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Annoyed With The History of Science Fiction

November 28, 2012

0.    Ways of Seeing, Modes of Blindness

There are many ways of seeing a text and every one of them is as valid and beautiful as the last. Some people read a novel and lose themselves in the minds of its characters. Others approach the very same novel and respond only to the themes woven around the characters and buried in the plot. There are many ways of seeing a text and yet some are more popular than others.

One of the most popular ways of approaching a text is from a historical perspective that traces both the streams of influence that went into the creation of the text and the river of influence that flows out towards the next generation of works. Critics working in the field of science fiction are particularly fond of this approach as it allows them to step back from the text and make sweeping statements such as the one put forward by Gary Westfahl in a recent essay for Locus Online:

The science fiction section may have only a few books by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, or even Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, and there may be few signs of their influence on other writers. But the works of Robert A. Heinlein are still occupying a considerable amount of shelf space, and the evidence of his broad impact on the genre is undeniable.

Even though I often write about films in historical terms, I must admit that the historical approach to writing about science fiction leaves me completely cold. My objection to the historical approach is two-fold:

Firstly, I believe that science fiction must either speak to the world as it is today or remain forever silent. I think that talking about science fiction in purely historical terms reduces contemporary works to little more than genetic vehicles, means of transforming influence past into influence future with little regard for either the vehicle itself or the world that gave birth to it.

Secondly, I believe that the historical approach to science fiction lacks the critical apparatus required to support the sweeping claims made by people who use this approach. Far from being a rigorous analysis of historical fact, the historical approach to genre writing is all too often little more than a hotbed of empty phrases, unexamined assumptions and received wisdom.

1.    Evidence or GTFO

Gary Westfahl’s Locus piece opens with a declaration that Robert Heinlein’s “broad impact on the genre is undeniable”. In support of this claim, Westfahl points to the number of Heinlein novels on the genre shelves of his local bookshop. From there, Westfahl moves on to indexing ““the full extent of [Heinlein’s] pervasive effects on science fiction” by referring to a few films and two other named science fiction authors, one of whom reached the peak of his professional fame with a book published seven years before Heinlein was even born.

To be fair to Westfahl, the point of his essay is not to rigorously chart Heinlein’s influence on other authors but to offer up a minor apologia for the fact that Heinlein spent his later years lecturing readers on the joys of fascism and fucking 11 year-old girls. The reason I am singling out Westfahl’s essay is that it illustrates the field’s lamentable tendency to allow these types of broad historical claims to go completely unchallenged and unsupported.

The problem with resting a history of science fiction upon received wisdom is that without a set of unambiguous facts to ground the debate, people will naturally gravitate towards histories that exaggerate the importance of the things they like and the people who look like them. It was in the shadow of a critical fraternity dominated by men that the career and reputation of Joanna Russ were very nearly lost.

Let me be as clear as I can possibly be: Given that science fiction has a track record of systematically marginalising and downplaying the importance of non-white, non-straight, non-male authors, claims such as

The works of Robert A. Heinlein are still occupying a considerable amount of shelf space, and the evidence of his broad impact on the genre is undeniable.

Can no longer go unchallenged. By uncritically circulating this type of received wisdom, Gary Westfahl is lending his critical reputation to a historical narrative that is known to be deeply problematic.

People writing about the history of science fiction have a duty to question and re-evaluate received wisdom. Was Heinlein really all that influential? Did his influence continue after his death? Did his influence stretch beyond the realms of American science fiction? The problem is that, in order to begin answering these questions in a rigorous manner, SF critics need a means of both tracking and measuring creative influence… their claims need evidential currency but it is not immediately clear what form this currency might take.

2.    A Mature Model of Genre History

One way of resolving this problem is to consider what a mature piece of historical genre scholarship might look like. One suggestion is that a mature history of genre might resemble a contemporary history of art.

Arguably the most widely read text in the history of art is a little book by John Berger called Ways of Seeing. Written in 1972 as the basis for a four part BBC TV series, the book comprises seven essays of which only four contain actual words. Part of what makes Berger’s book so powerful is that much of its critical heft is contained in Berger’s decision to place certain works of art next to one another in such a way as to directly demonstrate both their differences and their similarities. For example, in a section dealing with changing attitudes towards women, Berger says:

In the art-form of the European nude the painters and spectator-owners were usually men and the persons treated as objects, usually women. This unequal relationship is so deeply embedded in our culture that it still structures the consciousness of many women. They do to themselves what men do to them. They survey, like men, their own femininity.

In modern art the category of the nude has become less important. Artists themselves began to question it. In this, as in many other respects, Manet represented a turning point. If one compares his Olympia with Titian’s original, one sees a woman, cast in the traditional role, beginning to question that role, somewhat defiantly.

This is the same type of sweeping statement made by historians of genre and yet Berger’s statements are immeasurably more rigorous by virtue of the fact that after the words come the images in question:

The parallels between the two works are immediately obvious even to someone with little appreciation for traditional art. We note the similarity in the women’s poses and yet we also note the differences in their expressions and surroundings. Titian’s Venus not only revels in her femininity but also in her status as a beautiful object in a luxury home, she poses naked while clothed people get on with their lives behind her.  Manet’s Olympia is just as naked and just as feminine but the beauty of her form is at odds with the shabby state of the bedclothes and the fact that the other figure in the painting is bending over to give her something.  Her resentful gaze speaks of a primitive feminism and the distinct impression that she has better things to do than lie around naked. ‘Get on with it!’ her eyes seem to scream.

Berger’s is a mature historical analysis of two different paintings. He makes a claim about the paintings and then presents the paintings in such a way that the reader can see not only the influence of Titian upon Manet but also the difference in how both Manet and his model saw themselves.

Another example of a mature style of historical criticism can be found in David Bordwell’s On The History of Film Style. Tracing the reaction to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane among early French film critics, Bordwell describes why it is that many critics took Welles to heart almost immediately:

In discussing both Welles and Wyler, the nouvelle critique writers claimed that profondeur de champ allowed the spectator freedom to scan the frame for significant information. Astruc declared that profondeur de champ “obliges the spectator’s eye to make its own technical decoupage, that is, to find for itself within the scene those lines of action usually delineated by camera movements.” Bazin argued that both The Best Years of Our Lives and Citizen Kane coaxed the viewer into participating in just these ways. The critics may have been aware of Wyler’s own assertion that using depth and the long take “lets the spectator look from one to the other character at his own will, do his own cutting.”

Other Hollywood offerings confirmed the importance of Welles’s and Wyler’s innovations. Deep-focus and the long take seemed to define the future of cinema. Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), consisting of a mere eight shots, suggested that far from being the essence of cinema, editing could be almost completely suppressed. Now a film could be rendered suspenseful and expressive solely through the choreography of characters and camera.

Bordwell’s quotes from Andre Bazin and Alexandre Astruc demonstrate that, even as far back as the 1940s, film criticism was capable of a) isolating a single cinematic technique, b) explaining the impact of that technique on the audience and c) tracing the influence of that technique from one film-maker to another. Indeed, were Bordwell required to justify the claim that Orson Welles was a hugely influential filmmaker, he could effortlessly point to his role in pioneering and disseminating a number of experimental techniques that would later come to form part of every director’s toolbox.

The difference between the history of art practiced by John Berger, the history of film practiced by David Bordwell and the history of science fiction invoked in the article by Gary Westfahl is that Bordwell and Berger both have ready access to a form of evidential currency that allows them to demonstrate the veracity of their historical claims. Conversely, when Westfahl claims that Heinlein continues to be an enormous influence on the field it is genuinely unclear from the context of the article what form this influence is supposed to have taken.

Despite being largely unimpressed by the Heinlein novels I have read, I am not radically opposed to the idea that Heinlein was a huge influence upon the field of science fiction. What irritates me is that people happily repeat this claim without either pausing to consider what it means or considering the possibility that it may no longer actually be true.

Even more frustrating is the fact that Heinlein’s influence is not only taken for granted but assumed to be positive. For example, the received opinion is that Robert Heinlein pioneered a number of techniques that are now used widely within the field but when you attempt to ascertain what these techniques might have been you will struggle to find anything more involved than an airy assertion that Heinlein’s fondness for sentences such as “the door irised open” marked a radical improvement over the field’s historical reliance upon a form of lead-footed exposition now dismissively referred to as ‘info-dumping’.

Terms like ‘info-dumping’ are the science fiction equivalent of the film critic’s ‘deep focus’, ‘long take’ and ‘dynamic editing’. However, while film critics are able to draw upon a rich technical lexicon, the few technical terms used by SF critics generally come bundled up with their own unexamined assumptions about how best to write science fiction. For example, the lionisation of show-don’t-tell at the expense of the info-dump assumes that the aim of science fiction is to tell a story that is immersive in that it never causes the reader to break from the story and think about what it is that they have just read. However, some authors such as Stanislaw Lem, Neal Stephenson and Kim Stanley Robinson make frequent use of info-dumps as they believe that wading through densely written expositional text is an integral part of the science fiction experience. I would even go so far as to argue that Lem’s approach to info-dumping is so effective and idiosyncratic that it not only forms an integral part of his novels’ literary affect, it also makes his work substantially more complex and interesting than anything written under the purview of show-don’t-tell.

If we simply assume that show-don’t-tell was a linear improvement on the info-dump then it follows that writers like Stephenson and Lem are nothing more than unsophisticated writers who have yet to acquire the skills necessary for Heinleinian narrative immersion. However, if we assume that science fiction is a literary tradition rich enough to create its own literary techniques and that the info-dump might be a literary technique with its own affective payload then experimental info-dumpers such as Lem and Stephenson immediately appear more important and influential.

In fact, one account of the field’s historical marginalisation of women is that women and writers workings outside of the American tradition were deemed unsophisticated for their failure to produce works identical to Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke. The fact that these writers may have been producing science fiction to a different aesthetic goal achieved using a different set of literary techniques was lost in the scramble to lionise the popular white guys. When William Gibson’s short story “The Gernsback Continuum” positioned cyberpunk in the history of science fiction, he presented cyberpunk as a direct response to golden age SF and not as a development of the techniques and perspectives pioneered by feminist SF. Had genre historians had a better grasp of the techniques that went into creating the cyberpunk aesthetic then chances are that feminist SF would never have been marginalised in the way it undoubtedly was.

A mature form of critical writing about science fiction would, like Bazin and Berger, be able to isolate a particular technique, describe its effect upon the reader (thus explaining why the author used that technique in the first place) and then trace not only the dissemination of that technique across the field but also recognise innovations and improvements made by later writers. The lack of technical awareness also makes it less likely that genuine innovation will be either recognised or celebrated. For example, to approach M. John Harrison’s Light armed only with show-don’t-tell is a recipe for disastrous mystification and the mindless parroting of received opinion. Yes, Harrison is a great writer but what is it that makes him so great? Is it perhaps the way in which he uses recurring motifs to link together a number of seemingly disconnected plot-strands? Is it the way that he moves smoothly between a realistic descriptive register and a more fractured and expressionistic approach to represent the fraying sanity of his characters? Is it the way he includes a nourish virtual world as a means of reminding us that the spaceships in the novel’s foreground are really nothing more than a distraction from the novel’s actual focus? There are many ways of accounting for the brilliance of Harrison’s writing and blandly stating that the book is ‘beautifully written’ is definitely not one of them.

The creation of a more precise critical jargon for discussing science fiction would make evaluation, thematic description and historical assessment a good deal easier and more rigorous. It would also allow critics to examine received opinion and rebuild the history of the field on a less prejudiced footing.  Thankfully, while I think that genre criticism has a lot to learn from film criticism, the job of overhauling the field’s jargon has been a work in process for some time now.

3.    Blueprints for Maturity

A blueprint for the style of criticism I am yearning for appeared in October 1969 in the pages of Science Fiction Review. Titled “About 5,175 Words”, the essay by Samuel Delany broke with tradition by arguing for a highly technical approach to writing about science fiction. SF, he suggests, is not only about content but about the style in which that content is delivered:

“The Doors of his Face, the Lamps of his Mouth” by Roger Zelazny has been described as “all speed and adventure” by Theodore Sturgeon, and indeed it is one of the most exciting adventure tales SF has produced. Let me change one word in every grammatical unit of every sentence, replacing it with a word that “means more or less the same thing” and I can diminish the excitement by half and expunge every trace of wit. Let me change one word and add one word, and I can make it so dull as to be practically unreadable. Yet a paragraph synopsis of the “content” will be the same.

Anyone who has read the work of Peter F. Hamilton, Neal Asher or Philip Palmer will know precisely what Delany is talking about. These are authors who claim to be in the business of writing exciting adventure stories but in reality their books are bloated monstrosities with about as much pace and precision as brick rolling downhill.  Again, the field’s lack of technical awareness has allowed the talentless to market the poorly written as the fun and the mindless as the undemanding.

In his introduction to The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, Matthew Cheney suggests that “About 5,175 Words” changed the discourse around SF while the collection of essays as a whole helped to steer SF criticism away from the descriptive and taxonomic and onto a more technical footing that brought “linguistic, structuralist and poststructuralist concepts to bear on the material”. Given that most SF criticism is still concerned with plot synopses and vague thematic description, I would argue that Cheney’s assessment is somewhat premature. The message contained in “About 5,175 Words” is doubtless revolutionary but the revolution never happened. In fact, one could almost say that the notoriety of Delany’s essay has allowed the field to effectively sweep it under the carpet and continue as if nothing happened. Everyone read the essay and heard its clarion call and then promptly went back to wafting hot air through the convention bar whilst congratulating themselves that Delany’s essay had changed everything.

The problem is not that Delany’s brand of criticism does not exist, it is that it is so rare that most critics never encounter it and so do not think to delve down into the bones of a text in order to explain how a particular affect is achieved. I have seen this style of criticism in the wild but both times it was in the context of a classroom deconstruction conducted by established science fiction writers who took a bunch of critics through a text line by line asking us the function of every words and clause. In truth, I expect this approach to analysing SF is chiefly found either within the informal context of a writer’s group or the more formal classroom context of a writing programme administered by a university. To my mind, this is absurd: one does not need to be a filmmaker in order to examine a film in a technical manner, why should one need to be a writer in order to do the same to a work of science fiction?

I am bored of the history of science fiction because I believe that much of what passes for historical analysis of the field is in fact little more than old brags and press releases passed back-and-forth and down through the generations. In order to stay fresh and relevant science fiction must remake itself over and over again and but in order to do that, people must first come to realise precisely what it is that we are talking about when we use the words ‘science fiction’.

  1. George Berger permalink
    November 28, 2012 4:57 pm

    Excellent. I agree with every word but did not appreciate John Berger’s book when it was published. I think I would now. Your concept of infodumps is mine, with my favourite example of what I think you would like being the first fifty pages or so of Paul MacAuley’s “The Quiet War.” Finally, that near-contentless, generalising style of criticism is the main reason I’m becoming increasingly selective when I consider reading a reviews or work of literary criticism. Coming from maths and technical philosophy, I like precision.


  2. November 29, 2012 4:19 am

    Great stuff, Jonathan, and spot on in so many ways. Indeed, though I may have softpedaled it a bit in the JHJ intro because I didn’t want to draw attention away from the book itself, I hoped that my implication was exactly what you said — that the focus on a few bits from very early in Delany’s critical career demonstrates, if anything, the poverty of SF criticism, because while he was excited to move through various stages of structuralism, post-structuralism, and postmodernism in his own way, so much SF criticism itself did exactly what he kept trying to get it NOT to do — obsessively and repetitively focus on taxonomy and origins. Starboard Wine clarifies this progression of his thought, but it never got a proper release until this summer when Wesleyan reprinted it. (The American Shore also did this, but it’s a much less approachable book, given that it’s primarily a minute reading of a short story by Thomas Disch.) I certainly don’t agree with Delany’s take on everything, but I keep coming back to it because there’s a richness to his thought, and a breadth to his knowledge, lacking in most other writing about SF. Also applicable here: Delany wrote an interesting defense of Heinlein in Starboard Wine. I think Heinlein’s godawful, myself, but if a good case can be made for him, it was made there.


  3. November 29, 2012 6:53 am

    Coming from a background of having an undergraduate degree in literature, where we were taught that style was of foremost critical interest, I tend to run into walls when I delve into science fiction. (Maybe I should put “science fiction” in quotes?) When it is billed as a ground-breaking book of the genre, I’m kind of stumped because I find the heralded novel I just read is no “Sound and the Fury” or “Ulysses.”
    Then it dawns on me that there are other reasons for the “ground-breaking” reputation, and there is nothing wrong with that despite what my professor said. About two years ago, I reread “Rendezvous with Rama” and was stunned by its lack of literary artistry. It was still readable, and I enjoyed the mystery, but I figure its reputation must be rooted to its hard science. That’s not a bad thing, but kind of sad if it is so much more a notable scifi book than “The Doors of His Face …” or others where the language can take you away. In that case, Jonathan’s right, in that the worship of the great white men of SF has left a lot of great writers in the hinterlands. After I read “Rama,” I thought it would be of better use in a high school science class rather than a literature class, as the kids could get a realistic, yet fanciful look at various physical phenomenon in action: artificial gravity, space flight, life on other planets, how living on another planet might affect future generations of people, interstellar spaceflight …

    You mention Stanislaw Lem, who I think is a great stylist. Look at the range of his writing: straight-forward scifi (his early works), absurdist works (“Futurological Congress,” “Notes Found in a Bathtub”), philosophical works (“His Master’s Voice,” “Solaris”). Each has its own voice. I never see analysis of the range of his writing voice; would a scifi critic even think of writing such a thing? Lem described “HMV” as a philosophical book rather than scifi, but as I read it, I thought it was more hard scifi than all of those famed hard scifi books that are put on pedestals. Lem then takes that hard scifi further by adding the philosophical questioning. It’s a gutsy move. And I agree, Jonathan that the infodump (at least with Lem) works as a literary device. I could talk about Lem all night.

    I don’t really want to trash the guys on the pedestals. I haven’t read all their stuff, but I agree with you that the critical muscle of scifi is rather feeble. It is easy to grab a guy off the pedestal and say, “Ahhh, Heinlein.” (Although I think most criticism is weak and has been whittled down to telling the reader how much the product is worth to them.)

    It is sad reading can also provide a different take on reality. I think this is important because our reality is defined for us by powerful forces that seem to want to convince us that there is only one way to live (that’s how I see it). It would seem like scifi would be THE place to get a different take on things, a subversive take, but so much of it is straight off the shelf of mediocrity. A weak critical community just fosters that mediocrity. If I am yearning for another point of view, I more often go to the absurdists or someone like Murakami rather than scifi.

    Sorry this is so long. It’s late over here and I’m just waiting for my shift to end.
    Have a good day.


  4. November 29, 2012 6:57 am

    A little fix:
    “It is sad reading can also provide a different take on reality. I think this is important because our reality is defined for us by powerful forces that seem to want to convince us that there is only one way to live (that’s how I see it).”
    should read:
    It is sad. Reading can also provide a different take on reality. I think this is important because our reality is defined for us by powerful forces that seem to want to convince us that there is only one way to live (that’s how I see it).


  5. November 29, 2012 11:12 am

    . However, some authors such as Stanislaw Lem, Neal Stephenson and Kim Stanley Robinson make frequent use of info-dumps as they believe that wading through densely written expositional text is an integral part of the science fiction experience.

    And, in the past, something like Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (which 2312 has some textual similarities to) has info dumping all over the place, and gets praise for it.


  6. November 29, 2012 11:47 am

    Hi Matt —

    Yeah… it wouldn’t be particularly good form to begin your introduction by saying ‘this is an awesome book and everyone loves it but nobody actually bothered paying much attention to it’ :-)

    It’s kind of tragic that the essay’s impact failed to produce a real sea change as if anyone was going to get people to pay attention to the use of language and technique in SF stories it was Delany. The further we get from that whole New Wave scene, the less likely that sea change seems to become.

    I’ll have to seek out that defence of Heinlein as I am beginning to really struggle with the assumption that he a) remains a hugely influential figure and b) this influence was entirely positive. The real source of my frustration is that I think that these types of assumptions need to be questioned but I’m not sure how one could even begin to go about challenging the assumption that Heinlein invented it all. I mean, I could review Heinlein’s novels and point out that they’re not nearly as good as everyone seems to think but that type of response tends only to generate defensive posturing of the ‘you’re a hater’ or ‘you don’t get it… it’s awesome’ variety.

    Glad you liked the piece :-)


  7. November 29, 2012 11:57 am

    Hi Plozancich —

    SF has produced a few really gifted stylists over the years. Delany and Lem are foremost in my mind but there are a few others and there are certainly a few Sounds and Furies kicking about the place. The important thing is to realise that SF has its own tradition and its own aesthetic and that many of the great works in the history of the field will look very odd to someone who approaches the field expecting high modernist prose. SF has long struggled to come to terms with the idea that it is less technically proficient than mainstream lit and while I do think that’s still true, I think that there are SF authors who say important things in important ways that are simply not found outside of the genre. For example, I think that while The Forever War doesn’t compete with the psychedelic Vietnam novels, it does say something about that period of American history that nobody else says and it says it in a way that nobody outside of SF could ever have said. That has value.

    Agreed about Lem but the most wonderful thing about His Master’s Voice is that for all the depth of scientific knowledge and philosophical awareness displayed by the novel, it is ultimately about the futility of making any real sense of the world. He info-dumps and info-dumps but at the end of the novel, you’re still not clear whether there was an actual message in the first place. Existentialist fiction grappled with the inscrutable nature of the world and Lem does exactly the same thing using an entirely different set of tools.

    I think there is a very real sense in which genre criticism has failed the field. The desire to give awards and get to the new novels in order to write the first draft of genre history has resulted in a climate where nobody ever bothers to reassess the dominant critical paradigm. For example, people are still talking about SF/Fantasy crossovers as though they’re some radical new form of writing… in reality, slipstream is now the de facto aesthetics of genre fiction. Breaking down genre boundaries is no longer innovative, it’s the norm!


  8. November 29, 2012 12:00 pm

    Hi Paul —

    Yes! Stand on Zanzibar is an excellent example of the type of thing I’m talking about. If you approach Stand on Zanzibar and respond by moaning about all the info-dumping then you are missing the point of the novel entirely. Even Beukes’ Zoo City has info-dumping interludes that fill in the world in a number of quite interesting ways. I’m not a big fan of that novel, but the info-dumping lifted it out of the urban fantasy sludge in which it was born.


  9. George Berger permalink
    November 29, 2012 12:09 pm

    Last night I posted this on the Facebook page of Upsalafandom (yes, one ‘P’). It was well-received. Thanks to this blog post I ordered “His Madter’s Voice” this morning.


  10. November 29, 2012 12:44 pm

    another great post, Jonathan!


  11. Colbie permalink
    November 29, 2012 4:52 pm

    In the UK Heinlein currently only appears to have three books in print: Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

    So Westfahl’s opening assumption about Heinlein occupying considerable shelf space doesn’t apply in the second largest English-speaking market for his books (most shops will carry considerably more Verne and Wells in their classics sections). So by his own argument Heinlein can these days have only a minor influence on British science fiction.

    Anyone know how popular he currently is in the rest of the world?


  12. z_boson permalink
    November 29, 2012 6:00 pm

    “The real source of my frustration is that I think that these types of assumptions need to be questioned but I’m not sure how one could even begin to go about challenging the assumption that Heinlein invented it all. I mean, I could review Heinlein’s novels…”
    I doubt reviewing Heinlein’s novels is useful. If you’re arguing against Heinlein you’re still talking about Heinlein. I suppose one could do a kind of reception history, maybe it would turn out peak Heinlein fandom occurred way after peak Heinlein influence on writers or such…

    What would be needed would be showing up alternative strands of influence and demonstrating that these were/are more important. (Of course to some small extent this has already happened, e.g. with people rediscovering Joanna Russ.)


  13. November 29, 2012 9:02 pm


    Even worse than that, I’m pretty sure at least one of those has been out of print for much of the last 10 years. My experience was never that Heinlein was a big presence on the shelves and I’m 36. My guess is that Heinlein’s impact on UK has been minimal since the 80s.


  14. Mark Pontin permalink
    November 30, 2012 1:46 am

    The default veneration of Heinlein is a US thing; he was never that big a presence in the UK. And, really, would a national culture that had produced H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon as its original exemplars of SF — the people that Stanislaw Lem looked at — be likely to be particularly influenced by the likes of Heinlein?

    I can speak from personal experience as a kid in Britain during the 1960s, when a lot of the modern stuff was just becoming available there. Either you hunted down the American SF paperbacks and mags then still brought over on an arbitrary basis as ballast in transatlantic freighters, or you picked up the first UK paperback editions of things like Asimov’s Foundation as they came out, or you got your Gollancz hardbacks in the local library. Heinlein got limited play and I remember reading only ‘Time for the Stars’ and thinking it kind of ‘meh.’ There were other more interesting American SF writers, it seemed to me even at ages 8-14.

    There is some interesting Heinlein, I later learned. Having lived in the US for the last four decades, though, I’ve found that many of the older generation of SF readers here still thrust him on everybody as the very model of an SF writer. This, as you suggest, is among the problems that American SF (in particular) is currently experiencing.


  15. Mark Pontin permalink
    November 30, 2012 1:54 am

    Regarding Lem, you write: ‘the most wonderful thing about His Master’s Voice is that for all the depth of scientific knowledge and philosophical awareness displayed by the novel, it is ultimately about the futility of making any real sense of the world…. Existentialist fiction grappled with the inscrutable nature of the world and Lem does exactly the same thing using an entirely different set of tools.’

    We’re in agreement that in a reasonable world Lem’s HIS MASTER’S VOICE would be recognized as one of the top five SF novels, while probably nothing by Heinlein would be. But I think HMV is not quite “ultimately about the futility of making any real sense of the world.”

    HMV would then be a novel fairly similar to Don DeLillo’s RATNER’S STAR in intent — if not execution — and it clearly isn’t. It has another ultimate message, since its narrator, Peter Hogarth, concludes about the Project to decode the Message: ”The oddest thing is that defeat, unequivocal as it was, left in my memory a taste of nobility, and that those hours, those weeks, are, when I think of them today, precious to me. I never imagined that this sort of thing could happen to me.”

    For Lem, the situation is that we _as humans_ certainly have limitations that render it futile for us to expect to make real sense of large aspects of the world. Simultaneously, though, the Message’s Senders in HMV have rather less in the way of such limitations. That is where Lem parts company not only with using the tools of existentialist fiction, but also with having a shared, similar message.

    In other words, Lem would have subscribed to Kafka’s line: “There is infinite hope, but not for us.” But for Lem, those for whom there is infinite hope are the post-biological cosmic civilizations he envisions, such as the one in HMV that has sent the Message.

    By the way, the Message is indeed a message, though in the same sense that the biblical ‘Let there be light’ is both a message and a piece of cosmic engineering. We are on fairly sure ground with this, because in HMV one of the only things Hogarth knows with certainty at the end is that the Message’s ‘Frog’s Egg/Lord of the Flies’ destructive aspect is negated by a failsafe its Senders have also put into it, so the ‘biology-conducing’ effect of the neutrino radiation of which the Message is composed is its primary one. Part of that “taste of nobility” that Hogarth stumbles into is derived from his awestruck realization that the Senders had envisioned billions of years before the misuses to which their Message could be applied, and had prevented those misuses.


  16. Mark Pontin permalink
    November 30, 2012 2:03 am

    If I sound somewhat cocksure above, I’m been (re)reading all of Lem that’s in English recently.

    There’s an old line (by Freud) about Leonard Da Vinci, to the effect that Da Vinci “was like a man who wakes in the middle of the night when everybody else is asleep” with his ideas about flying machines and all the rest. Stanislaw Lem was only incidentally an author of fiction, in a way, and in later life he expressed increasing disinterest with making up stories to embody his theories and ideas, which amount to a philosophy of scientific and technological development.

    Those ideas and theories Lem worked out and wrote down primarily in a period from 1958 to 1964 and then published — though only in Poland — in a rather remarkable book called SUMMA TECHNOLOGICAE , in 1964.

    Like Da Vinci, it turns out, Lem was a man who woke up in the middle of the night when everybody else was asleep. Essentially, at the end of the 1950s and in the early 1960s, Lem all on his own was already inventing and extensively analyzing concepts like:

    The Singularity and superhuman AI (Lem called it intellectronics)
    Virtual Reality (Lem called it fantomatics)
    Nanotechnology (Feynman, usually credited as the conceptual inventor, began thinking along similar lines at the same time)
    Genetic algorithms

    — and things like machine swarm intelligence and much, much more.

    I don’t use the word ‘genius’ lightly, but Lem appears to have been one. Next year an English translation of SUMMA TECHNOLOGICAE is finally going to be published.


  17. November 30, 2012 6:10 am

    Great news.


  18. November 30, 2012 9:57 am

    Both 2312 and Stan on Zanzibar took their info-dumping technique from Dos Passos.

    Mark Pontin,
    During the 1970s and early 1980s, NEL published most of Heinlein’s oeuvre in the UK and you could find most of them in any British book shop. In fact, at one time the sf shelves were dominated by Heinlein, Asimov, Herbert and EE ‘Doc’ Smith.


  19. November 30, 2012 9:58 am

    Argh. FFS. Stand on Zanzibar. Not Stan. Though he wrote 2312, so perhaps it’s appropriate after all…


  20. Jeff VanderMeer permalink
    November 30, 2012 10:43 am

    Jonathan–I couldn’t agree more. With all of it. Imagine the frustration of writers, too, who discuss some of this at the level you describe and then turn around and as long as *ten years later* the critics are still catching up or “discovering” something that was clear to many “laypeople” long ago. It’s especially annoying when you *tell* them something is happening and they dismiss it and *then* discover it a decade later. Among other things. And this at times does marginalize what’s most interesting or alive in favor of what’s most broad or comfortable or safe, too. As for Heinlein, as I said somewhere else, except for a couple of the juveniles I read as a kid, he bored me to death–the kind of boredom where you fall into a deep and dreamless sleep.


  21. George Berger permalink
    November 30, 2012 10:48 am

    Lem’s ‘Summa’ was published in German shortly after the original Polish edition, by Suhrkamp Verlag. Suhrkamp also published ‘Dialogs,’ a philosophical book. I had both, but lost them before I had time to read them.


  22. November 30, 2012 12:11 pm

    In the US, it’s hard to argue that Heinlein has not had a huge influence, maybe not so much on writers as on consumers. His juveniles are a heady mix of boy’s adventure stories and casual engineering lessons that exert the same “learn how it works” appeal that someone like Tom Clancy has built his career on. One reason people, especially Americans, consume popular culture is to have the feeling that they’re learning something or somehow educating and bettering themselves, and Heinlein’s juveniles scratch that itch in a direct way. Their language is accessible and their titles, to a large extent, are beguiling. As a result, he’s been the gateway drug into sci-fi and adult fiction for generations of boys.

    And his libertarianism has had a huge influence. Think of how many science fiction fans describe themselves as libertarians, or engage in large-scale projects with libertarian roots (privatized space flight, seasteads). Several major venture capitalists in the US including Peter Thiel are pumping millions into libertarian ventures, while citing authors like Heinlein and Ayn Rand as their philosophical influences.

    Not trying to argue with you, as I think you make a lot of good points, but your disregard for Heinlein may be causing you to fall into the same trap that you thoughtfully point out has ensnared so many others: using personal preference as a metric of objective value.


  23. z_boson permalink
    November 30, 2012 12:12 pm

    The great discussion of Lem’s HMV in the post and comments is exactly the kind of thing I meant with my previous comment :) Thanks!


  24. z_boson permalink
    November 30, 2012 12:23 pm

    Just to follow up on George Berger’s comment: Lem in Germany achieved a kind of mainstream ‘Feuilleton’ recognition comparable maybe to Ballard in the UK. So his influence there went beyond genre boundaries, and hasn’t waned – there was a recent multi-season TV series (Ijon Tichy) based on Lem’s Star Diaries for example.


  25. November 30, 2012 3:28 pm

    Plozancich —

    Amazing comments, thank you. I remember the message in HMV being more ambiguous than you suggest but I am happy to consider myself wrong. I read it immediately after Memoirs Found in a Bathtub and I think the impenetrability of the world may have bled across from one novel to the next.

    Awesome news on the Summa. I must admit to have some fondness for those types of mad old school philosophical works. I ‘m reminded of Thomas Ligotti’s recent work of non-fiction, which reads like an incredible articulate and insightful account of what it is like to suffer from depression (which is, I think, a precise description of its author).


  26. November 30, 2012 3:30 pm

    Hi Jeff —

    Interesting that you should pop up as I actually had you in mind when writing the piece. I know you’ve kind of been grinding your teeth about the state of online reviewing and I suspected that one of the sources of your frustration was the lack of fine-grained critical analysis. I’m always wary about guessing what authors intended but I think the thing is that if you’re not paying much attention to the nuts and bolts of a book then it’s a lot easier to come up with radically different interpretations than the one the author had in mind :-)


  27. November 30, 2012 3:49 pm

    Grady —

    I think your comment is almost a flawless statement of what I consider to be the received wisdom about the scope of Heinlein’s influence. I don’t think you’re necessarily wrong but I don’t think that a field with SF’s track record for excluding women GLBTs and non-whites can afford to just assume that these types of things are true.

    For starters, as you yourself admit, your account presents a vision of SF that completely ignores the existence of SF outside of America. I realise that America remains the largest producer of written SF but a) other countries do also produce SF that is read in America and b) other media also produce visions of SF likely to have proved influential.

    I see nothing in your comment that coincides with my experience of SF. For starters, I am 36 and I don’t think I have ever encountered boys’ adventure stories outside of the context of a discussion about Heinlein. They certainly didn’t exist when I was growing up and I’m pretty sure they don’t exist now. You mention their influence on Tom Clancy… well, Tom Clancy is now 65.

    You say that I run the risk of falling into the trap of generalisations… possibly, but I’m not actually making any claims at all about the history of SF other than raising the possibility that women, GLBTs and non-white authors have been systematically excluded. My point is that if you’re going to make broad sweeping statements about the history of the field then you provide evidence: in my opinion the evidence for Heinlein’s pervasive influence on the genre is either out of date or entirely made-up.


  28. Damien Broderick permalink
    November 30, 2012 5:47 pm

    “Heinlein spent his later years lecturing readers on the joys of fascism and fucking 11 year-old girls.”

    Where does he do the latter?


  29. November 30, 2012 7:12 pm

    Damien —

    The Door into Summer. To Sail Beyond the Sunset has a lot of stuff about the joys of incest too.


  30. Damien Broderick permalink
    November 30, 2012 7:34 pm

    This is preposterously careless, especially from an intelligent commentator arguing for close reading. Nobody fucks eleven year old girls in The Door Into Summer (although you might argue that there’s an implicit sexual interest in nymphets transformed by the sf device into respectability). More than one of Heinlein’s later novels eulogizes incest of various kinds–with Long’s feminized clones, with his rejuvenated mother, etc–but Heinlein always manages to avoid the crime you accuse him of. This flippancy is a shame, because most of the rest of your argument is worth presenting and worth reflecting on, especially your references to Chip Delany’s critical trajectory and the several valences of expository lumps in sf.


  31. November 30, 2012 7:43 pm

    Jonathan- do you ever read the critical journals of sf? I wonder if some of the critics writing in Foundation, Extrapolations, Science Fiction Studies and the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts might not use some of the critical tools that you’re talking about.


  32. November 30, 2012 8:34 pm

    Karen — I have dipped into most of those over the years and I’ve not seen any close textual analysis in any of them. Scholarly articles about SF tend to be either Theoretical (Queer reading of x, Feminist reading of y and very rarely a Marxist reading of z), Thematic (a piece looking at how an idea is explored from different angles across different novels) or pioneering (some attempt to resurrect a long-forgotten novel and/or demarcate such an author as being someone PhD territory).

    Most of these articles are poorly written, intensely dull and only of interest to a narrow range of scholars but some of them are excellent and thought provoking and I would not change them for the world.

    There may have been a point in the past (perhaps when structuralism was the flavour of the day) when academic study of SF did go into close textual analysis but I’ve not seen it at all in the admittedly small number of years that I’ve been following the field.

    Writing students do this type of stuff… scholars don’t.


  33. November 30, 2012 8:44 pm

    Damien — I didn’t say that the novels contained graphic descriptions of sex with pre-pubescent girls. What I do think they contain is evidence of an author who believed that society needed to get over its reluctance to sexualise very young girls and the relationships between fathers and daughters. I’d say that counts as lecturing readers on the joys of fucking eleven-year old girls.

    Having said that, I must admit to be amused at your moral outrage. Heinlein writes about incest and beautiful nymphets but possibly accuse him of writing paedo sex scenes and it’s vile calumnies? Bit of perspective needed, no?


  34. crotchetyoldfan permalink
    November 30, 2012 9:02 pm

    I’ve got serious questions about the motivation behind this piece. You are attacking what I’d generally regard as a casual piece published in what is essentially a trade journal as if it had been intended for academics and – no surprise – you find it wanting.

    Your assertions about Heinlein’s subjects in his latter days have already been addressed by Mr. Broderick.

    While you are quick to point to Delany’s (excellent) work on criticism of SF, you obviously have entirely overlooked the scholarly work that has been done on Heinlein, the period(s) he wrote in and the field in general.

    Your critique of Westfahl’s lack of support for his primary assertion regarding Heinlein’s continued influence doesn’t take into account the context of the article, nor the readily observable fact that every single bookstore I have ever visited over nearly half a century never fails to stock at least one (and usually far more than one) of his novels in their SF/Fantasy section – something that is verifiable in the manner you seem to require.

    To connect the dots: if he is still being read (and I’m sure you know that bookstores no longer stock books that don’t sell – especially genre novels decades old), he is still influential. RAH’s influence on the field is unquestionable: perhaps what you meant to ask was “to what degree?” – which you could have done with a lot less vitriol.


  35. November 30, 2012 9:26 pm

    Wait, wait, wait. Gary K. Wolfe does this quite a bit as far back as his first published book; “The Known and the Unknown” where he specifically traces tropes and techniques through the literature, including fairly close readings of many texts, making interesting juxtapositions. He does it again in some of his essays in Evaporating Genres. And his writing is fairly accessible to a non-academic audience.

    I can see your point that this isn’t common in online reviewing (but aren’t reviewing and criticism different? Should we expect this sort of thing from online reviews?), but to say no one but Delany does it may not be entirely true.


  36. November 30, 2012 10:13 pm

    Dan — Westfahl is a professional academic. He’s also a winner of the Pilgrim award. He should know better than to trot out questionable assumptions in serious magazines. If he wants to just throw a few ideas around, he can get a blog. The second he wants to get stuff published, he needs to step up his game. As I said, it’s precisely this sort of laissez-faire attitude that has allowed the systematic marginalisation of women and non-whites.

    If you want to pick up on my objection to the bookshop stuff then we’re off to the races as most of Heinlein has not been in print for years in the UK. Furthermore, using that particular yardstick, Stephenie Meyer is a considerably more influential figure than Robert Heinlein and yet nobody would be so fatuous as to make that assertion.

    As for the vitriol *shrug* what’s the problem? I think articles apologising for authors who champion fascism are entirely deserving of vitriol.


  37. November 30, 2012 10:17 pm

    Karen — I’ve read Evaporating genres and while I enjoyed it very much and think it’s a very important statement and celebration of a vision of genre that I find quite tiresome, I really don’t think it compares to the examples I give in the article. For starters, Evaporating Genres is about an attitude to genre, not a literary technique…

    I’ve not read Gary’s earlier work so I can’t comment on it.


  38. November 30, 2012 10:33 pm

    I tend to think of “Known and Unknown” as one of the *the* important works of genre criticism, for all that it was written in the late 70s. If you get a chance (and can lay your hands on a copy), I’d recommend it. (Of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I?)

    BTW, I’ll chime in and say that I agree with Heinlein’s continuing *influence* (see almost everything Scalzi’s ever written plus UK-based Charles Stross’ Saturns’ Children for recent examples), but I definitely do *not* see that influence as uniformly positive.


  39. December 1, 2012 1:49 pm

    Great article. Just on Evaporating Genres, which I’ve just finished for the next ep of Writer and The Critic, I agree that the bulk of the book is about attitude to genre. Though the last piece is about criticism and specifically explores Clute’s attempts at coming up with a technical lexicon. I also think the closer reading of Straub in the book, and the chapter on 21st Century Writers are more technical in approach.


  40. December 2, 2012 11:04 am

    Hmmm, like a lot of this but I always found Hitchcock’s Rope to not be trend setting but more backward-looking. As if Hitchcock were shooting a stage play and I don’t see any influence from Citizen Kane in that respect. Sorry to nit-pick, it is a bit like criticising the type of flour used in a delicious cake


  41. Curt Phillips permalink
    December 2, 2012 2:36 pm

    Jonathan, it is clear that you are irresponsibly ill-informed about Robert A. Heinlein and his work. You are certainly not the first critic to try to make a name for himself with this sort of nonsense and you won’t be the last, but fortunately all any reader needs to do to see how silly your contentions are is to read Heinlein’s work for themselves. And I use the word “irresponsibly” quite deliberately since I feel that if you’re going to try to evaluate any writer then you pretty much have to do more than pay lip service to a reading of his work. And I don’t see any evidence here that you have. Damien Broderick has quite correctly pointed out to you the carelessness of some of your statements, and I hope you paid attention to that. Trotting out a couple of wild assertions laced with foul language and fouler implications is a very poor way for you to try to make an impression.

    It’s also very clear that your personal approach to science fiction focuses almost entirely on the present-day state of the field and your political and social expectations for it’s future. Since science fiction is very much a sub-genre that has continuously evolved from (for the most part) throw-away pulp adventure fiction of a century ago to what it is now, I would expect you to be a little more interested in it’s history and in exactly how that evolution has taken place and what drove it to do so.

    You do make interesting comments about Lem and Delaney, I’ll grant you that. Unfortunately, I can’t grant you much else. You wrote: “I am bored of the history of science fiction because I believe that much of what passes for historical analysis of the field is in fact little more than old brags and press releases passed back-and-forth and down through the generations.”

    I’ll respond by saying that I am bored with minor literary criticism that beats the tired old drum of blaming all the ills of the world on deceased white male writers. And the apparent obsession with sex in this essay may say more about the essayist than it does about Robert A. Heinlein – who’ll still be influencing new writers a century from now.


  42. December 2, 2012 3:03 pm

    Curt —

    Firstly, I’m not so much doubting Heinlein’s influence as calling for it to be re-evaluated both from a standpoint of its existence and from the stand-point of its assumed benefits to the field.

    Secondly, how exactly am I trying to ‘make a name’ for myself? I’m a dude with a blog and I have no ambition to rise any higher.

    Thirdly, you may be tired of hearing that the field has systematically excluded everyone who wasn’t a white man but I’m afraid that this in no way stops it from being true.


  43. December 2, 2012 3:59 pm

    Jonathan, I was impressed with your essay except you destroyed any trust for your ideas by suggesting Heinlein was a fascist and pedophile. Most of your essay seems sane and logically academic, but you throw in one sensational National Enquirer type line and ruin everything. I’ve read The Door Into Summer and it’s totally innocent. Haven’t read To Sail Beyond The Sunset, but since you made such a howler about Summer I can’t trust what you say about Sunset. And calling people fascists is just such a weak argument. You need to use specific examples to prove your point, not slanderous impressions.

    I also disagree with Gary Westfahl that Heinlein still occupies a lot of bookshelf space. Not in the stores I’ve visited in recent years. Sure decades ago Heinlein was readily available. I also disagree that Heinlein still has impact. His impact was on writers two generations ago.

    Heinlein is a fascinating character, but I think we need to focus on his books. Also, wasting too many words on his bad books is just wasting precious time. What we have to decide from a literary point of view, and even a historical view of science fiction, is whether Heinlein has any books with lasting power. I grew up reading Heinlein and love certain books, but I can’t prove they are of any value outside of my nostalgia.

    When we read books by Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, etc., they still work for us for two reasons. They art, and they report on the times in which they were written. Science fiction doesn’t record contemporary society, but it does reflect the dreams and fears of time in which it was written. I think Have Space Suit-Will Travel says a lot about 1958 America. But what does Stranger in a Strange Land say about life in the U.S. in 1961?

    To play on a current fear, Heinlein went off a literary cliff. What do any of his later books say about people of the past, or what do any of them say to the people of the present?

    And its not just Heinlein. What science fiction books written in the 1950s and 1960s are worth preserving and studying? Library of America has selected Philip K. Dick but are those the best science fiction books from those times?

    By the way, I’ve always loved that Delany essay and read it in Science Fiction Review. Those were exciting times for science fiction when the academic world was first discovering the genre. But SF has never achieved literary recognition. Why?


  44. December 2, 2012 4:23 pm

    anyone who doubts Heinlein’s fascistic inclinations (a natural by-product of his virulent ‘libertarian’ or ‘anarchist’ anti-communism), should read H. Bruce Franklin’s ‘Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction’


  45. December 2, 2012 5:34 pm

    James — I am not an academic: I am not a graduate student, I am not employed by a university, I have no academic aspirations and this is not a journal. I am a dude with a blog and I will rise no higher and have no intention of even trying to do so.

    As for the suggestion that accusing Heinlein of fascism is slanderous I will say three things:

    1) If it is written it is libel, not slander.
    2) Heinlein is dead and you cannot libel the dead.
    3) Go and read Starship Troopers.

    It’s interesting that you are shocked and outraged by my suggestion that Heinlein was fine with incest when you take no such issue with Westfahl who makes the exact same claim in his essay. Why is it that you think that random dudes with blogs should be held to a higher academic standard than professional academics?


  46. December 2, 2012 6:05 pm

    I have paid my dues. During the 1970s and 1980s, I read most of the so-called classics of science fiction, including much of Heinlein’s oeuvre. Then, I was a callow youth; now, I find him unreadable. I don’t agree with everything Jonathan writes, but I do agree with him in broad outline.

    US science fiction may dominate in terms of numbers but it does not form the totality of science fiction, and to suggest that anything which holds true in US sf holds true globally is both parochial and offensively arrogant. In the UK, Heinlein has never enjoyed the adulation he received in the US (we reserve that for Philip K Dick…). From over here, the US worship of the man and his works seems most unhealthy – as indeed were many of the preoccupations which featured in his fiction.

    Heinlein’s last novel was published 1987, twenty-five years ago. His works were not representative of 1980s sf, and certainly are not representative of 21st century sf. To suggest otherwise shows a remarkable lack of knowledge of current science fiction, or indeed of the genre since 1987. It continues to astonish me that people hold up his works as exemplars of genre fiction. Their reputation far exceeds their actual quality. Valentine Michael Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land is a magical Forrest Gump in a 1940s carnie, Starship Troopers is a thinly-disguised screed extolling the virtues of birching children… and well, let’s not even get started on Friday, Number of the Beast or To Sail Beyond the Sunset


  47. December 2, 2012 6:52 pm

    The concept of paying one’s dues is an interesting one.

    Part of the problem here is my age and the point at which I began reading SF seriously. I started reading SF aged about 16 and started reading seriously around the age of 19-20 and it wasn’t until my mid-20s that I entered a phase where ‘paying my dues’ might have been relevant.

    When I started reading SF, I was attracted to the idea of cutting edge scientific thought. This means that I never felt the urge to look back at the big three as they were a generation (at least) behind the curve. As someone whose experience of SF is dominated by the 2000s, I’ve found it very easy indeed to engage with the field on the assumption that RAH is little more than a historical footnote.

    I approach the field with a head full of Italian exploitation films, RPGs, video games, blockbusters and recent novels and while I am aware that my historical knowledge has gaps, it really is very easy indeed to read contemporary SF whilst thinking that RAH was a creepy old fascistic fool favoured by Baby Boomers and/or Americans.


  48. December 2, 2012 6:54 pm

    Jonathan, even though you might not be part of academia, your essay was academic in flavor, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Literary theory is an academic subject. I liked what you were doing except that one line.

    Your careful distinction between libel and slander is true, but for my intent I like the word slander. What I want to convey is you are unfairly hurting Heinlein’s reputation. I’m neither shocked or outraged, I’m just giving you a little FYI how one reader felt.

    I didn’t object to the incest remark because Heinlein does explore that idea. I merely think the word fascist is not a correct assessment of Heinlein. I’ve read Starship Troopers several times and I don’t think it comes close to being fascist. Nor do I think The Door Into Summer is about fucking eleven year old girls.

    Heinlein has loads of literary faults. I think your approach of using Ways of Seeing is excellent. Why not find actual examples of Heinlein’s writing and contrast them with modern examples covering the same ideas. Or compare ideas in his books to contemporary ideas outside of science fiction. That’s the real way to evaluate Heinlein, using scene by scene examinations.

    I found your essay inspiring. There’s lots for me to think about. I’m going to track down a copy of Ways of Seeing. My quibble, and I was trying to be polite in my objection, is if you say/write very vicious things about a person you should back it up with enough evidence equal to the viciousness of the accusation. You accuse Heinlein of one of the worst offenses in our society and without any evidence.


  49. December 3, 2012 10:50 am

    ‘I’m not so much doubting Heinlein’s influence as calling for it to be re-evaluated both from a standpoint of its existence and from the stand-point of its assumed benefits to the field.’

    Surely ‘re-evaluating’ his influence ‘from a standpoint of its existence’ is, indeed, doubting his influence? Because in this whole piece I think you get confused between the clearly wrong-headed idea that Heinlein is no longer important to the genre and the more likely correct (but controversial) view that his novels don’t pass muster by contemporary standards.

    It’s abundantly clear that RAH was huge influence on the genre’s direction of travel from the end of the Golden Age to the beginning of the New Wave, and his influence can still be felt through second and third generation transmission. Heinleinian libertarianism is bound deeply in the cyberpunk DNA: all those Bruce Sterling tinkerers are Heinleinian ‘capable men’. Down at the populist end Heinleinian wotnots are still massively in evidence – every work of Military SF owes its existence to Starship Troopers; The Forever War is a direct reaction to it. In the 50s and 60s he was at the cutting edge of what we used to call ‘social science fiction’.

    One can very easily argue that RAH was a rubbishy writer with dodgy ideas but you’d be hard pressed to argue he’s not influential: it’s probably the reason why SF is so full of rubbishy writing and dodgy ideas. You may not like his influence, but you cannot wish it away.


  50. December 4, 2012 2:46 am

    I can provide an extra data point about how influential Heinlein was to the current generation of science fiction writers: I never read him.

    This was mostly deliberate. First of all, I couldn’t relate to his books; even in my early teens, I just didn’t buy his vision of how society and personal relations should work. Basically, I didn’t like his people and I didn’t like his politics. Secondly, as I grew slightly older and at the age of 16 wrote my first full-length SF novel, I decided that if I was to develop my own voice it would be wise to avoid certain “must-read” authors. Heinlein was an easy choice there. My chosen influences would turn out to be Lem, Stapledon, Wells, Delany, Peake, and Andre Norton (and you will find all of them mashed together in my work, particularly in books like “Queen of Candesce”). In terms of prose style, I was more interested in Joseph Conrad and Michael Ondaatje than anybody within the SF canon.

    You can of course argue that in the absence of first-hand influence by the man, I will have experienced 2nd-hand influence through those he influenced. Maybe, but that’s an argument that’s as unavoidable as it is vapid. I’ll never forget my first reading of Lem’s The Invincible, and you can talk all you want about Heinlein’s effect on this or that aspect of the genre; it was Lem who shaped my ideas of what SF could attain to.

    I still regularly encounter the notion that Heinlein is an indispensable read, but only when talking with American writers, critics, editors and fans. I am pretty sure that I am not struggling through life with a Heinlein-shaped hole in my imagination, and I’m equally sure that there are many other people like me who similarly have not felt their lack of exposure to this particular master.


  51. Farah Mendlesohn permalink
    December 4, 2012 7:43 pm

    Data: see Appendix C of my deeply flawed book The Inter-Galactic Playground. I never meant to do a huge survey, but my small questionnaire received 1000 responses from various different notdes (ie bloggers such as Doctorow, Traviss and Gaiman sent people over—those were three people who sent most). I broke the respondents into seven cohorts based on when they turned 18 (reasoning, perhaps incorrectly, that the Age of Influence is roughly the teens) and some key books around at the time. I asked everyone to name writers. Of those cohorts, Heinlein maintains first place until cohort 3, those born between 1947 and 1957. After that he cedes first place first to Andre Norton (who is a solid second up until then) and eventually to Madeleine L’Engle who moves into second place with cohort 5, those born between 1969 and 1977. By cohort 7, those born in 1980 or later, he is down to 5th place. His trajectory is 100% with the oldest cohort down to 11% with the youngest.

    Anecdote: when I started teaching in 1991 sf reading students always named Heinlein, Asimove and Clarke. By 1997 it was Dick, Gibson and LeGuin. Now it tends to be Mieville and Gaiman.

    Other bits and pieces.

    Locus is not a “journal” it’s a magazine and doesn’t therefore have footnotes. Westfahl’s best book—if rather hard work—is The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1998. 344 pp. (cloth).

    You’ll find Heinlein’s contribution to sf criticism mostly in his convention speeches: some of these are collected in Grumbles from the Grave. I think his more interesting contributions are less about info-dump, than about how change means consequences.

    As a rule of thumb: Extrapolation tends to publish close reading (SF Studies focuses on theory and Foundation tends to be inter-disciplinary with a historical bias thanks to two historians having been editors).

    The military model in Starship Troopers is not fascism because fascism purges the weak. It’s based on ideas of a Citizen Army. No one can be turned away. There is a quick glimpse of a profoundly disabled person joining the military. He will be accepted, they will find him a role. This is more egalitarian than anything we have today. I don’t agree with Heinlein’s premise, and there are other ways in which the book is rather right wing, but as there is an absolute right to access citizenship in his books, it isn’t Fascist.

    Some bits and pieces.

    In the UK Heinlein’s juveniles were standard stock in most public libraries until the big culls of the 1980s when the tradition of keeping old books went out the window. I have no idea what this tells us about his popularity. Anecdote: At my school they had a complete run of Heinlein and Norton and I read them all.

    More anecdote: when I was working on the book on children’s literature a number of librarians told me that “The Menace from Earth” remained popular book group material because it was still one of the few places where a girl could read about being a starship designer and having a boyfriend. My reading of sf for children and teens suggested that while there are plenty of strong girls in modern sf for kids, they appear to have lobotomies at 20 judging by the portrayal of grown women in the same books. Heinlein juveniles were popular with women because they did actually have women in them. Generally there was a girl paired with the boy in some way (not always romantic). I know many women who loved them as kids, but struggled as they got older. Heinlein’s “feminism” is of a much earlier generation and it gets really embarrassing by about 1980.

    Influence is not the same thing as liking: many people report being influenced in terms of wanting to do it differently, but the influence is there. But one thing that is interesting is that when the early feminist sf writers cited crap sexist sf, Heinlein’s name didn’t crop up. From this distance he’s really problematic but compared to his contemporaries, at least he was capable of writing books that passed the Bechdel test (which is more than some male writers can do today).

    As for the issue of The Door Into Summer. Pete waits and then marries his girl when she is an adult. I can’t honestly see this as any different than my own marriage to a man twenty one years older than myself. I was his student. His waiting took a different form, given that freezing wasn’t an option, but unless you think an age gap of twenty years is creepy by its very nature, I can’t see how giving a woman a free choice is an issue. There is a book by Peter Hamilton (can’t remember the title) in which a man returns to his 17 year old body in order to sleep with his 17 year old girlfriend. That’s creepy.


  52. farah3 permalink
    December 4, 2012 7:44 pm

    Bother,the first para is unclear. I asked people to name children’s sf writers they had read when they were kids.


  53. December 9, 2012 11:37 pm

    Farah, the Hamilton novel is Misspent Youth. I read it when I was 20 and found it deeply, deeply creepy.

    Another excellent essay, Jonathan, and once again you’ve left me with plenty to think about.


  54. farah3 permalink
    December 10, 2012 6:58 am

    Thanks Friendlygun. I wasn’t in a hurry to go look for it :-)


  55. December 10, 2012 9:24 am

    Farah —

    Interesting about the questionnaire, though I am curious about the presence of media tie-ins. I know I made my way into the field via Forgotten Realms and Star Wars novels and I would have thought that a lot of people my age and younger would have had a similar experience.

    On Heinlein’s fascism… this is an old saw that has been played on convention panels since he died. In my view, the book is definitely fascistic precisely because the weak are purged from the body politic. I think there’s a direct parallel between the Darwinian forces that produces the bugs and the Darwinian social forces that elevate the protagonist through the ranks: If you’re weak or incompetent, you get retired or dead. If you don’t compete, you don’t get to vote and so are a second-class citizen. These types of discussions are not particularly fruitful as they tend to rest upon semantic rather than substantial issues but I don’t think calling Starship Troopers fascistic is in anyway an unfair or unreasonable comment.

    The Door into Summer can be defended on the grounds you suggest but I think that there is something profoundly unsettling about stories in which a male protagonist falls in love with someone as a child. The Door into Summer is less creepy than The Time Traveller’s Wife (which is basically about the process of grooming) but, again, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to raise an eyebrow over a story in which a grown man falls in love with a particularly mature girl scout.

    Agreed with you and Shaun about Misspent Youth. Sexualised under-aged girls pop up so often in the works of Hamilton that I think one can talk about him being a creepy writer: In the main protagonist of the Night’s Dawn trilogy has a relationship with a woman who is said to look like a teenaged girl and Fallen Dragon contains not only quite a graphic sex scene involving a pre-teen girl and a soldier but it also ends with the main protagonist traveling back in time in order to relive high school as one of the popular kids who gets to have sex with all the popular girls. Heinlein is a bit creepy about incest and under-aged girls, Peter F. Hamilton is *very* creepy about it.


  56. December 10, 2012 3:06 pm

    I can’t even begin to say how excited I was by this post (and by the Timmi Duchamp post that led me to it). Thank you so much for writing it, as it has helped me to (begin to) formulate some of my own ideas about the aesthetics of sf and how to write about them. Forgive me if this is self-promotion, but I’ve posted the first of what I hope to be many essays sparked by this one here–this first one is about expositional techniques of sf and their implications.


  57. Sil Dugatti permalink
    February 17, 2013 10:50 pm

    All of the above comments comments reveal why so much contemporary SF is so technically and critically superior and yet so uninspiring and joyless compared to the works of the Heinlein/Asimov/Clarke era. SF used to be able to discuss and celebrate its past even as it acknowledged that it did need to move forward. Now, perhaps because of careerism, academic pretentiousness, and commercialism, it suffers from a seeming compulsive need to abandon its backlist, trash its history, and badmouth its dead giants.


  58. February 18, 2013 8:44 am

    Sil — I don’t know what science fiction coverage you’ve been reading but Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke are still lamentably with us. Conversely, a very real attempt is being made to dig out a number of fantastic female writers who have been buried by SF history.

    The ‘badmouthing’ you’re talking about is nothing more than the very necessary process of re-invention. When one generation bows out, another generation takes over and the new generation constructs its own gods and builds its own histories.

    I’m 36 and Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke never spoke to me so I see no reason to speak for them.



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