Under the Influence
(This article first appeared as the editorial column in INTERZONE #274, which features my SF story SOUL MUSIC.)
Do influences really matter? It’s hard to think of a genre that places such an importance on literary influence as science fiction. Fantasy, perhaps, but the perpetual darkness of JRRT’s shadow is so inky-black that only the very brightest lights even trouble its penumbra. By contrast, in SF two short stories and a novella is enough to have someone pointing at another writer and shouting how you influenced them.
No other genre poses the dreaded question, “Who are you influenced by?” quite so readily. Even fellow pulps like crime and romance aren’t as thoroughly referenced.
I’ll be the first to declare mine, though a funny thing I’ve discovered over the years is that to me, they glare like sunlight after an eclipse; whereas to you they might remain forever in darkness lest I point them out.
Within the first half-dozen lines of Soul Music, some will surely be clear. Oh, he’s a Gibson fan; well, who isn’t? But there’s more, of course. A touch of Noon-ish music-obsessed subculture, some parallels to the early cyberpunks, a hint of Effingerian squalor.
But what you (probably) can’t see, because you’re (probably) not inside my mind or (probably) living my life, are the morse-flashes that leave barely an afterimage on the retina. A scene that makes me picture a Michael Whelan painting; a character trait I picked up reading Ursula K Le Guin as a child; an archetype that brings John Brunner to mind. Even fainter are the synaesthesiac glints: a passage that urges me to fire up a Sisters of Mercy playlist, or the moves I stole from an avant-garde violinist I once saw in Brooklyn.
(Then there’s Interzone itself, of course. Greg Egan, Charles Stross, Nicholas Royle, and more — so many writers I discovered within these pages since picking up that first “Now monthly!” issue almost thirty years ago. How could that not affect the way I think about SF, the way I write? How could that not affect how I feel about being published here myself for the first time?)
When all’s said and done, what are we but our influences? You might think that suggestion reductive or fatalistic, but I find the idea liberating, because it counter-intuitively ensures our individuality.
If we’re all influenced by everything that we encounter, then by definition none of us can be influenced by the same things in the same ways. You and I might read the same book, but everything else we’ve consumed up to that point will influence the lens through which we interpret it, and so guarantee our reactions are different; different favourite scenes, different thoughts on its themes… different ways it will influence our own life and work in the future.
Influences matter, and perhaps more than you think. Or less.