I was, in my wanderings around on the internets, presented with this link. It’s an article by Ian Sales, on his blog. Go read it, because it’s what we’re going to be talking about today. I’m going to go make a cuppa, and then I’ll be waiting for you to get back.
All done? Right. Let’s get to it.
In his article, Ian Sales is rather against classic science fiction, for quite a number of reasons, very few of which wash for me. He points out that modern SF is obsessed with the past, declares that we shouldn’t hold up the classic stories (Stranger in a Strange Land, Foundation, Make Room! Make Room!, The Stars my Destination, etc) as, er, classics. We should not look to the bedrock of our genre, nay, we should look into the future. He declares that we, “we” being SF, are obsessed with the past and far too reverent of it. And then he goes on to declaim the stories on the basis of their plots, their writing styles, the inconsistencies…
It’s a fairly baffling article. I’m not outraged by it — although he suggests that we, across the internet, shall be as he slaughters the sacred cow. I guess if he’d done so, I might be, but he really didn’t. With respect to Mr. Sales, it feels more like standing on a soapbox and hollering ineffectually than actually putting the hammer to the cow, if you see what I mean.
Let’s get into it.
First, he suggests that it is a folly to present someone coming into SF with a copy of Foundation, or a copy of Nightfall (by Asimov, both of them), to present them with a collection, perhaps, of classic short stories edited by John Campbell. We shouldn’t do this, because it’s not representative of modern SF, it’s offensive to the reader, and the writing is poor.
They’re classics for a reason, and it’s generally not just mindless worship and awe. The thing about a book like Foundation is that it is undeniably readable. Is it clunky in places? Perhaps. Does it feel dated? Well yeah. (He suggests we treat these things like historical documents, and they are: they are a look at the future, as imagined in decades long past). But despite faults, they are readable stories that are compelling and exciting. They are packaged nicely in modern covers and frankly, if you are wet behind the ears and just coming into science fiction, I doubt that the first thing you’re aware of is that Foundation is an old story. I certainly wasn’t. I had been reading science fiction for a long time before I started paying attention to when these things had come out.
My other problem is the moment we take, in Ian Sales’ article, to deconstruct the story Nightfall by Isaac Asimov. We discuss how the writing is clunky, and feels like 1940’s America, how the twist is given away on the first page, and so on and so forth. This argument never works. Not ever. I remember watching all the extras, for example, on the Lord of the Rings DVDs where you have these authors and editors and literary critics pointing out all the flaws in the Lord of the Rings. All the things that were done in those books, by that nice Tolkien fellow, which are Not Done In Books. And yet, they are done. And generally, there is puzzlement about why the books worked.
You get the same thing with Harry Potter. The writing isn’t always top-notch. Occasionally it’s amateurish. So why on earth do they sell? Why on earth, with Asimov’s clunky writing (and it is, he had limitations and he was cheerful in admitting them) is he popular?
Because story trumps all, and readability has very little to do with things that are, or are not, To Be Done In Books. You cannot deny the flaws in Nightfall, and they are as Mr. Sales declares them. The trick is, you have to step past those and go “But as a reader, it’s a pretty kicking story.” And it’s true. It baffles the hell out of some writers and critics, some editors, but stories that are good stories…are good stories. It’s not being reverent, it’s having a little shiver.
(The other dangerous thing to do, and it bothers me when people do it, is to deconstruct a story and declare it Bad And Faulty, based on their personal tastes. If I dislike a book, and I have specific problems with it, that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad book. It just makes it a book that doesn’t work for me.)
The other problem I have with the article is that, although he gives us an example of how lousy these old time stories are, he gives us no examples on two topics. First: Mr. Sales does not suggest what books, of the modern range of SF, I should be recommending to new SF readers. If I do not recommend I, Robot, then what do I recommend in its stead? What is its modern equivalent as a gateway drug? If I do not recommend Ringworld, then what modern book do I suggest in its stead?
Second: Mr. Sales does not indicate where, and how, and in what ways we all seem to be obsessed with the past, with the classics of SF. And that’s the more troubling portion of the article, because it’s the whole basis for his stance. Where are we obsessing? I dearly love Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Ellison, Bradbury, and on and on. I adore the pulp era, I have books of short stories edited by John W. Campbell, jr. But mostly because I like to read them, for pleasure. I don’t gaze at them with stars in my eyes and go “I MUST BE HIM WHEN I GROW UP.” And frankly, I don’t see that many people who do. Mostly, people stand on the past. They stand on the classical literature, they stand on the bones. THey stand on the…foundation…but they don’t get down on their hands and knees and obsess with the details and textures in the surface.
Mostly, what I see in modern SF are books by people who, yes, probably did read the classics. But I rarely read books where it feels like the author is going “I must be just like him,” and mostly, they seem to be “I want to do what he did.” And that doesn’t mean write a book about the Foundation. That means write a book that matters, to someone else, the way Foundation mattered to him.
If anything, you see the body of copycatting and obsession in high fantasy, in the world where we are forever rehashing and detailing and expounding only on Tolkien. Where occasionally, someone will break off and do something else, something unique and exciting and when they do…well, they’re mostly not high fantasy anymore. They’re something else, some other place on the bookstore shelves.
I always find it worrying when someone has an opinion (which they are entitled to, just like I am entitled to refute*) and assumes that this opinion is actually just a fact of the world and should be accepted by all others, rather than just a personal opinion. If Mr. Sales worries along these lines, then he should see to it that he does not gaze sweetly at the past but strives only towards the future without looking back, and leave it at that. That’s fine. It gets dodgy when the suggestion changes instead to thinking that the fault lies with the past itself, more than anything else.
Personally, I think it’s a fine thing to give someone classic science fiction, partially because it gives you a mental foundation, and a mental toolbox, from which to approach modern works, some of which may not be quite so easily readable. By reading Asimov’s works, you are prepared for the fine books of Timothy Zahn, prepared for something like Mainspring by Jay Lake. By reading Michael Moorcock, I think you are prepared to read something like Towing Jehovah. By reading any of them, you come away with a set of tools and definitions and thoughts which will make it easier to get into Gregory Bendford, Gene Wolfe, Jack McDevitt, and so forth. They’re gateway drugs. And you don’t obsess with those, you move into a new world (of reading, not drugs, in case you thought the article shifted with that metaphor) and you blaze a trail as you go.
(A final thought: When does something become a historical document? Are the 20’s pulp stories historical documents of clumsy writing that we should not look back on? What about the work in the 40’s? 50’s? 60’s? Seventies and eighties and nineties? What is the threshhold, past which we do ourselves a disservice to look? Certainly, I don’t know.)
* My entitlement to refute, Lori Basiewicz will be happy with me pointing out, is not because of freedom of speech or lack of censorship against me. Nossir. My entitlement to refute is because of that great and important benefit of the internet, which is: I am forever just out of punching reach.