Posts Tagged ‘John Scalzi’

I was struck (again) the other day by the unending lamentations coming from some quarters of the SF community.  In my head, it sounds like I’m standing in an alley between a Catholic Church and an Orthodox Synagogue as both congregations engage in response:

From the left: Priest: “For God hath created the singularity beyond which there is no knowing”

Congregation: “It is  truly a turd in the punch bowl that stinketh to high heaven”

Priest: “It is an abomination in the sight of the Lord, from which he turneth away”

Congregation: “And there shall be no more science fiction”

From the right: Rabbi: “And the Lord said ‘these words lacketh in style'”

Congregation “Truly, they are non-literary”

Rabbi: “And the Lord said ‘these characters are flat and uninteresting”

Congreation “Truly, they are non-literary”

Rabbi: “And the Lord said ‘Go ye forth and write literary works for they are a sweet smelling sacrifice. No longer shall ye write in a clunky pulp style”

Congregation “And on that day, science fiction was no more. Amen.”

It seems like every day there is yet another reason why science fiction is no longer relevant, is dying or already finished but for the burial.

The post singularity future is unknowable, so we can’t write about the future.  SF is not literary enough and will therefore die in the marketplace.  We’re living in a science fiction world and therefore can’t imagine a future sufficiently wonderous enough to engage the reader. SF is and always will be perceived as an adolescent affectation. Science Fiction is for geeky nerds. There aren’t enough geeky nerds in the worlds to support the market. YA is stealing SF’s thunder. SF is a literature of short stories and the short story is dead. Magazines are the foundation of SF and magazines are dead. The audience has dumbed down and can’t handle thought-provoking literature of any genre. The society is falling apart and is too distressed and depressed to care about the future.  Genre’s only have a 75 year life cycle and we’re in year 100+.

My first thought is: you can’t have it both ways. Liteature of any kind is supposed to be about character.  SF’s contribution is a focus on the future, a vehicle for illuminating today through non-threatening speculative tropes, the home of the ‘big idea’.  But all of those things are realized through the characters that inhabit the story, the people that things happen to. 

Maybe a lot of SF characterization is ‘bad’ when seen through some ivory tower literary prism, and maybe there is room for improvement but, if stories are really about character (or are supposed to be) then how can a concept like the singularity threaten the genre?

I don’t think any of the aforementioned laments is accurate, nor are any of them the genre-killer they’re sussed out to be. I think the real problem is some underlying dissatisfaction with where the genre is today.  But not even that.  I think it’s dissatisfaction with where the genre is as opposed to some people’s fevered imaginging of where it ought to be. It might be a pay-scale thing. It might be an earnings thing, it might be a marketing thing. Some authors look at their advances and royalties and think they ought to be doing better. Some publishers think they ought to get more notices, or a better distribution deal or more shelf space. A lot of people look at the enormous impact some SF films or televisions shows have had and wonder why the golden touch hasn’t reached the book end of the business.

I’m not intimately familiar with the behind the scenes work that agents are doing for some of the more vocal authors (film options, etc), but of the authors who’s intimates I am familiar with, none of them are amongst the complainers, because they’re doing ok.  I don’t draw any conclusions from that observation, merely pointing it out as a possible data point.

And I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with wanting more – better pay, more cultural recognition, bigger presence in the marketplace – but if that is what all of the complaining is about, I think the effort would be better spent on figuring out how to achieve those goals, rather than bemoaning the death of the genre.

Jason Stoddard was recently interviewed and covered a multi-part blog post he’s got going on SF and marketing.  His mantra is self-promotion and social networking (and the relatively low cost of high-impact advertising available via internet resources).

In those pieces he correctly identifies most writers initial reactions – “ugh, barf”.  And I agree that that is probably the standard reaction, except for a chosen few who seem to have a natural bent for it, such as Doctorow or Scalzi.  Not surprising, considering the relatively solitary nature of writing and world-building.  Most authors are, of course, happy to share the end product, but many are reluctant to let all but a few carefully hand-picked people in on the beta testing.

So, maybe the solution is to foist this activity off on the publishing companies? Maybe, as part of their marketing efforts, they need to not only host their own websites with lots of nifty content and quasi-social networking applets, but should, as a matter of course, automatically set up a blog, a youtube channel, a myspace page, add characters to virtual environments, generate appropriate widgets and etc.  Most authors have no problem writing, but many have a problem with the day-to-day maintenance of building a website, adding RSS feeds, finding the tributes and commentary, the reviews and such.

Instead of having each individual author try to do these things, there should be a department at a good publishing house that handles all the background crap.  Think of the traffic: if every single published author had at a minimum, myspace, youtube, flikr, website and blog, and all of those were linked in to the publishers main site AND cross-linked to each other (maybe a company logo at the top of the page), we’re talking a huge amount of internet real estate.  Think of the cross-promotion when every single one of those websites becomes a billboard, not just for the author in question, but for every other author represented by that publisher. 

Then the writers can do what they do – write. Preferably non-singularity conflicted, non-literary, pulpy science fiction.


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PZ Meyers at Pharyngula linked to Charlie Stross’ blog (he’s friends with John Scalzi who mentions him a lot in HIS blog, lol) and Charlie linked to my rant that included Harlan Ellison’s rant about UCLA students not knowing the story of the Emporer’s New Clothes and

comments are up and traffic is WAAAAY up.

Naturally I’m in the middle of the longest streak of inactivity that this blog has ever experienced.

There are a host of interesting tangents here and I’ll take just a couple of seconds to lay a few of them out:

the above is illustrative of the ‘long tail economic theory’.  My original post on the subject was written more than a month and a half ago.  Now it finds a new market after having just sat there for a while doing nothing.  “Throw it out there, stuff will stick”

Charlie ranted about Constitutional bankruptcy here in the USA, a and others in commentary raised the spectre of the coming coup – pointing out the training of US combat troops for domestic duty (contravening posse comitatus) and legal provisions put in place by the Bush Admin for the declaration of martial law.   I’ve been speculating about that for at least 4 years now.  It’s quite interesting to see a wild-ass ‘feeling’ you guardedly expressed to a few close friends reach out and gain at least some degree of legitimacy on the blogosphere.  Someone looking closely might want to study military appointments/firings/resignations over the past three or so years.

Of course if something nasty does happen, I’ve probaly just written my arrest warrant.  Fortunately, people like Charlie Stross don’t let fear of future consequences keep them from speaking truth as they see it.  Way too many old saws about failing to speak up for me to use one of them now, but remember that they have become cliche BECAUSE they are so apt.

I’m enjoying the pro ‘old generation’ comments immensely, and particularly pleased that there seem to be quite a few from people who at first glance would appear to be whipper-snappers.  Intelligent views are not generationally derived.

Quite a bit of ranting about Sarah Palin as ‘yet another sign of the impending collapse of western civilization’.  Best comment I heard so far was from a blogger interviewed on tv (no name, sorry) who said that the really scary thing about her was not that she doesn’t have coherent answers to questions, it’s that she doesn’t understand the question!

Alaska ought to be ashamed of itself.  (Maybe that’s why it wants of secede?)

and now I’ll go back to the really busy stuff I’ve been working on for the past week and hope that another sleeping blog decides to wake…

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Entering the tiger’s den with bacon taped all over my body…

I have to confess that John Scalzi is the first ‘new’ science fiction author I’ve read in quite some time. With a limited budget for full-price books, I’m reluctant to risk my money on something I might not enjoy (or be prompted to re-read umpteen million times over the next five or six decades). 

Having made a committment a couple of years ago to re-enter fandom, I did feel it was necessary to catch up on all the happenings, which meant that it would be important to read some contemporary works (if only to be able to discuss authoritatively about how rotten they all were compared to the classics).

I will also confess that the references to Scalzi’s ‘Heinlienness’ on his book’s cover was what tipped me over into shelling out 8 or 9 bucks for a PAPERBACK! (Honestly, I still have books that I paid 45 cents for when they were new).  That and his accessibility on his Whatever blog; the man obviously wrote well, took the genre seriously, paid due homage to his forebears, had interesting things to say, exhibited some bizarre and entertaining behaviors and answered his emails.

In the weeks just prior to picking up Old Man’s War (the first in the series), I had been reading Spider Robinson’s ‘completion’ of the LAST HEINLEIN NOVEL E VER.  I found it flat, uneven, claustrophobic and disappointing.  Sticking both Robinson’s and Heinlein’s names on the cover misled me into believing that Spider was going to try to write a Heinlein novel, not a Spider novel.

No such illusion existed while I read OMW.  Only Scalzi’s name appeared on the cover. The references to Heinlein were clearly advertising copy, not a scam.

I thoroughly enjoyed Old Man’s War and appreciated its opening premise (not to mention the opening line): when you’re 75 and offered a new lease on life, you don’t worry about the details too much.

John Perry is/was an intriguing character, the type of everyday competant that Heinlein enjoyed using as his main character, with an interesting Scalzi twist: the young recruit is also the wise old man.

I had a bit of an issue with the idea that the galaxy was such a widely violent place and that so many different alien species found a place for humans on their dinner menu, but after thinking about it for a while and accepting the initial premise that real estate is scarce and no one seems interested in population control, I’ve come to accept it as part of the background. (I’m completely ignoring the physical impossibility of using stellar colonies to solve population problems, because everyone in the genre seems to be happily ignoring it as well.) 

I found his action sequences to be gripping and fairly tactically correct.  His depiction of what soldiers are willing to do when they have little fear of death and none of injury seemed so spot on that it even prompted a short email exchange between John and I. (Whether he had ever played paintball or not – Not – because his troops exhibited the same suicidal tactics that professional paintball players engage in, which is the primary difference between ‘real’ war and game war.)

I got deeper into it with The Ghost Brigades.  I thought the murder mystery aspects of that novel were handled well, but I did have a bit of unease over intelligence transfer technology:  for example, if you could make one copy of the ideal soldier – why not make multiple copies?  Why bother to import untrained recruits from Earth at all?

But I enjoyed it nevertheless (hell, Niven has spawned an entire cottage industry with ‘what ifs? from his Known Space stories).

Both novels clearly illustrate one salient fact: Scalzi enjoys entertaining.  He’s not afraid to take a bizarre idea and throw it against the wall to see what sticks.  The sheer joy exhibited in his writing, the earnestness with which he seeks to get us to play ‘make-believe’ just for the sheer fun of it, easily allowed me to brush past these kinds of questions in favor of simply enjoying the story.

The same was true for The Last Colony.  I had some minor major issues with the sheer stupidity of the Colonial Unions’s political strategies. (Spoiler: No one in the upper echelons of the CU could predict that the destruction of the Conclave’s 412 ship fleet – one from every member race of the Conclave – wouldn’t turn the Conclave rabid?  They actually thought it would slow the Conclave down?  This from a species with The Alamo, Pearl Harbor and 9/11 in its history? )

Scalzi did do a little mending at the end by portraying the CU as fairly dimwitted, but that is equally problematic as heretofore the CU has been responsible for earning a place for humanity in a very hostile galaxy.

Continuing on the critical bent, I had some minor issues with Zoe the character: I’m not entirely clear on how old she is here and she seemed a bit ‘too’ sophisticated for a mid-teenaged girl.  On the other hand, Podkayne was pretty sophisticated for her age and we really don’t get to see all that much of Zoe, the detail obviously having been reserved for Zoe’s Tale, the recently released 5th book in the series (#5 if you count Sagan’s Diary, which I do).

I will wait until I’ve read ZT to render final judgement, since everyone seems to be saying that Scalzi’s portrayal of nubile female teenagers is pretty darned good.  (Which is a scary thought if you’ve ever been exposed to Scalzi’s sense of humor at Whatever.)

I liked Hickory and Dickory, had a bit of a problem with the Consu’s Deus ex Machina introduced towards the end of the story (but then it wouldn’t BE a D.E.M. if it didn’t enter at the end) and felt that all in all, the Conclave exhibited as much stupidity as the Colonial Union did it its dealings with the Last Colony.  The ending, which neatly wrapped up this series of tales, neatly wrapped it up, although, again, niggly little issues with the ease with which Perry and Sagan were able to circumvent the C.U.

But. But. BUT.

I enjoyed the whole thing. When your friend is making up a story to thrill, amaze, entertain and share friendship with you, you don’t constantly interrupt them with worry over the details. Later on, when you’re out playing in the backyard and those things come up, you get to make up more stuff; rather than becoming a show stopper like a call to dinner, they become part of the entertainment.

I don’t think Scalzi ever set out to write the most logical, tightly scripted series of SF novels about warfare, interstellar conquest and galactic politics. I think he came up with a nifty idea, firmly grounded it in SF literary tradition and then wrote it to entertain and amuse.  All of which he amply – and humorously – accomplished.

I’ll give The Last Colony 4 Old Man Sticks. 

Highlights: Giant space battle fleets, new colonies, John Perry, Jane Sagan and Zoe Boutin

Key Themes: interstellar war, the politics of empire, colonization

Datedness: Totally NEW

Audience: Any old time fan who’s been disappointed by the ‘new’ science fiction, anyone who can’t handle post-singularity, steampunk or cyberpunk SF, any new fan who likes a thoughtful, entertaining and action-oriented story

Fan Rating: High

Special Note: I give the series so far – Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, The Sagan Diary, The Last Colony and newly released Zoe’s Tale (which I have not yet read) 5 Old Man Sticks.

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Lot’s of stuff going on.

First and foremost – my parents have arrived for a visit. Yes, it’s true, I have parents. And, in fact, they actually want to visit with me.  Hey – this blog is about science fiction. Don’t say that didn’t warn you that occassionally I’d post some strange and wonderous things here.

What this actually means is that, for approximately the next ten days, I will not be able to spend all my time at the computer.  What it really, really means is that I may end up losing some of my new-found traffic (thanks to two posts that have been widely picked up – the piece Scalzi’s Whatever linked to about giving fiction away for free and my bit of humor concerning how to convert a mundane heathen into an SF reader).

On the other hand, the visit may provide some interesting material for future posts.  My folks are retired so they’ve got lots of time for day trips to this and that.  Later this morning I’m meeting them to schedule out the trip.  We might end up visiting Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory (don’t tell anyone but they don’t actually make ice cream – they make frozen desserts.  ICE CREAM comes in three, perhaps four flavors – vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and maybe tutti-frutti.  All this crunchy-funky-monkey-balls and Phish Pharm Phlava crap is an affront to the dignity of mankind (what dignity?). It may be fun, it may even taste good, but IT IS NOT ICE CREAM!).  Since everyone loves ice cream, I might be able to recapture some of that traffic if I post some pics of the tour.


I’ve been revisiting the commentary on the ‘free fiction’ post and wanted to clear up a couple of things.

First: I made an assumption that any published author is paying at least a little attention to their stock in trade and includes finances in their considerations when placing their work.  There are all kinds of good and valid reasons why an author would offer something to readers for free – whether they receive compensation or not.  In most cases, they are receiving enough compensation, of some kind, to make it worth their while to do so.

An example from my own experience will serve to illustrate this point.  I was writing feature articles and regular monthly columns for several publications, and receiving way beyond ‘standard industry compensation’ for the work.  (My pay scale was 2 to 3 times what other writers were getting.)  I was approached by the editor of another publication with a request to write (there was a time when my name on the TOC or cover was a draw) and I asked what the pay was.  It was minimal comp – $25 an article, $50 with pictures.  This was about a quarter of what the other publications regularly paid, so obviously well below what I was receiving.

I thanked him for the offer and declined the opportunity (why undercut myself?).  About two years later I had occassion to remember something that the editor had said to me:  “We don’t censor” –  by which he meant that, unlike the other rags, he didn’t worry about pissing his advertisers off when it came to running copy.

I was at the time embroiled in a huge political fight and none of the magazines I wrote for would vet my articles on the subject.  I called up the previously mentioned editor and asked if was still interested in pieces from me.  I explained the situation and he agreed to run them.

Not only did I quickly jump to the editor’s ‘higher pay scale’, I eventually ended up as a regional editor and later sports editor for the publication and the ghost writer for many editorials.  Most importantly, I had an outlet for subjects that no one else was willing to publish.

I’d have given those pieces away for free, because in that particular circumstance the compensation I received (airing my viewpoint) was the compensation that I needed.  I’d also previously established the fact that I expected ‘decent’ compensation.


Now on this same subject: the issue of free authorship actually encompasses two different issues.  One is mostly a marketing issue:  the new writer who breaks into non-scale paying markets is willing to accept this as a (required) part of their growth. They get something in addition to exposure and experience, even if it isn’t professional level wages.  Or, as in my case, I’m trying to develop my craft in an entirely new market.  While that progresses (during which time I am receiving NO compensation for lots of hard work) I’m making myself available publicly and hopefully building a potential market.  This is called ‘investment’ and ‘growing the brand’.  If I start selling fiction, I’ll begin to realize a return on that investment.

The other issue is one of intellectual property. Ownership.  Copyright. Copywrong. Creative Commons, digital piracy & etc.

I think it’s important to remember when discussing writers and compensation – especially when the word ‘free’ is involved, to keep these two aspects separate.

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the link from John Scalzi’s blog has sent my traffic through the roof.

It’s not for nothing that the ‘Whatever‘ is often described as one of the most influential and most read (original) blogs on the web.

Not that I want him to give up writing or  anything (I’m actually reading The Last Colony right now and a COF review will be up here soon) but I think he could make a very comfortable living if he simply charged people like me a few bucks a week to mention our blogs every ten days or so…

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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.

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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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