I’m interested in old science fiction.
Now although I haven’t said much so far, I already have taken us into the high grass. For example, what do I mean by “science fiction”? I tend to construe the term pretty broadly. When I say “science fiction,” I mean all this, for starters.
|Gemini 3, March 23, 1965. (Credit: NASA)|
What do I mean by “old”? Well, at the extremes, I consider prehistory old, but I also consider Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner old, because it came out the year I graduated from high school, more than 30 years ago. But when I say, “I’m interested in old science fiction,” I’m thinking mostly of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s – though much sf is older than that, and much newer sf is still old.
If you ask me what I mean by “interested in” – well, that’s an excellent question, one I’ve been grappling with for years, at least since 1994, the year I attended the Clarion West workshop.
Many young writers of today argue that the sf published back then, long ago and far away, is at best irrelevant to their work, to their field; at worst, they argue, it’s a parade of insult, exclusion and embarrassment, a morass of –isms: racism, sexism, classism, imperialism, you name it.
I am sympathetic to those arguments. Much old sf was awful, many of its premises were indefensible, and if 21st-century sf writers and readers prefer looking forward to looking back, then more power to them. The future of the field is theirs, belongs to my students and my younger colleagues of all races, ethnicities and genders, and this is an unalloyed Good Thing.
I should add for the record, moreover, that I am a highly educated 50-year-old cisgender white man and U.S. citizen who speaks only English and has never lived anywhere except the Southeast United States south of the Mason-Dixon Line. I mention all this because it matters, because it has shaped and, sometimes, warped my outlook in countless ways that I recognize and countless more ways that I do not. I am more aware of this basic problem than I used to be thanks to many conversations with students, colleagues and loved ones, all of whom need to smack me on occasion.
So take everything I have to say here with that monumental grain of salt. It’s a salt mountain, really -- but I’m chipping away at it. To paraphrase a Kinks song: I’m a 20th-century man, but I’m not gonna die there.
I also concede that I am a chronic backward-looker, a leafer through family albums, a rummager in old bookshops and the Internet Archive. I am also nagged by Sturgeon’s Law, as articulated in Theodore Sturgeon’s 1953 Worldcon talk: “Ninety percent of science fiction is crud. But then ninety percent of everything is crud, and it's the ten percent that isn't crud that is important.”
If we accept Sturgeon’s argument, then obviously ten percent of what came before is worth investigating. But which ten percent? The important work is certainly not limited to the canon, to the awards lists, to the best sellers, to the texts encased in the burnished amber of anecdote and nostalgia. All those categories include plenty of clunkers, so that the reader of 2015 scratches her head and asks, “What were they thinking? Did anyone even read this?”
If we are to discover, then, the ten percent of important not-crud that’s back there, some brave souls need to suit up and mount expeditions into the past, and report their findings.
But I would argue that even the stuff Sturgeon labeled “crud” can be important, too, because it shows us where the field was at a given moment, what it was talking about when it talked about science fiction. Some of it succeeded in interesting ways even as it was failing in perhaps more spectacular ways. Some of it is so problematic as to be nearly pristine, a source of awe. Some of it was just the nascent 21st century, ahead of its time.
And some of Sturgeon’s “crud,” I suspect, was actually sort of brilliant.
So while I am no Martin Scorsese, I am fascinated by old sf for the same reasons Scorsese is fascinated by old movies. It inspires me, challenges me, forces me to evaluate and re-evaluate myself and my field, shows me (all too often) what not to do, provides signposts. Sometimes it does all these things at once.
But like many writers, perhaps most writers, I don’t know what I think about anything until I write about it. So I propose, on this blog, to write about old sf, to attempt – in a highly personal, perhaps even idiosyncratic way – to make sense of it, for good or ill. I claim no special expertise, I have no rank to pull, and I certainly don’t claim to be unique in my attempt. I merely want to do my part.
I could use some help.
A partial list of what I’m looking for includes:
- Sites, blogs, articles, databases and other online resources to link to.
- Offline texts to read or consult – both fiction and non-fiction.
- Discussion questions.
- Signal boosts. If you find a stray post here valuable, please share it with others.
- Perhaps most importantly: Responses, of any length, to stuff I post here.
That last point requires some clarification. As anyone who has met me probably knows, I love a good conversation. I will moderate all comments and vet all submissions, but if you make good points, write decently and aren’t abusive or toxic, your submission is almost certain to get posted, whether I agree with it or not. I reserve the right, of course, to respond to it somehow. If your response is not meant for publication, please say so explicitly in the text of your response. Also, if you post your response elsewhere, please send me a link.
OK, that’s a long enough opening. Thanks for reading this far. If you want to join me, you are welcome. Onward!