Despite all of that, books eventually smacked me upside the head and changed the way I viewed them and the way I viewed life in general. I read or discovered these books during what I would consider to be pivotal moments of my life. Some of those moments were dark times; others were quite happy and exciting. But none of them were exactly same.
In chronological order, here are the eight science fiction and fantasy writers who changed my life:
Richard A. Knaak
(This is a familiar narrative, no?)
The Person Who Wrote Beowulf
After a weekend of intense writing (in what I then thought was proper "Old English" style -- heh), I strolled into class on Monday with a 31-page epic poem in tow. I still have a vivid memory of my teacher's eyes opening wider than should have been humanly possible at the sight of our work. She had expected something like 5-10 pages, not 31. And we got an A.
You might be wondering how this changed my life. Throughout my youth, I recall writing a lot of stories. For the most part, these were horror stories (I still think that movie with the evil severed hand somehow stole my ideas); they weren't very good. But it wasn't until that Beowulf assignment that I realized I really had the writing bug. From that point on, I started writing with more fervor. Clearly that bug never truly left, because I still write fiction as often as I can (not as much right now due to PhD work, though). Without Beowulf, I'm not sure I'd be where I am right now: an English major and a published writer.
Alan Garnerhere, here and here. There is a lot more to tell about my cancer, so I won't ruin all of it here. However, what I will say is that Alan Garner's fantasy novels were the only positive things I remember about being stuck in the hospital thinking I was going to die. That's about all I remember, actually. The narratives have since left my mind. If you shoved one of his books in front of me with the title and author removed from every page, I probably wouldn't recognize the writing. I blame it all on the drugs.
But that doesn't mean Garner's work didn't influence me in some significant way. His books were a welcome distraction from what is an understandably terrifying experience. Some folks like to say that escapism is bad for us, but I think escapism is just what we need from time to time. When the world descends into darkness, it's actually good for us to wander off into other places (in our minds). It just so happens that Garner was that distraction (others would follow him, of course). It's hard to argue with the awesome feeling of escapist relief, no?
Philip K. DickSpace is the Place). We read a lot of things in that class, including work by Tananarive Due, Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, and many others. But it was Philip K. Dick's novel that acted as the catalyst for my academic career.
Up until that point, I had always intended to study science fiction in college. Unfortunately, there weren't a lot of courses on the stuff when I first entered the college system, and so I had never been exposed to PKD (or other great writers, for that matter), nor had I been given the impression that I could actually study what I wanted. But that class completely changed things for me, and PKD more so than anyone else at the time. I would go on to take an independent study with the same professor (Prof. Ramirez!), in which I read several more works by PKD, including Ubik (my favorite of his novels, actually -- I need to assign that for a class one of these days). Basically, by the time I finished my B.A., I had done so much work on the Other and science fiction that it would define my academic interests for a nearly half a decade (see Buckell and Hopkinson below for the shift in my these interests). PKD exposed me to an entirely different world of SF -- where the human question is always in flux. There's a reason why he's so popular these days...his work is just too damned good.
Tobias S. Buckell and Nalo Hopkinson
Without Buckell and Hopkinson, my academic career wouldn't be where it is today. I'm studying Caribbean literature, and I intend to continue studying postcolonial science fiction from around the globe. But they also changed the way I viewed literature, so much so that by the time the whole World SF thing became a big deal (at least, on the Internets), I was already riding the world train. Now, when I see genre fiction by people from elsewhere in the globe, I pause and think to myself: I wonder how they write about SF tropes or explore their own experiences in relation to genre (sometimes their explorations aren't all that different from my own, which is interesting and important too). That's a good thought to have, I think.
There you go. That's my rough list. There are a lot of other writers I could stick in here, but I think eight is plenty enough for now.
What about you? Which SF/F authors changed your life?
*I am not suggesting that Buckell's works aren't "serious genre fiction." Rather, I am pointing out the difference in tone, which has a lot to do with what I think of as underlying cultural echoes of Space Opera's history as "that silly subgenre." The Xenowealth novels are actually quite serious, but they do use a lot of the tropes of Space Opera to get to its serious points. I think this is actually a great thing. Whereas Hopkinson's work tends to look at the experiences of Caribbean peoples within the sphere of our real world experiences, Buckell's work seems to suggest that the somewhat more cognitively estranged world of Space Opera and interstellar empires is just as fitting a space for those same individuals.
P.S.: I am well aware that this list is largely male-centric. In all honesty, I did not read a lot of work by women during most of the events described above. This wasn't a deliberate choice, but it was certainly an oversight I failed to recognize at the time. People like Joanna Russ and James Tiptree, Jr. have had a profound impact on me, but because I discovered their work so recently, I don't feel like I can properly gauge their influence in objective terms. Other great female writers have influenced me too: Karen Miller, Karen Lord, Lauren Beukes, and Stina Leicht, to name a few. There have also been quite a few women who have had impacts on my life for things other than writing -- people like my mother and grandmother, my best friend Jen, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Alisa Krasnostein (for their feminist criticism), and Julia Rios (a fairly recent influence). I may have to make a completely different list one day for those non-writer folks!
P.S.S.: I really should include Ginn Hale, too, though I don't think it is fair to attribute my interest in SF/F featuring LGBT characters or concerns only to her. Christopher Barzak and JoSelle Vanderhooft were involved in that development too.