Posted by: Mish | August 22, 2009

Exploring Classic Sci-Fi

I’ll slowly be posting my notes from some of the discussions at WorldCon. I wanted to decipher my chicken scratch and type them out anyway.

Exploring Classic Sci-fi:

  • It used to be smaller communities where more editors were also writers.
  • More familiarity with classic literature and sci-fi and what’s been done.
    • Classic literature isn’t as popular as it was during the Renaissance.
  • Editors could filter the impure because they had the background.
    • Ignorant editors -> ignorant work -> ignorant readers -> sci-fi changes or remains of low quality and readers who don’t know any better like it.
  • Nowadays, a lot of writers don’t like to hear negative feedback and don’t want constructive criticism.
  • Fixed on current ideas of today.
    • Heinlein is dated because people don’t act like that anymore -> culture changes, but dating reflects the times.
    • Pilgrim’s Progress may be unliked and difficult to read today.
  • Dialogue between classic and contemporary literature.
    • Readers of only contemporary work will think Tolkien copied others, but he was an original.
  • Lack of historical curiosity to the point of almost hostile.
    • If unaware of history, one won’t appreciate Tolkien or older works as much.
  • Look at when something was written.
    • Robert Silverberg has been adding introductions to older editions to help put his writing into the time’s context.
  • Sci-fi novels are short-term commodities replaced by something worse. (ie. Robert Sheckley(?)
  • Classic is quality, age, and survives despite obstacles.
    • It’s premature to say whether or not a contemporary work will become a classic.
    • Many popular books today weren’t well-received during their time (ie. Moby Dick), but they’ve withstood the test of time.
    • Sophocles’s plays were considered good because Aristotle used them as examples of what qualifies as good plays.
  • Older books can’t be found because people outside the sci-fi community don’t recommend them.
    • Can’t keep everything in print, but books still in copyright can’t be made public online. It’s a catch 22.
    • Internet helps resuscitate some works – > Project Gutenberg (free online books)

(I already posted the following list, but I’d like to put the various lists into context of acquirement.)

Recommended reading:

  • Isaac Asimov: I Robot
  • Philip K. Dick
  • William Gibson: Neuromancer (Sprawl trilogy)
  • Ursula Le Guin: the Left Hand of Darkness
  • James Gunn- anthologist
  • Robert Heinlein: early works
  • Judith Merril
  • Theodore Sturgeon
  • Jack Vance
  • H.G. Wells

More resources and reading:

I was pleased to hear the Lefthand of Darkness on their list. It’s not only a fantastic read, it was ahead of it’s time in 1969 because of the way it looked at gender. Le Guin was also one of the first women to break into sci-fi, which was basically a men’s world. It’s the only one I’ve read from their classics list, but I’ve had Wells, Heinlein, and Asimov in the immediate queue. A few of the others I haven’t heard of before. Off the top of my head I would add Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to their abbreviated list.

Have you read any of the recommended reading? What did you think of them and do you think they should be dubbed as classics? Are there any you think should be considered classic sci-fi or already consider such?



  1. Unrelated to your post, but I have an award for you:

  2. It sounds like the discussion at least touched on most of what’s going round the web on this subject.

    Particularly the “hostility” towards becoming familiar with the genre’s history, as well as the “so and so is just a ripoff of whosis”

    No – soandso originated it.

    I’d be very interested in hearing the detail

    Thanks for this

  3. The ripping off didn’t surprise me too much, because that’s common in all areas, but up until that discussion I wasn’t fully aware of all the debates. It made sense though. Perhaps because I like literary history and knowing about the past in general, I didn’t think about it too much. The discussion was only an hour and way too short. Years from now, we’ll see how sci-fi has changed, for “better or worse”. Will more than a handful of us remember who Asimov or even Serling were?

    Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Doubt it.

    Talk about history fail – check this out:

    I mentioned the Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers phenomena in the comments. Considering the technological restrictions of the 30s/40s, they were actually “bigger” in mainstream than Star Wars ever was.

  5. Thank you for sharing your notes, they are very thought-provoking, especially since I haven’t thought much of SF in a literary history context.

    I think it’s a pity that the forefathers of SF, especially the lesser-known “Golden” and “Silver Age” authors, are fading into obscurity because there seems to be little collective memory in the SF community regarding their contributions. I’m speaking for myself here, I’m trying to read lesser-known authors, as well as non-American/British authors. I actually think it’s fascinating to read SF from these different “ages” because the stories represent not just the technology but the world-views and mentalities of the people of that era — and I find authors like Heinlein and Lem, “science” notwithstanding, still discuss issues that are extant today. That’s how SF engages me so much (whereas the fantasy genre doesn’t seem to embody this so much).

    Speaking of pioneering female SF authors, one lady worth checking out is Alice Sheldon, who wrote under the pseudonym of James Tiptree Jr (and also Raccoona Sheldon) for many years before her identity became known. Her life is worth investigating. I’ve only read one short story of hers, “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death”, and it was quite extraordinary and left an impression on me. There is an online transcript – the link below no longer works, but it’s on the Wayback Machine:

  6. Steve: Nice little bit of history you left. I can see why they’d ignore and/or delete your comments though. Ate their brains is right. There’s nothing left inside but carbon dioxide.

    Vega: Up until fairly recently I haven’t dwelled on SF’s history too much, so it’s been really interesting. One of the great things about any community is that they’re more likely to know about and be able to pass on the more obscure bits and pieces, which I’ve always been a fan of no matter the subject matter. On the grand scale of time, the 40’s and 50’s really aren’t that long ago so issues haven’t had a lot of time to change. I’m with you about SF vs F.

    Nothing’s pulling up on the website search, but I’ll look elsewhere. Thanks for the info.

    PS. A couple shorts can be read on PDF here.

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