Twenty Years Ago the Classics Were Different

    Twenty years ago I wrote an article about the classics of science fiction for the fanzine Lan’s Lantern – and later made the essay into a web site at The Classics of Science Fiction. My friend Mike inspired the project when he asked me about my favorite science fiction books. I started reading science fiction as a kid in 1961, and then gave up SF in 1974 after dropping out of college to find reality. I returned to reading science fiction in 1984 after I had gotten married, finished college and settled down. By the time I wrote the essay in 1987 I had probably read well over a thousand science fiction books.

    Now looking back with twenty years of hindsight I’m not sure how many science fiction books I would consider classic. The final 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. I’ve read most of the books on the list, and still reread many of them. I’m currently seeking out and listening to audio editions of books from the list. This week I’m listening to Timescape by Gregory Benford, #41 on the list, and a book on 16 of the 28 recommended references. I think it is a classic of sorts, but it’s doubtful you’ll find it at your favorite bookstore. I was surprised that Recorded Books had an unabridged audio edition. [By the way, RB is the very best place to find audio editions of the SF Classics.]

    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. Listening to it now it was obvious that it was a fix-up novel from a handful of Astounding pulp fiction stories.  Even though I considered it bad writing it had ideas that made me wonder if it had been inspiration to George Lucas for Star Wars. As far as I was concerned it was too simplistic and had nothing to offer the modern reader. The Foundation Trilogy is #4 on the Science Fiction Classics List and was recommended by 24 of the 28 lists. It is well loved, but not by me anymore.

    I wonder if the other fans, critics, writers and editors who created the original 28 recommendation lists still love all the books they once recommended Has the last twenty years changed them too? Here are the books I’ve listened to in the last five years:

#4 – Foundation by Isaac Asimov

#8 – The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

#19 – The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

#22 – Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

#29 – Fahrenheit 451 – by Ray Bradbury

#32 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

#37 – The Humanoids by Jack Williamson

#41 – Timescape by Gregory Benford

#48 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (abridged) by Philip K. Dick

#58 – Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

#61 – Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

#67 – Startide Rising by David Brin

#87 – Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein

#93 – Blood Music (novella version) by Greg Bear

#94 – Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card

I have more SF Classics lined up to listen to, like Dune by Frank Herbert, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman and a few others. They are on my Recorded Books Unlimited queue. Most of the books I have listened to were very entertaining, but I don’t know if I would call them classics. Library of America, a company known for publishing classic books, will publish a volume called Four Novels of the 1960s by Philip K. Dick in June of 2007. The four novels are The Man in the High Castle (1962), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and Ubik (1969) – all but Stigmata were on the Classics of Science Fiction list.

Are these the real classics of science fiction? I don’t know. PKD’s books hold up well in their audio editions and many of his stories have been made into movies, but his books were never mainstream science fiction. PKD was one strange dude, maybe a Poe or Meville of the sci-fi pulp writers, and although he wrote some books set in outer space, he was never considered an inspiration to the space opera crowd. I am a huge fan of PKD and I’m overjoyed that LOA has selected his books, but I don’t think PKD represents science fiction nor do I think his books represent American literature. Personally, I think Robert A. Heinlein fits that role better, but I’m not sure I’d pick any of his books as classics of American literature either.  Many of Heinlein’s novels are my all time favorite books that I read and reread, but I don’t know if they represent America or its times.  I think Have Space Suit-Will Travel represents the 1950s in the U.S. in a very special way but will future readers see that.  Would nineteenth century New England want to be represented by Moby Dick?

The trouble is I don’t see any science fiction book becoming the Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations to the readers of the twenty-second century as those two books have become classics to us. Whether Jane Austin or Charles Dickens wrote accurate portraits of their times, their books do represent the times in which they were set for all future readers. Huckleberry Finn and Little Women will represent nineteen century America, like The Great Gatsby will represent the twenthieth century. Strange in a Strange Land is a 1960s book, but it will never be a book about the 1960s. Science fiction books will have to be classics like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan are classics but I’m not sure how many science fiction books will appeal to the young readers of the future.

H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine and The World of the Wars have become classic books read by children for a century. Are there any books from the Classics of Science Fiction list that will follow in Mr. Wells’ steps? Ender’s Game might. Not on the list, but a book that might have a chance is Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel. It was recently made into a full-cast audio book and it holds up very well and doesn’t feel dated.  But I think it only has an extremely rare chance.  Dune might succeed since it has already had two film incarnations, which is a good indication. Fahrenheit 451 might have a chance since it is a timeless allegory about reading, but I don’t hold out much hope for The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury’s other classic that is so loved outside of the SF world. Flowers for Algernon has potential. Overall though, I don’t have much hope for any book on the Classic of Science Fiction list lasting another century and remaining popular.  I think Wells and Verne will fall out of favor – if they already haven’t. 

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.  I think there are other reasons why these books won’t become classics but those ideas will have to be explored in a future blog entry.  The main reason I think this is I’ve read many many great books in the last twenty years that I consider better than the books on the Classics of Science Fiction List.  





18 thoughts on “Twenty Years Ago the Classics Were Different”

  1. Thanks for an honest and insightful follow-up to your excellent “Classics of Science Fiction” article. The landscape has certainly changed sine then. These kids today don’t know what they’re missing. 🙂

  2. Thanks for writing this, but I’m not exactly clear on what you’re looking for. “Classics of science fiction” suggests to me books that aren’t, say, “classics of American literature,” though it’s conceivable that the two could intersect. (For all its weaknesses, Fahrenheit 451 is nevertheless both, I think.)

    I’m 44 and only read Foundation a few years back. I read Caves of Steel this past year. I found both juvenile in ideas and execution. Asimov never wrote an interesting sentence (I find his science writing rather tedious, too); Clarke has always been clunky with his writing; Heinlein’s pretty childish too, I find. The genre doesn’t have to be this way, but those old “classics” look dustier every year, because even when they were written, they were often out of step with the fiction of the time. I’m reading Jack Finney’s Time and Again right now; published in 1970, it reads like it was written in 1930, with a bizarre level of misogyny and patronizing of women. Are SF writers trapped in some kind of hyper-extended adolescence, stylistically as well and developmentally? Many of the old ones seem to be.

  3. Bill P:

    Compared to mainstream literature, science fiction has always been weak when it comes to characterization – but that is also true of other genres. It’s hard to judge science fiction since the goals of science fiction are not the goals of literary fiction. In the long run, with that test of time quality, I believe all books will be judged the same. For any book to last decades it must entertain and tell a good story – to an audience far different than what the original writer and publisher expected to find. Jane Austin never imagined our world, but then neither did Isaac Asimov. Asimov targetted the readers of Astounding Science Fiction and John W. Campbell and he was a big success. His current competition is Charlie Stross and Stephen Baxter. I imagine Asimov finding few fans who have taken up reading SF in the last twenty years – but I could be wrong. The mind of the 12 year-old may find Asimov’s writing just as exciting in 2007 as kids did in 1947.

    My recent blog is more concerned with finding classic books to read for a 55-year old reader. Classification and genre no longer matter to me.  I agree with you about Asimov and Clarke, however, I think Heinlein was a good storyteller and writer during most of the 1950s, especially when he had good editors.  His later writing is indulgent – and to me personally, unreadable.

  4. I’ve used the lists of SF Classics on your website as a reading guide over the past few years (I found it in 2003). I’m female and 31, read a few sci fi stories when I was in junior high and high school that stuck with me (this was in the late 1980s and early 1990s) so I was interested in learning what the classics of this genre were. I find your essays on the classics interesting, lots of things to think about. I just have a few comments.

    I think kids will go on reading for pleasure as long as writers and publishers put out books kids find interesting, not things that adults think kids should read. Harry Potter books have proven that a book can outsell video games and movies. I work in a library and I see kids as young as 8 or 9 eager to read these massive novels. Graphic novels are another category that show kids have no prejudice against the printed page. (And of course a lot of manga has a science fiction theme.) It seems to me that science fiction works that focus on the wow factor of technology quickly dates, while works that have a good storyline, character development, etc., stays relevant longer and is likelier to be read decades after they were first published. Flowers for Algernon, Ender’s Game, Dune, I see junior high age boys today reading these (of course, sometimes it’s because it’s required for an English class). And a work that withstands the test of decades or centuries is always a rarity and not necessarily typical or representative of most works of their time. The authors of these works that survive the test of time, such as Austen or Dickens, often had unusual talent in story-telling and writing. Most fiction of the 19th century did not stand the test of time, just as most fiction from the 20th century is forgottten today already. How many works from the 1970s or 1980s of any genre are commonly read in 2007? Most books, not just science fiction works, go out of date pretty quickly.

    I still find these lists and your essays great reading guides. Thanks for all your work.

  5. Kim,

    You’re right, kids do keep on reading. What I’m discovering is they are reading stuff off my radar. I go to Amazon and start clicking around on people’s book lists and recommendations and I discover all kinds of books kids are excited about. Harry Potter is the huge tip of a very large iceberg. Most of what kids are reading aren’t famous books that get a lot of attention, but authors, series and new genres that the kids know about and recommend among themselves. I wish I had some good examples, but my memory is failing me at the moment. I keep hoping to find time to pursue some of those books, and other genres like graphic novels and manga.

    It would be great to be able to track that new stuff. I think most of the books on my Classics list are fading from the young people’s radar. Like you said, some books, Ender’s Game and Dune remain popular, but damn few others.

    I think the young generation likes to discover its own new stuff and not dig around for classics. My Classics list is really exciting stuff that the baby boomers were discovering decades ago and most of those books won’t become real classics.


  6. Starting from high school (late 1980s), I’ve collected thousands of speculative fiction books, mostly from second-hand bookstores. I’ve found time to read only about one percent of these. I also collect graphic novels but they’re harder to come by the bargain-bin. Most people I know have moved on to other things, as have the author of SF classic lists. I was always hoping I could enjoy my collection (which is based on all those lists) after retirement age, but based on your experience, it seems a waste of time on my part. This saddens me.
    Among my favorite books, I was under the impression that 1984 was and will remain a classic. Hyperion was better than its sequel. The Man Who Fell to Earth wasn’t on the list.
    One of my first reads was Asimov’s Foundation which did catch my fancy then. I have never had time to reread any novel. Now I fear rereading them.

  7. Derrick, don’t assume I’m typical. I know lots of science fiction fans that have enjoyed SF their whole life and their love of science fiction never changed. I guess the question you have to ask yourself: Will I be the kind of person that is consistent or will I be the kind of person who changes as they get older.

    Most people do not reread books. Some booksworms like myself do, but they don’t spend a lot of time rereading book. However, it is a fun experiment. There are a number of experiments you can try.

    First, read a book and wait a month and read it again. This can show you how well you read and how well you remember. Speed readers tend to skip over a lot, and when they reread they discover surprising tidbits which make them think, wow, I didn’t remember reading this, why don’t I remember.

    Second, and better experiment is to reread a favorite book from teen years when you are in your twenties and then thirties, forties, fifties, etc. This will show how you have changed, if you do change. And like I said, some people don’t. However, most people mature and so you will still learn from the experiment. I radically changed, so I now often reject books I onced loved. I’d like to think this is because I’ve gotten smarter, and I’ve read many more books which happened to be better books, but it might be because I’ve changed a lot.

    Third, wait 25 or 50 years and reread favorite books from adolescent years and see just how much you remember and whether you remembered things right. The mind can be very tricky.

    When I was young I used to buy books by the bag and got thousands ahead. I’m still about a thousand ahead now. I wished I didn’t do this, but it’s a consistent habit of mine. I’m not a collector, but I might have a bit of that gene, or else I have the library gene.

    1984 will probably remain a classic for a long time. I really loved Hyperion too and wished the sequels were its equal. And books like the Walter Tevis one will remain an underground favorite but may never achieve top popularity.

    There are two issues here. The books you love are due to personal reasons. The books that become classics are due to many complex causes and that’s a fascinating study.

    The reason I built those lists was to develop a system that could identify books that last. Some of them won’t, but many will. Don’t get too sad yet. The question is are you getting a good rounded education about science fiction?

    If you are the kind of person who has changed you will find some of those thousands of books will be bad purchases. But so what, buying books is fun. Also, you need to recognize that buying books is a different love than reading books.

    By the way, since you love science fiction so much, do you want to write science fiction?


  8. Life is short. I’m a slow reader, analyzing nuances of each sentence. I feel that rereading would be a waste of time, considering the thousands I still have in my library and the more important medical books and journals that I still have to read. The deluge of new authors and books seem to contradict our impression that sf book readers are a dying breed.
    I don’t regret the price of the book purchases themselves, as half of my 5-6k collection cost about ten US cents each. It is true that finding sought-after books gives pleasure- sometimes more than reading them (cases in point- Dying Inside, Neuromancer, Adulthood Rites, Waking the Moon). I intend however to force myself to go through the difficult start of Left Hand of Darkness (as I loved the Dispossessed). I’ve long realized that taste is a personal matter, but no list on the internet places all three of my favorites.
    Is enjoying a book that is and remains a classic ultimately more satisfying than enjoying a contemporary “bestseller”? Unless one gets into the habit of the rereading experiments you mentioned, I believe that in the end, both are the same.
    Writing SF? I don’t have enough job or life experiences to mask deficiencies in artistic ability and command of language. Have you tried so yourself?

  9. Yes, it may not matter if a book is a classic or bestseller when it comes down to whether you are going to enjoy reading the book. I think both classic and bestseller are just concepts that help people find good books to read. And isn’t classic just another name for all-time bestseller?

    What intrigues me is the idea that there might be thousands of books out there that aren’t bestsellers, that I might love. Books that got no attention but would be perfect just for my tastes.

    One thing I have discovered is to chase after the non science fiction bestsellers. When I was young I focused on science fiction, but in the last ten years I’ve discovered reading outside of the genre. And although it might sound lowbrow, I have found sales is a good indicator. Statistically, the more people that like a book the higher the chance I will too.

    By the way, were your three all time favorites the books you mentioned, 1984, Hyperion and The Man Who Fell to Earth? That is a rather unique bunch. I’ve been wishing that Hyperion would come out on unabridged audio. I love listening to my favorite books read by a great reader.

    I wished I had started out being a slow careful reader like yourself. It’s only until I started listening to audio books that I saw the value of that kind of reading. I have to force myself to slow down and enjoy the trip now when I read. I’m learning.


  10. I collect outside of the genre with mainstream classics and mystery-thrillers (that my wife likes). Again because of time limitations, have not gotten around to reading any of these.
    The only unabridged audio that I own is the third Dark Tower installment, which is composed of so many CDs. It’ll have to wait till I get through the first two books. Hyperion would be similarly unwieldy. Wonder how much sound effects they incorporate into such audiobooks.
    On your slower-than-light travel thread, I remember Vinge’s great zones of though novels emphasizing such problems. I’ve completely forgotten what happened in Into the Night and am not even sure if I finished Across the Sea of Suns. The memorable novelty of tachyons in Timescape on the other hand was spoiled by the resolution using the overused SF-comic convention of parallel universes. What I mean to say is that just like for movies, maybe we shouldn’t raise our expectations too high for any novel and set ourselves up for disappointments.

  11. I listened to audio books on an iPod so I don’t have to mess with CDs or cassettes. I only get unabridged books, so yes, they are long, even as long as 40-55 hours, but most SF books are 12-25 hours. The reason I like listening by a good reader is because they go slow and I can picture everything better. Good books don’t have sound effects or even music. Most audio book listeners find that intrusive – but podcasts and some short story producers feel the need for such extras.

    I get these books from – although MP3 and other digital sources for books are becoming widely available. Most libraries now offer digital downloadable audio books. Audible and MP3 work with iPods. Library services require a Windows PlayForSure compatible player.

    I don’t like parallel universe stories either, and was disappointed when Old Man’s War used that gimmick. When absolutely anything can happen it ruins the story. I’m currently listening to The Cat Who Walks Through Walls by Heinlein, a book in his multiverse series, and it annoys me no end. Characters facing believable problems is what makes for a good story.

    The reason why I loved Timescape so much was because of its subtle nature. It felt real and scientific. Too often, especially in the movies, science fiction has to have super heroes for characters.

    I like going into books with no or low expectations and being surprised. I like books where I start reading and get enchanted. I want the line by line story to mesmerize me.


  12. I think there are fundamental differences between Science Fiction, and other forms of literature. Science Fiction should be judged on the story and the ideas posed by the author, not style.

    No fiction works unless there is a comprehensive and comprehendible story with a solid plot at its heart. Science Fiction goes farther in demanding that novel ideas be a driving factor in the story.

    I would go further to state that, for me, when reading any literature, I can put up with pretty clunky style, and cardboard characters if the story is interesting. If the story doesn’t hold me, however, no amount of style and theme can make up for it.

    Too many writers try to cover their plot holes with the spackle of style, and while I like character driven stories, there has to be a story or its just author onanation.

    IMHO, Asimov’s Foundation Series is a classic because of Psychohistory. His robot stories because he championed the robot that follows rational rules. That his style is non-existent and his characters are a nanometer thick is irrelevant from an SF perspective. In the same way that the fact that Joyce couldn’t write himself out of a paper bag seems to be irrelevant in his genre.

  13. I read your comments about how bad you think some of the classics actually were when you revisited them…audio books. I suggest you read them instead. Audio books are generally for the lazy or multitasking public…understanding that they may be necessary for some with handicaps.
    Hearing a book is not the same as reading that book. You might, or might not, be surprised at how much more interesting and imaginative a book can be when you let your mind and imagination engage while reading the written word.

    1. For me, listening to audio books magnifies the good and bad elements of fiction. Currently I’m listening to I, ROBOT by Isaac Asimov and I’m loving it. Asimov is turning out to be a much better writer than I remember. I was disappointed with FOUNDATION because it was a fix-up novel that I didn’t think held together as well after all these years. That problem is not related to reading versus listening. Many of the classic SF novels that came out in the 1950s were fix-up novels composed of short stories that had original appeared in pulp magazines. I tend to think that technique of making a novel isn’t always good. Sometimes it works like in CITY by Simak, but others, like MORE THAN HUMAN by Sturgeon or A CASE OF CONSCIOUSNESS by Blish could have been improved with a complete rewrite and expansion.

      1. Asimov was among one of my first reads when a was a preteen and it fueled and colaborated into becoming a systems engineer. In Argentina we were blessed with a series of books by Orbis that comprised many of the ones on the list of the 100 best. In the 90s I used Pringle´s list to get around a little more. You might not like everything, some books you´ll cherish (Silverberg The World Within, Simak´s Way Station) and some you won´t be able to finish, but it´s good advice. Your taste in SF will vary, mine has changed in the last 30 years, now I´m turning towards less fantasy and more hard core, very technical oriented SF. You read around until you find your niche. You will.

  14. I think the problem is that you are comparing science fiction to literature. Most literature is fixated on the past while science is about pushing back the unknown and therefore the future and what human beings will do with that knowledge.

    That is why Deathworld II, The Ethical Engineer) is a classic. It is about human beings hiding technological knowledge from each other. SF should talk about what we do with the science rather than imitate the norms of “great literature”. Let the literary people argue about that. They are not molding the future of mankind. They are just chattering while being dragged along.

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