Gene Expression

Perhaps because we only remember the good stuff? Or only the good suff & famous authors get reprinted. I’m prompted to offer this hypothesis in response to Chad Orzel’s commentary that there was a lot of bad space opera even during the “Golden Age” of science fiction. I recall that Zadie Smith once noted that 99.99% (or something to that effect) of Victorian fiction is forgotten and out of print. All that remains read are the “classics,” so contemporary audiences have a biased perspective as to the median quality of Victorian-era writers. Of course the insight can be generalized to the arts overall; only the good gets reproduced or remembered.

To be fair, some science fiction authors, such as George R. R Martin (who also writes other genres obviously), have claimed that the turn away from “hard” sf rooted in physics and engineering is reflective of a cultural shift. In the 1950s the “atomic age” was viewed positively, and the possibilities seemed unbounded. Today a lot of the fiction deeply influenced by science in constructing a story may take a more ambivalent, or even pessimistic, view of how science effects human happiness (e.g., dystopian futures where nanotech gets out of control).

Comments

  1. #1 gcochran
    November 21, 2009

    I remember all of it: it is worse nowadays.

  2. #2 Thorfinn
    November 21, 2009

    Early sci-fi was pessimistic on robots as well. Asimov was one of the early ones to take an optimistic attitude.

  3. #3 fullerenedream
    November 21, 2009

    I disagree! There is AWESOME sci fi coming out these days. Check out these authors:

    Charles Stross
    Greg Egan
    Vernor Vinge
    Paul Melko

  4. #4 razib
    November 21, 2009

    thorfinn, good point. though i perceive even asimov as more ambivalent about robots (though in general they turn out to not be evil).

  5. #5 Oran Kelley
    November 22, 2009

    There’s a lot more bleed between genre fiction and literary fiction these days . . . could be that a lot of the better writers who in the golden age would have been SF writers are today working on the fringes of literary fiction and not really considered to be genre writers?

  6. #6 Peggy
    November 22, 2009

    I’ve read a lot of science fiction, both “Golden Age” and recent and really there is a lot of crap from all eras. If your main exposure to old SF is in “best of” short story anthologies and classic reprints, your view is going to be pretty skewed (and even some of those classics have aged very poorly IMHO).

    SF has changed over the past 70 or 80 years, of course, but I think fiction in general has changed. If you read literary fiction from the 1930s and 1940s it’s different than literary fiction being published today too. And I don’t think it’s just the style that has changed – like literary fiction, SF is a reflection of contemporary society, and some of the depictions of women and non-white men in old SF are really cringeworthy, not to mention the really bad depictions of science.

    And considering the sheer number and variety of SF novels and stories being published every year (many more than I can read, anyway), I’m really surprised when people claiming to be science fiction fans claim there is nothing they like being currently published. Maybe the problem is that reading as an adult is never going to be quite the same as reading stories for the first time as a teenager.

  7. #7 Dave
    November 22, 2009

    it’s the Bandwagon problem.when it was seen as a money maker a lot of people jumped on with very uneven results.

  8. #8 Rafe Kelley
    November 22, 2009

    I don’t follow much Sci Fi but I think fantasy is in a golden age, George R. R. Martin, and R. Scot Bakker are in my opinion head and shoulders above everything else written in the genre. I don’t think the field has ever had as many talented writers as now with Martin and Bakker joined by Robin hobb, Tad Williams, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, Richard Morgan and J.V jones. I think there are more Authors writting books now that are interesting, distinct, complex and well written then possible the rest of the history of fantasy all together.

  9. #9 gcochran
    November 22, 2009

    It’s damn hard to make a living as an sf writer.

  10. #10 Anne Gilbert
    November 22, 2009

    I don’t know if sciend fiction is better or worse than it used to be. A lot of “sci-fi” is really fantasy. I’m writing something that would probably be called a kind of “fantasy”, but it has “science” elements in it, and I’ve tried to keep things as accurate as possible. I used toreal a lot of Asimov’s short stories, and I liked them. I treid to read his novels, and they bored me. But there are otehrs I’ve liked, and so I really can’t say Era X was bewtter than it is now.
    Anne G

  11. #11 Ted
    November 22, 2009

    Back in the day we walked to school both ways uphill, in a freer society, with stronger moral character, carrying better science fiction books

  12. #12 Lassi Hippeläinen
    November 22, 2009

    the turn away from “hard” sf rooted in physics and engineering is reflective of a cultural shift.

    Classic scifi wasn’t about engineering, it was social commentary. Asimov’s Foundation saga, or Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land don’t have any physics worth mentioning.

    Pessimism in scifi isn’t new. Philip K. Dick.

  13. #13 jim
    November 22, 2009

    The Golden Age of scifi came along at the tail end of an age of energy abundance and extraordinary technological advancements. We learn to harness entirely new sources of energy. WWII saw the construction of enormous armaments. And then we had the space program.

    The writers and readers who lived through that age reasonably thought such extraordinary progress would continue. Just imagine what we’ll be able to build in 2010!, they thought.

    But energy has only gotten more expensive since then and we’ve discovered no magical new sources. Hell, the Obama-left doesn’t even believe in the idea of progress anymore.

    Our world-view has shrunk. Our ambitions and imaginations curtailed as we adjust to this poorer future.

  14. #14 Zora
    November 22, 2009

    Ancient and wise fen say:

    The golden age of science fiction is twelve.

    Whatever you were reading when you were twelve, when your juvenile mind was being dazzled by visions of various futures, that will forevermore be your standard.

    It probably won’t seem as shiny if you reread it.

  15. #15 Clark
    November 22, 2009

    I think it wishful thinking to think SF in the past was all hard science fiction. There was at least as much, if not more, that was pure pulp fiction. It’s also interesting that some hard science fiction lovers point to major figures (say Larry Niven) who do some interesting stuff with physics but who have atrocious imaginations about biology. It used to be fine to just throw together an alien with no conception of what makes sense biologically.

  16. #16 10,000li
    November 23, 2009

    Zora’s hit the nail on the head, I think. The “Golden Age” of any art you like is whenever you first experienced the deep emotions it led you to feel.

    The sentence usually takes the form of:

    Nobody makes (stories, music, movies, tv shows, baseball games, free throws) like THAT anymore.

    Then everyone nods in agreement and takes another drink.

  17. #17 Eric Lund
    November 23, 2009

    though i perceive even asimov as more ambivalent about robots (though in general they turn out to not be evil).

    Asimov became much more ambivalent about robots toward the end of his career. That’s why some of his later novels (especially Robots and Empire) go to some trouble to explain how a galaxy with robot-filled Spacer worlds could evolve into a Galactic Empire with no robots. (Well, there’s R. Daneel Olivaw, but he was built during the Spacer era and took extraordinary steps including mind control to remain functional.)

    Of course the insight can be generalized to the arts overall; only the good gets reproduced or remembered.

    Exactly. We remember Mozart because he wrote so much good music that people are still willing to listen to today. His more-popular-at-the-time contemporary Salieri is now largely forgotten; I know of him only from the movie Amadeus. Similarly, we have weeded out much of the dreck from the Golden Age of sci-fi (and there was a lot of it), but we haven’t had time to do so with what’s on the market today.

  18. #18 Moopheus
    November 23, 2009

    Indeed, most of the sf published, at any time, has been crap. Remember that up until the 1960s, most sf was published as short stories in magazines, and most of those magazines were cheaply produced and poorly edited, filled with stories by lame hacks writing quickly for little pay. The golden age looks better than it was because a lot of that stuff has been forgotten. Now a lot of that material is padded out to book length, or stuffed into anthologies. Sure, on occasion, something not terrible sneaks by, but the way the genre publishing business is modeled, it is by accident, not design.

  19. #19 Matt Springer
    November 23, 2009

    Today a lot of the fiction deeply influenced by science in constructing a story may take a more ambivalent, or even pessimistic, view of how science effects human happiness (e.g., dystopian futures where nanotech gets out of control).

    Sometimes this is a function of the reading public just as much as the authors. Whether a person (say) sees The Diamond Age as a dystopia or utopia sort of depends on personality and political preference.

  20. #20 gcochran
    November 23, 2009

    Except sometimes things _have_ changed. The “Good old days” notion is sometimes true, sometimes false. Invoking it as a powerful explanation, without further evidence, is the mark of a feeb.

  21. #21 David Ross
    November 23, 2009

    People do play Salieri nowadays, but you’re right in that it’s mostly because of his notoriety in That Movie.

    As for modern SF, you should at least read the annual Dozois anthologies. They introduced me to Alastair Reynolds, who himself deserves a plug here.

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