Previously, I mentioned a little about my introduction to the worlds of science fiction and fantasy. My first science fiction experience was The White Mountains, the first book of The Tripods series by John Christopher. My 4th grade teacher read it aloud. When she finished reading it, she read the first chapter of the second book and then stopped, saying if we wanted to find out what happened, we had to check it out at the library. Even though I was fascinated by the story, I didn’t take up the challenge until ten years later when I was already in college.
Even though I was a big Harry Potter fan during middle school and high school, I actually read very little science fiction or fantasy during this time. I spent most of my time reading historical fiction. Most of my SFF exposure came from movies. My dad raised me on the classic Star Wars trilogy and Star Trek and took me to all the Lord of the Rings movies. Not to mention watching Krull, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, and The NeverEnding Story regularly. Still, I watched all of these alongside Horatio Hornblower, Anne of Green Gables, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, various renditions of Pride and Prejudice, and a plethora of Ginger Rogers films. In short, my exposure to media growing up was eclectic.
As far as books go, I spent high school enrolled in various literature courses. I burned up my reading time with classics–The Scarlet Letter, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Wuthering Heights–but two of my favorites were Frankenstein, Fahrenheit 451, and 1984. Sadly, fantasy has yet to make its debut into classic literature, but I don’t think that day is far off, particularly with the emerging magical realism genre. But that’s a different discussion. Needless to say, I was fascinated by these fantastical books that explored what could have been and what might be.
It wasn’t until after high school that I delved into science fiction as a serious fan, and, oddly, it all began with anime. A friend introduced me to Studio Ghibli, and from there, I quickly fell in love with the Gundam enterprise. Escaflowne and FullMetal Alchemist (both versions) soon followed along with an endless list of lesser known series. I particularly love mech anime and time-travel/multiverse themed animes. From there, I began to segue into reading science fiction and fantasy.
First, I confess, it was Twilight. I was (and still am) a huge fan of the first three books. Stephanie Meyer is a master storyteller, and I was enthralled by her books. Granted, I’d just gotten out of a relationship that was oddly echoed in the pages of her books. But maybe a lot of people felt that way and that’s one reason her books did so well. After Twilight came Hunger Games. As a World War II junky and avid war movie viewer (Pearl Harbor and The Last Samurai are among my favorites), Hunger Games hit the right cords for me. After that, the SFF world had me. I ravenously consumed Tamora Pierce’s worlds, C.S. Lewis, Garth Nix, Brandon Sanderson, Orson Scott Card, and a myriad of other authors.
But, if you haven’t noticed, there’s no classic SFF on my resume. No Tolkien, no Niven, no Le Guin or Asimov. Odd, right? I am a SFF writer devoid of a classic SFF foundation.
There are advantages and disadvantages to this. The advantage? I can dream of worlds and creations, characters and plots, untouched by an admiration for the classics. What I dream, I dream as if I’m the first to ever dream it. The disadvantage? What I dream, I dream as if I’m the first to ever dream it… only to discover I wasn’t. It’s definitely discouraging to think I have a awesome original idea only to discover someone already did it and they did it a lot better than me. Though, even that’s not so bad. It means I came up with the same idea as that really brilliant person. Maybe I’ll be brilliant someday too? (Feel free to laugh at this point, but not too hard…)
I’ve thought a lot about educating myself on the classics. I have a list Tim Powers recommended to me. I’ve only read one book from a list of about 50. But at the same time, I don’t want to lose my creative innocence. Most of the books I’ve read up until now have been in the lightweights. Good books with good writing and interesting thoughts, but not books that shape my worldview or influence my writing. It’s allowed me to write with my own voice, express my own thoughts, and create my own worlds. Whenever I read these books, I have fun. And after I finish, I think, I can write something even better than this. But whenever I pick up a class–I recently read Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness for the first time–I’m left breathless and heartbroken. How can I even dare to aspire to write something like that? For the sake of my self-confidence and sanity, should I avoid reading these epic pieces?
No. If there are other gems like The Left Hand of Darkness out there, how can I possibly ignore them? Perhaps the skills gap between me and them is discouraging, but Le Guin’s book shifted my worldview. It helped me to grow and mature as a person. Perhaps that doesn’t translate directly to my skills as a writer, but it will certainly take me closer to being able to write a piece just as astounding and insightful. Honestly, how could I possibly write something at that caliber without reading these books? These, and many others.
It’s time for me to move on from the lightweights, and if my worlds and characters begin to mimic those of the classics, they weren’t strong enough to begin with. Originality still exists among those skilled enough to look beyond what they know; and, the more they know, the more genuine that feat will be.
Time to hit the books.