Books that opened Magic Casements for me

Books (and poems) I have inhabited, in the order in which I read them.   As I compiled this list, I realised that the common element is that most of these stories are set in richly imagined alternate realities that are as substantial as our own.  They are some of the books I remember best.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Read to me by my father when I was 5.  The magic grows stronger as the years go 

Arthur Ransome: Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, Peter Duck, Winter Holiday, Coot Club, Pigeon Post, We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea, Secret Water, The Big Six, Missie Lee, Great Northern?  Fan Site :

I read and re-read these books obsessively between ages 6 and 10. I wrote two fan letters, and Ransom wrote back.  Set in the between wars 20s and 30s, the dialogue and some of the cultural assumptions are dated and very British, but the descriptions of sailing — and drawings by Ransome — are still accurate today, particularly if you are sailing traditional wooden boats.

Captain Marryat: Masterman Ready,  Midshipman Easy

Perhaps because they were my father’s favourites, perhaps because I was reading them in the pre-television world of post war Mauritius, I had no problem with the 19th century literary language, characters and assumptions.  I loved the realism of the nautical setting and Marryat’s conviction that naval discipline can produce effective teamwork, character, and when circumstances demand it, heroism.

Robert Louis Stevenson: Treasure Island

Jim in the apple barrel, Blind Pew in the dark street, Jim up the mast with a pistol that may or may not fire — just three of the most menacing moments you’ll read anywhere — and there are more of them.  Long John Silver lives because he’s a  dubious friend, an implacable enemy, a man both generous and selfish, open and secretive, always believable; immortal in the minds of countless readers for more than a century.

Rudyard Kipling: Captains Courageous

Kipling, an Englishman, captured life aboard a ‘salt-banker’ American schooner, where command is based on experience, rather than rank or social position.  He realised all the details of the perfect setting for a spoilt boy to earn his manhood.

John MasefieldThe Midnight Folk;  Poems:  “Sea Fever”,  “A Ballad of John Silver”.

The Midnight Folk anticipates a half century of magical fiction, in which Masefield seamlessly merged reality into fantasy.  “Sea Fever” must be the most quoted poem among sailors and yachtsmen.  “A Ballad of John Silver” is Masefield’s homage to Stevenson.

Joseph Conrad: especially Youth, The Secret Sharer

Conrad said that his first ambition in writing was “to make you see.”  The opening sentence of The Secret Sharer is a description that could also be precise directions to a film cameraman.  These two novellas take the sailor’s yarn into mystery, character study, and profound insight into human nature.  Conrad was a sailor himself.  He wrote in English which was his second language, but a person who had read his stories translated into Conrad’s native Polish said that he wrote better in English!

C.S. Forester: The Hornblower Saga, particularly The Happy Return, A Ship of the Line, Flying Colours, republished as the trilogy Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N. and The Commodore.

Around the time I was busy being born, my father was involved in one of the first successful raids against the Nazis, who had occupied the Lofoten Islands.  At the  planning meeting, two possible approaches were presented, one obvious and by-the-book, the other cunning and devious.  As the commanding officer made his decision for the latter, my father overheard him mutter, “Dammit, it’s what Hornblower would do.”

Joshua Slocum: Sailing Alone Around the World

Slocum’s prose reads like early science fiction, except that it’s all true.  Here is the mystery of the sea observed by an indomitable, self-sufficient person who on occasion wonders, but is never over-awed.  I have stood near where he was born on Nova Scotia’s Fundy Shore, a place where everywhere else is beyond the sea.

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings

Just before the year 2000, a British newspaper with a reputation for reviews and criticism conducted a survey to discover the greatest book of the century.  The Lord of the Rings won.  Academics and literati fulminated, muttering, “Nonsense.  It’s James Joyce’s Ulysses.”  So an even more prestigious newspaper with massive literary qualifications going back centuries undertook to repeat the survey with scrupulous attention to methodology.  The Lord of the Rings won again, proving that the literati like books they can explain, whereas the reading public value books they can love.

Ray Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man  Biography:

Bradbury brought fantasy to science fiction, provoking a debate among fans that still continues.  Many writers of both sf and fantasy are known only to readers of the two closely related genres, Bradbury is one of the few whose work reaches a larger audience.

Ursula K LeGuin:  especially, Rocannon’s World, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness

Her web site: www.

All of LeGuin’s work offers insights into human nature, awareness of sexual politics and mores, and convincing other worlds and universes.  Ged the Mage voyages on an ocean that humbles him with the mysteries of love and death.  In the relationship between Genli Ai and Estraven LeGuin reveals the tensions among love, desire, friendship and loyalty on a world called Winter.

Marion Zimmer Bradley:  Darkover Landfall

Though not the first written, Darkover Landfall introduces both the planet and the tension between Terrans and Darkovans that is a main theme of the Darkover series.  Love and sex among and within genders and species, violence, psychoactive drugs, religion, feminism, telekenisis, telepathy … Darkover has it all.  Marion Zimmer Bradley gave The Society for Creative Anachronism its name.

L Sprague de Camp: The Incomplete Enchanter

Get lost in the Norse Eddas and The Faery Queen and enjoy the ultimate swords and sorcery, tongue-in-cheek literary pastiche.  I met de Camp at a SF Con and thanked him for the way his writing had brought me many hours of enjoyment.  He said, “Thank you.  It’s been so much better than working.”

Christopher Stasheff: The Warlock in Spite of Himself

Normally, I join Tolkein in avoiding allegory, particularly religious, Christian, Roman Catholic allegory whenever I detect it.  Stasheff gets away with it, because his humour and story-telling skills outpace his moral intent and political opinions.  An example of which is the Warlock’s empirical robot horse, Fess, who keeps having to be re-booted when faced with magic, as he and his rider learn to cope with a world in which magic works, and is populated by people who were once members of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

Robert Heinlein: Glory Road

The old master’s one excursion into sheerest fantasy.  As a character observes on encountering yet another species, “Don’t make a Hobbit of it.”  Some of Heinlein’s novels seem preachy to me: this one deals lightheartedly with integrity, courage, self-reliance, morality (sexual and otherwise), liberty and his own abiding wish for eternal youth, all in a classic tale that successfully blends real and fantasy worlds.

Larry Niven:  Ringworld, The Magic Goes Away

Ringworld is world-building on a cosmic scale.  Niven’s engineering almost but not quite overcomes the plot and characters, who include the fearsomely intelligent, ultimately cowardly, three-legged Puppeteer, a Kzin (picture a nine foot tall ginger tomcat), the two hundred year old Louis Wu, and a young woman who does not know that she has been successfully bred for luck. The Magic Goes Away looks nostalgically at a time when magic worked, and how the world ran out of it.  Niven serves both his science and humour straight up.  Like Adams’ gargleblaster, it is like being hit by a gold wrapped brick.

Frank Herbert: Dune

You can read Herbert because of his views on philosophy, religion, psychology, politics and ecology, or you can simple immerse yourself in a fully realized alternate desert world that is scientifically self-consistent and mercifully clean of the shortcuts and borrowings that characterize lesser works of SF.  It’s a coming of age story peppered with exotic drugs, unusual fight scenes, and technology as convincing as if it were real.

Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I can hear the theme to the BBC radio production as I write these words.  I have memorized the opening sentence, “The alien spacecraft hovered over the little town exactly the way that bricks don’t.”  I groove with Marvin the paranoid android because I knew him when I was seven and he was Eeyore, long before he was voiced by Alan Rickman, later Professor Snape.  I unravel with glee the connections with Pink Floyd, Procul Harum and Monte Python’s Flying Circus.  I share his fear of / delight in technology.  42.

“Magic Casements” is stolen from John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale.  

Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.