I’ve been thinking a lot about family lately. Not the kind you see at reunions and Thanksgivings though. I’m thinking of my literary family. Those individuals whose books shaped my writing in the same way my biological family shaped, to some extent, my character. I’ve never met my literary family in the flesh and that is a shame. All of them are dead now, you see, and some of them died before I would even realize how great an impact they would have on my life. But I will always have their books to guide me and comfort me. I can re-read them at will, just as one might flip through a family photo album and reminisce about birthdays and Christmases past. So let me introduce you to my literary ancestors.
Isaac Asimov: He is in many ways the Grandfather of modern Science Fiction, specifically because of the three laws of Robotics. But he is my literary Grandfather for so much more. Asimov was one of the most prolific writers of all time, publishing more than 500 books on almost every topic imaginable. He wrote a guide to the Bible and to Shakespeare; he wrote fiction and nonfiction, he penned books of limericks even. He was a lifetime learner, as was my real Grandfather, James E. Skinner, who remains the greatest man I ever had to privilege to know. It was from both of these men that I learned what I believe is the most important thing in one’s life: never stop learning (and never, ever, stop writing). Asimov died when I was only ten. It would be two more years before I began my study of science fiction. I’ll never have the chance to shake his hand, to have him autograph one of the many books I own of his, and I’ll never get the chance to tell him how he inspired me. My grandfather passed away in 2008, during my first year as an English Grad student. He never got to read the book I wrote for him. I never got to show him the dedication to him in the front of the book, and I don’t really know if he ever realized just how much he meant to me.
Andre Norton: Like my biological Grandmother, Louise Skinner, Andre Norton was a woman ahead of her time. She wrote science fiction when it was still very much a boy’s club. And she wrote it damn well. She never let her gender hold her back and neither did my Grandmother. The folks that worked at People’s bank in the 1950’s were borderline afraid of Mrs. Skinner I think. She demanded a job well done and if you failed her, she’d see to it that you fixed it. She managed the money for her and my Grandfather’s business. She didn’t let her gender keep her from marching in that bank and confronting the board members themselves if she had to. Both these women taught me to never let society’s preconceived notions about gender keep you from doing what needs to be done. Science fiction is still predominately written by men and for men (though it is getting much closer to an even balance), which is why strong female protagonists are to this day far less common than their male counterparts. I write books with female leads. I could probably sell more books if my protagonist was a man and my female characters were limited to sidekicks, bad guys, sisters, wives, girlfriends, children, damsels in distress, or overtly sexualized in some other fashion. But I’d rather write what I want to write, than what will sell the most books any day. (On that note, I dare you to find a SF film, tv show, or book that the cast is half female and half male. You will find few and most will be a work of Joss Whedon- we all know he is trying).
Robert Heinlein: Heinlein would be the elder cousin I grew up with and adored in adolescence. Then he got older and weirder and sudden I realized I didn’t like him so much anymore. I have an analogy in mind from my own biological family, but I’ll keep that to myself. I grew up with Heinlein’s young adult series. Books like Double Star, Farmer in the Sky, and Have Spacesuit will Travel. The older Heinlein got, the more I found his books were not to my taste. Maybe it was the brain tumor, or maybe it was just me. Books like Friday, I had a hard time finishing. Despite all that, his books were there for me in my childhood, which lacked siblings (and for a while the internet). Like my cousin, Heinlein was ultra-cool and by extension so was I. Then I grew up and I realized he had changed his style and it didn’t seem so cool anymore. Heinlein still taught me something very important: there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned adventure in space.
I could make a few more comparisons, and so many other authors and texts have been critical in my development (Doyle, Austen, Poe, Dickens, and Burroughs to name a few), but these remain the big three for me. They are the core of my literary family. I’d love to know what writers make up your literary family as well.