Science Fiction: Nostalgic Past v. Dystopian Future

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.

JWH 12/7/13

26 thoughts on “Science Fiction: Nostalgic Past v. Dystopian Future”

  1. I enjoy both classic and contemporary science fiction, but for me, it’s not just about the accuracy of the science and whether or not an imagined future is possible. Science fiction allows us to examine social issues present in our own society through the lens of imagined futures. Issues like civil rights, nationalism versus globalization, terrorism, etc. can sometimes be viewed more clearly by stepping away from our own world and leaving behind current prejudices. It’s like having a sandbox to play with big ideas, which I think are often explored more thoroughly in sci-fi than in “literary” fiction. 🙂

    1. Excellent point Grace. Science fiction is always about the present. 1950s science fiction was about their dreams and fears of the future. We have different dreams and fears in the 2010s.

  2. I’m not widely enough read in the genre to comment, and I wouldn’t say sci/fi is my favourite anyway. However, I wanted to commend you on an interesting post, and wish you well with your science fiction novel. I suspect it will be very good.

  3. I enjoyed Powell’s post and realized his main point wasn’t to criticize classic science fiction but to point out that to get more people to read and embrace it you need to give them something current. Completely agree with that. The problem with Powell’s post is that he could not resist the urge to take a dig or two at classic science fiction. It was unnecessary and clouded his point.

    I love you Jim, but you tend to do similar things in posts like this. You are cranking along with fantastic points and then lay down an absolute like “Real science fiction is about writing about possible futures”…and my first response is “says who?” I don’t think science fiction has ever been as narrowly defined as some want to make it, and it is less narrowly defined now. That is maybe what you *want* science fiction to be, but science fiction is the whole package of what exists today, recursive and forward thinking, homages to the past and efforts to break new ground and everything in between. THAT is what science fiction is. I often read posts like Powells that state that all science fiction needs to be forward moving and I say that if there is ANY truth in that it all, it is only for a specific section of fans who want that to be the case.

    Me? I want it all! Reading new contemporary science fiction can be a wonderful experience. My favorite book of the year thus far, Love Minus Eighty, predicts a not too distant future with some completely improbably tropes, like cryogenics, and some very realistic newer tropes, like the way in which technology may become a more integral (and embedded) part of our lives. It was not only a good story, but had some exciting concepts that I could see inspiring those creating tech today.

    But you know what? Classic science fiction is incredible as well. There is something special about being able to pick up a book written decades ago and going inside that authors mindset for what people were thinking and imagining back then. I’m not sure what the motivation is for completely leaving behind the past as if it doesn’t matter. That is what we do in adolescence. We reject the things of our parents and set out to forge our own way. When we mature we realize that there is value both in what has gone before and in what lies ahead. I’m tired of the petulant whining (and I don’t consider you doing this Jim) about the state of science fiction and the lack of respect and the petty arguments about what is and is not science fiction. Science fiction is what those writing it want it to be. It is what people choose to buy and read. Shows like Doctor Who (and the accompanying literature) are popular because creators are able to tap into the zeitgeist, they are able to create something that speaks to something common in a wide variety of people. They may be geared towards the “mass audience”, a derogatory term that readers tend to trot out to describe anyone who embraces whatever is popular, thus “common”. But if we are to really look at what Powell is saying, he is talking about the “common” reader.

    “If science fiction fans want the respect of the literary world at large they need to take their genre more seriously”

    Science fiction won’t be respectable because the literati embrace it, it will be so because it appeals to the masses and is no longer seen as the literature of pre-teen boys. The works embraced by the “literary world at large” are often not any more respected by the general public than science fiction novels. Science fiction’s goal should not be to appeal to an elitist audience. It already does that, its just that so many of us carry around a feeling low self-esteem and don’t see ourselves in the same way the literati sees themselves. If you want science fiction to have an impact, it has to have a bigger appeal. If you want “real science fiction” to have that mass appeal, and by “you” I mean anyone who feels that science fiction needs to change, then I say “write it”! Make a story with forward thinking, solid science that has great characters and tells a compelling story that taps into that previously mentioned zeitgeist, or perhaps even helps create it. I’m sorry to say that my experience with much or what people try to do that is “new” is that the stories are not particularly compelling.

    As usual I’ve went all over the place with my response. Which is why I always love your posts Jim. No one that I know of can make me have such long conversations in my own head before I ever put fingers to keyboard.

    To close this chapter of this book I’m writing, science fiction is what the authors and film makers and television creators say it is. Simple as that. That has been that way for as long as science fiction has existed. Those who want it to be different should be making something different. But to constantly have verbal skirmishes with those who enjoy either the classics or those contemporary novels that regurgitate the classics is, to me, an insult to a large part of the community of science fiction. What is really being said is that those who partake of that kind of science fiction are somehow lesser readers/viewers. We are now that dreaded “mass audience” that for some reason deserves snobbish contempt. I’ve been guilty of harboring that same attitude, but going forward I’ll be petulant myself and say “screw that!”. We are, after all, talking about a form of entertainment. Entertainment that can inspire invention and dialogue, true, but still at its heart it is entertainment. And I like the wide variety of science fiction that I can choose to partake of for my entertainment. I find it incredibly arrogant that those who abhor the classics (Powell doesn’t do this, but plenty of fans and authors do) seem to think that I lack the intelligence or taste or devotion to my beloved genre because I don’t have the same “enlightened” attitude that they have. They seem to think that there is some incredible literature out there that most readers are missing and if we would just open our eyes and our minds and reject the past that somehow we would all be the better for it. And my response to that is, “quit talking about it and prove it…write those books!” Until then I just hear noise, much ado about nothing.

    I’m happy to point new readers to something brand new, something that won’t have them having to overcome an older way of writing and outdated social norms, etc. to enjoy. I’m in total agreement. But to completely abandon either the classics OR the subjects they tackled simply because someone feels they are irrelevant is, in my opinion, the kind of narrow minded thinking that will truly kill the genre.

  4. That’s exactly right Carl, science fiction is always what the readers, writers and publishers say it is. And there is a myriad of science fictional forms that each have their own fans. I am also sadden that the term “science fiction” is so broadly defined. I wished the genre was broken up into dozens of sub-genres with their own clearly defining labels, because the phrase “science fiction” has become meaningless as its now a catch-all for countless fantastic forms of fiction.

    I think the general term should be fantasy and reserve the term science fiction for those writers working on serious speculative fiction that involves extrapolating scientific trends.

    Now I don’t want to attack anyone’s love, but I do want to defend what I love. I’ve always defined science fiction in a very narrow way. Science fiction to me is a literary tool for exploring possible futures based on current knowledge. To me science fiction is a game with very specific rules. Unfortunately, it is such a fun game that many people like to play it by changing the rules slightly. I just wished they’d call their game something else.

    Now I obviously don’t own science fiction, so all I can do is be an old curmudgeon and gripe about linguistic labels. I just love finding books by a writer that studies everything under the sun and then uses that knowledge to extrapolate about a possible future. I’m being lazy here, because I want a label that makes it easier to find the kind of books I want to read.

    I completely understand other readers love something different they label science fiction which I don’t think of science fiction. It’s a language problem. But it helps when words point to very specific things or concepts.

    I don’t think we have to worry about any opinion killing off the genre, it’s much too healthy and popular for that. What I worry about is the popular form of what people call science fiction is going to kill off the kind of stories I call science fiction. My kind of science fiction is getting harder and harder to find.

    Carl I will always treasure the classics of science fiction, they provide a literary history to the books I like, but new books, not like them, but ones that use science fiction as a conceptual tool like they did.

    By the way Carl, I always consider it very flattering when you write a comment longer than my post.

    1. They kind of do have a definition for “serious speculative fiction that involves extrapolating scientific trends”… the problem is that it is termed “hard SF” and to me that “hard” word sends the wrong message to the general reader. But I don’t disagree about the term being meaningless. I do like all the subgenres myself because it makes it easier to at least get an initial idea of what kind of book it is. I think you’d agree though that even the subgenres are getting to be very broad.

      I don’t have any problem with the way you feel, and I hope that a problem wasn’t what I conveyed above. Your addition of the words “to me” in your comments is what I feel was lacking in your declarative statement in your post. I suppose it could be argued that the “to me” or the opinion nature of a post on any person’s blog should make the “to me” implied, but like it or not, as someone who is 18 years older than me and well-read in the classic era, I consider you one of the “experts” and I don’t read “to me” into those statements, I see them as you defining what science fiction is in general, in this example, and I just don’t agree with that. Petty, I know, and I apologize, but it stood out to me.

      I don’t think it is being lazy at all to want to have a label that defines the kind of fiction you are wanting to read, the kind of fiction that defines science fiction for you. And in that you are no different than the rest of us. I have the same thing going on in my head, Jim. “Science Fiction” to me is largely what could be considered “space opera”. Now I still readily accept dystopian or post-apocalyptic on Earth work as ‘science fiction’ and steampunk, etc, etc., when I hear or read the words “science fiction” my mind always goes first to space opera. So I’m with you all the way. And given that, despite the annual cries of science fiction dying, there are in the neighborhood of 150-200 books each month in SF Signal’s books being published this month posts, having an easy way to say “this is a book for me” would be much appreciated. I will happily beat that drum with you Jim. I feel fortunate in that, in some ways, the term ‘space opera’ has went from being a denigrating term to one embraced by newer authors and publishers to describe a type of science fiction being written today.

      And in the end I want the books you want to simply because I like to have a wide variety of stuff to read. I just want to see authors make them as exciting and appealing as the more popular and common science fiction. I’ve said many times, I just want a good story. And I refuse to believe that there aren’t authors out there with the level of research and passion for science that you describe who cannot put that all in the form of an engaging story.

      And I would encourage you to write that as well, IF that is the kind of story you want to write. However, I would also encourage you to decide what you want your stories to be. John Scalzi, by way of example, is a shrewd businessman who looked at the market and was able to tap into the market with an homage to Heinlein and Haldeman with Old Man’s War. And by and large he has continued to do that. My friend Colleen Gleason has done the same thing (to lesser world-wide success but to good financial success) with her vampire-hunter-romance novels and most recently with her steampunk young adult book. She is writing what she likes, as I suspect John Scalzi is, but they are also looking at the market and writing to it and are honest about that because they want to be published and ultimately to make some money writing.

      Should every author do this? No, because things really would be dismal and we would only have copycat novels to read. But can authors tap into what is up and coming AND do what you and Powell advocate? I think so. But even if not, as goes for you personally, I strongly encourage you to first of all write, if that is your passion, and secondly to write what you want to read, not what you think others want to or need to read. Write the kind of science fiction that makes you happy Jim. Otherwise why spend the time and effort?

      1. I think some of the sub-labels of science fiction are pretty accurate in pointing to specific kinds of stories. “New Space Opera” and “space opera” point to books that are similar enough to what I want to read when I’m in the mood for those kinds of books. So too for “military SF” and “hard science fiction.” However, hard science fiction isn’t exactly always what I’m talking about, but it is sometimes. The Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson is hard SF, and what I call science fiction. By my definition of science fiction, I’d point to The Windup Girl, Ready Player One, and Little Brother, but they are all very different books in story type, but each uses the technique of science fiction to imagine a possible future. Books by Lois McMaster Bujold are called science fiction by most people, but not by me. She writes great books that are well loved, but I’d file them under romantic space opera rather than science fiction because there’s no speculation/extrapolation in them.

        Our book for the club, Leviathan Wakes, I’d called Interplanetary Space Opera, although Bujold’s books could be called Galactic Empire Space Opera, or even Interstellar Aristocratic Space Adventures. How did people classify Sir Walter Scott’s adventure stories? I believe some science fiction is really descended from his kind of adventure tales.

        What’s interesting is I don’t think there are thousands of different kinds of stories. We might could come up with a couple dozen good labels that would be far more descriptive than just science fiction. When people lump vampire and zombie tales in the science fiction category it really has devalued the brand. And that’s not spiking vampire stories. I’m not trying to knock anybody’s reading, I’m just wishing for better labels in advertising and classifying.

  5. I’m with you all the way. I too consider Bujold’s novels to be more romantic space opera. I liked Jonathan Strahan’s introduction to the Edge of Infinity anthology where he coins the term “fourth generation science fiction”. Because I’m lazy I’m going to quote my own description of the Introduction from my review of the anthology:

    “Jonathan Strahan references the idea that science itself brings about the “science fiction is dying (or already dead)” wail that is heard with alarming regularity within the SF community. Jonathan Strahan is not decrying science or the wonders revealed by scientific study, but he posits that “this constant barrage of fact can be the enemy of romance, and science fiction needs romance to survive”. Fourth generation science fiction then is fiction that is meant to merge the “romance of science and the romance of fiction” into stories that move SF away from the realm of Earth-bound dystopian futures and inspire both readers and scientists to embrace our love affair with tomorrow, to look to our own Solar System as the next great frontier of exploration. For the most part the choices Jonathan Strahan made for this anthology reflect this dream beautifully. ”

    This is the kind of space opera that I think the Expanse series of Corey falls into in that it is solar-system-bound space opera. I’m probably most fond of that kind of story right now. While it doesn’t posit anything more probable simply because it is in the solar system vs. in some imagine universe, it does in my mind do for new readers of science fiction (and some of us old ones) what classic sf did for readers at that time: it dares to imagine a future where we are off the Earth in a way that excites the imagination.

    I’d like, and I suspect you and Robert Silverberg would too, to see someone do that with something more plausible.

    Sorry to get off on that, just being excitable.

    I too think there could be a realistic number of sub-categories under a generalized set of headings to give people a quick snapshot of what to expect from a specific book.

  6. James,

    I also have a few comments for you, lol.

    First, I thought Gareth’s piece interesting ad provocative, but I never saw it as an “attack piece” on “classic science fiction”. At worst it is another example (in my view) of mis-reading/mis-focusing/misapperception.

    Lets get to the heart of it: When our science and technology achieves Clarkeian levels, there will be no room for science fiction. Science will be magic, magic will be science and there will be no point in writing about tech, its influences on society, or about tech, the great new thing since thinking will be creating. Everyone will be an author-god.

    Until that happens however, there is still room for science fiction, gosh-wow stuff. According to Kurzweil we have at least until 2045 before SF can be proclaimed dead.

    Common tropes are not as scientifically dead as you seem to suggest – “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.”

    We currently HAVE interplanetary travel – of the robotic variety. We even have interplanetary colonization of the electronic kind, if you’re willing to be a little loose on your definition of colonization.

    Interstellar travel has also just begun (Voyager) and, the more folks who might understand quantum physics just a little bit look into it, FTL using the principals of the Alcubierre drive is appearing more and more plausible/possible – one day.

    We’ve got actual “matter transmittal” going on in the lab and even limited (thought-experiment level) time travel taking place; commercial development of space is just about to EXPLODE – (as well may be the international prestige competition development of planetary space).

    We are, in many ways, just beginning to enter into an era that is the gestalt of 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s SF – household robots, high-speed transportation options, genetic tailoring, unlimited computing power for the individual, 3D printing (no more shipping, just drop the garbage into the hopper!); continued hope for sustainable fusion….’

    We’re so close to living in that Asimovian, Heinleinian, Clarkeian, Piperian, Harrisonian, Campbellian, etc imagined future it would’t surprise me at all to read of plans to plate over New York city to achieve energy efficiency and reduce pollution.

    I think in many respects a lot of folks think the polish has worn off classic SF because they can now compare reality to fiction and are finding the imagined realm just a tad wanting.

    I suspect that those younger generations reading classic SF and being thrilled by it are at least partially engaged by the all-too-evident prognosticatory powers of those authors/pieces. (Wow, they were imagining that fifty years ago!?!)

    SF, once formally declared (1926) existed, developed and thrived in a literary ghetto. Those who are accusing the literature of “bad writing” are mistaking a dialect for inadequate/poor use of the language. The masters of the classic form were masters of that dialect and idiom.

    The language is moving on (Upspeak –, but that does not invalidate the earlier works any more than modern English invalidates Chaucer (or even Shakespeare). Some have CHOSEN to label this dialect in the negative – which is the same as saying apples are bad fruits because they don’t fit into the orange medium.

    Forcing SF into the literary mainstream, suborning the literature to conform to rules and regulations for lit promulgated by one narcissistic corner of the lit world is a huge mistake. Classic Science Fiction flourished from 1926 until at least the mid-60s BECAUSE its experimentation was able to take place within the shelters of a ghetto. Scarcity breeds innovation. Persecution breeds innovation. Relaxation of, if not downright disrespect for the “rules” breeds creativity and innovation (and, obviously, rule-breaking).

    If SF becomes part of the “mainstream”, it will not die, but it most certainly will be absorbed – assimilated if you will – into the conformist, lackluster, gray Borg collective of all that is written.

  7. Steve, I believe science has long achieved Clarkeian levels of magic. Most people don’t have a clue as to how most technology works. An iPad is just a lump of glass and metal. How many kids, high school or college, could explain how television works, much less build a television set?

    We don’t have interplanetary travel because we don’t count robots – yet! Science fiction has already been about people traveling across the solar system and colonizing it. Of course, we need updated science fiction about the probable reality of robots colonizing the solar system and humans staying home. We also need updated science fiction where robots are the children of humans, our true space faring descendants.

    Steve you have a tremendous faith in science, why not the same faith in science fiction? Expect it to evolve and mutate too. Why shouldn’t science fiction writers write science fiction with higher technology literary skills to surpass what early generations of science fiction writers have achieved?

    One reason Heinlein’s career took off so fast in the 1940s is because he used better writing skills than the 1930s SF writers. The reason why Samuel R. Delany and Roger Zelazny stood out in the 1960s is because they leaped ahead of the 1950s writing styles. I find Arthur C. Clarke almost impossible to read today because his novels have such poor character development – but I loved him decades ago. Heinlein is my favorite author, but his popularity is shrinking more every year.

    There is nothing wrong with cherishing the older writers, but we have to always make room for the new. And new writers need to break new ground, evolve beyond the old, and go where no writer and written before. For new science fiction writers to succeed and stand out, for the genre to maintain its momentum, we need new science fiction writers to supersede the writers that inspired them.

    Can you imagine what the science fiction field would be like if we had stayed at the level of E. E. “Doc” Smith writing skills?

  8. I do see science fiction evolving – all over the place. I see excellent works from new writers exploring new themes and expanding the dialogue on old ones, but two things here:

    (Well, three, or maybe more)

    First at some point the charge of “bad writing” becomes entirely subjective.

    While you may not be saying this, many of those who want to push older SF out of the sleigh are advancing an emotional charge against the entire genre based on DATES! Two seconds or less of examination of that argument renders it ridiculous. (To pick on your favorite author – is Friday poorly written? Or does it simply make some assumptions that have turned out to be off the mark; it it morally reprehensible or more a reflection of a different set of cultural values?) How “bad” is The Door Into Summer? All You Zombies?)

    No, in large measure I believe that those making these age-related charges are either not cognizant of the fact that the writing is of a different idiom and that they wish to see that idiom change to the more widely accepted one that is informed by the “literary” side.

    We CAN have BOTH. If modern SF literary forms can’t cut it without having to step on and eradicate the earlier form, there is still something wanting in the new form.

    What do we inherit if all SF becomes “literary”? We get authors who are cajoled by marketing and advertising and accounting considerations that want their “product” to fit a particular mold so that it can be sold to the widest possible audience.

    When you try to please a wide market, you lose the detail and nuance that actually speaks to the specialty, smaller audience.

    This has happened before with not-so-good results: When Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer went big time, they were contracted to several other similar, designed for the best-seller lists novels. That contract culminated in Footfall.

    Is there any serious comparison between the two novels when it comes to assessing their SFnal elements? I don’t think so. LH was good SF of a near-term variety. Footfall was space opera – laced with in-jokes by the authors to illustrate (to their in-the-know audience) just how ridiculous it was to try and fit a special form of story telling into a mass-market mold.

    The dollars will follow – and you always get more dollars from mass market entertainment than you do niches. Just look at Hollywood. THERE is the future of SF literature if we go down this path of writing what the “market” wants as opposed to writing what the author wants. Watered down pablum, repetitive recycling of “what works”; lack of innovation.

    In some respects I’m arguing for essentially the same thing – but treating it from a different perspective:

    Suppose that the divide is separated by a door. SF can go OUT through the door and ultimately become what I described above, OR – SF can open the door to let IN some aspects of the dominant literary culture without sacrificing its identity.

  9. I don’t think we ever push out the past writers. They just fade away, and a few of them get remembered and they define the literary landscape of the time. Of all the science fiction writers of the 1950s, how many are still being read? Time will tell if the number reaches zero. People still read H. G. Wells, but hardly any of the many other science fiction writers of his time. Science fiction was common in the 19th century, it just didn’t have that label. Most of it was poorly written, usually by having an observer from the current day some how magically thrown into a future day to hear lectures about the future. It was amusing then, but boring now.

    Steve, you and I have one thing in common, we both love old science fiction. But we’re quibbling over whether “bad writing” impacts the lasting value of our favorite books. I believe bad writing is going to keep E. E. “Doc” Smith from having many fans in the future. I think bad writing has already killed off most of the SF writers that appeared in Amazing and Astounding in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.

    Heinlein is harder to predict. He’s going to lose fans because of his content – because much of what he had to say will become meaningless to future readers. But Heinlein wasn’t a bad writer. He wasn’t great either, not in a literary sense, but he was a very good storyteller when he had a good editor to keep him in check. The Door Into Summer is a very good story, and it might have fans in the future. But will it ever have the number of fans that Great Expectations does today? I don’t think so. I’m hoping a few of Heinlein’s novels might be remembered and read as much as a few of H. Rider Haggard novels are read today. But Haggard is only marginally remembered.

    Niven and Pournelle have their fans, and their writing was decent for the time and the genre. There stuff often gets reprinted. But not to be mean, but I don’t think their writing quality was good enough to keep their books from fading. I believe it’s storytelling ability and literary skills that keep a book alive over time, and not its ideas. Nineteen Eighty-Four has fantastic ideas, way beyond most science fiction stories, but it wouldn’t have survived without having the storytelling and literary quality it has.

    If you want to write a SF book that lasts you have to tell the story in such a way that future readers can get into it and enjoy it. That takes literary skills. And I don’t mean academic Ph.D. literary skills, but storytelling skills. A great example is The Earth Abides by George R. Stewart.

    By the way, I believe there are zillions of wonderfully written novels published all the time that will be forgotten too. Time is cruel to writers. Timelessness is a quality that few writers consciously know how to evoke. Most writers unconsciously write to contemporary readers, and when current times are over, the books become dated, and their popularity fades.

    Steve, the reason why we love older SF is become we grew up in the times when it was appealing. Younger minds aren’t going to read what we read from the same books.

    1. ” Younger minds aren’t going to read what we read from the same books.”

      That is true, but that doesn’t mean younger minds don’t get some value out of reading classic science fiction. Which is why you will find me agreeing that this isn’t the first place to point young readers to get them hooked on the genre, but you will also find me later recommending classic sf because my experience, which is validated every year that I’ve been a blogger, is that regardless of age there are always readers willing to give classic sf a try and often they get very meaningful experiences out of it, even if it is merely to have a dialogue about where we’ve come from and how things change.

  10. You’ve never mentioned the Guinness Record holder in writing science fiction …
    (“Most audio books for one author is L. Ron Hubbard with 185 published audio books as of 21st April 2009.” “Past Guinness world records issued include ‘Most translated author,’ and the world’s ‘Most published author,’” )


  11. The future is still “full of fantastic possibilities” and I think current SF expresses that–even if interstellar travel does prove impossible (or close enough to count) we still get excellent “solar-system SF” like Stross and Corey (and Rajaniemi, whose work I don’t like as much, but still supports the idea that the future will be amazing). The more I read of quantum theory and nanotechnology, the more I see the possibilities.

    I like this post a lot, and I think you make good points here; it reflects my own feeling that, for a long time, I had a hard time relating to Heinleinocentric SF. But the deeper I read in post-2000 SF, the more optimistic I am about the future of humanity *and* the future of SF.

  12. “Lack of literary quality”? Heh, heh. Have you see the crap that’s on the bestseller lists? Powell’s “local book group” seems to be filled with snobs, and I wouldn’t think it’s representative of readers.

    I don’t care, anyway. I don’t care in the slightest if a book is considered literature or not. Fiction is entirely subjective. You like books I don’t, and vice versa. So what?

    But I like science fiction, and I’m not going to give up anything I don’t have to. I’m not going to restrict science fiction to anything in particular, and I don’t care in the slightest what the author of a book thinks about it (whether he wants it labeled as science fiction or not).

    Richard McKenna is my hero. 🙂 He once claimed that his 1962 blockbuster, “The Sand Pebbles,” was science fiction, with the science being anthropology. That’s my sentiment exactly. I’ll be willing to give up crap, I suppose, but if I like a book, and I can label it science fiction, I will.

    If a snob looks down his nose at science fiction, what do I care? Was pulp fiction always great? Of course not. But why would anyone expect otherwise? And what difference does that make, anyway? I just don’t get it, Jim.

  13. I’ve never seen Asimov’s work as typical “the future will be wonderful” classic SF. Many of his robot short stories were simple explorations of technology, and might be classed in that uncritical classic SF mold. However the robot novels they later culminated in were far more dystopian than blade runner or anything since. The earth is on the edge of starvation, past wars over resources nearly destroyed civilization, everyone lives a regimented, rationed and sterile existence. Hopeless poverty and starvation is clearly just around the corner for anyone without a good job. Then to top it off the people of earth sacrifice to build colonies to help meet their needs for resources. Then once up and running, the colonists rebel and live lives of idle richness on the cream of earth’s technology, while oppressing and treating earth much like the outside world treated Ethiopia and Biafra in their time of need. The spacers are as racist and xenophobic as anyone in the real historical past.

    The Foundation novels even the ones written in the classic era are also a nightmare vision of societal collapse, the obviousness of its coming and the utter inability of society to do anything about it. Asimov’s solution is the creation of a dialectic worthy of any futuristic communism. It utterly rejects and allows the rest of society to fall apart in terrible war and destruction with only the hope being to limit the destruction to just 1000 years. The foundation novels really are a welcome attack on the suburban lifestyle, whoever the enemy is they are the most suburban. If you throw in the later novels humans end up being not much more than exhibits in a zoo run by robots. Yikes!

  14. Why is the future dystopian? Why have we been screwing up the present since the ’60s?

    Some years ago I had a conversation with a man who told me that he “Loved Cars!” I asked him what a cam shaft was. He did not know. But he had an ‘Automobile’ magazine. Car mags usually have ads with parts laid out in geometric patterns. I pointed to a part and asked him what it was. He did not know. I was pointing at a crank shaft.

    There is a video on YouTube about Harvard graduates who cannot explain what causes summer and winter. These people are creating dystopias with their ignorance of how things really work but make a big deal of how ‘literary’ good SF must be.

    Wells mentioned Thorium in The World Set Free in 1914, but Nixon shut down our thorium reactor research in the ’70s. Stupidity will give us dystopia. Good literary characteristics can make good SF better but it does not make good SF, it only satisfies dummies that will call the junk ‘good sci-fi’.

    1. If people read Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker, we might need to rethink the future will be a dystopia. If you look at stats we’re improving the world in many regards. Of course, that ignores other stats. A case could be made that we’ve been screwing up the world since the Industrial Revolution. On the hand, we’ve been inventing all kinds of cool technology.

      1. We can produce dirt cheap von Neumann device faster than we can produce people. So if we distribute rational comprehensible concepts faster than we generate BS then maybe we can get ahead. But if we use it to cause confusion we will go down hill to chaos.

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