Sunday, April 5, 2015

A letter from Simone Caroti

Simone Caroti writes:


My memories of the science fiction that was new when I was growing up are mostly of movies and TV series: Terminator, Star Wars, Star Trek, and so on. They shaped my sense of what SF was and what it was meant to do. In those years, most of the field’s luminaries were still alive, but from my vantage point they were fading. For a kid like me, the visions of the future of Terminator and Blade Runner packed a punch greater than what Heinlein or Asimov had to offer.

Cover art by Richard Powers (Credit: SF Encyclopedia Picture Gallery)
About a year ago, during a phone conversation with John Clute, the two of us started talking about the sensawunda appeal of space opera, and when I told him that I had a lot of trouble taking the SO of "Doc" Smith and Edmond Hamilton seriously, John laughed and said that I'd missed the nine-to-fifteen-year-old train with them. At the age when the guilty pleasures of SF turn you into a fan for life, I was watching Sarah Connor run away from the cyborg with the Austrian accent instead of reading the older stuff, and most of my contemporaries were doing the same.

And now, thirty-plus years on, my brand new science fiction is old hat too. The texts from whose vantage point I think of those others as old SF are themselves history. But while I have little trouble unpacking the cringeworthy passages from Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke with equanimity, it's much more difficult for me to distance myself from the things that were new when I was new. Nostalgia – which, in SF terms, is the feeling you get when you realize you're looking at the kind of tomorrow yesterday thought tomorrow was going to become – is easy for me to process when it's someone else's, but when it's mine … [Ellipsis in original. – A.D.]

Which brings us to our heroes with feet of clay. I keep watching for the day I realize I’ve gotten too inflexible to see the world in perspective, and to an extent I already have to struggle with myself on occasion. So Andre Norton got old, and one day she said something wrong-headed. Surely she of all people should get a pass, especially when, like you said, there’s little to no trace of homophobia in her works? And what about Heinlein, whose excesses most definitely did end up in print? Or Tolkien and Lewis? Or [again, fill in the blank]? The other problem, for me, is the extent to which we can separate the work of fiction from the writer. I have this neat little trick I perform on myself: I describe the stuff I like as somehow transcending the limitations 1) of its time and 2) of its author, whereas the stuff I can’t abide gets lumped under the label “obsolete.” Basically, I'm massively biased.

This categorization mostly works for me (but look at Marion Zimmer Bradley; what do I do about her?). However, there are writers reaching their peak today whose work I dislike on ideological grounds – John Scalzi, for example. I hate the way he preaches sometimes, and if you asked me why I’d tell you that it’s because he espouses beliefs I find obsolete. And who am I to say that and make it stick? Because when I make those distinctions I’m not being objective; it’s a pure gut reaction based on personal values that sink all the way into the world of forty years ago. So I’m obsolete too, yes?

I recently reread The Stars my Destination, and to me it appears newer today than it had when I’d originally read it – certainly more relevant than, say, any of the Transformers movies, the Twilight series, or the whole Divergent/Hunger Games/Maze Runner kinds of stories. Again, bias. Who am I to make this distinction, or even lump those titles together? Conversely, every new Dune title that comes out doesn’t seem to me to keep up with the state of the art the way Bester does – in a novel that came out in 1956!! See what I did there?

I hope this was useful. Your posts have stirred up a lot of thoughts inside my overly cramped noggin, and they’re all trying to get out of Raccoon City at once. Well, tell me what you think. I can absolutely nearly totally take it.


Simone, thanks for the fine letter. A few responses:

For most of us, the science fiction of our growing-up years is overwhelmingly movies, TV shows, comics and games. I’m no different from you, there. Yet, when I set up this blog, I perhaps chauvinistically was thinking only about prose fiction – in books and magazines – plus the artwork, non-fiction and other ancillary material published alongside it, plus the commentary (mostly non-professional) that responded to it, plus the fannish community that generated most of the commentary.

Should this blog cast its net even wider, to include media sf and its communities as well? Maybe so. We’ll see how it goes, and where the conversation takes us.

Lots of texts, I suspect, need to be embraced in adolescence, or never. My wife, Sydney, says Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is one. I read it at exactly the right time; she says she waited too late. But I am always encouraged, even at age 50, by the old things I do enjoy, however belatedly, once I finally get around to reading them. This is true of all serious readers, I believe.

The “feet of clay” question is a perennial, and is unsolvable, except by the individual reader, who must decide for herself, “OK, here is where I draw the line; I can still appreciate Writer A’s works, despite all, but Writer B’s works are dead to me, because I cannot forget who Writer B was.” We all make these choices, and we should not be ashamed of making them – or of changing our minds from time to time, or of seeming inconsistent in hating the works of Writer C but loving the works of just-as-problematic Writer D. No choice is more personal than a reader’s choice of what, and whom, to read.

And I join you in a big thumbs-up for The Stars My Destination.



  1. Wondering how you felt about the scene in Stars my Destination where Foyle rapes the woman and she falls in love with him, then turns against him when he dumps her. Alfie later wrote a novel titled "Tender Loving Rape" which I retitled "Tender Loving Rage" (with his permission); it was published posthumously. He did have his dark side.

  2. Like Sydney, I did not come to _The Lord of the Rings_ at the proper age to be smitten. I did not read it until my thirties, and though I could and can appreciate Tolkien's accomplishment in the abstract, it never made its way into my heart. Whereas _The Stars My Destination_, despite its dodgy sexual politics, still gives me pleasure.