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Are We Fans of a Dying Art Form? James Wallace Harris on Old Science Fiction Stories

Wednesday, April 11th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

The-Best-Science-Fiction-Stories-1951-small The-Best-Science-Fiction-Stories-1951-back-small

I’ve been enjoying James Wallace Harris’ blog Auxiliary Memory. Recent topics include A History of the SF Best-of-the-Year Anthology, a cover survey of the Del Rey Classic Science Fiction series and, a particular favorite of mine, his review of Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg’s The Great SF Stories 1 (1939). I think one of the reasons I enjoy his blog is that, like a few of us here at Black Gate, James particularly enjoys classic SF stories, which is kind of a speciality interest these days. Although James seems to worry more about declining readership than I do.

There are a handful of blogs that reflect a love for old science fiction short stories. That suggests we are the keepers of a very weak flame. I see many of the same names posting comments at these sites. Are we the fans of a dying art form? I don’t think science fiction is dying out, but I do think new science fiction gets most of the attention… There are more anthologies than ever collecting the best short science fiction of the year, including one from the prestigious Best American Series. And there’s plenty of places that publish new short science fiction. I believe the readership is smaller today than we I was growing up, but the science fiction short story is still going strong despite the overwhelming popularity of media science fiction.

Yes, new science fiction gets most of the attention — and that’s because it is blessed with talented newcomers producing terrifically exciting new work, like Lavie Tidhar, Linda Nagata, Sarah Pinsker, Kelly Link, Yoon Ha Lee, Charlie Jane Anders, C.S.E. Cooney, Rich Larson, Aliette de Bodard, and many others. And that’s exactly as it should be. There’s a word for a genre that focuses too much on the past: Dead. Science Fiction is not dead, it is very much alive and thriving. That’s takes nothing away from the great old SF we enjoyed decades ago — it’s still there waiting for readers of a new generation to discover. But first we have to win over that new generation of readers, and it takes modern writers to do that.

You can read the complete text of James’ rambly but entertaining post Remembering Old Science Fiction Short Stories here.

13 Comments »

  1. I love the old stuff too, John, but very likely that’s because I’m old (67 last November). A local newsstand kept a pretty decent selection of Ace paperbacks on hand back when I was in high school, and I’d walk downtown after school and use paper route money to pick up as many as I could (almost all of which I still own). When I had a factory job in the early ’70s, I sent tons of lists to ‘A Change of Hobbit’ in California and ordered as many books as I could find, that I didn’t already own, listed in the backs of old paperbacks, and began building a collection of old SF and Fantasy magazines as well. I have every “Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction” from the first issue through to about 1982, and a run of “Astounding/Analog” from April 1947 to around 1982 (had to stop in ’82 because I returned to college to finish my education). I still have well over 90% of all those books and mags, as well as what I bought (what little I could afford) between 1982 and 1999, when I started having a little more extra spending money. I recently bought and downloaded a digital copy of the ‘Weird Tales’ you featured on Black Gate for Robert Bloch’s birthday, and I’ve downloaded — legally — quite a few of the older pulps that I found at sites like Gutenberg and a couple others. When I taught a science fiction course for the university where I used to work, I always assigned Robert Silverberg’s “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. 1” and Ellison’s “Dangerous Visions” (stories not quite so old as those in the Silverberg). Stories like “Nightfall” and “Fondly Fahrenheit” amazed my students, since they were unlike anything they’d been reading of much much newer material; my 24-year-old daughter was in that class, and still talks about “Nightfall” as one of the best things she’s ever read. I found the book you picture here (albeit with a different cover!) on Amazon for $10, and it’s because of sites like yours (mostly yours) that I have been making more and more trips to online booksellers to search out both new and old SF, Fantasy, & Horror. I firmly believe anyone who wants to write SF these days ought to have a solid grounding in what’s gone before, and where better to start than the “Best Of” collections out there? The newbies oughta take a page out of your book and peruse the likes of eBay for some of those book lots you’re always finding, maybe getting lucky and finding some “Best Of” titles for bargain prices. Or, if they’re lucky enough to have a used bookstore handy, some great stuff can be found there, too.

    Comment by smitty59 - April 12, 2018 8:43 am

  2. I’m a fan of James Wallace Harris’s blog, too. He’s inspired me to go back and reread those classic Bleiler and Dikty anthologies. Good stuff!

    I also signed on to reread the Asimov/Greenberg GREAT SF series. I’ll be living in the Past for the next year or so.

    Comment by kelleyg@ecc.edu - April 12, 2018 9:13 am

  3. I’m 47 myself, so I definitely feel old, and I cut my teeth on what might be called ‘classic’ or ‘Golden Age’ scifi. However, I have to admit to a certain ambivalence about old science fiction.

    I read it very uncritically when I was young man. The Foundation series, the Earth Book of Storm Gate, Dune… these were all tremendous sources of wonder for me. I had 3 major guides in my reading: Appendix N from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials, and a big book called Space Wars, Worlds and Weapons. In hindsight, it’s rather telling how militaristic that title is, but I think I would have been just as eager to plead with my mom to buy it if it had been titled Space Ships, Worlds, and Aliens, on the strength of the art alone. Even now, I still haven’t read every single book described in those various pages, but I’m getting there.

    The thing of it is, though, that I don’t enjoy reading as many old stories as I used to. When I was younger, I didn’t really understand what misogyny was. I was pretty much blind to politics, and willing to excuse racism. I also didn’t really have the ability to discern between interesting ideas and actual good writing, with things like multi-dimensional characters, coherent plots, and elegant prose.

    I think there’s a reason why speculative fiction started out in the gutter, and that’s because a lot of it is really, really bad.

    I’m kind of stuck on where to go from there. I guess what I want to say is that science fiction is a literature of ideas first, and quality writing second. It took decades of work by writers who had really neat ideas to lift science fiction to a point of even semi-respectability, and I’d like to think that it was because the ideas were good and the writing got a bit better with practice. Then, we got writers who were much better as prose stylists (I always point to Jack Vance and Roger Zelazny as authors I read for the sheer pleasure of the language). You also started to get writers who were much better at writing real characters, writers who could treat a woman as something other than a cipher or an alien.

    This is not to say that everything today is wonderful. A lot of modern writing is pretty appalling, due to retreading old ground (often in ignorance, because many young writers aren’t even familiar with older literature), the bloat that seems to be encouraged by publishers (sure, the world really needs another decalogy of 1000+ page novels), or the kind of self-indulgence that comes with developing a forgiving fan base. But still, there is a maturity to modern speculative fiction as an art form, which includes better characters, better prose, and more diversity in the world-building, that the much of the old stuff doesn’t have.

    Comment by R_Saunders - April 12, 2018 4:13 pm

  4. I agree with you almost 100%, R. I started keeping a list in January 1968 of every book I would read (and that also means, ‘finish’). This year, I decided I’d revisit that original 1968 list, and read a book by an author on that list in the same position for 2018 as that author got in 1968. So, since Ralph Milne Farley was no. 1 in 1968, he was no. 1 in 2018. It was “Radio Planet” 50 years ago, and “Radio Beasts” this year. No. 25 this year was John W. Campbell, Jr.’s “The Mightiest Machine.” I mention these three books because they were all written before the ‘Golden Age’ began (1939), and I believe they illustrate one of your points: that a lot of the older stuff is really, really bad. I rarely fail to finish a book I start (I’ve maybe done that 3 times in the 50+ years of keeping my list), but I came close with the Campbell book. Nearly 90% of it focused on the gadgets, and explanations of same. At no point did I ever find myself wanting to care about what happened to any of the characters, who all came across as one-dimensional. I don’t recall a lot of that Farley novel I read in 1968, but the one I read this year was as improbable in its believability as I’m betting the one was in 1968. By contrast, the book I’m reading now, Ann Leckie’s “Ancillary Sword” (no. 30 for 2018; no. 30 in 1968 was by an author who wrote only 1 book, so I didn’t feel compelled to adhere to my list), is much better written, with a much better plot, and a much easier read. I find I CAN set aside SOME of my tendencies to cringe at some of the older stuff I go back to on occasion, but I’ve read 2 Ray Bradbury story collections this year that were a sheer delight, and most of the stories in those books were pre-1950. If I were an aspiring 20-something writer looking to establish myself in SF, I like to think I’d familiarize myself with a chronological reading of the best-of collections both of a particular year (likely 1939, to start) and of particular authors (Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, etc.) — if I hadn’t already been doing this as a young pre-teen reader. But you’ve got to be infected with that sense of wonder first, and so much of that earlier pulp-era writing has to seem incredibly dated and irrelevant to our technologically advanced present. I mean, does anyone younger than 50 know what vacuum tubes are? I do believe we’re more sophisticated today, and the overwhelming amount of new SF available has made me a lot more picky about what I’m willing to spend money on, so that I may come to rely a LOT on ‘Best Of’ compilations rather than risking fixed-income $$$ on unknown writers. If I feel the need to go retro, I can always access Project Gutenberg and pore through the pulps that way — sorta like watching “Howdy Doody” on a smartphone. But I sure would miss that printed page aroma…

    Comment by smitty59 - April 13, 2018 9:21 am

  5. I go around and around with myself about this. The large majority of my genre reading consists of older authors (my non-genre reading not quite so much) and sometimes I feel guilty about my neglect of current writers. I mean, I should give them a break – imagine competing, not only against your contemporaries, but also against Heinlein, Clarke, Bradbury, Herbert, Asimov etc. That’s a tough row to hoe!

    Every now and then I do read something newer (though when I look at the copyright page, I usually discover that “newer” means something that’s “only” a quarter-century old) and sometimes I enjoy it, but rarely as much as I do the older stuff, which, for whatever reason, I just find more congenial.

    I don’t mind adjusting myself to older attitudes, ideas, or styles. That’s what reading is about, isn’t it? If I just want to know what’s New and Now, I don’t have to read anything at all; that’s the water we all swim in. And it’s a funny thing about “cutting edge” writers – you almost always know what they’re going to say, if not how they’re going to say it. (C.S. Lewis once said that if you want a a quiet, settled mind, stay away from old books. Those are the ones that can actually disturb you by showing genuinely different ways of thinking and living.)

    One of the best things about reading – maybe the best thing – is that it’s probably the last sovereign kingdom left – each reader is an absolute monarch, obliged to please no one but him or herself.

    And so I say – off with their heads!

    Comment by Thomas Parker - April 13, 2018 10:33 am

  6. Thomas Parker: “One of the best things about reading – maybe the best thing – is that it’s probably the last sovereign kingdom left – each reader is an absolute monarch, obliged to please no one but him or herself.” There you go — I can’t say it any better. It’s exquisite, though, when something that pleases us, pleases others — often many others — and more so when we have a chance to share that pleasant experience with others, recommending things to each other, such as is done here at Black Gate and similar (if there are any) such sites.

    Comment by smitty59 - April 13, 2018 1:56 pm

  7. > Stories like “Nightfall” and “Fondly Fahrenheit” amazed my students, since they were
    > unlike anything they’d been reading of much much newer material; my 24-year-old daughter was
    > in that class, and still talks about “Nightfall” as one of the best things she’s ever read.

    Smitty,

    It warms my heart to hear stories like that. I’ve accepted the fact that you can’t reach modern readers with 70-year old stories, any more than you could reach me during my teenage years with a steady diet of fiction from 1910. But I’m glad there are exceptions! Whether they are exceptional students or exceptional stories, I don’t know… maybe it’s both.

    > The newbies oughta take a page out of your book and peruse the likes of eBay for some of those book
    > lots you’re always finding, maybe getting lucky and finding some “Best Of” titles for bargain prices.

    Well, that’s why I feature those vintage paperback lots of course… in the hopes that some young readers will be curious enough to try one or two of the hundreds of lots of vintage SF paperbacks dumped on eBay every week, usually from estate sales or used book stores going out of business.

    A decade or so from now I think those sources will have largely dried up, and the opportunities for modern readers to sample 30-40 vintage books for a few dimes each will be gone. I hope a few readers will take a chance, and discover some authors they love.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 15, 2018 2:17 pm

  8. > I’m a fan of James Wallace Harris’s blog, too. He’s inspired me to go back and reread
    > those classic Bleiler and Dikty anthologies. Good stuff!
    >
    > I also signed on to reread the Asimov/Greenberg GREAT SF series. I’ll be
    > living in the Past for the next year or so.

    Kelly,

    I’m envious! For one thing, I haven’t had much luck FINDING those Bleiler and Dikty anthologies… at least at prices I can afford. Are they as good as they look?

    I HAVE assembled a collection of (most of) the Asimov/Greenberg GREAT SF series. And the ones I’ve read have been terrific. I think that would make a marvelous reading project, going through the best American short science fiction, year by year, starting in 1939. Let us know how you enjoy it!

    Comment by John ONeill - April 15, 2018 2:21 pm

  9. > The thing of it is, though, that I don’t enjoy reading as many old stories as I used to.
    > When I was younger, I didn’t really understand what misogyny was. I was pretty much
    > blind to politics, and willing to excuse racism. I also didn’t really have the ability to
    > discern between interesting ideas and actual good writing, with things like multi-dimensional
    > characters, coherent plots, and elegant prose.

    R,

    I think you’re absolutely right. That reflects much of my own experience re-reading the great SF of my teens. To cite a common example, I was blown away by Asimov’s FOUNDATION as a teen, and appalled to discover (at 30) that it was set it a universe where women apparently didn’t exist. It made the series unreadable.

    Even more disturbing was how many SF fans reacted when I discussed this publically. I’l always remember how one 50-year-old fan in the audience at a convention panel blithely told me that the fact that there were no women on FOUNDATION “was no more relevant than that fact that there are no horses.” The woman sitting next to me on the panel was profoundly bothered by that response, and justifiably so.

    The good news is that there are plenty of great writers from the era of classic SF — folks like Carol Emshwiller, Philip K. Dick, Zelazny, Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, and others — who didn’t get the attention they deserved at the time, and who only now are being re-discovered and valued for their achievements.

    Vintage SF isn’t wholly terrible. It’s just that we spent too long focused on the wrong writers.

    > But still, there is a maturity to modern speculative fiction as an art form, which includes
    > better characters, better prose, and more diversity in the world-building, that the much of
    > the old stuff doesn’t have.

    Again, absolutely true. There are plenty of folks — like the gentleman at my panel for whom women are no more important than horses — who would loudly argue with you. Don’t let the yammering from those folk bother you.

    I’m proud of the balance that we’ve struck here at Black Gate, celebrating the best of classic SF and fantasy (sometimes less critically than it may deserve, but I’m content with that) alongside the best of the modern. But when it comes to my own precious reading time, I tend to reach for modern authors a lot more often these days.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 15, 2018 2:42 pm

  10. > This year, I decided I’d revisit that original 1968 list, and read a book by an
    > author on that list in the same position for 2018 as that author got in 1968.

    Smitty,

    What a wonderful reading project! If you ever want to write up your thoughts on it (as you did quite nicely above), I’d love to see it.

    > the overwhelming amount of new SF available has made me a lot more picky about what I’m
    > willing to spend money on, so that I may come to rely a LOT on ‘Best Of’ compilations
    > rather than risking fixed-income $$$ on unknown writers.

    Yeah. That’s one big reason I love the BEST OF THE YEAR anthologies from Strahan, Horton, Clarke, Dozois, etc. They’re a terrific bargain, when you consider how many great new writers they can introduce you to in a single year!

    Comment by John ONeill - April 15, 2018 2:48 pm

  11. > Every now and then I do read something newer (though when I look at the copyright page, I
    > usually discover that “newer” means something that’s “only” a quarter-century old)

    Thomas,

    Funny thing — that’s exactly why I thought after I typed my response to Smitty above (“when it comes to my own precious reading time, I tend to reach for modern authors a lot more often these days.”) I’m old enough to consider Dan Simmons HYPERION novels, for example, “new books”…. even though the first one came out in 1989. So you should adjust my remarks accordingly! :)

    Comment by John ONeill - April 15, 2018 2:52 pm

  12. Funnily enough, my teenage reading of Asimov was almost entirely confined to his short stories (the story which stuck in my mind from ‘Nightfall & Other Stories’ wasn’t ‘Nightfall’, but ‘Hostess’) but my brother bought me the entire Foundation series for Xmas, and I’m around halfway through. I guess I’m just saying that my reading of the series isn’t coloured by any particular nostalgia for Golden Age SF and I still thought it stood up pretty well, if of its time. ‘Second Foundation’ does feature a female character – Arcadia Darrell – maybe in an attempt to compensate for the lack of female characters in the earlier stories? Or maybe not.

    Comment by Aonghus Fallon - April 18, 2018 6:13 am

  13. […] Black Gate » Are We Fans of a Dying Art Form? James Wallace Harris on Old Science Fiction Short Sto…. I don’t know if we’re fans of a dying art form but we are fans of an art form suffering from amnesia and revisionism. In other words, while still strong, old SF is definitely in trouble. And, soon, today’s SF will be forgotten and revised away in turn. For now, I enjoy both old and new in their ways. […]

    Pingback by Links (2018-04-27) | Featured Futures - April 27, 2018 7:49 pm


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