Posts Tagged ‘Arthur C. Clarke’

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. 


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Hell, it would be great if some large media conglomerate decided to sue me in Federal Court – that’s BIG pr, man.

Lacking that avenue of promotional greatness, I’m forced to simply tell you that Chapter 8 of Pulp Comic Story (which has now been retitled Pulp Comic Fairy Tale – something I said I might do a while ago) is now available here.


A few other things while I’m thinking about it:

Fred Kiesche had to take a sledgehammer to my head to make me realize that his blog – which used to be called The Eternal Golden Braid is now called –



I’ve been thinking about this for a bit: what would entice someone to read the classics if they weren’t already inclined to do so.

I’ve spent a fair number of words exlaining the ‘whys’ here already (do your homework you lazy, good-for-nothing) so let’s just assume (momentarily or otherwise) that they’re valid reasons.

Of course I don’t mean at the expense of contemporary SF.  I mean in addition to.  As a means of obtaining some grounding, some history, some appreciation, some respect for the people who all the awards are named after (yes dear, there are real people behind those award names and good reasons for naming those awards after them – The Hugo for Hugo Gernsback, father of popularizing the genre – the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, because JWC had a nack for finding and developing new talent within the pages of Astounding SF (and the other award of the same name for best novel, given out by SFRA) – Andre Norton for YA lit, given by SFWA because she wrote so many tales that introduced young-uns to SF – Arthur C. Clarke for Best UK SF, because he helped found the UK SF dynasty and because he was, you know, British – Cordwainer Smith, for rediscovering overlooked authors of merit – Damon Knight, SFWA Grandmaster award because Damon founded the org – James Tiptree – for works that explore gender, because SHE did just that – Philp K. Dick, for having so much of his original work published in paperback – Robert A. Heinlein, for so much excellence – Theodore Sturgeon, for excellent short stories – if it weren’t for those folks we’d be giving out awards named for something stupid like The Spaceship Award or The Raygun Award.

Many of those people worked very hard at what they did and (should) leave a lasting, honored memory. And they deserve to be read, along with all of their brethren and sisteren.

So what I thought was – how about if we poll the contemporary favorites and compile a referral list like they do at BMG for music (if you liked so-and-so, you ought to like whosiswhatsis too).

I mean, we already know that If you like John Scalzi, you’ll probably like Robert A. Heinlein too and If you like David Weber, you’ll probably like A. Bertram Chandler, but who else?

So let’s ask some contemporary authors the following questions:

1. Did you read SF before you were a writer?

2. Who were your favorites?

3. Who do you think influenced you the most?

4. Which of the classic authors do you think your work most resembles?

Maybe if we tell the kids this, they’ll give those classics a try.

Maybe John at SFSignal will ask this one…

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So I’m searching around to day in google and I find a comment and it refers me to an article by Mark Harris of Entertainment Weekly.

I can’t tell how old the article is since there’s no dating on the page, but the subject is interesting enough: Is Sci-Fi Out of Ideas?

Considering that Harris states “It’s one thing to revere and refresh a genre’s history; it’s another to live obsessively in the past…” I think I have a dog in this fight.

Let me quote a few more quotes, after which I’ll chop him up.

“When it comes to spaceships, giant monsters from afar, cloning, and robots, we’ve now been there, done that, remade it, added new CGI, seen the director’s cut, played the videogame, read the fan fiction, and bought the collectibles. Where do we go from here? The answer always seems to be that we jump backwards, into the same old Cold War/Apollo-mission-era tropes”

“The season’s big movie hit is Will Smith’s I Am Legend, the third screen version of a Richard Matheson novel that was published in 1954…Our most popular sci-fi comic-book movies are based on characters that were created more than 40 years ago — or, like Transformers, were inspired by pieces of plastic manufactured in the 1980s”

“The problem is, none of the ideas are getting any newer. Scratch that: The problem is, there are no ideas.”

“Ideally, sci-fi’s next rescuer should be someone whose ideas about the future derive from somewhere — anywhere — other than old sci-fi. It can be done.”

and finally – this:

“Perhaps science fiction needs to be saved from the very people who love it the most. Nostalgia for a form can be annihilating to creativity, so while its devotees are swamped in their own canon, trying to mine now-sacred texts for any new material, I wish a great writer or director with no particular affection for the genre would let his imagination loose and see what it yields. It happened 40 years ago, when Stanley Kubrick, following his own ice-cold muse and his fascination with science itself, decided he wanted to create something that ”extended the range of science fiction,” a genre that didn’t particularly impress him. What nerve! The result was 2001: A Space Odyssey, which changed the game so completely that in movies, the sci-fi genre immediately vanished for a few years while everyone surveyed an irrevocably altered landscape.”

Okay! I’m rolling up my sleeves.

I guess Mark just happened to miss the writing credit Kubrick shared with ARTHUR C. CLARKE. You know, that moribund hack who’s been mining the tropes of his youth and never coming up with anything really new, who just died recently, not that anyone noticed.

He’s the pulp mill guy who wrote The Star (like there was never a story about Jesus before he wrote that ) and The 9 Billion Names of God(puhlease! Buddhist Monks with a secret – HEY – Lost Horizons – Duh!) or Rendezvous with Rama (space, enigmatic alien artifacts.  Didn’t some guy named Clarke do that one already?)

Mark must have missed all the talk about how famously Clarke and Kubrick got along, and how tremendously Clarke praised Kubrick for having the guts to show spaceships that didn’t go swoosh on the screen, and how both of them admitted that it was a truly collaborative effort, BASED ON A SHORT STORY CLARKE HAD WRITTEN ALMOST TWO DECADES BEFORE.  (Called The Sentinel.  You know – space, enigmatic alien artifacts – that tired old theme. Kubrick should have done something new, like fast, intelligent zombies if he really wanted to break new ground…)

Or maybe he didn’t miss those things.  Maybe Mr. Harris had this great idea for a piece of commentary and then realized, too late, that the piece-de-resistance didn’t support his argument.

Pretty weak if you ask me. If you’re going to indict an entire genre, you ought to bring along weapons a little more effective than dirtbombs.

  Someone from outside the genre ought to be consulted – maybe they’ll come up with something new?  Right.  Like the centuries of experience over at SFWA has been totally bereft of newness. 

Mr. Harris needs to read some Campbell.  Joseph that is, not John. Mark, they’ve been writing the same tired old crap for the past five THOUSAND years.  (And talking the same tired old crap for probably another five thousand before that!) I guess everyone else should have hung it up after Homer came out with the Odyssey.  And man, wasn’t he pushing his luck writing a sequel to that other tired old invoking-the-gods-in-the-name-of-love story?  Talk about washed out material…

Someone from outside the genre ought to try his hand (presumably to bring fresheness in. I think putting some Renuzits around the house would be a more effective strategy).  Isn’t that how we end up with things like the DeLaurentis productions of Flash Gordon and Herbert’s Dune?  or What’s-his-name’s Starship Troopers?

Maybe the real solution is to actually let people who KNOW science fiction produce what they want to. We’re not nostalgic for the past because we’re hung up on it, we’re nostalgic for the past because its the only place we can find what we’re looking for!  You think I Am Legend is another boring old rendition of the same-old, same-old.  We think its a poorly adapted, CGIed, distract-us-with-a-shiny-star-so-we-don’t-notice-the-complete-lack-of-story rendition of one of the greatest stories ever written.  The original movie production (The Last Man On Earth) was the closest Hollywood ever came to telling that story in film the way it ought to have been.  (That movie is, incidentally, linked to from The Classic Science Fiction Channel).  In fact, you can watch the progression of the disease of ‘newness’ if you: actually read the original story and then watch The Last Man On Earth, The Omega Man and then I Am Legend in sequence.

If you’d done that, you wouldn’t be begging for someone new to take a fresh look at the genre, you’d be diving into the nostalgia pool and begging someone, anyone, just to do it right.

Our nostalgic passion for the genre isn’t a bunch of geeks hiding in the past.  We’ll happily embrace anything new, by anyone – genrephile or not – as long as they JUST TO IT RIGHT and as long as its SCIENCE FICTION.   

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Don McLean’s song American Pie begins with these lines:

“A long, long time ago…
I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And, maybe, they?d be happy for a while.”

The time, a long, long time ago, that made me dance was a day in 1969 – the day that the Eagle landed on the moon.  The futures I had been reading about in the pages of stories by Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and all the rest, was suddenly real.

Gloriously, blissfully, inarguably and undeniably real.  Kennedy had told us we could do it, and we did.  All of us.

My imagined future – the space program, a career on the moon or maybe even Mars, was within my grasp.  No longer a pipe dream, all I had to do was work hard, get good grades and pass the physical. By the time I would be ready to, there would be a place waiting for me.

The remaining two stanzas of the opening of American Pie, before the break, tell the rest of the story:

“But february made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver.
Bad news on the doorstep;
I couldn’t take one more step.

I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride,
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.”

The day the music died for me was the day in 1971 when the Apollo program was cancelled.  My dream died, having lived only a few short years.

I hadn’t done anything wrong.  I hadn’t been turned down.  I hadn’t failed to make the grade. I never got to show whether I had the ‘right stuff’. 

Someone else, someone I didn’t know, someone who undoubtedly did not share my dream, had taken it all away from me.

The last two stanzas before the closing chorus:

“I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news,
But she just smiled and turned away.
I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before,
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play.

And in the streets: the children screamed,
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed.
But not a word was spoken;
The church bells all were broken.
And the three men I admire most:
The father, son, and the holy ghost,
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.”

Like McLean, all I can do now is remember what might have been.

The images are from the Spizter Space Telescope.  Between Spitzer and Hubble, I’ve gotten about as close as I can to the dream.

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Mike Macafferty over at slice of scifi, in response to the list making mania, offers his sarcastic take in “The Seven Most Embarrassing Moments in Science Fiction”.

Not to be outdone (and to make sure that you don’t have an excellent weekend) I offer my own list comprised of the Ten Wurstest Moments in Science Fiction History

1. Bye-bye Hugo Gernsback

2. Bye-bye Stanley G. Weinbaum

3. Bye-bye John W. Campbell

4. Bye-bye H. Beam Piper

5. Bye-bye Robert A. Heinlein

6. Bye-bye C. M Kornbluth

7. Bye-bye A. Bertram Chandler

8. Bye-bye Eric Frank Russell

9. Bye-bye Isaac Asimov

10. Bye-bye Arthur C. Clarke

You know, I NEVER liked this whole list thing to begin with…



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I see a fellow wordpressian who seems to be supporting psyk’s position on the blurring of lines between science fiction and fantasy – Pawnstorm addresses it here.

And Geekdad does a capsule review of Heinlein’s Space Cadet, the juvenovel inspiration for Tom Corbett.  What’s interesting about this take on one of RAH’s classic is this:

“Even the geekiest of modern readers will be quite willing to suspend their disbelief at these unintentional gaffes, mostly because the story is compelling and moves along at a fair pace. Heinlein had a knack for telling a good yarn without overloading it with overly descriptive science or with lengthy exposition.”

Heinlein is mentioned in that piece along with Asimov and Clarke; he’s referenced as having been the ‘Dean of Science Fiction’.  Short shrift for the man who was also the first SFWA Grandmaster and probably more responsible for modern science fiction than anyone else.  But then, he’s not just old, he’s dead too… 

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I’m a crotchety old fan.  I’m a curmudgeon.  An old fart.  I happily subscribe to the world view that change is bad and therefore we must fear it.  Nothing good ever comes from change. 

I’m an uber science fiction fan.  I’ve been reading the stuff for four plus decades and, while I can’t hold a candle to Forry Ackerman in the longevity (or even the collection) department, I’m certainly on his side of the generational divide.  I think Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Russell, Chandler, Smith (all three), Brackett, Brunner, Aldis, Anderson, Niven, Pournell, Pohl, Dick, Disch, Dickson, Delaney, Moorcock, Spinrad Kornbluth, Silverberg and yes, even Ellison, are science fiction.  

Alas, I seem to be in the minority.   That’s ok.  Kids never seem to know what’s good for ’em until they’re old enough to be waving their own old-man stick around.  What gets my goatee are the reasons I’m in the minority.

Old scifi isn’t literary enough.  Old scifi lacks characterization.  Old scifi is, you know, old

I’ll defy any whip-snapping guttersnipe to explain to me what ‘not literary enough’ means.  There’s words on the page that make sentences.  Several follow each other in paragraphs.  Eventually they all combine to tell a story.  Does every single paragraph have to appeal to each one of my five senses?  Do I have to keep a copy of the OED handy when I read?  Is a program required to keep track of the characters?  Must I be transported on airy waves of meaningless, time wasting drivel?  Fah.  Take an English class.

And what’s all this crap about characterization? I’m sorry if the younger generation has been so swaddled in sensory overload that it takes a sledgehammer to make even the minutest impression on their creaseless brains, but I shouldn’t have to pay the price.  They’re so out of touch that they can’t even recognize a stereotype anymore.  Stereotypes make it easier to get to the story.  We read for the story – remember?

I don’t need to know whythe bad guy is a bad guy – he’s a bad guy with bad guy motivations who’s gonna do bad guy things.  Scientists will invent neat stuff because they’re scientists.  Engineers will figure out how to solve technological problems because they’re engineers.  Nubile young daughters will fall in love with heroes because they’re nubile young daughters and heroes will win the day for the obvious reason.  What the hell else do you need to know? If you want to spend all your time trying to figure out who is who and why is why – go read a suspense thriller, but stay out of my science fiction.

Old.  Outdated. The world they wrote in no longer exists.  The references aren’t relevant.  Some of them don’t even mention computers (thank god).

To which I say – what the hell happened to your sense of wonder?  Do you mean to sit there and tell me that you’re going to let the lack of specific technological advances put you off a science fiction story?  That you can’t imagine your way around a reference to vacuum tubes or punch cards?  What a sorry bunch of intellectual wimps! 

So what that it didn’t happen that way.  It might have.  If you listen to the latest theories on how the Universe really works, you’d know that there are probably an infinitude of parallel universes.  For really real.  You don’t even have to pretend anymore, not even a little.  Because you know what?  There IS a universe where they went to the Moon using punch cards to plot ballistic trajectories.  There IS a universe where computers are still room-sized behemoths, another where people fly around cities using personal jetpacks, another where Venus is inhabited by intelligent amphibians and still another where the imagination of science fiction fans isn’t straight-jacketed by ‘what really happened’.

Science is now telling you that everything you can possibly imagine – in infinite and endless combination – is really happening somewhere.  The old authors and ancient stories give you a ringside seat into some of those worlds and what do you do?  You stick your sense-of-wonder in a box and retreat into the gray, toneless world of only accepting things you can see. 

Talk about fearing change. 

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