MIND MELD: Are Golden Age Writers Worth It For New SF Readers?
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The ever quickening pace of science and technology makes today’s world vastly different from the era of ‘Golden Age Science Fiction’. Stories written back then assume a very different view of the world than what today’s readers have and may seem very out of date. Our question:
Here’s what they said…
Asimov holds up better than Heinlein for me, honestly, although I do think Heinlein was the better writer in the sense of structure, story, and characterization. But I have a weakness for Asimovian puzzle-stories, and the Asimov I’d still not hesitate to recommend is his short fiction, especially the mysteries.
I think the average modern SF reader expects a stronger sense of story and character arc than the prototypical Campbellian reader, and I think if you can manage to read around Heinlein’s cultural assumptions, some of his work is still thought-provoking and worthwhile
There are a number of Golden Age SF writers, however, that I would recommend without hesitation, on the assumption that modern readers are not stupid, and are capable of filtering for the time in which the work was written. Id tend towards the stronger prose stylists for a modern audience, I think, as the New Wave raised the style bar pretty high. Among the writer’s I’d put in front of modern readers are Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, L. Sprague de Camp, H. Beam Piper, C.L. Moore, Alfred Bester, Hal Clement, and Poul Anderson.
I wouldn’t personally recommend either Asimov or Heinlein only because I’m not crazy about their writing. I do, though, fully appreciate their renown, and I know a lot of readers like their work. The problem is usually not the technology, even though it might be out of date. The problem is when the technology is out of date and the characters and stories behind that stuff are flat. I can still get a lot of enjoyment out of an H. G. Wells novel in which the science is all outmoded. In fact, I can still get a charge out of Poe’s Science Fiction stories, where the “science” he was using was known by many at the time to be bogus. For writers of the Golden Age, I’d suggest Bradbury. The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 still work for me, even though the science isn’t really there anymore (and I’m not sure it ever really was). There’s more to them than the thrill of the science. Also, mentioning Bradbury, his collection, The October Country, still strikes me as phenomenal. Other writers from that time period I’d suggest to friends are Bester, Vance, Wyndham, Brackett, Brown. I’m sure there are more I’d be willing to suggest if I’d read more deeply into the Golden Age.
The first panel I was ever on at a convention was at one of the Philcons about 15 years ago.Sitting next to me was the writer Hal Clement. I’d gotten his books from our local library when I was a kid. It was great to meet him. He seemed like a cool old guy. On that panel he described a situation that happened with one of his books. I don’t remember which one it was. He said that in writing it he’d done this up to the minute research on some astronomical event so he could capture it correctly in his story. Then he went on to say something to the effect that by the time the book came out, the science that he’d used for the story had been proven to be fallacious. He laughed about it, but he also spoke about how disheartening it had been to him at the time. And this is the thing with writers like Asimov, Clement, Clarke (I’d add Jules Verne to this list as well), I think they felt a certain commitment to being science educators as well as story tellers, which is an admirable thing, I suppose, and I think important for the time period. When the science is where you’re putting your focus, though, and then it rusts and all you have behind it is enough of a story to support the thrilling ideas that have rotted over time, that’s a tough read. I like to be educated while I’m reading fiction, but I don’t necessarily want to be conscious of the fact. Heinlein seems less guilty to me of this than some of the others, but for some reason he still leaves me cold. On the other hand, I think for someone interested in the history of scientific ideas, Asimov would be a great read. I guess what it comes down to is, try them all, if you like them, great, read more, if you don’t, no sweat.
Literary journalist Michael Dirda made the case for reading the genre classics in his Nebula Awards banquet speech not long ago. He noted that when he discovered science fiction all serious readers – and therefore all writers as well – were conversant with the entire history of the field and had read all its essential books. This is no longer the case and it’s resulted in many writers reinventing the wheel – tripping themselves up on literary problems that were solved long ago in better-written and more successful stories and novels. Anybody who’s interested in fiction set in the far future should read Clifford Simak’s City and Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, for example, just to see how deftly it can be done.
That said, there’s definitely a winnowing going on. Lester Del Rey’s “Helen O’Loy,” once considered a classic, is now essentially unreadable, and it is not alone. Time is a merciless critic, and not all of yesteryear’s attitudes are palatable today. Nevertheless, works as different (and as dated) as Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles can still be read with pleasure.
So I come down with both sides of this issue. Yes, you should introduce new readers to the Golden Age classics. But rather than relying on memories that may be decades old, you should reread the works first, to make sure they don’t contain any unpleasant surprises. If they do, you’ll be sparing yourself some real embarrassment.
And if they don’t, you’ll be reconnecting with an old friend.
Let me ask you this: Do we stop reading To Kill a Mockingbird because Obama’s in the Whitehouse?
Certainly science fiction has a more difficult row to hoe because its conclusions become irrelevant when new information comes to light. The egg is right there on the face.
But let me ask you this: Do we stop studying Vermeer because representational art is now considered puerile?
In any art the history of the discipline is studied by studying the works. If you don’t know where you’ve been, you won’t know where to go. Right?
Without the golden age, the age of pulp science fiction wouldn’t have evolved into new wave. Science fiction had to take itself seriously before it could move in a more socially conscionable and literary direction. So it was important, so we study it.
Beyond that, though, Heinlein and Asimov are both still part of the ongoing conversation. And I don’t mean just the conversation about the weakness in Golden Age prediction. Just last week New Scientist had an article on robotics that mentioned Asimov. Whether or not Asimov was spot on makes no difference. The point is we’re still jabbering on about him and his damn three rules.
Some of Heinlein’s stuff is fluffy, sure, but I just did a review of Stranger in a Strange Land a couple of weeks ago and noticed 627 people had reviewed it there. Over half of them gave it five stars. The reviewers couldn’t all be old fogies clinging to a golden age when a race of sentient Martians was still a possibility.
In my review I talked about the old-fashioned philosophy that was new and dangerous at the time but kind of funny now. Some of Heinlein’s ideas are insulting, yes, the way ideas in old books tend to be once you’ve gained enlightenment, but that’s not meant to say a book is no longer important or relevant. If nothing else it shows how far we’ve come.
Further than that, though, the fact that Stranger in a Strange Land had ideas in addition to technological predictions makes it interesting beyond whatever wow factor it should have. That Heinlein envisioned socialism in his bizarre way is infinitely more important than the fact that he got the Martians wrong. It’s worth taking a look at for that alone.
I read Childhood’s End back in the 70s. Twenty years on, it was still relevant for me. I’d have to go back and reread the book to find the inconsistencies in tech, but it feels like we’re on the brink of that book’s golden age even though the aliens have not come yet. And they probably aren’t going to come before we either achieve some of the miracles ourselves or deem them unnecessary. I have a feeling we’re always going to be on the brink of his golden age. Certainly lets read it to see where we’re at, to see if we want to go where he thought we should.
I’m quite sure there’s plenty of unredeemable sf books from the 40s and 50s, laughably outdated, tragically bereft of meaning, that should not be recommended. I have no idea which ones they are. I haven’t read them. Nobody told me to read ‘em. But don’t throw out the baby with the wash, man.
You could even argue that the charm in books from a more innocent time is the innocence themselves. We’re still watching It’s a Wonderful Life, even though we doubt very much you could stop a run on the bank with a line about trusting the institution and pulling together in times of crisis. Accuracy is not the reason to watch. The dream, the escape, the sentiment, those are still valid and important.
But really it boils down to hanging on to the good stuff. Science fiction is not just about the science, much as we tell ourselves it is. In the end, it’s still fiction and fiction requires a story. Good stories hang around because we like them. Not for the technological chrome, but for the plot, the characters, the theme, and the emotional truth. Science fiction from the Golden Age with emotional truth will remain relevant.
Regarding rampaging technology, the more important question is not about the Golden Age science fiction. It’s about the today’s science fiction. How the hell is sf from today going to stay relevant long enough to get published? We can see it obsolescing as we type it.
My answer to both questions is ‘No’ largely because I disagree with the idea that science fiction has or ever could have a “Golden Age”.
One of the most pervasive and toxic myths surrounding the history of science fiction is that, like science itself, SF has progressed in a linear fashion with newer works somehow supplanting the books that came before them. This Whiggish history of SF is not only misguided but also a recipe for complacency.
Many fans, critics and scholars present the evolution of SF as a long, straight road leading from Frankenstein to Embassytown with the occasional bathroom break and lunch stop at The Stars My Destination, Starship Troopers and Neuromancer along the way. According to this view of SF history, each new generation of writer added new tropes and new techniques to the genre resulting in older works gradually seeming more and more crude and unsophisticated by the standards of the day. The problem with this vision of history is that it was written by the victors and, like all victors, the writers of SF history have presented their victory as not only inevitable but natural.
The most egregious example of this approach to history is the way in which cyberpunk positioned itself as a direct response to the pulps of the Gernsbackian era. As Jeanne Gomoll argues in her “Open Letter to Joanna Russ”, Gibson’s short stories and Sterling’s rhetoric effectively ‘unmade’ feminist SF; its influence upon cyberpunk unacknowledged and its continuing vibrancy rendered irrelevant by the need for a history of SF that was all straight-lines and manifest destiny.
Because of this tendency in how the field views itself, older stories have never been more demanding of our attention. They demand our attention because what we think of as good SF is only ever the result of fashion and market forces, forces that tend to make challenging and unusual works disappear. Consider, for example, Olaf Stapledon’s twin masterpieces Last and First Men and Star Maker, written in the 1930s before many of the techniques that are currently in vogue were developed, these books lack anything that contemporary readers of SF might recognise as ‘plot’ or ‘character’. Instead, they are an elaborate future history and an exploration of the cosmos ending with a moment of supremely spiritual (and yet unflinchingly materialistic) apotheosis. Simply stated, they don’t write books like those anymore and while the blame for SF’s formal conservatism can justly be laid at the feet of publishers and audiences alike, it would be ludicrous to suggest that Stapledon’s methods are in any way ‘dated’. These are books of genuine beauty and power and their lack of formal influence on the genre in no way diminishes their appeal. Don’t read these books because you ‘have to’ in order to understand the field or get the most out of the works
of some later author… read them because they are sensational and quite unlike anything that gets published nowadays and maybe, if you read them and enjoy them, you’ll be influenced by them when the time comes for you to write your own book. That is how fashions change and that is why the idea of a linear history of SF is toxic recipe for stagnation and death.
As for Heinlein and Asimov, I would not recommend them simply because I have never enjoyed any of their books. Asimov was more interested in robotic pathos than he was in style or insight while Heinlein’s formal innovations are easily counter-balanced by an extended fall from artistic grace and into unrelenting self-indulgence.
The place of these over-rated monsters in the orthodox history of science fiction is absolute and secure and, if you really have an interest in that history then I recommend reading them and hope that you get on better with them than I did. However, the orthodox history of science fiction is not the only history of the field. Amazon, AbeBooks and eBay are positively overflowing with brilliant novels (both in and out of print) that are overlooked, unloved and perfectly suited to what it is that you want from your experience of science fiction. Read Russ! Read Zelazny! Read Burroughs! Read them because chances are that they will surprise you and because you have just as much right to make up your own
history of the genre as you do to contribute to its future. SF is infinitely mutable and offers endless possibilities… those possibilities exist in the future and the past but always off the beaten track.
I think anyone with a deep love for and interest in SF would be well served to read at least a few of the classics from the so-called Golden Age to familiarize themselves with the history of the field. It’s good to get a sense of perspective, and as with all periods and genres of art, the best work holds up regardless of when it was produced.
But to a new SF reader? I’m doubtful I would start them with Golden Age stories. Naturally it would depend on what the reader wants and who the reader is and what her tastes are, but even many of the best stories from that period are dated in a predictable fashion, both culturally and in the way they’re written. So I would likely suggest something more recent to begin with because I think the dated-ness of the older stories might not be the most compelling introduction to the field, especially since I happen to think we’re living in a Golden Age of SFF right now, one that’s quite a bit more inclusive than last century’s Golden Age.
You can never have too many futures, especially in the atemporal age of Network culture. The Golden Age canon of white-dude-with-a-slide-rule science fiction has its role, Bob, but probably not as a literature that is contemporarily relevant in the manner its authors intended.
Lately I have been listening to classic radio broadcasts of dramatizations of Golden Age short stories. The square-jawed voices of X-1 acting out post-WWII futures from Astounding and Galaxy reveal how the canonical sf authors were the secret bards processing the experience of American power in the twentieth century. Golden Age science fiction was the literature of the takeover of *this* planet by technologies of the future in the hands of a putatively innocent and noble Empire. Read from the perspective of a 21st century they barely imagined, surely Asimov, Heinlein and Bradbury are as relevant as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck–maybe even more so. Which is different than saying Golden Age SF is good.
The authors of the New Wave saw this, and began repurposing Golden Age narrative tropes around the same time as Golden Age dreams of lunar conquest became real. By revealing a subtext to classic science fictional consciousness that was more Buzz Aldrin than Neil Armstrong, the New Wave opened up richer territory for the exploration of contemporary identity than the interior realism of the modernists. The New Wave looked at the Golden Age and saw the primitive instincts of the naked ape coupled with advanced technologies of transportation, communication, medication and mass destruction. This phenomenon was one that could best be explored through the narrative laboratory of science fiction.
Today the archetypes of crewcut white guys in flight suits persist, even as we pass beyond the age of the polished aluminum American hegemon–just ask the cynics who persuaded George Bush to put on his own flight suit and pose for the Presidential action figure collection, or the Hollywood productizers of national identity scrambling to make a real time Rambo-ization of SEAL Team Six’s hit on Osama (in an invisible helicopter!). The action figures may now come in alternative colors, but their Thunderbirds pilot identities as the masters of the giant American compu-bots that run the world doesn’t really change. What does change is how bizarrely science fictional the technologies become–like the wingless drone pilot blowing up cars on a Yemeni highway through a screen in a trailer somewhere in Florida.
Golden Age sf is the indigenous literature of the culture that gave us these technologies that obliterate conventional realities of time, space, and perception. Revisiting that literature can be immensely relevant to understanding the now, if approached from a knowing angle of attack. And in the age of Network culture, when every creator has the tools of atemporal mixing at their disposal, the opportunities for repurposing the futures of the past are much more evident. A lifetime supply of Gernsback continuums are there, waiting to be called back into service for purposeful deconstruction.
I’d be surprised if a single respondent would say that Golden Age stories are too out of date to even read!
We may take issue with the term “Golden Age.”
We may ask skeptical questions about various canons.
We may find that certain stories display such contempt for entire classes of people that we, personally, can’t enjoy them.
We may feel technological questions, of themselves, are the least compelling question in SF.
We may doubt that Golden Age writer [X] should enjoy an eternal seat at the Table of Absolutely Must-Read Classic SF.
We may even be suspicious of the critical commonplace that Golden Age story [Y] is still and always vital because the [soul/heart/human condition/universal character] transcends its anachronistic notions regarding the future.
But despite all of this, I don’t know a lot of writers who are quick to say we should never read something again because it’s outdated. I sure as hell hope no one ever says it of me!
When SF Signal first sent me this question for their latest Mind Meld discussion, I was amazed at how appropriate the question was for me. People have compared my writing to that of Isaac Asimov for its clarity, and when Publisher’s Weekly recommended my collection I Remember the Future, they noted that “Older fans will admire [Burstein’s] dedication to remembering and honoring the past.” The fact is that much of my fiction, such as “Cosmic Cokscrew”, “Paying It Forward”, and the title story “I Remember the Future” itself, deal with how the future will remember the past. It’s one of my personal obsessions.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise to anyone when I say that it is absolutely worth it to recommend Asimov, Heinlein, and other Golden Age writers to the new SF reader.
But when SF Signal actually posed the question, it occurred to me that others might not feel the way I do. It may be self-evident to me that the old writers are worth reading, but why would today’s readers want to pick up one of these older books? To be honest, many of the stories are dated, assuming a world view that no longer exists or a future with technology that is both too primitive and too advance for what exists today. Isn’t it more worth reading only the SF written today, and ignoring the SF written in the dead past?
After thinking about it, I came up with three answers.
1. Many of these stories are actually quite good and worth reading simply on that basis alone. We don’t stop reading Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, or Arthur Conan Doyle simply because they wrote in the past. Why should the science fiction writers of the Golden Age be thought of any differently, just because their stories were set in a future that no longer is considered possible?
2. Stories from the past are a lesson in extrapolation. In a manner of speaking, every science fiction story is like a laboratory experiment, in which initial conditions (the year the story was written in) lead to a hypothesis of what the world might be like in future years. The difference is that we can now compare the hypothesis to the reality and see how accurately the story predicted our world.
As a caveat, I should remind everyone that science fiction writers are not in the business of predicting the world one hundred percent accurately; that’s not our job. Our role is to imagine what the world might be like, and in many cases that might be to warn people away from the futures we describe. But by reading stories from the past, we can learn more about the fears and anxieties of those writers, and get a better idea of how our own modern anxieties inform the science fiction we write today.
3. Finally, many of the stories aren’t dated at all. For example, Robert Heinlein’s If This Goes On – is set in a future United States in which a religious dictatorship has taken hold. The way the story is written, just change a few implied dates and it could easily have been written today and set further ahead. Come to think of it, Nehemiah Scudder is supposed to get elected in 2012….
Much of Asimov, Clarke, and other writers from the Golden Age are also not dated, because either they are set in the far, far future or because they explore universal themes of what it means to be human. No matter that Asimov’s robot stories are based on a world from the 1930s and 1940s and the dates within many of them are already past; they still shine a light on morality and ethics, and how we treat each other.
Finally, one bonus reason to read the stories of the Golden Age: they are still fun to read. Don’t believe me? Ask Jamie Todd Rubin.
Tagged with: Michael A. Burstein
Filed under: Mind Meld
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