The OF Blog: Generation gaps

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Generation gaps

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
This beginning to the U.S. Declaration of Independence contains over 60 words in a single sentence, much longer than the average sentence employed today. When I used to teach U.S. Government almost 10 years ago, I used to give an in-class group assignment of having students render that sentence and others from the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution into modern-day speech. This assignment came about after numerous student complaints about how "difficult" the language was and how they really couldn't "get it" due to the oddness in the syntax and in the words employed.

This lesson came to mind recently when I read Lou Anders' post "Does Nostalgia do SF a Disservice?" Anders continues a discussion that Paul Raven began about the relevance of older SF works (the Asimovs, Heinleins, and their ilk). What I liked about this post is that Anders doesn't make categorical comments; he makes prescriptive suggestions that do not deny the historicity of the older works while at the same time addressing their perceived deficiencies by the newer generations of potential readers.

In a way, the issue here is that of generation gaps. In an ironic way, the languages of SF are becoming less and less mutually intelligble with each passing generation. While it might be expected for most literature and history students to struggle with 16th-18th century English syntax, which are replete with Latinism and other 'archaic' constructions, more and more the jargon and terminology are changing at a pace measured by decades rather than by centuries. Therefore, in a world where the world-views (and the semantics behind the language used to describe such world-views) have shifted so much in the past 50 years, is it any surprise that one reads an Asimov or a Heinlein with the look of "WTF is this shit? OMG, sexism is so not cool!"? Perhaps Chronos has managed to devour his children after all.


Liviu said...

I think that the language and world view are partly some of the things that make older sf unsatisfactory reads today for people who did not grow with those, but tons of literary classics suffer from the same problem and people still read them.

After all the supreme achievement of a girl in Pride and Prejudice was to snag a rich, handsome and hopefully interesting husband and if that's not sexism, I do not know what is...

The larger issue with older sf is that like the underlining science it dates very quickly - for example to take Martians seriously, well today you really have to do some creative explaining or just do explicit alternate-historical fantasyish sf for obvious reasons. And so on...

So for new readers, I completely agree that starting with "sf classics" is more likely to turn then off genre and it's much better to try some recent sf.

ninebelow said...

I sort of wonder who everyone in these posts is arguing against. Where are the people who would recommend Asimov to someone new to the genre? Okay, there are a few but Sales et al are hardly attacking a sacred cow.

More interesting, I think, is the related issue of having the protocols to read modern science fiction (also raised in the Futurismic thread.) This is the inverse of your U.S. Declaration of Independence problem. Give a non-SF reader Accelerando and they might well bounce off it as much as Foundation but for the opposite reason.

Joe Sherry said...

Shoot, give some current SF readers Accelerando and they're still likely to be turned off (I have Stross issues).

Nephtis said...

Here's one more vote for the "I have Stross issues" group.

Some classical scifi is venerated only for its age (I found the first few pages of Lensmen unreadable, and put the books away forever after a brief skim), other scifi is still very much enjoyable. I had a blast reading A.E. Van Vogt for the first time a few years ago. It's always interesting to see how well a book ages. For example, I found the lauded Venus Plus X by Theodore Sturgeon a letdown, superficial in its treatment of gender identity issues and even a bit offensive (perhaps the main character's reaction was supposed to illustrate the shortcomings of limited perspectives, but it wasn't clear to me that it was, in fact, ironic, and not sincere revulsion on the author's part). And don't get me started on Heinlein.

Then again, Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness has held up well. And L. Timmel Duchamp's Marq'ssan Cycle books are scarily relevant, despite being written in the 80's.

Perhaps scifi novels become outdated at the point when our society reaches or surpasses the point of technological or social development that the novel predicts or warns against. Then, the time elapsed becomes a good test of how well a book stands as a novel, on its literary values rather than just ideas.

Joe Sherry said...

Neph: The Marq'ssan novels may have been written in the 80's, but Duchamp did go back and revise in the 90's before publication (though I think it may have been mostly for technology updates).

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