulitzer, and contains my favourite of her stories: 'Two Houses', a story within a story told on an interstellar ship which, like all the best science fiction, questions the difference between the true and the real.

8) The Once and Future King, by T.H. White (1938 -- 1958). If I had to choose only one book, this would be it. I found it in the school library when I was thirteen or fourteen (along with William Golding and Mary Renault) and I've loved it ever since. A great, singular, haunting masterpiece that like Blood Meridian examines humankind's propensity for war, but from the point of view of someone who spends his entire life searching for an alternative. It is, famously, a retelling of Thomas Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur, one of the great foundation stones of British myth. White relocated it to a magical version of the fourteenth century (whose actual kings and queens are mythic ghosts), beginning with the education of an orphan stable boy, the Wart, by a backwards-living Merlin, who fortifies moral and political instruction with direct experience other ways of living by transforming the Wart into a variety of animals, from ants and hedgehogs to geese and hawks. The Wart is, of course, Arthur Pendragon, pulls the sword from the stone to establish his legitimacy, and establishes the round table and attempts to find an alternative to might is right by using might to do right. And fails, because of all-too-human mistakes, but in the last pages, in the last hours before the final battle with his illegitimate son Mordred, passes on the flame to a page, who is, of course, Thomas Mallory. A brief recounting of its story can't do justice to this great novel. It's a unique book, crammed with humour and tragedy, fantasy and history and frank whimsy, with brilliant passages about hunting, falconry, jousting, and so much more. A great work in the tragic mode, intensely human and humane -- there are a couple of passages that still, after many re-readings, bring a prickling to my eyes. I wouldn't be without it.

In the tradition of the radio programme, I was also asked which luxury and piece of music I would like to take with me. As a luxury, I chose the International Space Station: unlike Robinson Crusoe, I wouldn't loot it of necessaries, but would watch as over the years it became an offshore Ballardian reef, technology colonised and transformed by the collective work of humble polyps.

As for music, I chose Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach. I first heard an excerpt from it in 1979, just a few years after it was first performed, when David Bowie helmed a radio programme about his favourite music. Like much minimalist music, its hypnotic cadences are good to write to. This extract is from the very final part; like the LP set I bought, it's truncated from the original, but ends on a very science-fictional question.


Blogger David D. said...

Thank you for this wonderful list.

June 06, 2018 12:29 pm  

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