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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Science Fiction: A Defense of the Genre

Really, there are only two ways about it. Either you’re of the camp that relegates science fiction to commercial, or “airport,” fiction—or, you’re a Valkyrie in the effort to have it recognized as legitimate, “literary” fiction. I’ll give you two guesses as to which one best describes my feeling on the matter. (There’s always the third option of indifference by way of ignorance, but that position is so ubiquitous, whether you’re talking about soccer or heavy metal music, that it really serves no purpose to include it). But this is really more than just a matter of feelings and opinions. Many charges laid at the door of science fiction are not just fallacious, but grossly out of date and uninformed.

The Formulaic Plot. Basically, the stereotype is that there are spaceships, lasers, damsels in distress (albeit, futuristic ones), rogue heroes and/or beautiful, sexually independent, kick ass, genius heroines, villains who laugh maniacally, a doomsday device and/or McGuffin, kidnappings, daring rescues, threatened rape/sexual slavery, computers gone haywire, etc. And there’s no denying that these elements permeate the genre as extensively as did black berets the Beat Generation. But it also permeates Shakespeare, Fielding, Radcliffe, Goethe, Nabokov, Stoker, Poe, and the list goes on and on. Maybe not the spaceships and lasers, but pirates and guns or swords are a decent equivalent. Star Wars, which is undoubtedly the quintessence of what most people think of as science fiction—along with Star Trek, of course—is actually a hybrid sub-genre known as Space Opera, bringing in an older, more established form of literature. What’s seen as sinful in today’s science fiction is still critically studied as a virtue in the literary canon. And, depending on whom you ask, there are really only so many plot lines available anyway. Joseph Campbell will attest to only one and it’s difficult to think of a story that would refute his claim.

Reality Is Too Loose. “An author can make a spaceship that flies through walls, if she wants to, and no one can say anything different.” Yes, it’s true; a writer can make a story however she wants. And she can also not get published or—worse—fall into ignominy even among the marginalized. If you took a serious look at the “must reads” for science fiction, you’ll see that the best stories are always driven by strong character development and believable setting, plot, and dialogue. An author introduces a gun without firing it only at her peril. More often than not, the writers of science fiction follow the development of contemporary science and are conversant in scientific terms and concepts. The best stories (and there are many of them) use science and technology, not as a hollow prop for advancing the plot, but as a means to reveal something about the society and the people around which that advancement has developed—which itself points to an unconscious, societal belief that possessions (in the case of science fiction, tools and luxury or cutting edge technology) reveal one’s inner character and worth! In some cases, the author makes reality as chaotic or fluid as possible, yes, but only to a specific purpose if she’s wise. But Allende and Pynchon don’t do this? Ah, but that’s postmodernism in general and/or “magical realism” in particular so it’s okay.

Stock Characters. If you want stock characters, you need look no further than the Jew of Malta or Romeo and Juliet or Daisy Miller or even (gasp!) Pride and Prejudice. The truth is that stock characters are difficult to avoid because there’s something in most of them that gets the blood boiling for the reader. A cliché doesn’t get to that point by being false. The evil of a stock character lies mostly in the implication that the writer has a limited imagination or nothing original to add to the historical/literary dialectic or lacks the skill to give life to the character beyond the ink and paper in which it exists. This last is usually the intent behind the calumny “stock character.” That being said, I must profess that I’ve rarely come across a character that would answer the qualifiers of “stock” unless it was done on purpose and there are plenty of canonical postmodern texts (yes, I’m aware of the contradiction there but it’s unavoidable) that do the same thing. Every other great piece of science fiction that I’ve read has dynamic character development. If ever a character started out as “stock,” the author took it and set her signature on it. (Yes, I’m also aware that I’m using the feminine demonstrative while referring to a field of writing that is still monstrously sexist with too few exceptions).

Too Popular. There must be a defective meme that attaches to the artistic gene, which builds into the construct of the person the idea that to have written something great a writer must first be misunderstood by the common man. By this definition, science fiction novels—the novels that fly off the shelves, that are read by teenagers of all people, that are, in short, accessible to the common, interested reader—are necessarily low brow, populist, and “commercial.” Critics, I suppose, like to believe themselves above the common reader. But why else do we, genre and literary writers alike, write but to tell a story to anyone whole will listen and who is more open to the story than the reader who has nothing on the line—no reputation, no paycheck—but her own pleasure? The only time a popular novel gains critical recognition is if it is also controversial—point in case, Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange, A Brave New World, and 1984. Only then do these essentially science fiction novels get eaten up by the “literary” critics. Because God forbid they admit to reading something that any Tom, Dick, or Harry could also read and understand and enjoy. And if postmodernism is all the rage, why is James Tiptree, Jr. not more studied. Tiptree revealed her real name in 1977 after an illustrious career as a science fiction author—Alice Sheldon. She also published under another pseudonym, Racoona Sheldon. Interestingly, Racoona did not have the selling power that James did. Sheldon did not just produce great stories, she lived one. How is this not more appreciated?

The written word always has a bit of the revolutionary behind it and how is a revolution, of any kind, to be had if it is not popularly known and discussed. Critics and theorists don’t lead revolutions (aesthetic, real, or otherwise), people do. To assigning genre fiction to “low-brow” and literary fiction to “high-brow” is a means of controlling the context in which the work is received and therefore the importance it should have in the minds of the readers. In its nascent days, the same terms were applied to the novel in general and we see how true that’s turned out to be. The same misguided words are used now, but with greater specificity. This specificity does not make them any less false.

Suggested Reading (and this list is by no means comprehensive and in no particular order):

Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
Lilith’s Brood, Octavia Butler
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
Light, M. John Harrison
American Gods, Neil Gaiman
I Will Fear No Evil, Robert Heinlein (I would compare this to Orlando, by Virginia Woolf)
The Mars Trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson
The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
The Space Trilogy, C.S. Lewis
Neuromancer, William Gibson
Anthem, Ayn Rand
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (I include this one as an example of parody and satire with in the genre)


veggies said...

I think there's also a fear of plot in literary fiction discussion, despite the fact that plot is essential to any genre of writing. Science Fiction often comes across as "plot based" in the same way that legal thrillers or romance novels are. literary scholars who come out of the New Criticism would be more interested in language and allusion. post-structuralists would have similar interests (with different designs). It seems that New Historicism is the only hope for Sci-Fi, since it is a movement interested in the link between society and fiction. and that link is what drives Sci-Fi (or the argument for Sci-Fi as literature -- its a genre obsessed with commenting about society. even if the society it discusses seems foreign, ultimately the class systems, race relations, and uses of political power are all versions of those found in our reality.)

The problem may simply be that science fiction novels are interested in concepts while literary fiction is interested in language. Or, more precisely, scholars of literary fiction are more interested in language, particularly in the last 30 years of the 20th century. I think there's been a strong movement in favor of studying sci-fi as a legitimate genre over the past decade -- the rise in conferences with genre-related presentations along with more scholarly articles suggests that the views are changing. Some of this is due to the fact that post-structuralism has faded and historicism has come back -- 40s and 50s sci-fi and hardboilers (pot boilers -- whatever you want to call the classic Crime Noir genre) are being more closely studied in relation to post-WWII America.

Further, I think the lack of female authors will bring close analysis to Sci-Fi and also limit its success in scholarly circles, but any attention paid will be a benefit.

I think there's also a sense that technology is inherently non-emotional, so stories that involve/describe technology (describing robots, spaceships, key advances, etc) will bore readers who are more interested in the characters. And if the characters often care about the technology, it's still too much to ask of a reader who doesn't share an interest in technology. You have to admit Sci-Fi loves long passages describing technological advances -- much like literary fiction will describe setting or character or setup complex literary allusions.

I think there are good sci-fi writers who manage to balance technology with character, but a number of classic sci-fi novels tie their characters concerns to greater issues of technology and society, which asks the reader to care about these things as well. In the end, readers are interested in the emotional reality of the characters, the interaction of family, friends, co-workers. While Sci-Fi provides it (as does Fantasy), readers might rather pick up a book that has less window dressing.

Dani said...

Thank goodness, a response! Admittedly, I deliberately did not bring up some of the things that you commented on in the hope that I'd be just abrasive enough to prompt a response. But I also think you bring up some very interesting points. For instance, why do you think a close analysis of the lack of female SF authors will limit its success in scholarly circles? I agree that technology has a kind of cold edge to it, but most of the stories I've read avoid the Proustian descriptions if they can help it and the ones that do indulge always (ideally) have a point to it. On the other hand, science and technology have always excited me for the world of possibilities that they open up so I don't have that perspective of technology-sans-emotion and that's just a blindspot I have to work around.

As for your comments about plot and language, I can think of half a dozen titles off the top of my head that defy both. For example, M. John Harrison's novel Light jumps back and forth between three story lines that only loosely tie into one another and never meet and each one on its own, let alone together, is as maddening as the plot to Thomas Pychon's novel The Crying of Lot 49. (I have a love-hate relationship to both stories, as you can see). Ursula Le Guin has several short stories I can think of that are literary in language and concept, if not in category, that I have yet to see on a must-read list (I'm thinking specifically of "The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas," among several others, which, admittedly, is better known than the others). And these are just a couple of examples.

I'm also aware that critical moods are shifting, but reluctantly. More often than not, they are still discussed in the context of commercial fiction. I would also attribute the new attention the genre is seeing more to the rise of Cultural Materialism than New Historicism, but that's just a personal preferrence.

Before I end, though, I would like to point to a moment in the 20th Century that demonstrates, fairly concisely, the dilemma the genre is still facing. The 2007 Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing, tried her hand at Science Fiction in the mid- to late-20th Century to a great deal of negative criticism. In response, she said that she felt sorry for those who railled against her for her decision to employ that genre because "they're missing the greatest social commentary of our time." I share this belief. Not only does science fiction (as well as fantasy) provide political, social, and even philosophical criticism, but it does it in such a way that is accessible to a general public. I would equate science fiction (and fantasy) writers to the myth-makers of the Ancient world. We just have more information and better gadgets than they did.

Again, I deeply appreciate your response and welcome another one!

Ian Sales said...

You were doing so well... until you mentioned the Foundation trilogy and Ayn Rand as suggested reading. I'd also suggest that The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is one of those series which has transcended genre, and is as popular among non-sf readers as it is among fans of the genre. Oh, and I Will Fear No Evil like Orlando? If you mean both are self-indulgent tosh, I might agree...

Nikki said...

Ow : ). If anything, I would argue that Ayn Rand's novel is one of the most important on the list, as it ties together these two themes argued about: reliance on plot as opposed to reliance on language. In no other scifi novel I've read (well, of course, this is all my own very subjective viewpoint) has an author so skillfully highlighted the importance of language as Rand does in Anthem. Re-read this book, pay attention to how you eventually become comfortable with her use of the plural "we" throughout the novel and then how she breaks the entire framework of this society by introducing the very simple word, "I". In no other novel have I been so faced with the immense power of language to convey ideas about society or people as I was in this one.

Nikki said...

Oh and as an addition to the "list": Atwood's Oryx and Crake

Dani said...

Re: ian sales

As for the Foundation Trilogy, I realized that I didn't have anything Asimov on there because (shamefully) I've only read some of his short stories but thought he had to be on there and virtually every SF must-read list includes him, so that was my cow-towing to the unofficial canon. For I Will Fear No Evil, what I meant was the gender-bending and how that qualifies it as "literary." What you say about Hitchhiker's though is exactly the point I was making about novels like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 ("speculative" fiction, which is somehow different from science fiction, even though technology plays a deceptively large part in both of those novels). You get something that's positively scrumtrulescent and it immediately gets taken out of the genre and reassigned as "not genre." It is what it is, which is SF. Normally, I'm opposed to genre-fying on principle but if that's a part of the literary climate we know then I have to insist that the rules not change in favor of the opposition that happens also to be holding all the cards and making all the rules to begin with. Consistency, people!

But I must defend my choice of Ayn Rand for two reasons. (I'd have three reasons, but Nikki aleady gave it for me!) She's one of the few writers in the genre who is also accepted as a literary giant; and she's a woman. That might sound anti-male, but it's not and neither am I but I do want more of a discussion on gender and what gender issues play in the genre, both on the page and off of it. The truth is that there's already so much exposure for so many of the other great male authors that giving up their place on one suggested reading list on one blog shouldn't overshadow them too much. Besides which, if you look at most SF must-read lists, they go on for hundreds and hundreds of novels and short story collections and I'm just not that committed, nor am I THAT well-read (which would be why Atwood's novel isn't included, because I haven't read it). I've been avidly reading SF since before I had double digits to my age, but mostly undirected so I have a lot more exposure to today's "pulp." But I've been rectifying that.

Otherwise, I'd rather discuss the merits of SF in general than the books I have enjoyed from the genre. Even among fans, there will never be agreement there. We can't even agree what the difference between hard and soft SF is, much less which is better. And if that's not post-modern, I don't know what is. (Seriously, that's why I actually don't like post-modernism in general, with a few exceptions)

Pete said...

Those of us who like Foundation think it's quite a fine thing to have on suggested reading.

And I am eternally puzzled by the concept of "transcending genre." How odd. Why does literary fiction never transcend the literary genre (and it is a genre) and become an important SF work? "transcending genre" seems to be a phrase that only applies to the works in the gutter. It's like talking about the kid from the slums who "cleaned up real good and got himself some learning." It's demeaning and non-congratulatory.

Douglas Adams transcends the genre, only in the sense that he was -- as Neil Gaiman pointed out -- some puzzling thing that wasn't quite a novelist and wasn't a SF writer, and wasn't something we could define quite yet. The Hitchhiker books crystallize the SF field. They are a pinnacle.

A beautiful new building does not "transcend" the slum, it improves it. Likewise, fine SF literature.

Maggie said...

I've read veggies' post a few times now and always get hung up on this short phrase:

"Further, I think the lack of female authors will bring close analysis to Sci-Fi and also limit its success in scholarly circles, but any attention paid will be a benefit."

How is this different from any other genres of literature? One can count on one hand the genres where females actually have a significant presence: romances, early novels (many, sadly, unread now)... and...
Aside from this, I do find it's true that science fiction (and fantasy) are becoming more respected in scholarly circles-- as you said, evidenced by the rise of genre-related presentations in conferences. Sadly, though, I feel that we may only have Tolkien to thank for this.

And I agree with your post Pete! But I think the transcending is more of a pick and choose for the "serious" scholars of our time. A bit of scraping the cream off the top, taking/stealing the best the science fiction world has to offer, relabeling it, and calling it their own.

Dani said...

Re: pete

Beautifully put. Absolutely agree and couldn't have put it better (apparently). You said exactly what I was trying to say but was obviously having trouble putting into words.

And I'm glad to hear the Foundation Trilogy isn't tripe. It's sitting on my shelf waiting to be read so I'm glad it's not just a waste of space!

Ian Sales said...

I'll admit I've not read Rand, but AFAIK her reputation rests more on her politics than her prose. If you want excellent "literary" sf by a female writer, then there's Life by Gwyneth Jones. Or you could try Mary Gentle, L Timmel Duchamp, or Ursula K Le Guin. Also, check out Aqueduct Press for some excellent feminist sf.

Gender-bending... There are plenty of such works, but I'd argue that I Will Fear No Evil adds very little to the debate. In fact, it's a step backwards - dirty old man turns into nubile young nympho. Better books to suggest would be Halfway Human by Carolyn Ives Gilman, or The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter, or Triton by Samuel R Delany.

"Transcending genre" was a poor choice of words on my part. What I meant was that The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's popularity is not limited to fans of science fiction. We see it as sf, but others may not. The same is true of 1984 and A Clockwork Orange (which Burgess himself called "futfic", so perhaps we should be grateful :-)).

The Foundation trilogy is badly-written and dated. It has one good idea in there - psychohistory - which doesn't stand up to close scrutiny. Don't bother reading it.

Pete Tzinski said...

"The Foundation trilogy is badly-written and dated. It has one good idea in there - psychohistory - which doesn't stand up to close scrutiny. Don't bother reading it."

The body of writing which is "dated" far outweighs the body of writing which isn't. Sure, the Foundation books sound like the 1940's. They're from the 1940's. Why isn't Star Trek badly dated to the 1960's? Why aren't, for that matter, the Hitchhiker books badly dated to the 80's and 90's?

All work either becomes dated, or else it strives so hard for timelessness and universality that it exists in a nebulous vacuum, in which it is not part of ANY time and thus resonates with nothing at all.

And frankly, I fail to see where the books don't hold up. The plots are solid. Especially the first two or three books. Most particularly the first book, "Foundation," which is a great book (sayeth me).

And the biggest advantage of Isaac Asimov is that he is absolutely readable to anyone, be they SF veterans or newcomers to the genre. He writes clearly and concisely. Readable whether you're an adult, or a kid just discovering SF. That can't be undervalued.

("Psychohistory" is a prop in the stories. The real heart of the story is a look at the Fall of the Roman Empire in outer space, and an interesting study on how people can be manipulated and ruled with no violence, which we are repeatedly told is the last resort of the incompotent.)

For the sake of discussion: if you would so easily dismiss this, a giant of the field, then what counter-balance would you suggest in its place? If I do not hand a young man Foundation, what would you have me handing him that would accomplish the same love and addiction?


(This is not the first time I have disagreed with Mr. Sales. Previously, I did so in a lengthy article form.

For the severely bored.)

Pete Tzinski said...

(and a Post-Script, in which I just want to cheerily point out that I have plenty of respect for Mr. Sales, despite stringently disagreeing with his views on this matter. He's a fine book reviewer. And he and I seem to read quite a lot of the same books. That always makes me happy. I just want to point that out, so's the discussion doesn't make anyone worry it's going to devolve into a flame war.)

Ian Sales said...

Well, obviously you know my feelings on old vs new sf :-) I certainly think there's a wealth of current I'd sooner use to introduce someone to the genre... and not just because it's more readily available. (I couldn't swear to it, but I believe the Foundation trilogy is out of print in the UK; it's certainly not stocked by most high street book shops.) Of those you will certainly find in your local book shop... well, two suggestions: Richard Morgan (his mix & match of neocyberpunk, noir and thriller will appeal to thriller readers), and Justina Robson (her new trilogy has everything, and while perhaps it's too frothy for a seasoned sf veteran, it should appeal to many).

Pete Tzinski said...

I'm familiar with Justina Robinson (I very much like her story "The Little Bear") but I'm not sure that, after handing that to a young boy who has watched Star Wars, gotten excited, and wants to know what else is out there...that he would come away frothing at the mouth to read the world of SF.

I mean, I don't want to contend that there AREN'T SF authors currently writing who couldn't fufill the gateway-drug function of some good Asimov. I point to Timothy Zahn as a fine, fine example. Whether his young adult works, or my personal favorite of his works, Angelmass. Or "Manta's Gift" which is the sort of book I wish I'd read when I was 12.

And I think there are easier books than Asimov to introduce people with. Why not some Bradbury? Some Orson Scott Card?

But nevertheless, I think that it's important to read the works of the past, the Asimov, the E.E. "doc" Smith, Damien Knight (who is criminally underread). Not to read them in awe as "literary giants," just read 'em like books and see what you get. If they work, hey, terrific. If they don't, ah well, not all books do. Who was it who said "any book we have not yet read is a new book?" It holds true, no matter when the work was published.


But I think probably, we'll just have to agree to disagree on the matter, or else we'll keep running around it until heat-death of the universe. Which-case, NO ONE will be reading Asimov (being floating molecules) and we'll look silly.

Ian Sales said...

I was working on the assumption I'd be introducing an adult to the genre - after all, there are plenty of YA sf works to give to younger readers. A favourite of mine is Ann Halam's The N.I.M.R.O.D. Conspiracy.

Robson's Quantum Gravity trilogy is perhaps a bit girly for most (she admits it's girly herself), but I was trying to cover all bases :-)

I don't have a problem with reading past sf classics. I have a problem with people assuming past sf classics accurately reflect the genre as it is today - and they will if those are the only sf books they read, or if they're told such books are the "best" sf has to offer.

Bradbury and Card - sorry, not a fan of their writing.

Dani said...

Re: Maggie

I agree that that passage of Veggies' was a bit off-putting and I would like for more explanation on the matter. His odd syntax makes me think that perhaps he was trying to say something different or rather that I've misunderstood what it was he was trying to say. It is an interesting development in English literature how women have been conveniently written out of history for the most part. Samuel Richardson's novel Pamela is usually cited as the first English-language novel when Aphra Behn's Oroonoko is written off as a "novella." And Ann Radcliffe influenced so many later writers (Henry James, the Brontes, Poe and Austen of course, both Shelley's, and du Maurier) but she receives precious little critical scrutiny today. When Emily Dickinson was not publishing, MORE women were being published in professional, competitive journals than MEN but NONE of them (save the one who was NOT publishing) are being studied today. So, yes; I agree that both the genre and the critical study of the genre would benefit from the presence of feminine input. I had a professor once try to tell me that the reason there are virtually no female authors included in the genre is because there were no female authors until more recently. Ever since then I've had this fantasy that one day I could be SF's equivalent to Alice Walker and uncover a powerhouse within the genre that no one knew existed. Ah, delusions of grandeur :P

Dani said...

Re: Ian & Pete

I appreciate the list of female authors. I've only heard of Le Guin and Carter so I'm excited to read the work of these other women. And I went back and read your original comment about HGtG and realize I had misread it a bit. I think it's more approachable to non-SF readers because it's so satirical of science and "culture." I read it as a Freshman in college and my roommate pretty much had the entire book read to her through tears of laughter. Adams' books are to science fiction what Jon Stewart's Daily Show is to political commentary. But for I Will Fear No Evil, I'm personally ambivalent about the book so I won't defend it to the hilt and, like I said, only included it to begin with because of the gender bit and figured it would be an easily recognizable title. It's often misogynist and sometimes underdeveloped but hey, Orlando was too, on both counts. But that's a risk most authors run when they try to write from the perspective of a different gender with the intention and drawing attention to the gap between them.

Unfortunately, I can't add anything to the stimulating conversation that's going on between the two of you because you've obviously read a lot more than I have. However, I do want to agree with Pete that there are older works that could have just as much umph for a young reader today. So many of Jules Verne's novels are so well written that anyone, young or old, can enjoy them. But even when Star Wars hit the big screen it was already archaic in the SF community. Stories like that were being written in much greater numbers in the 20s and the actual literature of the time was dealing with vastly different themes and concerns (in both the real and imagined worlds). But this isn't something inherent to the genre. Times and tastes change. Where would modern "chick lit" be without Jane Austen? But they're certainly not of the same orientation as say someone like Joyce Carol Oates or Flannery O'Connor despite being stories about women. Or who really writes in letter form now (besides A.S. Byatt) despite its immense popularity in the beginning stages of the novel? Even the bildungsroman is a bit passe and overdone. But because of the hyperimmediacy with which information is available today, the average reader isn't necessarily chained to what's available on the shelves at the bookstore down the street or even at the library and, like Ian says, shouldn't be. Ideally, a reader comes to a text without prejudice, but that's really an impossible requirement in any genre.

Bradbury requires time in between readings, I give that much, but Card's Ender's Game is fabulous even if the following books are poorly written drivel. The books that follow Bean are much better. I started reading him when I was 13 and a veteran of "gifted" education so I would suggest him as an introduction to any young reader, even though the story wasn't really meant for children. Also, I quite liked McKiernan's Caverns of Socrates for being a gamer (and the prevalence of WoW would probably also make this a good starting off point for a young reader) but I wouldn't recommend him as an author in general. I was twelve when I last read that book, so hopefully it's stayed as wonderful as I remember it!

Thank you both for contributing so much to the discussion. This blog doesn't get a lot of comments so I feel a bit like a superstar for getting the ball rolling even this much!

Pete said...


You are such a kind person, thanking the two of us for having a nerdy literature fight in your blog. It's like we had a messy food fight in your house, and you thanked us for the added color. :)


We were miscommunicating in places, I think, because I was under the impression we were introducing someone at a young age to SF.

I'm a big fan of Bradbury, as a human, a speaker, and a writer. He takes my breath away and energizes me, as a writer. And he still spooks me. I read "The Trapdoor" just the other day, before bed, and unexpectedly got creeped out. Orson Scott Card, although I would give his books to people (because they're clear and readable) I don't personally care for. Partially because they blend together, partially because I read his blog-like material too much and thought "God, stop whining..." and it soured me.


"I don't have a problem with reading past sf classics. I have a problem with people assuming past sf classics accurately reflect the genre as it is today - and they will if those are the only sf books they read, or if they're told such books are the "best" sf has to offer."

The more we discuss all of this stuff, the more and more I think we're actually in the same camp on a lot of matters. I wholeheartedly agree that it is a bad idea, and outright dangerous, for people to read SF of the past and assume that this must be what modern SF is like. I talked about classics giving you tools for modern works, but if it's treated like THAT, then it's limiting you. If you expect every book to be Asimov, you are going to go cold on Timothy Zahn, Le Guin, Mercedes Lackey (do we count her as a SF writer..? I should say Andre Norton instead, or Anne McCaffrey). Those aren't tools, in that instance, they're blinders.

But then, I would encourage anyone to read widely. I'd discourage someone ONLY to read modern works of SF. Explore the whole field, and for that matter, explore all the other genres and fields of work out there. Limiting in any regard is dangerous.

However, I do disagree -- and it's just personal opinion, really -- that SF works of the past lack oomph. The first time I read "Farenheit 451" it took my breath away, it felt like someone had shouted at me until I understood the importance. The first time I read Harlan Ellison's "Repent Harlequin said the Ticktock Man" it blew me away.

Or one of my favorite SF works, "A Canticle for Leibowitz" by Walter M. Miller, jr. (Have you read it, perchance? Lord, what a book.)

I think the works of the past can have oomph -- or fail to have any -- as hit-and-miss as modern works do. Some will blow you apart, and some will leave you untouched. And they aren't the same to all people, of course. And that's fine by me.


I have enjoyed discussing (and will continue to discuss, if the conversation doesn't kaput here) this topic. I read Ian's article, wrote my counter-argument, and left it at that. I've enjoyed it much more having an intelligent and well-structured argument with literate people on a topic that we all care about, and just have different sides on. It doesn't happen enough. It thrills me when it does. Cheers to the whole lot of you. :-)

Ian Sales said...

I agree that there are good old sf books, just as there are bad current ones. However, many of the classics that are held up as good are actually not very good at all - anything by Asimov, for example. Or EE 'Doc' Smith, whose prose is near unreadable. Later Heinlein is massively self-indulgent, and while he wrote some excellent juveniles (as they used to be called), many of them have not aged gracefully. Clarke has probably dated least. Okay, so 2001: A Space Odyssey is now alternate history, but works such as The City and the Stars have survived better.

No, I've not read A Canticle of Leibowitz, although I think I have a copy of it somewhere. And I'm not a fan of Ellison either - the man or his work.

Um, it's just occurred to me that looking back at the various science fiction classics, it's the ones that weren't at the top that have aged best. The GoMs, the ones everyone likes to push forward as exemplars of the genre, are perhaps the poorest writers of the lot. The lesser names - Delany, Pohl, Knight, Silverberg, Blish, etc. - have written books which stand up to modern scrutiny much better. Perhaps that's because the genre has never held good writing in high esteem, and that's why it has the reputation it does.

Pete said...

Although I quite like Asimov and "doc" Smith (but I think I came to them expecting what I got and enjoying it. I had the codex already...) I do agree with you. I've always thought that someone like Chip Delaney or Damien Knight -- or that great under-discussed writer, Theodore Sturgeon -- were just out of this world writers.

I think part of the problem there is, they were so much harder to classify and nail down for readers. I mean, Delaney's "900 Grandmothers" is just such a great story, but not for everyone. What about Theodore Sturgeon's classic "The Hurkle is a Happy Beast" story, or even more interesting, "More Than Human," his thin little savage novel.

I think with those writers, they were bordering on the edge of "pulp SF" in a lot of ways. And I do absolutely think they hold up better. And I further think it's a crime how few people have read Delaney. Or Silverberg. (My favorite Robert Silverberg book is a thin thing called "Lost Cities" in which I'm still not certain the bits that are fiction and the bits that are history. It's so much fun.)

I have Clarke's 2001 book on my shelf, but never cared for it. I much prefer Rendezvous at Rama.

Er. This isn't much of a counter-argument, really, this has just been me agreeing and then gabbling about books. It's hard not to. Just ask my poor, long-suffering wife.