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Why I Read Old Science Fiction Stories? (Spoiler: For Entertainment)

Tuesday, October 6th, 2020 | Posted by M Harold Page

dumarest-6

“Written by authors who mostly died before we were born”

What is wrong with us?

A gazillion SF&F books get published every month, and here we are reading books written by people who mostly died before we were born. And this is Science Fiction we’re talking about! Surely that’s the genre that riffs off the present to paint a plausible future, or at least an illuminating one? Why are we still reading the old stuff?

Is it because we’re wedded to some idea of “canon”? Probably not.

Sure, it’s interesting to visit the roots of a genre, but most of us want to be also entertained in our scarce leisure time. It’s why people who like theatre come back to Shakespeare for pleasure, but mostly approach Jonson and Marlow out of intellectual interest, and why I still dip into Malory’s pulpy Le Morte De Arthur, but not the ploddy Vulgate Cycle by some Medieval French guy(s?) I forget.

Similarly, aspiring authors are well-advised to see how their predecessors managed the… choreography of certain kinds of story: there’s no point in reinventing the wheel when past generations have left so many tried and tested examples just lying around. However, that presupposes that those wheels were proven in action, that they carried along stories that were entertaining.

And, yes, given how wide the field is, we’re more likely to find common ground talking about CL Moore than China Mieville: the best place to catch your mates is outside the pub, not in its murky depths. Even so, we want to be able to rant about books we loved and why… books that we found entertaining.

And there’s that word again: entertaining.

What does the old stuff have that the new doesn’t? After all, modern SF comes in meaty tomes of 100K words, generally has plausible extrapolation, and often takes us out of our comfort zone. How can 30K of often lightly characterized and emotionally distant narrative with not much contemporary significance compete with that?

Except, that’s the point,  I think.

Extraploation

“SF was never about extrapolation, otherwise Star Wars wouldn’t be a thing.”

For a start, SF was never about extrapolation, otherwise Star Wars wouldn’t be a thing.

Yes, we demand a self-consistent storyverse. However, what we’re really after is stories about people relatable at a basic level — who drink coffee, have showers, wear boxer shorts; yes, that basic — having the kind of adventures normally available only to people in tricorn hats or horned helmets, and in a universe with relatable elements like gunfights and corporations and trade. The Honor Harrington series, for example, is unashamedly the Napoleonic Wars in Spaaaace. Firefly could be rewritten as a (“problematic”) tale of a tramp steamer adventuring around 1930s South East Asia. If we can enjoy watching Guardians of the Galaxy, then we can enjoy reading The Star Kings.

Second, many of us like… nay… need our comfort zone.

Somewhere back in the 80s, it became a thing that the protagonist was the one who suffers the most, because the reader cares about suffering… and that is probably true.

However, I don’t know about you, but I’m in that phase of middle age where I’m starting to feel like a Waterloo survivor: there’s been too much pain and death amongst the people I love. Similarly, there are —  in case you hadn’t noticed — one or two pressing global-scale issues, and more local ones coming home to roost where we live.

Pardon me then if, in my leisure reading, I seek escapism, not secondhand pain or penance. The books of yesteryear with their footloose two-fisted protagonists and avoidance of really dark places are reliable sources of that escapism, so how could they not be my goto?

Finally, we come to the elephant in the room: length.  It’s not that we need books we can finish quickly. After all, I bet most of us are more than happy to spend a month or so reading something like Guns, Germs and Steel.

It’s something else.

The Star Kings 1967

“If we can enjoy watching Guardians of the Galaxy, then we can enjoy reading The Star Kings.”

When I was a teenager, I read three Michael Moorcock books in a night, then slept in until lunchtime. When I was a 20-something in my first job, I had entire weekend afternoons to lie in the sun and tackle the doorstops of speculative fiction. Now I’m a middle aged dad, I’m lucky to get an hour a day reading. This has an interesting effect.

Remember the thing (above) about heroes suffering? Add to that the structure laid out by the popular Save the Cat books. Roughly 20% of the book is setup, 30% is “Fun and Games.” Then, at 50% “Bad Guys Close In” and everything goes wrong. You have another 25% of things getting worse, before the final 15% of climax. It’s as much a description as a formula. I’ve found books written in the 1900s that fit the pattern; heck, even the structure of Beowulf approximates to it.

All that’s well and good when the book is old and short, say 30-40K words.

However, if you can only read intermittently — if books are things you escape into during your hellish commute, or in those moments when the baby is asleep and you don’t have chores, or when you aren’t looking after a sick relative or worrying about your precarious financial situation– and it’s one of those modern 100-120K behemoths, it means that you may spend two whole weeks wallowing through the setup, often experiencing the character trapped in a situation with little or no agency — you know, much like being middle-aged — then you get three weeks of the character being proactive, but with a sense of impending doom — also like being middle-aged– then things do go wrong, and that’s another three weeks of secondhand suffering now about characters you’re really invested in because you’ve spent so long with them, before you hit a climax that is actually hard to follow because the plot points underpining it were planted months ago on your personal timeline…

Length amplifies the other issues. It’s one thing to grit your teeth for a few hours to get through the depressing part to enjoy the cathartic payoff, another to do it for weeks on end. It’s great to approach uncomfortable issues through fiction, but not so pleasant to live with them for elapsed months.

So basically, if modern SF was shorter, we’d read more of it, and more daringly.

Sorry.


M Harold Page is the Scottish author of  The Wreck of the Marissa (Book 1 of the Eternal Dome of the Unknowable Series), an old-school space adventure  yarn about a retired mercenary-turned-archaeologist dealing with “local difficulties” as he pursues his quest across the galaxy. His other titles include Swords vs Tanks (Charles Stross: “Holy ****!”) and  Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic(Ken MacLeod: “…very useful in getting from ideas etc to plot and story.” Hannu Rajaniemi: “…find myself to coming back to [this] book in the early stages.”)

13 Comments »

  1. I remember a columnist I read regularly scoffing at the idea that readers of SF are open to new experiences because SF happens to be their preferred genre. I think she was right! They’re actually pretty conservative in their tastes. I think another factor is that these books are often a link with your past – ie, there’s an element of nostalgia involved. I spent a comfortable lockdown, mostly re-reading authors I’d read before, if not books I’d read before – e.g. Larry Niven, Jack Vance etc. I’m remember Larry Niven’s weak point being characterisation, but actually his characters are usually fit for purpose – they possess the sort of personalities necessary to move the story forward, if not much else. So better than I expected. Plus, no bloat (e.g. ‘Protector’ is essentially two novellas).

    The closest modern equivalent I’ve come to a book that is hugely enjoyable (if pretty dumb) is ‘Stormblood’ which was mentioned on this site a while back. Although it’s not actually not very short!

    Comment by Aonghus Fallon - October 6, 2020 6:12 am

  2. I’m sure there’s an element of nostalgia! However, in the last few years I’ve been *discovering* new-to-me vintage authors that I missed out on because I grew up in the provincial UK: Harold Lamb, for example and Edmond Hamilton.

    Comment by M Harold Page - October 6, 2020 6:28 am

  3. The time aspect is why i’ve pretty much only read comic books and short stories for the past eight years.

    I have to really want it to finish even a 350pg novel. I can’t read one in 30 minute segments its unsatisfying. I miss my three hour reading sessions a lot.

    Comment by Glenn - October 6, 2020 7:44 am

  4. Man, this article speaks to me. It’s why I’m mostly reading 50 to 60k Gold Medal westerns these days.

    Wish I could make a living writing at that length. Wish I could make a living writing short sword-and-sorcery stories, too… The market allegedly wants what it wants, but I can’t help thinking the market needs to try some other stuff and see if maybe readers don’t like it just as well, or more.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - October 6, 2020 3:05 pm

  5. Read for entertainment? What a blasphemous idea (these days, anyway). It’s what I tend to do, though.

    If I want a sermon, I go to church. If I want a lecture, I go to school. If I want a scolding, I go to my mom (or used to when she was still with us). If you expect me to submit to sermons, lectures, or scoldings in my reading material, however, you’ve got another think coming.

    Comment by Thomas Parker - October 6, 2020 6:33 pm

  6. For myself, I like there to be themes and actual content. I don’t *just* want to read froth. But yes.

    Comment by M Harold Page - October 6, 2020 6:57 pm

  7. Thanks for a fascinating article. Writing a shorter novel than I have in the past is something I’m wrestling with right now.

    Hard to go wrong with Harold Lamb and World Wrecker Hamilton. Have you tried Talbot Mundy? Lamb and Mundy were big influences on Robert E. Howard.

    Comment by John E. Boyle - October 8, 2020 5:32 am

  8. I tried Mundy, bounced off. I think the style has dated far more than Lamb’s.

    Comment by M Harold Page - October 8, 2020 5:57 am

  9. Reminded of a Captain Planet episode. I mean the cartoon versus the “Code Word” the worst parts of the Internet used. But had the South American kid MaTi reading a classic detective novel. Hot headed American -Wheeler- went “Why you reading those? They are 50 years old?” “They are new to me” MaTi replied. That really was me way back, save I’d look closer to Wheeler than MaTi as a kid though I did have darker hair and tanned with all the running around. By simply buying from used stores and going to the library I got exposed to stuff before the mid 80s when the “new wave” crashed on a toxic beach and didn’t recede, ever…

    I think there is a difference between stuff today and years back, and not a good one. I’m loyal to “The story” and don’t care the ideals or background of the author, nor if they were a saint or sinner, etc. The difference is, IMO, a monopolized and agenda driven traditional base (editors, publishers) and a dwindling pool of ‘writers’ who for survival are trying to impress those that might pay them not the people who might eventually read them. That John Norman immediately had great success both traditional and digital once the internet broke the ‘blacklist’ they claimed he was making up argues this strongly.

    I’d almost feel sorry for “The editors” or whatever gatekeepers… Reading thousands of manuscripts, the most almost certainly are “Look! Mommy! I maded my fiwst Space Trek fiction that’s disguised ST fan fiction that will get a publisher sued if he prints it. We are all furries, I’m a Mary Sue Raccoon, Kirk is a Badger, Spock is a ferret…and we all shag!” – multiply that X100…it’d be maddening. But – along the way they’d get so jaded they’d start to read (what the story is, not says) “I am inspired by the pulps of the past – here’s my new, fresh adventure that yes is not lawsuit bait” – but they’d see my former example and have an allergic reaction – even if there isn’t an ‘agenda’ to block styles of the past and/or degrade only subjects. Bet they are really burned out and if the publisher goes “Hey – here’s your diversity/social agenda quota this term…” well they’ll just pick one and maybe have energy to try to find something halfway good – but then often its a HUGE surface only novel coz a penny a word ain’t what it used to be.

    Comment by GreenGestalt - October 8, 2020 8:49 am

  10. Now, don’t want to be pessimistic or Captain Bring down. I think the shorter story combined with direct digital distribution should be the solution. Bypass the ‘traditional’ publishing altogether.

    Books should be digital until they get popular, sell a lot. No “Dead Trees” and pile sitting in the garage, storage locker trickling away one at a time for a decade. Someday I’d love to publish my own in a format like a 50s-70s mass market roller wire rack book, but later…

    Agenda or no, editors do filter out the “Look mommy I maded!” stuff as much as the “I am writing a story/genre/subject they have decided not to touch anymore”. So what – that’s a “Free Market”. And modern tech no pile of dead trees, just space on servers seeming near-infinite compared to any bookstore, warehouse, catalog of the past… And for the “Drek” the untalented/amateurs/bizarro will put out… any market – like Drivethrufiction has the option they can make a ‘preview’ available – reading the first few to dozen pages so you get an idea if you like this story/writer’s style. And individuals (who hopefully don’t quit their day job first) who start out with “Furry Star Trek fan fiction” on the edge of a lawsuit that no sane publisher would touch might get a few dozen, then few thousand fans and evolve into a good writer. Later novels completely original and evolved style, old stuff to the end of the store, perhaps with polite ‘fair use/early work’ disclaimer. Versus the only people who could let them be read by others giving (rightly from their perspective) a very brutal “…really, are you trying to KILL us? Just bring dynamite, make a Molotov cocktail… Serious! I’d rather pull out the fire hose and spray off the walls as I did in the 70s when the Feminists threw them over Planet of the Fierce Women… Less damage than a lawyer from one of these big companies.” -what some editor reading his 50th similar manuscript that day might type or email.

    Comment by GreenGestalt - October 8, 2020 9:09 am

  11. @GreenGestalt

    I don’t think it’s a liberal(?) conspiracy, I think we’re just middle-aged!

    Like Pop music, a lot of what comes out of trad pub is not for our demographic, perhaps because – as argued by this article – we’re not in the market for big fat books.

    If the politics looms larger than the story, that may be just because it’s not your politics. I wager that you like Heinlein, and he even has little mini-essays tucked away in the narrative. Politics is a legitimate element.

    That doesn’t mean to say that good old-style yarns don’t also get published. Howard Andrew Jones’s current Fantasy series has some broadly liberal social values, presumably reflecting those of the author. However, it’s “just” a modern (rather good) heroic fantasy yarn with themes and depth but no lectures. You’ll find the same if you try Joe Abercrombie.

    If you’re looking for more traditional space adventure… well read Gareth Powell. His books rollick along hitting all the Space Opera buttons.

    And then there’s Baen Books!

    So the books you will like are there being trad-published, you just need to find them. Hopefully Blackgate can help with this…

    Outside the big publishers there’s the new punch-above-their-weight small presses (DMR books being a good example: https://www.blackgate.com/2020/10/07/dmr-books-swords-and-sorcery-and-planets-uncut-from/) and indy authors like me. (Try my Wreck of the Marissa!).

    I think what we need to do is make a greater effort to find and buy modern books we like and feed our preferred subgenres.

    Comment by M Harold Page - October 8, 2020 9:28 am

  12. @M_Harold_Page –

    I’m actually a “Liberal” just very “Old School” influenced not “Hyper Progressive” – think by old Hippies/Yippies but also NamVets, WW2 vets, some foreigners – absolutely for every reasonable measure to push for equality for women and non-whites and end various “Isms”. Say if someone is partially all races and changed gender and is a member of the Church of Satan…? If they work next to me at the Cracker Factory I don’t care, if they push their weight per employer expectations I’d argue blue faced and risk my job to keep them on board. LIKEWISE – and this is where I get so set off on “Correctness” issues I have seen such a push to erase from history a past that perhaps some (yes “Liberals” though NOT my kind) find … problematic…. And sweet Cheezus search back to my rants come “Realms of Fantasy” and whoa-nelly, the “Social Justice” crowd is those guys to the Nth. The worst Nihilism, the destruction of legit liberal progress wrapped in toppled George Washington statues with the American flag burning on them. Back when we could post graphics I linked an image from Druillet’s Yragel/Urm, on a shattered city of destroyed idols at the end of Man’s history – and that IMO is what these types will give us. They want to cancel HPL coz he was racist? Try L. Frank Baum. They freak over Heinlein? Heh if they’d take the Burroughs “Naked Lunch” out of its wrapper and actually READ it… Scream in my face (literally) at the bookstore that Conan, REH, Frazetta are sexist exploiters while holding an armload of “High Fashion” magazines and a copy of Marion Zimmer Bradley!?

    I’m not sure I want to even rave a “Conspiracy” – IMO a Conspiracy Theory has a weakness; it is FLATTERING. If things going wrong are caused by Reptile Overlords, the Elders of Zion and their Protocols, the Bildabears er- bildeburgers, whatever…. etc …Illuminati, rotary club, the Girl Scouts (beware them!) well… Scary and oppressive as it is, at least it makes SENSE. Gives reason for problems, good and evil etc. But reality can TRUMP fiction, no? Reality last few decades has been “Bad Science Fiction” stuff we’d never be able to “Sell” if we could get a time machine and go back. Reality doesn’t owe us sh–… The current “Social Justice” era of Comic books, movies, influence on Role-Playing games – even Board Games…!? That could just be some out of touch Monty Burns types per an early Simpsons, surrounded by sycophants and yes-men “How are my shares in Confederated Slaveholding?” – “Uh…They are stable, Sir…” – so they try giving the reigns to SJWs and the guys that OK’d that can’t give them ‘bad news’… But I see PILES of said books, evidence it never sells. All that $ for movies, games, books that don’t really sell, alienate the base and don’t attract “other” groups…sad really. But in reaction to the real effects I’ve seen I’ve pushed back to make thing worse, less ‘progressive’ to legit give them something to scream about. They can tell whatever “Social Justice” stories they want and I wish them well – just I want others to have “Heinlein” ( I do love him) esque stories and access to the markets – virtual or otherwise so the reader the consumer can help shape it.

    Anyways, I’m serious I’d like to print my works someday. Not now, it’d be the Vanity press stuff I joked about. But in a few years. Ideally made in the USA and I’m looking for a good feel, I’d crowdfund it from fans. And, no offense to the Chinamen, but I’d rather it printed be in the USA.

    Comment by GreenGestalt - October 8, 2020 5:19 pm

  13. @M_Harold_Page –

    BTW – What really got my attention was the “Dumarest of Terra” cover – It is a series I’ve loved – have most of the books, read most of them though quite a while back might go through again… Politics aside, one of the reasons I don’t like modern film is they keep re-making again and again the same properties… G-d help them if they risk on anything “New” or rather not yet adapted…

    All that $ and modern special effects – so many great sci-fi and fantasy epics of the past could be adapted and even on a B-movie budget, more $ for actors than the effects. And I’m typing this to suggest an article here and hopefully it’d spark creative discussion; “Which sci-fi/fantasy novel/series of the past would make a good modern movie or syfy/netflix tv series? And people viewing would go “I like …. by …” with suggestions on what would work. IMO it’d be a fun mental exercise for people to talk about their favorite novel even pulpy series if they think it’d make a good adaptation.

    And, yeah, Dumarest would make a good standalone movie, a neat Sci-Fi channel series. Also for an episodic sci-fi thing (like Love, Death and Robots) his novel “Century of the Manikin” could be rammed into a neat short that’d make the SJWs go nuclear, even though the main character might have been seen as one of them and does ‘win’ as much as possible.

    Comment by GreenGestalt - October 9, 2020 9:48 am


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