In a brutally honest follow-up to his classic “The Classics of Science Fiction” article from 20 years ago, James Wallace Harris has this to say about the classics of yesteryear:

Now looking back with twenty years of hindsight I’m not sure how many science fiction books I would consider classic. The final The Classics of Science Fiction list wasn’t selected by me, but was assembled from the most frequently recommended books from 28 best-of lists and other sources dating back to the 1950s. Of the 193 books on the list, I’m not sure how many I would personally recommend today.

These days, he’s been listening to audiobooks, some of them are the audio versions of the sf classics and the experience has been mixed. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, for example, does not hold up, he says:

A few months ago I listened to Foundation by Isaac Asimov and I was appalled by how bad it was. I had forgotten most of the story. I had read the original Foundation trilogy back in the 1960s and accepted it then as a classic because everyone said it was so.

It is well loved, but not by me anymore.

He concludes the article with a feeling felt by others – that science fiction becomes quickly outdated.

As many observers have noted, modern children prefer movies, video games and movies over books, so there’s always a chance that books won’t be popular in the future. However, I think hard-core science fiction readers will continue to seek and find the books on The Classics of Science Fiction list. The average science fiction reader will be content with the latest fad in science fiction and fantasy books. I think the desire to read science fiction is mostly based on the urge to find new and novel excitements – so the classic books that come from the 1940s and 1950s pulp magazines will feel old and quaint to them. Eventually, even the New Wave times of the 1960s and 1970s will seem old wave. Books from the 1920s and 1930s seemed quaint to me in the 1960s. I have a feeling that the most sophisticated science fiction written today will feel like a dime novel does to us when read by our grandchildren.

I guess my conclusion is science fiction goes out of date too fast to become classic. I wish I could live to be two hundred and find out the answer though.

While I might disagree about the outdated part (to me, classic science fiction is charming because it reflects what forward-looking thinking looked like in the past), I have to acknowledge what an interesting read this is…not only for the blunt truthfulness of his insightful observations, but also because of the perspective it provides across the twenty years it’s been since he first wrote The Classics of Science Fiction article, an amazing achievement in itself.

Well done, Mr. Harris!

Filed under: Books

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