If you’re new to science fiction, don’t start by reading the classics

You like the music of your time

Nowadays, I enjoy songs like Dean Martin’s That’s Amore, and Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire, yet as a kid, I didn’t like them.

Growing up, my parents loved the Dean Martin show. I didn’t. I was a puritanical little thing, with no sense of (adult) humour at all and to me Martin was a drunk, and he wasn’t even funny.  (The drunkenness was an act; he drank apple juice stage.)  Worst of all, he sang old-fashioned songs.

My parents also loved Johnny Cash.  Not for me.  He was so old.

I was into pop songs.

None of us—parents or me or anyone else in my family, I think—ever got into the Beatles. Our parents were too old for them, we were too young.

Yet all through the 70s, 80s, and even into the 90s, we were told “the Beatles are the greatest band ever”.  Nowadays, ask anyone under about the age of 30 who the greatest bands is and you’ll more likely get U2 or Coldplay than you will the Beatles.

Classic science fiction

Back when my parents were younger, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra featured on almost everyone’s list of greatest musicians.  You don’t find them on many lists now, yet if people are reminded about them, they will admit they were good for their time.

I was thinking of this when I popped over to the Worlds without End and started reading James Wallace Harris blog, Falling Off the Classics of Science Fiction List. He was talking about books that had been removed from the Classics of Science Fiction list.

When books fall of the list, it doesn’t mean those books are unworthy of reading anymore, but that readers are forgetting them.

What makes a classic a classic?

I have read most of the books on the Classics of Science Fiction list. I enjoyed (some of) them at the time, but few of them make my own personal classic list.

Really, what makes a classic a classic?

James Wallace Harris, on the Worlds without End blog again but this time in Why do you love the science fiction you love says:

Sometimes I feel there’s no such thing as a great book, at least not in a measurable sense. The books we think are great are merely the ones that reflect our strongest desires. They don’t need to be well written, brilliant, or literary. They just need to trigger emotions.

Yes, and so much yes.  This.

Recommending science fiction to new readers

When people start reading science fiction, they’re often told to go read the classics.

I think that’s the worst thing you can do to a budding science fiction reader.  It’s like telling them, “You must listen to Dean Martin and the Beatles. They’re the only real singers,” when the reader’s taste runs to Lin Manuel Miranda or Taylor Swift.

Harris again (from Why do you love the science fiction you love):

I do love modern science fiction, and often think it better written and more sophisticated than my favorites here. And I do prefer the diversity of modern SF.

Me too.

Later, he says:

My favorite science fiction is 50 years or older… these are the stories burned in my memory. I read most of these stories before I turned 20. It might be our life-time favorites are the books we read in youth. First impressions are often the lasting impressions.

I’m the same. I love the modern stuff, but some of my favorite stories are old ones. And many of my favorites don’t make the classics list.  These stories don’t always age well. They struck a chord at the time, but for someone reading them for the first time in this day and age, they won’t have the same impact.

So next time someone says, “I haven’t read science fiction before, where should I start?” don’t recommend the classics to them.

Recommend something modern. Something written in the last couple of years. Something you think they might like.

The time to read the classics is afterwards, when the new reader is enjoying the genre, and they’re interested in what came before.

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6 thoughts on “If you’re new to science fiction, don’t start by reading the classics”

  1. Sadly, I have to agree. While I love some older titles, the social mores of the times or the writers’ opinions bleed into the writing quite a bit. Like needing to read Card for a class and realizing that the book you liked ten-fifteen years ago wasn’t quite the book you remember it to be…

  2. It was either the second or third book in the Songbird trilogy by Orson Scott Card, which was the last book by OSC that I ever got more than a few pages into. I tried reading Ender’s Game, tried reading Alvin Maker, and at least one other book, and -bounced-. I can’t remember whether it was the second or third Songbird book that I quit reading, but since then I have never gotten engaged enough by an OSC book to read more than a few pages, much less get through the whole book, and eventually gave up trying (this was back when he was running Secular Humanist Revival Meeting program items at SF/F conventions, and before he turned into a Media Personality for Church of Latter Day Saints LGBTQ disapproval).

    There are quite a number of books on that list of “classics” which if I had to rate them, would, from my personal tastes and appreciation, get a value of zero or one. One of them is Hitchhiker’s Guide. An old friend of mine had the most devastating comment about that book, and the film and perhaps radio too versions, ever. The friend said, “there wasn’t anyone in that book who met my minimum standards for sex partner” and the friend was using as standard, “be able to carry an intelligent conversatin, and bathe regularly.” Yeah, OUCH!!!!

    Over centuries and millennia, stuff goes in and out of style and relevance–the literary works that survived from ancient Greek and ancient Rome, spent centuries being preserved in Islamic lands, the Renaissiance in Europe owed its existence to influences from the Muslim world and cultures. The Iberian penninsula was a patchword of kingdomes and principalities some Christian, some Muslim, for centuries. Alhambra was built by Muslim rulers, for example.

    GTraders in Venice would brought knowledge of medicine and arts and science and literature and training ub tgen from places ear and south in the Meditterranean which were Muslim cultures (the Caliphates, etc.), and works originally in Greek and Roman came back to Europe first in Arabic from the likes of “Averroes” and such, having gone essentially extinct and forgotten (including by banning in cases, where not gone by re-use of parchment (the palimpset which seems to provide that Archimedes DID use integral calculus, had been scraped and reused by someone wanting to write down his religious philosophizing, modern technology for recovering material overlaid with other writing and such, enabled recovering the text below) long before in the part of of the world the originals were from.

  3. I so agree. Especially the stories that really don’t age well, whether because of technology or our attitudes have changed. They can turn a person right off the whole genre. There’s a place for them, but yes, encouraging people to start with stories that resonate today, and let them find the classics later, IA a very wise choice….

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