Ian Sales has caused a bit of a stooshie over at Futurismic and some comment at Neil Williamson’s site by posting that some of the early works of Science Fiction from the 1950s and 1960s are not quite attuned to modern taste and are, in some cases, not well written.
Now, SF, in its early form, was widely derided as not paying enough attention to characterisation. For some this was the attraction; the idea was the thing – or the famous “sense of wonder” – and the portrayal of the people involved a secondary consideration – if it was a consideration at all. The sensibilities of those characters were also those of the time when they were written, with sexism, racism, cultural stereotyping and so forth, and can read oddly in retrospect. (This is, of course, mainly true about most – though not all – fiction of those times.)
Ian’s point was that these early SF stories, while still necessary reading for aspiring and active writers of SF, would not now necessarily be a good introduction to the field for new readers, as any unreconstructed attitudes encountered may be off-putting.
Something of the sort happened to me at school. I was assigned “Great Expectations” – which I could just about accept, though Miss Havisham struck me as unbelievable, and “David Copperfield” – which ended me. I have not read a word of Dickens since. It put me off. This may be my loss. (Alastair swears by him and I do find the TV adaptations of Dickens very watchable.)
Strangely, the same did not occur with Shakespeare, which I enjoyed at school, and from which I can still rattle off whole reams of speeches.
This can be a matter for individual taste of course. I gather some find Shakespeare inaccessible.
Now that the big SF ideas have mostly been delineated (or even played out) and SF writers are in the main exploring aspects within them, I would suggest that for stories to be satisfying, characters, human dilemmas, and not necessarily ideas, need to be at their centres. But I would, wouldn’t I? That’s the sort of fiction I write. (I hope.)
The thing is, “Nightfall” – a famous Isaac Asimov short story – is about as representative of SF today as, for example, “Lucky Jim” is of modern novels; i.e. not at all.
A double difficulty with using these stories as an introduction, or exemplar, is that most of the SF of earlier decades has been overtaken. The worlds imagined have not come about and the modern world contains technology that those writers did not envisage. PCs, laptops, mobile phones (though not wrist phones,) the internet, are all conspicuously absent from all but recent SF. This must seem strange as an example of the “future” to a child given a story without them. Nothing dates as quickly as the future. Just watch the original “Star Trek” or “Space 1999.”
It is, by the way, a myth that SF – particularly the written form – is about predicting the future. If it illuminates the present, that is the most you can ask of it.