Nostalgia does science fiction a disservice

Old book jacket art for The Wailing Asteroid by Murray LeinsterNovelist Ian Sales makes an interesting point – a lot of the stories and novels held up as classics of the science fiction genre are actually very bad adverts for the modern form:

I’ve complained before about the undeserving admiration given to many science fiction novels and short stories of earlier decades. Such reverence frequently results in fans recommending these works to people wanting to try the genre. And that’s not a good thing. Readers new to the genre are not served well by recommendations to read Isaac Asimov, EE ‘Doc’ Smith, Robert Heinlein, or the like. Such fiction is no longer relevant, is often written with sensibilities offensive to modern readers, usually has painfully bad prose, and is mostly hard to find because it’s out of print. A better recommendation would be a current author – such as Richard Morgan, Alastair Reynolds, Iain M Banks, Ken MacLeod, Stephen Baxter, and so on.

I think Sales has a good point there. I came to science fiction through the authors publishing in the eighties, and as such I’ve found that a lot of the classics are, while interesting from a historical perspective, pretty unfulfilling reads. And hell knows being made to read some of Dickens’ more tedious works at school gave me a knee-jerk reaction to literary classics, too. [Murray Leinster cover scanned by J Levar]

Which authors would you recommend to a reader wanting to dip their toes into the genre, and why?

26 thoughts on “Nostalgia does science fiction a disservice”

  1. And hell knows being made to read some of Dickens’ more tedious works at school gave me a knee-jerk reaction to literary classics, too.

    Hey, no one’s suggesting we force people to read Foundation. . . dun dun DUNNNNNN!

  2. I agree with Ian, broadly, and would add that nostalgia should be the *only* reason anyone considers reading E.E. Doc Smith in this day and age. Asimov and Heinlein are worth reading in parts, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend them as intro texts.

    Of course I say this as someone who had no clue whatsoever about modern SF – I’d been reading SF for years before I even chanced across the 1980s (initially in the form of Brin). When I was very young I read Robert Westall, Alan Garner, J.R.R. Tolkein and other staples of classic British fantasy, but it wasn’t until I was given a 2nd hand copy of Dune that I really got into SF (ignoring my obsession with Warhammer 40k before that – children of the 80s and 90s eh). And I read Dune at about the age of 13, and thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever read. But then I’d maintain that Herbert is a superb writer – not aesthetically great, but meticulously crafted and layered – as well as one of SF’s greatest minds.

  3. The obvious first choice is Ursula LeGuin: beautiful writing, thoughtful ideas, and — a real advantage — someone mainstream readers have heard of.

    Otherwise, it would depend on the reader in question. China Mieville is a beautiful writer, but the fantastic worlds he creates might put off readers who have low tolerance for stories in which the rules of reality are not obvious from page one.

    Connie Willis would be a good choice for the general reader — especially her romantic comedies like To Say Nothing of the Dog.

    Gwyneth Jones, especially Life and the Bold as Love series. Both are near future, making them more accessible to the SF newbie, and Bold as Love is rooted in Rock ‘n’ Roll, giving it a context that ought to have wide appeal.

    If fantasy is allowed to sneak in, I’d include Laurie Marks’s Elemental Logic series (Fire Logic et al). It’s beautifully written, tells a great story, and has an underpinning of complex philosophical ideas. And it’s not Tolkien-inspired quest fantasy.

    And if you’re talking to snobs who think that literary means work that is superior to everything else (I hold to Chip Delany’s view that literary is just another genre), you might suggest a little Carol Emshwiller or perhaps some of the slipstream authors.

    I am currently reading Michael Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure, which is making me pine to read some older works I have avoided, though not Dickens, alas. My mother always said Dickens needed an editor. I loved A Tale of Two Cities, but I think I got put off his other work by reading Great Expectations in the ninth grade. BTW, Dirda’s definition of classics includes Mary Shelley, Lovecraft, Dick, Verne, Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, and others you might not expect. Perhaps in time someone like Dirda will pick out the real gems from the so-called “Golden Age” and we’ll be able to point readers to classic SF with fewer qualms.

  4. I consider the works of Lois McMaster Bujold to be extremely good, generally. So I recommend those.

  5. I agree with Mr. Sales’ comment wholeheartedly. Admittedly, I haven’t avoided the “classics” of the genre, it’s been more or less the fact that they’ve been impenetrable to me in relevance to current SF I read. To anyone looking for a way into the genre I’d highly recommend the following authors:

    Al Reynolds
    Neal Asher
    Tobias Buckell
    Cory Doctorow
    Charles Stross

    In fantasy, these are the ones I’ve found to be doing some original stuff instead of the formulaic definitions of fantasy:

    Lynn Flewelling (for both her Nightrunner and Tamir trilogies)
    Pretty much anything by Robin Hobb
    Patrick Rothfuss
    Neil Gaiman
    George R.R. Martin

    The reason I recommended those authors, first and foremost, is because they write excellent adventure stories with new and original takes on SF’s well worn tropes.

    The other reason is because they’re doing new things with tropes that haven’t been handled in SF before…(here I’m mainly thinking of Doctorow, Stross, and Buckell)

  6. “… often written with sensibilities offensive to modern readers …”

    Well, there’s the problem. Old SF is not PC enough for Mr Sales.

    You start with “Novelist Ian Sales…”, but there’s nothing on Amazon, nothing on Google. Maybe he’s a shadow novelist.

    “Such fiction is no longer relevant,…” How many times have we heard that complaint in college classrooms since the 60s (“this course just isn’t relevant”). Would he agree that the Iliad and the Odyssey aren’t relevant because they’re all about old Greek gods and guys? And the prose is SO old-fashioned.

    The Trinity of SF writers is Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. Anyone who hasn’t read them is a dilettante. I’d add Theodore Sturgeon to the next level, and Bradbury.

    Doc Smith isn’t in the same league with Asimov and Heinlein. Smith came before, during the “space opera” days, when people were figuring out what to do with the medium. Hugo Gernsback opened a lot of doors to let writers in.

    Life goes on, and the world, and books, so we obviously can’t read the same books over and over each new generation. But some are worth keeping – the old Greek guys, even Dickens (you have to read him slowly), and the Asimov/Clarke/Heinlein books. If they seem outdated, it’s probably because they laid the groundwork for everybody else to build on.

  7. “… If they seem outdated, it’s probably because they laid the groundwork for everybody else to build on.”

    That’s the point I thought he was trying to make; his post ends with:

    “I don’t think we should refuse to read old classic works, but we must recognise that they’re historical documents. And add that caveat to any such recommendations or commentary. Further, modern sf readers shouldn’t need to be aware of everything which has gone before, but modern sf writers certainly ought to.”

    And while you personally may not be bothered by the political incorrectness of old sf, personal experience in a public library job has indicated it definitely puts some people off, especially younger readers. YMMV, of course.

  8. @ Robert Koslover:

    You took the words right out of my mouth. I’d recommend Bujold’s Vorkosigan series to a new reader over pretty much any other science fiction on the market.

    I have a soft spot for Asimov, though – his Foundation series was what turned me on to science fiction (I had a fair share of genre prejudice myself before reading it). Imo, it holds up pretty well.

  9. I must be really bad at this, because every time I recommend a book I’m SURE somebody’s going to like — Dick, LeGuin, Philip Pullman, Kurt freakin’ Vonnegut fer cryin’ out loud — the object of my recommendation usually doesn’t much like it, and often doesnt’ seem to get it.

    I’ve had better luck recommending movies, and mainstream authors, and music, areas where my taste is considered impeccable.

    And ask me who to vote for at your own risk…

  10. Sorry, I don’t agree. I think a lot of modern SF assumes a high level of SF literacy. For example, the newbie reader is going to enjoy Eon better if Rama is read first. Rama is hardly a simplistic book, but there’s less going on, and the concepts are laid out more deliberately (because they were new at the time). This is hardly the most extreme example. My wife recently read The Diamond Age and struggled with concepts I found easy because I, unlike her, have decades of SF consumption under my belt.

  11. What utter nonsense! This is like saying that no one should recommend Austin or Hemingway as an introduction to English literature. These authors not simply paved the way but invented or reinvented the form. The prose quality is, of course, a matter of taste (God forbid we should have standards) but I’ll match Bradbury up against Baxter anytime.

  12. I should stay out of this but…

    “Well, there’s the problem. Old SF is not PC enough for Mr Sales.”

    Or, to rephrase: modern sf is not racist and sexist enough for ZZMike.

    “You start with “Novelist Ian Sales…”, but there’s nothing on Amazon, nothing on Google. Maybe he’s a shadow novelist.”

    Ah yes, the Ad Hominem School of Rhetoric. Paul was being kind, and I thank him for it.

  13. “This is like saying that no one should recommend Austin or Hemingway as an introduction to English literature.”

    That’s exactly what I would say. Sure they are classics of English lit, but I wouldn’t recommend them right off the bat to someone who is just looking for an entertaining read.

    I’ve actually read a lot more SF published in the 80s and earlier than more recent SF, and, while I hold a fondness for Asimov and Heinlein, I wouldn’t start people off with them if they aren’t familiar with SF. The problem I have with the older SF lit is that they feel like they are set in the author’s present with a veneer of fancy technology to make it “futuristic”. But that technology often missed the mark – I suspect that a young person reading picking up a old SF novel is going to be too impressed by depictions of a future that doesn’t include the now-ubiquitous cell phones, personal computers, and biotechnology. There are also naturally a lot of cold war references in SF from the 50s and 60s that isn’t going to ring true to a reader born after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And complain about “PCness” all you like, but as a woman I much prefer fiction where characters like me aren’t relegated to being housewives, sex kittens or secretaries, and I suspect many younger women readers feel the same way.

    So I’d say definitely start new SF readers off with more recent works, and if they like them, go on to recommend the classics.

    And Fredosphere, I’m not sure The Diamond Age is necessarily a good example. It has a lot more weirdness in it than a lot of other recent SF novels. Of Stephenson’s novels, I find SnowCrash to be among the most accessible. And maybe your wife would like Connie Willis or Kim Stanley Robinson, at least to start (and yeah, neither of them are young new writers either).

  14. Don’t pull your punches Ian.

    I found the funniest comments to be those that are recommending ‘classics’ that originate in the 80’s!

    How can ANYONE who hasn’t reviewed the field – from say, 1850 on, with serious concentration in the 40s, 50s, 60s – justifiably dismiss the vast majority of work done in the genre?

    Since Sales admits to having read very little, what he’s really saying is “I heard that ALL of it is as bad as I say it is, trust me.

    I’ve got a TON of recommendations that would hold up under anyone’s criteria – so long as I was able to match likes and interests to the recommended text.

  15. Yeah, dude, I agree, I mean, it’s the same thing in music, stuff like Led Zep, The Doors, Velvet Underground… I found it, like totally embarrassing, old folks music. There’s even worse I heard, Beatles, Jerry Lee Lewis… I don’t even dare to go there. That stuff is bo-ring, has bad arrangements. And ofter that music is difficult to find because it’s out of print.

    Those old CDs and scratchy vinyl records do a disservice to contemporary music. I mean, who needs to hear some old crap from Sarah Vaughan when we have Amy Winehouse?

  16. I began reading SF during the heyday of Cyberpunk. However, I did not read those books. In fact, I was not even aware Cyberpunk existed. Instead, I read – after a couple of Star Wars novelizations and 1980s novels by the likes of Anne McCaffrey, C.J. Cherryh and lesser known authors – the “classics”, Asimov, Clarke, Herbert, E.R. Burroughs (no Heinlein though, either my local bookstore did not carry him or the blurbs did not grab my teenage self). Those books were what turned me from someone who liked SF films into an SF reader, even though I was fully aware how anachronistic they were even in the 1980s.

    If some well-meaning person had recommended a Cyberpunk novel to me as an introduction to the genre, because Cyberpunk was relevant in a way that the “classics” were not, I would most likely not have become an SF reader, because Cyberpunk would not have appealed to me the way writers like Asimov or Clarke did. In fact, I didn’t even like the few New Wave works I came across at the time.

    Looking back as an adult, Burroughs has not held up well and E.E. Smith, whom I didn’t try until much later because of his classic status, is nigh unreadable to me. But I still have a soft spot for Asimov and Clarke as well as Alfred Bester, Leigh Brackett, Edmund Hamilton, etc…

    Would I recommend those authors as a lead-in for new readers? Most likely not, simply because they are anachronistic. But neither would I recommend Charles Stross or Cory Doctorow or Ken McLoed, simply because their books are not very accessible to the non-SF reader. Doctorow might work for computer geeks, but the jargon might be offputting to others.

    Lois McMaster Bujold tends to work as an introduction to SF, as does Linnea Sinclair, particularly for female readers. I’ve had some luck with Kage Baker as well. I’d also assume that John Scalzi or Tobias Buckell would work as introductory texts, though personally I haven’t tried them.

    In the end, it really depends on who the person you’re recommending something to is and what he or she is interested in otherwise.

  17. The problem as I see it (a middle aged man who started reading science fiction as a child in the 1960’s) is that it seemed science fiction was, broadly speaking, an optimistic genre up until the 1980’s, and then (oddly enough) as the Cold War ended and the threat of nuclear annihilation diminished somewhat, it seemed to swing into a basically pessimistic genre that persists to this day. I simply find it hard to find a writer now who regularly writes likeable characters, and who seems to paint an optimistic view of humanity in the future.

    I think it is hard to go past early to mid-career Heinlein as an example of entertaining story telling, and he was basically optimistic about the future. You could say the same about Clarke, and Bradbury’s prose is a pure pleasure to read even if the science in his stories is minimal.

    I would recommend these classics as introductions, because I like to encourage people towards optimism, and I can’t find that much in recent works. They need to also recognise that the big sub-genres (first contact, AI, space opera) had already been done to a very high standard by the 1980’s. (In fact, that may be the basic problem for recent sci-fi; how to re-invent the big sub-genres. So far, they are failing.)

  18. Amen.
    I was in Barnes & Noble some months back and bumped into a friend of mine with his daughter. He told me she had been assigned FAHRENHEIT 451 at school, to which I replied, “You poor girl. You are going to hate it. It’s about an old man whining that his wife watches too many soap operas, and nothing happens it it until the cities arbitrarily blow up at the end on cue. Please don’t think that’s the sort of thing I do for a living. Come with me.” Then I walked her over to a display of Scott Westerfeld’s UGLIES books and said, “Here, this is much more representative of contemporary SF. Try this.”

    I bumped into them a month later and asked how it went. I found out that, as predicted, she hated the Bradbury, but they were there so she could pick up the third book in the UGLIES series. She is now an avid Westerfeld fan.

    This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy Bradbury, or that it is not of historical importance, or that *working professionals* in the SF field and wanna-be-writers don’t have a responsibility to know their history so they don’t struggle to reinvent the wheel, but half-a-century old fiction is NOT the starting point for newbies who have never encountered the genre before. People coming in cold, particularly people coming in from positive encounters with media SF&F, ought to start with contemporary writers. When I set about to recommend books to new SF&F readers, I typically ask them what kind of films they like and then pair them on that basis. The Matrix? Try Charles Stross, Karl Schroeder, Ian McDonald, Cory Doctorow, etc… Buffy the Vampire Slayer – how about Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, Justina Robson. Star Wars? How about Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan’s The New Space Opera, or the works of Karen Travis? Firefly/Serenity? – Mike Resnick’s Santiago books, and his current Starship series. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind/Being John Malkovich? Something by Jonathan Lethem, maybe AS SHE CRAWLED ACROSS THE TABLE.

    I have met so many people, who when they learn what I do, tell me “Oh, I tried science fiction once. I didn’t like it.” When I asked them what they read, they invariably say they went into the SF&F section, started at the A’s, and grabbed the first thing they recognized – Isaac Asimov. Tried it, and found it cold and dated.

    Again, this is NOT to say that the enthusiast, the purest, the aficionado, the die-hard, the wanna be, the professional, the completist shouldn’t read the A,B,C’s of the Golden Age, or that those texts no longer have anything to say to us, only that if someone came to me having just seen THE BOURNE SUPREMACY and wanted to know what contemporary spy novels he should read for more of the same, I wouldn’t start him or her off with Joseph Conrad’s THE SECRET AGENT. (If they *end* up there, fine, but I wouldn’t *start* them there).

    I think matching them with the analogous movie works best (produces better results than asking people what sort of “mainstream” they read), though 9 times out of 10, you’d do just as well to just hand them John Scalzi’s OLD MAN’S WAR.

  19. It seems somewhat ironic that my post on my blog kicked off discussions on three blogs, but my original post has yet to be commented on. There’s probably some deep truth about the Internet in there somewhere…

  20. Paolo (no 16) inadvertently makes a point different to the one I think he is trying to make.
    Music can be as derivative as it likes and still find an accepting audience, even an admiring one. Oasis, anyone?
    With SF there can still be a thirst for novelty, the privileging of the new, the new idea especially, over something less novel but about which there may be yet be lots to say and which may perhaps be said in a more demanding way.

    Separate point. Not all old SF is crap. Not all new SF is crap. 90% of anything is, though, remember.

  21. As a kid, I read E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensmen series. I loved the wild imagination and galactic-scale of those books. That was back in the *iron age* before Star Wars. Today, perhaps they are best only recommended to children who might be interested in one of the sources that Lucas borrwed from? My favourite teenage reading was Clarke and Bradbury (short stories, especially). I remember all the excitement that came along with cyberpunk movement, but it’s always worth noting that such ‘fun’ didn’t last long. Everything that’s ‘branded’ new eventually loses its polish. I strongly agree with the point that SF writers *must* be aware of What Has Gone Before, even if their readers lack such knowledge. Too many young writers get into SF just thinking that it’s a ‘happening’ field of publishing, which they can exploit by copying ideas from recent genre movies, but their stories are often shoddily written and quite painfully derivative. (“Write what you know” should apply to genre themes, as well!)

    My current recommendations (with a glance at my bookshelf) would be Charles Stross, Greg Egan, Adam Roberts, Ken MacLeod, Robert Reed, Tony Ballantyne, Tricia Sullivan, Jeff Noon, Roger Levy, Steve Aylett…

  22. It does seem rather odd to me that often when a reviewer or commentator pans a certain SF “masterwork”, the trolls come screaming out of the hills to launch a counter-attack. “Who’s Ian Sales?” “How DARE he say rotten things about Asimov/Heinlein/Smith”. I know one prominent SF critic who now only reviews books he knows he’ll like because too many gutless worm “fans” take it upon themselves to harass him when he takes exception to the latest horrific 10-book fantasy series being dumped on the literary word like a load of toxic sludge.

    These type of “readers” are the most self-regarding, pompous arseholes imaginable–and they’re bullies, using the anonymity of the internet to safely spew their crap and bile.

    Who’s Ian Sales? A helluva writer, a smart and erudite man. Someone with a whole lotta credibility in my eyes. You’re welcome to debate him, counter his reasoning with points of your own. If you can’t do that, go back to your troll holes and pick up the latest Kevin J. Anderson abomination: you deserve each other…

  23. If you think that was trolling you clearly are not familiar with the masters of the art, that was nothing more than mild disagreement from relatively rational people, who for some reason felt some ad hominems would make their point for them. They were wrong, as are you when you call them trolls. An ad hominem to match theirs.

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