By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, May 7, 2015
If you live long enough you can watch science fiction evolve. Most fans automatically assume that it’s the advancement of science that spoils older science fiction, but I disagree. “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny is downright silly when it comes to science, but I still love the hell out of that story. It’s my contention that writing dates older science fiction, and not the science.
I just finished reading The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, a sophisticated 21st century science fiction novel from China. Joshua Rothman at The New Yorker called Cixin “China’s Arthur C. Clarke.” I’ve read others who have given Cixin that tag too. Clarke wrote some exciting science fiction back in the 20th century, but The Three-Body Problem storytelling dwarfs anything Clarke wrote. Clarke wasn’t much of a writer, and no stylist at all. His characters were chess pieces used to fictionally illustrate his scientific prophecies. Isaac Asimov wasn’t much better. Heinlein had some writing chops, decent enough in the 1950s, but his later works devolved into solipsistic characters all chatting amongst themselves.
The prose of The Three-Body Problem is refined in ways older science fiction writers never imagined. One way to understand why, is to read another essay by Joshua Rothman, “A Better Way to Think About the Genre Debate.” Rothman uses an idea by the critic Northrop Frye to explain the evolution of fiction over time. Frye believed four genres exist: novel, romance, anatomy and confession. Most science fiction and fantasies are romances. Back in the 19th century before the term science fiction existed, science fiction was called scientific romances. What we call literary, Frye calls novel. Satire, social commentary, philosophy is what goes into anatomy. Confession is autobiographical. The best fiction combines three or four of Frye’s genres. The best of 1950s science fiction combined romance and anatomy. The better 21st century science fiction writers combine novel, romance and anatomy. Ulysses by James Joyce is considered a novel that combines all four forms.
I’m in a 1950s science fiction reading group and we’re discovering that most of the books now considered classics of the genre are rather poorly written. Many, are becoming almost unreadable. But that writing was light-years beyond the science fiction written in the 1920s and 1930s. E. E. “Doc” Smith is painful to read today. I’m worried that my favorite SF books from the 1950s and 1960s will cause young readers today to cringe at its creakiness.
Part of the clunky factor of older science fiction was the poor writing standards of that era. SF editors of the time were not very discerning, and most SF writers wrote quickly to pay bills. Much of the stuff being published in the 1950s came from 1930s and 1940s pulps, and most of the original SF written in the 1950s was slapped together for cheap paperback publishers.
Genre SF tended to focus on the fantastic, the adventure, and were all romance in Frye’s terminology. The trouble is, the fantasies of one generation eventually fail for future generations. To last, a book needs elements of the novel and anatomy by Frye’s definitions. Modern readers will find E. E. “Doc” Smith’s romances silly today. They were pure romance, crudely written. His books might still work for people who enjoy a comic book level of fictional reality, but not for anyone who enjoys the richness of modern fantastic literature.
Goodreads has a nice listing of Best Science Fiction of the 21st Century. At the top of the list is Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Cline’s exciting and fun story is still not a literary masterpiece by snooty New York literary types, but it is better written and told than most 20th century science fiction. It’s not brilliant like Nineteen Eighty-Four, but then George Orwell wasn’t a genre novelist. Nor does Cline attempt a distinctive style like Samuel R. Delany, J. G. Ballard or Ursula K. Le Guin began doing for SF back in the 1960s. Cline just uses all the good writing practices that modern writers use today. Cline’s novel is fun and speaks to a 21st century audience that remembers the 1980s. I grew up reading Heinlein and Bradbury, writers shaped by their personal experiences of the 1930s and 1940s. Since science fiction tends to be about the future, younger writers are both more savvy about the future, and better trained as writers. They have decades of better novels to study, and they probably graduated from writer workshops like Clarion, or even attend MFA programs.
The exciting aspects of The Three-Body Problem still involve science fictional concepts that have been around since the 19th century, but with new 21st century twists. Just being able to integrate computer networks, the world wide web and computer games into a story gives 21st century science fiction a huge advantage over 20th century science fiction. But I don’t think that’s why Cixin novel is better. His plot is elegantly complex. His characters, although not great by modern literary standards, are far more engaging than what we encountered in most 20th century science fiction. But most of all, he knows how to weave far more information into his fiction without doing infodumps. Older writers often stopped their story to just narrate information they wanted their readers to know. Newer writers know how to paint the background while keeping the story going.
Certainly the Ex Machina robot Ava beats the hell out of Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet in both looks and AI mind power. But if you watch the old movie today it creaks. Ex Machina deals with the complexity of artificial intelligence so adroitly that it’s narrative creates a thrilling fictional mystery that even people who have no interest in AI can engage. That was also true for The Imitation Game. Good modern writers can take even the most abstract subject and make it into a compelling story.
It’s surprising how quickly old science fiction develops a patina of quaintness. And for any theme within science fiction, we can see evolutionary development over time. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell from 1996 is far more sophisticated at exploring religion and first contact than 1958’s A Case of Conscience by James Blish. More than that, her story is told with far more skill. I expect the next science fiction writer to take a swing at the subject will supplant the other two for a couple decades. And that’s the nature of writing science fiction. We’ve been rewriting the old science fiction ideas since H. G. Wells. New writers have to top old writers. If they don’t, readers will just keep reading the old favorites. Sure science advances, but writing seems to be advancing faster. Otherwise, how could we keep telling alien invasion stories over and over?
Sometimes an old book is just as good or better than a modern equivalent exploring the same theme. Station Eleven is beautiful written, but it doesn’t have the insight into after the apocalypse that Earth Abides revealed to readers in 1949. Both are great novels. And here’s the case for young people to read older novels. Not everything from the past suffers literary decay. Earth Abides can still take on a recent heavy-weight like The Road by Cormac McCarthy. George R. Stewart wasn’t writing from inside the SF genre. And many of the powerful science fiction books that survive from that era turn out to be written by non-genre writers. Two other examples are On the Beach by Neville Shute and Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. Fifty years from now, future readers will probably be reading The Time Travel’s Wife by Auddrey Niffenneggar rather than any time travel stories from Asimov’s Science Fiction or Analog.
I believe most of the old classic science fiction from the 20th century that’s still in print is because of nostalgic rereading. Baby boomers and millennials push their favorite books onto their children and grand children, and keep them in print. Very few great science fiction novels from mid-20th century remain relevant today. A story like Earth Abides by George R. Stewart still works because a world-wide plague that kills off 99.99% of the population can still happen. But 1950s interplanetary adventures and galactic empires just seem silly today, like a Buck Rodgers serial did to me in the 1960s.
Post Hubble Space Telescope astronomy has made the cosmos light up in IMAX Technicolor so old science fiction seems like old black and white movies. Yet, that’s not the reason why those old novels are becoming forgotten. It’s the writing. Not the science. I’m not sure any of the nine novels selected by the Library of America as the best of 1950s science fiction will survive. My friend Mike claims The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester is just as fresh today as it was in the 1950s. That’s because of Bester’s skill at writing. In the last few years I’ve reread A Case of Conscience, The Long Tomorrow, Double Star, The Space Merchants and More Than Human, I tried to read Who? and The Big Time. I’m sorry, but these books just don’t stack up to what I’m reading today.
One of the challenges facing older science fiction fans reading modern science fiction is the trend for literary writers to invade our genre. Literary novels are slower in pace and more wordy, so fans of older action oriented pulp fiction can find the newer stories plodding. But I encourage them to try and adapt. One reason why Flowers for Algernon is still loved and read today is because Daniel Keyes was a good writer and introducing literary techniques to the genre fifty years ago.
Every decade or two I’ll reread my favorite science fiction books I grew up reading. Sometimes I find a nostalgic glow of rediscovery and sometimes I find a scary sensation of surprised disbelief that I ever loved this story. Because the words in the books don’t change I have to worry that it’s me that’s gone through some kind of cynical transformation. As teenagers we find books that are easy and exciting to read. We don’t have much life experience or critical wisdom. Most of us at that age read whatever we stumble upon. We can bond and imprint on books that are terrible examples of writing. Then as we grow older, and read widely, we get exposed to better writing and writers. We may love our old raggedy stories, but eventually they become toys we need to put away.