December 21, 2004
damn good question
Science fiction today is NOT what I grew up reading. Most of that crap that passes for "science fiction" today is pure fantasy, kinda like the Tarnsman of Gor stuff--- which is okay for a beach-read, but it AIN'T science fiction.
Robert Heinlein was my idol when I was a boy. I believe that I read everything he ever wrote, including a lot of short stories from the pulps when he first got started. He was an excellent storyteller, but he was an engineer, too, and he threw things into his books that sounded fantastic back in the 1940s and 1950s-- such as water-beds, full-wall flat-screen TVs, cell phones, a DRUG that distorted time and he even speculated about "drop-sickness" long before anyone knew about the nausea induced by weightlessness in space. He was a visionary.
How can this be true?
Speaking of Asimov, I am reading an anthology called the Science Fiction Century that has fiction by writers who are supposed to be the best science fiction writers of the 20th Century. Notable by their absence are Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clark. Huh? How can you put together a science fiction anthology of the 20th Century and not have those three in it?
Damn good question. Asimov, Heinlein and Clark are the fucking Holy Trinity of 20th century science fiction. Everyone else PALES by comparison. Just read these books:
*The Puppet Masters, by Heinlein.
*The Foundation Trilogy, by Asimov.
*2001: a Space Oddessy, by Clark.
*The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Heinlein.
If that's not some of the best science fiction you'll ever read (coupled with a whole lot of existential philosophy), I'll kiss your ass. That's GOOD STUFF. How could ANYBODY compile a collection of 20th century science fiction and leave THOSE out?
Who the hell is Nancy Kress?
How can you forget Arthur C. Clark's book "Moving Mars" I sadly have read that book 4 times and i will again soon, it is one for the memories to never be forgotten. Pick it up if you havent yet, you'll thank me.
Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars made me understand how vast human potential is. It's an underated classic that has worn well; not much of the "future" science or technology now seems hopelessly outdated; in fact, most of it still seems way beyond our reach.
I have to break the tradition of trying to name a top three set of authors. I think five is the minimum, because you have to include Ray Bradbury, for understanding better than most SF writers how to write beautiful prose; and Theodore Sturgeon, who understood better than any of them what being human feels like. (Not that there isn't a huge overlap between the two writers.)
(And isn't there a way to fit Cordwainer Smith in somewhere? There's a man who, in a time when there wasn't much to go on, thought long and hard about how our technology changes us.)
You're right about the drift to fantasy. I don't claim any originality with this thought, but mostly this is due to the twin facts that, on the one hand, we're closer to the future now, and have a better idea of how advanced technology changes things; and on the other hand, we have a better perspective on just how radically unpredictable those changes are. But we think we know darn well what societies look like that depend on animal power and move at animal speeds, even leavened with a bit of magic now and then.
There's an essay floating around (which I can't find now) that mentions that William Gibson's Pattern Recognition is set in the "day before yesterday,[/i] an open acknowledgement that SF can simply no longer keep up with reality. Nobody knows what the future looks like anymore, or what humans will be like, or if humans will just be flat obsolete.
Dwelling on the past, even if just yesterday, is easier and safer, for both writers and readers.
I recently had occasion to mention on another forum how much it pleased me to be able to write the phrase "cellular picture phone" and not be discussing science fiction. Even Clarke imagined a picture phone on a space station to be something you'd only find in a phone booth.
Starship Troopers was a great movie - as long as you remember it's not actually a movie of the book with the same name.
Viewing it as I believe it was intended, as a propaganda film from that world, makes it pretty much perfect.
(And speaking of under-recognised, Stanislaw Lem. And nobody will ever make a proper film of Solaris.)
Nancy Kress is a science fiction writer from the "literary" school, the kind of person who likes Greg Bear. I couldn't find anything about her actual attitude, but I would expect her to consider Heinlein a misogynist warmonger and Asimov a dreary geek.
Her stuff isn't bad if you care for that genre, which I think is OK in relatively small doses if I have some David Weber or Charles Stross available as an antidote. (Stross is an oddball: a writer who uses and appreciates the literary-SF conventions but generates some excellent thud and blunder out of them.)
It doesn't surprise me that Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke didn't make Kress's list. I'll bet E.E. "Doc" Smith didn't, either.
Doc Smith's "Lensman Chronicles" is excellent reading. Lucas bit off his apple big time when he took elements of those books and wrote star wars...
They were the holy trinity of my childhood as well. Everyone else was an also-ran. Unfortunately I've read all (and I mean *all*) their stuff over the years and I need fresh meat ;) I've read Asimov's fiction described as 300 page conversations and yeah, he focuses on the characters moreso than their environment. You could make that claim about Clarke and somewhat less so about Heinlein as well. They were on a pendulum whose other end placed primacy on the situation and environment with the characters being afterthoughts. Most of the so-called New Wave of scifi from the mid 60s on left me cold and while I loved LOTR the vast industry of LOTR ripoffs is just so much toilet paper to me.