Aging, and Reading Science Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, September 23, 2016

Humans are either doing something, or thinking about doing something. Evidently as we get older, we do less, but do we also think about doing less?

Do you ever wonder why we do the things we do? Why do we read science fiction? Most people read for entertainment and escape. Most bookworms dedicated themselves to one genre, even though there are so many wonderful kinds of storytelling. Why have we fixated on science fiction? When I was young, I mass-consumed science fiction, almost shooting it in my veins. Now the craving is falling off. I’m afraid there might parallels to my sex drive. When young we want sex all the time, because our hormones are in full production. When we get old, biology begins to fail. Desire may stay, but practicality wanes. Isn’t that true of science fiction too? I don’t fantasize about young women anymore, so why should I keep reading about going to Mars? Now that I think about it, my reading tastes have changed as I’ve gotten older.

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When we were young, our hormones compelled us to procreate. What motivated us to read science fiction? Have you ever psychoanalyzed yourself about that? I have a theory. I doubt its any more scientific than dream analysis, but its worth considering. I believe we read science fiction because we wanted to exist in a different location in time and space. I think all bookworms want to be somewhere else. Literary, mystery and romance fans are quite content with this reality, maybe preferring a slightly different temporal location. Generally, they want a little more than their ordinary life gives them. SF/F fans appear to reject the mundane completely. Fantasy fans want to visit exotic places that can’t exist, and science fiction readers want to live in places that could exist, but on the edge of probability. In other words, science fiction readers want a degree of believability in their fantasies. Of course these fantasies are generally no more realistic than the sex fantasies of horny teenagers.

Strangely, as I’ve gotten older, my science fictional fantasies have become more realistic and closer to home. So have my thoughts of sex. I wonder if mystery fans who once loved thrillers now prefer cozies? If readers of romance novels imagine more realistic lovers?

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We’re motivated by what we don’t have. Few people are content to sit and claim, “I have everything I need and want right here.” Most of us are tied to the mundane routines of our life. A few bold folks enact their dreams with great effort and determination, but most of us just VR what we want with books and television. If we live on a steady diet of science fiction, shouldn’t we assume its an indication of what we really want? Or, do we really desire, to just sit in a chair, holding pulped wood and stare at black ink stains, and imagine far out ideas?

I’m getting older, but not that old. Old enough to still dream, but too old to believe. Let’s say I’ve reached that age when I can’t pretend I’m young. If NASA or a beautiful woman offered to make my youthful fantasies come true, I’d probably turn them down. No use proving myself an old fool. So why do I still love books about colonizing the Moon and Mars, or generation ships traveling to other stellar systems? Or do I? Have my science fiction fantasies changed with age? I think reading science fiction is also a kind of collective fantasizing, or collective dreaming. This still parallels the sex drive. Sex is about making children, and children are about making the future. Everyone is future oriented to a degree. Science fiction fans just project a little further than average. But as we get older, the future has less potential. So don’t our fantasies become smaller? (By the way, if they had Viagra for your science fiction drive, would you take it?)

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Of course, science fiction isn’t always about the future. For young readers who love Military SF, they could join the Army today. For readers who crave romantic science fiction, there are plenty of romantic locations on Earth, many of which are quite alien and exotic. And fans of post-apocalypse could travel to Syria, if they really wanted to live what they read. Bookworms could live more exciting lives if they made the effort, but is that what we really want? I use to think yes. Now I think no.

What we really want are spaceships, cities on Mars, brilliant chatty robots, contact with alien intelligent beings, immortality, to download ourselves to virtual computer worlds, or supplement our brains and bodies with cybernetic attachments. Or do we? I seldom chat with Alexa, my cybernetic companion. And if I had to really choose between retiring to Mars or Florida, I’m pretty sure I’d pick the Sunshine State. And I’m not looking forward to hearing aids, exoskeletons,  and cataract replacement lens.  Nor does living forever have any appeal to me.

Being old has changed my attitude towards science fiction. I’m less concerned with new science fiction, preferring to study the history of science fiction. Older people reevaluate their lives. Well, I’m an old science fiction reader, reevaluating the genre. For some reason, science fiction stories written in the 19th and 20th century are more fascinating than reading science fiction stories written in the 21st century. WTF? What a pitiful excuse I am for a science fiction fan. Well, so what.  Now, I’m just more interested in how I got here, rather than where I’m going. When I was young, where I was going was everything. Now, not so much.

I just started reading The Scarlet Plague by Jack London, from 1912, and it immediately reminded me of Earth Abides (1949) and The World Without Us (2007). How long have we been thinking up the same old science fictional ideas and assuming they are innovative? That reminds me of the essay, “The Graying Lensmen” by Alec Nevala-Lee. There is value is studying SF history. Alec is focusing on the 1940s, but I think we need to go further back.

All of this is making me rethink the common assumptions of science fiction. Maybe the future isn’t visions of science fiction coming true, but more science fiction. Science fiction that repeats itself. I used to think serious science fiction prepared us for living in the future, and less serious science fiction provided amusement and escape in the present. Now I’m wondering if the purpose of science fiction is a cognitive tool, for thinking science fictional thoughts. Religion, science, mathematics, history, logic, philosophy, journalism, etc., are all cognitive tools for understanding reality. Science fiction is not a very precise tool, more like religion than science. But thinking science fictionally, is a way to contemplate reality. I’m wondering if we think science fictionally different as teenagers, than we do collecting social security?

JWH

15 thoughts on “Aging, and Reading Science Fiction”

  1. It’s natural for us humans to generalize from our own experience, but we have to be aware that we are, in fact, generalizing. For instance, I’ve been reading science fiction most of my life (very little space fantasy, though). I’m about to hit my 80th birthday and I’m still reading it. Not only reading it — writing it. What I’m most interested in is the various depictions of where we are going, as humans, particularly in the near future. I believe that the next decades will *not* include space travel because we will be too busy surviving climate change and the exhaustion of easily obtained resources that have sustained our current civilization. There are many possible scenarios, including an infinite number that we will probably overlook. SF is many things to many people, and I tend to think that has little to do with age — except as a generalization.

    1. That’s true, Catana. There are always outliers. Oh, I’m still fascinated by science fiction, and assume I’ll be reading it the rest of my life. But I do think the topics I’m interested in are changing. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson is a new book that’s close to my current thinking.

      1. Just going by the very short Amazon blurb, Aurora is exactly the kind of book I’m least likely to read. Couldn’t make it through his Mars series, but I do have a couple of his books on my TBR list, for someday. My SF interests are pretty much focused right here on earth. I do get out there sometimes, but it isn’t my usual reading. I’ll never catch up on your blog, but I’ve seen some titles that look interesting. That one about SF vs fantasy, for instance. I’m with you on hating to see them lumped together. I’ve read some good books that are a blend, but on the whole, I prefer straight SF.

      2. Catana, I’m going to check out your blog. I don’t know if I should tell the ending of Aurora – but it relates to our conversation. For those who haven’t read the book, look away. Robinson’s new book is about a failed interstellar mission. It implies we’re better of at home, and that it might not be practical to visit other worlds.

        I’m more concerned with SF about the Earth too – stories like The Windup Girl.

        What recent books have you admired Catana?

        And, what science fiction books inspired you 60-70 years ago? You’ve seen a lot of changes in science fiction – that is if you been read it since you were a kid.

  2. Your comment “For some reason, science fiction stories written in the 19th and 20th century are more fascinating than reading science fiction stories written in the 21st century” made sense to me for longer, novel-length works (which I usually find to be bloated and overlong) but I’m not so sure it applies to short fiction. As you probably know, I’ve spent most of the last year reading SF magazines from 1926 to 2016 and it looks like one continuous landscape to me. Admittedly different parts of that landscape appeal more than others, e.g. Astounding in the ’40s, F&SF and Galaxy in the ’50s, New Worlds and F&SF again in the sixties, etc. Conversely, I think I gave up on magazines in the early to mid ’80s because of cyberpunk and all that dark and overly complex space opera.
    What has pleasantly surprised me most is the quality of some of the short fiction I’ve read in this year’s Asimov’s SF and F&SF. Have you looked at these recently? Or any of the Best Of the Year collections?

    1. That’s an interesting observation Paul, about novels and short stories. I recently listened to Neil Clarke’s first annual of best SF, and although I thought many of the stories very well developed and creative, none of them inspired the kind of sense of wonder I found in SF short stories that I read when I was young. I think the current crop of writers are more literary, and more science savvy than many of the writers I read when young, but those writers excited me more. Is it me, or them. I sometimes wonder if all the good science fictional ideas are used up. Everyone is doing variations on a theme. It’s like jazz guys in the 1950s, playing old standards in dazzling new ways.

      But I’m surprised by your statement that you felt the SF short story was one long continuous landscape to you. You didn’t mean uniform landscape, did you? To me every decade is radically different. But it might even be finer than that. It might be that every editor found different kinds of science fiction. The way David H. Keller saw the future is way different from how Edmond Hamilton saw it, or Robert A. Heinlein, or Clifford Simak, or Samuel R. Delany, or Greg Egan, or Paolo Bacigalupi.

  3. James, I’ll have to check out some reviews of Aurora. The blurb was so uninformative, I have to guess that Robinson is an auto-read for his fans. I liked The Windup Girl very much, even though it was sometimes a difficult slog. Also Peter Watts’ Blindsight (see, I do get off earth now and then), Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson, also his Julian Comstock. Star’s Reach by John Michael Greer. I’m planning to reread Dhalgren once of these days, and just ordered a copy of Doris Lessing’s Shikasta. I had the whole Canopus in Argos series, but had to leave most of my library behind when my apartment was damaged by a fire. My budget keeps me from reading very much brand new SF, so I’m always behind. I read a fair amount of indie (self-published) SF and occasionally hit something exeptionally good: Cyberstorm by Matthew Mather, Halfway Human by Carolyn Gilman, Intervention by W.R.R. Munro. By the way, I’m keeping your list of classics. I’ve probably read half or more, and the list reminded me of a lot that I want to get around to some day, and many to reread. Oh, one book that I think is sadly overlooked is Stephen King’s The Long Walk. It isn’t overtly SF, more in the background, and superbly written.

    I was introduced to SF when I was very young (around six or seven), but didn’t have a chance to pursue it for several decades. Then I was hooked. Most of the early stuff didn’t resonate, but I keep going back to books like Dune and Slan. I’ve pretty much outgrown Bradbury, who was a favorite at one time.

    I just recently changed the focus of my blog from indie writing and publishing to SF, so there isn’t much SF content there yet. Check out the “About” page for more detail.

  4. I started reading SF in 7th or 8th grade, back in the early ’60’s and I read a lot of it – 80+ books a year. As a kid, I’d been playing all my life – essentially making up stories. We played a lot, back in those days, so I was good at it, and as a result, the stories themselves didn’t have to be written all that richly – I could fill in a lot color with my own imagination. Plus as a kid, I didn’t know much about adult life, (those unknown unknowns) so I didn’t miss what was missing in those stories. However, by the early 70’s, I had discovered better, more entertaining writers – like Raymond Chandler – and other types of stories, so my SF reading faded to several books a year. There was a couple of years in the mid-90’s when I got into SF again, but eventually found the stories too dark to appeal to me.

    So for me, the fading of my interest in SF simply comes down to a matter of taste – I found better writers and better stories in other genres. That, and the fact that writing styles have changed over these last 50 years, and my tastes have not kept pace with these changes. I’m sure there are better writers today than the pulp writers I grew up reading, but, with a handful of exceptions, neither their style or their stories appeal to me. Those pulp writers have left their mark – not in the stories themselves, but in my youthful memories of them.

    1. I admire Raymond Chandler too. There are many kinds of fiction, some of them much better at what they do than science fiction books working at the aspects of fiction. But if you want to read about science fictional themes, you have to stick with science fiction. That keeps me reading science fiction. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve tried many of kinds of books and found them very rewarding.

      1. Hi James,

        You are right about sticking with SF if you want to read science fiction themes. However, having taken a slow time machine 50 years into the flying-car-less 21st century, I may have become too cynical to be enamored with SF themes. The future, I’ve found, seems too much like the past. And though you can spend hours listing all the technological advances of the last 50 years, I’ve come to realize the world changes not at the pace of technology, but at the pace people change – which is glacial. So all the wonders I though I’d see in my youth didn’t show up. Perhaps I’m too bitter about the whole flying car thing, but I haven’t all that much of a future left, and given its glacial pace, it ain’t all that exciting anymore. So for me, SF comes down not to themes or ideas, but to stories that I want to read, which in my case are cleverly written, character orientated ones. (Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey is a favorite of mine.) I still read the sample pages of hyped SF books on my tablet, and yet, I think I purchased one book – American Gods – after reading the sample. The fault is no doubt mine – but I know what I like and what I don’t, and don’t care to spend what’s left of my future plowing through books that don’t really appeal to me.

        Thanks for the reply. I just discovered your blog and it looks like it has many interesting postings that I am looking forward to exploring.

        Chuck

      2. Chuck, I agree with you about the slow pace of change in human nature. I’m not sure we’ve changed at all. Our inventions make it appear we’re changing, but that’s not true.

        The flying car was never my benchmark of the future. To me, it was colonies on Mars. I’m somewhat bitter we didn’t make it happen. But I’m more bitter that we have all these problems we ignore even though we know what we need to do. When I’m feeling hopeful, I think we’ll eventually solve those problems. When I’m not hopeful, I think our species is too stupid to survive. And I know even more cynical people than myself, who think I’m a Pollyanna for my hope. (Earl, are you still reading?)

  5. James,
    I happened across a post concerning Fred Pohl and his impact on SF, and I thought it seemed relevant to what you’re talking about here.

    “It seems safe to say that advertising and multinational corporations will play a larger role in the lives of most human beings than space travel will, and by focusing on their impact, Pohl was able to invent possible futures that were more resonant and plausible than much of what Campbell was publishing at the time.”

    https://nevalalee.wordpress.com/2016/08/16/astounding-stories-15-the-space-merchants/

  6. Interesting parallel. A bit depressing as an author of the hard sci-fi, since my potential readers are getting old like me. One by one kicking the escape pod. I actually started writing because I still had that “drive” and wanted a good series but couldnt find one. More and more I seem to “make my own”

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