The Geomancer


Does Nostalgia Do SF a Disservice?

Over on Futurismic, Paul Raven points to a post by Ian Sales saying, "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."

To which I say, "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 Traviss? 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 Ultimatum and wanted to know what contemporary spy novels he or she 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.


  1. I don't know--not all Heinlein is the same (I certainly wouldn't recommend any of the later stuff), and young readers certainly vary in their tastes. My son and his best friend were all about (early) Heinlein and Asimov (and Niven, and some others) for a long while, before they started to get into Scalzi, Stephenson, Stross etc. (What's with all the S names?) There's real continuity there: if you rock on one set of books, you'll probably rock on the other.

    But there is a poisonous kind of fannishness which is just like the scholasticism that kills the love of literature in many people: "Here. Read this. It Is A Classic. No, it doesn't matter if you like it: the artist suffered for his art and now it's your turn." That's wrong-headed if one is talking about the Odyssey; infinitely more so if it's Starman Jones or the equivalent.

  2. Oh, I agree, and, in fact, would recommend Niven's Known Universe series to anyone who liked mid-period ST:TNG. And I'm very big on we-on-the-inside knowing and respecting our roots. And I read a lot of Asimov as a kid - but I really don't think he's a good entry point for a 21st Century teen. I've been thinking a lot about this actually, 'cause in a few years I'll want to start my own child off, and I don't think I'm going to start him on the books I started on. I'm more likely to start him on Chris Roberson, who was influenced by Moorcock and Farmer, than on Moorcock & Farmer themselves, for example - though if he wants to follow it back to the source, that's all good (and I'll encourage him to do so.)

  3. The first science fiction book book I ever read was when I was 14 - The Hobbit. It was called science fiction way back then - nowadays it's probably called fantasy. I was one of about 5 girls in the advanced placement classes, with about 50 boys, & I remember how shocked - and excited - the boys were to see me reading The Hobbit. I was one of them frojm that day forward. Then I started the Lord of the Rings, got halfway through the first book, put it down, and never picked up another sf book for 17 years. Then the first sf book I read was Heinlein (about 8 or 9 of them actually, one right after another) - I liked all of them but one, which I really hated (but I did read the whole book - I thought maybe it would get better - it didn't). And I've been reading sf ever since. And in school, 7th-12th grades I read only the classics - Steinbeck was a favourite, Fitzgerald was right up there. I didn't like any of the current authors.

    Of course, I was also the one who read Shakespeare's plays (in play form) and Eugene Wilder and Sarte, so maybe you should cross me off as a weirdo and ignore me. :-)

  4. I can't remember where I read it, but recently I read an article or blog post comparing stories of ideas to stories of characters. A lot of the older books are stories of ideas to the exclusion of the characters, whereas a contemporary reader is going to expect more character and find the ideas dated. Contemporary sff can be a gateway book to the older stuff. If so, great. If not, there's plenty of fantastic contemporary stuff out there to enjoy.

  5. io9's Graeme McMillan has picked up the discussion. He opines that, "If there's any genre that shouldn't be married to the idea of some untouchable canon of classic, must-read works, it has to be science fiction. There's still a lot of enjoyment and entertainment to be had from yesterday's visions of tomorrow, but once they become quaint and outdated, they fail at their original purpose."