Some Vintage Genre Fiction Still Worth Reading (and Why)

Some Vintage Genre Fiction Still Worth Reading (and Why)

Harold Lamb
Harold Lamb. Still worth reading.

We love our vintage Historical Adventure, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery/Planet/ Sandal/Wombat etc. Call it Vintage Genre Fiction. This despite the fact that most old stuff is crap.

Seriously.

Listen: We’re on a road trip and my wife — Driver’s Privilege, and bear with me — puts on a retro chart show for 1968. We bop along to The Rolling Stones and some Soul, then on comes a song called MacArthur Park.

Go on, click the link I dare you. You’ll love the maudlin delivery, the lush strings and perky keyboard arrangement. Better yet are the lyrics. Here’s the refrain:

Someone left the cake out in the rain,
I don’t think that I can take it,
‘Cause it took so long to bake it,
And I’ll never have that recipe again, oh noooooo

At this point the kids and I are howling with pain.

Now if you like 60s music, know about, then right now you’re fighting the urge to dive down to the comments and start explaining why it’s good (please don’t). And it’s true, if you have a specialist interest then your cultural pleasures aren’t always mainstream.

Everybody else is still trying to unhear that song (Someone left the cake out in the rain/ I don’t think that I can take it/ Cause it took so long to bake it…).

And that, my friends, is how most people react to Vintage Genre Fiction.

Even so, some Vintage Genre Fiction is worth the effort. I think this is often because rather than despite it being vintage.

The obvious advantage of  Vintage Genre Fiction is that there’s a lot of it. The corollary of Sturgeon’s Law is 10% of stuff is good and 1% is great, so you just need a big enough basket from which to cherry pick. There are bound to be hundreds of old stories that are really very good old stories (unlike The Walking Drum).

However, I think vintage can be a literary strength, that we turn to vintage books to get something we couldn’t normally get from modern ones.

The Ginger Star-small
Dead Sub Genres: “…that is not dead which can eternal lie”

Sometimes it’s to do with the kind of book. The vintage shelves are where we find dead sub genres like Sword and Planet  — “…that is not dead which can eternal lie” — and books that are shorter than the 100,000-word doorstops of today.

They are also the place for stories that nobody can write nowadays. Some kinds of adventure story rely on… dated social values in order to supply The Other — nobody is going to write another She. Another example; Pulp SF does Bad Things to Science — EE “Doc” Smith has a freedom of creativity denied to modern writers. Other kinds of stories have been done definitively, or have merely become cliche. There can only be one Conan;  If you want a lone barbarian swordsman tale, you need to read Robert E Howard.

Sometimes the dated delivery just fits the story. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings might not be publishable today, but they are perfect as they are. The dense prose of Gormenghast just goes with the setting. Edgar Rice Burroughs at the height of his powers still has a quaint old world feel that grounds his characters in their time and place. Jump back half a millennium and Le Morte De Arthur works best in the original 15th-century prose.

A Princess of Mars. Not written using sub-tasks
Spent two years in the US Cavalry. Trained to fight with a sword.

Of course, Sir Thomas Malory, who wrote about knights and battles, was a knight and a veteran of battles and lethal brawls. It’s no accident that he was the author to nail the King Arthur stories. A man of medieval violence retelling old tales to wile away gaol-time — Malory bridges the gap between us and the mythic past.

And that brings us to perhaps the real reason why some Vintage Genre Fiction survives: the authors were writing what they knew.

HG Wells didn’t know he was writing Steampunk… his voice is authentically Victorian because he was Victorian.

Edgar Rice Burroughs grew up in a time when there were blanks on the map. He spent two years in the US Cavalry… he not only wrote Sword and Planets, he’d been trained to fight with a sword in an era when men really did claim to espouse a code of chivalry.

Robert E Howard knew old gunfighters and lived in a brawling oil town… he didn’t have to reach far for models for Conan and Kull. Harold Lamb traveled the Middle East before AK47s and technicals… he knew what a party of desert riders looked like because he’d actually seen them. Tolkien saw the horrors of the Great War and lived at a time of transition and put both into The Lord of the Rings.

Ultimately, more than plot, style or — for Science Fiction — successful prediction, it is this closeness to the material — this authorial authenticity — that seems to make a genre book a classic.  Authors who write what they know, who capture a zeitgeist rather than simply escape it — they are the ones whose books last best.

Can we use this to identify future classics? My guesses are:

  • The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (Vietnam veteran).
  • The Neuromancer by William Gibson (the Information Age as seen from just before it kicked off).
  • Accelerando by Charles Stross (the accelerating Information Age from the inside).

What books would you add to this list?


M Harold Page is the sword-wielding author of books like Swords vs Tanks (Charles Stross: “Holy ****!”). For his take on plot and narrative, take a look at Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic.

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Martin Christopher

Neuromancer seems indeed like a good candidate. Some early cyberpunk were rather overconfident in placing their future hightech world in the late 90s, but I still think that much of the proposed technology is going to become quite common within 10-20 years. Many of the things that were pure science-fiction 30 years ago have already left the prototype phase and are now simply refined to make them competable on the open market. Cyborgs are already everywhere. In reality we were just a lot better at making prothetics properly shaped and sized for human bodies instead of some grotesque heap of man and machine with wires and tubes sticking out everywhere. And of course the whole new phone and drones industry.

I think it’s very probable that people will become interested where many of these ideas come from as they become ubiquous in our daily life, and Neuromancer is the obvious place to start.

(Of course, people soon realized that the whole 80s aesthetics, urban decay, and police state societies where neither the inevitable, nor the only outcome of these new proposed technologies and that for most ordinary people the future would be pretty neat and shiny. Which lead to the post-cyberpunk genre branching off, which is much closer to our actual ipod-world.)

markrigney

Someone did indeed leave the cake out in the rain, and that man was Jimmy Webb, who did (in his day) write some marvelous songs. I won’t, however, defend “MacArthur Park,” which is a real place in Los Angeles, because…

…well, because it’s hard to take cake songs seriously, and also because the man who sang it went by so many names. The Man Called Horse. Albus Dumbledore. Etc.

Glenn

I know it has kind of fallen out of favor, but Ender’s Game moved my 13 year old self down to its core. I had to read it for summer reading my freshman year of highschool and i felt different for a couple days after reading it.

The book does a good job of capturing sadness and remorse.

On a different note, Leigh Brackett is an author i’ve never read anything by. Can i get a recommendation for her best works?

Thomas Parker

“Dated social values” are one of the reasons I read so much of this stuff – nothing is duller (or for that matter, more dangerous) than seeing nothing but the values. assumptions, and practices of your own time and place constantly reflected back to you. It’s good to be reminded that your own social values are just as dated as those of Louis XVI or anyone else who’s ever lived.

Bob Byrne

As I’ve said here at Black Gate, I think that John D. MacDonald was the greatest American writer of the twentieth century – in any genre.

But I’ve had a very hard time reading just about any of his science fiction more than once.

Thomas Parker

Bob, do you count The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything as SF? I thought it was a blast and have been thinking just recently that it would be well worth a reread.

John ONeill

I love your tale of MacArthur Park. That song was on the radio A LOT when I was in high school.

As Mark Rigney has already pointed out, you know the signer (Richard Harris) is the actor who portrayed Dumbledore, right?

Thomas Parker

Though I’m not a fan, if I remember rightly, the Harris “MacArthur Park” was a BIG hit.

R.K. Robinson

For God sakes, IT’S A METAPHOR. As the rest of the song implies, if you listened to it. Yes, it was a big hit.

markrigney

Donna Summer also had a hit with that tune.

Which leads me to this thought:

If Mr. Harris wound up as Dumbledore, could Ms. Summer have appeared as McGonnagle? And if so, would she have worn a hot pink disco outfit?

Thomas Parker

“Vintage” and “Classic” are both slippery terms, but here’s one that fits into both categories, I think – Alexi Panshin’s Rite of Passage. It makes the Hunger Games look like the shallow, safe, indulgent mess it is.

Barsoomia

Sword and Planet isn’t dead, we’re just on a different planet. I had a wonderful review here of my Strange Worlds Anthology a few years back.
https://www.blackgate.com/2011/12/01/new-treasures-strange-worlds/
It’s taking time but there will be more where that came from. One of my writers (Lisa Tomecek ) is well into 2 new S&P novels ( which I’ve done cover art for )and I’m in editing hell on my own novel. We intend to return S&P to its rightful place in the solar system one planet at a time 😉 – Jeff Doten

Barsoomia

And Strange Worlds is available here – http://www.strangeworldsanthology.com/

Wild Ape

@Page—I’m still wiping the tears from my eyes hearing you lament the cringe worthy MacArthur Park. I share your pain. Pardon me for laughing though. I suggest some frothy metal music like Godsmack (I’m Alive) or Texas Hillbilly Coalition (8 Seconds)to purge that from your ears. Anything less than that will only mask Donna Summers for a bit. Ozzy Osbourne might do the trick but only the tracks that have some wicked bad ass guitar riffs—don’t watch the videos though. Some books and tunes need to be buried in the past.

I’d say some classics would be:

“Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan—Jordan did a tour in Vietnam and I think like many writers who went there the time spent left and indelible mark. I think his characters reflect a lot of that as their struggle for identity.

“The Stand” by Steven King. King has done what many of the best writers do—a fictional Maine setting, successes in several genres, wide appeal, and he left a mark on society.

“Ringworld” by Larry Niven. Niven was an engineer. He has some of the best alien species who act like aliens and not red and green humans.

Ken Lizzi

Sword and Planet is dead? Huh. I’ll remember that when I’m cashing the royalty check. (Insert appropriately jocular emoticon here, since I really mean no offense, and it is hardly a sub-genre that is burning up the bookstore shelves. So you’re not wrong.) https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26164996-under-strange-suns

Amy Bisson

Glenn: Check out Haffner Press for Leigh Brackett works. Lorelei of the Red Mist contains some of her best short fiction, as does Shannach the Last. Also there is a new volume from Haffner coming out that is definitely worth checking out, it’s called Stark Worlds (I believe that’s the title) and features everything Leigh Brackett wrote about her favorite character, Eric John Stark.

Joe H.

Also, just about all of Brackett’s sword & planet stuff is available electronically at baenebooks.com.

As far as future classics, difficult to see; always in motion, the future is. But Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy is one of the finest things I’ve read in recent years; likewise Robert Jackson Bennett’s American Elsewhere.

Tyr

Let me give you a good reason why Sword and Planet is still worth reading – writers like Burroughs and Moore wrote better crafted and more entertaining stories than 90% of the dreck we see today.

Dated social values? For whom? You and your friends? Billions of people living today have views that aren’t that far removed from what you decry.

The science may be bad but not any more so than the ridiculous fantasies found in current transhuman SF. Once you get outside the mundane SF genre, it’s all pretty much magic. For every prophetic book like Neuromancer, there are a 1000 that make Harry Potter look like a MIT physics course.

Sarah Avery

The three recent works I predict will be lasting classics are:

Sebastien de Castell’s Greatcoats series (Traitor’s Blade, Knight’s Shadow, and two more volumes forthcoming). De Castell is a theatrical swordfighting choreographer for his day job. He knows how to write a gorgeous fight scene, of course, but he’s also immersed in the plays whose scenes he choreographs. His books are dramatic, in the best sense.

M.H. Boroson’s The Girl with Ghost Eyes. Boroson’s been studying Asian languages, cultures, and religions for decades. You can feel that depth of understanding behind the story, yet the story always comes first.

Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant. I don’t know the story of how Dickinson left academia, but he was studying police shoot/don’t shoot decisions for his doctoral dissertation. The guy has some empirical basis for his thoughts about violence, bias, and moral dilemmas.

Sarah Avery

Just went to YouTube to find the Richard Harris version of “Macarthur Park.” The version of my childhood was Donna Summers, which seemed painfully silly enough at the time, but now I have a new appreciation for her ability to belt out the high notes on the notorious “Oh NOOOOOOOOOO!”

Yep, that’s how non-SF readers see our vintage stuff. You nailed it.

Martin Christopher

Wasn’t there a Sword & Planet movie that came out last month? I heard it was quite successful.

Amy Bisson

Let’s not forget Weird Al’s “Jurasic Park”:
Someone left the fence off in the rain.
(I dpon’t remember the rest of the corresponding lyrics).

Adrian Simmons

I think you bring up some very good points about certain authors not intentionally writing “X”, “X” was just the experiences they had and the language they used.

On the Sword and Planet discussion, allow me to state that Heroic Fantasy Quarterly is not averse to S&P, we just haven’t gotten very much of it overall, and only a very few worth publishing (“No Two Stones” being an exception).

kid_greg

I love the plots and style of the vintage genre but not always had luck getting into them, except for Robert E. Howard. Now Robert E. Howard, hooked me from the beginning, even despite that the first Howard I read was the Spraque de Camp and Carter edited Conan series. I read all the Howard I could get my hands on and still enjoy his tales immensely. But what hooked me as much as his stories, was that I just felt a kinship to Howard. His life experience just pours into his stories making them seem more like true stories adapted into legend than more than most realistically written fiction.
But he’s seems to be the exception for me.
I ate up Edgar Rice Burrough’s novels, especially Tarzan, as a pre-teen, but I’ve haven’t been able to read his stuff as an adult. And, so far it seems most vintage stories I’ve read were much like how ERB is for me…
Then again,, as I type this, I realized I just recently read Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword and really dug it. Plus,I read some of Leiber’s Fahfrd and Gray Mouser stories that I really liked while others bored me enough that I had stopped reading them.

So I guess I’m kinda torn. I do wish sword and planet would make a comeback. And sword and sorcery is my first love. Even though S&S has been making a resurgance, I haven’t ran across much that feel like Conan or Kull.

kid_greg

I love the plots and style of the vintage genre but not always had luck getting into them, except for Robert E. Howard. Now Robert E. Howard, hooked me from the beginning, even despite that the first Howard I read was the Spraque de Camp and Carter edited Conan series. I read all the Howard I could get my hands on and still enjoy his tales immensely. But what hooked me as much as his stories, was that I just felt a kinship to Howard. His life experience just pours into his stories making them seem more like true stories adapted into legend than more than most realistically written fiction.
But he’s seems to be the exception for me.
I ate up Edgar Rice Burrough’s novels, especially Tarzan, as a pre-teen, but I’ve haven’t been able to read his stuff as an adult. And, so far it seems most vintage stories I’ve read were much like how ERB is for me…
Then again,, as I type this, I realized I just recently read Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword and really dug it. Plus,I read some of Leiber’s Fahfrd and Gray Mouser stories that I really liked while others bored me enough that I had stopped reading them.

So I guess I’m kinda torn. I do wish sword and planet would make a comeback. And sword and sorcery is my first love. Even though S&S has been making a resurgance, I haven’t ran across much that feel like Conan, Kull, or Bran Mak Morn

Thomas Parker

I’ve often thought of rearranging my books (yet again) to consolidate a whole shelf full of nothing but Ripping Yarns. Who would be on it? Conan Doyle, Sabatini, Robert Louis Stevenson, Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, George MacDonald Fraser, C.S. Forester, John D. MacDonald, Anthony Hope, Robert E. Howard, Doc Smith…damn! Sounds better and better the more I think about it!

Wild Ape

If sword and planet is dead then it must be revived again. It is the best genre for fantasy and science fiction. Exploring strange new worlds, meeting exotic peoples, smiting bug eyed aliens with your sword, the green skinned, mostly nekked girls….ah, those were the stories.

@Amy—lol, that Weird Al was a classic song.

@Sarah—I’ll have to look those stories up. Good to see you by the way.

@Adrian Simmons—Good point about HFQ.

@kid_greg—-I like your upbringing kid. You had a proper education of the classical literature.

Sarah Avery

Good to see you, too, Wild Ape!

Apparently the green girl fixation manifests early. My 8-year-old took one look at the green girl in the Star Wars Rebels animated series and declared that he wanted to date her.

Joe Bonadonna

Good article, great response, Martin. I often shake my head in bewilderment at the classic/dead writers and their novels revered by so many others, authors and works I once loved but find myself unable to enjoy any longer. I cringed when you quoted MacArthur’s Park: I was in high school when it was a bit and somehow always managed to “bump into” a juke box when that song was playing. Ugh! Not everything I grew up with holds up well today, at least for me: books, films, TV shows. Most of the pre-Beatles pop and rock and roll music I once loved is no longer close to my heart. The 60s may have been a Golden Age of musical exploration and experimentation, but a lot of it was crap. Every Golden Age is tarnished in some way. Every generation through a “rock star” of one kind or another up the pop charts, and most of them fall back down again.

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