Sunday, November 18, 2007

Foundations of Taste

No author appears fully-formed, "Venus on the Half-Shell"-like, from nowhere. In truth, authors are a conglomeration of influences both overt and covert. Often, it takes outside eyes to discern the many hidden influences that creep into a writer's work.

On the other hand are those influences so powerful, so altering, the writer has no problem pointing to them.

What follows are some of the works that have influenced either my writing or my taste in fiction. I think the list is a telling one.

The inimitable J.G. Ballard. The stark, mesmerizing, dangerously fragmented, hallucinatory prose. J.G. Ballard is a writer in a class of his own, and few can aspire to produce such gems. Ballard's influence on speculative fiction has been wide and deep, a long-ranging and indelible mark on the entire field.

There is a wealth of information on J.G. Ballard on the web. The JG Ballard website is the perfect beginning, while Rick McGrath's First & Variant Editions is an amazing storehouse. Ballardian is an interesting and useful site.

Leigh Brackett rests in a very special corner of my writerly mind. Her stories bounded across the lines of planetary romance and sword-and-sorcery, but unlike many of the authors before or since, Brackett brought a noir-ish, hard-boiled angle to the field. There is something inherently compelling in her Noble Savages, and the elegiac tones of her later stories were particularly appealing.

The internet is a barren wasteland when it comes to Leigh Brackett, alas.

While many speak of the brilliance of Samuel R. Delany, citing novels like Dhalgren and Nova or his influential criticism, the Return to Nevèrÿon series is often overlooked. This intricate sword-and-sorcery series spans four book-length works, including short stories, novels, appendices and essays. Charting the transition from a barter to a monetary economy, the stories of Nevèrÿon address a wide range of subject matter, examining sexuality and identity, semiotics, literary criticism and AIDS. It is sometimes tedious, always challenging, and in the end thoroughly rewarding.

The best Delany website is Jay Schuster's Samuel R. Delany Information.

Lord Dunsany is probably best known for The King of Elfland's Daughter, but for me it was his short stories and prose poems that left an enduring imprint. At his best, Dunsany was a masterful stylist, weaving dense, provocative atmospherics with a high, poetry-like diction no author has yet matched. Much like his admirer HP Lovecraft, Dunsany used words like paint on canvas, whether clotting his stories with thick globules like impasto oils or presenting a luminous, pastel-hued watercolor. Through the accretion of precise details and evocative sweeps of his literary brush, Dunsany built stories drenched in magic.

There is an official Dunsany website, and a useful page Great Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers. There is also a large selection of works online.

Was Philip José Farmer the first speculative fiction author to create a secret history of the world? I don't know. Yet the Wold Newton tree has fascinated me for decades, and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life was my introduction to this complicated game of literary play, and it is one that has stuck with me. And I am not alone; secret histories apparently send out siren calls to many excellent authors, like John Crowley, Tim Powers, Mary Gentle, Michael Moorcock, Peter Ackroyd, Chris Roberson, Alan Moore.... What better company could a writer keep?

To learn more about the Wold Newton universe, just visit the official Philip José Farmer website and click around.

Few writers can match M. John Harrison. He is arguably the most literary speculative fiction writer. In fact, Harrison is so good, his works require multiple readings just to gather a vague sense of what he has accomplished. And while his Viriconium novels and stories left a mighty impact, it is The Course of the Heart which dropped my jaw.

There is an official M. John Harrison website, and he also blogs at Uncle Zip's Window.

The Night Land is William Hope Hodgson's frustrating masterpiece. This end-of-time novel is one of the most nihilistic, brutally unreadable, grandiose romances ever written. Does that sound contradictory? It is; Hodgson is a study in contradictions. However, the sweep and power of this novel is amazing despite its sheer unreadability. In a single word, The Night Land is awesome.

There is an entire website devoted to The Night Land. Enter at your peril.

Fritz Leiber is the crown prince of sword-and-sorcery, from the coining of the very term itself to the production of its greatest works. How to define the impact of Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser? These spirited stories, filled with chills and sly wit, intelligence and grand adventure, have been a favorite since I first discovered fantastic fiction more than twenty years ago. The stories have seared into my consciousness, never unseated by time. More than any other fantasy writer, Fritz Leiber has been my patron saint.

Unfortunately, no good Leiber websites remain.

Added together, Michael Moorcock's accomplishments in speculative fiction are a litany of shaping and influence. The scope of his involvement in the field is daunting to consider, whether it is his fiction or his editorial work or his criticism under examination. I need only say Elric of Melniboné once I suppose, for the reader to understand what I mean. Moorcock has touched us all, whether through his direct influence or as a reaction to his influence.

Still vital today, he maintains a vast community website, and can be found in many places on the internet.

A cursory search of the internet would lead me to think Catherine L. Moore has been all but forgotten in the genre community, which is a shame. This pioneering writer burst onto the scene with the masterful short story "Shambleau", and the boy's own club of the pulps were never the same in its wake. Though she quit writing fiction in 1958, after the death of her husband Henry Kuttner, she left behind an impressive body of work that still stands as some of the best "weird tales" ever written.

Joanna Russ has marked me in many ways. Known primarily for her groundbreaking feminist science fiction and literary criticism, her stories of Alyx were my initial introduction to her work. These genre-bending tales were the precursor to Mary Gentle's later White Crow stories, and their skirting the lines between science fiction and fantasy were no doubt influential to many of today's cross-genre writers.

There are few Russ-related resources on the internet. glbtq has an overview, as does There is, however, a wealth of Russ-related material within Science Fiction Studies.

Of the "Big Three" Weird Tales authors remembered today, Clark Ashton Smith is my favorite. I find Howard's objectification of women and rampant racism distasteful, while Howard's unrelenting purpleness and nihilism leave me wanting. Clark Ashton Smith, on the other hand, straddles the divide while offering some of the most lushly decadent prose ever produced. While his penchant for obscure verbiage may be off-putting to some, I rather revel in it. The diversity of his writing is also to be lauded, from the straightforward fantastica of his Averoigne tales to the exotic, death-obsessed tales of Zothique. There is only one Clark Ashton Smith; he was a unique voice.

The Eldritch Dark is the source for all Clark Ashton Smith information, while S. T. Joshi's website is a treasure trove of related material.

Jack Vance didn't create the concept of the "dying earth" story, preceded as he was by William Hope Hodgson and Clark Ashton Smith. Yet no other author save Gene Wolfe has given the sub-genre such a lasting imprint. Likewise, Vance's influence can be traced throughout the field since 1945, whether discussing Wolfe or Dungeons and Dragons. But it is his language that is most influential; his wry, sublime, ironic style has been copied more than once, but there is only one Jack Vance.

The Jack Vance Archive is indispensable, while the Jack Vance Info Page is also helpful. If you can afford it, the Vance Integral Edition is a grail for Vance readers.

Gene Wolfe is, without doubt, the most blatantly intelligent speculative fiction writer. His works are indescribably dense, florid, convoluted, painstaking, and awe-inspiring. His influence on me is nothing short of revolutionary, a word junta.

Lupine Nuncio is the best Wolfe-related website.

While this list of influences is by no means exhaustive, nor even very offbeat, the above authors have nonetheless left lasting imprints on me. Throughout my reading life these have been the writers who have consistently stretched my definition of fantastic fiction. At every turn they have challenged me. And at the end of the day, these are the peaks I aspire to achieve in my own writing.

God bless them for providing such lofty spires.

No comments: