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(Not) Recommending SF&F Classics to the Young Person or Novice

Monday, September 9th, 2013 | Posted by zornhau

dunsanyWe’ve all done it: “Oh you want to read some Fantasy or SF? Here, how about some Lord Dunsany or E.E. Doc Smith?”

And the books vanish for months, then get returned by the shamefaced borrower: “Couldn’t really get into them. Sorry.”

I’m probably typical. My much-loved genre classics are the equivalent of a warm bath, not a subject for literary criticism.

Until recently, that is.

My son – “Kurtzhau” – is 9, at the tail end of Middle Grade. He loves some of the rip-roaring YA novels that are knocking around – Percy Jackson and Time Riders, for example (the Pulp tradition is un-self-consciously alive and well in YA). However, he craves proper stories with swords and/or soldiers and lasers in them. Powered armor is also good.

And that’s a problem. Nobody seems to be writing the mainstream subgenres for YA.

Helpful mates recommend all sorts of adult novels, but often forget that the dénouement – say – takes place in a brothel staffed by surgically modified aliens and that the antagonists are incestuous twins.

That leaves the classics; either mid-20th century YA such as Andre Norton or earlier “Pulp” yarns which were constrained by pre-WWII decency codes; the stuff I grew up on, the stuff that still crams my shelves…

The stuff of which Kurtzhau inevitably bounces. Here’s why.

princess-of-mars-penguinQuaint Lead-in: Writers of yesteryear use gentle lead-ins to introduce the speculative aspects of their fiction. John Carter spends the first part of Princess of Mars explaining himself to the reader and being chased by Native Americans. Have Space Suit Will Travel introduces us to Future small town American schooling. (Some children’s books – Crom help me! — still do this. One bedtime story forced us to endure something like 200 pages of family drama… before we met the sentient dinosaurs.)

Thanks to TV and video games, the modern reader is already genre-savvy. If the dragon or assault shuttle don’t explode into action on page 1, they get itchy and – funnily enough — turn on the TV or PC.

Quaint Future or Fantasy: The future is not what it used to be; there won’t be computer tapes, nor simpering secretaries waiting to take dictation, and some things that would seem wonderful in 1930 are either already a fact of life -“I have a computer more powerful than that in my pocket!” – or just expected – “Yes I get it, it’s a laser pistol, now can we get back to the story?” Novice readers are more confused than bored by retro futures.

Classic Fantasy is more robust because it takes place in something like the past. Even so, it can often project a kind of proto-Gorean “come here wench” or “great white hunter vibe” that is jarring or offensive to modern readers.

Quaint Delivery: Face it, some of the greats rather learned on the job.

“Hello professor. How did that epic battle go?”

“As you know Bob, the writer decided to handle it in flashback using us as talking heads… the aliens, of course, remain indescribable horrors.”

Experienced readers wallow in the freshness of a different era, or the audacity of the underlying vision. New readers simply stop reading.

* * *

So, Kurtzhau is not going to devour my dog-eared 1970s paperbacks, not at 9, nor 19 and probably not at 29.

Looked at dispassionately, it turns out that a good proportion of our beloved genre classics are “of their time.” That’s fine for those of us who enjoy them for just that reason, or who can get past the stale crust to the still delicious filling. However, for most readers of any age, “of their time” just means “dated.”

So, next time somebody says, “Introduce me to your genre,” skip the collectables and give them some Rothfus or Bujold.

M Harold Page ( is a Scottish-based writer and swordsman. His debut novel The Sword is Mightier came out last month.


  1. Martin,

    Your experience mirrors my own pretty closely. :)

    I have had some limited success in passing along the classics to my teenage kids. My oldest enjoyed LORD OF LIGHT and DUNE, and all three of them liked some of the Scholastic books I loved as a kid, like Lester Del Rey’s THE RUNAWAY ROBOT.

    But in general… yeah. I’ve had a lot more success buying them the latest hot YA properties.

    Comment by John ONeill - September 9, 2013 11:25 pm

  2. Whoops — with one exception. I forgot about THE FUZZY PAPERS, which was a big hit.

    Comment by John ONeill - September 9, 2013 11:26 pm

  3. There are exceptions. “Tower of the Elephant” and the “The Hobbit” have gone down well with Kurtzhau. However, one should keep in mind the objective – to introduce the other person to the joys of SF&F – and err on the side of caution.

    Comment by zornhau - September 10, 2013 4:12 am

  4. TOR published a very decent modern set of YA Science Fiction novels in the 1990s, the Jupiter Series mostly written by Charles Sheffield, with one each by James P. Hogan, and Jerry Pournelle.

    Higher Education (1995) w/Pournelle
    The billion Dollar Boy (1997)
    Putting Up Roots (1997)
    The Cyborg From Earth (1998)
    Starswarm (1999) Jerry Pournelle
    Outward Bound (1999) James P. Hogan

    I think ‘Citizen of the Galaxy’ by Heinlein stands up pretty well.


    Comment by sfdespatch - September 10, 2013 6:52 am

  5. Yes, these would be example of modern(ish) books that are good introductions.

    I really enjoyed Higher Education. (Given the sexual content, very much on the “adult” end of “Young Adult”, btw.)

    Citizen of the Galaxy sounds as if it would pass muster. The point here is that you shouldn’t recommend classics *just* because they are classics.

    M Harold Page

    Comment by zornhau - September 10, 2013 7:18 am

  6. I’ve not read anything of his in a while, but for fantasy I would think much of R.A. Salvatore’s work would be fairly safe but also entertaining for a young person.

    Comment by Ty Johnston - September 10, 2013 7:19 am

  7. As a Bookseller I will *always* buy in the Fuzzy books if I see them, because I know if I put them out at a Con they will be gone by the end of the weekend. Whatever the age, people just adore those books.

    Comment by sfdespatch - September 10, 2013 7:41 am

  8. If I had sixty million bucks I would make a “Little Fuzzy” movie in a heartbeat. Think of the merchandising!

    Comment by eeknight - September 10, 2013 8:17 am

  9. Didn’t George Lucas already do it…?

    Comment by zornhau - September 10, 2013 8:40 am

  10. ” takes place in a brothel staffed by surgically modified aliens and that the antagonists are incestuous twins.” sounds like early Philip José Farmer.

    How about the novelisations of D&D or Gamma World? Stuff like red sails in the sunset i remember as having a wide range of action, a satisfying level of violence(be it raygun, M16 or swords) and, sadly , none or very little sexual content. Or the dark elf saga, though i seem to remember at least one implied orgy in the first book. But hey, unless you’re american, a little bit of depravity won’t kill your kid :-)

    As for introducing a novice to my genre of choice, i usually hand ’em a bit of everthing: some pulp, some hard sf and something like prince of thorns or the sad tale of the brother grossbart. Give ’em a sample of what is out there that they can use for orientation.

    Comment by Oliver.Klages - September 10, 2013 12:12 pm

  11. I agree completely with you saying that children will never enjoy the old sf/f but I think they will when they are 16+. At least that was my case.

    I was born in 1989. I enjoyed reading when I was younger it was a distant second to video games. I read Star Wars YA books and some Garth Nix. I never would have enjoyed Howard or Lieber at that age.

    When I was 13 I discovered RA Salvatore and modern fantasy novels, which eventually led me to Blackgate, which the. Led me to read Kull, Elric, and a lot of other pulp writers. Maybe I’m the exception but I think a kid who enjoys the genre will eventually find those giants.

    Comment by Glenn - September 10, 2013 5:37 pm

  12. Mr. Page, I sincerely hope you are wrong. I fear, however, you may not be.

    Comment by Ken Lizzi - September 10, 2013 6:16 pm

  13. Hi Mr. Page.
    Wow, insightfull and heart breaking.
    So od you think that we should give up completely on using the classics as genre introduction?

    I like the very subjective stance that you’ve taken. Now my grumpy take on the entire situation (I’m one my first coffee here) is mostly “The age of instant gratification strikes again”. The kids don’t want a slow build or coyness. They want it now. It’s true that the non-PC gender roles and some of the racism in older novels and stories could be jarring to younger readers. But I’m afraid that the biggest problem is that the stuff just doesn’t deliver the good quickly enough.

    I do have to say that this is one of the most insightful articles I read in ages. You’ve ruined my day now. No wonder non of my younger acquaintances want to read my books. I couldn’t even win my own daughter over.

    I’m going to have to go now and wake the rest of the way up. I acutally only fired up the PC to get my mails and not to try to type before my first coffee has kicked in.

    Comment by doug - September 12, 2013 2:53 am

  14. Glenn.

    First: Born in 1989? ARGHHHHHH I am old I am old. In 1989 I was just starting a Classics and Medieval history degree having previously wasted 3 years studying Engineering. Argh.

    Regarding the rest: Yes, some classics pass the readability threshold, Howard being the really obvious example. I’ve read Tower of the Elephant to kids, for example (a blog entry for later). The main issue with him is the “of his time” one, requiring at least a little discussion with a younger reader.

    I suppose the takehome is: don’t give REH to a novice because his works are a classic, give them because they are good.

    Comment by zornhau - September 12, 2013 4:07 am

  15. Doug

    Yes, sorry. You have to be reality based if you want to introduce people to genre, though some stuff does pass muster (see upthread).

    However, I would argue that back in the day, the now classics *did* offer instant gratification. For example, the lead in to “Princess of Mars” would have been intriguing – “Oooo, he’s leading up to something new here!” – and exciting, “OMG Chased by Injuns!!!”

    For comparison, back in the 1950s, teenagers listened to Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” and became so excited they tore up cinemas. Even so, if your objective was to enthuse a younger person about the joys of the electric guitar, would you not pick something more modern?

    Comment by zornhau - September 12, 2013 4:14 am

  16. I hear what you’re saying about the difficulty of reaching new readers with older books, but surely there must be some allowance for individual tastes? I mean, Doc Smith and Lord Dunsany are very different writers, doing very different things. Both, arguably, are fairly idiosyncratic. So maybe it’s not surprising they don’t reach everyone. I don’t disagree that it’s difficult to pick out older books that’ll appeal to a contemporary reader, but I think it’s a bit of a trick recommending a book from any era.

    For example, if I came to fantasy today without having read it most of my life, there’s no way Rothfuss would draw me into the genre. Probably not Smith, either. Dunsany, though? Much more likely. I find he’s got an artfulness, a mastery of craft, a level of insight, that makes his stories live. It all depends on what you’re looking for, and I think it really is important to distinguish between true classics, which always seem new however long ago they were written, and books ‘of their time’ — which, as you point out, is another way of saying ‘dated.’

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - September 13, 2013 1:27 am

  17. But if, e.g., you were considering offering somebody Doc Smith, wouldn’t you be better offering them, say, Elizabeth Moon? Presumably there are also modern substitutes for Dunsany as well.

    I think classics can be dated – Shakespeare is in Elizabethan English, after all. However, I agree that some classics are so compelling that doesn’t matter. Conan being a good example.

    Comment by zornhau - September 13, 2013 4:04 am

  18. Well, what I’d offer somebody would depend on what I thought they’d be interested in. Maybe that’s Moon, maybe that’s Smith. In general? I can see somebody arguing that Moon might be a step up from Smith on a craft level. But I don’t think there’s anybody, before or since, that does exactly what Dunsany does; and generally precious few in or out of the fantasy genre that wrote as well. A given reader may be drawn more to Rothfuss, the same way any given reader may be more drawn to, I dunno, Edward Rutherfurd over D.H. Lawrence, but there’s no question of finding a ‘substitute.’

    We may mean different things by “dated.” It’s true that older works can have barriers to entry — like Elizabethan english. But I generally think of “dated” as meaning “out of date,” and “of its time” as meaning “having little or nothing to say to this time.” Do you mean the word differently, something like “showing marks of creation in an earlier era”?

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - September 13, 2013 1:31 pm

  19. Yes, literally “dated”, as in “this is a very fine 15th century sword, please don’t try to use it on a 21st century battlefield.”

    I think we – here – *all* like the old stuff, so it can’t be a total write-off. Why we like it, how we are able to enjoy it; that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

    I of course bow to your familiarity with Dunsany. Suspect I feel the same about Howard and Lamb.

    Comment by zornhau - September 13, 2013 1:37 pm

  20. Right, what I was trying to figure out, in terms of that analogy, was: Why not use the sword? Is it because the sword’s so old it’s unreliable and might snap, or is it because somebody on a modern battlefield isn’t trained in its use? In the first case there’s something wrong with the tool. In the second, it’s a question of the user’s lack of familiarity with the tool. I usually think of the word “dated,” particularly in terms of fiction, as meaning the first. I thought you did, too, because of the kind of distinction you were making between “dated” and “of their time.”

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - September 13, 2013 3:42 pm

  21. I suppose there are two separate issues: craft and world view.

    Craft can be dated. World view can be “of its time”.

    Comment by zornhau - September 13, 2013 3:44 pm

  22. It’s a case-by-case thing, I think. But probably no one becomes a Dunsany fan from his novels. His stories are where he really shines (especially in a selection, like the ones Lin Carter edited), and there’s less time for people to be bored.

    My son (also born in 1989) loved a lot of Asimov, Heinlein, Niven etc–reading it alongside Bujold and Mercedes Lackey and Eric Flint & Dave Freer etc. Whether it was old or new didn’t matter to him too much–just whether it hit some particular key of wonder or not. My daughter (a couple years younger) was always more into horror. SF of any type didn’t ring her bell, but she read a lot of Poe and Lovecraft along with Stephen King old & new.

    But I found that pitching a book to a kid was usually a mistake. If they came to me saying, “Have you got another book like [X]?” I sometimes had success with book recommendations. Anytime someone is told THIS BOOK IS A CLASSIC WHICH MUST BE READ boredom & resistance inevitably begin.

    Comment by James Enge - September 15, 2013 4:10 pm

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