This one time at Writer's Camp…
I can’t believe I haven’t talked about influences on here. To think of just how influential some writers were to me when I first discovered that I liked reading for fun… and I never even pointed them out.
Over at the devil’s playground (also known as Facebook), Baen Books recently asked people to chip in on their favorite and most influential SF books ever written. I tossed my two cents in (well, more like a dime’s worth really, what with inflation and all…) and started thinking. Just how influential have some of these books been on me? I needn’t look any further than how I view certain aspects of life itself.
It’s true that a lot of us read certain books and associate with people who think a lot like we do. I guess growing up in group homes and not having a certain “familial thought process” to base some foundations on both hurt and helped me in the long run. It hurt because I still have problems trying to picture in my head just what a “normal” family looks like. But it also helps because I’ll listen to just about anyone’s opinion and (usually) I don’t have preconceived notions.
That, by the way, is a round about way of getting to listing the top five books which have influenced me over the past fifteen years and shaped me to be the person I am today. Here they are, in no particular order:
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi – This book is probably the most recent addition to my list, having bumped out “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” by a whisker. The reminder that war is a young man’s game is subtly thrown out the window in Scalzi’s debut novel, and it also keeps a lot of things (like relationships and life) in a fresh perspective. It can be a hard book to read for anyone fresh out of the combat zone, though it has some therapeutic qualities to it. Scalzi, while still a young writer (though an old man compared to me… ;-P), definitely has his thumb on the pulse of society and has a chance to leave the same kind of impression on SF that Asimov and Poul Anderson did. It guided me through a difficult period of readjustment to life in general, and it was therapeutic for me on a spiritual level, something I doubt that Scalzi intended when he wrote the novel. But to each their own, I say.
The Last Centurion by John Ringo – Ignore the conservative psycho babble. Ignore the relations and non-too-subtle use of current politicians. Hell, ignore the voice of the author. But buried deep in this book is a terrifying reality: America, while possibly the best suited to deal with any adversity, may be too diverse and free to save itself. Before this book was written, I had the fortunate opportunity to be on a panel at a SF convention with Ringo in 2006. We were talking about alien invasions and the drastic loss of human life which would result of a massive invasion. John was mentioning how the US, along with every other Western society, would be forced to speed up the birthrate in order to stay alive. I was young then, and thought I knew better, and told John he was wrong. I remember this fairly well, because the look on the other panelists faces was priceless. I told John that the US, with all the civil liberties and rights and freedoms, would perish first because nobody would want to be forced to do anything, such as carry a litter of children. Our government simply isn’t omnipotent enough to force the citizens to do anything they truly did not want to do. In The Last Centurion, Ringo takes this point and hammers it home. I really, really think that anybody who believes in absolute freedom should read this book. It’s a wise tale, even if it has a conservative slant to it.
Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein – Please forget Verhoeven’s abortion and think, instead, of the book written in 1959. Heinlein is one of the most influential writers of his day, and his reach extends far beyond his death. But this book is the one I read before I enlisted in the Navy. At the time, I was having doubts about which branch of service to join (I’d just lost my college scholarship and was struggling to find a way to not take out students loans so I could go to school still) and was leaning towards the Army. I knew I didn’t have the Marine mentality (I know when to say when; a Marine, in my opinion, doesn’t have a choice…) and I didn’t want to go into the Air Force or Coast Guard. So it was down to the classic Army vs Navy. A friend of mine handed me the book (I still am confused whether it was my best friend Richard or my good friend David) and told me to read it before I signed anything. I read it and realized that it wasn’t about which service could do the most for me, it was about what I could do for it. I was ready to join the Army when the Navy swooped in and nabbed me. No great loss for the Army, if I may say so. I doubt they would have tolerated my “what do you mean, I need to sleep?” attitude… but I feel any person about to enlist or accept a commission into any armed forces should read this book.
Armor by John Steakley – I know who gave me this book, and unsurprisingly it was a Marine Corps veteran. Armor opened my eyes to the depression and loneliness that quite a few people suffer through while in a combat zone. In the Navy, I didn’t have that feeling often because I was always working with someone and had a semi-constant correspondence with my foster father and friends. But after reading this, I realized that the one thing that makes a hero both great and tragic is that in order to become a hero, someone had to have screwed up. And the main character of the book survives screw up after screw up to become this legendary figure in black, the man they call Felix. It’s terrifying to think of just how deadly a person can be when they’re fighting for their survival, and Steakley paints one bleak picture while telling his tale. This is a book I’d recommend without reservation to any veteran.
Freehold by Michael Z. Williamson – Who, a lot of people have asked me over the years when I mentioned the name. Most people associate Freehold with Farnham’s Freehold, another Heinlein book. But this book confronts the uncomfortable and actually forces the reader to think about their own beliefs and ideals as a woman on the run from an oppressive society lands in the society with the most liberties in human civilization: the Freehold of Grainne. The sex scenes are either intriguing or frightening, depending on who’s reading. The adjustment to culture shock is heart-wrenching as the reader starts to question their own sanity as the book gets deeper into the society and just how high the costs of freedom and responsibility truly is. Then there is the military invasion, which is painted in stark contrast to the rest of the book, when both sides use despicable and deplorable means to fight (and win). It brings to light the thoughts of the current wars our country is in at the moment, as the idea of an insurgency in the book grows from active military personnel hiding amongst the citizens to fight their war. I’ll be the first to admit (after the author) that Freehold is based on a libertarian, Utopian society, but it’s a thought-provoking novel that I would suggest to readers over the age of 16. “But Jason”, someone’s going to say, “there’s s-e-x in the book!” Trust me. If a 16 year old doesn’t know anything about sex after listening to the current Top 20 on the radio, then they live in a place where the children can’t read books like this anyways or the radio station is nothing but classical music.
So those are my top five influential books, and my reasoning behind them. What are yours?