New Testament Science Fiction

There's a bit of a to-do over a recent piece on Ian Sales' blog about some comments he made regarding the commonly held 'past masters' of the genre:

"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 can hear howls of outrage across the tinterweb."

There's a wider argument behind what Ian has to say. For people outside of the genre, authors like Clarke and Asimov are familiar touchstones they've heard of regardless of whether or not they've actually encountered their fiction.

However, these writers also date from a period when many writers - and Asimov was particularly vocal in this context - who believed that the Idea was far more important than the language used to express it; in other words, the 'story' was nothing more than a vehicle for the Idea. If the prose was a bit rough, well, that didn't matter as much as the Idea.

This is why sf has historically been seen as a low-rent form of writing typified by bad prose skills and wooden characterisation. The fact that much of it was written in a time when open racism and deeply offensive views of women were much more common currency can at times become unpleasantly obvious. Elements of this can be found, unfortunately, in some of Heinlein's novels.

This changed to a great degree first with the 'New Wave' sf of the Sixties and later with publications such as Interzone. The quality of the prose became as important as the Idea, as did developing rounded, more interesting and - particularly in the wave of New Space Opera - morally ambiguous characters. In all, things have become much better, and it's rare for me to find pleasure any more in the old-school fiction. I find that I overwhelmingly prefer to read stuff dating from the late Seventies on, with notable exceptions such as Ellison, Tiptree, Dick, Delany, Moorcock and others of similar ilk.

On the other hand, the reason some prefer the old stuff is quite simply because it's relatively straightforward, dating as it does from a time when the available scientific knowledge was still relatively easy to assimilate in a diluted fictional format.

Some critics, such as Barry Malzberg, have argued that the average non-genre reader might well have no idea what is going on in a modern sf story if they were to pick up a magazine and attempt to read the contents; that the concepts and language used to express the Idea can be particularly opaque to a casual browser with relatively little conception of such notions as quantum physics, nanotechnology or dark energy.

The answer for new readers, I think, lies in a middle-ground: accessible, well-researched and well-written fiction. Kim Stanley Robinson immediately springs to mind in this context. So does, despite the density of the ideas involved, Neal Stephenson. Ian's suggestions of Richard Morgan and Iain Banks are apt ones, in my opinion, as would be Dan Simmons and also early to mid-period John Varley.

This all isn't to say that all the older stuff is rubbish, far from it; perhaps the more accurate argument is that the older fiction being recommended is the wrong kind to recommend. Rather than the Damned Holy Trinity of Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke, we should be recommending Silverberg's Book of Skulls, Zelazny's Damnation Alley, and Philip K. Dick. Perhaps an apt metaphor for the difference between the two forms would be: Old Testament SF, and New Testament SF. The old, mean, lightning-bolt chucking stuff as opposed to the later, more ambiguous works.


Ian Sales said...

If I'd known it was going to cause this much of a fuss, I wouldn't have pulled my punches...

As it is, it seems the actual point I was trying to make seems to have got lost in the tempest. Yours is one of the few to directly address it. However... I also think a lot of so-called classics (and I offered up 'Nightfall' as an example) just aren't very good. And the reason people fail to notice this is because they can't see beyond the "idea".

Anonymous said...

I've been reading SF since I was 11 (that was back in 65) and there's so much good stuff around at the moment that I would hesitate going back to the classics when recommending books to a newbie. My wifes' recently taken up reading SF in a big way and I got her started with Elizabeth Bear, then your Angel Stations, from there to the Charlie Stross books (only one she couldn't get into was Accelerando), Julie E. Czerneda , Liz Williams, at present she's getting into Ian Watsons Miracle Visitors so going back a bit in time there. If the writings good, the characters well drawn and a decent plot she's up for it. Last time I tried to read Asimov was about 5 years ago I put the book down after 20 pages, far too wooden. Now Delany...pick his stuff up any time and read it.. EE Doc Smith - couldn't handle his stuff back in the 60's let alone now. Clarke sometimes ok, depends on the mood. So in short I'd agree, There were gems produced back then, and there's crap produced now, but my preference is to keep my reading pretty much rooted in the last 10 or so years.

ryorkport said...


I agree with both you and Sales. I grew up reading Asimov, et al. (o the chagrin of my librarian mother). And for a ten year old (we're talking 1954) ti was wonderful. But, with few exceptions, whenever I try to re-read them, they are mostly abysmal literature, with the exceptions of the ideas. Fortunately for them, the ideas were powerful enough to carry them.

I get into the same argument with fans of sports; with very few exceptions, if any, the jocks of my childhood could not even carry the water form almost all of the jocks today, whatever the sport - football (American and real) baseball, etc.

Not one of the past Masters can hold much of a literary candle, to Banks, Gibson, you, Bear, and the list could go on.

Rick York
Portland, Oregon, USA