On Saturday night, I was in one of Buenos Aires’ notable bars surrounded by Argentine science fiction and fantasy writers. One of them was telling me how he’d recently bought a Clarke book (Childhood’s End, apparently) in a Spanish translation. The introduction said (and I paraphrase because I don’t remember the exact wording): “this book is a classic example of the now extinct genre of ideas” (italics are mine).
He was livid. As a postmodern exponent of literary writing, this man felt that his novels were rife with ideas, and valuable, socially-relevant ones at that. How could a man who wrote an introduction to a book by Clarke be so ignorant, so limited, so crass?
I mumbled something noncommittal and changed the subject. Why? Because I tend to agree with the introducer–opinion that would likely have gotten me lynched.
I’ve been watching the SF genre descend from a literature of ideas to a kind of muddle where postmodern sensibilities have pretty much amalgamated the genre with the rest of post-modern literature. If something is scientifically impossible, no worries, genre limits are so 20th century, aren’t they? Plus, if the thing is more boring than watching paint dry, it doesn’t matter as long as it’s diverse, right?
Er… I’ll let each of you answer that last one.
For a certain kind of reader plausibility is important in SF, and that is why readers are staying away in droves lately, and the last real consensus SF classic (by consensus, I mean among readers – I couldn’t care less what other writers or postmodern critics think) was… I suppose it was Ender’s Game.
But there was a better time, a time when SF truly was the literature of ideas, and perhaps the purest form of this is in Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970). The characters and the plot are there for one thing, and one thing only: to show us the wonderful construct of a ring around a star and to reveal how it works and why.
Are the characters wooden? A little. Is it diverse and sensitive? Not in the least, Niven didn’t care, he just wanted to tell his story and show us this awesome thing he’d dreamt up (or read about somewhere and decided to flesh out).
The cover blurb says “Legendary Award-Winning Classic”, and that description is spot-on. Everyone’s read this one, and most people remember it.
But I have this sense that if Niven were to submit it today, it would be bounced for any number of reasons. The legendary award-winning classic would never make it past the slush pile.
And, in a nutshell, that’s the main problem with the genre today. It’s bleeding readers like a neck wound because the new stuff is more concerned with social and literary sensibilities than it is with attempting to cater to its readers. Those former SF readers used to be going to comic books and movies but, as witnessed by the floundering of the Star Wars saga due to some of the writers wanting to use it as a platform for their politics as opposed to just a cool universe to tell a story, this way be reverting back.
Whatever the outcome, the nice thing about literature is that the classics are still around. We can pick them up in paperback. Most of us have already read Ringworld, but there are dozens of others… sometimes it’s even fun to pick up a random unremembered book from the Golden Age just to relive that sense of wonder (those with an overdeveloped sense of literary outrage may want to give this a pass… some of the prose is, gasp, workmanlike!).
And if you haven’t read Niven’s Masterpiece, you need to do so right now. When a setting is universally remembered and everyone knows all about it, you can safely ignore the postmodernists and read it. You may not enjoy every word, but you won’t forget the Ringworld.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina. His fiction explores big ideas, nowhere more so than in his reprint collection Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places.