Classic SF & Welcoming New Readers

On November 28, 2017, the author Seanan McGuire posted an excellent tweet thread about classic SF and entry points for readers new to the genre. She addresses crucial issues of diversity and inclusion. This perspective is important. Please take the time to click through and read it.

Conclusion: classic SF will always be important but it’s not a good way to bring in new readers.

Introducing new readers to science fiction can be tricky. It’s a challenging genre to learn and get used to. I decided years ago (long before I became a librarian or knew anything about readers advisory) that it doesn’t work to get people started in the genre with classic Asimov, Clarke, et al.

I’m ashamed to admit my reasoning at the time had nothing to do with the narrow Western cultural male whiteness of the work. It was because of the writing and the science.

Consider Isaac Asimov.

Asimov will always be the most important author in my personal reading life. His work was the first science fiction I ever read as a kid. His books (along with Star Wars) are what made me fall in love with science fiction. It’s what led me to fall in love with science. I used to reread his Robot and Foundation novels every year.

I say “used to” because I can’t read his work anymore. One day when I was an undergraduate in college, I sat down with The Caves of Steel to begin my semi-annual reread, and I realized something:

The writing is crap.

Asimov was a genius. No one has had bigger Big Ideas than him. Very few have ever matched his expansive and voracious imagination. We’re still using tropes he invented and grappling with his influence. His ideas still govern so much of how this genre operates. All of that is entirely deserved.

But he wasn’t a good writer. His actual writing style is unsophisticated. He displays no real concern with the aesthetics of language. His character development leaves much to be desired: his goal is to explore his Big Ideas and his characters are primarily conceived as vehicles for that exploration. Few of them stand on their own as complex or compelling people. His pacing was mechanical, his plotting was plodding at times, his story structure was overly formulaic.

All of his immense talent went into his ideas, into constructing his universe, and very little went into the crafting of his stories.

I can’t emphasize this enough: Asimov’s Big Ideas are astounding, wondrous! They’re among the best you’ll ever encounter and a joy to explore. It’s just that the artistic merit of his storytelling is subpar.

I tried one more time to reread his novels in my late 20s and I couldn’t get through them. I’m not sure I’ll ever be comfortable reading his work again. The writing makes me cringe.

A similar critique can be made of most classic era science fiction authors: brilliant, imaginative, visionary, creative—and crappy writers.

The stylistic standards of modern science fiction are more demanding. Science fiction writers today are expected to wield both Big Ideas and sophisticated writing craft. We’ve come so far, grown so much, and gotten a lot better at telling these kinds of genre stories. The style of classic era science fiction can be jarring for modern readers.

The other problem with classic science fiction is the science part of it.

The great classic authors based their stories on real science. They took the cutting edge ideas of their day and asked themselves, “If this is true, what would be possible?” and extrapolated from there. This is how they built their fictional universes, imagined the future, conceived their Big Ideas.

That science is woefully out of date now. Many of the cutting edge theories from that time have been proven wrong. We have almost a century’s worth of new science, new discoveries, new theories. Classic era science fiction is anachronistic not just in its style, in its culture and historical moment, but in the science it’s built on. We know now those foundations didn’t hold up.

People who are attracted to science fiction (especially hard scifi and Big Idea scifi) tend to be fascinated by science and technology. These are people with a higher-than-average level of scientific literacy. The inaccurate science of classic era science fiction is an impediment.

What is someone supposed to do with a story when they know the fundamental premise of it is incorrect?

Classic science fiction doesn’t work as an entry point for new readers. It doesn’t hold up to present-day expectations: culturally, stylistically, scientifically. I can’t conceive of any scenario in which I would turn to classic Asimov or Clarke, et al, to introduce a new reader to the genre.

This doesn’t mean that I won’t recommend the classics to a new reader later on, once they’ve had some time to find their way. That’s when you say to them, “I have a secret, I have the map to where we started, do you want to see?”

(Apologies to Ms. McGuire for stealing her line but it’s too perfect.)

These works need to be addressed as what they are: history. If a new reader decides they like science fiction, and chooses to delve into the genre, they’re going to want to learn more about its history—where it came from, the seminal authors, how it evolved.

Even better: as historical document, classic works of science fiction not only illuminate the building blocks of genre, they present a snapshot of the cultural significance of the history of science itself.

They just don’t work anymore as a gateway for new readers. This isn’t the 1930s or ’40s. The classics of SF were products of their time, reflecting the concerns, hopes, and culture of that era. Readers back then loved them because they were both current and cutting edge.

Readers today live in a very different time and place. They need works that reflect today’s world, that speak to the lived experience of the present and also blaze new trails. People need works that prove why this kind of genre storytelling matters now.

The classic, foundational works of any genre will always matter. They won’t ever stop being important. People will always be interested in reading and learning them. There’s no danger that people will stop caring about them or forget why they’re significant.

But we need stories that speak to the lives we’re living and not only to the way things used to be. I can’t help but wonder if the valorization of classic SF is an expression of our yearning for an idealized past. It’s a form of denial. It’s not how a genre grows and thrives.

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3 thoughts on “Classic SF & Welcoming New Readers”

  1. I actually started an online book club last year called “How We Got Here” – we picked one work for every decade or two, not necessarily for their standalone merit but for their influence to the evolution of the genre. Also reasonably short and/or representative works so that we could all actually get through them in between real-life. All those books people had never gotten around to reading. It was really interesting to go spelunking with a group of like-minded nerds. I didn’t like some of them, found some boring, and some were old friends. We went from Verne to cyberpunk.

    It all started when everyone was raving about the Ancillary books and their innovative treatment of gender, and I asked how it compared to LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and got blank stares.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your book club sounds amazing! I do think it’s important for genre readers to learn the history of the genre. If nothing else, you need to know where all the tropes and traditions come from, what they mean, all the freight of unspoken significance.

      I, too, love Leckie’s Imperial Radch series. Her treatment of gender owes a great deal to both the influence of Le Guin and our current cultural awakening to the full spectrum of gender identities. But I also love it because it read to me very much like a classic SF series. When I reviewed it (https://johnthelibrarian.com/2015/01/21/book-review-ancillary-justice-by-ann-leckie/), I even said: “This is old-fashioned space opera, reminiscent of the classics of the Golden Age.” She uses all the classic tropes. It’s a perfect example of a current work that’s relevant and accessible and also connected to the past history of the genre.

      I would use Leckie as an entry point for a new reader and then discuss where all the bits and pieces of her work comes from, what she’s paying homage to.

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  2. I am not a fan of Asimov’s novels but I LOVE his short stories. “I, Robot” was one of my main intros to hard SF.

    For an intro to SF for younger readers, Bruce Coville is one of my all-time favorites. “Aliens Ate My Homework” and “My Teacher is an Alien” may sound silly, but they get serious quick, and the later books in both series literally put the fate of the world – or the universe – on the line. They really make you think. And they have never not made me cry at least once.

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