Happy first day of Fall here at the Autumnal Equinox.
So, I looked around at the news to see if anything jumped out at me. Meh. Lots of stuff is going on. The Texas AG sat down with Tucker to talk about the impeachment hit the DOJ put out on him and how it failed. That was pretty interesting but I wasn’t in the mood for that level of wonkery.
There are all kinds of articles about Menendez but I’ve got a weak stomach so the little bit I’ve done already is about half the fatal dose for that stuff.
But then I was watching a YouTube video by a sf critic called Bookpilled, where he listed what he considered the top science fiction books in his opinion. The list was fairly interesting:
Dune by Frank Herbert
The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
The Stars My Destination / Tiger! Tiger! by Alfred Bester
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith
City by Clifford D. Simak
Hothouse by Brian Aldiss
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Blood Music by Greg Bear
The Dying Earth by Jack Vance
Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
Blindsight by Peter Watts
So, because the list seemed thoughtful, I went onto one of his other videos. This one was called Battle of the Hard Sci-Fi Classics [100 Book Challenge #35-40]. In this “challenge” the host read one or more books by the “Big Three.” The works he read were “Rendezvous with Rama” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” by Arthur C. Clarke; “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert Heinlein; “I, Robot” and “The Gods Themselves” by Isaac Asimov.
Well, I’ll say Bookpilled was not particularly impressed by these golden age authors. Clarke and Asimov were damned with faint praise but his true scorn was reserved for poor old Bob Heinlein. Scathing would be a mild description of his comments about the Dean of Science Fiction. Not amused.
And that brings me to the point of this little essay. The reviewer Bookpilled, is a Millennial. His sensibilities were formed in a different world from mine. Now, much of his criticism of Heinlein (and of the other two authors to a lesser degree) center around the merits of the works as literature. He finds fault with the characterizations of the protagonists, the seeming simplicity of the plot devices and even with the level of foreshadowing of events.
And in a lot of ways, the criticism is justified. Heinlein’s characters were very often “types.” The wise older man, the talented but naïve young man, the omni-competent hero, the socially awkward scientist. And some of his books, especially in the later years were less successful as “works of art.” But Bookpilled didn’t just give “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” low marks. He was viscerally outraged by almost everything in the book. He was especially upset about Heinlein’s handling of sex. And, granted, sex is one of the truly weakest aspects of Heinlein’s writing, especially (apparently) from the point of view of Millennial readers. But it’s interesting that his writing is completely unreadable for this apparently enthusiastic science fiction reader. Why is this? Frank Herbert is approximately of Heinlein’s generation but Herbert’s Dune is on Bookpilled’s top fifteen list of all time science fiction books. So, what’s the deal?
I think the generational difference is that when science fiction was a new art form its audience was entirely made up of young men. And the aspect of the work that earned it praise was almost entirely its capacity to inspire enthusiasm and wonder about the future. Whether it was interstellar space travel, nuclear power, or alien life forms the loftiness of the prose and the depth of characterization were almost unimportant to the success of the story. And so, when these older stories are read by 21st century critics they are not amused. It matters not at all that “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” is probably the first story to consider a political revolution between Earth and a space colony. He’s read a host of books that took this concept and then updated for the present reader.
In these updated versions, the protagonist may be a black trans-lesbian with anti-white-colonial credentials and the computer will be the disembodied mind of Che Guevera or Woody Allen or someone else, depending on whether it’s an earnest political story, a comedy or something I can’t even imagine. And the “diversity” allows the author to virtue signal to his audience the correctness of his story. And if he’s a talented writer it allows him to add exotic points to the writing.
And that’s fine. Every generation has its own art. I think the important thing for me to note is that there is a place today for art that does not follow the template of the current day. Bookpilled is a guy that looks like he’s somewhere in his early thirties. So, his sensibilities are in line with his generation. Now, I think he’s probably a fair example of his cohort and I’ll even say he’s probably not hostile to the world view of his parents’ generation. He just sees things from his point of view. But if he can enjoy Dune, Mote in God’s Eye, The War of the Worlds and even Frankenstein then he is reachable through art that speaks with a very different voice than his here and now literature.
So as an incipient science fiction author I think it behooves me to understand my potential market. These young people are intelligent (well, at least the ones I want to reach). Probably good writing, even if it comes from a different world view will interest them if it can provide sympathetic characters and interesting plot. But if my plot challenges their world view it will need to be persuasive. I won’t be able to win them over with exposition. I’ll need to show them what I want them to understand. That’s the challenge.
Well, why not? Propaganda for its own sake is pretty awful even if it’s of your particular stripe. So, Bob Heinlein be warned. The Millennials have lost their patience and if you’re not careful they’ll take back your grandmaster’s hat and robe. Get a copy of “Fifty Shades of Gray,” a highlighter and drop all the dears!