Untinted spectacles

Unlike many who write genre fiction, I didn’t grow up reading the stuff. Don’t know, it just never appealed to me. My loss, I guess, but one benefit it has left me with is the distinct lack of rose in my spectrum when viewing the older works in the genre.

When I first joined GSFWC I went on a bit of a crusade so I could get up to speed with the “background knowledge” that everyone else seemed to have. I made a list of the classic writers and hit Obelist Books and Future shop for examples. I read one Clarke (Childhood’s End – enjoyed the idea-quota, but couldn’t believe how quickly the story was skimmed), two Le Guin (Dispossessed and LHoD – loved them), a Delaney (Nova – again, loved it), and got on okay with Poul Anderson, Cordwainer Smith and James Blish too. On the other hand I found Asimov and Heinlein unreadable. But that’s just me.

Anyway, it came as little surprise that to read Ian Sales decrying the relevance of classic status. I kind of agree with him. SF writing is way more sophisticated than it was forty or fifty years ago, and it would seem a bit pointless to still hold those texts up as the best we have to offer, but on the other hand we’re looking at them out of context. At the time, they made a big splash for good reasons. They were all about challenging the ways people thought about the world, the universe, about science and the future. They were about challenging people – writers and readers alike – to expand their imaginations. They weren’t about good literary standards. No-one pretended they were, or indeed really cared much.

More importantly, they were stepping stones on the path to where the genre is now. And in my opinion, the surest and farthest bridging of those stepping stones deserve the status “Classics”. Just as long as they’re viewed in the correct historical context.

Paul Raven has issued a challenge over on Futurismic for anyone to name a Classic that they actually would recommend to someone. Well, I still occasionally dip into the the boxes of yellow spines and almost as yellow pages in a spare half hour in the dealer’s room, and this year I picked up a copy of Vance’s The Killing Machine. And you know what, yeah, I’d recommend it. It’s a good adventure yarn that skips a long at a rate of knots with little in the way of extraneous material to derail you. It’s short. The writing’s not at all bad. And most of all – it’s LOADS OF FUN.

24 thoughts on “Untinted spectacles

  1. Not sure what you mean by “came as little surprise”…

    Vance… The Demon Princes is a great series. But a classic? The Dying Earth, certainly. But Vance has pretty much ploughed the same furrow – albeit injoyably – throught out his career.

  2. Ha, I can see how that might read Ian, and I apologise. What I meant was – “since I don’t particularly have any blind loyalty to classic SF, it came as little surprise to find that others agreed with me.”

    Re – Vance, I’d recommend it as something worth reading. Maybe if I get round to reading more of his stuff I’ll be able to say if TKM was a classic or not, but for now it’s my only data point and I’m happy to recommend it.

    So there.

  3. Definitely read more Vance. He’s lots of fun. Some are bit too slight to bother with, but there are plenty of good ‘uns – the Alastor Cluster books, Emphyrio, Big Planet, Maske: Theary, Galactic Effectuator…

    Try his modern successor, Matthew Hughes, too.

    And one of these days I’ll work out what “injoyably” means…

  4. I hear good things about Matthew Hughes ( I believe PS are publishing his new novel?).

    “injoyably” – I think you know what it means already. I really think you do.

  5. I’ll take that as an unofficial recommendation then – until I read the review, at which time it’ll be ‘official’ (I assume).

  6. I think the term “classic” gets used in many genres a bit too loosely. For me a classic is any book that holds up to the test of time, that still speaks to its readers 50, 100 or a 1000 years later.

    There are many genre fiction titles that really are of their day and should be read with the eyes “half open” with the other half fixed on the historical/socio-political context from whence they came.

    For me Brave New World, We, 1984 and Animal Farm (amongst others) are real classics of speculative fiction as they are first great novels and second genre novels.

    For instance I find a lot of Heinlein and Herbert monotonous but if you want to be well versed in the genre you can’t miss them out. There are loads of authors who fit that bill I think.

    But it also depends on the reader and whether they are reading from a literary and intellectual perspective or a more fandom approach.

    It’s okay to say you don’t think something is a classic if for you it has no qualities to recommend it. For my own part I can’t stand “Citizen Kane” as a film but it always considered one of the greatest films ever made and it always appears at the top of the list.

    Books speak to you or they don’t, you are not obliged to agree with everyone else.

  7. There’s a lot of truth in what you say there, Michaela, except that I would add that to *really* be thought of as a “classic” a book would have to have gained some sort of consensus appreciation over a period of time.

    In other words, “classics” really are thought of being what the majority point to and say: “these are the classics”.

    You can disagree with them, but it takes a lot of effort to change a consensus once it’s made.

    btw – I know what you mean about Kane. In terms of character and story I find it unengaging too, but I suspect it’s the wannabe directors and editors out there that raise it above all others for reasons that would not even register with many of the normal film going punters (at least not obviously).

  8. I nearly gave up reading SF way back because it wasn’t stimulating enough for my changing tastes in fiction as I entered adulthood.
    Then I read Silverberg’s “The Man In The Maze” and it showed me what SF could do and what it could be. It was about a human dilemma, the SF was really just setting. I remember it fondly – along with his others around that time “Nightwings” “A Time Of Changes” “Downward To The Earth” et al. Superb stuff (at that time; I haven’t gone back to them recently: but his more recent works show he still knows how to put one word after another to draw you in.)
    That early SF (50s and 60s) had the idea as king and the rest, characterisation etc, was sidelined. Hopefully we’ve got way beyond that.
    Le Guin’s “Left Hand Of Darkness” I would recommend to anybody who isn’t just after a light read.

  9. Neil – you are correct in that “classic” does imply some sort of consensus otherwise the label would have no real value. However, I think its important to challenge the wider use of such titles and not merely accept something as classic because enough people have said it is.

    I’m talking myself into a corner actually, its a murky issue. On the one hand every genre, every medium has a history, a base, there have been authors who have changed the meaning of “science fiction” from its origins to its present form. So they are “classics” in that sense on the other hand that doesn’t mean that they are still relevant as separate bodies of work or that their content is relevant to readers of today.

    I fear I will contradict myself too much if I continue though.

    Jack-I agree about Left Hand of Darkness.

    There are actually quite a few books I would recommend to people to read if they were interested in speculative fiction but I think what book depends on which person.

  10. >There are actually quite a few books I would recommend to people to read if they were interested in speculative fiction but I think what book depends on which person.

    Never a truer word, Michaela. And that’s possibly what’s causing this frission in the first place. We’re moving into a time where, possibly, the readers of the latter day stuff may start to out number those who loved the old, original stuff. And when they go and look at this historically noteworthy material they find that they simply don’t enjoy it as much as the modern stuff. It doesn’t offer them what they want. It may be too simplistic in its telling, it may be unengaging in character detail. It *may* just be that the big idea – the big idea that came FIRST in that novel back in 1956 – has been redone so many times that it just seems hackneyed and uninspired to a modern reader. In other words, the thing about these books that made them classics at the time, we can only experience academically, not personally. We can say: “It must have been amazing to read about those things for the first time”, but we can’t experience them.

    So, maybe, yes, this is what makes them “genre classics”. But as I say, they need to be appreciated historically. And it may be difficult for us to do that, the longer time goes on and the more good SF literature is written in the interim.

  11. Jack and Michaela – I reiterate your recommendation for Left Hand Of Darkness.

    Jack – I’ve known you how many years now? And I’ve still never taken up your urgings to get into Silverberg. I don’t know why that is, but will try and rectify it. I’ve always fancied Dying Inside…

  12. Ian – that’s…well, a bit…strident, isn’t it?

    >The truth is that readers of SF DESERVE to be exposed to the classics – the right classics, in the right way, at the right time and in the proper context.

    The “right classics”? There are wrong classics? That maybe aren’t as classic as the right classics?

    Okay, I’m being specious but so is “that guy”.

    C’mon, dude. All *anyone* can do is make personal recommendations (or not) based on their own experience. I’ve read one Clarke – I didn’t say I would recommend it, just that I found it limited in some respects.

    And I don’t believe that you suggested that people should hate old books out of hand either.

    The issue that you raised (and one which Michaela echoes above) is that people should question the handed down wisdom.

    Obviously no-one can be expected to go back and read 60 years of novels and stories. In chronological order. If you can find someone who is well read in the genre to suggest a path of learning for you all well and good, and I hope that you enjoy them.

    Hey, there’s nothing that riles me more than when some TV programme does an audience vote on the 50 best films EVER. And ten of them were all released in the last year.

    But at the same time we’ve all got our own opinions.

  13. Don’t forget that a) I’ve apparently never read any of the classics (not true), b) because Paul described me as a “novelist” but no book by me can be found my opinion obviously doesn’t count, c) Scalzi is an award-winning popular author so his opinion (which differs from mine) must be right, e) ‘Nightfall’ is an award-winning story (it won no awards), f) my opinions are now “facts”, g) I offer ‘Nightfall’ as a strawman (I thought you could only use those in rebuttal)… why go on?

    Oh, and you’ve only read one Vance too. You admitted it. Shame on you.

    And do try Silverberg. I was impressed more by A Time of Changes than Dying Inside. He’s written some excellent stuff.

  14. Count me as one of those who l0oks back on the so-called “Golden Age” of SF with something akin to anger…and resentment. I shake my head as I read the opening paragraphs of FOUNDATION or any page at random from STARSHIP TROOPERS.

    SF only started to get interesting when the New Wavers showed up–they proved SF could be literate, demanding, ADULT…and, tellingly, most fans turned their back on the New Wave (with the active encouragement of the dinosaurs).

    I always challenge fans of Asimov and that ilk to read their “Grandmasters” out loud, even a page will do. It’s always an experience when you HEAR that clunky, tone-deaf prose and realize that Asimov et all may have had good ideas but in execution the vast majority of “classic” SF is juvenile, unsophisticated and quite often just plain DUMB.

  15. Jack – you know that’s never going to happen, mate. Sorry.

    Cliff – I think your stance is a bit extreme, buddy. If there’s one real value that the early “classics” had it’s that it sparked the imaginations of not only enough of a loyal readership to create a viable commercial niche, but also inspired the generation of writers, many of whom were a bit more sophisticated (and so on).

    Surely they were the giants on whose shoulders we stand. They may be rough hewn, but they should be acknowledged, and occasionally it does no harm to abseil down and admire their vitality if not their construction.

  16. Neil: Extreme? Me? Well, maybe. But I’ve been reading SF for 35 years now, seen it through its ups and downs, read just about every variety and sub-genre imaginable. Plus, natch, I write the stuff (on occasion) and know how to put together a sentence without having it explode all over the page. I love Philip K. Dick but acknowledge his myriad shortcomings as a writer. Ditto Sturgeon and Bester. No screaming rants from me in someone says PKD couldn’t plot worth shit or opines that LIES, INC. is one of the sloppiest, most useless books ever.

    Sorry, Neil, many of the “giants” of SF were artistic and aesthetic pygmies and if I tried to stand on their shoulders, they’d sink into the mud and muck that spawned them…

  17. I don’t disagree with your appraisal of the technical qualities, Cliff. But it’s a hard argument to refute that without the early pulps we wouldn’t have the genre we have today, in all its multifarious glory. Would we really have had the New Wave if we hadn’t had the “Golden Age” before it? Would we have mainlined sensawunda? Would we have had the weirdness? The eyeball kicks, the big images, the grand settings? I doubt it.

    So, I reckon, yes, we should be grateful. But we don’t actually *have* to read it if we don’t want to.

  18. There you have it Neil. Everything is relative and with reading appreciation it is no different. Like any form of history you have to take it for what it is.

    This is very appropriate as I’ve been reading Bester’s The Stars My Destination and Neil Gammon presents that exact advice, read it in the context it was meant and the age in which it is written.

    I found Cliff’s anger interesting. I can understand it; many times I have scoffed, rolled my eyes or sniggered at the misogynistic, racist and conservative voices of the past. However, a good story is a good story. Prose does suffer with time however.

    Look at Tolkien, Lord of the Rings is a seminal series in the genre of fantasy and at the time Tolkien one of the greatest writers of the genre. Now his prose seems laborious, over thought, drawn out and down right old fashioned not to mention chauvinist in all sorts of ways. Yet, the story lives on beyond the words and is reinvented and re-imagined all the time.

    I think that is what makes something truly “classic” and why others linger in obscurity only to be plucked and praised by the faithful few where once they shined and were heralded.

    Like all history it is easy to take a “modern” stance and shake our heads or our fists at those who came before instead of learning from their mistakes and building on the foundations they created for us.

    As a reader it is easy to dismiss and discredit, as a writer I find that I must refer to and appreciate but always work on making new and better art that is appropriate for the age in which I live in and for myself as a reader.

  19. Can’t argue with any of that Michaela.

    I know I’ll be beaten into internet pulp for saying this, but I’ve never read Bester. I really ought to though, eh? How are you finding it?

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