The tile of the post is from Twitter’s Theophilus Chilton, who started a tag game saying “Name 4 fictional novels that helped to shape you, then tag 4 other people to play.”
His were Starship Trooper (Heinlein), Watership Down (Adams), At the Mountain of Madness (Lovecraft), The War of the Worlds (Wells).
The game exploded, so I thought it would be fun here.
My answers were, in order:
- Patrick O’Brian’s 20-volume Aubrey-Maturin series. First is Master and Commander, which is almost nothing to do with movie;
- Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man;
- Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep;
- Niven & Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer.
In inverse order, being curious, I looked up reviews. The first one I found for Lucifer’s Hammer was in Nature magazine; yes, that Nature, from 2008. “In Retrospect: Lucifer’s Hammer“. The review is notable for two reasons.
First reason is the opening line, “Everyone remembers the surfer.” I recall hearing an interview Pournelle gave once in which he said “That damn surfer”. He said it was Niven’s idea. If you’ve read the book you’ll know exactly what this is. I recall the first time through rooting for the guy, and even allowing myself to consider the idea he might make it.
Before the second reason you have to know that the “hammer” is a magnificent comet that crashes to the earth and destroys all civilization. Nature says:
Feminism does not outlast the cataclysm, and it is not much missed. Woolly-headed pinko environmentalists eat their enemies and each other, as do most of the book’s black characters — a development with disturbing echoes, to say the least, of George Fitzhugh’s 1857 antebellum tract Cannibals All! or, Slaves Without Masters.
That ought to explain the appeal of the book to me.
The book was representative of the type of science fiction I read when I was going into my teens. Another is Trevor Hoyle’s The Last Gasp (pure pot boiler). Yes, there was also Lord of the Rings (which is terrific) and a few others like it, but elf questing stories, for me, anyway, grew tedious. I preferred “hard” sci-fi, like Asimov (robots, Foundation) and Herbert (semi-hard, I guess).
Chandler I came to later, along with Dashiell Hammett (Red Harvest which became Yojimbo and many other movies), Loren Estleman (another Michigander; get Motor City Blue), Max Allen Collins (the Nate Heller series), John Mortimer (Rumpole) and such like personages. Chandler was the best of them, though. Complex plots, yes, but beautiful writing. You can pick up a copy of Big Sleep cheap, which you should. My number one Son gave me an annotated version of the novel which is great fun.
Every year at Thanksgiving I post the final prayer of Old Lodge Skins. He was a Cheyenne chief who fought at the Battle of Little Big Horn (does anybody remember what that is any more?), and who adopted Jack Crabb, a white who became Little Big Man. This book is so rich in imagery, language, ideas, and history, that I never tire of reading it. This one and the next come with my to the desert isle.
As I say in the prayer post, do not watch the movie. The script was written by what must have been an angry progressive. It takes incidents from the book and turns them into their exact opposites in the script. In the movie the Reverend Pendrake was an abusive hypocritical ignorant preacher. In the novel he is a caring man who wants the best for his charge, and who only allows himself the vice of gluttony.
I read a lot of Westerns when I was young, one of the best of which is True Grit. Charles Portis, the author, died just this week (read the obit). True Grit is not to be missed. The dialog soars about hackneyed Western argot. There are no “pardners” here. Rousing story artfully written. The John Wayne movie is a fair adaptation, too—and better cinematically than the gloomy remake which, it must be admitted, hewed closer to the book in detail. The original better captured the spirit.
I have said time and again what is true: Patrick O’Brians 20.1 volume Aubrey-Maturin series is the best novel in the English language. There is no disputing this. There are other Napoleonic war naval fiction series, like Forester’s Hornblower and Alexander Kent’s Richard Bolitho, all worthy, but these are in a class below O’Brian, who will never be equalled.
The “.1” in the “20.1” is because O’Brian left a holograph of the first few chapters of the twenty-first novel in the series, which is sold to hardcore fans.
I have read the series maybe seven times. I’m again on the last book, and am looking forward to re-reading just the first chapter of Master and Commander once more (the meeting of our heroes is one of the most memorable in literature). Or at least that’s what I tell myself. Maybe I’ll go on to two…three.
Skip the movie, too. It has as much in common with the books as the film adapatation of Little Big Man. One damn anachronism after another, and a terminally constipated actor who played the doctor.
Now, what are yours?