Earlier this week, I got tagged over on Facebook with that “list ten books that stuck with you” meme, and I listed ten books with little additional commentary, save to note that “stuck with you” does not mean the same thing as “loved”.
Here’s the list:
1. Watership Down – Richard Adams
2. The Belgariad – David Eddings
3. Jitterbug Perfume – Tom Robbins
4. Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
5. World According to Garp – John Irving
6. Caves of Steel – Isaac Asimov
7. The Green-Sky Trilogy – Zilpha Keatley Snyder
8. Guns, Germs and Steel – Jared Diamond
9. Time Enough For Love – Robert Heinlein
10. …And Eternity – Piers Anthony
I should note that the first seven are all books I first read between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. I would have a hard time isolating exactly when I read which for most– I know Green-Sky Trilogy was around seventh grade, Belgariad was the summer I was sixteen– but they all were formative-reading-years books. And those two– both series, but the sort of series that are essentially One Big Story– are the most Traditional Fantasy on this list. Well, Belgariad is traditional fantasy. Green-Sky is more Traditional Fantasy with New Age Sci-Fi hidden inside it like a Russian Nesting Doll.
I’ve talked before about how Watership Down is one of my favorite books of all time. And this book is really the Fantasy Epic that resonates the most with me. It’s sweeping in scope while being deeply personal, and it’s filled with worldbuilding top to bottom. The fact that it’s a cast of rabbits is almsot incidental. And despite being often labeled as a “children’s book”– mostly because back then a fantasy novel or a novel with a cast of rabbits would never be designated anything else– it’s filled with maturity and complexity. I re-read it every few years and still find new discoveries.
Jitterbug Perfume is also fantasy, but you won’t find it on those shelves, mostly because Tom Robbins is Tom Robbins and he’s pretty much his own genre. But a story about a man who lives a thousand years, and occasionally hangs out with the god Pan? Yeah, that’s a fantasy book. World According to Garp isn’t genre at all, save for crafting an alternate history where Jenny Fields is a major political figure, and there’s an extreme feminist movement that involves cutting one’s own tongue out. But it is a book that’s almost entirely character study, really forsaking anything resembling a traditional plot. It takes a special talent to make that engaging, and it was one I attempted to emulate in early versions of trunked novels.
Caves of Steel is here as the standard-bearer for all the Asimov I read, which includes the rest of the Robot books and the Foundation books, and scores of short stories. Caves also stuck with me because it showed me that with sci-fi (and fantasy), a simple plot like a murder mystery can be the gateway into a strongly built world. You can take two cops solving a murder and put it anywhere and have the promise of a good story.
Hitchhikers is just plain fun, and it was definitely an early influence. I think somewhere in a box I have a hand-written start-of-a-novel from my teenage years that was, without any doubt, Hitchhikers with the serial numbers filed off. My one vaguely clever idea in that was that no other civilization in the galaxy had mastered Visine, so having a small bottle in his pocket gave my protagonist a significant amount of wealth on other worlds.
Guns, Germs and Steel I’ve talked about several times here, and it’s the only non-fiction book here. It formed the template for my worldbuilding ideas, beyond simplistic things like, “Here is the psuedo-Europe, here is the psuedo-Arabia, etc…”.
And then there are the last two, which “stuck with me” entirely for bad reasons. Both represent authors and/or stories that just went off the rails in such a train-wreck fashion that they actually angered me. And strangely, both of them involve immoral sex and time travel.
…And Eternity is the seventh and sort-of-final* book in his Incarnations of Immortality series, a series that starts relatively strong with In A Pale Horse (or at least did to my teenage self), and wavers up and down before crashing into the ground with this book. There’s a lot wrong with it, such as a climax where one character’s prophesized “saving the world” from the first book turns out to be casting a deciding vote in the Senate on whether or not God is Dead (and said vote actually removes God, as the Incarnation of Good, from his place so a new person can fill it… it’s very strange.) But the real Oh My God What element for me involves one of the main characters: a 15-year-old prostitute, who over the course of the book gets cleaned up and straightened out by two ghosts, and then takes up a romantic relationship with a judge. Yes, a fifteen-year-old-girl and a judge. But he justifies what he’s doing to himself because the fifteen-year-old girl essentially time-travelled ahead four years. So even though he knows she’s only fifteen, on paper she’s nineteen, so he decides what he’s doing is fine.
Time Enough For Love has a different kind of skeezy. There you have two-thousand-year-old Lazarus Long in the 41st century, more or less ready to finally give up and die, because he’s done everything he can do, so what else is there? What else is there? Why, there’s new theories that might make time travel practical, for one! Once Lazarus learns this, he’s got a new spring in his step. He’s back to being alive and vital, so he can finally cross the final frontier: going back in time to seduce his own mother. The last third of the book is entirely about that.
So those last two books had a valuable lesson: Writers can let you down, and hard.
*- In that Anthony wrote an eighth book many years later, which I never read, but I’m given to understand it doesn’t so much continue the story as shade in more background detail.