Thursday, 21 August 2008

Don't Look Back in Awe

Here we go again. I've complained before about the undeserving admiration given to many science fiction novels and short stories of earlier decades. Such reverence frequently results in fans recommending these works to people wanting to try the genre. And that's not a good thing. Readers new to the genre are not served well by recommendations to read Isaac Asimov, EE 'Doc' Smith, Robert Heinlein, or the like. Such fiction is no longer relevant, is often written with sensibilities offensive to modern readers, usually has painfully bad prose, and is mostly hard to find because it's out of print. A better recommendation would be a current author - such as Richard Morgan, Alastair Reynolds, Iain M Banks, Ken MacLeod, Stephen Baxter, and so on.

I can hear howls of outrage across the tinterweb.

And so I say again: holding up Foundation or Second Stage Lensman as good introductions to sf will no longer wash. They're historical documents. In those days, science fiction was a different place; they did things differently. And many "classics" of those days do not fare well when compared to modern works.

I recently reread 'Nightfall' by Isaac Asimov, in the anthology A Science Fiction Omnibus. 'Nightfall' was first published in the September 1941 issue of Astounding Stories. In the story, the world of Lagash has six suns, and only ever experiences darkness once every 2,049 years. A group of astronomers have calculated that a "night" is imminent, and realised it's the cause of their cyclical history.

I vaguely recall first reading the story when I was around eleven or twelve. I've long been aware of its status as a "classic", of its reputation as one of Asimov's best stories. So I was surprised on my recent reread to discover that it's, well, it's pretty bad. Asimov's prose was clunky at best, and it's not his best in 'Nightfall'. The world-building is lacklustre and slipshod - characters have names like Sheerin 501 and Beenay 25, and that's it. In all other respects, it could be set in 1940s USA. The ending - the darkness and resulting panic - is given away on the first page. Much of the "idea" is explained in conversation by the cast. The narration even pulls out of the story at one point, destroying the compact with the reader (ignore the bad grammar, a sentence fragment wodged onto a sentence with a semi-colon):

"Not Earth's feeble thirty-six hundred Stars visible to the eye; Lagash was in the center of a giant cluster."

By all criteria, 'Nightfall' fails as a good short story. And yet it's still regarded as a classic. Some people will even suggest it's a good example of science fiction. Rubbish. It's built around a single, not very interesting idea - a world has never seen darkness... and then it gets dark. Wow. There's a comment on the boom-bust nature of civilisations in there, but it's pretty much thrown away. Asimov uses it in much more detail some ten years later in Foundation, anyway.

In part, this harkens back to my earlier post about the primacy of idea in science fiction. 'Nightfall' contains a very obvious idea and it appears to me that many think the sheer in-your-face nature of it overrides all the story's faults. Which should not be the case. A story should be considered a classic for a number of reasons - continuing relevance, good writing, originality (in ideas and/or deployment), rigour (of world-building, of story), meaning, impact upon the genre, impact upon the reader...

Shining the spotlight upon idea leaves all else in darkness (seems an appropriate metaphor for a piece citing 'Nightfall'). In fact, the more an idea or trope is used, the more polished it becomes, and so the higher its albedo.

The howling is becoming deafening now, so I'll finish by saying I don't think we should refuse to read old classic works, but we must recognise that they're historical documents. And add that caveat to any such recommendations or commentary. Further, modern sf readers shouldn't need to be aware of everything which has gone before, but modern sf writers certainly ought to.


Jack Deighton said...

You're right, here, Ian.
I don't really want to read again the SF that I did in my youth in case the good memories are destroyed.
The field has developed stylistically in the intervening years and any advice to a newbie ought to be tempered with this in mind.

Ian Sales said...

I've tried rereading those childhood favourites on occasion. *Shudder*. EE 'Doc' Smith's The Space Masters, which I loved as a kid, was embarrassingly bad. It actually scares me to think I did like it when I was younger.

Mattjumbo said...

I couldn't disagree more, so here is my howl.

The SF of the past was based on amazing ideas and bold conceptions. If the characters were weak, it was very nearly on purpose. I agree that Nightfall isn't quite as good as it's reputation. But, in general, I greatly prefer the old stuff.

Modern science fiction tends to degenerate into The Bridges of Madison County...with cyborgs!

gary gibson said...

Hi Ian. Did you notice this post has been linked from ...?

I'm amazed anyone recommends Asimov et al anymore as an intro the the field; I know I never would for the same reasons you mention, so I'm going to guess this is a phenomenon you've encountered at conventions. Your list of who you yourself would recommend - Morgan, Banks et al - is on a par with my own approach, although I'm more likely to aim a newcomer at Stephenson or Kim Stanley Robinson as a good way in.

On the subject of rereading ... I had that experience recently with Heinlein's Glory Road, which I picked up by way of research. It's pretty bad, and has descriptions of Asians that, to my tastes, bordered on racism.

Perhaps we need a new manifesto, a Rejection of Past Masters to force the field as it has been since the New Wave to regard itself as a fundamentally separate entity. Perhaps a ceremonial burning of an effigy of Kilgore Trout ...?

James said...

Well said. This is kind of like how I found "Starship Troopers" to be unreadable claptrap after reading "Forever War"

Ian Sales said...

@mattjumbo: The Bridges of Madison County? I suspect you're reading the wrong books. Ignore the military sf, try the authors I suggested.

@gary: the fight is currently ranging across five blogs - here, futurismic, crotchety old fan, neil williamson's, and io9. Which is sort of gratifying. Except that most people seem to have entirely missed the point of my post.

@james: Starship Troopers is definitely rubbish. I wrote about it earlier this year - and was surprised no one took me to task over it; I know it's revered by many...

Tim said...

I couldn't agree with you more. The interesting question to me is how much time to devote to the 'classics' for historical interest. It really is fun to trace the treatment of an idea by a series of different writers. As a fan who might one day want to write a bit I do feel bound to make sure that my Great Idea hasn't been done to death already.

But if I read a book a week for the rest of my life I'll finish perhaps another 2500. I read more than a book a week, but still - life's too short to read crap books.

It's not really the dated technology that I have trouble with in older SF so much as the truly dreadful writing. I have no time for the argument that it's the ideas that count, or even that it was OK because it was the 40s and that's what people did. Why should we lower our standards just because we're reading SF?

Cliff Burns said...

I've warned you about this before, Ian: once you start going after the faves of old fan-dumb, you're putting your foot in it. The problem is that so many people have warm, fuzzy, nostalgic feelings for the authors of their childhood and youth and re-read them (if they ever do) with rose-coloured spectacles. If you're putting down their favorite book, these idjits feel PERSONALLY slighted, like you just pissed in their favorite potted plant. There's a significant number of SF readers who are thin-skinned, petulant, lonely people with too much time and disposable income on their hands. The worst sort of trolls in that they're stupid, persistent and venal. And that's just the sort of person this post is gonna drive batty.

And I say: more power to you...

David B. Ellis said...

For the most part I agree with this post. THIS is the golden age of science fiction.

That said, though, I've also been reading some old SF, most of it things I'm not nostalgic about since I have never read it before, and here are a few I've found to still be quite excellent:


VICTIM PRIME by Robert Sheckley




I entirely agree about STARSHIP TROOPERS. I like some Heinlein (and some I hate) but this one I couldn't finish. Never thought he or Asimov were as good as their reputations. Today's best are head and shoulders above them.

I do remain fond of a lot of Arthur C. Clarke though. Particularly 2001, 2010, RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA, and CHILDHOOD'S END.

Tim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jack Deighton said...

VICTIM PRIME by Robert Sheckley

Isn't it significant that these books all post-date the "Golden Age" of the 40s/50s?
Dick and Zelazny in their primes didn't write a bad book.

Dave Himself said...

"and has descriptions of Asians that, to my tastes, bordered on racism. "

Oh my god someone from another time and place did not have the exact same politically correct, vanilla, middle of the road, boring mindset as me. Now I cannot enjoy his book.

Try rereading the opening of Time Enough For Love where Heinlein deftly shows us that gender is of little consequence in the realm of romantic love.

Someday your great grandfather will say... "i didnt like that book... it called synthetics 'skinjobs'"

Mark Chitty said...

As someone relatively new to SF (early 2004) I've not actually read much published before 1990. Am I missing better stuff than is out there at the moment? Doubtful. From what I gather now is the time for good SF, not only ideas but also how well written the stuff is.

I totally agree with what you're saying Ian, people new to sci-fi need to have more modern books recommended. I certainly tell people about the books I think they should read.

Jason said...

I firmly believe, as others have said, that there are many classics that deserve the reputation. There are indeed SF stories and novels that stand the test of time. These books may not be literary masterpieces, but certainly still relevant, and as much as you may hate "idea" stories, sometimes those ideas can grip you even if the writing doesn't keep up. The "Golden Age" may not be golden, but it still has value. I doesn't need to be thrown away.

If I want someone to buy more from the science-fiction/fantasy section, I can certainly hand them a gripping modern fang banger novel, or a space opera romance with the best craft in the world... but if I want them to understand what I loved about speculative fiction, I could still hand them those clunky "idea" books that, yes, may not have had good pacing, or the deepest characters... but that certainly presented reasonably thought-out alternate worlds that made you think about your own society, and the author's society, on top of the developments connecting the latter to the fictional world.

Yes, it may not have been the best craft, but what I loved about the classic SF was never so much character insight, as the way it made you think about your world. "Nightfall" had a decent message behind it - about ignorance, superstition, and the danger of the facts we ignore. It may have been delivered heavily, it may have been a common theme ("Trust the scientist! Don't let the Man keep him down!"), but it's still a valid, relevant message. It may not deserve to be enshrined, and it may not be the story I hand someone to get them to start reading speculative fiction... but if I found someone I thought could appreciate spec-fi for what it offers, I'd still recommend it to that friend.

bellatrys said...

It's funny, because that is often my reaction to stuff that is supposed to be Great Art, and always has been. Sometimes I go back and find that I just wasn't ready for it when first I read it, for whatever reason - the timing was wrong because of chaotic RL circumstances making it impossible to concentrate properly, I hadn't enough experience of the type or genre to see what the creator was trying to do, I didn't have the life experience to appreciate what was being done.

Sometimes I find however that it was just as bad or worse as I remembered when I retry it.

But then, there are some stories that I read too long ago to remember who wrote them, that *haunt* me, and that I look for, and when I find them again they are just as good as I recalled them to be, or nearly so. The funniest thing is that I read them all in old original anthologies, without knowing who the Big Names were at the time, just crunched them down like popcorn, so sometimes they turn out to be by famous people like Cordwainer Smith, and sometimes they turn out to be by obscure writers, when I track them down.

IMO a lot of Conan Doyle's stuff still holds up very well, even though it's no longer sfnal in the strict sense of covering areas now explored and demystified - "The Horror of the Heights" is a great steampunk-Lovecraftian nightmare, frex, imo.

But people tend to forget that just because something is old does not mean it is also venerable.

bellatrys said...

And personally, james, I found the sexism and homophobia of "Forever War" to be horribly grating when I finally got round to it, and the oh so clever revelation at the end to have been telegraphed from a long, long way off.

I suppose we can say that it was advanced for its time by the fact that he acknowledges the existence of GLBT people without demonizing them, and that having women in combat is better than having women as combat pilots even if the infantry women are expected to also serve as company comfort women,
but compared to say, the genderbending, mind-bending plot twists that Josephine Tey was already doing , compared to the full-on treatment of M/M sex in the military in combat settings that Jones was doing (I have an ancient Aldiss book which has an ad for the new gritty realistic novel "Thin Red Line" funnily enough) it comes off as pretty flat vintage.

Fat Free Milk said...

The future belongs to Warren Ellis.

Geoff Sebesta said...

I hated Asimov when I was 11 and I hate him now.

However, I'm having a really hard time coming up with modern writers who are much good either. I mostly read classics, and by those standards sci fi falls embarassingly short.

There really isn't enough good science fiction anywhere, at any point, for the medium to rest on its laurels. There haven't been more than five or six world-class talents in the history of the genre.

What I'm trying to say is that it's easy to top Asimov but we're not even close to Dostoyevsky yet.

Markus Danielsson said...

I definitely agree to some extent. Any attempt at a canon of a genre that's evolved as rapidly as SF is going to be difficult since it changes so rapidly. At the same time, I can't help being a bit conflicted due to the fact that I immensely enjoy some of the classics. Recently I've been going through a kind of project of "educating" myself about the classics. As I've gotten into the genre via "post Neuromancer SF" I've missed out on the older stuff. Apart from Foundation which I read as a fifteen/sixteen year old, I hadn't read much old SF. So a while back I started reading Do Androids Dream..., The Stars My Destination and The Dispossessed, all of which are "classics" and I loved each and every one of them. Despite the fact that something like The Dispossessed is so obviously a product of the 70s, I still think it's an immense novel. Same goes for The Stars My Destination (Tiger! Tiger!) which I guess is more on topic here. It's a fifty year old SF novel, but to me it was unlike anything I'd read before. I was in awe of the ending, the way everything fell into place, and to me the imagery felt as vivid and inventive as anything I've seen in more modern SF.

I can agree that there's some unnecessary hype about the oldies, but some of them really are classics for a reason.

Oh, and I've too been afraid of re-reading childhood favourites. Ender's Game was my favourite book as a kid, but I doubt I'd ever read it again for fear of tainting that memory. Lucky for me Gateway actually worked second time around.

Brad Hart said...

My problem isn't really classic sci-fi, it is the inflexibility of those reading and recommending it. People should read Heinlein if they are interested in sci-fi, but it is something that must be read in context and considered a period pieces. Some of the older stuff though even when it only mediocre writing should be read, because it is socially progressive, especially for the time.

Here are two good examples. Theodore Sturgeon wrote about Gay Aliens in 1953. We will never see that sort of jump forward in this genre ever again. Many early books by Phillip Jose Farmer have Human/Alien sex before most authors acknowledged people had sex at all. yet their he was again and again showing not only rather promiscuous sex, but sex that wasn't just a man and a woman.

As for the prose usually being horrible, I can't believe that is was always just a sign of bad writing. Many of these writers were well trained in the English language, and wrote mainstream copy for their daily bread. I think a lot of the horrible prose was simply a rebellious act against institutionalized thinking. Short choppy sentences also appealed to boys of a certain age that were receptive to the notions in science fiction. Give some of these people credit there appears to be some marketing and conscious thought behind the horrid prose.

What I would like to see in the genre as an author myself would be a retelling of some of these 'Classic SF' stories by authors who write wonderful prose. I wouldn't necessarily want to edit out any of the racist or sexist ideas if they are part of the character, those character flaws still exist and will continue to exist well into the future.

Anonymous said...

For me, I think really it comes down to what the author had to say about us. Stories that could connect on a more personal level are ones I still find relevant, such as Dick's output. I'd argue he's one of the most important SF authors for anyone to read.

The works more concerning themselves with the big 'idea', like Asimov was fond of, honestly have always felt like reading The Onion to me. You have your headline/punchline and a long extrapolation of that joke, yet nothing deeper there. Sometimes you'll laugh and it's amusing for a bit, but you're not going to go back to it anytime soon.

I'm sure I'm totally wrong here to others, but this is the best way I've ever been able to pin down the quality that makes me return to some books and not some others. As the times change, the technology changes -- all we have as a constant here is that we know ourselves. I'm thinking of A Scanner Darkly at the moment, which is still one of my favorite stories and something I can connect with regardless of how the dialogue has aged.

But since SF is so many different things to different people, I can't really say my point of view here is any more right than anyone else's in this debate. Personally I've not told anyone to read much pre-70s books since I don't think there's much that'd provoke a response. Orwell has a higher chance of an emotional response than Asimov and some would argue he has no room to be included in this conversation. I still like Clarke, however.

Patrick said...

I don't disagree - in fact I was just thinking something similar the other day about a more specific aspect of this - but I think Nightfall is a terrible example to use being Asimov also hated it - he wrote at work, a small retail store, between customers, when he was still a teenager, and it made him crazy when people would always talk about it being one of his most important stories.

Or so I learned in my SciFi literature class a few years ago; YMMV.

Angry Game Developer said...

An interesting take. Certainly thought provoking, even if I don't necessarily agree. :-)

I think the primary issue I have with your position is that in my mind, SF *is* fundamentally about ideas. I don't read Dick for his characters or his plots; I read Dick for his staggeringly cool ideas.

In Nightfall, the idea is certainly simple. But it makes you think. Because the core premise of the book can be stated in a single sentence, it makes the scope of the work somehow more comprehensible.

I would argue that starting from a simple statement and exploring the consequences is a hallmark of the genre, and a "separate but equal" approach to that of modern authors. Sometimes, less is more.

Big Jim said...

Oh thank you...I keep wanting to say things like this, but I fear the aftermath.
Frankly, so many of the SF greats were great because they were breaking ground. They weren't particularly good writers. Now that the ground is broken, let's move on, shall we?

I think Asimov may be the worst of the bunch-a few great ideas, a lot of terrible prose. Heinlein is somewhere in the middle; his ideas aren't so groundbreaking, his prose isn't completely terrible--but his politics are simply unacceptable.
This is why I actually think that all the Heinlein-worship connected to John Scalzi is undeserved, because Scalzi is really a much better writer than Heinlein ever was.

Personally, Bradbury still holds a place in my heart, and I find that he holds up pretty well.
You very clearly do not read real modern Science Fiction. Try Scalzi, try Charles Stross, try Neal Stephenson or Mary Robinette Kowall or lots and lots of good writers. Whatever you are reading, stop.
As for the Amazing ideas and Bold conceptions, you're right. But the writing, that is...the craft of writers, you know? It was crap. Really.

David B. Ellis said...

"Isn't it significant that these books all post-date the "Golden Age" of the 40s/50s? "

Actually, AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS was written in the 30's.

As for work of the 40's and 50's, I simply haven't read much at all of it so the list mostly just reflects what I've read.

Anybody have any good 40s/50s books that they've read and think still hold up well?

I'm also partial to the science fiction of Clark Ashton Smith. And he began writing in the 30's if I recall correctly. I think much of the old SF that holds up best falls into the "weird tale" category---which was what Lovecraft and Smith specialized in.

David B. Ellis said...

Heck, lets not forget the really old SF.

I loved WAR OF THE WORLDS, which I read for the first time just a couple of years ago, and I think 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA holds up very well too.

David B. Ellis said...

Another thing to be kept in mind in regard to the literary quality of old SF is that the pay was so terrible that writers specializing in SF had to work at a breakneck speed to be able to pay the rent.

Much of PK Dick's work suffers as a direct result of this fact. When he took an entire year to write (and had the luxury of doing more than one draft) he wrote his breakthrough novel. THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE.

When you have to write 2 to 4 novels a year to barely make a living it tends to show in the quality of the work.

bytesmythe said...

You won't get any backlash from me. I wrote a short story in my early teens that, many years later, I discovered was extremely similar to one by Asimov called "The Last Question". In spite of the immaturity of the writing, I think my version is better, but I'm afraid to show it to anyone since people will think I ripped it off from "the master".

Also, in the ultimate act of blasphemy, I will admit I feel the same way about Tolkien. "Gandalf has disappeared! Oh no! It's the ringwraiths! Yay! Gandalf saved us!", repeat ad nauseum.

Anonymous said...

"... I don't read Dick for his characters or his plots; I read Dick for his staggeringly cool ideas... "

Anonymous poster again -- I think that's the divide there. I love the ideas, of course, but I also think the reaction to the ideas and the personal development (or lack thereof) for the characters is what grasps me. Dick's cynical, yet sympathetic view of our qualities in the face of what we develop or are thrust into is what really works for me.

I suppose I'm one of those 'Bridges of Madison County' types someone earlier made reference to.

But certainly, thanks for the reply -- I was expecting a bit of a lashing to be honest.

Anonymous said...

Just because I forgot to say this and felt it was important enough to express... What I find the most addictive and compelling aspect of SF is that it can explore the human condition in ways that aren't limited like many other genres can be. The ideas are other angles of approach to exploring these themes. But I'm also a sucker for magical realism like Gabriel GarcĂ­a Marquez and Haruki Murakami's work, so I'm probably a different audience.

Matt E. said...

Here comes the howls...

I am not sure how much of the "classic" sci-fi you have listed you have actually read. Your article seems to be that you have reread one old story and, having found it wanting, have lumped in all "classic" sci-fi into the same boat.

Lets take a look at RAH. I re-read his books over and over again and I am surprised each time at exactly how MUCH is relevant. How issues that wouldn't have been considered when the story was written are very very timely today. Other classics remain as fun and enjoyable as ever. I have just started the Martian Cronicals and am amazed by how enjoyable and readable they are.

My biggest problem is that most "modern" sci-fi simply isn't very good. Stevenson continually goes on about subjects he has very very little knowledge about and somehow gets credited for being a "visionary". Card, who has a awsome series with Ender, can't seem to write anything else, so who out there is left?

Brin, who writes Sci-Fi that is as relevant as anyone wrote most of his best stuff back in the age of "classic" sci-fi as did Varley. Spider Robinson, who I love, writes what can best be discribed as "fluff" and in a style that is more "classic" than the classics. Are you trying to tell me Niven got his science wrong?

I am sorry, but those classics are something that you need to read to have a grounding in the genre. If you haven't read them you have no idea if what you are reading is just three times recycled garbage. The same goes for any genre of literature. The reasons that the stories are "classics" is that they constantly reinvent themselves and are relevant in different ways to a new generation of readers.

However, all this aside, for the most part I won't recommend "classics" carelessly. My favorite books you would probibly consider unreadable. Gormengast comes directly to mind. Redefines what is ment by "prose" but happens to be a book that even university lit profs balk at.

In the end you have to read more, and more widely and you will see just exactly how wrong you truly are.

David B. Ellis said...

Card, who has a awsome series with Ender, can't seem to write anything else, so who out there is left?

Let's see. About 3 or 4 dozen tremendous writers.

Ken Macleod (the stone canal, the cassini division)

Charles Stross (accelerando)

Peter Watts (blindsight, the rifters trilogy)

John C. Wright (golden age trilogy)

Alastair Reynolds (revelation space)

Greg Egan (diaspora, distress, schilds ladder)

Stephen Baxter (the xeelee sequence series, manifold series)

Richard Morgan (altered carbon)

Robert Charles Wilson (spin, darwinia, the harvest)

Peter F. Hamilton (nights dawn trilogy, pandora's star)

Robert Reed (marrow)

Dan Simmons (ilium/olympos, the hyperion cantos)

I could go on and on.

lonstar said...

What Jason said. Well put, sir.

I don't think we need to bow and scrape at the altar of the past, either. But as a template, one could do (and many, so very many, have) a LOT worse than "Flowers for Algernon", "The Cold Equations", or "Inconstant Moon".

The main thing about those stories, the ones from the sci-fi hall of fame era, are that they are:

1. short

2. focused

3. attempt to make some kind of conceptual leap beyond their current time, either to turn around and view us from a different perspective or make a statement about something we could/should/should not do.

Nowadays in our super-sized, Wal-Martized, trilogy of three-hour-movies with fifteen additional hours of hobbit makeup test footage world, more is better and longer is better for reasons unknown.

Why write a gripping 1,500 word short story when you can turn spread the same idea across 10 books and rely on the GFBs to soak up whatever effluvium you drench it with (Brian Lumley, pick up the white phone, paging Brian Lumley).

So go ahead, throw a brickbat and deface a few icons so you get a couple more clicks and a twitch in your Google adwords rate. Nice work. But you will quickly fade back into the cacophony and those stories will live on like the Velvet Underground - not everyone will read them, but most of those who do will take up writing.

Zach said...

Originally posted at .

Many of the books I read as a child, especially Sci Fi and Fantasy books, seem silly to me now. And the silliness is due to the superficiality of the message. Often times such books are nothing more than yarns. We get a hero, he does this, gets the girl, whoot whoot. And, it is this failure to include pithy thematic content that grates my nerves.

The Sci Fi element of a good Sci Fi book, to me, is the trappings (Setting, time, etc.). Indeed, I am more critical of a Sci Fi book than a standard fiction because hypothetical worlds invite contradiction. If something doesn’t add up I’ll probably be too irritated to continue. I demand that the absurd at least be believable. The only exception is if the unbelievably absurd is a vessel for some theme.

But, just constructing a convincing world/future setting isn’t enough to make a Sci Fi book good. The book itself needs to be good! I demand originality and interesting plots. I am not to be awed by a shiny new planet on which the plot of Gossip Girl (Great show, can’t wait to see it a week from today!) unfolds. This, to me, is the failing of modern Sci Fi.

Here’s my thesis: NO new Sci Fi is literary while SOME old Sci Fi is. The universal statement there begs debate since I’ve not read all modern Sci Fi (indeed I have been turned off to it by what I have read) and so I’ll realistically weaken it to say: Most modern trade paperback style Sci Fi continues the pulp tradition and does not produce new ideas. It is boring. The characters are shallow and the plots trivial. But, from the golden age of Sci Fi jewels remain (as well as some really painfully written books). I’ll mention a few here.

First is all things Dune. People have accused Frank Herbert of being too dense and boring. I actually find the heavy handedness appealing. The events in the Dune books are as meticulously crafted as the world. Herbert gives us with each paragraph some message. The book is painful for some to read because they seek action, not thought. Dune is an intellectual’s Sci Fi book. It is as laden with meaning as a Dickens’ novel.

Next is Stranger In a Strange Land by Heinlein. This is a good book not for the Sci Fi elements but for the sub-narrative about isolation and what it means to be human. The Sci Fi trappings are all that is antique about it. As such, it might not be a great read for a modern Sci Fi aficionado but it is still a work of great literary value.

There are books from the past that are just bad. An example is Foundation. All there is here is Sci Fi trappings. There is nothing to relate to on an individual level and no thematic message save the blatantly obvious (rise and fall of civs, science vs. society, etc.).

Unfortunately people who are looking for a mentally stimulating read often don’t turn to science fiction books. I think this is in part due to the overwhelming amount of crap on the bookstore shelves. People are not exposed to those Sci Fi books that have really interesting messages because it is so hard to wade through the clutter.


Ian Sales said...

Wow. I go to bed, and wake up the following morning with... this. The response to my post has been gratifying, if a little intemperate in a few places.

@dave himself - like Gary I happen to think that not being sexist or racist is good. It has nothing to do with political correctness, it's about treating other people - different people - like human beings.

@jason - yes, some classics deserve their status. I never said otherwise. I said only that old sf is a bad introduction to the genre. I don't expect people to rave about Ian McEwan's latest one minute, and then suggest I read Thomas Hardy... I also think we need to get away from the "idea as paramount" in sf. It's an excuse for poor prose.

@geoff sebesta - there's plenty of good current sf authors - I named some of them in my post.

@brad hart - if you can write well, why would you write badly? Besides, being a journalist or copywriter doesn't make you a good prose stylist. Take Cliver Cussler. He started out in advertising, and his books are terrible.

@patrick - yes, Asimov could never understand the appeal of 'Nightfall'. But it was voted by the SFWA the best sf short story published prior to the establishment of the Nebula Awards. Which means quite a few people think it's a "classic".

@big jim - now you know what the aftermath will be... I've not much time for many of Heinlein's novels, but he was certainly the master at deploying sf ideas in stories. He pretty much invented the technique.

@dvaid b ellis - "writers specializing in SF had to work at a breakneck speed..." so it was hack work? You mean all those alleged classics are actually hack work? Isn't it time we, well, said as much?

@matt e - I've been reading sf for 30 years and I've read pretty much all the classics. I wouldn't have written what I did if I didn't know what I was talking about. Most of the classics I enjoyed as a kid. Some I reread recently, and was appalled to discover how bad they were. Yes, even RAH. I Will Fear No Evil makes me cringe when I read it. Also, if you think Stephenson, Card and Brin are modern sf, then you certainly need to read more current works. Those three authors have been writing for one or more decades. I named some authors in my original post - try them. Then try to tell me modern sf isn't very good. (Oh, david b. ellis has named a whole bunch for me. Thanks. Good list, too.)

@lonstar - icons? See, this is the attitude I was partly trying to address - the uncritical adoration of so-called "classics". Face it, 'Nightfall' is not a very good short story. Its classic status is received wisdom, and old received wisdom at that. Oh, it remains to be seen whether I'll "fade back into the cacophony". Judging by the the responses to my post - here and elsewhere - it's probably not going to be just yet...

Jeff said...

Any branch of literature has its over-praised classics, and science fiction is no exception. I've not even been much of a fan of Asimov or Heinlein. Asimov's writing style was far too pedestrian, and Heinlein too derivative of Hemingway. Not that both authors don't have their distinct charms, but as writers both lack a fluid style that makes the work distinctive-often they rely on the ideas to be the distinction in their work, rather than the artistic expression of those ideas.

However, there are quite a few of the classic sci-fi writers who deserve the reputation and place they have in the canon. Ray Bradbury is a standout, his work often makes it into non-genre literary compilations. Harlan Ellison, Larry Niven and Philip K. Dick are also standouts in the genre.

Consider this question when reading a sci-fi author: could this same writer create a great story in another genre? Or without the use of a specific genre? Or is it only the uniqueness of the idea that makes the work memorable? This particular question isn't unique to old or new sci-fi.

One of my favorites has always been Bradbury's "And There Will Come Soft Rains". While the post-apocalyptic landscape must, by definition, be sci-fi, the eerie prose and haunting imagery of the automated house that continues to function, empty of purpose creates an emotional resonance within the reader that lives on long after the story is complete. It is evocative of a mood of loneliness, emptiness and loss, conveying the sense of the self-destruction of the entire human race while remaining on a small, personal scale. For a short story of any genre, it is a masterpiece.

Anonymous said...

I haven't re-read "Nightfall" in quite a few years. The last time I did, I was particularly disappointed in the pulpish quality of the dialog. No doubt far worse criticisms could be leveled at it.

Yet it is considered a classic with good reason. It asks an important kind of question. To what extent are we ourselves and our concept of the universe we inhabit determined by accidental circumstances of our little world and the space around it? What may be out there that is obvious to almost any technical civilization, but happens to be obscured by our peculiar vantage point?

Bob said...

The problem is, anyone can ask an "important kind of question". There are a million and one authors out there trying to do just that. Yet we single out some low quality prose with B-grade dialogue and hail it as a classic was written more than 30 years ago!

It's a fair point: if the science fiction of old is irrelevant and aims to do different things than today, it won't garner much support for science fiction. And no, you souldn't be given a get out of jail free card just because you have a cool new idea. It's part of it, but you also need to have a good, well written idea that can provoke thought. Or you need a good, well written idea that's fun to read. Depends on which way you want to go.

Blue Tyson said...

To get some more misquoting you could have thrown in 'don't suggest Bradbury's very twee, dated, ice-cream and hotdogs on Mars' stories, either.'


rojse said...

Completely agree with you, Ian. Old SF stories should be measured against all ages of SF writing, before and after the book was written. Phrases like "this book is good for a book written by author X" or "this book is good for a book written at this time" is really saying "this book was good once, but now it is rubbish. Don't read it."

I shudder at some of the so-called classics I have gotten through in my attempts to read classic SF - badly dated ideas and social concepts, poor characterisation and poor writing structure. Why do SF readers put up with such rubbish? I can't think of any other genre that would put up with this as an accepted fact.

Neil V said...

Where do I start, I have only just discovered Heinlein and as such was quite impressed with 'Stranger in a Strange Land' & 'The Day after Tomorrow'. Yes there are some racist themes in the latter but that is because it is war (or resistance fighting) and that is what happens, even today. Do we vilify Johnny Speight for the rantings of Alf Garnet??? I do agree that when recommending a Sci-Fi book to someone you have to play to their interests. I have been reading Sci-Fi since the 70's and regularly re-read Foundation & 2001.
As far as writing style goes, I think, like art, it is the end result, not the 'brush strokes' or 'colours used'. Writing should captivate the imagination, stir the soul and make you want to turn the next page. I don't care if it doesn't CONFORM to some modern style or ideas. I don't have to agree with the characters ideas or even a writers under current to appreciate a gripping, thought provoking story.

Look upon 'Classic' Sci-Fi as you would a classic car, Influential, reflective of it's time, fun but maybe not as practical as a newer model!