Friday, April 3, 2015


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)
I generally do not mean fantasy, unless it was published in Fantastic, F&SF, Unknown, Weird Tales, etc., in which case all bets are off.

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!


  1. May I suggest you look at my Because My Tears are Delicious to You reviews, in which I revisit books I loved as a teen? Also, i'm rereading the fifty Andre Norton books Ace used to advertise next to Heinlein. And also I am rereading some of -- actually, my site in general is a cornucopia of older material:

  2. Andy,

    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.

    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…

    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.


  3. Hi, Andy.

    I'm looking forward to what you post. Other than I'm two years younger than you, and have lived most of my life in Texas (although born in Mississippi), your description of yourself is a good description of me.

    I love the old science fiction and fantasy, and grew up reading it along with the new. (I love the new stuff, too, and have enjoyed much of your work.) I was introduced to many of the writers from the early to mid Twentieth Century through the Ballantine Best of series, DAW's Asimov Presents the Great SF series, and numerous Robert Silverberg edited anthologies in the junior high library.

    I've been blogging for a few years now. My main blog is Adventures Fantastic ( which focuses on heroic fantasy, historical fiction, and pulps. I branched off with three other blogs a year or two after I started AF, emphasizing science fiction, detective and noir fiction, and Texas history. I've also been slowly reading my way through the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series for Black Gate.

    My science fiction blog is called Futures Past and Present ( Obviously the title is very similar to yours. I don't know if you were aware of my blog or not, but either way I appreciate your not appropriating the order of the words. :) I'm not just focusing on vintage sf, although that's a big part of it. I review a number of new books. If publishers are sending me free books, I'll try to review at least some of them.

    Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading your posts and need to get caught up on what you've posted so far.

    Wishing you the best,

    Keith West