Successors

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?

5 Responses to “Successors”

  1. James says:

    He is ok.
    but what about Doc Smith

  2. christopher says:

    I have noticed a problem with having high standards for myself: the frustration of being surrounded by others with low standards for themselves . . . especially when those same others so often have such high standards for all things and people other than themselves.

  3. Nate says:

    As I get older, I find myself reading more amateur writing posted online. Most of it isn't technically as well written, but has a much greater degree of originality than most of what is published.

    And every now and then, there is a story that is just as well written as anything being published, but it doesn't fit neatly into a genre and therefore can't get published.

  4. jim says:

    Always follow the money. So often it is the prime motivator.

  5. Michael says:

    I find that society does a lot of things that confuses logical and rational people. Looking for a sequel for an author isn't really logical but is some marketing person going to claim their next big author is going "unseat" some established author? Sure, I think that will happen.

    As for an author being "allowed" by their fans to "change styles" that is always been a challenge for creative people. An artist manages to build a fan base, the fan base starts paying the artist's bills and expenses (usually not directly of course), the artist gets restless and changes their style, and there is a backlash against the artist from the fan base. I am not claiming this happens to every artist or creative person but it is a common story. What amuses me is that many times the artist blames the fans for "not getting it" or "not being flexible enough". It is not the fans job to be flexible or "get it". The fans pay for the products they like. If the source of their products starts changing the formula and the fans don't like the new formula the generous ones will complain giving the artist a chance to reassess their creative changes. The non-generous ones will simply leave and not tell you why they left.

    I have heard more than one person cry, "Nobody is buying my product!" My answer is, "Are you creating a product people want to buy?"

    Now if an artist is financially self-sufficient they have a great opportunity to ignore sales trends and focus on truly doing something different. Another opportunity is if an artist is lucky enough to have the resources to create both what people want to buy and create some new innovative things that may or may not have a direct market.