Narrow horizons and frozen minds — or sf/f shouldn’t be an old boys’ club
The tired cliche that there are certain “classics” of sf/f that one must have read in order to be a real fan has reared its ugly head. The current iteration is an assertion that writers of sf/f (aspiring or otherwise) who have not read the classics are not able to write good sf/f. And specifically the “classics” one is supposedly required to read and love in order to be a good writer of science fiction and fantasy are the usual suspects: Heinlein, Asimov, Clark, and so on.
Now, it is true that I read Heinlein, Asimov, and Clark. I have written on this blog about how some of their work helped me in my formative years. I have also written on this blog about problematic aspects of both their writing and some of their personal life choices. I’ve also written before about how some of their writing hasn’t aged very well. Heck, when I was in my teens in the 1970s reading some of their older work, I was finding myself rolling my eyes over things that seemed either embarrassingly wrong or more than a little sexist and/or racist.
Unfortunately a lot of books from the middle of the last century that were important to the development of the genre, and/or were beloved by many fans over a span many years, don’t hold up so well years later.
But that’s not my only problem with this notion. Because people have been bandying around those specific names as “must-reads” for decades. A lot of excellent science fiction was written back then by other people. And a whole lot of good science fiction has been written since the heyday of Heinlein, Asimov, and Clark. A lot has changed in the genre. Sure, Asimov’s short story “The Last Question” was profound and mind-boggling when it was published in 1954 (63 years ago), but when I read it for the first time in 1973, even 13-year-old me saw the ending before it arrived. It was bit disappointing, to be honest. Because the story had been so influential that the once mind-boggling idea had been incorporated, expanded, deconstructed, and re-imagined several times in that 19-year span.
And it’s continued to be re-used in sci fi since. Heck, the entire story was boiled down to a two-sentence (and hilarious) joke in a 1992 episode of BBC’s Red Dwarf!
Which is not me saying that something which has been done before can never be repeated. Looking at old ideas in new ways is an essential part of sf/f. It’s just that the value of revisiting the same “classics” over and over is questionable, at best.
I would feel a little less like this was white guys insisting that everyone has to read their favorite old white guys if some of this “must read” lists included Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein published in 1816, as well as anything by Octavia Butler, Joanna Russ, Ursula LeGuin, or Andre Norton.
The usual argument is that Heinlein, Asimov, and Clark created the genre—and you can’t understand what it is now without reading them. Except, they didn’t create it. If you want to understand the origins you need to go back at least another hundred years to Shelley’s Frankenstein, for one, and stories from Nathaniel Hawthorne (“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” for instance) in the 1830s.
Sure, I think a writer needs to have read a lot and broadly to feed their craft. But when I say broadly, I mean really broadly. Read things outside your favorites, absolutely! Not everything you read needs to be a masterpiece, by anyone’s definition. You can learn from bad examples as well as good. Playfulness is an important part of the creative process, so reading light entertaining tales is just as important to feeding your artistic soul as reading deep, meaningful, serious stories.
Science fiction is supposed to be about not just looking at the horizon, but going past it. Not just using your mind, but expanding it.
And you know what doesn’t stretch anyone’s horizon or expand anyone’s mind? Everyone reading the exact same thing.
If the only input anyone has are the same list of books from the same authors, decade after decade, then every creator will just be regurgitating the same stuff that every other creator has.
There is value in studying what has been done before in your chosen field of writing, but it isn’t the only way to learn to create good stories in the genre. Just as one can learn to drive a modern car without first mastering the horse and buggy, you can learn to write without memorizing a specific set of books from a very narrow set of writers who were working 60+ years ago. If you want to study earlier generations of writers, remember that there is a vast volume of science fiction and fantasy works beyond anyone’s chosen list of classics or favorites. Find lists that don’t include the same few “must reads” and sample the less often recommended works, if you’re going to do that.
Similarly, there can be value for some readers in understanding the roots of some of the things being created today, but it isn’t necessary. You don’t have to go back in time to watch traveling vaudeville shows in order to understand and fully appreciate modern movies, right? You can understand and fully appreciate modern stories without reading the old stuff, first.
Look out at that horizon, and take aim for what’s beyond!