On the Locus online site, there’s a discussion about who might be considered a worthy successor to the “grand old man” of science fiction — the late Robert A. Heinlein. A number of names are mentioned, and those contributing all give reasons for their selections. Something about this bothered me when the discussion was launched weeks ago, and, slow as I can sometimes be about the obvious, “it” — or several “its” — finally struck me.
What’s the point of the discussion? For all his accomplishments and faults, and he had both, Heinlein was unique to his time and place. Many of those involved in the discussion acknowledge this, but what isn’t brought up is that the same is true of most writers with any degree of accomplishment and originality.
Although few have noted it, Heinlein’s greatest claim to fame was that he combined originality, ideas that were usually less than jaded, and solid writing with popularity. According to one of the most senior editors in the F&SF field, the number of his individual titles that approached or exceeded million-seller status is “remarkable.” As a new biography to be published by Tor indicates, he was a complex man, with an equally complex and involved personal life.
So… why is anyone looking for his “successor”? Can’t the man be appreciated, or attacked, or analyzed, or whatever, for what he was? Has “sequel-itis” so permeated the critical F&SF community that some writer or writers must be jammed into a designed place?
Everywhere I look these days in entertainment — whether in cinema, music, books, and even games — there’s a tremendous pressure to fit. If an author or a musician does something different, there’s usually far more negative pressure and comment than positive. Much of that pressure is financial. I’ve noted on more than one occasion that any one of my “series” fantasies earns far more than one of my few critically acclaimed SF books — and this is not by any means exclusive to me.
In this light, even the discussion about successors to Heinlein nags at me, because I see it, perhaps unfairly, as another aspect of trying to come up with easy categorization in a field where such categorization is anything but easy and where labels create false expectation after false expectation. For example, it’s fair to say that a “Recluce” book should be a “Recluce” book, taking place in that world and adhering to the rules of that world, with a similar style, but is it fair for readers and marketers to insist that every book I write follow that style?
Certainly, that is the pressure. Some authors actually have a different pen name for each “style” of book they write, but what does that say about readers? Are so many so rigid in their habits and mindsets that they can’t look at anything different by the same author? Or have the marketing mavens conditioned them that way?
How about accepting/rejecting Heinlein for what he is, and doing the same for the writers that have followed him, instead of looking for quickly identified niches and tropes? When reviewers and critics who are supposedly analytical and thoughtful do this, that, frankly, bothers me even more. They should know better, but, then, maybe I’m just expecting too much.
Or does looking at each writer and book for what they are require too much thinking and depress the bottom lines of the industry?