A Little History, Please

And no, I’m not talking about politics this time.  I’m talking about newer F&SF writers who should know better… not about the history, if there even is any, in their books, but about what’s been written before and by whom. 

I’m beginning to get weary of newer writers or F&SF critics or columnists writing articles or giving interviews or blurbing books who talk about the “new” way they or other writers have addressed an issue or a problem or how this or that issue hasn’t really surfaced before…. or how these books open new vistas… or some similar cliché.

Roger Zelazny was writing SF about cloned bodies and mental transplants in Lord of Light fifty years ago, and also about men becoming women and vice versa.  Ursula K. LeGuin explored basic gender issues and preconceptions pretty thoroughly, also fifty years ago, in The Left Hand of Darkness, as well as environmental issues in The Word for World is Forest.  It’s also been overlooked, until recently (although it’s still not that widely known) that her protagonist in the Earthsea books was a person of color.  J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World is an earlier take [1962] on global warming and rising seas.

In 1909, E.M. Forster wrote a novelette entitled “The Machine Stops,” a tale of what happens when the mechanical entity that runs all of earth’s civilization fails.  Fred Saberhagen wrote about malevolent AIs [the berserkers] well before the “Terminator” movies.  Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth wrote about the takeover of the world by advertising executives in The Space Merchants back in 1952.

So… please be careful using phasing like “new” or “fresh” or “unexplored.”  I know no one wants to admit that what they’ve done is a different approach to an old theme or a perspective from a slightly different angle, but, for the most part, that’s exactly what most writers who are cited as “new” or “fresh” actually do… and there’s nothing wrong with that. 

For the writers who truly do something different and unique… well… most of them are ignored because most readers are uncomfortable with something truly unique.  A few manage to do the unique in a way that conceals how unique what they do is… and about one in a million turns out to be J.R.R. Tolkien.

7 thoughts on “A Little History, Please”

  1. William Candlish says:

    Not 100% certain where to print this, but I just wanted to throw some kudos in your direction for the incredible books you have written.

    You books have really helped me better understand the often odd ways that politics and relationships intertwine in our world. On top of that, your books create an immersing world that I am unable to put down once I have started.

    So, in brief, thank you for the excellent books your write. As long as you write them, I will buy and read them.

  2. Trevin Matlock says:

    Nope, not really the place but since Mr. Candlish started it….
    I just re read Outcasts of Order. Wanting to refresh before the sequel came out Feb 5. Turns out I was not paying attention of course. That sequel is not until August. It was Endgames releasing Feb 5. So then went back and re read Assassin’s Price.
    Both books were great re reads. I especially appreciate Charyn in the imager books because he is not an imager. Very nicely done. Then I started re reading other imager books. Beginning with the first published. I am always surprised and so pleased at how everything fits together even though written out of time line order.
    I have liked your writing since the first book of yours I read, The Ecologic Envoy, back in 1986. It is only in the last decade or so that I have been re reading those decades of books and am beginning to really appreciate what you have accomplished.
    Thank you.

  3. Lourain says:

    I hate to bring this up, but part of the problem is that you, Mr. Modesitt (and I!), read many of these novels when they were first published. The newer authors may actually think they invented these ideas, because they never read the ‘older’ science fiction. A poor excuse, but perhaps an explanation.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      And those of us that weren’t around when some of those were first published may have still had permission to raid our parents bookshelves. I devoured shelves worth of “classic” F&SF (and other genres to some degree) starting at age ten or so, and have continued to do so ever since.

  4. Tom says:

    I wonder!

    If a “theme” has been used before but, because of new scientific facts, the “ingredients” are different: is the writing old hat or is it new?

    J.R.R. Tolkien is said to write High Fantasy : High fantasy is set in an alternative, fictional (“secondary”) world, rather than the “real” or “primary” world. This secondary world is usually internally consistent, but its rules differ from those of the primary world. By contrast, low fantasy is characterized by being set in the primary or real world, or a rational and familiar fictional world with the inclusion of magical elements. So did Edgar Rice Burroughs. For me that is not “new”. But that may simply be that I find his writing style not to suit me.

  5. Wine Guy says:

    It’s funny that LEM brings this up now because I am currently reading Star Guard and Star Rangers by Andre Norton, published in 1955 and 1953, respectively. Good stuff, though I suspect it would be considered ‘Young Adult’ these days.

    Another author, David Drake, openly states that he took the inspiration for his Seas of Venus series from Henry Kuttner’s book “Clash By Night.” I’ve read both Drake’s and Kuttner’s books (the Kuttner is getting hard to find) – Kuttner wrote his in 1943 and is every bit up to date with regards to why men fight and why countries go to war.

    One of my favorite quotes is ‘Nothing New Under the Sun.” And it’s true, but how the themes/motifs/symbols fit together is different with each author… and that makes it different. And interesting.

    1. JakeB says:

      One of the things I like about Drake is how he frequently discusses where he gets his plot ideas in a foreword. Usually it’s some obscure bit of classical history that I have never heard of.

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