Seminal Works

Things change. Sometimes so subtly that you only notice when you look back after a period of time, but other times you can feel a seismic shift when something happens, a feeling that things will never be the same. Or, at least, you will never be the same.

Books and movies accomplish this when they change the way you see the world or when they express a thought that you were previously unaware of. Or sometimes they just show you a different way of telling a story or a different method by which you can express yourself.

While Starman Jones, Starship Troopers and Tunnel In The Sky were all formative reading experiences for me (and became the foundation for the way I tell my own stories) I didn’t feel the seismic shift until I read Dune by Frank Herbert.

Previously, I had felt that the world of science fiction could be divided cleanly into two camps: Heinlein vs. Asimov. Heinlein wrote highly personal stories that focused on one main character while Asimov wrote about whole civilizations. Heinlein worked his ideas into his stories while Asimov’s stories were about the ideas themselves and the characters were just puppets to stand around and point out how brilliant the ideas were.

Frank Herbert did both in Dune. He told the highly personal story of Paul Atreides and the societal meat grinder that was Arrakis and the larger machinations of the empire that contained them all. To this day it’s the only book I immediately turned to page one and began reading again after I’d finished it.

The second book that completely changed the game for me was Neuromancer by William Gibson. I don’t think I’ve ever been witnessed to such a gigantic sea change at any other time of my life. This was the coming of Cyberpunk, the creation of cyberspace, the birth pangs of the 1980s, this was the first jazz as language book since On The Road.

I finished reading that book and felt like everything I had ever known about science fiction was out of date. I had bought my first computer just three years before and was already teaching myself to program in assembly language but I had no idea what the future looked like until I read this book.

And then Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson came out and filled in all the blanks that Neuromancer left to theĀ imagination.

The one book whose profundity I totally missed even after several readings was Stephenson’s highly underrated The Diamond Age. It wasn’t until I began thinking about supply and demand and automation and economics – I mean really thinking about it, trying to draw out the vector of future occurrences that drive all my storytelling now — that I understood the central question of the book: What do you wish for when you can have anything you want?

It’s been a long time since I’ve had that feeling that things are changing right beneath my feet. Probably the closest I’ve come in recent past was reading Jennifer Government by Max Barry. Or maybe Watchmen by Moore and Gibbons.

I guess the last big change in storytelling happened on television. I remember watching the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and thinking, “Every season is like one long novel and every novel is part of this bigger story. Television is never going to be same again.” Of course, it takes time for change to take hold but without Buffy you don’t have Walter White.

Oh, and by the way, I should explain that I love the David Lynch movie of Dune even though it has little to do with the book. That’s why I chose the image I did for the top of this post.

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