Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants

Over the past twenty years or so, I’ve seen the growth of the phenomenon where authors and other creatives put several pages into their books, discussing the people whose works influenced them. When I was your age, you didn’t find a long “acknowledgements” section at the end of a book or an author’s introduction where they talked about whose works they loved (and continue to love).

On the one hand, you might look at it as self-indulgent tripe.

On the other, you might look at that as your next “to-read” list.

I’m in the latter category. But I’m not going to waste valuable page space with it. It’s a curiosity point, a question that the involved might ask but the run-of-the mill reader isn’t going to care about at all. So I’m going to bore you here, where I have all the virtual pages I could ever want.

*rubs her hands maniacally together and cackles* Run while you can.

I could list the books I’ve read and the movies I’ve loved and the music that has formed who I am today. But that’s what Goodreads is for, for the most part. At least, as far as I can tell. And I talk a lot about my music, so I’ll skip that. Don’t start on the movies, because I don’t watch all that many of them.

What I am going to do is list a handful of authors whose work has had a direct influence on the way I write. Some of them, you can see the influences pretty clearly. Others are a bit foggier. But this is a fun exercise for me to send some love to the folks who told such awesome stories and wrote in such an unforgettable manner that I took them into myself and am their student. In no order:

  • William Gibson
    • Gibson is my favorite author. I’ll just say that up front. Where some people re-read Lord Of The Rings or the Harry Potter books annually, I re-read Neuromancer. I keep the Bigend trilogy auidiobooks at the ready on my phone for any time I want a quick pick-me-up. All Tomorrow’s Parties blew me away.
    • But! I’m not going to say that Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick award-winning Neuromancer influenced me the most out of Gibson’s works. It was the first one I fell in love with (during its 10-year anniversary and I was finally out in the working world), but the one that hit me hardest in the writerly chops was the immediate sequel: Count Zero.
    • The Count influenced me more than its predecessor because it’s a more mature work. Neuromancer is a very linear narrative; there are no digressions, no secondary plots. Everything there is at surface level. That isn’t to say it isn’t well-written. It’s just that Count Zero is more developed. Characters grow and change and learn, which doesn’t happen in Neuromancer – just look at one of the closing bits from the book:
      • “Things aren’t different. Things are things.”
    • It’s inherent in the book that things don’t change. And it’s true – none of the characters show much development. They may complete their quest and they may have bits of themselves that had withered come back to the fore, but they don’t grow in the way you might call character development.
    • Count Zero‘s characters grow and learn and have hard knocks. It’s also one of the few Gibson novels where the protagonists actually get put into palpable danger. His prose is as strong here as in the previous novel, but it’s allowing for families and new experiences. The structure is something that I first caught on to in Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend: multiple POVs having their own, seemingly unrelated stories, only to have them dovetail together towards the end.
    • It doesn’t hurt that the Sprawl is far more developed here than in Neuromancer. The Barrytown slums, the desert bio-chip research lab. The first novel was more about Japan than the Sprawl. The Sprawl in Count Zero seems to be more of a character itself.
    • All in all, Count Zero is a better story and better written than Neuromancer, and influenced me more than did Gibson’s debut.
  • Nancy A. Collins
    • In 1998, I stopped working retail and started working in libraries. It was during that first year of library-land that I came across the White Wolf Publishing omnibus version of the Sonja Blue stories. For some reason, a lot of copies ended up in the donations bin at the library I worked in. I’ve never understood that. Collins’s Sonja Blue put the horror back in vampire stories, as well as the pulp. Switchblade-wielding vampire who kills vampires, goth before goth was too commonplace, Sonja Blue is a one-woman chainsaw through the rancid old corpus of vampire lore (and Dracula was my first favorite book. That’s saying something).
    • Sonja is also something that most vampires weren’t up until then: human. She is conflicted, raw, and as much horrified by her own condition as the people she kills are horrified of her. By the end of the trilogy, she has accepted her nature and her ‘dark side.’ She’s dealt with loss and tragedy in a way she didn’t at the beginning of the story.
    • And she’s a badass. That is the thing that gets me: flawed, human, yet badass. This is no glowing emo vampire. This series taught me that badassery and flawed humanity can go together in a very attractive and potent cocktail.
  • Stephen R. Donaldson
    • 1977’s Lord Foul’s Bane didn’t catch me until 1984, when I was in eighth grade and saw it in the school library. We’d been forced to read The Hobbit that year in English, followed immediately by Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard Of Earthsea. We got dropped on our heads into Fantasy Literature.
    • I’ll be honest: I hated The Hobbit. I have never been a Tolkien fan, though the LOTR movies were pretty good. I wanted Tolkien to shut up and tell me useful things. I didn’t need to know all of the little details about how the characters went about their day (I think I used the phrase “I don’t need to know when Bilbo brushed his teeth!”) and Tolkien’s dialogue still makes me want to barf.
    • I complained enough to the school librarian about Tolkien that she dropped Lord Foul’s Bane in my lap. I could not put it down. I went through it in a day. Then re-read it several times during the next week. Then all of the sequels that were out by then fell in rapid succession.
    • The original Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever were a spin on Tolkien. A depressing, tragic, at times loathsome spin. But Donaldson’s world-building is every bit as believable (moreso to me). And Covenant himself is a giant of a character.
    • To this day, Thomas Covenant is still my hero. He’s a horrible person in a horrible situation when the book starts and by the end of the trilogy, he may not be a wonderful person, but he’s learned to do the right thing.
  • Michael Moorcock
    • I think it only fitting that I went from Donaldson to Moorcock. After all, the tragedy of the Elric the White Wolf (Kinslayer, Albino Emperor, Champion Eternal) was rich with angst, hand-wringing, and terrible choices – it suited my transition from junior high to high school well. But Moorcock didn’t only write Elric Of Melnibone. Add in Corum, Hawkmoon, Erekose, Jerry Cornelius, Captain Quire, Michael Kane, Una Persson, Jherek Carnelian (and all the crazy, wonderful denizens of the End Of Time), the Fireclown…and thousands more. Moorcock took the 50s and 60s pulp tradition and distilled it into something that, to me, remains timeless. Where Donaldson was the depressing version of Tolkien, Moorcock was the anti-Tolkien.
    • It was Moorcock’s works that brought the concept of Multiverse to the fiction world. The stories where different versions of the Champion Eternal meet and work together are something special. And, in a way, they’re the playing out of eons and universes of reincarnations and karmic work: the final story in the cycle is a happy ending where the Champion retires back to a life of love and friends and can hang up his sword.
    • With the things I’ve said here about my life, is it any wonder why I gravitated towards a series of stories where the protagonist is occasionally evil, and in all incarnations save one has a bad ending? After completing their epic quests, Elric ends up devoured by his own sword and Corum is killed by his lover.
    • Very few happy endings here. And when they do show up, they’re peppered with the tragedy that got them to the end of the story.
    • I am not ashamed to admit that the Painted Corner and its parent bit of geography, the Nexus, lean heavily on Moorcock’s city of Tanelorn. The idea that a character could be in multiple types of story, either as the protagonist or just in a cameo, was extrapolated from the Champion Eternal. With some other bits of flavor from a wide and varied list of objects, the giant of fantastic fiction influenced me a lot.
  • Richard Calder
    • Few know of Calder’s works. They’re a difficult read: post-cyberpunk stuff seems all to be difficult reads where you have to get inside the author’s head in order to understand it (Jeff VanDerMeer and Steve Aylett come to mind). But I like challenging reads and Calder’s Dead Girls spoke to me the first time I picked it up. It featured the world’s most awfully named protagonist – Ignatz Zwakh. But the story is gripping. It’s unreal. It’s too real. It’s Neuromancer meets Dracula, told from the viewpoint of an obsessed teenage boy. And the way Calder uses language is a thing of beauty. It’s like reading Paradise Lost or one of the other Romanticist epic poems. You have to pay attention and let the words settle over you like a shroud. And then you too might fall in love with Primavera Bobinski and let her bite you, despite the consequences.

I also have to thank the people who have helped me hone my craft over the years. Whether it was teaching me that second drafts are for making it better, not just getting it right; teaching me to have conversations with my characters to see what they have to tell me; or putting up with my inevitable horror/tragedy themes in order to get to good stories, these folks have influenced me just as much as the authors above. It was a long, slow plod at first, but eventually I happened upon Improbable Island and the nature of simultaneous, instantaneous co-writing and feedback that really upped the learning curve. So, also in no order:

Janet Kelly, Martha Ellenberger, Jane Streznewski, Dr. Richard Dean, Dr. John Brockman, Bob Hardy, Richard Bergh, Janet Bergh, Maria Snyder, Aelwyn, Amarie, Shi, Fish, Eilonwy, Katya, Rich, Jara, Glail, Griftro, Szara, Mal, Valentin, and – of course – Kami.

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