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Twenty Years Ago the Classics Were Different

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He concludes the article with a feeling felt by others – that science fiction becomes quickly outdated.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I guess my conclusion is science fiction goes out of date too fast to become classic.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While I might disagree about the outdated part (to me, classic science fiction is charming because it reflects what forward-looking thinking looked like in the past), I have to acknowledge what an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!

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

2 Comments on Twenty Years Ago the Classics Were Different

  1. I don’t know that it’s fair to say sci-fi books haven’t held up, because the comparison would be against modern sci-fi novels.

    It’s like saying that classic works of art are primitive and worthless because they aren’t as visually exciting as, say, a video game cut scene or a movie.

    One would judge the old paintings as “classic” because they were where we came from, they provided the innovations that later art was built upon, until we’ve reached an artistic ability to make film.

    Similarly, there would be no modern sci-fi without classical sci-fi. Of course they read differently, they’re from a different time than the time we live in now, and they have to be judged against that. Otherwise, one would judge Victor Hugo as writing cluttered fiction as compared to Dan Brown.

    (I just put Dan Brown and Victor Hugo in the same sentence. I should be flogged.)

  2. Very interesting article. Not sure that I agree with him totally but I also don’t think he is wildly off base. The problem with any such argument is that it is so subjective. Having him write a follow-up to his own article decades earlier does lend more credence to the argument but it is still not one I think is entirely true.

    I’m not sure comparing science fiction to ‘classics’ of literature is even a fair comparison considering the fact that so many of these ‘classics’ have stood the test of time because schools teach them and at least try to foster a continued love of said treasures. Science fiction has always been looked at as more of a niche genre and the ‘classics’ of science fiction don’t benefit from the same benevolence in regards to getting taught in school, etc.

    I think they stand the test of time the same way that classics like Pride and Prejudice do…they teach us about the times in which they were written and the thought processes of the writers, the visionaries, of that time. Yes, some can be considered ‘quaint’, but that charm is what makes them a ‘classic’ in my opinion. All classics contain outdated words, modes of communication, etc. I think we are harder on science fiction merely because the concepts that become dated are supposed to be based on a future that, in most instances, we still have not arrived at.

    I believe if something is well-written that it rises above any ‘quaintness’ of dialogue that may seem very dated today. I do see his point in that some of the novels that were deemed ‘classic’ at the time may not be thought of the same today if they weren’t particularly well written. Not every ‘classic’ is the work of genius that its fans think it is, very true, but I don’t think this is any more prevalent in science fiction than it is in any other genre of literature. Unfortunately speculative fiction fans seem to always have a need to justify their reading loves, much more so than those who read regular fiction. It shouldn’t be that way. As any long time sci fi reader knows there really are some fantastic ‘classics’ out there as well as future classics from the contemporary sf writers. Books that defy any genre stereotyping and stand out as masterpieces of literary construction.

    A person’s tastes (hopefully) grow and evolve, and their may be some books we think are classics in the making now that won’t stand the test of time for us, but I truly believe there are many marvelous, classic works of science fiction that are as relevant and thought provoking as classics in other genres.

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