[GUEST POST] Gareth L. Powell on How to Escape the Legacy of Science Fiction’s Pulp Roots


Gareth L. Powell is a novelist based in Bristol, UK. He has written four novels and a collection of short stories. His short stories have featured in Interzone magazine as well as numerous anthologies , and his novels have been favourably reviewed in the Guardian. He has written about science fiction for The Irish Times and SFX, and recently penned a comic strip for 2000AD. You can find him on Twitter (@garethlpowell)
His upcoming book Hive Monkey, sequel to Ack-Ack Macaque, will be released by Solaris Books in January 2014.

Moving Forward

by Gareth L. Powell

As science fiction writers and fans, we are rightly proud of our genre’s origins and heritage. Yet sometimes, those same origins can be a millstone around our necks, dragging us down.

I noticed this recently, when I spent an enjoyable evening being quizzed by members of a local book group about one of my novels, which they had been reading. They were a nice group of people but, when they spoke of the science fiction books they had tried previously, not one of them mentioned anything less than fifty years old! In their youths, they’d tried reading Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, but had been put off by, as they saw it, a concentration on ideas at the expense of characterization or literary merit.

As a consequence, not one of them had read anything by any of the modern authors I tend to use as touchstones; authors such as Jon Courtenay Grimwood, William Gibson, M. John Harrison, Richard Morgan, Vernor Vinge, Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds, Aliette de Bodard, Charles Stross, Lauren Beukes, Bruce Sterling…

They hadn’t even heard of China Miéville.

To use a musical analogy, it’s as if they’d listened to an early 1960s Merseybeat album and disliked it, and from that experience decided that they wouldn’t like anything else in the whole 50-year history of rock music.

But, can we really blame them? Those early classics (and the million derivative works they inspired) helped establish and reinforce the popular perception of science fiction as a pulpy and poorly written backwater of literature. For modern non-SF audiences, they have little appeal. Readers are more sophisticated now. The only way we’ll escape the legacy of our pulp roots is to promote the innovation, literary merit, and relevance of the best modern genre writing.

Some fans will always cling to the ‘golden age’ works of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and I can understand why. They provide a magic door back to the simple pleasures of a simpler world – a world before global warming, oil shortages, terrorism, and economic uncertainty; relics of a world where the future was easily understood, and (largely) American, middle class and white in outlook, origin and ethnicity.

Part of me understands and sympathizes with that need for security. I still draw comfort and enjoyment from those old books. Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, Philip K. Dick… These writers are the elder gods in my personal pantheon; but they are neither the beginning nor the end. Society and culture have moved on, and there’s more to our genre than words written more than half a century ago.

As a writer, all my novels have been attempts to take the tropes and settings I loved as a kid and reinvigorate them for a modern audience; to breathe something new into the mix, and reinterpret them for a different age.

Silversands took the classic idea of a Tau Ceti colony and used it as a backdrop to consider issues of corporate nationhood and identity, through a cloned child, a reanimated scientist, and a man so old he’d become sick of life.

In The Recollection, I introduced an intelligent nanotechnological singularity into a reasonably standard space opera setting, in order to discuss notions of love, family and duty; and used a modern day London cabbie as one of my viewpoint characters.

With Ack-Ack Macaque, I explored the boundaries of what it means to be human by focusing on three characters: an uplifted primate, a brain-damaged reporter, and a genetically modified member of the royal family; and in its sequel, Hive Monkey (Solaris Books, January 2014), I continue that tale, employing the furniture of 1930s pulp literature – Zeppelins, Spitfires, cigar-smoking monkey pilots, evil android armies – in order to examine some fundamental philosophical questions to do with artificial intelligence and our notion of what constitutes a person.

Yes, I am paying homage to the rich history of science fiction, but I am also trying to take all the best parts of that history and use them to move forwards. And science fiction should always move forwards, even while tipping its hat to the past.

The books I’ve admired most have all been groundbreaking in their time: books such as Dangerous Visions; Ringworld; The Centauri Device; The Stars My Destination; Babel-17; Roadside Picnic; Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep; Stand On Zanzibar; Neuromancer; Consider Phlebas; Red Mars; A Fire On The Deep; Accelerando; Altered Carbon…and many others.

These books took the rich heritage of science fiction and used it as fuel. They built on what came before. They pushed the boundaries of the genre and, by doing so, enlarged them.

You might not like the New Weird, the new Star Trek reboots or the new Doctor Who episodes, but being a fan’s a bit like being in a marriage. You have to accept that the person you’re with will mature and change, and you have to embrace that, and change with them in order to keep things fresh. You can’t keep your relationship in a plastic bag on a bookshelf in your basement. Treasure your memories and old photographs, but accept that the genre has to keep moving forward in order to renew itself.

Like the blade and handle of the philosopher’s axe, the various ingredients of the genre may change and then change again, but the essential spirit remains. Science fiction isn’t a museum exhibit. It isn’t a collection of musty old paperbacks on a dealer’s table, or a cardboard box of old videos in your attic. It’s a vital and evolving genre, filled with verve and possibility. To let it stagnate would be to let it die.

So, the next time a non-SF reader asks you what they should read, resist the temptation to throw them a copy of Foundation or Slan, and point them instead at something published in the last five years. Maybe even something published in the last five months. They can always go back and dig out the classics later. Give them something modern, and they’re more likely to find characters, ideas and attitudes with which they can relate.

Yes, science fiction has a past, but it also has a future, and to focus on one at the expense of the other risks killing the restless spirit that’s taken us this far.

50 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Gareth L. Powell on How to Escape the Legacy of Science Fiction’s Pulp Roots”

  1. “… They can always go back and dig out the classics later. ”

    Well, I agree. I don’t think new readers need to cut their teeth on FOUNDATION or SLAN or E.E. Doc Smith. Eventually, readers might like to mine the genre asteroid and see where the field has come from, but new readers do NOT need to start there. And, as you say, shouldn’t.

    1. I don’t think new readers do cut their teeth on Asimov/Clarke/Heinlein anymore at all. Or even Star Trek or Star Wars, which are almost as ancient. I think young people come to science via comic books, video games, graphic novels and a general pop culture awareness of science fiction. I think most young SF fans aren’t readers, and if they are, it’s from reading writers I know little about. It’s us old fans that are stuck in the Classic SF past.

      1. My sales here at our bookstore indicate that some younger readers do read the classics; we can’t keep The Foundation trilogy or most of Heinlein’s books on our shelves. A lot of students mine the classic stuff, from Andre Norton to Stanislaw Lem. Curiously, nobody buys Clarke.

  2. Well, I disagree. At least in part.

    Some of the argument here is kind of reductio ad absurdum: “Those early classics (and the million derivative works they inspired) helped establish and reinforce the popular perception of science fiction as a pulpy and poorly written backwater of literature.”

    Which ones? Says Who? And – just exactly which pulp era are you talking about? 1895 – 1925? 1926 – 1938? The Campbell era?

    ” In their youths, they’d tried reading Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, but had been put off by, as they saw it, a concentration on ideas at the expense of characterization or literary merit” yet, belying your title (Escape the Legacy…) “As a writer, all my novels have been attempts to take the tropes and settings I loved as a kid…”

    I wish we could once and for all ditch this false dichotomy and truly engage with the genre in the manner you suggest, thinking of it as a “marriage”. That older, wider, presumably smarter/better/faster marriage did not arise from nothingness. It built upon all that went before and would NOT be what it is today without all that went before, both the good and the bad (with the “bad” more often than not teaching the more valuable lessons).

    The tropes one plays with today and “modernizes” for the presumably wiser and more sophisticated audience (a subject that is itself greatly open to debate)by adding “character” (and modern science) would not exist had they not first been invented and polished by those character-lacking, clunkily adjectivizing, gosh-wow simpletons of that by-gone era. (Those by-gone eras.)

    I’ll take a moment for an aside regarding the “book group” you were quizzed by: from their apparent lack of experience and the statements you suggest they make, it is apparent to me that they are a “literary” book group, looking for involvement with character that is a “trope” of that particular genre. Polling such a group on its SFnal likes and dislikes is like trying to find approving nods for Obama while polling a Tea Party meeting. Not. Gonna. Happen.

    And why, when, as a genre, we have largely rejected the need and desire to make all readers love our stuff (with particular pleading attention paid to the literary side of the divide) are we suddenly backtracking?

    How is the “modern” reader going to understand the tropes and conventions, the assumptions and the basic gestalt of SF without a grounding in the basics?

    I don’t think the solution is rejecting our roots and I don’t think there is anything at all wrong with recommending the classics – IF your goal is to eventually end up with an educated, knowledgeable, informed and engaged reader of genre. The solution is (as we have always known) to convert them early – at 10 or 12 or maybe even 16. We don’t want “readers” – we want Fans. The important thing here is not the writing style, nor the quality, nor even how much or how little a contemporary work conforms to whatever we think the audience is looking for these days – it’s engendering the sense of wonder and the learned experience of the suspension of disbelief. It is difficult to nearly impossible to create such in an adult mind that has already calcified (another reason not to try and sway non-genre book groups).

    If this hadn’t gotten as long as it did, I’d go on to argue that the presumed “lack of characterization” in earlier works is a virtue rather than a problem – a deliberate technique to place emphasis on the IDEAS presented (“Science Fiction – the literature of ideas”); employing stereotypes (negatively ‘cardboard characters’) is a quick trick for sketching in background and character without having to devote excessive words to the task. Evil Scientist. Straightlaced Hero. Damsel in Distress. Bad Guy with a Heart of Gold. These cutouts – lacking in full-fleshdom – also allow the reader a much greater opportunity to place themselves into the story. Any (male) can imagine themselves as John Carter (if I were on Barsoom, I’d be able to jump just like him…. And any female can imagine themselves as Dejah or Thuvia, sword in hand, indomitable spirit unquenched.)Few can put themselves into Walter White’s shoes. As a result, instead of being IN the story, we merely watch the story. Carter remains popular 100+ years after his introduction. It will be interesting to see if Walter will even be remembered 100 years from now.

    I will agree that the genre needs to move past the white-anglo-american/british centered base it originated from, but that seems to be happening (albeit perhaps not as quickly as many would like). That base is, at least in some respects, the result of cultural influences far outside the control of any single literary genre. English has been the “lingua franca” since just after WWI, (not surprisingly the same time that science fiction was coming into its own) so it is not surprising at all that native english writers have dominated the international scene. Few non-english works could navigate the expense and work required of translations. Reductions in publishing costs, the growing global economy and better technologies are rectifying that – and would be doing so regardless of the content. (Which doesn’t mean we all shouldn’t be trying to encourage this trend as much as possible.)

    In summation: you can’t dismiss SF’s past works. Just as SF is the literature of ideas and ideas must remain the transcendent focus of the genre, it is also a literature “in dialogue with itself”, which, belaboring the point, means that without everything that has gone before, you’re building castles in the swamp: they’ll fall over and sink into the quagmire, maybe even burning along the way. Suggesting that they lack something is a mis-read of purpose and intent.

    So I say: give them a copy of The Science Fiction Hall Of Fame (the short story is, after all, the primary SF form) – as long as they’re 16 or under. The rest? Take them to see Star Wars. They’re going to think of it as “Sci Fi” no matter what you say to them.

  3. Steve really summed up much of what I had to say and did it very nicely, thank you Steve!

    I agree with what I take to be your overall point, that simply regurgitating a list of the more well known classics, even if we are passionate about them, is unlikely to be a successful way to ignite the spark of science fiction passion in new readers. In this social media driven culture, giving them something current to engage with not only offers them a potentially great reading experience but also gives them the option to perhaps find a lively discussion at various sites around the web focused on said book. I think this helps engage them in the community.

    I find that readers in general, prolific readers at any rate, will come to an interest in the classics simply by getting them engaged in the genre community. At the very least they will participate in a dialogue about those works.

    I sense a thread of negativity towards the classics in this post that rubs up against your declaration of enjoyment of certain classics and desire to take the elements of those books in a new direction. I’m not sure equating liking the classics with a need for security and comfort and using phrases like the “poorly written backwater of literature” do much to support your point but instead are minor digs that in some ways serve to undermine the true focus of your message, which again I doubt any science fiction fans disagree with.

    At any rate, very interesting post and I like how you described what your intentions were with your books. I haven’t read your novels but am more interested in doing so now.

    1. Carl, I don’t think Powell is being dismissive of classic SF, he’s just saying you don’t have to start with the classics, or old fans shouldn’t get stuck with just reading them.

      What’s interesting is there were many generations of science fiction before the “classics” that most lovers of classic SF know little about. To other SF fans, Classic SF might mean the 1980s and 1990s.

      I think a lot of people get stuck in the pop culture generation they grew up with as teens. This is true for music, TV, movies, etc. I know a lot of people my age who refuse to listen to music that came out after 1970 or 1975. I think Powell’s point is much like mine when I try to get my old baby boomer friends to try Arcade Fire, Kings of Leon, Ke$ha or even Nicki Manaj.

      1. I don’t think his intention was to be dismissive, but as I pointed out there are clear examples of negativity about the classics that rub up against his greater point, which I agree with, is that a standard response of going to the classics is not the best place to start when introducing new readers to science fiction. I think the parts of the article that have gotten people’s dander up could have been excised without losing the point of the argument.

        1. Boy did it get people’s dander up. I guess I’m more on Powell’s side, and agree that the past can be a millstone around the neck of the modern SF writer. What if every songwriter had to hear, “This tune is nice, but the lyrics pale compared to Bob Dylan.”

          If I wrote a robot story, will it always be compared to Asimov?

          I’m also reminded of my school days. My English teacher wanted me to read old books, and I wanted to read new books.

          Also, I have too many baby boomer friends who won’t try new stuff, whether it’s science fiction, pop music, television shows or movies.

          And I can imagine the burden of kids who’s science fiction loving parents want them to start with Heinlein/Asimov/Clarke but they want to read The Hunger Games.

          1. It makes for fun debating, at any rate.

            I’m 100% in agreement that SF recommendations for the general crowd (which is what we are talking about when discussing getting readers interested in SF) should be contemporary. If they are readers, recommendations should fall along the lines of what they already like.

            I’m 100% against the notion that the classics are of little or no value to the general reader. Do I think the *need* to be read? Absolutely not. Reading is a form of entertainment…read what pushes your buttons. That being said, I know through my own personal experience of reading most of the classics I’ve read as an adult and from the MANY group readings I’ve done with readers of all comfort levels of SF, reading the classics can afford not only great entertainment but fascinating discussions.

            Any thinking that says readers shouldn’t avail themselves of the classics is narrow-minded. (And keep in mind I don’t believe this is what Powell was saying, but some of the discussions seem to lean this way).

            I think the bigger issue being danced around here is that it is sometimes the SF “community” and not the SF “book” that puts readers off. Rather than being able to approach science fiction (in the broadest sense of the definition) as something to be embraced in all forms, we often argue about what is relevant, moan about the death of the genre, and draw up battle lines about what we are passionate about while denigrating what other SF fans are passionate about.

            That, to me, is the bigger issue.

  4. You know it’s funny that “mainstream” readers don’t like “the concentration on ideas at the expense of characterization or literary merit.”

    Because that’s exactly what I love about classic science fiction.

    I’m an idea man. I’m always thinking new things and to me it’s more important for a book to have interesting ideas then to have interesting characters.

    Of course I’m not speaking in absolutes obviously if there is no characterization or the writing is bad, even a novel that has great ideas will be unbalanced.

    However, take Asimov as an example. His writing is sparse on description and characterization. My dad describes him as a campfire storyteller. But his ideas are always so fantastic and compelling. He is easily one of my favorite writers.

    Maybe it’s just because I’ve been reading science fiction for so long that I’m only hard-wired for reading “bad literature” but I can’t stand books that have pages and pages of descriptions and don’t seem to get to the point!

    Again I’m not speaking in absolutes I loved the Hemingway novels I’ve read and he is one of those authors that often goes on descriptive tangents, but he makes it work!

    I find as a general rule that modern science fiction is more descriptive, but it is unfortunately sometimes to the point of being over-written. I mean all you have to do is look at the average page count of classic science fiction And you’ll find that most are 150-250 pages where as modern science fiction is 600 or more pages. Are the extra pages filled with more ideas? Sometimes, but most of the time it’s descriptions and characterization and sometimes I wish modern science fiction authors would just get to the point. Other times I love every page.

    P.S. I love your musical analogy!

  5. Some interesting responses here, thank you. Lots here to think about – especially from you, Steve!

    Just to repeat what I said in the post: I’m definitely NOT advocating throwing out or dismissing the old classics, just suggesting that they might be off-putting for someone coming to the genre cold. I know several people – my wife included – who have had that reaction.

    What I am doing is advocating the ongoing evolution of the genre, and trying to suggest ways to attract more readers. And if I seemed to be getting in some “digs”, please put them down to rhetorical flourish rather than malice. :-)

    Thank you for your comments!

    All the best,
    Gareth

    1. Gareth,

      thanks for getting back.

      I will admit that I am a dyed-in-the-wool classicist. I will also admit that your headline and opening statement pushed a button: the one right next to the “sf isn’t predictive” button, is in a row of buttons that also contains “margaret atwood the great denier explains SF to us”…”black and white films suck”, “John carpenter’s The Thing was better than the original”, “old sf is old – they didn’t even have cell phones then!” and “what do we need to go into space for when there’s so many problems here on the ground”.

      (I have a lot of buttons).

      I have no doubt that your original intent was as you say in your follow-on, but – buttons.

      I think it a valuable exercise to remind folks from time to time that, despite what they may read in Wikipedia, SF IS predictive (in a forecasting kind of manner) and that the greats deliberately engaged in that exercise to a purpose, that there IS a difference between SF and fantasy; that SCI FI WAS a pejorative form (as was space opera); that SF STARTS with the written word (and often should end there); that anyone who describes the genre as “talking squids in space” is unfit to comment on said genre; that the ghetto DOES serve a purpose and attempts should be made to preserve it against all erosion; that being a fan is truly a fine and lonely thing; that mainstream authors who “borrow” from the genre should be ridden to the sea on a rail (lets see if the tar and feathers make them float); that director “auteurs” do far more damage to the genre than any amount of popularity can mitigate and that John Carter was an atrocious abomination of a rape of a seminal work. In short – science fiction uber alles, if I can borrow an inappropriate term. (And that’s REAL science fiction….)

        1. sterling,

          I’ll not argue that it is about what the reader wants (of course, they should WANT to read science fiction…)

          But I have difficulty in simply accepting the “so much sexism, clunky writing, bad characterization…”

          Clunky writing is largely in the eye of the critic. Even if a group read results in most agreeing with that assessment, it is still a subjective preference. One might easily level the same but opposite charge at much of contemporary SF: too over-wrought, unnecessarily emotion, overly descriptive, stretching the word count…etc. Neither of us would be right, neither of us wrong.

          Sexism: yes. Certainly by today’s standards, maybe by the standards of the day they were written – maybe.

          One can’t let that go by without noting the necessity of mentioning that a work and its author is a product of its time. Do we level charges of sexism against Shelley’s Frankenstein, against Sir Conan Doyle’s Holmes? Or do we approach the work from the knowledge that it is dated and hearkens from a different era and treat those differences from an academic distance? If we think about it, do we really believe that Heinlein or Asimov or Sturgeon or any of the others would continue to write in inappropriate ways today, or do we believe they’d be more open and knowledgeable and contemporary?

          The bones? It honestly mystifies me when things like no cell phones or computers running on tape, or no internet, or even Venus and Mars with livable atmospheres, are allowed to get in the way of a good read. Ok, so it used to be science fiction and now it’s a work of fantasy…technological advancement stopping with the steam engine is ok, but navigating in space with a sliderule isn’t? This one honestly baffles me. If you have a sense of wonder (and if you read SF you do), why is it so difficult to assume “parallel universe, things are different, here we go for an entertaining ride”? – even if the author’s original intent was “this is a true and accurate depiction of the near future that you will one day experience”. How much difference is there?

        2. well, that other reply ought to have been to Sterling…

          Gareth – I’m not surprised. John probably wrote it just the way it was to get me to come out of the woodwork!

    2. Doesn’t it really come down to your sense of the particular person(s) with whom you are communicating? I mean, even in one’s own family: you might recommend one story or book to your spouse, a different one to your oldest child, etc. — and these would be people who, presumably, have important things in common. How much more would you find varying interests and tastes beyond that group?

      I had a sophomore-level group of college students to whom I provided an intro to sf in the context of an intro-to-lit-in-general course. I assigned ten stories, the shortest being Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day” and the longest being Budrys’s “Rogue Moon,” with chronological representation as far back as Lovecraft’s “Colour Out of Space” (1927 or so) to Connie Willis’s “DA” from a few years ago. Most of the stories were acknowledged classics — Shaw’s “Light of Other Days,” Moore and Kuttner’s “Vintage Season,” etc. The unit was a big success, to judge by quiz scores, class participation, etc. I would do it again!

  6. Now that the rant has thankfully run its course (building again, always building):

    I laud your attempts and advocacy of moving the genre forward and keeping it relevant for today’s audience.

    I am in disagreement however with this “trying to suggest ways to attract more readers.”.

    I may very well be wrong, but my experience has been that an individual is either a reader of SF or they aren’t.

    I honestly don’t believe that you can market someone into becoming an SF reader. Getting them to read a single novel? A particular short story – sure (you like monkeys right? here’s this great SF novel with monkeys in it…)

    But to “turn someone into a reader of SF”, I believe, requires the nascent spark, however it is genetically encoded, to already be in place. The lock has to be there before you can stick a key into it.

    I believe this to be true for most, if not all genre reading: westerns do it for those with the western genre gene; mysteries, sports tales, war stories, crime fighting, super heroes. Some of use (myself not included) are apparently blessed with the “pulp” version of the gene, allowing them to get excited and inspired by any genre so long as there is enough pulp content included.

    The only solution readily available if I am correct in some small fashion is to insure that every child growing up receives some exposure to science fiction and and opportunity to engage with it. At least that way we’ll find most of those blessed with the SF gene.

    Adults? I’ve yet (over decades of struggle) to discover a non-reader of SF who has acquired the taste in adult life. Not one single one. Many will be attracted to a singular work (you may find, for instance, non-SF reader fans of say, Firefly, or Star Trek, but due to the non-transference to the rest of the genre, one is forced to believe that their interest is in something other than the SFnal content. Either your a dreamer or you aren’t. Either you have the mental capacity to imagine worlds beyond this one or not.

    I’m not saying don’t try – we need every single reader we can get. I’m just saying that if a concerted effort were to be made, I’d go for the gene sequencing thing rather than the (literary) readers group. They get excited by emotions, not spaceships and robots!

    1. “But to “turn someone into a reader of SF”, I believe, requires the nascent spark, however it is genetically encoded, to already be in place. The lock has to be there before you can stick a key into it.”

      So, in the end, SF readers are born, not made, in your view? I’m not sure I agree with that.

      1. I wouldn’t say I believe it as anything other than a theory; perhaps it is environmental with genetic keys: a certain set of events must occur during the person’s early life.

        I’ll say this: from a decades long casual observational study of the issue, I would say that most people are either SF readers or not SF readers. In other words, you find people who will tolerate or even like it, and you find people who dislike it on mention and little leeway between the two. I’ll also say that I have utterly failed in my attempts to turn close friends and family members who aren’t SF readers into SF readers.

        Or vice versa. This does seem to suggest some power compulsion, whether it is genetic or environmental, or a combination thereof.

        1. Steve, with all due respect, I think your attitude may be the reason you’re not converting any new readers. Sci fi is like any genre–if we don’t adapt, we will die out after a long and embarrassing period of obsolescence. I realise that not everyone likes gooey feelings all over their science fiction, but the genre has room to grow. I got started on a mixture of the classics and newer sci fi more or less simultaneously, and while I love PKD and Heinlein, there’s no denying that the world has moved on from their era. Science fiction is about exploring the future, and if we root ourselves solely in the past, we’re doing a disservice to the genre’s soul.

          1. Magpie,

            I think perhaps my unbridled passion/advocacy/fetish has confused things a bit:

            First, for the record – my conversion efforts started in the late 60s and have been on-going since; they took place with family members, with school chums, with college professors, with work mates (professional and non-professional) and those efforts have run the gamut (almost literally) from simply suggesting a (contemporary) book to “forcing” people to read stuff and attend conventions with me. Nothing, not the soft sell, nor the threats of imminent death and dismemberment, nothing, has worked. (This also largely extends to those who would seem to be natural converts, those who already evidence an interest via SFnal games or media properties: even pointing out non-canon works by authors who produce “based-on” novels has not worked.)

            Now as to your other statements: absolutely true – the world has moved on. And everything in the world that has moved on is based on what went before. And it is absolutely true that “those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.” Which seems to be the lot cast for authors of science fiction who have not really engaged with the literature – which is something I object to.

            Take Charlie Stross (a contemporary example): Charlie is, apparently, greatly steeped in what has gone before. A novel like Saturn’s Children would not be possible without his intimate knowledge of certain classics – and it is probably a dull read for those who do not have a similar background (I can’t say for sure as I do have a similar background). Actually, rather than suggesting it a dull read, I really ought to say that fully one third of that novel is inaccessible to those who have no background. It would be a far better read for them if they did.

            I am in no way suggesting that we do not allow the genre to move forward, nor do I suggest that folks should read the classics (which ones? what’s a classic?) to the exclusion of all else.

            Perhaps the best way to implement what I really would like to see going on would be for those newly entering the field to read the afterwords, the interviews with the authors that are available, the author’s own Goodreads lists and take the time to check out the works of the authors recommended, rely upon and work into their own pieces as a gentle and extremely informative way of acquiring that background. Saturn’s Children is, for example, largely based on Heinlein’s Friday (as well as the oeuvre of Heinlein’s “Future History”). Especially in light of many of the criticisms leveled at Friday, it would probably be revelatory to see what Charlie did with it.

            And yes, science fiction is about exploring (and as I contend, often “forecasting”) the future. That future is mutable because it is based on what happened before and inspired by what is happening now. I think though that one strong remaining influence is that many contemporary SF authors are basing their experiences, techniques and subjects on the science fiction that they read and those works are necessarily the ones now being referred to as “classics”.

            I suppose that the big thing I object to is what comes across to me as an almost knee-jerk dismissal of the classics: rejecting them out of hand because of presumed “datedness” or because their culture was not as enlightened as ours – while at the same time works that are MUCH older are accorded deference, based on perhaps nothing more than that same “datedness”. When we examine Frankenstein, we pay scant attention to the ways in which it departs from our own cultural mores; we don’t weigh it down with accusations of intolerance, lack of diversity, sexism, poor representations of technology and out-dated ideas. And even when we do, it is frequently excused as being a product of its time. Instead we seek out the threads of continuity, the tropes and idioms that survive the test of time and applaud it for its now tattered visionary offerings.

            Where’s the dividing line? Is it really necessary for a couple of hundred years to pass before our classic works move from hoary old encumbered works to true classic? (Those few – and there will be some – that will remain.)

            Sturgeon’s Law. I object to the all-inclusive dismissal of works based solely on the era in which they were produced. At least ten percent of them are still worth reading. I object to the concomitant suggestion that everything about those works is dismiss-able as well. At the very least, being familiar with them teaches new authors what to stay away from – or what can be played with.

            But no, I am not in any way suggesting that one should only read SF produced before, say, 1985 to the exclusion of all else. Bottom line – some science fiction in your life is better than no science fiction in your life.

            All I am really suggesting is that there is no reason to shy away from the older works, they still remain relevant to today’s works and having a knowledge and background in the history of the field greatly rewards the reader (if not the author).

  7. I run a book group of folks who are quite well-educated in the ways of SF. Each year, we revisit a few of the classics, and each time, we end up a little uncomfortable. We can see the bones there, and know what came after these older works is playing with tropes that the classics created. However…

    So much sexism. Such bad characterization. Often, such clunky writing. Many of these authors were loved by me when I was younger, but the books really have not aged well.

    So, I wouldn’t start someone with the classics, because if they see the sexism, clunky writing, and aged topics, they’re not really likely to come back for more. Instead, I’ll look for an accessible book (love Charles Stross myself, but he’s hard for a neophyte) with decent writing and an interesting plot that moves along. Examples? Well, depending on the reader, maybe the Hunger Games. Maybe Jim Butcher, Max Gladstone, Myke Cole,Courtney Shafer,Elizabeth Bear, Ian Tregillis ( I used to work at a bookstore so I can do this all day). I learned at the bookstore that it’s about what the reader wants and will enjoy, not what I like the best.

  8. Thank you, Sterling, for getting there just ahead of me. I emphatically do not recommend ‘the classics’ which I personally loved back in the day, to new and curious teen-plus readers because they are so badly dated, most especially in their attitudes towards women.

    I don’t have to, because there as so many good books far more relevant to current times and experience by those authors already cited. I’ll also add Janet Edwards, Stephanie Saulter, Samit Basu, Danie Ware, James A Corey – just to be going on with.

    1. I blogged something similar over on Blackgate and got mostly sheepish, “darn you’re right responses”. Most of the old stuff has dated horribly, if not in a literary way then morally. Plus retro futures are confusing to a novice.

  9. Hmmm….now where is that article about how possessive SF fans are condemning their genre to its doom….oh yes here it is…

    Science fiction”, then – the science fiction that is in crisis – is the residue left behind by that evaporative process. That residue comprises the generic-ness from which the label genre stems: in this case, the outdated stylistic tics and aesthetics of a marginal pulp-modernist medium, the clichés, the well-worn assumptions and comfortable call-backs, and the outdated institutional values in which they were nurtured and framed.

    http://lareviewofbooks.org/contributor/paul-graham-raven

    1. Well Damien, without wading into the verbosity and usage of ten-cent words Raven seems fond of, all I can say is that the “residue” left behind by many distillation processes is often highly valued.

  10. Methinks Mr. Powell should leave SF for a few days and read some ancient history, the 1940s through, say, the 1970s, which he seems to run together as The Golden Age of SF (though as some here have pointed out, the term Golden Age traditionally means before the New Wave). He writes “simple pleasures of a simpler world – a world before global warming, oil shortages, terrorism, and economic uncertainty.” What was simpler about a world that included World War 2, the Cold War, the breakdown of European colonial empires, the Civil Rights struggle, the advent of nuclear weapons, the socially disruptive force of television, the greatly liberating introduction of birth control pills (freeing middle class women from enforced domesticity), the massive (in America at least) migration from cities to suburbia, the war in Vietnam (which was doubtless far more significant in America than in Britain). Good grief, what was simpler about it? I would argue that the very small population subset of SF writers and readers MIGHT have had a simpler worldview, which is part of what the New Wave (in SF AND other literature AND film) was a reaction against.

    1. As a historian that studies SF, and not from the US (I’m from Brazil), I agree with that. To say SF back then was just something out of white, middle-class, heterosexual men, and therefore too privileged to care about the world, is not true.

      If you read Asimov’s Caves of Steel, there is a very harsh critique of Cold War’s politics by someone that was born soviet and then became american, for example.

      For me, old SF works are at the same time History books and Fictional books, because if you pay attention you’ll learn a lot on the politics of the time. Still on Caves of Steel, there is a time when a woman says robots are taking all their jobs, and I thought it was a prediction because of the entire problem of immigrants in the US, but then I discovered there already existed that problem in the 1950s.

  11. Some excellent comments, thank you all.

    Rudy – just to clarify (and maybe I should have expressed myself more clearly in the post) when I was talking about simpler times, I meant childhood. I am assuming that the readers still treasuring those classic texts were likely much younger when they first read them. There’s a famous quote that the “golden age of SF is 14″ but I can’t remember off-hand who said it. I wasn’t commenting on the wider social picture, which I agree was rather turbulent.

  12. Can somebody please define golden age as we’re using it here?

    A friend referred me here saying “I don’t know what golden age sci-fi is, but here’s an article about golden age stuff.”

    After seeing works from the 70’s included in its definition, seeing the Neuromancer listen as an example of it, and seeing nstructions to recommend sci-fi from the last five years treated as though they are mutually exclusive to recommending a work from Niven (Who is alive and kicking), I begin to wonder if the writer knows any more what golden age sci-fi is than my friend does.

    How are we using “Golden Age?”

    1. Hi Caleb. Neuromancer isn’t included in the ‘golden age’, it’s included on a list of books I’ve enjoyed because of the way they took pre-existing tropes and reinvigorated them.
      All the best.

    2. Historically, Science Fiction’s “golden age” most often seems to refer to the period from 1938, when Campbell was in full editorial control of Astounding SF, and lasted until the advent of the New Wave, which took place sometime during the mid 1960s.

      Tellingly, Asimov’s anthology of early science fiction is entitled Before the Golden Age and includes works from Amazing, Astounding and Science Wonder Stories, all of which were published prior to 1938.

      I personally place the identifier of “classic” at a rolling 25 year mark, which at this point would be 1988.

  13. Why is it called the Golden Age when all the best science fiction was published after from the 90s onwards? Writers who could actually write, etc etc?

    Damien

    1. Aside from the Golden Age for sf ranging from 10-14 depending on who’s pontificating (when all the better written work one might encounter blow one’s mind, as being a bit more sophisticated than the STAR TREK or TWILIGHT ZONE or even DOCTOR WHO episodes one might’ve seen by then), the “Golden Age” of sf fixed in common time varies enormously as well, with a lot of nostalgic readers reaching for the early John Campbell era at his magazines ASTOUNDING and the fantasy companion UNKNOWN (later, UNKNOWN WORLDS), not hardly all the way up to the innovations encouraged by John Carnell, Cele Goldsmith/Lalli, Avram Davidson, Frederik Pohl, and particularly Michael Moorcock, Harry Harrison, Kyril Bonfiglione, Keith Roberts and the rest of the crew at their magazines in the 1960s, but usually wrapping up after Campbell’s attempts to instill a new literacy as well as conceptual rigor in sf and fantasy had borne significant fruit, and the other magazines in the field, very much including THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION (never afraid of and usually encouraging good prose, since 1949) were likewise doing at least as well, on balance–even two of the most common loci for ridiculous if sometimes well-written and often entertaining adventure fiction, space opera and otherwise, had taken on a new sophistication by the late 1940s: the Standard Group of STARTLING STORIES/THRILLING WONDER STORIES/etc, and PLANET STORIES. Damien, if you genuinely think no one “could actually write” before the 1990s, you are dire need of a refresher course in writers ranging from Fritz Leiber through Joanna Russ back to Leigh Brackett or Kurt Vonnegut and forward in time again to, say, Karen Joy Fowler; the Avram Davidson work closest to his heart that you’ve clearly missed should keep you busy for a while–and that leaves aside such folks as Karel Capek and this obscure H. G. Wells fellow who were not nurtured by the sf magazines themselves, though Wells was a regular contributor to some of their key generalist predecessors.

      1. Sorry, the editor of SCIENCE FANTASY for a stretch in the 1960s, as well as writer of sometimes slightly surreal crime fiction, was Kyril Bonfiglioli, of course.

    2. ummm – maybe because it was the era in which science fiction came into its own, developed most (if not all) of its themes, became an industry treated seriously by some, created a market for those writing now, inspired a generation to become engineers and scientists (who took us to the moon)….

      1. You mean the point it was commodified and churned out like burger meat? That doesn’t sound like a Golden Age to me. Just another bit of marketing spin.

        Kurt Vonnegut could write. But the SF genre has always clung on to him like those towns claim famous people who were just passing through. SF is interesting enough to make part of your education as a writer and many do, but it’s a dead end without the broader context of literature. Most of what SF does is done elsewhere in fiction and better. In many ways it’s like beginner lit.

          1. While I understand what Damien’s saying here — that SF is often used as a set for talking about real issues, when those real issues are more hard-hitting when they are discussed in first world fiction, or non-fiction. However, I disagree, pretty much entirely. I’m not going to defend golden age SF for a second, any more than I feel I need to defend my dog eating shit off the sidewalk. Yes it’s dumb, but I love them for it and they don’t know any better.

            Fact is, SF and Fantasy discuss things that aren’t real yet or can’t be real. They allow us to use narrative and characterization to discuss events and situations that otherwise would only appear in staid essays no one will read. At least, I won’t. There’s a negative extreme to this — see 2312, which is basically an essay with some characters thrown on, or a movie such as Elysium, which took a very intriguing setup and turned into violence porn. But there are stories that cannot be told in this world, but still matter to this world. For that, we need SF, and I don’t think any other genre can do what SF does better.

          2. It’s not that you’re challenging assumptions, Damien, so much as that you seem to be attempting to challenge them from a position of ignorance. If you wish to select only Kurt Vonnegut from the list of excellent stylists I cited (and I haven’t come close to exhausting all those who contributed good prose to sf and fantasy in the decades before the 1990s), you seem to be suggesting that his is the only work you might’ve read. And Vonnegut never actually left sf behind, any more than, say, Jonathan Lethem has…writing other work doesn’t separate one from one’s earlier work, and Vonnegut particularly continued contributing to sf throughout his career.

  14. I’m coming in very late, so I’ll just say that Steve Davidson took the words from my mouth and leave it there. I certainly don’t think the works of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, not to mention Poul Anderson, Hal Clement and a host of other writers was “a pulpy and poorly written backwater of literature”. Besides, the pulp era was the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.

    Ignore the earlier works id you wish, but please don’t imply that they should be ignored by all SF-F writers and readers.

    1. Hi RkR, I don’t think they constitute a “a pulpy and poorly written backwater of literature” either; I said that there was a popular perception that they did, and there is. Many people think science fiction is all Buster Crabbe and tin foil robots. I don’t think that, and nor do you. As SF enthusiasts, we have that perception to overcome if we want to attract others to our genre.

  15. Besides, I fully expect that 50 or 60 years from now, someone will say the works being written now don’t matter much because look how great the NEW stuff is.

    1. Yes, and at least in some cases (most) they’ll probably be correct – for that audience.

      But there will always remain a “residue” from times that have gone before that will stand out, remain and continue to inspire.

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