There is a meme going around where you post the ten books which have been the greatest influence on you. Several people have approached this in a creative way (you can see my friend Claire Rousseau’s YouTube video on the same topic here), but I decided to do a good old-fashioned blog post. Below you will find my selection, in order of publication.
1. Ringworld by Larry Niven (1970)
Ringworld is a novel which is narratively very simple but extremely compelling. There are four characters: Louis Wu, a human explorer; Nessus, who belongs to the race of Pierson's Puppeteers; Speaker-to-Animals, who is from a race of giant cat-like apex predators, and Teela Brown, a human who has been selectively bred to be lucky. The characters are interestingly balanced against each other, the Pierson's Puppeteers are a very paranoid race but Nessus is considered to be recklessly bold by their standards, although to us he comes across as cowardly and easily startled. Speaker-to-Animals is aggressive and constantly threatening violence, yet by his race’s standards he is timid and placid.
The four characters explore a giant ring which encircles a distant star. Who build the megastructure? Where did they go? What are its secrets? These are questions which Niven expertly builds up and slowly feeds us the answer. Ringworld is quite simply a clever story with strong characters written well. It is a book which has stayed with me for years after reading it.
2. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (1984)
I am not easily upset, and it requires a scene to be very gross for it disgust me. The Wasp Factory managed this. A friend who lent it to me told me it contained the most vile scene that he had ever read and, despite bracing myself for it, it still shocked me. The book goes out of its way to be offensive and challenge your sensibilities, but underneath there is a beautifully, subtly written story about isolation in the remote areas of Scotland.
The Wasp Factory manages to be cryptic without being annoying. The reader asks themselves, is this really happening or is it mainly in the character’s head? Some novels aim for this but end up simply being confusing. The Wasp Factory is beautiful written and is elegantly provocative.
3. The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks (1988)
This is the first novel which opened my mind to the fascinating world of the Culture. The Player of Games is Iain M. Banks’s second science fiction novel, and deals with the Culture coming into contact with the Azad, a civilisation with three genders which is entirely based around a board game. The Culture’s greatest game player, Jernau Morat Gurgeh, is sent to play the Azad at their own game. However, Gurgeh finds it difficult to adapt to life outside the utopia of the Culture.
The novel has a thriller plot, as various parties in Azad society attempt to stop Gurgeh from winning, as well as insights into our society seen through Gurgeh’s eyes. Despite their three genders and strange board game, the Azad have more in common with humans today than we do with the Culture. Their savage brutality, their massive inequality, their repressive social order and oppressive greed is a stirring criticism of everything that is wrong with our society. The Player of Games is Banks firing on all cylinders: it is original, shocking, intelligent, insightful and very entertaining.
4. The Last Legends of Earth by A. A. Attanasio (1989)
The Last Legends of Earth is an odd book, to put it mildly. Set billions of years after humanity’s extinction, the human race is brought back to life to bait an enormous trap set for the Zōtl - a spider-like race who feed off the chemicals a sentient brain makes when it is in pain. The novel takes place over several hundred years of this trap, as a group of humans time travel back through its history. What they encounter along the way is often surreal and always frightening.
The Zōtl are a genuinely scary villain – completely alien, utterly cruel and almost unstoppable. This is a novel which genuinely scared me at times. When it was not scary it was surreal and imaginative. A lot of readers will find this novel too strange. but its bizarre story captivated me.
5. Grass by Sheri S. Tepper (1989)
There are not many books which caused me to miss a tube stop, but the final confrontation in Sheri S. Tepper’s Grass had that effect. The build-up to this climax is slow but effective, gradually introducing the world of Grass and the terrifying Hippae that inhabit it. Tepper is well known for her mystery novels and uses those skills to great effect in Grass to establish gradually the mystery of this strange planet and the psychic hold which the Hippae have over the humans.
Early on we assume the Hippae (a quodraped twice the size of a horse and covered in razor-sharp spines) are simple beasts of burden, but before long we see how powerful, dangerous and – most frightening of all – how intelligent they are. Tepper expertly builds up the threat of the Hippae to the point where you feel genuine fear for the protagonists, who are trapped on this dangerous world without even weapons to use against the murderous Hippae. The novel builds to an explosive conclusion which could be one of the most gripping scenes I have ever read.
6. A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge (1999)
This a novel which is epic in every sense, set over more than 40 years as humans slowly infiltrate and attempt to take over the Spider civilization which orbits the strange On/Off star. On/Off is a star which burns hot for around 40 years and then turns cold for 200. The Spiders live a strange life of long term hybernation and brief bursts of life. As well the Spiders, there are two separate factions of humans trying to take control of the planet, and the plot evolves slowly but brilliantly as humans and Spiders constantly attempt to outmaneuver each other.
Vinge writers very gripping sci-fi, his plots pick you up and carry you along with them. The book is long but never dull with a great cast of heroes and villains. This novel surprised me by the degree to which I empathised with the Spiders, who are completely alien but also strangely human. This novel is epic but also a gripping read.
7. The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)
Another book which is both strange and scary, The House of Leaves begins like many horror novels with a married couple moving into their new house. At first their life is idyllic, but when they find a strange door which leads to a secret labyrinth things take a turn for the terrifying. The House of Leaves has layers of story, all of them strange and scary. The text itself is infected with the novel’s strangeness, the words turn upside down, cascade down the page or form a spiral.
The House of Leaves is challenging to read in many ways – the story is strange, and the text is stranger – but the whole book is filled with suspenseful character drama. Some have been put off by how odd it is. but I found that underneath there is a great story of love and the struggle to survive. The House of Leaves is original, gripping and well written.
8. The Scar by China Miéville (2003)
China Miéville has a brilliant imagination, and whenever I pick up one of his books I am blown away by the strange, uncanny and terrifying creatures he is capable of imagining. The first novel in his Bas-Lag trilogy, Perdido Street Station, made Miéville’s name as a fantasy writer, but I think that the second, The Scar, is his finest. The Scar takes place in the floating city of Armada, which consists of thousands of boats tied together. Armada is a pirate city which travels the oceans of Bas-Lag capturing other boats to add to its mass. The reader is quickly drawn into the politics of Armada, the rivalries between the pirates and the unusual creatures which live there.
Miéville takes the reader on a bizarre and often disturbing voyage around the waters of Bas-Lag, introducing imaginative new creatures and exploring the detailed history of his world. Each layer of Armada or Bas-Lag that is revealed is always strange and surprising. The Scar is a novel which spans many genres, borrowing from fantasy, science-fiction. horror, steampunk and the adventure novel. Like all of Miéville’s novels, it is a work of breathtaking originality, but I would say that this book is his finest.
9. Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch (2013)
The fourth novel in Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series is probably my favourite. It was hard to choose one for this list, but I decided on the most recent instalment because it contains so many of the elements that I love in the series. The novels follow trainee detective Peter Grant in the Metropolitan Police’s department for investigating magical crimes. This time he goes undercover in a Brutalist housing development in Elephant and Castle which might have been designed by a magical practitioner.
Peter Grant’s usual sense of humour makes this an enjoyable read. The novel perfectly blends the elements of a police procedural and a fantasy quest. Broken Homes touches on a wide variety of topics of interest to me, especially the architectural vision of the 1960s, the history of Aaronovitch’s magical universe and the exploration of a dark criminal underworld. The book builds to a spectacular finale with a twist so unexpected that I nearly dropped the book.
10. The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey (2014)
A protagonist who jumps of the page and pulls you into their world is a rare and valuable thing. From the first sentence of M. R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, I was hooked. The novel follows Melanie, a young girl attending a strange school on an army base in a post-apocalyptic world. Melanie is a bright, inquisitive girl and Carey skilfully takes you inside her head. The reader relates to her through their own experience of school, but we quickly find out that there is something very unusual and very sinister about Melanie’s school.
The Girl With All the Gifts is a gripping read, and from the first scene I wanted to know more Melanie and her world. The novel expands out into ruined post-apocalyptic London and the tension remains high. Carey is also a master of playing with your sympathies for different characters. This is one book that I could not put down.
That is my list. It was hard to choose ten, but these were the books that I settled on. Let me know which books have influenced you in the comments below.