Mind Meld: What Defines a “Classic” SFF Book?

Italo Calvino once said, “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” There are constantly lists put forth regarding “must read classics” and invariably comments follow with titles left off. Today, we polled a few experts in sci-fi and fantasy about their own personal list of classics.

Q: What book do you feel reveals something new every time you read it? What about this book makes it a “classic” for you?

Carrie Cuinn
Carrie Cuinn is a writer, editor, book historian, and geek. In her spare time, she studies, listens to music, cooks everything, reads voraciously, and rarely gets enough sleep. Find her Twitter at @CarrieCuinn, or online at http://carriecuinn.com.

Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories of Angela Carter should be considered a classic because the stories in this book are layered, complex, and (mostly) resist full understanding on the first read. If you don’t give yourself over to Carter’s visceral, unrestrained tales the first time you encounter them, you’ll need to come back time and again until you’ve finally experienced everything she’s putting on display. It is a display: Carter’s work often draws on her own life and the feelings she struggled with as she traveled the world, fell in love, and sometimes fell apart. She puts on other writers, other modes, as she traverses geography and herself, figuring out which parts fit and which parts need to be ripped to shreds and reinvented.

Carter’s work in this collection includes stories both previously published and never before seen, largely from the beginning of her career. They are fairy tales and modern myths, experiments and evocations, but you’ll miss out if you see any of them as simply one thing or another. There are problematic passages, some undignified (or so her contemporaries said when she was a woman writing in the 1960s and 70s) and some erratic turns of phrase, some very Western and white. This is a collection that should be read knowing it’s not always easy to digest. But just as she wears whatever she’s borrowing at the moment, Carter wears her flaws, right there on her sleeve. She doesn’t flinch from documenting the extremes of her own emotions and opinions. Though Burning Your Boats contains so much already, it holds a lot of truth between its covers, too. You don’t have to love all of it to appreciate its overarching passions… which might have been true of Carter as well.

Laura Bickle
Laura Bickle is the author of the Wildlands series for Harper Voyager. Details on her latest work can be found at www.laurabickle.com.

I rarely re-read books, but one I find myself returning to is Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown. When I was twelve or thirteen, I found it at my school library. It was the first fantasy story I’d ever read with a young woman protagonist who literally slew her own dragons. The fantasy books I’d paged through before included women mostly as denizens of towers, awaiting rescue by a male protagonist. Or else they were love interests, but never really central to the story.

When I read about Aeryn and her adventures, I was thoroughly enchanted. McKinley introduced me to a whole world of possibility in the fantasy genre. And I fell in love with the genre ever after.

Gemma Files
Gemma Files is the author of the Hexslinger series (A Book of Tongues, A Rope of Thorns and A Tree of Bones), We Will All Go Down Together: Stories of the Five-Family Coven and Experimental Film, which won both the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel and the 2015 Sunburst Award for Best Adult Novel. All were published by ChiZine Publications. She is currently hard at work on her next book.

As a horror writer, a lot of the books I consider classics—formative works, ones which directly influenced my development as a writer–tend to be ones that most people would overlook, or at least dismiss. As a teenager, it was the one-two punch of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot and Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, each a multiple-viewpoint example of what I would later come to call the Haunted Doll’s House narrative model, which showed me that it was entirely possible to repurpose your own experiences into a story with just enough emotional reality for maximum impact, yet also build, control and choreograph a fictional town down to its smallest supporting characters, its thematic elements, its history, its weather.

Though both books spin around the old trope of ancient evil colonizing a small New England town, in hindsight, King’s is definitely the more derivative—‘Salem’s Lot is an unapologetic contemporary re-do of Dracula with E.C. Comics gore and morality lessons added in on top, wonderfully engaging moment to moment yet slight overall, even in its most quotable sections (“[Father Callahan] was being forced to the conclusion that there was no EVIL in the world at all but only evil—or perhaps (evil).”).

Straub, by contrast, manages to conjure something bleaker and far more adult, urbane, terrifying and numinous by turns, almost every sentence constructed for brevity, effectiveness and poetry alike. Instead of explanations, he gives us riddles, a shifting kaleidoscope of ill possibilities, katabasis as a journey of self-discovery, all encapsulated in the image of monstrous shapeshifter Alma Mobley standing naked at the window in the middle of the night, alternately replying when her human lover asks her what’s wrong: “I saw a ghost. I am a ghost. You are a ghost.”

It’s the combination of these two classic spook-shows, not to mention the comparison and contrast between a weirdly optimistic world-view (King) vs. a surreally nihilistic one (Straub), that have taught me enough about my own craft and aspirations to make sure I revisit them almost every year.

Jaym Gates
Jaym Gates got her start in editing by making a joke on Twitter six years ago. At the time of writing this bio, she’s working on her 15th anthology. She is currently the Managing Editor for Green Ronin Publishing’s fiction line, as well as a developmental editor for Falstaff Books. In her spare time, Jaym trains horses, collects tea, writes short stories, and practices a martial art called Systema. You can find out more about her at jaymgates.com, or on Twitter as @JaymGates.

The Kushiel’s Legacy series, by Jacqueline Carey
I came from a really conservative, sheltered, controlled religious background, where Tolkien and Lewis were regarded as sinful. So the first time I read Carey’s books, it kind of blew my mind. Her understanding of human love and need is nuanced and rich, and while deeply imbued with kink and free love, it does not rely on shock value in the least. As I get older and learn more about myself and the people I love, the books keep teaching me new things.

Memory & Dream, by Charles de Lint
I read through a number of de Lint books in my early 20s, and all of them left a deep emotional impact on me. Having grown up surrounded by surreal and mystical nature and history, it struck a chord very quickly. What I love so much about this particular book is how much it says about learning to take your power in your own hands, to accept the consequences without fear. What makes it so easy to re-read is that it is packed with little details and asides, and every time I read one of these books, I find new things.

Anything by Tanith Lee
But we’ll go with Red as Blood for this one. The evil queens and discarded stepmothers always intrigued me far more than the princesses. Lee brought a vivid, memorable power and depth to them that I still find inspirational, and maybe a little aspirational.

Tiffany Aching, by Terry Pratchett
I cried over every book. I wish so much that I’d had these books when I was a child, and I want to shove them into the hands of every child possible. There’s nothing childish about these stories, but they capture so beautifully the weight of being an old soul dealing with more than you’re ready for. I regularly reread Pratchett books anyways, but I read the Tiffany Aching books when I need to be reminded that you don’t have to be a heroic warrior to save the world.

What SFF books are “classics” for you?

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