Untinted spectacles

Posted on August 22, 2008

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Unlike many who write genre fiction, I didn’t grow up reading the stuff. Don’t know, it just never appealed to me. My loss, I guess, but one benefit it has left me with is the distinct lack of rose in my spectrum when viewing the older works in the genre.

When I first joined GSFWC I went on a bit of a crusade so I could get up to speed with the “background knowledge” that everyone else seemed to have. I made a list of the classic writers and hit Obelist Books and Future shop for examples. I read one Clarke (Childhood’s End – enjoyed the idea-quota, but couldn’t believe how quickly the story was skimmed), two Le Guin (Dispossessed and LHoD – loved them), a Delaney (Nova – again, loved it), and got on okay with Poul Anderson, Cordwainer Smith and James Blish too. On the other hand I found Asimov and Heinlein unreadable. But that’s just me.

Anyway, it came as little surprise that to read Ian Sales decrying the relevance of classic status. I kind of agree with him. SF writing is way more sophisticated than it was forty or fifty years ago, and it would seem a bit pointless to still hold those texts up as the best we have to offer, but on the other hand we’re looking at them out of context. At the time, they made a big splash for good reasons. They were all about challenging the ways people thought about the world, the universe, about science and the future. They were about challenging people – writers and readers alike – to expand their imaginations. They weren’t about good literary standards. No-one pretended they were, or indeed really cared much.

More importantly, they were stepping stones on the path to where the genre is now. And in my opinion, the surest and farthest bridging of those stepping stones deserve the status “Classics”. Just as long as they’re viewed in the correct historical context.

Paul Raven has issued a challenge over on Futurismic for anyone to name a Classic that they actually would recommend to someone. Well, I still occasionally dip into the the boxes of yellow spines and almost as yellow pages in a spare half hour in the dealer’s room, and this year I picked up a copy of Vance’s The Killing Machine. And you know what, yeah, I’d recommend it. It’s a good adventure yarn that skips a long at a rate of knots with little in the way of extraneous material to derail you. It’s short. The writing’s not at all bad. And most of all – it’s LOADS OF FUN.

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