On writing

The novel you remember reading may be totally in your imagination

Memory colours your perception of what you read, so that what you remember is often better than that the original. Over time you forget all the bad bits and all you remember are the good bits.

This often happens with books you read at defining moments in your life.

As a teenager I devoured all the science fiction I could. Science fiction was big back then, fantasy considerably less so. One of the stories embedded indelibly in my memory is Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky, the story of a generational starship on which there was a mutiny some time in the past. Most of the current inhabitants have no idea of the original mission, no idea that their world is a starship and no idea that they have already arrived (almost) at their destination.

It was a brilliant idea back then and it still is now, and I remembered it as such.

I re-read the book last year and hated it.

It was so … ordinary is the only word I can think of, and the way Heinlein wrote about women they may as well have been pieces of furniture (except, of course, that you couldn’t have the Adam and Eve thing going without the girl).

Yet that doesn’t detract from the fact that it was a brilliant idea at the time. Just because Heinlein’s books (or that one, anyway) don’t stand the test of time does not mean that he is not one of the early masters of science fiction, and had a big hand in shaping it.

Another writer recognised as one of the masters of science fiction and fantasy is Fritz Leiber. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser come highly recommended. I recently picked up the First Book of Lankhmar, an omnibus of their adventures and I’m really struggling to read it. I doubt I will finish it. Yet for many people this is one of the great fantasy series.

I think of it as the ‘Beatles effect’. To most people who were teenagers in the 1960s the Beatles were a super group. They were around at a time of major change, and impacted a whole generation. Yet to others who did not come of age through that era, it’s, “The Beatles. Right. They had some good songs, yeah, but so what.” That doesn’t denigrate what the Beatles did, or how they changed music, but that is not relevant to the listeners of today.

In today’s music world the Beatles might well find it difficult to sell music today.

Leiber and Heinlein would almost certainly not be published.

Victoria Strauss, talking about a recent fake submission hoax of Jane Austen writings says:

Popular tastes and interests shift, often very quickly, as does literary style. Yes, people still eagerly read Jane Austen–her books outsell many popular present-day authors–but they do so in context, as classic literature. It’s hardly a wonder that a 19th century novel, written in 19th century prose, couldn’t find a home when presented as a new novel by a previously-unpublished modern writer.

Whoops — they did it again, Victoria Strauss on Writer Beware.

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