Every now and then the social circle I'm in adds another creator, and that provokes another round of what's-your-favorite-X or some similar game. This time around, it was "What influenced you as a writer?", specifically, what influenced you as a science fiction/fantasy writer? I'd already explored this idea before, but it was fun to go back and think about it all over again, and write it down.
Here is my list, in no particular order:
The granddaddy of dystopian fiction — the first, the finest, and also the funniest and most acerbic. I read two different translations of it as a young 'un; the original (and quite good) Gregory Zilboorg translation is now out of copyright, so you have every reason to snap it up and check it out.
There are so many good things by Lem out there I could die of thirst before figuring out which one is "best". The Star Diaries gets the nod because it was the first of Lem's work I encountered, and is a great introduction to his Rabelaisian style. Solaris is a close second, though.
As with Lem, so with Dick — so many good ones to choose from, but Sheep was first for me and still ranks high because of how it progenized the Blade Runner-verse, another of my Favorite Things. I read it for the first time all in an afternoon, and when I was done I felt like I'd encountered the first author who understood from the inside how I myself felt about my place in the universe.
A confession: I read this around the same time I read Sheep and could not make heads or tails of it, but at the same time I knew that was me and not the book. I came back to it a few years later, and it bowled me over; it made so much of the rest of SF seem so impossibly parochial and small-minded, preoccupied with merely shuffling and remixing too many of the same ideas instead of taking genuine risks and going into absolutely uncharted territory. Also one of the earliest examples I can remember of how to depict a truly alien species without making the results inaccessible.
I encountered this I think last of all the books on this list, but it had no less of an impact for being read in my early college years. It was a great example of an extended metaphor expressed through SF: these four women from different realities are reflection of how hidebound our own concepts of what being a woman means. SF exists for many reasons, but chiefly I think to help us imagine different and better possibilities, and that is this book's unabashed and profound message.
My first encounter with Bester was in my freshman year of high school, fairly late in my formative years, and I suspect the only reason I didn't run into his work sooner was because it had a bad tendency to go in and out of print. A 1970-something paperback of TSMD turned up at my local secondhand bookstore one summer, and I got so caught up in it I ended up reading it while sitting in the bleachers attending my brother's high school graduation ceremony. Its energy and relentless momentum were models I wanted to emulate, along with its anarchic, rip-up-the-map ending.
Good science fiction makes you think. Great science fiction can also break your heart (and put it back together). I'd encountered Sturgeon's short fiction first, by way of an anthology titled Not Without Sorcery, but nothing in it prepared me for the emotional wallop More Than Human dished out. This book taught me that it's a story that makes you feel something that has the best chance of going though the impersonal armor of others, and thus has the best chance to also deliver an intellectual payload. A story about five who become one, and help humanity advance, wouldn't have worked as well without it being this much of a heart-swell.
My line about Friedberg is that she only wrote one novel, but that just means her batting average for SF masterpieces is 1.000. It's about a young man with a singular talent who finds a way to put that into the service of the whole of the human race, and its focus and craftsmanship are what make it special. A story does not always have to be about some truly normative concept to be engaging and moving, and here is your exhibit for the defense of that idea.
Zebrowski is hardly spoken of at all these days, and that's a shame. This three-in-one volume starts as a revenge-thriller space opera and then mutates into something much larger and more, well, spiritual. It encouraged me to think as uninhibitedly big as I could in my own work.