This is one of those lists where you can be author specific, or title specific. We’ll have a little of both, I think. We’ll be adding to it from time to time. Also, this is just me. These aren’t reviews, aren’t even recommendations. They’re just the books that come to mind when I think of this.
These are big sci-fi/fantasy movers and shakers in terms of my life … no particular order.
We’ll start with the kid:
Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth.
Milo, Tock, the Humbug, Rhyme & Reason, the Awful DYNNE, the orchestra that plays all the world’s colors, the Soundkeeper, the Senses Taker … It really wasn’t sic-fi, or fantasy, but – for me – an allegory for realizing the wonder of imagination. Feiffer’s illustrations are beautiful, magic. From Wikipedia: In episode 13 of New Girl, Schmidt states that The Phantom Tollbooth is one of his desert-island books. Cece says that she also loves the book, to which Schmidt replies, “Of course you do. You’re a human being.” Captured my heart the first time I read it and remains the most remembered – and cherished – book of my childhood.
Dandelion Wine– My grandfather. This book makes me think of my grandfather. Of his world, a world I know of only in history and story, but which he knew with the immediacy of being there, watching it unfold. This books conjures that world for me, and a sense of a time lost to us in a way that seems, corny as it might sound, American in the way it speaks to us.Dandelion Wine is a story of imagination, giving substance to the waking dreams of childhood, the perspective of wonder and amazement that color a child’s view of his or her world.
Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers – Total military, reeking of testosterone … yeah, maybe not so politically correct to some ears, but a story well told, creating its world and staying true to it. A story of honor, duty, obligation. And Bugs. Lots of Bugs. Big, smart ones.
The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings… all of a piece: the Hobbit, different in style and substance, is the child’s prelude to the War of the Rings. The former makes possible the latter … and the latter ruined fantasy forever for me, as nothing touches it. Nothing.
The Illiad and the Odyssey* – What can I say? These books are the core of the soul of Western Civilization. No other characterization is possible. Here, at the end of the day, is the home to which we return, the lost dreams of myth that still stir us, 2700 years later … Preferred translation: Robert Fagles. “… in the end, the rage of Achilles is stilled only in the bed of Penelope.” – Thomas Cahill
The Hyperion Cantos.Dan Simmons is known to many for his deft touch with terror. And this series … and to a degree its sequel duology … channels a good deal of it. But these two books are more than that, perhaps one of the best SciFi stories ever told… Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion – if you love SciFi, it’s hard to believe you’d be disappointed.
The Mote in God’s Eye is hard sci-fi at its absolute hardest. Larry Niven and David Pournelle created what might be the most perfect First Contact story imagined. Interesting anecdote: edited by Robert A. Heinlein…
Men, Martians and Machines … more than any SciFi I have read, the four novellas collected in MM&M communicated the pure fun possible in the genre, In the years since, I’ve always looked for the fun in the narrative, that the writer is having a party in the middle of their creation. Eric Frank Russell had a gift for dry, self-effacing machismo unparalleled in SciFi story-telling. (Heinlein does pull it off in Glory Road.)
The Last Planet – Andre Norton. In a sense, you could point to any of the stories this prolific sci-fi writer wrote over the years. Her books always delivered, providing incredible adventures for stimulating young imaginations. But this story was special, almost heartbreaking, in an odd way bringing home the concept of loss in a way I could never of imagined….
Cosmos – This is the non-fiction piece. Carl Sagan at his most brilliant and poignant. This book (and companion PBS series) remain current, immediate, making difficult science concepts accessible. An examination of the history of human discovery, this is one of the most optimistic discussions of science – and the human animal – you will ever read.
Heinlein. Yeah, he’s got two up there, and I could throw in more without having to think about it. Seriously, almost 50% of his library of writings qualifies, even works as late as Friday and Job. He simply understood. No other way to put it.
John Varley’s complete works. Probably the most important sci-fi writer the mainstream has never heard of (or, at least, seems to have forgotten). His Eight Planets short stories are simply outstanding fun, and the Cirrocco Jones trilogy – Titan, Wizard & Demon – was one of the strongest stories written in the era of its publication, featuring probably one of the greatest, if not THE greatest female heroine in SciFi.
Neil Gaiman’s Sandman 75-issue series of comic books – graphic art and storytelling unparalleled. Brilliant writing, a gallery of different artists of varying style and substance, all made perfect by the story being told …
Phillip Jose Farmer’s “Riverworld” series, absolutely mind-bending: everyone who ever lived is reborn on the banks of a river that literally covers a planet. Adventure with Sir Richard Francis Burton, Alive Hargreaves, Samuel Clemens, Herrman Goering, Cyrano de Bergerac, King John and a cast of billions…
Ditto Anne McCafferey and her Dragonriders of Pern stories. The first decade was amazing, and the second was not bad, but after it seemed someone went to the same well too often …
Yes, I know I left out Assimov and Clarke and Silverberg … sorry … More to come…
After a five month hiatus of somewhere in the neighborhood of 140,000 words, we’re back, sort of, having downshifted into editing mode for the release of Siren later this year. More on that later.
In the next few weeks there’s going to be a bit of housecleaning, some updates to old posts, like the Best Erotica piece, some fun new stuff, some chat about the gentleman doing the cover art for Siren, as well as the art of orgasm and who knows what else. In the meantime, stay tuned …
Now, an older piece from our sister site, which is undergoing changes of its own since editors Stu and Reg were reported lost on their trip to Antarctica last February. More on that later, as well …
With one breath, with one flow
You will know synchronicity…
~Synchronicity, The Police
Heat Wave …
I stepped out of the garage Monday morning, took a moment and inhaled the city.
It’s an odd scent for this odd, crazy season of weather.
A scent of warmth.
We’re not used to that here, this year, around the City by the Bay, or the entire Bay Area for that matter. We been under a gray haze and unseasonably cool temperatures for months now, with occasional short periods of clear skies and even shorter blink-and-you’ll-miss-it heat waves … or what passes for heat waves in my magical metropolis. Truly a summer without sun.
A lost summer …
We’re having a heat wave.
A tropical heat wave.
The temperature’s rising
It isn’t surprising…
~Heat Wave, Irving Berlin
I dreamt of running last week.
Funny, that. I haven’t dreamt of running in all the time since my spine and knees finally told me “Enough!” long years ago. And now I’m reminded of that dream on this new, warm morning as I breathe in the fresh day. Synchronicity at play. Lots and lots of synchronicity this day, this odd, disconnected, want-to-throw-it-all-away day. Right now, in this moment within the dream of a moment, I think of running, of reasons for running. I long for running with an ache that eclipses the sadness I felt when I woke from that odd, wonderful dream of a run.
A little while later I’m listening to the Police on the drive to work, scent of fresh coffee filling the cab of the Buddhamobile. The sun is rising, emerging blood red from behind the San Bruno mountains as I head south on 280, thoughts roaming another time, remembering similar feelings of hurt and loss, of steady orbits thrown out of kilter …
… dreams of running.
Joni Mitchell sings a beautiful song on a sometimes melancholy album called, simply, Blue. This was my real introduction to Ms. Mitchell, whom I’d heard many times over the preceeding years but first really listened to while I was stationed in Germany back in the day, 18 years young and lonely and cut off from the familiar, but that is a tale for another time. Suffice to say she has since supplied a significant portion of the soundtrack of my adult life.
Blue came together after Mitchell’s breakup with Graham Nash and, if the content of the album is any indication, the split was deep and painful. And as the album illustrates, this is also one of the side benefits of this kind of angst – if you want to refer to it them as ‘benefits’ – of having creative talent: the ability to focus your anguish into a creation.
I digress. This song I’m talking about is called River. And as I’m writing this and thinking about that song I experience another of those moments, one of those soundtrack events from the unfilmed movie of my life. River is the song we were listening to when it became apparent that my first wife and I were going to go our separate ways, and in the remembrance of that instant the echo of its sad melody provides a nice … no, not nice … the word… phrase … I’m looking for is … a synchronically poignant … counterpoint to how I felt as the realization sunk in that our life together was drawing to a close. Of course, that was before the insanity set in and things really went to hell and the moment’s memory lost all of its resonance but that, too, is another story.
I’m so hard to handle,
I’m selfish and I’m sad,
Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby
That I ever had
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I made my baby say goodbye
More important – at least, from this Monday morning perspective – River addresses the complexity of living life, how the choices we make, conscious and unconscious, can often cause as much pain as joy, for ourselves and for those we love. And with that understanding comes the underlying need to escape, to throw off all the associated angst and skate away …
Problem here is skating away on a frozen river in these parts, even in the winter, is out of the question, and a downright insane concept in the summer.
But, then, insane is one of those things I do so well …
Walking in Your Footsteps …
But I’m not listening to Joni as I think on dreams, these dreams of running.
I had a several soundtracks I ran to, back in that lost time before the steady accumulation of age, motorcycle mishaps and long falls from heights worked their inexorably dark magic on my body. In this bygone era the Walkman was still a relatively new contraption, and I had mine, the small, hand-sized hunk of metal and plastic providing a rhythm and pattern for my runs while muting the sounds of the city, allowing insulation from the outside world. (Now, my good friend, Bob, who is still a runner at his *cough* advanced *cough* age would scoff at the idea of the music while running, I’m sure; but, then, he has the wide open spaces where city sounds do not intrude.) There were different soundtracks for different courses I ran, but the best all-around running music for a run anywhere, any time, was the Police’s Synchronicity.
I remember all of this … not from the dream but, instead, from its wake … and in the subsequent days I move through the here-and-now with this faint ghost of a past keeping pace with my life. Of course, memory is a fickle repository. What happened and what you actually remember of what happened are often two different things. So, too, likely the immediacy of what is happening to me now shall change and reshape itself …
Synchronicity I through Synchronicity II. A continuity, a flow. The first song would kick in and I’d take off, working out a good stride, a sudden shock to the system and the heart rate goes up and the blood and oxygen flow and I’d lose myself to the next 25 minutes or so. And by the time the run was over it was always good, even when I had to work for it.
I’d like to be able to work for it right now …
… there’s a (running) joke about runners that asks: “Why are you in such a hurry not to go anywhere?” ...
I miss the running … there’s the cathartic effect, for one thing, the ability to take yourself out of your life for a little while and just focus on the intimate immediacy of the biological machine that is your body as you go through the experience of exertion. There’s no time for thinking about crap on the run, stupid or otherwise … at least, not right away, not until you settle into your stride and stop thinking about what it is you are doing: running. That varied, of course. Some runs were tough – you never got in sync, never found a happy place where the run takes care of itself and instead it seems you’re constantly working it, searching for that happy spot where you hit your personal cruise control.
Other times you settle into a groove without even realizing … you’re just there and suddenly it’s just you in that random state of mind, a place of free-association and ADD, playing things out in the landscape of memory and imagination.
1983 was a pretty messed up year. Lot of stuff went on I’d just as soon not think about … and rarely do. But then come days like today, where I’m feeling the way I’m feeling, and it’s hard to keep the memories – good and bad – at bay. Even more interesting to me in an odd, almost detached way: I find I don’t want to shut these things out, that I’m almost embracing this odd, recurring empty feeling in my gut, like there is something there telling me I am alive with a forceful immediacy .
So I let the memory of that time wash over me this Monday morning, let myself rekindle the experience of me nearly 30 years gone – has it really been that long? – and feel my breath catch. It’s a big “Wow!” moment all over again, just like the night before. And then it’s on, and I hop in the Buddhamobile and head on out to greet my day, the first good weather day since I can recall for weeks, and I’m thinking and remembering and it is all good. Momentum: for all the negatives I noted in an earlier posting, it can be your friend, keeping your mind off things you don’t want to deal with, still another reason to long for the run. By the time I stop at the coffee shop in Daly City I’m living in two realities, and the longing for the one I can’t step into is surprisingly compelling and almost urgent.
Everything comes and goes
Marked by lovers
And styles of clothes
Things that you held high
And told yourself were true
Lost or changing
As the days come down to you…
~Down to You, Joni Mitchell
1983. I found a place on 10th Avenue, in the Inner Sunset, at the tail end of a nomadic summer of loss and homelessness, a near-death experience, borrowed couches and patches of rug to lay out my sleeping bag. This, of course, garnered a deep appreciation for good friends in hard times that remains in my heart to this day. By the end of that beautiful, terrible season I landed a job that paid me enough to get by and settled into pursuing a career in the theatre I was already having second thoughts about. And I eased into the process of gestating the new bits and pieces acquired, the knowledge of things I’d garnered about myself that I’d been long overdue in discovering.
Bittersweet growth and revelations, aches and pains and joys and laughter …
It’s a process.
I started running that fall. Geographically, I was perfectly set up for it – I lived a block from Golden Gate Park, near the the (old) Academy of Sciences and the (older) De Young that didn’t look like the grounded starship … … that rests upon the site in these modern times. That part of the Park was/is special to me, a recurring local in my life story. And as I recall these things on this Monday morning, within my waking dream of memory I delve deeper, almost another quarter of a century, remembering a child, wandering, rapturous and amazed through these places with his granddad, falling in love with planets and stars and dinosaurs. Being in this place again, living so close: in some respects it was like coming home. And back in 1983, running through the fresh, early morning light, breathing in the crisp, cool air that carried with it the hint of the warmth of the day to come, there came a healing comfort that worked its way inside my wounded heart and settled deep in the hidden house of my spirit.
Thats my soul up there …
Everyone runs, even when they don’t.
Running is something we are geared to do, an evolutionary, protective function built into our DNA.
Fear is a biggie: when fear takes us we run, even when we’re standing still, ’cause when that fear of something, anything, becomes so great, we have no choice but to flee, to leave it behind, to save ourselves. We run from predators, from responsibilities, from strangers and friends, from anger, from rejection, from pain, from grief … from love.
It’s like that so often with a lost or broken love, this running, this longing for a river upon which one can skate away upon, away from owning up to the commitment of giving and taking hearts. The slipping on of the running shoes of the heart, leaving the wounded affection behind.
The reasoning – why we run – can be confused and muddled – and maybe the runner doesn’t even understand why it was they ran. Oh, there are surface “reasons” we all can come up with, like the understanding that few couples love each other with equal intensity and suddenly, one day, the lover of lesser heart awakens and understands it’s time to go and before you know it the shoes are on and they are gone with barely the whisper of a breeze to mark their passing. But to the person left behind, this perception is often magnified, because they are left with nothing but the memory, with their heart in their hands, with the rain in their eyes, to paraphrase a favorite poet.
So why are we in such a hurry not to go anywhere?
Many miles away there’s a shadow on the door
Of a cottage on the shore
Of a dark Scottish Lake…
~Synchronicity II, The Police
There was a girl.
There is always a girl in these stories of lost love. Or a boy. Someone. Someone you cared about, often more then you realized.
You gave your heart to them, and they to you and, one day, they return it. Or you do. Something ends. Gets mangled. Dies. In that discordant summer of ’83, I was never sure which happened. Amidst all the other crazy things in my life that year, the loss of family, the end of school, friends disappearing down the varied pathways of their lives, the home I’d loved like no other lost forever … details got lost in the ebb and flow and I guess now, decades later, the specifics really don’t matter.
Suffice to say there were a lot of endings. A lot of loss. After a while, they tend to roll over you, becoming obscured in the actuality of the experience.
And the loss lived on … for a long, thoughtful, aching time …
I don’t pretend to know what motivates people to do some of the things they do. Heck, I’m not sure half the time why I do some of the things I do. But there are clues, stuff I’ve watched as I witnessed people dance a certain dance during the journey of my own existence. Most of the time the dancers aren’t even aware they are dancing. But they are. Maybe it’s about survival, an innate need for self-preservation of something. Much like the running DNA, this is probably an offshoot of that fight/flight gene our ancestors developed in the distant past, that special instinct that kicked in when impending change loomed on the event horizons of their lives.
An avoidance gene.
Or, as I’m thinking of it in the here and now, the sabotage gene.
It works like this: we undermine things when we want out of something we’re afraid of committing ourselves to, situations where we don’t trust our feelings. We just do. Often without even being aware we are doing so, let alone understanding why. Other times, maybe not so much. Something takes hold of us, a momentum (there’s that word again), and we’re carried along until we find ourselves standing alone in a cold and empty place, half-wondering how the hell we got there.
But the wondering does us no good. There are no answers because of the two people that can answer the questions one is gone … and the other stares back at the mirror with nothing to say.
That’s when we really run, if we’re not running already. We feel that pain and the loss and the end result of the fears that informed us … and we run. We run, trying to put what we feel or think we feel or thought we felt behind us, try to leave the pain and the uncertainty on and beyond the increasingly distant horizon. The farther we run, as the reasoning goes, the further behind we leave the wreckage and ruin of that sabotage.
The good part of all this is also the bittersweet part:
Eventually, we succeed.
(Originally published on Dark Puppy, August, 2010.)