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.
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.
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.
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.