Classics: a third way
Let’s face it, the field of literary Science Fiction & Fantasy is flying to pieces. There is no single gateway through which fans enter (if there ever was) and there is no single gateway through which professionals enter (thanks to electronic and indie publishing.) The lines between fan and professional have also been so thoroughly blurred, they practically don’t exist. There is merely a long, flat income curve — with most people dwelling along the flat part, and a very few people dwelling on the steep ascent; where the real money can be found. Success might be measured according to accolades, or it might also be measured according to dollars, but there is also the matter of academic recognition. There is no agreement on matters of quality, nor on matters of import. One woman’s deathless classic is another man’s throwaway rubbish; and vice versa. Tens of thousands of books, stories, comics, graphic novels, games, movies, and television series pour forth each year — all of them vying for a piece of our collective attention. (The good news being that the audience’s favor is not an exclusive commodity. A fan of one book, one author, one franchise, can be a fan of many others as well.)
I have occasionally seen good-hearted appeals to community. “Let’s patch this crazy field back together again!”
But a community requires common touchstones, and at least some degree of shared values. It ought to now be obvious (in the year 2015) that there are no more shared touchstones, nor any single set of shared values spanning the total spectrum of fans and professionals. There are simply disparate circles of interest, some overlapping with others, but none overlapping with all. They each have their own touchstones, and they each esteem different things. Sometimes these circles can happily move around or even through each other without friction. Other times they crash into each other with no small amount of rancor, because we’re talking about art, as well as passion — the subjective, backed by the unyielding.
Overlay all of this with 21st century Western political and social drama, and it reminds me of the Yeats poem, which I quote in part:
Things fall apart;
the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,
and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction,
while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
Is it even necessary, anymore, for anyone to try to forensically follow the threads of the field’s history, back to a time when you really could read every story, every book, see every movie, and have a sit-down conversation with others who had done the same? Because everyone was getting the same magazines at the newsstand, and the actual number of regular consumers was measured in the thousands — versus the hundreds of millions who now keep the SF/F juggernaut alive, above and beyond prose fans.
As I have said in other places, I came into the field sideways: a young fan of television and movie SF/F who began reading tie-in works, then migrated to original SF/F books, and ultimately enjoyed himself enough to get ambitious, and begin writing his own original stuff. It took a number of years to sharpen my skills to the point I could compete with the folks regularly publishing in places like Analog. Along the way, I was still reading and enjoying the works of authors such as Kim Stanley Robinson and Vernor Vinge. I also remembered with fondness the tie-in novels which had thrilled me as a teen: the Star Trek tales of Dianne Duane, Diane Carey, and A.C. Crispin, as well as the Star Wars books by Brian Daley.
Being something of a general history buff (albeit lay) I decided (in 1995) to pick up The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by John Clute and Peter Nicholls. I already knew some of the names I would encounter in that book — thanks to the anecdotes of Larry Niven, of whom I’d become a huge fan during my very-late teens — but there were other authors (such as Olaf Stapledon) of whom I’d been, up to that point, completely unaware.
Now, there was no way the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Science Fiction could contain every single author who’d ever penned in the field. It’s been a few years since I paged through my copy, but I am pretty sure authors like Stephen R. Donaldson and W. Michael Gear didn’t get page space — despite both of these authors being hugely influential on my writing development, and on me as a fan in general, because I’d loved and read (and re-read!) their books. But the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Science Fiction did give me a much more complete view of the landscape in which I was attempting to rise to professional competence.
It’s been 20 years since I first read that book. I think Clute and company have since embarked upon a comprehensive on-line SF/F encyclopedia. How complete it may be, I can’t say. Am I in there? (laughter) The Wikipedia page for Analog lists me. Maybe Clute’s expansive database does too?
But my point is this: after a full century of development — as a coherent genre, going all the way back to Hugo Gernsback’s “scientifiction” — the SF/F field has simply gotten too big for any one human being to grasp the whole of it from end to end. Not at depth. It’s possible to have a superficial knowledge of some of the landmarks, but nobody can possibly hope to read all the works produced in even a single year, much less all the works produced, ever, since the genre’s inception.
So, what value then, the insistence on “classics” and their necessity?
On the one hand, I think there are timeless stories that will never go away — even if I personally find the prose problematic. For instance, I think The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings will one day be regarded just as we regard the works of Shakespeare now. But so help me, I find the prose too “cozy” for my tastes. And the plot is not exactly structured like the thoroughbreds we’ve been teaching ourselves to write since the 1970s. Tom Bombadil? Hello? There’s a reason Tom got cut from the Peter Jackson movies. And if saying this gets me burned at the rhetorical stake, so be it. I happen to think the movies (the first three) nicely distilled Tolkien to a pure essence — something even very young children can embrace and adore, taking all the best parts of the story into their hearts and minds, with very little disruption of the author’s full intent.
On the other hand, I also think it’s completely possible to skip right over Tolkien, to never read a single page of his work, and still be both a fan and a professional. Tolkien isn’t the only one who wrote fantasy — specifically, “high” or operatic/swords’n’sorcery-style — and was good at it. When I was a teenager, the Belgariad and Malloreon series were all the rage. And before Eddings? Stephen R. Donaldson, who essentially thrust a modern (then) antihero into a Tolkien-flavored world, complete with a One Ring and a supernatural Dark Lord trying to capture/control said ring. I read both Donaldson and Eddings long before I ever read Tolkien, and I am glad for it. Because I was able to approach these newer authors “fresh” and without the prior exposure to cloud or jade my enjoyment.
And concurrent with Donaldson? Terry Brooks — whose Shannara books are still on my to-read list. (Sorry, I never got around to these when I was younger!)
Come to think of it, I don’t think Brooks, nor Eddings, got mentions in the Encyclopedia either.
But is that bad? And is it bad if we have young authors — 14 through 18 years old — who know nothing other than Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson books? What if we have fans who don’t know anything other than Jordan and Sanderson? Do we unreasonably freight those young readers with a burdensome expectation, if we insist that they must abide the “classics” otherwise they are not fully versed enough in their genre to even claim to be a fan in it?
My heart tells me that we risk demoting beloved works (like Tolkien) to the “boring” pile, if we frontload new SF/F readers with language like, “You haven’t really read Fantasy, until you’ve read Tolkien.” I mean, I get it. I really do. Tolkien pretty much created the high Fantastic form, with quests and heroes and magic and ogres and dragons, all mish-mashed from European traditional folklore, but woven around a delightfully modern plot. But as soon as we begin “assigning” Tolkien the way many of us were assigned Capote or Hemingway or Fitzgerald, then Tolkien stops being something new readers will enjoy — and instead becomes merely something to be endured.
And I can think of nothing which might hurt Tolkien’s legacy more.
Yes, yes, like I said, I get it. I do. When generation(s) come to love and revere a thing, there is a very strong desire to pass that love and reverence on to those who come after. This isn’t unique to literature. Several times in its history, baseball fans have bemoaned the dimming of that sport’s classic stars. Especially in an era where steroids have done more to warp the game, than anything Pete Rose or the Black Sox did. People yearn for a “cleaner” and more authentic baseball, with cleaner, more authentic heroes. Babe Ruth may have been a whoring, cigar-smoking, hard-partying son-of-a-bitch, but he hit 60 homers the hard way. He was a true original. And baseball purists want to make sure that the sport — and the fans — never, ever forget it.
But do you have to have seen Babe Ruth play, to understand how much of an impact he has on baseball, even today? I don’t think so.
Just as I don’t think you need to read Tolkien to grasp who Tolkien was, or what kind of impact he had on SF/F when “fantasy” was still very much in “scientifiction’s” shadow.
That may sound like heresy for Tolkien devotees — and I want to stress that I am not trying to dethrone anybody. I am just pointing out that between the arguments “Forget the classics, they don’t matter!” and “The classics are a must for anyone!” . . . there is a third way.
Certainly I haven’t had to read Star Maker or Last and First Men to understand that Olaf Stapledon was doing something truly remarkable with those works. Especially considering the fact that when Stapledon’s stories were hitting print, the nuclear fission bomb was still theoretical, and we were decades away from landing men on the moon.
Nor have I had to read Heinlein to the same extent I’ve read Niven, to discern the obvious impact Heinlein had on the field; and the obvious influence Heinlein had on both Niven and his frequent collaborator, Jerry Pournelle — two men who have been influential on me. (NOTE: I am fond of calling myself a grandchild of Heinlein, in this way, though I will always — out of respect to the Heinlein faithful — make clear that I can’t claim to be any kind of Heinlein devotee. I know many of his more famous short works because I read a treasury of them when I was 20 years old, and I have read perhaps two or three Heinlein long works, such as the fix-up book Revolt in 2100. And not even his most famous publication: Starship Troopers. That book also sits — with the The Sword of Shannara — on my to-read pile.)
Put it in musical terms: do you have to be a raving Led Zeppelin fanatic, to understand that Led Zeppelin was the single-most recognizable and influential “bridge” band, between the blues-and-folk-influenced rock of the 1960s, and the hard/metal rock that emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s? Do you even have to have heard Jimmy Page play, to become a virtuoso (on the guitar) in your own right? What if, instead of Led Zeppelin, your musical roots trace to Eddie Van Halen? Or, more recent, Soundgarden? Or, more recent still, Lady Gaga? (I know, I just made some people begin stabbing their screens, as I connected the musical dots from Led Zeppelin to . . . Lady Gaga.)
Right now, somewhere, there is an amazing singer/musician who is going to be the next hundred-million-dollar quintuple-platinum icon, and (s)he will have never heard any pop music played prior to about the year 1993. (S)he may be dimly aware of phrases like “Michael Jackson” or “The Beatles” or “Elvis Presley” but these will be vague, far-away signposts on the musical history highway. Nothing for him/her to get wound up over, unless (s)he is a rare student of music as an evolving historical art form, and/or has studied, and/or passed through conservatory training.
Likewise, there is an amazing author/writer who is going to be the next Brandon Sanderson — sorry Brandon, let’s face it dude, you’re establishment now — and this individual will have come of age reading J. K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, and Jim Butcher. Asimov? Heinlein? Tolkien? Who are they? Probably boring old writers that grandparents like to read. Tsk, tsk.
There you are, stabbing your screens again — I see you! And I understand. When we love books and stories from “our” writers, we want these things to not only matter, we want them to be eternal. We want them to have a permanent place in the sunlight. It bothers us to think that “our” writers (and their works) won’t live forever. I know I’ve been super-zealous about proselytizing the virtues of Chris Bunch & Allan Cole, just because I think Bunch & Cole together have written some of the best military fiction — and also the best science fiction — I’ve ever read. Period. I happily buy and give away omnibus copies of their STEN books. I name-drop A Reckoning For Kings at every single military fiction panel I’m ever on, because I think that particular book is the best war novel I’ve yet read — and I have read a goodly many war novels and technothrillers. I do this because I don’t want the world to forget. I don’t want the yearly tide of new authors and books to further push Bunch & Cole into the rear-view mirror. The STEN books were, for me, what Heinlein’s Starship Troopers has been for many other people — seminal.
And we don’t want those seminal reads — those seminal authors — to fade.
But just because somebody hasn’t read our seminal author(s) or book(s) doesn’t mean those people aren’t 100% fans, or 100% authors for that matter.
I mean, I can’t imagine me being the fan or the author that I am, without having read both Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead. It cheers me enormously to see Scott Card’s Enderverse as widely-celebrated as it is, roughly three decades after the Enderverse rose to international prominence. I think Scott Card is one of the very, very few SF/F writers of his era, who is going to be popularly read beyond his death. I’d put Scott Card right up there with Frank Herbert, in terms of impact on not only SF/F, but popular fiction as a whole. Ender’s Game still pops up on bestseller lists from time to time. It routinely outperforms even the better-performing new books released in SF/F each year. And it might very well continue to do so, even when Scott’s gone — and all we have left of him, are his writings.
But that doesn’t mean someone who has never read Ender’s Game — or who has never become familiar with Scott Card — is somehow deficient. In fact, I’d like to propose we scuttle the whole concept of deficiency, where the SF/F field is concerned. Since no single person can possibly hope to read it all. And we are now besieged with identitarian political minders who want to place every book or story on a cutting table — for identitarian vivisection. Can’t we just say, “People like what they like, and if liking what they like inspires them to make other things, which are also liked, isn’t this enough? Does it really matter if said fan or creator is versed in this or that ‘required’ reading?” Because Lord knows there is no such thing as a Top 10 or Top 20 or Top 50 SF/F novel list, which any 10, or 20, or 50 readers won’t find reason to disagree with. My favorites are different from your favorites, which are different again from the favorites of any four dozen other fans and authors; taste being completely subjective, but also completely immune to persuasive argument. Nobody has ever been “talked into” enjoying a book. Enjoyment either happens, or it does not. As Niven counseled, don’t argue with the audience! Let it be.
So, too, I think we can “let it be” where the classics are concerned — especially if we’re worried that authors and books we love, aren’t being given proper due. There are books which manage to speak to our hearts — across generations — without any need for us “pushing” them (Ender’s Game? Or Dune?) And while some books may sweep the awards table one year, or achieve raves in academic circles the next, neither the awards nor the academy can dictate to the generational audience what that generational audience finds worthy of embracing. Remember: the hoity toities of SF/F thought Star Wars was drivel, when it came out in 1977. Yet Star Wars not only saved the entirety of SF/F from oblivion, Star Wars was the vehicle that made SF/F a common household commodity, and launched the revolution whereby geek ultimately became chic. Anyone want to take bets on Star Wars: Episode VII challenging Avatar for the highest-grossing movie of all time? If Episode VII is tightly-written and hits a sweet emotional spot with viewers, I think it will.
And yet . . . there are fans who aren’t going to bother with Episode VII. They’re not into Star Wars much. Maybe, not at all? They are aware of what Star Wars is, and they know Star Wars has a gargantuan cultural footprint. They acknowledge this, without having to compulsorily partake. And that is the third way.
I know when I die, there will be some fine books by some fine writers, of which I’ve never made myself more than cursorily familiar. Like Ursula Le Guin, who (for lack of a better way of stating this) put me to sleep with The Dispossessed. I don’t know that I will ever find the time for The Left Hand of Darkness even though Le Guin fans and many academicians would hang me from my toes for insisting that I am not in a big hurry to push The Left Hand of Darkness up my priority list. As Tom Clancy noted, becoming a writer plays hell with your reading time. I cannot hope to read everything I am told is a “must read” by every sector of the field. In point of fact, I’ve got some David Drake books waiting at home, which will get read long before another Le Guin book. And that’s not a dig on Le Guin, it’s just a fact: Le Guin didn’t snag me with The Dispossessed and there are plenty of other authors putting hooks into the water. It might be a long time — maybe never? — before I swim back Le Guin’s way.
Am I therefore deficient? As a fan? As an author?
Le Guin devotees might emphatically state, “Yes!” Academics probably would too. Many younger fans would say, “Who?”
Again, there is not enough time to read it all — no, not even everything that we’re told by the cognoscenti is a “must read.”
I somehow suspect Le Guin’s place in the sun won’t dissolve just because I kick the bucket without reading another of her books. Just as her place in the sun is not magnified even if I spend the next two years reading nothing but Le Guin books, back to back.
Will Le Guin be read beyond her death? Undoubtedly. Especially in the academic world. Is any fan made “less than” for not reading Le Guin? Is any author made “less than” for not reading Le Guin? I don’t think so, provided that said fan or author at least is aware of Le Guin’s place on the map of SF/F. It’s a very prominent place, and her influence goes far. You don’t have to read Le Guin to see it. Just as you don’t have to read Arthur C. Clarke to understand how much of an impact he had on the field, too. His works may not be flying off the shelves at this point in history, but his name — like Isaac Asimov’s — is stamped deeply into the hull of science fiction. And that’s not going to go away. New fans and authors may pass their fingers over the marks in the metal — read the name, the citations, and titles of the works — and grasp that this was an important man, who contributed greatly to the establishment of SF/F in the days when SF/F was still emergent as a distinctive literary enterprise.
Thus, the third way acknowledges the men and women who built the field, without saddling new fans and authors with the unpleasant chore of having to push up-hill through thousands of books and thousands of stories, all the while never even catching up to what’s current.
Like any culture argument, this one won’t ever be settled. Nor am I trying to have a last word. I am merely thinking about my own experience — as someone who came in very “late” and who can’t mass-consume every single piece of the field, dating back to the 1920s or beyond, much less everything generated in 2015 alone. It’s too much.
But with some curiosity and a little research, I was able to make myself aware of the field’s major literary players. At least up through 1994. New players have since emerged. Some of them probably are (*ahem*) for lack of a better term, overhyped. But many are not. I think Andy Weir’s book is liable to go down as having been a very significant landmark in the SF/F of the new century — just like Hugh Howey’s Wool universe, and of course J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Past a certain point, audience penetration becomes self-sustaining and self-expanding. “Viral” is the term most people under thirty would use today.
Knowing the new landmarks, as well as the old, is (in my opinion) a happy chore that shouldn’t consume a lot of time. Just pay attention to what’s going on. Read the things that look genuinely interesting to you. And don’t feel bad if you can’t get to everything. Nobody can. Nobody has, for many decades. And nobody will. Let it not be your fault, as long as you’ve seen the forest for the trees.