The Children of Science Fiction

I am a child of science fiction and the 1960s.  On rare occasions while growing up I’d run into others of my kind, but it didn’t happen often.  It’s not like today where most kids love science fiction, even the popular pretty girls.  I was a member of many pop culture groups, including the first generation raised on the boob tube that became the hordes that worshipped long hair, rock music and the counter culture.  It seems a few us also read Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke.

As I type this Jefferson Airplane’s “The Ballad of You and  Me and Pooneil” is blasting through the speakers.  The long version.  If I had a Venn diagram that collected people born from 1950-1955 and grew up interested in science fiction, astronomy and San Francisco acid rock music of the 1960s, how many of those people would have overlapping interest in all three subjects?  How many people out there grew up influence by L. Frank Baum, Robert A. Heinlein, Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac?

I know who my blood relatives are, but now I’m wondering, who are my literary relatives?  With the advent of the Internet I’m running across my kind more and more.  This first started happening back in the 1980s with online bulletin board systems.  Just recently I stumbled on a couple of online watering holes, where my SF siblings hang out talking about the classic books of science fiction.  These are two Yahoogroup discussion lists:

There are about two hundred science fiction fans signed up between the two groups, with each group reading a classic SF title a month and discussing it, and a subset of those participating are a number of fans my age that started reading SF the same time I did in the early 1960s.  We all discuss those old SF books with various levels of passion for the genre, but it seems like science fiction did a number on us that made us different from the normal kids growing up around us, giving us our own unique subculture.

I feel the kids who grew up with Star Wars are much different from my generation that grew up with Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke.  Sure we might have evolved some when we started reading Delany, Zelazny and Dick, and the New Wave writers, but we’re strangely tied to that generation of Ace Doubles and Ballantine Books and finding our reading thrills on twirling wired racks.   And I wonder if the kids who grow up now with the many forms of science fiction today have any sense of kinship at all.  I know about First Fandom, and later generations of SF fans from the 1940s and 1950s that preceded my generation, because dozens of them became the science fiction writers my generation loved.

From my science fiction cousins, born 1950-1955, many also went on to write science fiction too, like Catherine Asaro, Kage Baker, Iain M. Banks, Steven Barnes, Greg Bear, David Brin, Pat Cadigan, Orson Scott Card, Brenda Clough, Julie Czerneda, Karen Joy Fowler, Lisa Goldstein, Kathleen Ann Goonan, K. W. Jeter, Gwyneth Jones, James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel, Michael P. Kube-McDowell, Geoffrey Landis, Paul J. McAuley, Pat Murphy, Kim Stanley Robinson, Richard Paul Russo, Mary Doria Russell, Geoff Ryman, Lewis Shiner, John Shirley, Melinda Snodgrass, Bruce Sterling, S. M. Stirling, Michael Swanwick, Lawrence Watt-Evans, Walter Jon Williams, Robert Charles Wilson, Timothy Zahn, and many others.

Will their fans be as faithful as my generation for going back now after forty and fifty years and rereading their favorite adolescent books?  The 1960s was one strange trip.  The times, with rock and roll, Vietnam, the counter culture, civil rights, psychedelic drugs, and all the other pop cultures of the 1960s, seared deeply into our brains.  Distinctive smells trigger memories, and science fiction is like newly mown spring onions, dredging up long forgotten past experiences – but artificial ones, one of adventures on far off worlds, induced by a self mesmerizing technique of staring at black marks on cheap paperback pulp pages.  I can’t play an oldie rock song without an old science fiction story haunting me.  I can’t read an old science fiction story without 60s rock music coming out of that old memory radio.
No matter how hard I try, I can’t exorcise science fiction from my soul, and I have tried.  Fifty of my nearly two hundred blog posts have been about science fiction.  Science fiction is a toy I’ve never outgrew.  No matter how much I try to convince myself into believing that science fiction is merely entertaining stories I can’t deprogram myself.  I once wrote, “The Religion that Failed to Achieve Orbit” to be funny, but it’s not.  I rejected religion as a tyke, but caught the science fiction bug instead.  No matter how much my Zen master beats me with his bamboo cane, I still see the Maya of science fiction.

Is it just me?  Or are there other aging science fiction junkies out there still looking for sense-of-wonder fixes?  When I turned fifty and decided to go to the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop, I intended to write Science Fiction 2.0 stories.  I wanted to purify my mind of all the old science fiction tropes and invent new ones for the twenty-first century.  Heinlein, for all of his success never achieved escape velocity.  The science fiction I grew up with was merely wish-fulfilling fantasies about escaping this problem filled world and running off to enchanting new worlds.

Rereading the classics of science fiction is like retracing the original trail looking for new clues.  Joining these Yahoogroups have introduced me to other people doing the same thing.  Is it merely nostalgia?  Is circling back just a common trait of getting older?  Are my efforts just a silly desire to recapture my youth?  Is it just a search for lost meaning, or a narcissistic impulse to find importance in my life?  Or could it simply be that I want to be a amateur scholar of genre history?

I don’t know if this is true or not, but somehow I feel my generation was more influenced by growing up with science fiction than earlier or later generations of science fiction fans.  For most readers of science fiction, the genre is just a category of entertainment.  For people growing up with the 1960s, the baby boomers, who felt the whole world was watching, science fiction added an extra dimension of drama about the future.  We listened to our rock and roll brothers and sisters sing about the revolution, and thought, “sure thing man!”  But we believed the revolution was going to lead mankind into outer space, not some groovy hippie commune.

Now that I’m getting old, and reconnecting with other science fiction fans who are rereading those old classic SF novels from our youth, I think we’re reevaluating the meaning of science fiction.  Were we just kids reading repackaged pulp fiction because it was exciting, or was it visionary and educational?

I’m currently listening to METAtropolis, a shared world-building theme anthology edited by John Scalzi and published by Audible.com.  The five writers, all newer science fiction writers born 1962-1979, write about cities of the near future with the same kind of 1960s revolutionary excitement.  They grew up with science fiction and the Internet, another social revolutionary vector, and they see exciting possibilities.  Does that help us?

Unfortunately, the world of science fiction philosophers is tiny, and not as influential as the more famous digital-world philosophers.  There is overlap, but I have to wonder if the unfolding of the future has already outpaced the writers of the future.  How will John Brunner’s epic experimental Sci-Fi masterpiece, Stand on Zanzibar from 1968 and set in 2010, match up with the real 2010 when it arrives, or even the science fiction writers of 2008 trying to predict the near future?

Using hindsight, and rereading old science fiction, how many of those childhood reads really prepared me for the present?  I recently discovered this quote while rereading The Space Merchants by C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl:

The Conservationists were fair game, those wild-eyed zealots who pretended modern civilization was in some way “plundering” our planet.  Preposterous stuff.  Science is always a step ahead of the failure of natural resources.  After all, when real meat got scarce, we had soyaburgers ready.  When oil ran low, technology developed the pedicab.

That’s a pretty fascinating quote written originally in 1952.  Especially when you realize that this is satire and the conservationists are right even back then.  Science fiction is just amateur philosophers thinking about the future.  Sometimes, it’s just an action story.  Sometimes, it’s a “what if this goes on…” story.  Science fiction writers and readers think about all the possibilities.  Now the children of science fiction are growing up in the real future.  Have their literary parents, the science fiction books they were raised on, prepared them properly?

I’m always surprised to find seeds like the quote above when rereading old science fiction.  It makes me wonder if reading science fiction helped program my personality.  I’ve been concerned with over population, the limits of growth, pollution, global terrorism, economic collapse, and more, all my life.  A certain percentage of the population take global warming very seriously.  Another percentage don’t.  Is it because they weren’t prepared by reading lots of science fiction scenarios?

I fondly remember hundreds of wonderful science fiction novels, but when I reread them, many aren’t so wonderful today.  Foundation by Isaac Asimov has some cool ideas, but the storytelling in that fix-up novel is clunky.  City by Clifford Simak is another fix-up novel that still provoked a sense of wonder in me, but failed to work with some of my friends.  Strangely, I discover that I admire Philip K. Dick’s old work because he wrote about quirky realistic people who were motivated by their own self interests that often superseded the direction of the plot.

Too often old science fiction novels contained characters that are just mouthpieces for the author to rattle off his pet ideas.  That makes for bad storytelling, but is maybe a clue about my personality and why I’m haunted by science fiction.  Science fiction wanted to explain reality.  It lacked the discipline of science.  It was much further out than religion, which was always quite far out, but science fiction sold itself as being scientific, which has never been true.  The 1960s was a kooky time, with UFO freaks, drug trippers,  Edgar Cayce disciplines, ESP dreamers, so is it not all that strange that a bunch of kids wanted to follow Danny Dunn and Tom Swift Jr. into outer space.

Of course, you know what that means?  I reread science fiction in my fifties because I’m wanting to return to the dreams I had in my teens.  2008 is the far future from my kid self of 1968.  It’s just not the future I expected or wanted.  Is being nostalgic merely wanting to start over again, and maybe this time get it right?

I finish this as Jefferson Airplane starts singing, “Have You Seen the Saucers.”  I kid you not.

JWH 11/19/8

24 Responses

  1. Hey.

    Great post, really.

    I know how you feel, though. I live in South Africa, which in many ways is pretty far behind the times. I didn’t see Star Wars until the prequels came out, I only watched when I was about thirteen (TNG started shooting in 1986, the year I was born).

    I got my love of SF from Heinlein and Asimov, and above all a father with so many ideas in his head that sometimes he can’t even keep up with them.

    And yes, SF changed me. In a conservative country (don’t let our constitution fool you, SA is about as conservative as you can get) I’m a far-left liberal, because I read too much Heinlein.
    I believe women should have the door opened for them, I believe that love is love no matter what the shape size or colour.
    I believe that any woman who acheives equality with men is getting the short end of the stick…because of Science Fiction.

    SF made me a better person.

  2. To offer a thought on one part of your long, and extremely intelligent essay…I’ve heard kids who grew up with Star Wars, and who are no longer kids, mumble about how the generations that grew up later and only saw Star Wars on tapes, at home, don’t have the same sense of a fanbase that original Star Wars fans have. Speaking as someone who was too young to be an original Star Wars fan, I have no idea. I know that when Star Trek was something popular and interesting, there were certainly huge and rabid groups of fans clustering on and off the internet.

    I think that kinship is a fascinating hallmark of genre fiction, and I’d wander out on a limb to suggest that it’s a hallmark of SF more than anything else.

    The interesting thing about classic SF — of which I am a rabid fan, both the reading of and the history of — is that as you mention, the writing styles in some of the classic works don’t hold up. Asimov is a delight, but the fiction does show its age. Comparing a short story like “Blowups Happen” by Heinlein to, say, a Jay Lake short story, and there’s a difference just on a structural level (the exclamation point is less popular these days, it seems). And yet, despite the creakiness, the bridge is still sound. Maybe it’s the power of the writers behind the stories, or the power of the ideas themselves. I don’t know. But at least for me, they hold up.

    (And like you mention…I know of a certainty that growing up reading classic SF, and comic books from all across the years, certainly influenced how I see the world. I can’t think of that as a bad thing at all.)

    Very fine essay, very well put!

  3. I’m so much younger than you are that I cannot really compare, but I grew up reading Heinlein, and to some extent Asimov and Clarke. Sure, there was Star Wars, and I watched all three movies many times — but that was not science fiction to me. I don’t know how my science fiction reading was different, and how my “sense of kinship” (with what?) is different, but I surely have a different perspective since I have never seen things from the viewpoint of the sixties.

    Science fiction for me, back in the eighties, was about how to make the future my own, how to be a competent survivor in a technological environment if you will. I still read science fiction as a mirror of the world around me, and the stories I like best are always those I somehow can identify with as metaphors for what it means to live and act in this ever changing world.

    I cannot agree that the science fiction I read in my youth was “merely wish-fulfilling fantasies about escaping this problem filled world and running off to enchanting new worlds”. To me it was about how I could be enchanted by the world around me.

    We all read differently. But I wonder how much of it is a generation gap? One thing is for sure: there is so much available now that we cannot expect that everyone has read the same books. This makes the science fiction culture (well, fandom) very different from what it used to be. And there is more opportunities to dig yourself down in a little subgenre and never get out of your corner.

  4. åka, I’ve been thinking today that what I’m exploring might not be a generational thing, but an imprinting effect. That it’s the first kind of fantastic literature or films that we imprint to that affects us for the rest of our lives. I’m hearing from people of all ages that read Heinlein-Clarke-Asimov kind of SF first.

    I want to believe that I used science fiction like you think you use science fiction. I want to see science fiction as a tool to examine reality. Not as exact as science itself, but let’s say another rule of thumb. But we might be fooling ourselves. Studying real science might be more useful, or at least studying non-fiction speculation. Why do we need that information put into stories?

    Jim

  5. Because we are humans, and think in the form of stories?

  6. åka, I love fiction. I was an English major in college. Actually, I can say I’m addicted to fiction. But in my never ending quest to examine every bit of lint in my naval, I have to wonder if we need fiction. Should we have outgrown our science fictional bed time stories by now? Many people do. I’ve met countless people that have told me they used to read science fiction when they were young.

    I’ve recently read Hot, Flat and Crowded, The Post-American World, and now I’m reading on Plan B 3.0, and they go well beyond anything SF has in preparing me for the future.

    Like I’ve hinted at before, I wonder if our need for science fiction goes deeper than logic. Is it our modern day third testament?

  7. Excellent post, I really enjoyed reading it!

    On the topic of classic sf, I’ve been reading quite a bit of it this year, catching up on a lot of the good stuff I had never read before, including The Space Merchants — and that’s a choice quote you used.

    And this….

    Science fiction is just amateur philosophers thinking about the future.

    …. is a really interesting way of describing sf!

  8. [...] Over at Auxiliary Memory, James Harris considers who his literary relatives are as a child of science fiction and the 1960s in his article, The Children of Science Fiction. [...]

  9. [...] The Children of Science Fiction. Once a children, always a children? [...]

  10. Greetings Brother.

    Enjoyed your essay.

    Remember, Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke were some of the most successful authors of all time, as well as my childhood friends.

    So we’re out there. Your man Scalzi’s proving that!

    I’ve been thinking lately of updating Baen’s old “10 Greatest Science Fiction Novels of All Time” list. Ever think of having an informal blog survey with that as the goal? Could turn up some gems. I’d never read A Canticle for Leibowitz until I read Jim’s list.

    Just a thought. Keep the faith.

    Sláinte

  11. Good article, much of which struck a familiar chord in me. I have been seeking “sense of wonder” most of my life, and am fortunate to still find it regularly in both science fiction and historical fiction, and even occasionally in some music (I listen to jazz fusion and other forms of progressive rock).

    I was a Tom Swift, Jr. reader who sequed into WORLDS OF IF and GALAXY MAGAZINE as a fledgling teen, and while my reading taste has broadened considerably since, it is still primarily the same at its core. In fact, this morning I picked up two 1965 issues of IF which I have not read in 40+ years and I plan to reread them as soon as I finish Farmer’s first two Riverworld novels. Should be fun.

  12. (Late reply, but anyway.) I think we are thinking a little bit in the same direction. When I say that we are humans and think in the form of stories, I mean that the fundamentally human way of thinking and reasoning is not through logic but more along the lines of stories and comparisons.

    I really mean that we humans use stories to understand ourselves and our world, and this is where science fiction plays a role. One of the roles it plays anyway.

    Some people use different kinds of narratives to help them think about themselves in different parts of their lives, that’s probably why they outgrow one kind and go to another. Or they feel the need for science fiction only in the part of life where they try to find out who they are, that happens too.

    This is just my amateur speculations, but it’s a way of thinking that has been very attractive to me lately.

  13. [...] Over at Auxiliary Memory, James Harris considers who his literary relatives are as a child of science fiction and the 1960s in his article, The Children of Science Fiction. [...]

  14. [...] Over at Auxiliary Memory, James Harris considers who his literary relatives are as a child of science fiction and the 1960s in his article, The Children of Science Fiction. [...]

  15. Yeah, I read my first sci-fi book in 1961 and got nick named Mr. Spock in high school. But there was stuff I missed reading back then. Some of it is in Project Gutenberg now.

    Subversive by Mack Reynolds

    The problem is what we still weren’t told back then. It is now 40 years after the Moon landing but John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about the planned obsolescence of automobiles in 1959.

    Science fiction is about what individuals and societies do with technology but by default it is also about what they do not do. No one told us we should all know accounting in the 1960s. Double-entry accounting is 700 years old. How hard can it be?

    In 1995 the number of cars in the US passed 200,000,000. At $1,500 in depreciation per car per year that is $300,000,000,000 lost every year. So is the economy in this state because of what we were not taught? Science fiction helped reduce our ignorance a little but we were still stumbling around in the dark.

    The science in the junk they call science fiction these days is worse than it was in the 60s. It is nothing but sci-fi tropes.

    Economic Wargames

    Now the kids will have to live in Soylent Green. The Vietnam War was to defend America’s capitalist economists that couldn’t get their grade school algebra correct.

  16. Whilst a generation or so younger, I also read much Asimov and Clarke etc. But yes, they probably had a much different and bigger impact on you – the space race was in bloom for you; it was history for me, and space stories tended to be adventure stories.
    But my generation grew up with our own influences, far beyond entertainment for us as well – the cyberpunk movement. Foundation was a fun story romping around space – Neuromancer and Snow Crash were manifestos. What’s more, for a book that’s essentially describing a world that was only starting to birth, Neuromancer still holds up exceptionally well when read over two decades later.

    • I’ve been thinking about rereading Neuromancer – or listening this time since Audible recently came out with an audio edition. I’ve read Snow Crash twice already. But what are the current books that are making an impact with the latest generation of SF readers? I was impressed with Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.

      • I got a lot more out of Neuromancer the second time I read it, and both times were post-2000, long after it was originally published. Hell, the first time I read it I had little idea what had happened but knew I liked it. Admittedly a trend I find with Gibson’s books.

        Charles Stross actually asked the question recently: what are the classic books of the last decade. To some extent, maybe it’s hard to tell in the early days. But I do tend to agree with some others that perhaps there have been no truly great books of late. Some excellent books, to be sure, but classics? Perhaps some classics have come out and I just haven’t read them. I could always read more, and I could always read more recent stuff.

        Little Brother was very good.
        I was even more impressed with Stross’ Accelerando and Hanni’s The Quantum Thief, both hard sci-fi. However, I wonder if hard sci-fi will date worse than most general sci-fi.

        There’s also some space opera by Vinge, Reynolds and Simmons that I haven’t read that have had time to achieve high regard, though we’re starting to go some years back for those.

      • Did Stross list any books? I maintain a website about the Classics of Science Fiction http://classics.jameswallaceharris.com/ and I’ve been meaning to see if I could modernize the list.

        By the way, you might be interested in our online book club: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ClassicScienceFiction/

        We’ll be nominating the books for next year – we read 12 classic and 12 modern books, and I’m hoping we can spot some future classics.

    • Greetings1 I haven’t been here in a while. I read Neuromancer in the 80s. Gibbson did not seem to know much about computers. He admitted it.

      The Two Faces of Tomorrow by James P. Hogan seems more realistic to me. I built my first computer in 1978. They have been talking about Artificial Intelligence since the 60s if not the 50s. We are still dealing with von Neumann machines though. The CPU manipulates symbols in the form of binary electrical state combinations but the CPU does not know what they mean. There is no cognition. A program is just a sequence of really dumb instructions that execute really fast. I prefer the term “Simulated Intelligence”. It impresses people who do not know what is happening but it is still dumb.

      It can beat really good chess players but is it happy when it wins. Is it angry when it loses. It is incapable of caring. There is no understanding there. Talking up AI keeps the research funds rolling in. They can’t take the risk that it can’t be bone. Nobody really knows.

      But now we have Peak OIl bringing on Soylent Green and our physicists can’t even talk about the distribution of steel in a skyscraper. LOL The 9/11 decade is a scientific farce.

  17. I don’t believe Stross did list anything.
    It was more just a general query (and not even specific to sci-fi, but given his audience …)

    Twenty years for the most recent book on the Classics list? And yet, that’s not much different from the Sci-Fi Lists site, though I see 2008′s Anathem has almost cracked the hundred there.

    My short list is out of control at the moment, but lists like yours keep shuffling things in and out: sometimes I worry I like reading lists almost more than I do the books :)

    Thanks for the links; I’ll keep an eye on the book club one and if I think I’ve got the time to participate I might join.

    • The limitation of my system of putting books on CofSF list is the book had to have a minimum of 7 recommendations, out of 28. Newer books just haven’t been around long enough to get a lot of recommendations. And if I create a new list I’ll probably have to up the number of recommendations. For example, if I go to 35 forms of recommendations, the minimum might become 8 or 9. Each time I do this it throws some books off the list and adds new ones, which is as it should be. I like to keep the total list below 200, so that determines the number of recommendations to get on the list. Currently, the top 116 books have 10 recommendations, so I tend to think of them as the solid list.

  18. Be interesting to see how such lists change when the voting demographic changes.
    I suspect that people who grew up during the space race, reading Heinlein and co as they were being published would rate many of those highly and more recent books, which they’ve read at an older and less impressionable age, would get fewer ratings.
    Ask a bunch of 20-somethings and whilst there may be nods to a few of the classic 60s and 70s books, more recent fare would be scooping votes.
    Not so easy an hypothesis to test though with any degree of confidence.

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