My horror short story “The Velna Valsis” has been accepted by Fantasy Scroll Magazine and, touch wood, should be out later this year. Although the image below wasn’t part of the story’s origin (I came across it on the interwebs long after I had finished “Valsis” and sent it out on submission), I immediately thought of that dark, dark little story when I saw it…
A number of memes have gone round recently about “your top 10 (favourite/influential/memorable/whatever) books”. I’ve generally ignored these — they’re so frustratingly reductive — but in the end I’ve given in. Because who doesn’t like making lists? Or lists of lists?
So here are ten books that I read in the latter part of the 1970s that for one reason or other have stuck with me to the present. (Note that I read them in that decade, not that they were necessarily published in that decade.) They’re not necessarily the best books I read in the 70s. They’re not necessarily ones I would recommend you read. Some of them I’ve not even read since, so I’m writing about my possibly rose-tinted recollection of them rather than the reality. And there were, of course, so many, many others from about the same time, all with a various impact, far too many to mention: I was a voracious reader, and there’s no time or place here to mention Alan Garner or Tove Jansson or Joan Aiken and many others. In future posts I’ll move onto the 80s, 90s, and so on. But you have to start somewhere. And so, in no particular order, here’s a list of books that were bobbing about in the primordial genre soup I was first steeped in, starting with:
J. R. R. Tolkien – “The Lord of the Rings”
Yup. Sorry. Did I mention I was boringly conventional? And unashamedly genre-orientated? Afraid so. “The Hobbit” first got me hooked, at age eight, but if there’s only going to be one entry per author, for Tolkien LotR has to be it. As soon as I finished “The Hobbit” I desperately wanted to step up to that big-ass trilogy of his I’d spotted on the local library shelves, but frustratingly “The Fellowship of the Ring” was always out on lend. After a year or so of waiting I eventually gave in and borrowed “The Two Towers”. It had a synopsis after all, so how much could I have possibly missed? So my LotR experience began very much in media res: I read the last two volumes first, and only much later did the pesky readers of Erdington, Birmingham, afford me the chance to catch up on how the trip to Mordor started out. For much of my life, if anyone asked me what my favourite book was, “The Lord of the Rings” was my automatic response. Now I hesitate a bit, but those few weeks in 1977 spent travelling with Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom — to the soundtrack of Manhattan Transfer’s “Chanson d’Amour”, which seemed to play incessantly on the radio every day — will stay with me forever.
Richard Adams – “Watership Down”
A picture of a cute bunny rabbit on the cover. How harmless could the contents be? I can’t remember exactly what first attracted me to “Watership Down” — whether it was a recommendation or the back blurb or whatever. It certainly wasn’t the cover, with its obvious lack of either a spaceship or a dragon. But as the gas hit the warren in the first few pages, it soon became clear this book was about life and death, about (human) nature red in tooth and claw. I was sucked into Fiver and company’s at times surreal quest to find a new home. And it introduced me for the first time to what is now my very good and somewhat over-familiar friend: deus ex machina.
As soon as I was done with “Watershed Down” I immediately progressed to Adam’s darker and more adult, more brutal, “Shardik”, which forever embedded in my mind the image of a man’s face being torn off by a bear’s claws. Which I guess is totally fine and healthy for a ten year old. [NB: My father often used to comment on the cover for “Shardik”. Because in his time in the army he used to play wrestle with and sleep beside a bear. But that’s another story for another time.]
Susan Cooper – “The Dark Is Rising”
Well crikey — you really can’t beat that title for a hook, can you? The stakes all laid out there, right at the beginning. But the real secret to the success of Cooper’s work is its grounding in reality, in its loving detail of domestic comfort and familial familiarity. That’s why when the magic and mystery intrude, it’s both striking and believable at the same time. This is urban/rural fantasy at its finest, where the walls between worlds are both distant and close, strange and familiar. I could be Will Stanton. You could be Will Stanton. The battle between the Light and Dark is right here, right now, our modern world nestling in a far more ancient landscape than most of us choose to recognise. Cooper’s ability to evoke that old green wildness is second to none.
Michael Moorcock – “The Bull And The Spear”
Moorcock. Sounds dark. Vaguely sinister. Even a little transgressive. And with so many books to that name … where was I to start? Well, now that I had lost my fear of starting in mid-series — anywhere! “The Bull And the Spear” was my first Moorcock, but the fourth instalment in his Corum sequence. (To be fair, it was the first in a second trilogy.) I can’t remember too much about it now, other than the roaring green dragon on the cover, the wintry mist and the wolves in marsh, and Moorcock’s magnificent villain: Gaynor the Damned, with his hollow, colour-changing armour and bitter, maniacal humour — but I do remember the feeling of having made a profound discovery. This was my gateway to the Multiverse. To the never-ending war between Law and Chaos; the Eternal Champion and his companion in their many guises. The earlier Corum “Swords” trilogy, Hawkmoon, Elric, The Dancers at the End of Time, et al,… all soon followed. And I was hooked.
A different type of fantasy to Tolkein and Moorcock. Lyrical, allegorical, parable-like — and just as gripping and entertaining. “Wizard of Earthsea” may have been about magic, but it was also magical itself.
I sort of figured out the name of Ged’s shadow from the very start — but that didn’t matter. The story is the journey, not the destination. Later “The Tombs of Atuan” taught me that sequels can be oblique, need not immediately feature the hero of the predecessor novel, that they could stand as works in their own right. “The Farthest Shore” showed me that the stakes can always be raised, that the setting be utterly different, that characters can age and change and be both foolish and wise.
I’m not sure whether the “The White Mountains” — the first instalment of Christopher’s classic Tripods Trilogy — was my first encounter with his work. It may have been “The Prince In Waiting”, or even “The Lotus Caves”, but “The White Mountains” certainly had the most lasting impact. The sense of young teenage alienation, of the wilful and impulsive protagonist, the edge of paranoia and injustice, caught me just at the right age. Plus! Giant marching machines! Tentacles! Ruined cities! Such a great little book. And “The City of Gold and Lead” one of the great escape from captivity tales that the denouement “The Pool of Fire” would always have difficulty to top. But that final book’s epilogue — the return of squabbling nations after the defeat of their common enemy — remains prescient to this day. It disapoints me greatly these books are no longer in print. They seem more relevant now than ever.
Isaac Asimov – “The Caves of Steel”
By this time I was unleashed from the library (although I always kept returning to it). It was in in the local High Street W. H. Smith‘s tiny SF section that you would now find me with my fifty pence weekly pocket-money gripped in my sweaty little pre-teenage fist. I’m not exactly sure if “Caves” was my first Asimov. Possibly it may have been the short story collection “I, Robot”. But I think it was this. Because look at that amazing Chris Foss cover. Now that I had begun to buy books, my collector instinct cut in. At that time Panther UK had a whole series of similarly packaged Asimov titles all with covers by Foss: I had to buy them all, and I pretty well much did. (The Foss covers even tempted me into forays into the likes of E. E. “Doc” Smith — but I soon learned that not all content was created equal.) “The Stars Like Dust”, “The Currents of Space”, “The End of Eternity”, the amazing triptych cover for the “Foundation” trilogy… I got ’em all. Asimov’s commentary and biographical notes in his story collections and “Golden Age” anthologies basically informed my (naive) understanding of the SF field at the time.
Frank Herbert – “Dune”
A monster of a book. Not sure how I first heard about “Dune”. I suspect its sheer width on the bookshelf and the cover art by Bruce Pennington caught my eye. From the opening pages with Paul Atreides facing the Gom Jabbar it had me in its thrall. Despite all the interstellar political intrigue and complex tapestry of its worldbuilding, the secret to Dune’s success remained, to me, its very human focus, on Paul’s journey from privilege to fugitive, from rebel to messiah. Something fairly quickly lost in the numerous sequels (I didn’t get much far beyond “Children of Dune”). But I’ll never forget that first thrilling encounter with the Shai-Hulud.
Robert Heinlein – “Glory Road”
Certainly not Heinlein’s best, or the first book of his I read. “Starman Jones”, I think, was that. Followed by “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress”, which probably went over my head at the time. Then “Starship Troopers”, “The Puppet Masters”, “Farnham’s Freehold’ (oh God), etc. So how come “Glory Road” wins over, for instance, “Stranger In A Strange Land”? Well, although the latter was certainly more affecting at the time, the simplicity of “Road”‘s quest plot has stuck with me. Set a goal. Add a companion. Skew from the known world. Throw in adversity. It’s time-honoured and bare-boned, but it’s a structure I simply cannot resist.
Is “Road” problematic? I haven’t read it since that first time, but even from memory I suspect it is. Would I read it or recommend it again? Probably not. I suspect my memory of it is better than the reality.
Anne McCaffrey – “Dragonsinger”
Again the covers drew me. Dragons! Again, I started mid-series, with “Dragonquest”, followed by the somewhat flaccid “The White Dragon”, before returning to the original “Dragonflight”. And in the parallel Harper Hall trilogy, I began with “Dragonsinger” instead of “Dragonsong”…but it’s “Dragonsinger” that has stuck with me. A simple YA story of the talented but overlooked Menolly, who struggles to achieve a measure of justice over her spiteful classmates: a masterclass in emotional button-pushing. Alongside McAffrey’s more adult “Restoree”, this was one of the few books from that era I read which contained a strong female protagonist. Speaking of which…
Robert C. O’Brien – “Z For Zachariah”
My sister handed me this book, said it was brilliant and that I should read it. She was right: it was brilliant! But also, frankly, terrifying! Full of nail-biting tension as the initially ambiguous invader in Ann Burden’s post-apocalyptic valley becomes increasingly deranged and threatening. Although I’ve forgotten many of the details of the plot now, this story’s bittersweet yet hopeful ending has stuck with me.
Harry Harrison – “The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge”
Voice! The importance of voice! That’s what Harrison’s “Rat” taught me. And what a voice Slippery Jim diGriz has — confident, rakish, and not entirely reliable. Of course I started with the sequel to “The Stainless Steel Rat”, “Revenge”, and I still remember it well, as I was laid up in bed with my foot throbbing from having a liquid nitrogen-cooled probe pressed against it (that’s how they used to treat a verruca in those days). The Rat’s capture and torture and subsequent escape from the grey men had me riveted, and I remembered that long after the pain in my foot had faded away.
Arthur C. Clarke – “Rendezvous With Rama”
One of my first encounters with a “Big Dumb Object” storyline — but what an encounter! Later on there would be “Ringworld” and “Orbitsville” and “Titan” and “Eon”(one or more of which may feature in my subsequent “Acceptable in the 1980s” post), but first there was Rama.
Of the characters I can recall hardly anything, but of Rama itself, and the sensawunda it instilled… that remains. That, and the lesson that you can knock out the reader with a single closing line.
Clarke’s “2001”, “Childhood’s End”, and “The City and the Stars” cemented his position as one of the triumvirate which ruled 70s SF: Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke.
Roger Zelazny – “Nine Princes in Amber”
Another multiverse this, with all creation a fluid concertina of worlds betwixt the poles of Amber and the Courts of Chaos. Like Cooper’s “The Dark Is Rising” and Heinlein’s “Glory Road”, “Princes” begins in our familiar world, but rapidly morphs into a tale of multidimensional pursuit, treachery, intrigue, and filial conflict. Corwin’s character shines right through and is the core of this book. And what I particularly liked about this first instalment of what I later learned was actually a sprawling saga, was how it closed on such an open-ended note, with anything possible but nothing else required. The perfect end. The perfect start. The later books always seemed like something of an addendum — but what an addendum. For some reason they were difficult to find, so again I found myself having to read them out of sequence as and when I could lay my hands on them, and it took me many years to finally reach the Courts of Chaos. Which somehow seems appropriate.
Please. Don’t judge me. I’m a child of the 70s. It was Frazetta’s pulpy art that drew me into the Conan series, and the collectable nature of the books that were soobviously meant to be gathered together to sit as legion on your bookshelf.
Even at that age, I found the adverb-dense, melodramatic prose and the unsubtle, often racist characterisation problematic. But there were flashes, here and there, an emergent dark magic, descriptions of a mysterious valley, an abandoned citadel, a decadent city, where Conan himself was little more than a bewildered animalistic force of nature…that occasionally actually matched the magic of the covers.
George Lucas – “Star Wars”
Wait — what? Isn’t “Star Wars” supposed to a movie experience, not a book? Well…not for me. Not at first. Long before I saw the film, queueing round the block with my brother at the Birmingham city centre Odeon, “Star Wars” was to me a novel. Purchased from a Safeway’s supermarket, as I recall, and its tiny SF section at the time. I wasn’t too sure about the title screaming out at me in bold red from that white cover, but there were definitely spaceships exploding in the background and that vaguely simian-looking chap with the triangular mouth in the background looked very intriguing.
I read the novel months before the film was released in the UK, and to a large extent the film was, after all the pre-release hype, something of a let down, as I sat in the theatre and mentally checked off the scenes that appeared in the book. In the end, I thought the film a fair adaptation of the book.
Robert Holdstock (ed) – “The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction”
Lushly and lavishly illustrated, unashamedly orange, this huge hardback 1970s Christmas present was to become my faithful guide to new horizons and new voices in the SF & F field. Alongside Asimov’s “Golden Age” anthologies, this tome gave a historical and critical perspective to the genre I was becoming increasingly familiar with. It pointed out exciting new authors and works for me to try and track down, as well as giving the background to my current reading at the time.
If there was any one book that tipped me over from being a casual reader into being that strange creature known as a “fan”, then I guess this was it.
George R. R. Martin – “The Dying of the Light”
…And finally. From the recommendation in Holdstock’s Encyclopaedia (see above) I began to seek out Martin’s work. I was blown away by his short stories, by “A Song For Lya” in particular (still one of my favourites), many of his others from around that time. Martin’s first novel is a flawed affair, but all the ingredients that make his Song of Ice and Fire so successful are present here: honour, family, tradition, doomed love on a dying world, sacrifice, visceral action. Martin, even then, was obviously an up-and-coming young author. One to keep an eye on.
Hmmm. Did I say ten books? The list appears to have grown. Never mind. Maybe I’ll stick to that number when I go for my next nostalgic trawl, this time through the 1980s.
I wouldn’t bet on it, though.