When Does Science Fiction Go Stale?

Right off the bat, I should say dated science has no affect on the expiration date of science fiction. I’m still passionately in love with “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny.  Stories about Mars and Venus having inhabitants, or humans being able to breathe their atmospheres, do not detract from their freshness – if the writing was wonderful.


I do know that science fiction can go stale – just look at the books by E. E. “Doc” Smith, who was the brightest star among the science fiction writers of the 1930s. If Smith had been a better writer, more savvy about race and gender, he might be remembered along with H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. There were legions of science fiction writers between Wells and Heinlein, but how many of their books are fresh today? It seems like science fiction goes stale pretty fast. Why?

And the taste of staleness isn’t universal from reader to reader. Some people enjoy eating two-day-old pizza, and E. E. Smith is still read by a limited number of fans, especially those who acquired the pulp fiction habit. On the other hand, how many young science fiction readers today fall in reading love with Jack Williamson, Edmund Hamilton, Murray Leinster, John W. Campbell, Ray Cummings,  E. E. Smith, Eric Temple Bell, George O. Smith or Eric Frank Russell?


When I was growing up in the 1960s, fans talked about The Big Three of Science Fiction – Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov.  Fifty years on, I’m rereading their books and I realize they are starting to go stale like some SF books I read when I was a kid. Me and my buddies found E. E. Smith and Jack Williamson thrilling but also laughable. And like I said, it’s not the science, or the fact that we’re now living a future that’s overwritten those science fiction writer’s dreams of things to come.

I loved the Heinlein juveniles and assumed they were such obvious classics that kids would be reading them for centuries, like Treasure Island, Little Women and Alice in Wonderland. I still love them because of nostalgia, but I’m not sure they are as fresh today as they were to me in the 1960s.


What exactly goes stale? When you read an old science fiction story that’s as flat as a Coke without its fizz, what went wrong? I talked about this with members of the Classic Science Fiction Book Club and the Defining 1950s Science Fiction Reading Challenge. The consensus is writing style and political correctness.  Readers don’t mind antiquated stories as long as they are well told, or even antiquated point of views, if they are part of the story. Good storytelling stays fresh. Good storytelling can override decaying style. But it’s very hard to maintain a story if the characters are very out of touch modern sensibilities of right and wrong.

Sadly, a lot of old science fiction wasn’t that well written. It impressed young people at the time with far out ideas, rather than with good writing and characterization.  It’s funny how much a science fiction writer can get things wrong, and yet the story will stay fresh because of the storytelling, and not the idea.

the door into summer

I still love reading The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein, even though the story was written in 1957, about a robot inventor living in the year 1970, who buys suspended animation time so he can sleep till the year 2000 to get away from his cheating girlfriend. We didn’t have household robots in 1970, and Heinlein’s year 2000 was nothing like our year 2000. Yet, the story is still readable!  Why? Heinlein had an engaging writing style, a sympathetic character, facing interesting problems, and who comes up with emotionally solid solutions, although the ending is becoming a little questionable.

The writing, characters and motivations are still functional. Yet, if we try to read something like E. E. “Doc” Smith Lensman books today, they feel archaic in their writing style, and the plot and character motivations seem simplistic – too much like an ancient comic book. Yet, a book like Out of a Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis written during the same decade as the Smith stories, still works. Lewis gets everything wrong about Mars, has a weird Christian take on space travel, and yet the story still works. And how did John Wyndham get away with writing a story about walking killer plants? Because the characters are very realistic and react in a realistic way, and we the readers care about them, plus we love to imagine what we would have done in their place.

out of the silent planet

Dime novels are seldom read today. Nor do people still read the popular girls and boys books of the early 20th century, like those by Roy Rockwood, who wrote the Great Marvel series (1906-1935). Many of these old books are so filled with racism and sexism that we cringe to read them today, but at one time they offered kids a thrilling sense of wonder. It’s a shame that those old authors weren’t better writers, because their stories captured their times in a unique way – their view of the future. Even the racism and sexism is historical. So I think that it’s the quality of writing that most makes a book go stale.

through space to mars

We still read H. G. Wells stories written in the 1890s. Why does Wells survive while so many other SF&F books from the same time faded from our reading awareness? Is it merely bad writing? I tend to think so. Books that become classics, like Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations, have something more that good storytelling though. They tap into the core of human nature, and most science fiction never aims for such psychological depths. Wells was no Dickens, but he did have great intellectual ambitions. I think that’s why he’s stayed fresh while Jules Verne trails Wells in popularity. Verne still can engage people with his storytelling, but Wells was a scientific prophet of his age.

Bad science won’t ruin a story, if the story is wonderful, but does cause a kind of staleness. 1930s and 1940s space operas just seem silly today, often hokey, or even campy and kitschy.  One reason Nineteen Eighty-Four is still so damn fresh, it’s it’s about politics and human nature, and not galactic empires and robots. If you’re a science fiction writer who hopes to enchant readers next century then it’s wise to write about common denominators that people now and in the future will have. But if you really want to dazzle the people of today, you want to write about things they never imagined. Which is what E. E. “Doc” Smith and Jack Williamson did in the 1930s. What will awe people in the 2010s will probably feel silly and stale by the 2040s, but maybe that’s just part of the science fiction game.


6 thoughts on “When Does Science Fiction Go Stale?”

  1. I happened to read Mor Jokai’s Atlantis story and the story about the society in North Pole I guess. It’s 19th century prose, but it would probably better if not naive and one-way minded focus.
    I love the Inter Ice Age 4 by Abe Kobo, it’s not stale, it still asks questions relevant even now and it was written in 1959. Similarily, Stanislaw Lem’s books (the stories I read) are still valid too. Either Solaris or the Futurological Congress. I laughed hard when I was reading how they wanted to solve problems in the future, and quite a lot of those things became real or is becoming real. So it’s not stale, because you feel the world in a book is real. Some things like “masking the truth from citizens” are done differently, but hey, it’s so real.

  2. There’s a tendency to poo poo Verne lately that I don’t like. Maybe he was a bit simpler than Wells but he was writing decades before Wells. Verne made a full time commitment to science fiction and as such was the first person to make a career out of it. I will always call him the father of science fiction. I liked his stories as much as Wells’ it was just that the first few pages were riddled with so many adjectives that I would skim them until he got into the story.

    I am not one to think 1984 is that great of a book. It’s important because you see politicians following the bad stuff in it today, trying for more and more power. I suspect some politicians back then inspired it. But it is a straight dystopia. I don’t like subjecting myself to dystopias and thus usually don’t read them like I haven’t read 1984.

    And straight utopias are usually too unrealistic. As such most of my reading is in what I recently found was called Sensawunda. I’ll agree that some is poorly written. But I like the big 3. Clarke I like the least. And I would include the later Larry Niven for being architects for the blueprint of good Sensawunda.

    As a 12 year old I was given three of the Heinlein juveniles in hardcover. They were reprints as I’m only in my 40s now. I’ve read all three again as an adult a couple times. The three are Citizen of the Galaxy (my fave of them), Have Spacesuit will Travel and Time for the Stars. Are the rest of them good, too, or did my older sister pick out the best ones?

    Anyway my idea of what stands up today is different than yours. I understand that my viewpoint is basically a reverse prejudice brought about as a reaction by the prejudice of the literary establishment. I hated being told all through english classes that the author meant this or used this symbolism. My guess has always been that some authors didn’t mean that at all because they didn’t explicitly say it. And then they say that the writing in Sensawunda and other SF is sub par because it hasn’t been written like more literary fiction…

    I’m ranting because I have so much to say on the topic. I’ve seriously been writing what I call Sensawunda stories because that is the area of SF I like best. I’ve completed the last three Nanowrimos and still have a mountain of editing to do even on the first one so I plan not to submit anything anywhere till late this year. I know what I want to write.

    Judging from your posts, you seem most intent on trying to bring about a more 1984 type novel. Maybe it’s a good way to grow from first liking Sensawunda to arriving at a more gritty take on the future. Personally, I think there are places to grow within Sensawunda and currently that’s what I’m trying to do.

    Good luck on finding as universal an idea as 1984. I don’t come up with them myself. Sensawunda seems to be more about what innovations might be coming. To me, that can be very exciting because it changes everything. And it’s universal in another way.

  3. Larry, I’m for all kinds of fiction, and all kinds of science fiction. I love novelty and experimentation. Much of this essay was inspired by rereading old science fiction I loved as a kid fifty years ago. It amazes me how much I’ve changed, and how much the world around me has changed. As a lover of the genre, I’m fascinated by how science fiction has changed, and it intrigues me that some science fiction stories stay fresh and others don’t. As a would-be writer of science fiction, I have to wonder why.

    I reread Nineteen Eighty-Four recently and I was blown away by how creative George Orwell was in thinking science fictionally. He’s not really a science fiction writer, but he used extrapolation and what if techniques better than most science fiction writers.

    I’ve always been into sense of wonder stories too, but now I’m into literary quality also. Books like The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, The Road by Cormac McCarthy or Ready Player One by Ernest Kline does both. I think 1950s science fiction was written by mostly guys who thought more about science than literature. Since the 1970s we’ve had a whole range of men and women writing science fiction that tell their stories with more rounded characters. Sometimes sense of wonder is more subtle.

    I think you’re right Larry, in that there’s lots of room within sense of wonder stories to grow. I don’t think we’ve even begun to explore the possibilities.

    By the way, I’m fond of all twelve of the Heinlein juveniles, even Rocketship Galileo, which has Nazis on the Moon, but the best ones I think are the later ones, the three you mentioned and Tunnel in the Sky. Of the earlier ones, I’m partial to The Rolling Stones, Farmer in the Sky and Starman Jones.

    I still like Verne, because he could tell a good story. Not all old sense of wonder is going stale. This past year I read Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Goslings (1913) by J. D. Beresford, and found both stories very engaging.

    1. Thanks for that brief review of Heinlein’s juveniles. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for Tunnel in the Sky. I wonder if anyone calls them his “young adults” to keep with the modern vernacular.

  4. James, I wonder how much “over familiarity” with an author or even a particular work contributes to something going stale. I’ve read enough (though only a handful) of accounts of younger folk discovering Doc Smith, or hoary old pulps in general, who’ve had a positive reaction to those discoveries, to believe that they can still find readers and may not be as stale or as dismiss able as suggested.

    Writing style and various cultural sensibilities do change over time…I’d like to think that anyone picking up a book that’s older than about a decade will be taking such in stride (though that’s often not the case…and I’m often puzzled by criticism of an older book that takes it to task for things that occurred AFTER it was written. Though critique of an author’s failure to anticipate sociological change is justified – if the work includes sociological speculation. Otherwise – not.)

    I’m also puzzled by criticism of older works that “didn’t get the tech right”. Hardly any science fiction story will get the tech right…if you insist on exactitude with specificity. Spaceships with no computers? Well, those folks were committed to “man in space with a slide rule”, because anyone who headed for Ganymede without being able to calculate orbits and fuel consumption by themselves was a fool. Of course the pioneers would be entirely self-sufficient (after all, those vacuum tubes have a nasty habit of burning out and there ain’t no hardware stores in the asteroid belt…yet).

    1. Over familiarity might be a real problem. I think that’s what’s happening with Heinlein and PKD. I’ve just read their books too many times. For many novels, the freshness is the excitement of the first reading.

      And I agree, there are young people that take to Smith and the pulps, but they are few and far between. Part of the issue there, is these kids aren’t very familiar with literature in general, so Smith can still work. But once a person is an experienced reader, it’s going to be hard to enjoy him, unless you have the pulp fiction gene, and I think some people do.

      And three things are making young readers more sophisticated. First, we’re getting them to read younger and younger. Second, they are being exposed to a wider range of stories at a younger age. And third, young adult fiction has gotten extremely good, so good that many adults prefer it. Just compare the writing of the Lensman series to the Harry Potter series. Not only is the writing far more creative and rich, but Rowling imagined a thousand details to ever one that Smith imagined.

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