Books that Stuck with Me

I meant to assemble ten (10) works of fiction or non-fiction that had been influential to me at some point. This proved hard, and for a while I tried to rank them so I could eliminate any 11+. I settled on splitting my life thus far into 3 periods: Childhood, Adolescence and Adulthood, and the books that were influential to me therein. The edges of these periods are pretty soft-edged, and I think, for me, I consider my adolescence going until 19 or 20 or something.

CHILDHOOD

Collaboration – Mark C. Jarvis
This is a pretty obscure short story. I listened to its audio version on a booktape my Dad gave me. A lot. So much so, I can’t be sure if it is objectively good, but I feel like it’s pretty great. Several researchers discover that cetaceans can not only perceive the 3D world from audio returned from an echolocation, but can also project the 3D audio that represents such a return, and that is their method of communication, i.e. happiness = the image of a fish entering and being digested in a stomach. The researchers happen on a dolphin that is a wandering bard. Cultural exchange occurs. There’s a lot about this that was formative to me.

My Old Man and the Sea: A Father and Son Sail Around Cape Horn – David & Daniel Hays
Another book on tape my Dad made for me; a story of a father and son that built a sailboat and sailed around Cape Horn. From this, a got a love of travel, which I’ve done lots of, solitary thought, which I’ve also done lots of, and sailboats, which I haven’t done as much.

Extraterrestrials: A Field Guide for Earthlings – Terence Dickinson
This book is absolutely fantastic. I don’t think one should worry too hard whether it is grounded in science, but the book follows the pattern of presenting several possible worlds that are slightly different from earth, positing the kind of life forms that would live there, and then hiring an artist to draw them in a very serious, polished way that you could imagine illustrations in any natural field guide. Really formative for me.

The Search for Snout – Bruce Coville
Bruce Coville wrote several books that I read while on the emotional & adventurous roller coaster of being a young guy, and his characters often went through personally intense moments, which were obviously fantastical, but seemed so damn relatable in that clever way of knowing that young people will more easily think about their own lot if told indirectly about it, say, involving several humans and aliens working together to find an old friend.

Time and Again – Clifford Simak
On the side of the road in Surrey, in the suburbs of Vancouver, I came across a large cardboard box of sci-fi paperbacks. I don’t know where these came from, whether someone decided they outgrew them, or someone died, but this massively influenced my early development. This particular book was a formative book that I definitely read before the right age when one is supposed to. I’ve probably read it about 6 times in my life, and might again. 1000s of years into the future or so, an author makes a stand for the rights of artificial humans, which isn’t that interesting of itself, except that he finds out that he will write a book about it, before he even knew he had an opinion on it, thanks to some wibbly wobbly time travel stuff. Manifest Destiny as a philosophical idea appears. Good brain food. I should read it again.

Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon – Spider Robinson
Another book from my found cardboard box stash. It introduced me to alternative forms of non-hard-sci-fi, made me realize that good fiction should enable interesting ways of examining concrete life experiences. Spider Robinson isn’t my favourite author, but I’ve read many, many of his books since. My love of puns and wordplay is directly traceable to this book.

ADOLESCENCE

Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) – Kim Stanley Robinson
Another book series I read really early, and then had to re-read later to properly get. I should probably read it again. These books started my decade-long aspiration to become an astronaut. I’ve since decided I’m not going to pursue the astronaut thing unless it’s colonization, not exploration, on the agenda. This book felt like hard sci-fi in a good way; focusing on the people. There’s a passage in there where a ship psychologist draws out a map where he sees the personality of everyone on the ship fitting in.

Calculating God – Robert J. Sawyer
Like The Search for Snout, this book seemed to hit me in just the right way, emotionally. I’ve since read lots more of Robert J. Sawyer’s work. I appreciate his work both because the character’s lives seem to be honest and imperfect, despite working, often, in a fantastical situation. And it’s almost always Can-Con.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is great, but it feels like several little scenes that are sketches on their own. I think the Dirk Gently books are far superior, as holistically, everything combines together to the end (into a literal symphony in this book). Damn, what a great book, which I need to read again. The situation with the couch stuck in the hallway is something I’ve always wanted to do a research project on.

Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein
A great perspective-distorting book that was pretty influential to me. It’s odd that, in the modern era, sections could definitely be considered backwards, definitely misogynist, but it influenced me in thinking of other ways to be and live.

The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
I can trace my love of libraries and their architecture to this book. I was introduced to the movie first, which we watched in my undergrad Semiotics class. A good mystery book set in a monastery, before it was generally accepted that people can learn about the world by reasoning about it. A lost book of Aristotle’s Poetics, on Comedy, is a major plot point and got me interested in the philosophy of comedy. I’ve read a few of Umberto Eco’s books since, notably totally failing to finish Foucault’s Pendulum. Baudolino is pretty good.

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
Definitely my favourite book. I think I’ve read it 3 or 4 times. It feels like a British Comedy, written by an American, with it’s deconstruction of bureaucrat thinking. It’s very, very funny – I have memories of dry heaving laughter during the first parts of the book. It’s non-linear narrative made James Joyce’s books more palatable when I got to them later. While the Rome sequence in Catch-22 is very depressing, the book ends on such a hopeful note I get a sense that the entrappings of bureaucracy are always, eventually, defeatable.

Impro for Storytellers – Keith Johnstone
I think Jim Davies is responsible for putting this book in my hands. I had performed improv for 3 or 4 years at this point, and for at least a year of that I was in a weekly show. This book really opened up analyzing the structure of improv scenes as a philosophy for me, and it all started coming together in my mind. An astonishing amount of theatre practice, especially unscripted theatre practice, is only passed down in an oral tradition, since there is never a need to write it down. I think that Charna Halpern and Del Close’s Truth in Comedy is a much better book, but it didn’t influence me as much by the time I got to it.

ADULTHOOD

The Satyricon – Petronius
The timelessness of some of the classic comedy works is amazing. I’m also a big fan of Aristophanes, but I still think the Satyricon is a more impressive work. It doesn’t have to invoke animal metaphors (no problem with that, of course) to do its comedy. It’s just 2 dudes one a goofy adventure. It’s American Pie. It’s the under-rated Dude Where’s My Car? in ancient Rome. It’s great.

The Cyberiad – Stanisław Lem
Lem writes science fiction that feels like a fairy tale, justifying plot events by using scientific terminology, but in a hand-wavey way that lets you know it’s all for fun, but in a way that doesn’t feel offensive or stupid. I’m sure Stanisław Lem could write a script for The Core that would actually be good. His short stories are fall and full of ideas, and are great meditative brain food.

The City & The City – China Miéville
One could criticize this book for being high-concept: a murder plot MacGuffin set in a city that is actually two legally-separated cities, in legally different countries. The cities are separated culturally, not spatially, and occupants of either are able to size each other up and tell, by clothes or posture, what city they are in, and whether they are allowed to interact. This gave me some interesting perspective of the urban and social spaces I find myself in, such as standing on top of a glass skyscraper in India in a white-collared shirt and staring down at a slum. These sort of separated situations are not wrong inherently, certainly, just interesting to be aware of.

Schild’s Ladder – Greg Egan
Catch-22 is my favourite book, but Greg Egan is my favourite author. Schild’s Ladder is the second book of his I read, and the one that caught me. Permutation City was the first, but it left me feeling oddly depressed. I’d like to think of Greg Egan’s books, usually dealing with semi-artificial minds, as their own genre of fiction (mindpunk?). The moment in Schild’s Ladder that really caught me is when two agender lovers, finally undressing for the first time, discover the genitals of their artificial bodies are undergoing transformations to figure out a way to fit together, as unique snowflakes that represent each other, but also the relationship they share. That and the theoretical math foundations in the books is great. If you want a more palatable start to Greg Egan, Quarantine contains all the usual bells and whistles without being too confusing to the uninitiated.

Understanding Comics – Scott McCloud
This book gave me an appreciation for three things: (1) Visual communication, (2) Different ways to structure narrative, and (3) Concise explanations using the thing you’re explaining. #3 is the most-lauded part of this book. McCloud describes comics while drawing himself running around and point at different parts of the page. It’s as clever and illustrative as the definition of “Circular Reference” in a Computer Science dictionary pointing to “see Reference, Circular”. For any talks I do where I’m presented an technology I developed, I try to make as much of the talk a live demo as possible (I did this for my talk on LACES at CHI 2014)

Cryptonomicon & The Baroque Cycle – Neal Stephenson
I devour Stephenson’s extremely high-detailed descriptions of people, processes, events and ideas with voracity and endurance that no other author can match. Snow Crash is a great intro book to him. I’m currently in the midst of Reamde. One thing authors, or artists in general can do, is point to something we consider mundane, accepted, that we are used to passing over, and say “let me talk to you for a bit about why this is interesting”. This is Neal Stephenson. I gobble that shit up.

Y: The Last Man – Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra
The first graphic novel series I really, really liked. I’m reading Vaughan’s Saga now and it is also excellent.

The Road to Mars – Eric Idle
Man, there’s lots of books on this list that have a “theory of comedy” as their theme. This is another one, combined with science fiction. I’d like to think that if I turned into a novelist somehow, this book most resembles the one I’d write. Two comedians with a spaceship of their own are travelling across the solar system doing comedy shows while on the run from the law and a terrorist organization. Interspersed are chapters from the perspective of their C3PO-like robot butler companion, who is working on a thesis on comedy, and questioning whether a robot could maybe, one day, be funny. If you liked Firefly or Cowboy Bebop, a bunch of different characters stuck in a tiny ship, you will absolutely love this book. This is all abstracted to another level as this book is intended as the apocrypha documents of a writer a generation after the main events in the novel, who is trying to rewrite what actually happened. And there’s a zero-G sex scene. This book has everything.

JPod – Douglas Coupland
I watched the TV show before the book. And liked it so much I read the book, and found it was entirely different.The characters and their starting positions are the same, but how the plot follows diverges, and both directions are reasonable. I’ve never found such a satisfying split in other works. It’s like Coupland put the effort into the character creation (the characters are great), and then set them loose, improvisationally writing plot. The characters, employees of a large video game studio that is blatantly EA in Burnaby, feel so obviously Canadian, but it’s hard to put your finger on why they do.

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