I am sixty-two years old and I want to write and publish my first science fiction story. I started reading science fiction in 1962. What science fiction was to me then, and what science fiction means to me today, are vastly different literary forms. On Tuesday, SF Signal ran “How to Escape the Legacy of Science Fiction’s Pulp Roots” by Gareth L. Powell, which triggered a lively discussion in the comments section. Many readers took it as an attack on classic science fiction, but I don’t think that was the point, but the real point is rather complicated because of various viewpoint perspectives.
- For many people science fiction equals the Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov era
- Some of these people are older fans that grew up with those stories and have tremendous nostalgia for them
- Some of these people are younger fans that have discovered this classic era and love it
- Some of these people are non-SF readers who rejected SF because of this era’s lack of literary quality
- Some of these people are current SF fans who have no interest in past SF and feel it’s irreverent to contemporary SF
- Then there are general readers that have read a few of the classic SF stories and now they narrowly define SF by these old classics
- Then there are many readers, young and old, that are completely ignorant of SF, classic or modern, and the phrase science fiction equals movies and television shows, and book SF and its history are invisible to them
Powell, a science fiction writer, was talking to a book club that obviously wasn’t a SF book club and said of them:
I noticed this recently, when I spent an enjoyable evening being quizzed by members of a local book group about one of my novels, which they had been reading. They were a nice group of people but, when they spoke of the science fiction books they had tried previously, not one of them mentioned anything less than fifty years old! In their youths, they’d tried reading Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, but had been put off by, as they saw it, a concentration on ideas at the expense of characterization or literary merit.
I’ve known lots of people like this in my lifetime. Over there years in the general literary press, writers like John Updike and others, have expressed this view about science fiction. Basically they say it’s poorly written kid’s stuff, and they are referring to the classic Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov era of SF. SF fans have always reacted badly to this – especially the old fans who grew up reading and loving classic SF, and the younger fans who have rediscovered it.
Gareth L. Powell is a writer of new science fiction and feels, “As science fiction writers and fans, we are rightly proud of our genre’s origins and heritage. Yet sometimes, those same origins can be a millstone around our necks, dragging us down.”
Powell goes on to admit an influence and admiration for classic science fiction but suggests that the literary past can be a burden to contemporary writers.
That is my conflict too, but for other reasons that don’t pertain to literary style. Powell, as a writer is trying to discover new territory to write his science fiction and says,
But, can we really blame them? Those early classics (and the million derivative works they inspired) helped establish and reinforce the popular perception of science fiction as a pulpy and poorly written backwater of literature. For modern non-SF audiences, they have little appeal. Readers are more sophisticated now. The only way we’ll escape the legacy of our pulp roots is to promote the innovation, literary merit, and relevance of the best modern genre writing.
Some fans will always cling to the ‘golden age’ works of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and I can understand why. They provide a magic door back to the simple pleasures of a simpler world – a world before global warming, oil shortages, terrorism, and economic uncertainty; relics of a world where the future was easily understood, and (largely) American, middle class and white in outlook, origin and ethnicity.
My reading world of 1962 is so much different than my reading world at age 62. I still read and love 1950s and 1960s science fiction, but I’m willing to admit that it was poorly written, but that’s not an essential complaint, at least by me, no, my problem with classic science fiction is it’s dated. It’s wrong. It’s about futures that will never be. Classic science fiction futures have become my nostalgic past. I read old SF to relish how I felt when I was young and the future was full of fantastic possibilities.
When science fiction writers like Robert Silverberg admit that interstellar travel is probably impossible, and I’m starting to doubt that even interplanetary travel and colonization will happen, then it’s time we need to completely reevaluate science fiction. But isn’t that what new SF writers do? If I have any criticism of Gareth Powell, it’s not over his criticisms of classic science fiction, but rather, over how he’s reimagining science fiction.
If science fiction fans want the respect of the literary world at large they need to take their genre more seriously. Doctor Who and Star Trek reboots are just recycling a nostalgic past. So is the new space opera. Science fiction has become horribly incestuous.
I’m 62 and want to write science fiction. I’m inspired by the science fiction I discovered in 1962 – but I don’t want to live and write in a nostalgic past. I don’t think Powell went far enough in suggesting that classic science fiction is a millstone around the neck of new science fiction writers. Most science fiction, and I’m talking 98-99%, is recursive science fiction fantasies.
Real science fiction is about writing about possible futures. You can’t do that by writing about impossible pasts. You can’t be the next H. G. Wells, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov by recycling their ideas about the future. The thing about science fiction is it always gets the future wrong, but it’s fabulously right when it’s inventing new possible futures.
Right now dystopian science fiction is very popular, very exciting to young people. Their instincts tell them the futures of science fiction pasts are nostalgic pap. Sure, there’s a large segment of the young and the old that want to cling to the futures of classic science fiction, but they need to either accept their fantasies are fantasy and not true science fiction, or go read some science books. On the other hand, we need new writers that can imagine some possible non-dystopian futures. And do you know the definition of non-dystopian? It’s utopian.
That’s why so many readers love classic science fiction. For all the scary aspects of alien invasions, collapsing civilizations, nuclear wars, there was a sense of utopian dreams in that fiction, of interplanetary and interstellar travel, life extension, new civilizations, immortality, intelligent machines, brain uploading, etc. The reason why teens love dystopian fiction is not because they want to dwell on the horrible, but because the characters are free to fight for a new way of living, invent new societies, to rebel against authority, to live without parents and rules.
Readers are attracted to the positive, even if the setting is a nightmare.
Classic science fiction is both inherently positive and now nostalgic. But the futures it predicted aren’t going to happen. Powell is right, the challenge of new science fiction writers is not to be burden by past science fiction. Not just because it has the reputation for being poorly written, but because its now dated and wrong. I know why so many people love classic science fiction and defend it so passionately. I’m sure Powell knows too. But lovers of classic science fiction shouldn’t be offended when we criticize classic science fiction. The goal of this criticism is to write better science fiction. It’s called evolution.