Whither the SF Classics

A couple weeks ago, author Jason Sanford kicked up a fuss about the “fossilization of science fiction and fantasy literature”, suggesting amongst other things that “No one still discovers the SF/F genre by reading Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, or Tolkien.” Needless to say, this caused a lot of consternation in some quarters, though my guess is that the medium of delivery had a lot to do with the response. Sanford posted all this in a series of Tweets, which by necessity are brief and thus come off as pompous and dismissive. Sanford later posted a clarification on his blog in a much more friendly tone, even if the weight of his argument is the same. Others have taken up the call as well, notably John Scalzi who notes:

The surprise to me is not that today’s kids have their own set of favorite authors, in genre and out of it; the surprise to me is honestly that anyone else is surprised by this.

And indeed, I’m not surprised by this notion, but it does represent a difference in the SF/F world. I was a teen in the 1990s and read all sorts of stuff from the 1930s-1960s corridor that generally represents the Golden Age, the same way (near as I can tell), teens in the 70s and 80s did. This is literally the first time in history when readers weren’t introduced to SF/F via Golden Age authors like Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein (as Scalzi notes, Tolkien probably still reigns in Fantasy). What has changed?

I think a big part of it might have something to do with the on-demand nature of our current media environment. To take an example from another medium, kids growing up in the 70s didn’t have much choice as to what movies they watched. It was whatever was playing on TV or the local theater, and a lot of what played was in the public domain. In other words, film nerds in the 70s saw a lot of silent movies by default. I grew up in the 80s, and with the advent of cable, I didn’t really see any silent movies until I started actually studying film. I did, however, watch lots of black and white movies or movies from long before I was born, simply because that’s what was showing on Cinemax or whatever. You can really see the difference in film critics who grew up in an earlier era, they have a much broader base to draw from when discussing current movies. Nowadays, it’s all about what’s on Netflix.

Bringing it back to SF/F, I think this is a big part of it. Many folks hit up the classics of SF/F back in the day because they were basically the only thing available. Book stores had tiny SF/F sections and primarily stocked the classics with the occasional new release. These days, kids can snag an ebook or even an audio-book on-demand, and their available choices have exploded in the past couple of decades. SF/F has sorta conquered the world, and is widely available everywhere. Thus the classics, while still available, are getting dwarved by other books.

And this is before you get to all the other options kids have to occupy their attention these days (video games, anime, internet stuff, etc…) There seems to be a dismissive streak running through fandom these days. Perhaps its because there’s so much new SF/F flooding the market. There’s too much to keep up with; you don’t have a choice but to filter in some way.

One thing a lot of people mention when it comes to this is that kids don’t like the classics because they can’t relate, which seems kind of silly to me. Sure, old books were written in a different context, and there’s a lot of weird stuff people were exploring. But for crying out loud, this is Science Fiction we’re talking about here! The whole point is to explore alien ideas and blow your mind within the confines of a rationally knowable universe. When people are pining for the Golden Age of science fiction, they’re craving that Sense of Wonder we got from Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. Lots of great science fiction is being written these days, but a surprising amount is dystopian misery porn or boring character studies with a veneer of SF Tropes. This is especially rampant in YA fiction, which is so melancholy that I’m wondering why we’re so excited by it. Maybe the reason people keep recommending Heinlein juveniles is because so much of YA fiction is dedicated to gloomy settings and grim despair. There’s nothing wrong with that type of story, but is it really surprising that some of us crave Golden Age throwbacks like, say, The Martian?

I suppose the worry is that this represents another cultural battleground where kids don’t read the classics because they’re trying to establish a “safe space” or some other such nonsense. Again, I find that odd considering the whole point of speculative fiction is to expand your horizons. To a lot of people, reading is a passive activity, but it really isn’t. If you’re not interrogating what you’re reading, you’re doing it wrong. This gets us into strange territory though, and we’d have to go about discussing what really makes the SF genre work, which is probably better served in its own post someday.

None of this is malicious or necessarily dangerous, but it is different, and for the first time in 70ish years, kids aren’t reading the “classics”. One can’t help but wonder what that will mean, but I’m not too worried. People like what they like. I don’t like the idea of dismissing the classics out of hand, but I wouldn’t be surprised or upset if someone got into SF by reading, say, Scalzi or Weir. For instance, I don’t think Fantasy is anything but strengthened by the popularity of Harry Potter. The same is probably true with SF, even if I’m not a huge fan of dystopian YA…

4 thoughts on “Whither the SF Classics”

  1. I think we’re moving into a new era, culturally. We’re far enough into the post-Christian era that a lot of early sci-fi is difficult to understand for younger people. The don’t have the same frame-of-reference to follow the deductions that would lead to the futures depicted by these classic authors. Asimov is now a cultural artifact.

  2. Certainly, but I don’t think I had the same frame-of-reference in the mid/late 90s either, and Asimov is what I cut my teeth on. Clarke and Heinlein came later. It was certainly a cultural artifact back then too, but, say, the Robot Series isn’t about characters or even particularly Robots – it’s about setting a series of sensible, clear rules, then going through an extended exercise in subverting them. He had robots murdering people!

    It’s that sort of thing that I got out of reading those books, and it’s the sort of thing that helped me in college and out here in the real world. My job has to do with systems analysis, and one of the things we do is trace the implications of requirements. What are the unexpected consequences of changing this or that rule? What are the unexpected consequences? What are the edge cases? Where is the metaphor shearing? Asimov’s three laws prepared me for that sort of thinking.

    It’s idea as hero, something SF used to excel at. Asimov’s writing is clunky and wooden and his future settings might not be “realistic”, but I don’t think there’d be any problem following what’s going on, and the ideas at the core are still interesting and effective. A young person shouldn’t have any trouble internalizing all this if they ever get the opportunity to read it…

    My nieces are coming of age, so maybe I can take a look first hand. I’ve already given them A Wrinkle in Time, so perhaps I’ll hit them up with some Asimov or Heinlein and see where they go from there. Maybe hit them up with The Martian too. One thing I will not be giving them? The Hunger Games, or other such misery porn…

  3. “It’s idea as hero, something SF used to excel at. Asimov’s writing is clunky and wooden and his future settings might not be “realistic”, but I don’t think there’d be any problem following what’s going on, and the ideas at the core are still interesting and effective. A young person shouldn’t have any trouble internalizing all this if they ever get the opportunity to read it…”

    Damn it. The quote above is the issue I was driving at, but I’ve been trying to formulate a simple and direct response for the last two days and can’t find the right words. I’m just gonna drop this here and hopefully I’ll be able to work up my idea for a blog post at MidniteTease.

    Fascinating topic.

  4. Ha, fair enough. I look forward to your response. As you mention, it’s a fascinating topic, and I’ve been circling it for a while. I should probably tackle my own personal definition of SF at some point, but it’s difficult. My general feeling of genres still applies – solid core, but fuzzy at the edges.

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