Many books mean something to me but these five among others mean enough that I revisit them, treasure copies with their pages softened and stained by handling, open them after long absences and find they’re still the same friends – it’s me that changes. They are among the influences that shape me as a writer, a process which is still closer to beginning than ending.
The City and the Stars by Arthur C Clarke
I mean, come on. A billion year-old city on a planet wasted to desert? A spaceship that’s even older, and a matching floating robot (let’s not kid ourselves, it’s a drone) under a vow of silence? An ancient weapon which is now the home to the last known adherent of a religion founded by a mountebank preacher? And Clarke wrote this on a steam ship in 1956? This gave me my love of the big stage and the vast sweep, and although the writing and the social settings have admittedly dated, the story is still fresh.
The Memory of Whiteness by Kim Stanley Robinson
Like many people I read this after I had read the later Mars series and it came as a bit of a surprise, but a wholly good one. It is elaborate, sometimes abstruse, sometimes even a bit difficult, and I liked that. It made me believe that I was allowed to set the reader a challenge, even a problem, and that as an author I could be in charge of making the rules.
The Player of Games by Iain M Banks
This brought me back to science fiction as an adult so I owe it a huge debt. It features an elaborately constructed society based on a game, and also provides the real launch of the Culture. It’s a linear narrative, and character-driven, in that the ‘flaws’ which make the protagonist Gurgeh a misfit in his own society provide the very route by which he is blackmailed out of it, resurfacing later as he is drawn deeper into the game and the society of Azad. Gurgeh is a remote personality and Banks uses a diffuse point-of-view which keeps him distant. The central metaphor of the game is sustained and deepened for almost the whole length of the book so that its final unwinding feels like a bereavement.
Four Ways to Forgiveness by Ursula Le Guin
This is four stories, set on two planets in an area called the Ekumen; multiple narratives connected by background and setting rather than by characters (although there are some common characters in the second, third and fourth stories). Le Guin described it as a ‘work with many voices’. It was just about the first time I saw social issues including slavery, racism and sexuality being made so central to the story. This showed me that while science fiction doesn’t have to engage with these things, it can, and when it does it can be very effective.
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Zoo City is a fast, fun, sexy, noir near-future dystopia, in a slightly exotic urban setting. Plus, of course, it has an agreeably flawed, internet-scamming protagonist. I was trying to work out what felt familiar about this as I read it but it wasn’t until I’d finished that I realised – the pictures it made in my mind were straight out of 1980s era editions of 2000AD. I came away with the ambition to do something just as vivid.
It is the aftermath of civil war in the vast pageant of planets and stars known as The Spin. Three years since he crushed the rebellion, Viklun Haas, industrialist and leader of the Hegemony, is eliminating all remnants of the opposition. Starting with his own daughter.
But Fleare Haas, fighter for Society Otherwise has had a long time to plan her next move. Sprung from her remote monastery prison and reuniting with a team of loyal friends, Fleare’s journey will take her across The Spin to the cluster of fallen planets known as the The Catastrophe Curve - and from exile, to the very frontiers of war.
Meanwhile, in the brutal and despotic empire of The Fortunate, word is reaching viceroy Alameche of a most unusual piece of plunder from their latest invasion. For hundreds of millions of years, the bizarre planets and stars of The Spin itself have been the only testament to the god-like engineers that created it. Now, buried in the earth of a ruined planet, one of their machines has been found . . .