Filter vs Datedness in old science fiction.

I got an interesting listener email about old science fiction. Here’s an excerpt:

Listening to your previous review of Jules Verne’s novel I remembered that as a kid I used to get his books from the library all the time, multiple times. Today however, I hesitate to read anything this old – for the only reason that it is old. Just as I wouldn’t want to buy, say, an old computer, I don’t want to read an old book. It’s quite curious, and a bit stupid really, because the old books tend to be the good stuff, with the junk weeded out over the years. You have probably read more old SF than I have, so do you think there is this “filter effect”? Or is it cancelled out by “disgraceful ageing” of the classics, SF in particular?

I like this question! I think there is a balance struck with many old books. It comes down to some interesting factors. First, “Likelihood of reading” things:

– Initial reception within a few years of publication – some books are huge, and you’d imagine everyone will still know them in the future. Maybe not. But this factor means there will be loads of copies of the book available in future second hand book shops.

– Time since last publication – the more recent, the easier it is to find work.

– Time between first and last publication – this is an indicator of the market’s sign of the continued commercial success of a work.

– Ease of purchase/reading – tied in with “last printing”, but with reference to Project Gutenburg and other electronic reading options. This has less to do with the final perceived quality, but more to do with the “how likely am I to read this?” question.

Now, to the “quality of reading experience” section:

– Thematic Compatibility – how many concepts are still relevant today? Are the attitudes dated? The greater this factor, the greater chance the more chance the book will be a good read.

– Scientific Longevity – how dated is the science? Even with a low value in this category, the thematic longevity factor can make up for it.

– Writing Style Compatibility – sometimes dated language is fine, if people are used to it. Shakespeare and the King James Bible means that 16th century English is still quite accessible today, and even re-surfaces in Fantasy titles.

These factors will, of course, influence each other. Maybe someone could make a handy equation. But it comes down to this: likelihood you will read the book/quality of book now compared to how it was received at first publication. Here are some examples I’ve read in the past few years:

The Time Machine – writing style slightly dated, themes just as relevant as ever, science hits more than misses (the time machine is fanciful, but the evolution and dying earth ideas are well explored). Holds up well.

Slan – much more recent, but the science is just stupid when read today. The writing style goes all over the place, and the attitudes of the main character are sooooo dated it almost hurt. The reason it survives is because people who loved it when it first came out are still alive… a nostalgia effect.

From the Earth to the Moon – Writing style really good fun, science hits and misses, themes aren’t so much relevant as not completely irrelevant.

Last and First Men – writing style is excruciating, attitudes of the author are dated, the science is dated. God, this book was a struggle. I should just do a review and ditch it.

Anyway, overall I think the most popular old science fiction falls into the “filter effect” category, and the “disgraceful aging” books just become old books. That Last and First Men is in the Masterworks series is understandable, but I really think it should be in the “influential and groundbreaking at the time, but superseded by many others” series. I don’t think that series would sell very well though.

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2 Responses to Filter vs Datedness in old science fiction.

  1. Sarah says:

    Interesting! Especially because I love older books — not usually SF, but John Collier and E.T.A. Hoffman, Kafka and Saki and L. Frank Baum. A lot of times because the fantastical elements seem so unusual to me. But they must not’ve been very unusual at the time.

    Actually am stopping by because I saw your latest #notworldcon Tweet, and haven’t actually set up a Twitter for myself yet. American Gods is sort of Neil’s magnum opus, which means it’s weighty and ponderous and a little bit self-indulgent; hard to appreciate unless you already trust the author and enjoy his writing.

    For an intro to Gaiman, would suggest “Anansi Boys”, “Neverwhere” or “Good Omens” (which he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett.)

  2. amylynn1022 says:

    I have an interesting time with the “filter vs. datedness” problem as well. My general observation is that I am more forgiving of dated technology than dated attitudes. I remember reading _Cities in Flight_ and quickly passing over the part where they loaded data into massive computers using magnetic tapes as “well, yeah, it was written fifty years ago.” I dealt with the stupid science by just treating as science fantasy, much the way I read Verne or Wells or Burroughs. However, I have not been able to finish either _Stranger In A Strange Land_ or _Stand on Zanzibar_ because the attitudes are so dated–they seem to assume that era of free sex would still be alive and well circa 2000. And frankly, I just found Stranger to be self-indulgent. I am probably going to give Zanzibar another chance though, because while Brunner is off on some of his social assumptions, he does seem to have made a lot of correct guesses regarding what he didn’t know to call the Internet.

    I only just discovered SFBRP and I am listening to them in order–I am about halfway through. I have read _Last and First Men_, but I have not heard Luke’s podcast yet. It is a dense book and I concede that its primary value is probably historical rather than literary. (CS Lewis was reacting to it when he wrote his Space Trilogy.) I don’t think that it was ever trying to be hard science fiction. I kind of like dense, philosophical literature–provided I don’t get the sense that the author is just yanking my chain or being dense for the sake of being dense. But I can’t take a steady diet of philosophical lit–science fiction or otherwise. I agree with Stapleton more than Lewis in terms of theology and philosophy but I had a lot more fun reading the Space Trilogy. Lewis’s chauvinism aside, the Space Trilogy has held up much better than L&FM.

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