My influences, and a confession


So, we were talking with Jonathan Strahan and Ian McDonald at Worldcon about the shameful holes in our reading, and I ended up confessing I’d never ever read any Heinlein (and got a bunch of recommendations in return). And I realised that Heinlein was far from the only hole in my, er, SF pedigree, for want of a better word.

A lot of speculative fiction writers seem to have grown on a steady diet of Golden Age or New Wave SF/fantasy, and/or comic books–I was on a panel with someone (I think Saladin Ahmed) who mentioned D&D and classic sword-and-sorcery as a major influence when he was growing up.

Me? I’m a latecomer, both to English and to genre. The thing is, I didn’t seriously start reading in English until I was 14 or so; which means that a lot of my formative stuff (aka the one that always remains behind in the hindbrain and keeps cropping up in what you write) was in French. Which isn’t to say there was no SF in it: I gleefully devoured nearly all of Verne’s books, read about all of Isaac Asimov’s translated short stories, and even dipped into Patricia McKillip (Changeling was actually translated as a middle-grade book over in France). What there wasn’t, however, was genre: it wasn’t until I moved to the UK that I became aware of the SF/fantasy section of the bookstores. When I was growing up, my local library had a “general fiction” bookshelf, and that was pretty much it. You found Victor Hugo side-by-side with romance novels, or Zelazny’s Lord of Light. And believe me, I read and enjoyed a heck of lot of Victor Hugo (my fave is Ninety-Three, in case you’re wondering). Not so much Zelazny, as the French translation of Lord of Light sucked big time, and it basically put me off Zelazny for ten years (they recently re-issued that book in French, with a new and improved translation, which I’m told is much better).

Similarly, a lot of my speculative fiction didn’t come from comics, but from bandes dessinées (BD), the French comics (sort of. There are big differences, mainly about mainstream acceptance of BDs in France, but I won’t go into them here). I read Yoko Tsuno, about a Japanese tech in Brussels who faces down aliens, time-travelling megalomaniacs and weird creatures (it’s unabashedly centered on Yoko herself, to the point that her male sidekicks often appear totally incompetent); Thorgal, which is this odd mix of Viking-era sword-and-sorcery and science fiction (the eponymous Thorgal came via spaceship down to Earth); and a lot other more BDs which had supernatural or science-fictional elements, but which were always classified as mainstream. In fact, in my library, the main division for BDs was whether or not they were for adults (amusingly, Mandrake the Magician qualified as adult, as did most US comics. I can only presume it was because of the excessive violence) [1].

I didn’t really find out about comic books before I was 13 or so; and compared to the bandes dessinées I was reading at the time, the comic books of that era felt painfully underdrawn, with bad colouring, and a style that failed to engage me, as its conventions were so different from the French/Belgian ones. I grew up mostly uninterested by them, with one notable exception: X-Men (which must have appealed to my 13-year-old self because it so viscerally described people trapped between two worlds). They did remain a guilty pleasure, because even at 13 I found a lot of the available storylines too simple (especially in terms of morality), and because they were expensive, costing nearly as much as a BD but printed on much cheaper paper (by that time, I suspect what was being translated into French was 10 or 15 years late, which probably didn’t help either with the storylines or the art. A lot of it, now that I think back, was Cold-War era comics, and there was probably a cultural disconnect because I grew up mostly after the Cold War ended…)

As to classic sword-and-sorcery… The closest to that was actually Andre Norton’s Witch World, which I found via a circuitous road: I became a fan of Star Wars early on, though I was frustrated by the simplistic morality of the movies, and went foraging into the authorised novels, hoping to find something more suited to my tastes (I sort of did, but mainly I learnt a lot of cool vocabulary around lightsabers and spaceships). Around the time I was 12 or 13, Pocket, a big editor of SF in France, launched a new line for young adults: part of the lineup was some Kevin Anderson Star Wars novels (of which I soon owned the complete set), and the remainder was the Andre Norton books. I distinctly remembered picking one up, reading cover to cover, and thinking, “wow, I’ve never read anything like this”. So much for sword-and-sorcery. I didn’t read Leiber until I was 20; and I confess to still not having opened a Conan book (I think I’m too late for those, in any case. I strongly suspect they work better when you’re a teenager).

Basically, I read what was getting translated into French and available at my local library–and that means that some books just never made it into my repertoire. I read Silverberg, but only the Lord Valentine books; I read Asimov’s, but only the short stories; I read a lot of Bradbury, because his works were very popular in France (I remember a couple of his short stories gave me nightmares). I never opened a Heinlein, a Clarke, or a Van Vogt. I also read a lot of French originals, though I’d be hard-pressed to remember any names among those (I read a lot, and a lot of that stuff has just merged into an indistinct blur).

So, there you go: my influences, all laid out for you to lob tomatoes at. All that Golden Age stuff… Sorry, but it’s not just not in the hindbrain. I did do a massive amount of catch-up later, when I was in the UK and started voraciously reading genre from Blish to Le Guin to Gemmell (and yes, I did end up reading Clarke and Van Vogt), but that was only after I’d started reading in English, and way after the rest of that stuff had formed layers in my brain. I already had my own worlds, and they’re what tends to bubble up when I write SF–and I have no idea if they’re better or worse than the common grounds of SF, but they’re certainly very different.

What about you? What were your experiences of growing up with SF? Do you have the feeling there are classics you missed out on when you were a child?

[1] As an aside, if you want BDs, Cinebook has started translating some of the most successful series. The quality of the translation is… variable, and they sometimes make odd choices as to series order. But they’re still very much recommended, if only to get a glimpse into an art form not everyone will be familiar with (BDs and comics are very different beasts).


  1. Funny, my experience of sci-fi as a French teenager echoes with your feeling. As I felt translation were not so good, I realized I’d be better off reading them in English (mostly cyberpunk short stories and novels)… which is how I learnt this language.

  2. He–wonder if we’re from the same time period? I know there’s a bunch of translations that were in libraries for a long while, and just weren’t very good (I’m told things are much, much better now, but I haven’t really gone back to reading translations, though I do try the odd French original).

  3. I’m 33.

    The worst were perhaps some translations of Lovecraft (Salinger too but it’s clearly not scifi 🙂

  4. I was fortunate enough to hit the prime age for SF (14 or so) in 1966, just as the New Wave was converting Golden-Age SF from 110V to 440V. Zelazny was just coming into his powers, and I devoured him along with Ballard and Blish (as well as Clarke, Anderson, AEvV, and the good doctor A.) I read some Heinlein but–apart from ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’, which still holds up, was never that impressed… heresy it may be, but IMO he’s overrated (I **hated** ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’). Jorge Luis Borges, the genius who transcends mere genre, was a huge influence on me, and IMO is a great SF/F/Magic Realist writer. It’s a great pity the US has these rigid, and stupid, category/genre distinctions, as I believe a great many more people would read SF and F, and it would have never been ghettoized in the first place, if everything had just been shelved together by author.

  5. Very similar, Aliette – and I didn’t have the excuse of availability of books in translation. I grew up reading a lot, but for some reason SF didn’t appeal to me. By 13 I’d read all the Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming books in the school library, and was a huge fan of ghost stories (both the Fontana Book of… and Pan Book of… featured large in my collection). From there I moved into horror – King, Campbell, Herbert, Koontz, Lovecraft – before discovering Tolkien and slipping sideways into heroic fantasy.

    In all that time I read precisely one SF novel – Sagan’s “Contact” (which was a school prize). It was only when I moved back to Glasgow from London and joined GSFWC that I felt I owed it to myself to do some serious research into the genre’s history (a programme that is still ongoing :D). I allowed myself one book per Golden Age/New Wave author. If I liked them, I’d read more, if I didn’t then I didn’t have to. I discovered that I loved Bester and M John Harrison, and admired much about Delaney, Butler, Aldiss, Zelazny and Vance. I marveled at how much story Clarke could pack into a tiny amount of pages. I marveled more that Heinlein and Asimov were popular at all.

    Every Eastercon I visit the book room and buy an “old-timer” book from the second hand dealers and expand my education a little further. Sometimes it’s a joy, sometimes it’s hard work.

    No idea what all that says about me as a writer – especially on the rare occasions when I foray into actual SF. 😀

  6. I began to read SF very very early (around 8-9), because their was a shelf full of it at home, mainly Golden age SF translations dating back to my parent’s teenage time. Thus I read Foundation, World of ~A, Dune, Princes of Amber and quite a few Silverberg. Of course after that I was looking for this shelf in the library and I read much more (I still prefer non-Valentin’s Silverberg). I remember trying to imitate Zelazny’s short story construction in elementary school imagination writing. My teachers were not pleased because there was never an explanatory introduction nor a definitive conclusion. There ended my fiction writing history.

    However, the biggest influence came from my grandmother who offered me The Hobbit when I was just able to read bed-time stories by myself (probably around 7). And at 10 I read the lord of the ring, and read it again every year until 17 when I decided that I had to read it in English to get the best of it. However, I was never seduced by fantasy.

  7. Between 7 and 15 I was lucky enough to have a library 10 minutes away by foot from where I lived and plenty of free time to read. Around 10 I entered the adults section and started to read the SF shelf, beginning with Tolkien (Bilbo and LOTR) and continuing with some Science Fiction classics (Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, CJ Cherryh, Verne, Barjavel). I can’t remember exactly when I started to prefer Fantasy over SF, it is probably related to my first read of Zelazny (Amber chronicles). I then proceeded to read most of the big series the library had, as I’ve always preferred long heroic stories over stand-alone books. Most notable authors were Haggard, Leiber, Vance, Moorcock (Elric and most of the Eternal Champion books), Bradley (Darkover!) , Herbert (Dune), McCaffrey, Dick, Philip Jose Farmer (Riverworld among others) and some others I can’t remember.

    As for BD / comics, I grew up reading Yoko Tsuno (thanks Aliette, I feel less lonely :)) and Le vagabond des Limbes (and many others of course, but not related to the SF genre). No comic whatsoever, the drawing and the overcomplicated stories never appealed me.

    As a (lazy) French who started to seriously learn English rather late, I read (almost) only in French, thus I’m limited to the books that are translated. It’s quite frustrating to see some authors only partially translated, especially when you discover it years after you read his / her books thanks to the Internet (as Internet didn’t exist when I was a teenager). And as for the authors that aren’t translated, there was no real way for me to discover them at that time. I’ve started to catch up since then, but every time I read one book five others are added to the pile, which is a rather depressing feeling 🙂

  8. Nicolas: OK, I will avoid Lovecraft in French then…

  9. Dario: I was never in love with Borges as much as I am in love with Garcia Marquez (his Hundred Years of Solitude is a masterpiece). But he’s good, too. And I can read him in Spanish! (well, attempt to. I don’t always understand him).
    And yes, agreed on categories. However, as I see it, the US is exporting them to other places rather than the reverse happening… (and I do appreciate some of the need for categories; I had a heck of a time finding suitable books in a whole basement of generic fiction, especially when the books didn’t have a clear summary–as they can often do in France).

  10. NeilW: yay, a fellow reader 🙂 Loved Agatha Christie, came to Fleming a bit late but liked his stuff as well. I have to read John M Harrison, it’s a big hole I need to plug. What would you recommend I try?

  11. Lam Son: 🙂 I never really liked non-Valentin Silverberg, I confess (or I’m reading the wrong books of his, which is entirely possible. I tried a lot of his short stories, and a bunch of his most famous novels, but just wasn’t hooked). The Hobbit I think I read only once, but Lord of the Rings is possibly onto its fourth or fifth reading (which reminds me I ought to rewatch the movies, too). And ouch on the fiction writing experiment. I have too many painful memories of fiction writing in school to actually attempt it in French…

    Ylrahc: I used to pilfer the adult section from around the age of 9-10, too. The child section in my library was just boring. But it was indeed a big change, when we moved to London, to suddenly have a library 10 minutes away (instead of 30 minutes away and with odd opening hours…)
    I’d actually say the comic stories are very simple (but needlessly complicated by the many returning characters). I tended to prefer standalone issues. The art in those I could find, though, was just plain terrible. I’m told they’ve improved since, but I’m still not a big fan of that aesthetics.

  12. Harrison: He’s most famous for his Viriconium stories (now thoughtfully collected as a Fantasy Masterwork). And his recent space opera novels (like Light) are excellent too. But I first got into him in the 90s with more slipstreamy novels like The Course Of The Heart and Signs Of Life. My favourite Harrison book though is a collection called Travel Arrangements (later repackaged and expanded, by I think NightShade, as Things That Never Happen). His prose is so spare and efficient it possesses a special kind of beauty I’ve rarely seen in another writer.

  13. Oooh. I’m tempted by the Viriconium, I confess. I’ll see if I can find the Things that Never Happen in eformat, but otherwise I’m buying the Masterwork 🙂 Thanks a lot!

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