Ian Sales, in Don’t Look Back in Awe wrote “Here we go again. I’ve complained before about the undeserving admiration given to many science fiction novels and short stories of earlier decades.”
Hat Being Worn: Snide & Dismissive.
Could that have anything to do with jealousy over (take your pick) – awards they’ve won, market presence they command or always being told that ‘so-and-so’ has ALREADY written that story?
Hat Being Worn: Fair and Balanced
Truth be told – I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Ian and his subject focuses not directly on the entire OLD works of the genre but on the recommendation of those works as a tool to get people to read SF.
Hat Being Worn: Investigative Journalist
Ian justifies his statement with: “Such fiction is no longer relevant, is often written with sensibilities offensive to modern readers, usually has painfully bad prose, and is mostly hard to find because it’s out of print.”
Point by point: No Longer Relevant. OK. Relevant to what? The history of the genre? Seems pretty relevant to me on that score. To a writer looking for new ideas? Pretty relevant there too unless you really do want to cover old stories with new tricks that will be outed in the most painful and embarassing manners possible. To the reader of the contemporary author who said ‘I read and was inspired by (hoary old non-relevant SF author born before TV was invented)’? Seems pretty relevant to them.
Written with sensibilities offensive to modern readers? Maybe. If modern readers are A: hung up on political correctness and B. Totally incapable of understanding that history is context and things do change with time. Of course, if both of those things are true for our hypothetical reader for whom old SF is not relevant, they aren’t readers of science fiction.
Usually has painfully bad prose: Oh, so you’ve read each and every last old non-relevant short story, novella, novelette, novel and series and haven’t found a single sentence of well-written prose? Doubt. Serious doubt – about which I’ll get to more in a minute.
Mostly hard to find and out of print: Actually, completely untrue. ABE, Amazon, EBay and individual collector/providers – not to mention SFRA, NESFA Press and a host of other resources are available and you can find just about anything you might be looking for.
Four declarative statements, all of which are either broad, essentially meaningless opinion (presented as fact) or untrue.
One really wonders about the motivation of an author who is actively promoting the idea that we should all run screaming away from our roots. Shame? Why? Sales didn’t write that awful stuff and won’t be held accountable. Oh, except for those people who will hear that he writes SF and immediately associate his works with a centuries worth of awful writing. Except that those people will not be familiar with those old works. So who the hell is Sales talking to?
Sales offers up Nightfall as his strawman and then proceeds to burn Asimov in effigy. All the while, Sales misses the point, surprising, because he himself says that such stories are ‘historical documents’. (Fear the historical documents my son.)
Of Nightfall (the award-winning short story by Asimov that was later turned into a novel by Silverberg) Sales says: “By all criteria, ‘Nightfall’ fails as a good short story. And yet it’s still regarded as a classic. Some people will even suggest it’s a good example of science fiction. Rubbish. It’s built around a single, not very interesting idea – a world has never seen darkness… and then it gets dark. Wow. There’s a comment on the boom-bust nature of civilisations in there, but it’s pretty much thrown away.”
Ahem. (Tap tap tap on the shoulder) Ian, it’s an HISTORICAL DOCUMENT. When Isaac wrote that story in 1941, all previous stories that had featured planets with multiple suns treated them just like Earth, except that there were two (or more) suns in the sky and multiple (many-tinted) shadows on the ground. No one before Ike had taken the idea to its furthest extreme, a world where the sun never set – except once in a great long time.
And Ian also missed the meta-story inherent in Isaac’s tale: there are things out there of which we are completely unaware, that can and will bite us hard if we don’t put aside superstition in favor of fact. Seems to me that’s a pretty relevant story concept that is STILL very much alive in ‘modern’ SF.
But see, this is what happens when you’re not familiar with the HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS. You miss nuance. Fact that you are blissfully unaware of come back and bite you. Hard.
Ian goes on to further attack the ‘primacy of idea’ in old SF: “In part, this harkens back to my earlier post about the primacy of idea in science fiction. ‘Nightfall’ contains a very obvious idea and it appears to me that many think the sheer in-your-face nature of it overrides all the story’s faults.”
Except, of course, since Nightfall is only an historical document, you missed what the REAL idea of the story was. You failed to place it in proper historical context. No one, least of all me, is going to try and claim that Asimov wrote sterling prose that tripped lightly off the tongue. Just for contradiction’s sake, here’s Scalzi’s recent take: “Generally I like Asimov’s work quite a bit and fully acknowledge its (and his) importance to the genre, but speaking from a writerly point of view I don’t find his fiction writing skills hugely impressive. He is probably one of the best examples of a “classic” sort of SF storytelling that is heavy on very cool ideas but weak on things like character development — his writing is a vehicle to tell the story rather than adding to the story itself. There’s nothing wrong with it (I lean more toward that direction of things myself, after all), but on balance I wish there was more there there when it came to the writing itself.”
Let me remind you that Sales’ initial proposition was that it is WRONG!recommend old science fiction to new people. Here we have Scalzi, a contemporary and award winning NEW SF author saying that he likes Asimov, recognizes his importance, knows that Ike was an ‘idea man’ and wishes his writing was a bit more there. But he likes him.
Ian – there just may be a few potential SF readers out there who just like Scalzi. Maybe a few thousand. Readers who are perfectly capable of liking an idea based story just as much (or maybe more) than they like a prose based story. Maybe they like both. Maybe their tastes are so eclectic that it won’t matter what you stick in front of them. Or maybe they prefer idea based stories and just absolutely hate all that high-falutin lit’rury crap that so many NEW SF writers seem to want to turn out. Maybe.
Just who are you recommending books to, Ian?
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.”
Good idea for writers to read that stuff though, Ian. That’s a really good idea. They might want to take a little historical context with them when they do.
But there’s more. Several people riffed on Ian’s piece, like this one: “When I first joined GSFWC I went on a bit of a crusade so I could get up to speed with the “background knowledge” that everyone else seemed to have. I made a list of the classic writers and hit Obelist Books and Future shop for examples. I read one Clarke (Childhood’s End – enjoyed the idea-quota, but couldn’t believe how quickly the story was skimmed), two Le Guin (Dispossessed and LHoD – loved them), a Delaney (Nova – again, loved it), and got on okay with Poul Anderson, Cordwainer Smith and James Blish too. On the other hand I found Asimov and Heinlein unreadable. But that’s just me.”
“I read one Clarke…”
Ok, now this guy seems a bit more reasoned (“…it would seem a bit pointless to still hold those texts up as the best we have to offer, but on the other hand we’re looking at them out of context. At the time, they made a big splash for good reasons. They were all about challenging the ways people thought about the world, the universe, about science and the future. They were about challenging people – writers and readers alike – to expand their imaginations. They weren’t about good literary standards. No-one pretended they were, or indeed really cared much.”) – but we were originally talking here about ‘recommending these works’ as a way of introducing readers to SF and I’m sorry, but reading ONE story by Clarke does not by any means equip you to make recommendations to anyone else. (Nor does Ian’s background reading equipm him either, apparently, since he dismisses everything pre 90s out of hand.)
Childhood’s End is kind of dark, open-ended and requires a fair amount of background sophistication to really ‘get’ if you want our proto-SF Lit-Virgin to understand why it was a recommended piece and what was to be gained from it.
If I really wanted to get someone ‘into’ Clarke, I’d probably start them off with Tales From the White Hart. They’re innocent stories, short, often amusing and successfully convey the idea that an SF tale is about having FUN exploring possibilities.
The truth is that readers of SF DESERVE to be exposed to the classics – the right classics, in the right way, at the right time and in the proper context. Their appreciation of the genre will be enhanced, their perspective on the genre wil be enhanced and (perhaps dangerous to some modern writers) they will be better able to judge newness, originality, relationships and whether or not that thar ritin has got improvification. Plus they’ll be better (SF) people.
I just don’t get this NEED to attack the classics. Doing so doesn’t make you any better as a person. It certainly doesn’t improve your own writing or sales. You don’t want to read the classics? Don’t. Someone else does? Let them.
If the issue really is ‘how to introduce new readers to the genre’, well, that’s an highly individualistic enterprise, isn’t it? I mean, at least if you want to be real (and effective) about it. Every single successful convert is going to require a tailored capture methodology. This friend likes SF film – find a book tie in. That friend is into Hard Boiled Detective Pulps – find some writers who worked in both genres.
It’s HISTORY man. That which has gone before has MADE THE WORLD WE LIVE IN NOW. As too many would-be writers have discovered, those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it in writing. An that gets you a rejection slip for UNORIGINALITY.