Did you ever read an old science fiction book that felt dated? Maybe the predictions were way off base, or maybe or they were a reflection of the times in which they were written. Yet some books are considered timeless classics, which makes one wonder which of today’s books will fall into that category. So we turned to this week’s and asked them:
Here’s what they said…
Elizabeth Moon’s Speed Of Dark – even though it’s near future SF and she had a devil of a time staying ahead of advances in neuroscience before the novel was published in 2003. It’s about the impact of medical neuroscience on the human condition. It explores an autistic man’s dilemma and his decision when he’s offered the opportunity to be cured – made “normal.” Character-based SF, if also deeply thoughtful and well written, stands the test of time better than some of the other flavors of SF.
At the risk of sounding professorial for a moment, there are several pathways by which a book can come to be regarded as a classic, depending on what you mean by “classic.” It can simply stay in print for decades by dint of sheer common-denominator popularity (like much of Edgar Rice Burroughs); it can strike a chord with younger readers only after it appears in paperback (as with Lord of the Flies or Lord of the Rings); it can be rediscovered decades later by an entirely new generation of readers and writers more attuned to its achievement (as with Moby Dick). Or it can win all the awards when first published, and seem to reorder the priorities of an entire genre, as Neuromancer did in 1984.
It’s that reordering of priorities that I had in mind when looking over SF books of the last ten years. I wasn’t interested in the most popular books-which can sometimes stay in print forever simply because they reinforce beliefs rather than challenging them-nor was I trying to unearth overlooked classics whose true value will only be appreciated after we’ve all just evolved a bit more. Instead, I was looking for titles with demonstrable literary chops which also seemed to give other SF writers a certain kind of permission to re-examine what the genre could do. I ended up with about 30 titles, which isn’t a bad percentage over an entire decade, about three per year. (The most recent was Bacigalupi’s The Wind-Up Girl, which I think I could make a case for.)
But the book I settled on for this post is a short story collection, and one which was inexplicably all but ignored in the “single-author story collection” Mind Meld back in June (I think one contributor mentioned it). It’s Ted Chiang’s 2002 Stories of Your Life and Others, which is being reprinted by Small Beer this fall-in itself evidence that the book is on its way to becoming a classic. You could argue that I’m cheating because half the stories were published before 2000, but the question was, what book published in the last ten years is a classic?
There are a couple of reasons for my choice, apart from the simple excellence of the stories themselves. One is that, along with a couple of other collections (Kelly Link comes to mind, though her stories are far less traditionally science fictional), Stories of Your Life helped reinvigorate the notion that much of what fantastic literature does best can come in shorter forms, which seems to me important in an era of multiple-novel contracts and metastatic series or elephantine trilogies. Another is that Chiang’s stories-which are seldom if ever directly imitated-nevertheless gave writers permission to think in terms of entire alternate cosmologies, not simply alternate histories or linear extrapolations. By setting stories in the world of Babylonian myth or kabbalistic alchemy or fundamentalist Christianity, he encouraged writers to think of entirely new ways of imagining worlds, and has continued to do so in his fiction since. There were predecessors of course, but it seems to me this approach has been played with a lot more since Chiang’s book.
Another mark of a classic is that a book still seems new years later, and I’d be willing to wager that a reader coming across Stories of Your Life today, or ten years from now, would experience the same sense of discovery that readers such as myself felt back in 2002 and earlier, when Chiang’s stories first began appearing.
When I thought back over what science fiction books have already proved they stand the test of time, I came up with a list that included the likes of Dune, Ender’s Game, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, The Left Hand Of Darkness, and many more. In assessing them, I decided that what makes any book a classic was mostly a matter of unforgettable characters. What makes a science fiction book a classic is the addition of an unforgettable situation and/or setting (Arrrakis, the Battle School, the moon as a prison colony, Gethen). It helps if there’s nothing overtly dated in the story– some Heinlein books slip a little there, as when men on the moon never ever do housework– but even that kind of slip doesn’t stop a truly unforgettable story.
Using this criterion to look over recent books in search of candidates for becoming a classic, I came up with either Blindsight, by Peter Watts, or Camouflage, by Joe Haldeman. Both deal with very different first contact scenarios. In Blindsight, the protagonist is a literally damaged human more than half a century in the future, and the aliens (and most of the story itself) are distant from Earth. In Camouflage, the protagonist is a shape-shifting alien who lives on a near-future Earth. They’re two very different books but I enjoyed both of them for similar reasons: the authors both make the science fiction the core of the story; they both weave a long time line into a cohesive story with a satisfactory conclusion, and both books have really cool ideas (Blindsight: Heaven malfunctioning, vampires as an extinct species preserved in human racial memory as folktales, splitting a brain into multiple intelligences; Camouflage: an alien enlisting in the Marines, shape shifting in plausible detail, using a rocket to move an alien artifact).
Both books deal with the concept of humanity. In Blindsight, Siri Keeton learns to look at himself and his relationships with others partly from his interaction with an alien intelligence. In Camouflage, the being known as the changeling acquires empathy for humans after living as one for decades. Both books also make a case for valuing science– studying science and applying scientific principles to all acquisition of knowledge.
If you’re going to make me pick only one to become a classic, I would say Camouflage, but only because, for someone with very little hard science background, I found it easier to read. That might be mostly a function of it being nearer in the future, though.
Can we call it a tie?
Most definitions of a science fiction classic boil down to age and continued availability with some qualifiers. James Harris’s Classics of Science Fiction database uses qualifiers like number of awards, inclusion on various lists, and number of reviews to narrow the selection. In his forward to the 2009 edition of Haldeman’s The Forever War, John Scalzi defines a science fiction classic as one that speaks to the time of its publication and continues to speak to readers beyond that time. Scanning through Harris’s list, I’ve read a lot of them, some when they were originally published. Did I know that Ringworld or To Your Scattered Bodies Go would be classics of science fiction when I read them in the early 70’s? Does Rendezvous with Rama continue to speak to us today? Did it then? Whatever those books said then, apparently they’re still talking and people are still listening. More importantly, people are still talking about them. Something about those books keeps them in the conversation, good or bad, and ultimately that’s what makes or breaks a classic-wannabe. People keep talking about it.
Three years ago, I read Old Man’s War through the jaundiced eyes of a middle-aged fan constantly disappointed with what was passing for science fiction these days. (I know, I know. I’m working on it.) At the time, bullheadedness wouldn’t let me just come out and say, “Hey, that was pretty good.” I had to huff, mutter, and paw the ground awhile, but eventually I found myself recommending it to others, and eventually, enthusiastically. That kinda snuck up on me. But, I had to come around sooner or later. After all, Scalzi wrote a book that could have been published in the 70’s, or even in the 50’s, without changing a single word and it would already be considered a classic today. Does that mean that Old Man’s War is fluke, a book out of time? Not at all. It just means that Old Man’s War not only speaks to its time, it also speaks to the past. I think it will speak to the future as well.
Scalzi is a talented and skilled writer. He requires very little of his readers other than their time and attention. (That’s a good thing, by the way.) He tells a fairly simple story with fairly simple themes. His writing is accessible to a very broad range of readers. I can’t imagine that thirty or fifty years from now readers will have any difficulty appreciating this book, whether they like it or not. And I have no doubt at all that some of you reading this will one day hand your tattered copy to a son or daughter, niece or nephew, or perhaps a grandchild saying, “You should read this. It’s pretty good.”
But, is it any better than other books published this past decade? Sure it is. Is it the best the decade has to offer? Probably not, but it’s pretty good. A lot of people think so, and they talk about it. And one of the reasons they continue to talk about it, aside from being pretty good, is what I believe is the big reason that it will one day be considered a classic; the company it keeps.
Right out of the gate, Old Man’s War has been associated with Starship Troopers and The Forever War. They form an accidental trilogy; three very different stories about three very different people cleverly disguised as tales of future warfare that fans have somehow decided are related. Some quality within them draws them together so strongly that any conversation about one inevitably leads to the other two. They are now the stuff of bar talk and term papers, and fans will be comparing them and arguing about them for years to come, just as they did when there were only the two. And that alone is probably enough to grant Old Man’s War classic status. Its older brothers are holding a spot for it.
I’d like to talk about three books that I think will become classics:
The first is Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. It’s a lovely read, good hard sf with a serious social commentary that’s likely to be relevant to human nature for awhile, and Neal is a well-established writer with other iconic work like Snowcrash to his name.
The second is one I hope you’ll let me sneak into your timeframe – it came out in 1999 but was on the award circuit for 2000. So it maybe fits the “last ten years” moniker. I just love Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep. Vernor himself, of course, will remain visible across time, at least in most geek histories but probably also in a lot of mainstream histories. But I’d like to argue for the book, too. It’s an excellent adventure, a good commentary on people, a complex work of fiction, has aliens which hold up on their own and as mirrors for us humans, and some moral conundrums.
Unfortunately, I expect Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to survive quite well. I did not personally like the book (too unrelentingly stark) but there is a human appetite for apocalypse stories, and this one drew a lot of attention, is well-written, and didn’t really have that much to become too dated.
I’m going to answer this more or less in two parts because there are classics recognized in the general sense and classics recognized within the genre.
After perusing the Locus Awards for the past ten years and looking through my bookshelf, I think we’ll be more likely to see works from authors already successful in the mainstream market garner the status of classics in the general sense. I’m speaking of works like Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. And because I’m one of those people who think science fiction is broader than writing solely about tech and futurity, and that it encompasses some of what is commonly thought of as magical realism, I’d also throw in Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and After Dark. These are just some likely candidates, not an exhaustive list. But I think a few of these will make it.
As for books that those in the SF community will consider classics, a lot more will thankfully endure, and scanning down each year’s awards nominees, one or more titles usually stand out. LeGuin’s The Telling, Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, McDonald’s River of Gods. I’d like to think that Stephenson’s Anathem will endure, inspired as it was at least in part by the Clock of the Long Now. I’m reading McDonald’s The Dervish House right now-beautifully written and conceived, and I’m not sure it can be disqualified from genre immortality just based on the fact that 2027 will roll along soon enough and the vision of Turkey portrayed in the story in all likelihood won’t precisely sync up with real-world Turkey (similarly River of Gods as regards future India). If I’m reading the intro to the question correctly, there’s an implication that a work has to be timeless to be considered a classic. That’s certainly not the case when it comes to classic non-SF novels, so many of which are the products of the attitudes of their day, so the question arises whether there is something inherent in SF that disqualifies a so-called dated work from immortal status. I’d prefer not to open that can of worms here, for which there are doubtless many legitimate answers, so I’ll just reiterate that my personal (and ever-shifting) definition of SF doesn’t necessarily kick out stories that steer clear of the future or technology.
Based purely on its literary merits, the work I would personally place on the classics shelf is David Herter’s The Obstinates (currently published in three parts as On the Overgrown Path, The Luminous Depths, and the soon-to-be-released One Who Disappeared but meant to be read as a single novel). Those who do see an SF work as dated if it gets its prognostication wrong don’t have to worry here as Herter’s story deals artfully with various iterations of the time stream that make the SF elements virtually impossible to be perceived as outmoded. The same can be said of the scasovani (“the rhythm of life that beats and trembles in the audible world”) and stave flower, the SFnal devices that drive the story’s plot. Herter’s mastery of language, which echoes one of his character’s sensitivity to sound and rhythm, is as good as anything out there. So for me personally, thoughts of mass culture aside, The Obstinates joins those works at the top of our genre, and not just for the past decade.
I would have to say Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Of course this type of question is highly subjective–will it stand (and has it stood) the test of time for me? And I would have to say “yes.” Even though there are certain things I still don’t understand about the book, at all. (Mostly about the soldering and fitting of the various pieces.) But the book is absolutely haunting in so many different ways, both sf-nal and not. But it’s still, through and through, a work of science fiction in the truest sense in its planetary scope and attention to worlds-within-worlds.
Others: The Impossible Bird by Patrick O’Leary, Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, Cyclonopedia by Reza Negarestani (which is just so far ahead of its time that by the time society catches up to it, it would have “stood the test” by default), Nekropolis by Maureen McHugh.