Saturday, November 1, 2014

When Writers Don't Read the Foundational Works of Their Genre

I was going to write a review of a completed serial over at JukePop Serials, but Kate Paulk put up an article at Mad Genius Club on the peril of ignorance of the roots of the genre that is just too wonderful to resist reblogging and commenting upon.

Over at According To Hoyt today (linky), Sarah has quite a bit to say about the sterility of what the Social Justicy Glittery Hoo Haas call “proper” creative/artistic/literary pursuits. She’s right. More than that, she knows the emptiness of the kind of ideologies that have to lock people inside neatly labeled little boxes to “protect” them from the big bad world outside (hint: if merely being exposed to something else is enough to turn someone against your faith (or ideology or whatever the hell you want to call it), your thingummy belief whatsis sucks.

One of the side-effects of the sterility and mental walls is breathtaking ignorance from people who should – in theory at least (wonderful place, theory. Everything works the way it’s supposed to) – know what the freaking hell they’re talking about. And that in turn leads to the kind of nonsense that I, being a charter member of the Evil League of Evil (but not the Beautiful Evil Space Princess – that’s Sarah’s job) am obliged to poke fun at.

As a bookseller, I've really noticed over the past several years the complete loss of interest in the classic authors of science fiction. We used to take large numbers of books by classic sf authors such as Asimov, Clarke, and Pohl when we went to science fiction conventions. Now I've pretty well pulled all of those authors from the boxes of books we take to conventions, for the simple reason that they don't sell.

And if people don't read the works of earlier generations of writers, that means they don't know the history of their genre. And since science fiction is a genre of ideas, they don't know the history of the ideas being explored in current fiction -- which is particularly bad when an idea is being touted as new and fresh and challenging and breaking the boundaries (as if Harlan Ellison never published Dangerous Visions how many decades ago?)

The most obvious one is the current excitement about "non-binary gender," written with such breathless excitement that it's clear these people have never read The Left Hand of Darkness. And even before Ursula K. LeGuin came to prominence, other writers had been creating aliens with non-binary genders. However, most of them were not nearly so close to human as LeGuin's Gethens. The Ullerians of H. Beam Piper's Uller Uprising were reptilian, and the entities in James White's Sector General stories which had a dozen or more "sexes" (which seemed to function more like the reproductive classes found among fungi) were so alien as to approach Starfish Alien status, more like the Elder Things in H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness.

But that's just one of the most prominent ones, touted by certain people for political reasons. There are also technological elements in recent novels which are being touted as new and innovative, but in fact have their roots in far earlier stories.  A lot of things being written about AI right now are really new takes on topics that were dealt with way back in the 1940's and 1950's. Computer technology has advanced to the point where there's a lot less handwavium (Asimov's positronic brains being a perfect example that have been replaced by references to quantum computing in more recent works), but a lot of the same assumptions are still there, and aren't really being examined, even as we live in a world where people carry around more computing power in their phones than existed in the whole world when Asimov started writing his Susan Calvin stories.

Yes, some of the old classics of science fiction can feel a little stodgy, for the simple reason that they were written for an earlier generation and have accumulated a lot of Zeerust in areas where technology either progressed far faster than imagined (computers, thanks to integrated circuits and photolithography) or far slower (space travel in particular, for various reasons). But it's important to at least know them well enough to not look stupid to someone who grew up on them.

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