I like to make my opinions known (duh – blog). I also like a good argument. Judging from commentary received here and in emails (not many, just a few, from folks who I wish would comment here instead), the position offered by Ian Sales (don’t use classic sf to introduce people to the genre) and my position against that position IS a good argument.
However. I’d like it to be an argument where the word is used to denote position, rather than heightened emotionality. One where our different positions illuminate the middle ground (the place where the real truth often lies).
I used some language and presented my statements in a way that was over the top and provacative (I think mostly justifiably so – I was trying to strike the same tone that Ian used in his own piece) – not to make an emotionally charged attack on Ian, but by way of illustrating one aspect of his argument.
Such methods of argumentation can be easily misconstrued and quickly spiral out of control. So, before returning to the discussion, I’d like anyone reading or participating to know this:
I don’t know Ian (well, now I do, sorta, kinda). I am not familiar with his work (as I pointed out in the first piece) and my default position on authors with whom I’m not familiar is to assume that their work wouldn’t be out there unless some people called editors who know what they’re doing thought it was pretty darned good stuff.
I am not judging Ian the man based on this exchange (I hope he isn’t judging Steve the man on this exchange either) – only this particular position vis-a-vis old/classic/ancient/whatever SF.
Nor am I suggesting by writing these few paragraphs that Ian is descending into emotional argument while I am maintaining the high road. Not at all. I’m just trying to make sure that the rhetoric we both have been using isn’t misconstrued as some kind of flame war.
And to apologize to Ian if he felt that I stepped on his toes or handled my response in a way that he felt was a personal attack. Ian, if you did feel such, it wasn’t intended that way. If you didn’t feel that way, then please ignore all this blather and just skip down a bit.
”In 1968, the Science Fiction Writers of America voted Nightfall the best science fiction short story ever written prior to the establishment of the Nebula Awards in 1965 and included it in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One, 1929-1964.” (Wikipedia, but accurate in this particular case.)
Okay, so they didn’t hand Isaac a plaque or something. I’d still refer to the above as an award.
Ian said (in the comments) “For the record, I’ve been reading sf for around 30 years, and that includes pretty much all the classics. I’ve no idea why you decided I hadn’t read them”. Well, because of this: “Readers new to the genre are not served well by recommendations to read Isaac Asimov, EE ‘Doc’ Smith, Robert Heinlein, or the like. Such fiction is no longer relevant,” You were clearly encompassing the entire classic era and it is absolutely beyond me how anyone who has read ‘all’ of the classics can’t find a single work that they’d use as introductory material. Yes, it was hyperbole.
Paul Raven: “Especially considering that, towards the end, you say that recommending books to new readers of sf is “a highly individualistic enterprise” (so, best not to blanket-recommend Asimov/Heinlein/Clarke, then, surely) and that “those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it in writing” (which might be why Sales suggests that sf writers should certainly be well-read in the classics of the genre, perhaps).”
Paul, I did cover that at the end: “Ian does try to redeem himself a bit at the end by saying “I don’t think we should refuse to read old classic works, but we must recognise that they’re historical documents. And add that caveat to any such recommendations or commentary. Further, modern sf readers shouldn’t need to be aware of everything which has gone before, but modern sf writers certainly ought to.”
This is all I have to say about that: “Here’s this really old, out of date, badly written, idea-based historical document, Billy. Not only must you read it, but you MUST hate it. Later, we’ll have milk and cookies while I read you a modern SF tale with wonderfully written sentences in it.”
I recognized Ian’s caveat, didn’t ignore it. I then went on to point out that presenting the classics in such a manner is just like one of those push polls: would you prefer to read this old piece of trash or this shiny new relevant and exciting piece?
Look. It’s ALL science fiction. It is a continuum and the present can not be divorced from its past. If Ian believes that we can place all of literary SF into two distinct historical periods and only make recommendations to new readers from one of those periods – he at least has to recognize that the bar moves inexorably forward each and every day. I guess the real question to be asking Ian at this point is – where’s the cut off? Is it strictly based on the calendar (remove everything with a copyright date of 1983 or older from the shelves immediately!), is it based on the author (ooops! This guy was born in the 1920s – strike him from the lists!) or is it based on the individual work.
Ian’s argument would seem to be based on either the calendar or the author, while I base it on the individual work (and think everyone else ought to also).
Oh, and Paul – this blog is devoted to Crotchety Oldness, so I need not explain why you must get off my lawn; use the path and knock on the front door. Defense of the old guard and a belief that the OLD stuff is just as valid as the new stuff are givens over here.
Yes Ian, I did read your whole piece. And I’m pretty sure I understood the thrust of your argument. If we reduce it to its core, you are (my words) dismissing everything written prior to say, 1990, as an inappropriate vehicle for introducing new readers to the genre.
Obviously I disagree. My point is: if you remain open to the entire genre as source material, you probably stand a better chance of finding the perfect work for introductory purposes. One perfect example is Bradbury. In my experience, a lot of “I don’t read that SF stuff” people were captured by Bradbury and surprised to discover that he is considered an SF/Fantasy genre author.
Another way of looking at is the treatment that old works not of the SF genre receive: are the circumstances in Hamlet still ‘relevant’? Yet it is still widely taught, revered and read – despite the fact that when it comes to writing, it’s hard to find anything more archaic (Chaucer of course, but who the hell reads him now?). That Bill guy sure takes a lot of words to say some simple stuff. Seriously off-putting to the new reader.
But we’re only talking genre-specific here, so mentioning the above is probably outside the argument.
Ian, your commentary went back over the same points – relevance (not every work was about the cold war, the cold war IS relevant as the headlines will attest) and perhaps I have more faith in the average readers ability to handle this historical perspective inherent in such works.
Offensive to modern readers – so we should pull Mark Twain from the shelves – or just not recommend Huckleberry Finn to readers we want to introduce to Twain? Oooops, I’m slipping out of genre again. I’m sorry, I just don’t buy this argument at all. SF readers are supposed to be a cut above – drawn to the genre because it plays with ideas and presents perspectives that are (often) way outside of the mainstream. If they can’t handle the concept that society was different when the author was writing, I find it difficult to see how they would be able to handle the general idea of what SF is all about.
And that last bit about Scalzi liking Asimov. I wasn’t suggesting that Scalzi’s appreciation for Asimov denied your entire argument. I was using that quote to illustrate that DESPITE his acknowledged criticism of Asmiov’s writing style, he still liked the man’s stories and ideas. This demonstrates that there is at least one contemporary (and highly acclaimed) SF author who has managed to find something redeemable in one ancient author’s works. Would he recommend Asimov to a new reader? I don’t know – maybe, depending on the reader.