Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Advances In The Art

     As I’m rather old, I have memories of pleasurable past experiences that retain a kind of glow. In some cases the glow is not really representative of the experience in any objective sense. Rather, it derives from my tastes at that time, which were...other than they are now. This is particularly striking when it comes to the science fiction I once read and enjoyed.

     Now, I read voraciously from an early age. A very early age, actually. And it does stand to reason that a child’s tastes will be less well developed – not to say immature, though the word cannot be summarily dismissed – than those of the man he will become. All the same, reacquaintance with the affections of those early years can be seriously embarrassing, even if no one else is around to witness it.

     “What’s this about,” you ask? Simply, an encounter with some old, much loved books that have left me wondering how I could have been so easily pleased, and pondering the considerable improvements in the writing we find in genre fiction today.

     (Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis. Ovid said it, I believe it, and that settles it.)

     There was once a science fiction writer, much beloved by his readers, who wrote long series of novels that vaguely prefigured the interminable series of today, except for one thing: they ended. Apparently this writer, a widely knowledgeable man who was highly accomplished in his chosen field, was able to create the conditions for an extremely long and complex plot, and foresee how it must be resolved six or seven novels down the road. Anyway, that’s what he did in his two best known series, to which many thousands of young readers thrilled in his heyday.

     I’m not going to name that writer. I don’t want to besmirch his reputation any more than necessary to make my point. But it’s possible, if you’re near to my age and have been reading SF for a comparable length of time, that you have his name in mind already. That writer deserves credit for his strengths. He was very imaginative, and took risks in scientific and technological speculation that other SF writers of his day elected to avoid. He also dared a political speculation the possibility of which few today would be willing to entertain even for the sake of an entertainment. In short, he was no lightweight or pansy.

     However, if you were to put his writing alongside recent, widely approved examples of the genre, you would be hard pressed to rule it competent, at least by contemporary standards. By those standards he committed a number of mortal sins:

  • Uncontrolled narrative viewpoint;
  • Frequent narrative intrusions not bound to a character’s viewpoint;
  • Dialogue exchanges poorly suited to the context;
  • Quite a lot of unbelievable dialogue, as in “people don’t talk that way and never have;”
  • Wildly excessive, cloyingly florid descriptive passages;
  • Habitual use of far too many adjectives and adverbs, especially in their superlative forms;
  • Exclamation points a outrance.

     He never, ever relented from those practices. They can be found throughout his major series. And in reading his books with fresh eyes, I find myself embarrassed as much for his sake as for my younger self.

     We might think of him as science fiction’s own John Galsworthy, an early Twentieth Century English writer of great renown. Galsworthy’s best known novels are soap operas about the Forsyte clan and its offshoots. They were amazingly popular; indeed, they made him one of the most popular writers in the world. He got the Nobel Prize in Literature for them. But they’re not well written, at least by the standards of our time.

     Such is the natural condition of an infant genre.

     As a genre matures, so do the skills of its practitioners. No one could get away today with writing like that of the SF writer I left unnamed above. Even the allegiants of the “Pulp Revolution” and “Pulp Revival,” movements which are demonstrating considerable vitality, don’t allow themselves such liberties and extravagances. They hew to contemporary standards and contemporary tastes.

     This is all to the good. While it’s commendable to mine past treasures for their virtues, it’s equally important to recognize their flaws and to move beyond them. SF, fantasy, and horror writers are more proficient today, in part because their readerships are more demanding. It could not have been otherwise. Our fictional forebears wrote for smaller and younger audiences that had self-selected according to their preferences for imaginative speculation. Indeed, it’s possible that many of those younger readers were thrilled by extravagance, floridity, and narrative intrusions that embellished earlier extravagances.

     But we grew up. We heeded God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply.” In the process we bequeathed portions of our reading tastes to our children. But as the audience for speculative fiction grew, and the writer’s prospects for becoming established in one of those genres expanded, it became more demanding. After all, there were other things an adult could read...in some cases, that he had to read. His tastes became more discriminating. In the everlasting nature of things it was inevitable that he would discriminate.

     And the writers of old who had delighted us with their less disciplined but highly imaginative works were slowly but inexorably left behind.

     We hope to get better as we age. We hope general conditions will get better as time passes. In a free society, this is usually the case. But as with all other things, there is a price.

     The price is the recognition that one’s childhood loves weren’t up to the standards of today. When one elects to revisit those loves, the reverie will be mixed with considerable embarrassment: “How could I ever have thought this was great storytelling?”

     Well, perhaps that’s a bit unfair. It certainly pleased our younger selves. That’s what it was intended to do; therefore, it was a success. And perhaps the right perspective on those early genre delights, for those of us acquainted with more disciplined and refined writing, is simply to say, “That’s the way it was.” (Alternately, “Ah! Those halcyon days of yore!” If you want to confuse those who have no idea what you’re talking about, anyway.)

     (Cross-posted at my fiction site.)


sykes.1 said...

I began reading science fiction back in the 50’s, and nowadays much of what I read with pleasure then is simpy unreadable.

While I regret the gloom and doom and misanthropy and immorality brought in with the New Age writers, they were in general better writers than those of the Golden Age or 50’s.

Col. B. Bunny said...


Joe Andruscavage said...

I was a big Science Fiction fan starting in the 1970s thru the 1990s. Heinlein was by far my favorite. Then I enjoyed Sword & Sorcery novels David Eddings being a favorite. I do seem to have trouble finding authors I enjoy today but I keep trying.

ligneus said...

Asimov? Can't remember his writing well enough to say myself.

Sam L. said...

I'm old enough to have read (or heard about) those books, but I have no idea who you are talking about. I can't recall any 6- or 7-book series. OK, Perry Rhodan, but I never read any of those.