TT: Classic or Out of Date?

ALAN: There’s been a bit of on-line discussion recently which suggests that people no longer read the SF classics (Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, et al). The suggestion is that modern readers no longer find them relevant. Heinlein heroes use slide rules for goodness sake! How old fashioned…

Asimov, Clarke, Budris, Heinlein

Asimov, Clarke, Aldiss, Heinlein

You have more direct experience of this than I do because you’ve taught literature classes. How did your students react to the classics of literature?

JANE: Honestly, I’m not sure that the two really compare.  For one, students of literature don’t expect to be familiar with all the details they encounter in “classics.”  I mention this because I don’t think I’d recognize a slide rule if I saw one, much less know how to use it!

For another, what usually has made the piece in question a classic is that it deals with moral, ethical, or social dilemmas that still have resonance for a modern audience.

I think the problem that SF faces is that those stories are set in an ostensible future.  Therefore, someone using a slide rule to fix a spaceship — if I recall the story you’re alluding to, it’s Heinlein’s “Misfit” – seems ridiculous.

ALAN: Yes, that story does have a slide rule in it. But actually I was thinking more of the novel The Rolling Stones (aka Space Family Stone) where their father keeps the twins Castor and Pollux in line by threatening to confiscate their slide rules when they misbehave. It’s one of my favourite Heinlein books.

JANE: I’m not familiar with that one.  I’ll need to give it a try.

 I’ve actually seen a writer pull a great “save,” for a situation where the tech in a setting had become dated.  It was in a Star Trek novel of which, to my shame, I cannot remember either the title or the author.  A sassy young cadet fresh out of the academy is “shadowing” Lieutenant Uhura.  He can’t stop telling her how outdated the communication equipment is, rattling on and on and on….

Then they get into a battle, and (as always happened) the communication board gets blown.  Uhura’s down beneath the counter, splicing wires and all that to get the board working again.  She pauses to look at the young hot shot and says, “If we had the sort of equipment you were talking about, I couldn’t fix it this fast.”

But, although that was a great save, it doesn’t avoid the fact that nothing looks stupid faster than a projected future that relies on past assumptions.

ALAN: I’ve heard other people say that as well, but I just don’t see it. Certainly it’s anachronistic but I can’t see why it should detract from the story.  (The striking clock in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar never worried me either). If you need to rationalise it, you could claim that Heinlein et al were not writing about the future, rather they were writing about a future which never actually came to pass.

JANE: The Julius Caesar example is not at all the same thing.  It’s an anachronism in the literal sense – something outside of time placed in the wrong setting.

The slide rule, however, can be seen as a failure of imagination.  For a genre that prided itself in speculating about the future as it might be, this is a definite shortcoming.

ALAN: Sorry, but I don’t agree. In both cases, the anachronism is a piece of technology that doesn’t belong in the time period either because it hasn’t been invented yet (the clock) or because it has been superseded (the slide rule). And neither of them bothers me very much when I’m reading the story.

JANE: Ah, but as you noted in your opening statement, it does bother a lot of readers.  Not me, particularly, but obviously some!

ALAN: True.

JANE: Do you remember who it was who commented that in all the fictional depictions of the first landing on the Moon, no one included the event being televised?  Yet the worldwide televising of the Moon landing caused it to have an enormous cultural impact.

ALAN: No, sorry, I don’t. And the googles aren’t doing anything for me today…

JANE: I mention that because that bit about the Moon landing is frequently cited as another example of SF failing to really imagine the future.

ALAN: Someone (I think it was Brian Aldiss) once remarked that SF writers imagine and predict the future on the machine gun principle. If you spray enough bullets around some of them are bound to hit the target by sheer chance. But most of them will miss…

I actually have anecdotal evidence that these classic books can still be read and enjoyed by today’s readers. My godson, who is 13, has read and enjoyed many such novels. He requested Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for Christmas and absolutely loved it. And my friend Dylan, who is also 13, bought, read and enjoyed some Heinlein juveniles when I sold my library off…

And in my own case, as a young boy I was reading and enjoying books by H. G. Wells, Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs – books that were fifty or more years old by then and quite out of date in much the same way that the SF classics are out of date now. Nevertheless I loved the stories that those old books told.

JANE: Oh, I agree that many of the best works are still readable.  However, I’m not sure I’d use them as “gateway” books for a new reader of SF/F.  My Wednesday Wanderings – and especially the Comments – discussed this at some length back in 2014: here and here.

ALAN: I certainly agree that these are no longer “gateway” books. They still have value for the serious SF reader though, if only to familiarise the reader (and possibly the writer) with what has gone before. It can be embarrassing to realise that the thrilling new idea you’ve just come across is actually common coin.

JANE: Yes, that’s it exactly!  Every so often, I come across an old movie or story – something that would have been part of the mental furniture of the publishers and editors to whom I was attempting to sell my stories – and I realize I’d been missing a whole element in the landscape.  The only thing I can compare it to is when the clouds clear and you realize that “the mountain” you’d seen was part of a larger range, not the isolated bump you’d originally thought.

Does that change what I would have written?  No.  But it would have given me a different perspective.

ALAN: Another criticism I’ve heard about the classics is that the writing style can sometimes seem cumbersome and old fashioned. I have a certain sympathy with this point of view. Robinson Crusoe is a classic book by any definition of the term. I’ve read and enjoyed it several times, but I do find it a bit of a struggle. Defoe’s prose can sometimes be opaque. And, from a personal point of view, I find his obsession with Crusoe’s Christian faith quite tedious.

JANE: Oh, sheesh!  Writing style…  That’s a whole other topic and probably not one we want to tackle here.  Or do we?  Maybe next time?

ALAN: Oh yes we do! As always, I have OPINIONS about this, and I’m sure you do as well.


10 Responses to “TT: Classic or Out of Date?”

  1. Paul Says:

    In Heinlein’s “Starman Jones,” an interstellar spaceship is seemingly stranded for lack of a vacuum tube! But that outmoded McGuffin didn’t stop me from enjoying the story itself. I can see why casual SF fans don’t read the old stuff as gateway material, but serious fans who want an idea of the history of the field should maybe sample the stuff. There’s a reason why some of the old stuff is considered classic. There is an argument that Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was the first SF novel, and that style is really obsolete – but can still be read.

  2. abdaley Says:

    The mention of anachronistic technologies made me think of steampunk. I’m currently reading an anthology called ‘Hot & Steamy’ and most of the stories include technology outside of it’s time: robotic pets at newly colonized America, a giant robot at a Civil-War-era plantation, and a large clockwork pacemaker in Victorian England. Steampunk stories set in the future have airships instead of jets, or lots of trains but still horse-drawn carriages instead of cars. After all that, I have no trouble seeing slide rules on spaceships in the same light. It’s a different kind of -punk?

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    Reminds me of a discussion I had with a niece. She’d read the Harry Potter Books, and I gave her LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy for Christmas. She said A Wizard of Earthsea seemed like a copy of Harry Potter, but she got the point when I told her that it was because Harry Potter was copying Earthsea, not the other way around. I saw similar things in reviews of the Lord of the Rings movies, where reviewers took pains to point out that the reason it seemed so familiar and derivative was that so many movies and books had copied it as the original.

    On a separate note, it’s worth going back and reading Neuromancer, and looking at the elaborate lengths they went to do things that we now have apps in our phones for. Cyber’s aged as badly as slide rules, especially since not that many people want to have the latest cyber-wi-fi-hotspot implanted in their brains if it means that they get meningitis from one of those ubiquitous antibiotic resistant bacteria that the cyberpunks didn’t “foresee.”*

    *I put “foresee” in quotes because antibiotics researchers have known about resistance problems since the 1940s, IIRC. It’s the ad-flacks and the science fiction writers who have given us the notion that antibiotics were miracle drugs that changed everything for all time. This is a different problem (not doing the research) that plagues SF as badly as using dated technology

  4. Sally Says:

    I agree that the SF classics, for the most part, are not good gateway books. However, I think this somewhat depends on how far out of date the book seems. Jules Verne may come across as a form of steampunk now, whereas the lack of cellphones in Willis’ Doomsday Book (while there are landline videophones) strikes me as awkward. Give it another few decades and readers may simply accept that lack.

    (In defense of slide rules, I will note that they were in fact an early analog computer (1600s), and also that astronauts carried them on the Apollo missions. They were the basic hand tool for engineers until pocket calculators came along in the 1970s, well after either “Misfit” or The Rolling Stones were written, and were both extremely portable and versatile (once you learned to use them) unlike the huge electronic computers of the time. Why would an engineering-minded sort of writer think they needed to be superseded?)

  5. Paul Says:

    William Gibson’s seminal first novel, “Neuromancer” (1984), had pay phones, cathod-tube TVs and a building-sized computer. Doesn’t seem to have hurt it.

  6. Jane Lindskold Says:

    Verne has come up several times, so I want to mention the new translations by Fredrick Paul Walters. You can find five novels, with excellent notes, collected in the volume AMAZING JOURNEYS.

  7. Heteromeles Says:

    I’ll admit that, when I get around to writing dystopian SF, I fully intend to have people called “Computers” who hand-write spreadsheets, type documents, and use abacuses, slide rules, the old Rubber Handbook, and paper and pen to do calculations.

    Furthermore, there will be people qualified as Computers who also have home-built short-waves and books of old maps, often with annotations, and, well, any library they can scrounge. They’ll be known as “phones.” It will be more prestigious to be a Phone than to be a mere Computer, let alone a Calculator or Word Processor. Only a fully qualified Phone can be a proper Nerd-de-camp for a post-apocalyptic ruler.

    Take that, Mentats!

    (P.S: if you don’t know you’re history, computers were people, often women, before they were machines, so there’s actually a precedent here. Save grandpa’s slide-rule and steel-nib pens, and teach your grandkids how to use them!)

  8. CBI Says:

    Er, not grampa’s slide rule: my own. With belt holster, so it wouldn’t get lost.

    On older SF, I chanced to read a couple of early (early/mid-1950s) Andre Norton books a couple of weeks ago. They were still good reads, but these were early ones, and I think her writing improved in later years. The technology changes/errors didn’t bother me much, nor did the older cultural premises (although they were noticeable). Some of her plot twists and writing were a bit awkward (or unbelievable within the world setting of the story), but they were still enjoyable to read.

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