Tag: authors

authors that I like or which have been influential

Goodbye, Sir Terry

I’ve been reading Terry Pratchett since my first year at University. I was introduced to him by a Dave Langford column in the roleplaying magazine White Dwarf and I have been avidly collecting his books ever since.

I learned of his death on Twitter.

Thank you, Sir Terry, for writing so lucidly, so amusingly, and so very, very much. I’m looking forward to reading your last two and a half books, and to rereading everything because it’s all so good.

The turtle moves!

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Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett is astonishingly prolific, to the point where new readers can be intimidated by the number of books he’s written – especially when the majority of those books make up a single series.

The books that made Pratchett’s name were his Discworld novels, set on a world shaped like a pizza, spinning on the backs of four mighty elephants, themselves standing on the back of a gigantic turtle swimming through space. I first encountered Pratchett’s work on the recommendation of a book reviewer: Dave Langford, who used to write a review column in the gaming magazine White Dwarf (back in the days when it was a general publication rather than dedicated to Games Workshop’s own products). So I started reading Pratchett when there were only two or three books to read.

The Discworld has always been a satire. It began as a satire on fantasy of the time, subverting the standard tropes of fantasy novels and poking fun at fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons to boot. As Sir Terry’s writing matured, the stories became much broader satire. These days, although the books are still set on the Disc where magic exists along with the usual cast of fantasy characters (including an especially nasty variety of elf), the characters and situations are as real and recognisable as any novel set in a modern city.

Rather than pick specific books, I am going to talk about related books within the series.

Wizards

These are the most overtly magical stories, the ones concerning the wizards of Unseen University and particularly Rincewind, the worst wizard in the world. The first Discworld novel The Colour of Magic is the first of these wizard books also, but they start getting really good with Interesting Times.

I am especially fascinated with Rincewind’s development over the books because he was clearly a character conceived as a joke who has grown into a fully realised person with skills as well as frailties.

Witches

Where there are wizards there must be witches, although on the Disc they don’t exactly see eye to eye. Equal Rites is strictly the first, although the story really starts with the Shakespearian Wyrd Sisters.

More recently, the YA books concerning the adventures of Tiffany Aching have done much to round out the nature of witches, and to close a circle that was opened at the beginning.

Death

The Death of the DIscworld is a very tall skeleton with a very sharp scythe who collects the souls of the dead. He’s a great character who pops up in almost all the books, but the stories about him and his family (!) start with Mort, where Death takes an apprentice.

Ankh Morpork

The greatest city on the Disc is Ankh Morpork, a bustling hive of a million people which squats upon the river Ankh much as a drunk squats on a toilet. It is the site of Unseen University, and ruled over by the Patrician. Most of the books feature Ankh Morpork at some point, but there are some that relate the stories of the city and its denizens specifically.

For example, the Watch novels capture the growth of the Night Watch and its commander Samuel Vimes from a desperate collection of losers into an effective public service. This series starts with Guards! Guards!

Belief

On the Disc, gods exist because of their worshippers’ belief. This idea is explored in three novels which cover some of the same thematic ground as Douglas Adams’ The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The books are Pyramids, Small Gods, and Hogfather.

Other Books

Pratchett has written other books too, but one I particularly want to mention is Nation. This is a story about a slightly alternate Earth where two young people meet, survivors of a terrible disaster, and their efforts to survive and lead a tiny band of lost people. It’s brilliant stuff, well-turned storytelling that even those who don’t enjoy fantasy can appreciate.

I would also recommend the Bromeliad trilogy (Truckers, Diggers, and Wings) which concerns nomes – tiny people that live their lives ten times faster than we do. Funny and poignant.

Do you have a favourite Pratchett? Have you read him at all?

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Iain Banks

I once owned an Audi TT, a lovely little four wheel drive sports car which I justified to myself by using a variant of what I call the Banks Defence.

This rhetorical device was invented by Iain Banks, a Scottish author who was at the time living in the Highlands of that beautiful but unforgiving country. The Highlands does get a fair bit of snow, and so it is prudent to have a four wheel drive vehicle. Unfortunately Mr Banks does not like Land Rovers or SUVs (a dislike shared by many in Britain) so he refused to buy such. Fortunately, Porsche make a four wheel drive version of their sports car and so he bought one of those.

My own use of the Banks Defence was that in my four wheel drive sports car I would be able to go up to the mountain to play in the snow, something which I did exactly once in the four years I owned it.

This bit of rather specious logic endeared Mr Banks to me. It is almost a mere bonus that he is a fine and imaginative writer. He is also one of only two authors for whom I will wait for the UK paperback editions of a novel before buying.

As published in Britain, there are two Iain Banks: Iain Banks the mainstream novellist, and Iain M Banks the science fiction author (I have not noticed this false dichotomy continuing in the US). The science fiction tends toward the space operatic, often following the Culture and involving large scale, muscular technology, although there are elements of the fantastic in the mainstream novels. The difference really tends to be one of scale: a Culture novel will typically span huge volumes of space, where even the most science fictional of the mainstream novels are more intimate in their focus: an M novel might involve galactic scale travel and the fate of an entire civilisation, while a non-M novel may follow one personal story through difficult and even unreal circumstance.

There are Banks books which I dislike or consider not worth bothering with, but there are far more that I consider to be very fine works and which I have reread a number of times. Below is a selection of his books, in no particular order.

The Wasp Factory – his first published novel, and a benchmark for horribleness even to this day. Often given as a must-read book on lists of such things, it is exquisitely written. Will I ever read it again? Probably not – but I will also never look at small animals in quite the same way again either.

Consider Phlebas – the first of the Culture novels. His science fiction generally tends to be less horrific than his mainstream work, although this book has its moments.

Raw Spirit – Banks is to a certain extent a professional Scot, and this is a book about his odyssey to taste as many whiskies as he could – Scotch to the largest part, but also touching on the whiskies of Japan and Canada, for example. It’s a memoir by way of a quest.

Against A Dark Background – dark it certainly is: this could conceivably be set in the same Universe as the Culture but for reasons made clear in the telling such an encounter seems highly unlikely. It’s a grand romp which turns sour at the end but it’s well-turned science fiction.

The Crow Road – one of the best opening lines I’ve come across (“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”), but this story of a young man trying to figure out his place in the world while uncovering dark family secrets is very enjoyable.

The Player of Games – I mentioned this in the context of fictional games, but I like this book a lot and enjoy the evocation of a society disjoint from the Culture.

Transition – already discussed when talking about multiverses. Complex and confusing, but there’s great reward in figuring out the story.

I should also mention The Bridge, which many people who I respect consider to be his best book but which I found very disappointing. Worth reading once, but not one I am likely to ever pick up again.

The Banks books I would recommend against bothering with are:

A Song of Stone – akin to The Road in that it is unremittingly miserable, but without the leavening of a pleasant or admirable narrator.

The Steep Approach to Garbadale – not in itself a bad book, but covers a lot of the same ground as The Business and even Whit, but not as well.

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Charles Stross

Some time ago there was a Facebook questionnaire going around about your reading habits. One of the questions was about writers who were most influential, and a friend of mine challenged me when I did not mention Charles Stross in my influences. There was a good reason I didn’t include Mr Stross at that time – I had only read a couple of his books.

He’d be on the list now. More than anyone else at the moment, Charles Stross is the writer I stay up too late to read.

The first book of his that I read was Halting State, a highly engaging story of the near future (which I’ve mentioned along with its eventual sequel in talking about the perils of writing about the future). I loved the Scottishness of it (Stross lives in Edinburgh) and I enjoyed its being written in second person – a trick I’ve only seen successfully employed before in one of Iain Banks’ books, Complicity, and then only for a portion of it.

After that I read Glasshouse, a novel set in the post-singularity Universe. That was a mind-blower, that one – hard SF reminiscent of Greg Egan but with characters that I found vastly more compelling.

It’s not just that I enjoy his writing, or that his work is thought-provoking and entertaining, or that his speculation is vigorous and rigorous both: it’s all of these things to be sure, but it is also his prolific output and his great versatility. His first novel was published in 2003 and he has seventeen novels in print – that’s an almost Pratchettian level of production.

Here are some more of his books.

Cleaning Up

As I have noted before, I am a fan of the Cthulhu Mythos – he has a Mythos-themed series called The Laundry Files which relate the adventures of Bob Howard, a member of a British secret service organisation nicknamed The Laundry and tasked with suppressing and thwarting the intrusion into our Universe of malign entities which look an awful lot like Cthulhu and his colleagues.

They’re pulpy, but they are a lot of fun.

Parallel Parking

Another series, now complete, started as an effort to publish a fantasy story: The Merchant Princes are a set of families from a parallel universe who can walk between worlds. It starts wearing the trappings of an urban fantasy, but becomes a story of economics and what happens when fantasy meets a belligerent and paranoid government.

If we are talking about parallel worlds, I should also give another nod to Palimpsest which I talked about before in a post about multiverses.

Singular Sensations

Stross made his reputation as someone who wrote about the technological singularity, the point where the rate of change of technology is so fast that it becomes impossible to predict what happens next – this is where he demonstrates his chops as a rigorous writer of hard science fiction, with Accelerando especially being one of the most densely imaginative pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered (this is the book that precedes Glasshouse).

He also has a two book series, Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise, which deals with a different version of a post-singularity Universe featuring the Eschaton. Wildly imaginative, and thrilling to boot.

Icing

On top of all this, Charles Stross has an interesting blog.

So, if you haven’t encountered Stross before, go and read his stuff. He’s really good.

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H P Lovecraft

A long time ago*, in a little town in New England, lived a writer. His stories were in the pulpy style of his time: the characters were melodramatic, the writing lurid, but the subject matter… it was unusual. Special.

The writer was Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and he invented the Cthulhu Mythos.

My first introduction to Lovecraft was through the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. I was very struck by the richness and the soul-crushing futility of the central premise: that Mankind is not the first tenant of this planet, nor indeed the only intelligent inhabitant now, and that our troubles and concerns are of no interest to these alien others. Further, the earliest inhabitants were great alien gods who now lie in unquiet slumber until the stars are right once more and they can return to ravage he Earth and the paltry smattering of life which it possesses.

Cthulhu is one of these monsters, but there are others yet more powerful and unknowable: Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep.

Lovecraft’s stories concern the discovery of this hidden history by unfortunate individuals – nerdy rather than heroic – and chronicles their efforts to survive these revelations.

It’s powerful stuff, and its popularity was helped by Lovecraft’s prolific correspondence which encouraged many writers to work with these ideas.

The Mythos is a tremendous universe for roleplaying, too. Call of Cthulhu I have already mentioned, but there are board games, card games, dice games, and multiple roleplaying supplements set in this noosphere – there is even a setting for Toon, the cartoon RPG, and let me tell you that playing a cartoon drum combattting nameless horrors is a bizarre experience!

But aside from roleplaying, Lovecraft’s concepts turn up everywhere. They are a pervasive undercurrent, a subtle corruption touching everywhere. I use these themes occasionally myself, although sometimes what begins as a Mythos story turns into something else more tractable when the characters need to win.

My favourite author working with the Mythos at the moment is Charles Stross. His books about The Laundry (a secret British agency dedicated to containing these horrors)  are consciously pulpy themselves although they written more to subvert the conventions of the espionage genre rather than those of horror.

But do try reading some of Lovecraft’s original stories. They’re by no means all wonderfully written, but they’ll stick with you for a long time.

[*] It has been said that the problem with Europeans is that they think 100 miles is a long way, but that the problem with Americans is that they think 100 years is a long time.

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Douglas Adams

“Life. Don’t talk to me about life.”

I spent a large part of my teenaged years emulating Marvin the Paranoid Android, the depressive robot in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

“I seem to be at the bottom of a five mile deep hole. What does that remind me of? Ah yes – life.”

One friend and I would recite passages of dialogue from the book as we were walking home from school. This was from the book only – neither of us had heard the radio show since it had been broadcast too late at night for us to hear, and the BBC tapes didn’t come out until years later.

“Making it up? Why would I want to make anything up? Life’s bad enough without inventing any more of it.”

I read the first book many times. A dozen, two dozen… honestly, I don’t know. My Dad bought me that, along with the records. The records were the only audio I had of the stories for a long time. Those scripts for the records later surfaced as the TV version of the story.

“The first ten millions years were the worst. And the second ten million? They were the worst too.”

My Dad and I were waiting in the car once for my Mum and sisters to turn up at Leeds train station. That was where we figured out that six times nine really is forty two, as long as you use base thirteen.

“I seem to have this terrible pain in all the diodes down my left side.”

There are many authors whose work I like, some who I admire, and a few whose books I actively collect, but Douglas Adams was the first author whose work I was really obsessed by. The Dirk Gently books are great, too – I love the way that a complex emerges from seemingly disparate elements.

So if you ever happen to notice a character of mine who is described in sympathetic detail only to be killed off suddenly at the end of the chapter, that is an echo of Douglas Adams’ whale slamming into the surface of Magrathea.

I should go and read those again.

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