A couple of times this past summer I felt really old. Somehow the classic sci-fi/fantasy books I grew up reading weren’t well known to younger readers (really, you don’t know who Manly Wade Wellman is?!?) or even all that important anymore. In the forty-year span of my sci-fi and fantasy reading life, the genres’ audiences had changed.
Now you could be a sci-fi reader without having read Dune or planning to ever read it. Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber was “shockingly discordant and unsatisfying to actually read all the way through.” This was nuts — cats-and-dogs-living-together nuts.
After my brain stopped spasming and cooled off a little, I started to actually think. Sure, there are certain — I’d say canonical — books important to the development of fantasy and sci-fi. But if you haven’t read them will somebody revoke your fandom card? If you don’t like the books I like, does that make you less discerning than I? I doubt it.
Besides, discerning is not a word I’d use for a lot of my own book choices. I mean, there’s a certain Lord of the Rings
ripoff homage published by Ballantine in 1977 that I, along with the whole fantasy-reading audience, went nuts for. (You had to be there when fantasy pickings were meager.) I still love The Sword of Shannara today. It doesn’t get less discerning than that.
Growing up in the 1970s and 80s books were really the only substantive source of science fiction. Most genre movies and TV shows might have used the trappings of sci-fi, but their plots and concerns had more to do with that of the 30s than what was being written in the 70s and early 80s. Star Wars didn’t update adventure sci-fi but C.J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station sure did. Even ostensibly more serious fare like Star Trek and Silent Running, though enjoyable, are pretty terrible as science fiction.
Fantasy was even more restricted to books if you wanted something good. The Rankin/Bass and Ralph Bakshi takes on J.R.R. Tolkien were interesting, but ultimately disappointing. Most fantasy movies were like the cheesy (albeit wonderfully so) Hawk the Slayer, not the rare, stolid film like Dragonslayer.
TV fantasy was limited to some lousy Saturday morning cartoons and reruns of Bewitched. My friends and I gobbled up every single movie and TV show that was the slightest bit fantasy- or sci-fi-tinged, but they were mostly thin gruel with little real love or knowledge of the genres they claimed to belong to.
When I was ready to move beyond Tolkien there were Patricia McKillip, Robert E. Howard, and Ursula K. Le Guin. If I wanted thoughtful space opera I could read Poul Anderson or H. Beam Piper. For fantasy I had dozens of Michael Moorcock books to choose from.
There was nothing outside of books that contained the strangeness of Cordwainer Smith or the anger of Harlan Ellison. My friends and I passed books from one to another like contraband.
Until my teen years most of the books I read came from my parents or my friends. Sure, I found books on my own in the public library or the local used bookstore, but the great majority of what I read I was hipped to by other people. If my dad hadn’t had a copy of Conan the Warrior in the attic I might never have read it. (Okay, unlikely, but possible.)
I read Gordon Dickson and Christopher Stasheff because my dad thought I’d like them. A whole bunch of friends practically demanded I read Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. The same friend, Carl, who gave me Godstalk, also ignited my long love of Terry Pratchett and Glen Cook. The biggest influence D&D had on my life was to increase my circle of friends, which meant even more book suggestions.
Later, I started reading reviews in magazines like Analog or annual anthologies like DAW’s The Year’s Best Horror. As my personal preferences evolved I was more willing to take chances on unknown books and authors.
Still, even then, much of what I read was based on the reviews of critics like Spider Robinson and Karl Edward Wagner. I’d love to be able to look back through the decades and recollect what led me to read every book I read.
Though I consider myself a serious fantasy and sci-fi fan, there are stacks and stacks of classic books I’ve never read or have even considered reading. Slan, nope. Left Hand of Darkness, nope. The Worm Ouroboros and Voyage to Arcturus both remain on my shelves, sadly unread.
There are so many books and so little time, so you have to pick some and ditch some. Sometimes it’s not even an active choice not to read but the simple fact a copy isn’t readily available. Eventually it’s forgotten and whatever new book’s piqued my interest gets read instead.
As physical bookstores and shelf-browsing become things of the past, and with so many new fantasy books being written these days, I rely on blog and magazine reviews, Goodreads, and Amazon recommendations to narrow down my choices. I’ve bought at least a half dozen books based on Black Gate reviews in the past year alone. So even today my reading choices are heavily driven by others’ suggestions.
All this is a rambling set up to try to explain what I’m trying to do here at Black Gate and on my own site, Swords & Sorcery: A Blog. I’ve read some of my favorite books because someone put them in my hands and said “Here’s a book I think you’ll get a kick out of.” I want to be that person for others.
If the noise from the vast quantity of genre material being produced today is capable of drowning out the classic texts, it can totally obliterate the hidden gems and awesome also-rans. Getting worked up because someone else hasn’t read something is ultimately silly.
Pop culture is highly reflective of the larger society in which it’s produced and people want to see themselves and their interests and concerns in what they read. I want to convince those readers that they can find relevance, excitement, escape in books written in another time and by authors with different concerns.
Instead of getting worked up about some young fan not having read something I think is great and important, I need to convince her that it’s worthwhile. For example, I think anybody reading Steven Erikson’s Malazan Books of the Fallen will like Glen Cook’s The Black Company books. But that doesn’t mean he will see them on a shelf and pick them up. First, they have to be brought to the Malazan fan’s attention, and then they need to be promoted.
I have to convey the kick-to-the-gut feeling I still get reading Cook’s thirty year old series. In the face of all the shiny covers and great promotion, not to mention good storytelling of someone like Erikson, my reviews have to prove that there’s something that can compete with all that.
This is only the first part of a series I plan to come back to several more times. Among the things I’ll explain are exactly what I’m looking for in swords & sorcery, and what value I believe the classics have to readers of today. This is part of an ongoing project of trying to adjust to aging in the face of endlessly changing pop culture and the larger society in which it and I exist.