Saturday, July 1, 2017

Old Science Fiction

I just finished Among Others by Jo Walton, which is a terrific novel – best I’ve read in quite a while. Part of this praise is self-centered because I identify heavily with the narrator, who (a) clings to the indigenous tales of her childhood in a British-suppressed place; and (b) obsessively reads books, a lot of which are science fiction. That’s so me. 

At the same time, had I been in the same vicinity as the narrator, we wouldn’t have been friends. I liked music and Star Wars and would have considered her a stick in the mud. We definitely might have both belonged to a similar science fiction book club, where people read and discuss books by Le Guin and Silverberg and Heinlein and Zelazny. 

Some of these science fiction memories are sharp as crystal. When the author mentions a “karass” my mind immediately leaps to Vonnegut, even though I haven’t re-read him this century.  Others have faded, like old tattoos that have lost their reds and oranges but maintain their blacks and grays. Some have passed through my brain without leaving a trace.

Every time I finish a book, and stare impotently at my electronic backlog –

[Technical digression: this is how I do it. Arrange book-reading app (I primarily use Kindle but there’s also Apple reader and probably a default one on your phone or tablet or browser) so that it sorts your unreads by date accessed. Periodically go through the unreads, and if there’s anything you want to flag to the top of the heap, open the file and then close it, that way it soars high in “date accessed.” Once it’s finished, delete it off your actives and send it to the cloud.]

-- and select a new book to read, I have a choice: do I want to grab something fresh, new and recent, or do I want to revisit an old classic from the past?

For instance, I’m currently having this quandary over Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, which ran right out of my brain, unlike George Orr in The Lathe of Heaven and his prescient dreams. Should I read it yet again, even though I already read it and it didn’t register hard? Or should I read something written a couple of years ago by some noob I’ve never heard of before, like Jo Walton?  Or something some nameless indie self-pubbed last week? 

Sometimes people my own age and older piss me off by thinking I sympathize with them as far as technophobia and the like. For instance, one time on the Van Ness bus in San Francisco there was this old hippie ranting about how everybody staring at their phones was a bad thing. He was looking at the rest of us, trying to solicit agreement, and I made a point of staring at my phone and ignoring him. I’ve got a few older people on my Facebook feed, and most of them are okay but there are always a few unaware of the irony of using a fricking computer to post about how awesome things were before computers. 

So why would I want to indulge some fogey lecturing me about how science fiction was so much better back then? 

Maybe this is an argument about which is bigger: the science part or the fiction part?  In fiction, we tend to lionize past luminaries as examples of those who got it right, and copy them. In science, we tend to trample past luminaries and prove them wrong, and you’re more likely to be remembered for discovering something disgusting than doing something brilliant.

Yet at the same time, there’s a certain solidity to stories from the pre-delete days, when each word was laboriously typed and revisions were herculean. I respect the work that goes into solid hand-crafted stories. I guess I could also say I respect work that extrapolates from solid hand-crafted philosophies rather than work that stems from whiny Foucaultian wanking, but that’s a whole other rabbit hole. Anti-elitist philosophies have definitely brought more spotlighting of crap, but they have also drawn forward interesting voices we wouldn’t have otherwise heard.

So, yeah, when given a choice between some Established Master of Science Fiction whose work I’ve forgotten entirely at least once and some interesting newcomer that I’ve never heard of before, I’ll tend to follow my narrowly-channeled novelty-seeking tendencies and try something fresh. Maybe it means I'm a disrespectful punk who lacks reverence for the past, but I've been one all my life, and I'm too old to change now.

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