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* The Sofanauts is fast becoming my favorite podcast. Each week, a variety of guests including science fiction authors, editors, publishers, and bloggers join Tony C. Smith to discuss the latest news and gossip from the world of science fiction. It is a consistently informative and thought-provoking podcast.

The most recent show featured guests Jeremiah Tolbert, Gord Sellar, and Ray Sizemore discussing everything from the Nebula Awards to the Singularity. A series of comments made spurning classic science fiction in favor of today's publications compels me to voice my disagreement, however, just for the record.

I don't think revering authors and putting them on lofty pedestals does anyone much good, but that said, I was rather horrified by the idea that we can casually dismiss "so-called Golden Age classics." For one thing, I perceive the SF genre, perhaps more than any other, to be an ongoing dialogue about the nature of humanity and modernity; today's best authors are building on conversations with the past generation, and so on. Therefore it seems to me that people involved with SF are missing a very great deal of the context and richness of the dialogue if they only catch the very last voice in the conversation, as it were. (This conversation continues; for instance, there are nominees for the Hugo Awards this very year that draw directly upon the classic writings of Rudyard Kipling, H.P. Lovecraft, and E.M. Forster, among others.)

If Sturgeon's Law is correct (and I think it is), and 90% of everything is crap, then limiting yourself only to what is recent means continually wading through a cesspool to find that 10%. Much of that work has been done for us with the books from past generations, however, as certain touchstone texts have risen above the others repeatedly and remained there. So why not read some of the best from previous generations, too, when we can be spared much of the 90% from the past so easily?

What bothered me most was the implication that today's science fiction will be outdated and irrelevant in twenty or so years, while past SF works are now. For example, I can't believe that it really matters one bit what year Ray Bradbury suggested humans would be on Mars, or whether or not that year has passed; The Martian Chronicles isn't really about Mars anyway. It's a metaphor (just like Samuel R. Delany's Babel-17 and Ursula K. Le Guin's Gethen, etc.). Bradbury's concerns in The Martian Chronicles about everything from the mentality of imperialism to the fight against censorship to the effects of the intrusive state are as relevant today as they were when it was written, if not more. To my mind, really good SF is far less about what gadgetry is predicted and far more about what insights are offered regarding what it means to be human. These insights don't have a shelf life (unless, perhaps, we all go transhuman one of these days - I'll let Vernor Vinge and the Singularity folks handle that). That's why people still find Beowulf meaningful today, and that's also why, I submit, Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells and Frank Herbert and James Tiptree, Jr. and Robert Heinlein, etc., at their best, still have something very important to say to us.

I prefer not to think of myself as an old codger who is out of touch -- three of the last six books I read were published in either 2008 or 2009 -- but I hope we don't throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. I propose that to know where the genre's going, we need to know where it's been, and that the SF experience is most fulfulling when we try to listen to its conversation as a whole.

And that's my two cents.

* I leave you with The Agronaut, a charming animated short by Polish studio GS Animation. It's a tale of a colonist trying to sustain human life on another planet is told without dialogue, told with a great sense of timing and style.

“When I die I’m going to leave my body to science fiction.” – Steven Wright


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 8th, 2009 01:50 pm (UTC)
Having recently reread James Schmitz' Federation of the Hub stories and novels, I'd agree completely that the classic SF of previous years still has plenty to say to us.
May. 8th, 2009 11:46 pm (UTC)
Fantastic! Schmitz is another terrific example.
May. 8th, 2009 01:56 pm (UTC)
Oh very well said! *applauds*

I look forward to watching the video when I get home, too.
May. 8th, 2009 11:46 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much! And I hope you enjoy the video.
May. 8th, 2009 02:20 pm (UTC)
To my mind, really good SF is far less about what gadgetry is predicted and far more about what insights are offered regarding what it means to be human.

I agree for the most part. Unfortunately, in the same way that poor characterisation or plotting or writing can pull me out of a story, so can poor verisimilitude -- even when it is a result of events beyond the author's control, i.e. the passing of time.
May. 9th, 2009 06:36 pm (UTC)
If this is produced simply by poor slinging of technobabble, I definitely agree; that's just bad writing. If it's because of the historical context in which the work was written, though, it doesn't distract me. I sort of adjust my lens to fit the time period in which the work was written, in the same way that outdated fashions worn by characters don't concern me. And when I'm studying the literature (as opposed to just reading for pure joy), I find the reflections of earlier scientific theories and understandings to be really fascinating.
May. 9th, 2009 06:42 pm (UTC)
Yes, I figured you were a good lens-adjuster. I'm not so good as a lot of the pleasure I get from SF (although by no means all) lies in the escapism. I find my fantasies don't stand up very well to bad predictions, although I'll do fine as long as my nose isn't rubbed in it too much.
May. 8th, 2009 02:31 pm (UTC)
Well, it's like that Shakespeare bloke, isn't it - or that Homer chap and all his Greeks - so 2008...

I expect they had a really dull history teacher at school, and never quite worked it all out.
May. 9th, 2009 06:36 pm (UTC)
LOL! Indeed. :)
May. 8th, 2009 05:39 pm (UTC)
Preach it, sister!
May. 9th, 2009 06:37 pm (UTC)
Thanks! *grin*
May. 8th, 2009 06:31 pm (UTC)
A significant part of my enjoyment of classics *is* the "outdatedness" of them... I'm really interested in understanding the history woven into the art and learning about the author and the influences of the time on the story. How we viewed our relationship with science and technology 20 or 40 or 60 years ago still provides insights on our relationship with it today.
May. 9th, 2009 06:38 pm (UTC)
Excellent point! That's often true for me, too. I'm so glad you brought that up.

How we viewed our relationship with science and technology 20 or 40 or 60 years ago still provides insights on our relationship with it today.

Yes indeed.
May. 8th, 2009 10:41 pm (UTC)
I'm pretty sure there are couple of "outdated" science fiction stories out there about making sure people write things down in books so they DON'T forget where they come from and how they got here.
May. 9th, 2009 06:39 pm (UTC)
Ah, the irony. ;) Excellent point indeed.
May. 8th, 2009 11:48 pm (UTC)
I cut my teeth on Golden Age sci fi but grew away somewhat (never entirely) from the genre as I got older. Not because I was older, but because the genre changed over time. I felt story was being sacrificed for gimmickry and showboating. It was too hard to get into the story; I had to wade through too much that felt superfluous.
May. 10th, 2009 08:36 pm (UTC)
I think the best of SF writers today are as good as the best SF writers of old, and I still read SF constantly, both for my work and for my pleasure. The genre definitely has expanded over time, though, and some movements in it appeal to me much more than others. Like you, I certainly don't like any work of literature that puts style above content.
May. 9th, 2009 03:37 am (UTC)
Bravo! I totally agree. And it's of import to me this week for a couple of reasons: one, I've been rereading some Ace Double novelets (specifically some from Philip High), and enjoying them, even with their slightly dated elements on some things (like the pervasiveness of computers we now live with, but wasn't quite imagined back in the 1960s); and two, because I'm working my way back into a SF short story I want to finish writing.

I think a problem with a deal of current SF is a lack of real grounding in science. Sure, people throw in references to superstrings and singularities, but more as decorative elements than issues to deal with.

I'll even be honest enough not to claim that I've gotten totally back to writing what the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction would call a "hard science" story, but at least I'm trying. But it does amuse me that my story (inadvertently, since I didn't plan it) acquired a "meaning dimension" such as you describe.

I'm all in favor of keeping our "backward vision" (ie, reading of Golden Age SF) active.
May. 10th, 2009 08:38 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad you agree. That's fantastic news about your writing. I hope you'll keep us updated about your story!
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )

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