the Little Red Reviewer

Did it/Will it stand the test of time?

Posted on: January 7, 2014

So many of these Vintage SF books feel dated, don’t they?  computers that are the size of rooms, a lack of non-male and non-anglo characters, technology that doesn’t really work, being able to breathe unaided on the surface of the Moon or Venus or some such. City dwellers who don’t know how to use a telephone or drive a car. Wow that feels dated!

What “classic” science fiction books have stood the test of time?  written decades ago, how has it survived not feeling dated? Is it something about the prose, the characters, the setting, the technology?

And now for the second, far more interesting question, prompted by a guest post written here a few days ago by Kamo of this is how she fight start. Go read the post, it’s one of my favorites, but the gist of it is this:

“Vintage SF is a perfect singularity of past, present, and future tenses. It shows us the world as it was going to be. When the world is changing fast enough that it becomes unrecognizable within the space of a lifetime that’s a rare kind of unity.”

Among other discussions in the comments, it’s mentioned that older science fiction is a time capsule, and that science fiction is always on the edge of and flirting with obsolescence, that all science fiction writers are influenced by what came before, whether they realize it or not.

There’s a lot to unpack in that post, and in the comments.  Kamo’s post prompts me to make a minor change to my original question:

What modern science fiction books will stand the test of time?

fifty years from now, when some other blogger does a Vintage month, what science fiction books written in the last 10 years will have stood the test of time? What will feel timeless, what will feel dated? what is the particular variable that will make a book feel dated, or feel timeless?

19 Responses to "Did it/Will it stand the test of time?"

Excellent question.

I think it’ll be easier for modern SF to pass that test, not because of any of the tech or visions of the future, but just because a lot of really good SF that’s being written now is more about people, about humanity and where we’re heading, rather than where technology is heading. I think there will always be a future generation that picks up this or that book and scoffs a little at what we thought of ‘future tech’ – and we’re advancing further and faster in that than we ever have before, so maybe that’s becoming more likely every day – but humanity in general is nowhere close to changing or leaping forward, as it were, as fast as our gadgets and modern conveniences are… I think that will be where future generations can easily relate what will be their vintage SF.

Then again, of course, I kind of hope I’m wrong about that…😉

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you describe Dune…

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Dune is one of the first titles that came to mind for me as I was writing/thinking about this post.

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Yet Dune is more about people than tech at all,somewhat negating Lisa, comment. My experience as an Old Guy, reading science fiction since the mid 1950s, is that it was and still is about people more than science.

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This! It’s about using other worlds or technology to explore themes that are applicable to our own world, no matter what time we live in. That’s why Asimov is so awesome.

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Interesting question.
I think those that have the best of standing the test of time are those located in other universes (I’m thinking of the Vorkosigan saga type of universe now).

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I think a key element is aversion to pop culture/current references. Inclusion of those elements appeals to the sensibilities of contemporary readers but will date the work within a few years.

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SF works that don’t date seem to be ones that deal more with social SF than the specifics of how technology works. A new reader would not guess that Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination and Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human were written in the fifties. Philip K Dick’s works also transcend the age they were written.

I expect books like Neal Stephensens’ Snow Crash, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, and Scott Card’s Ender’s Game to stand the test of time among SF fans. The technology is surreal enough to avoid going obsolete anytime soon (although Ender’s Game has some parts that are reminiscent of 8-bit video games).

As for the 2000’s, I think The Windup Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi is a good candidate. Dystopian fiction has been popular in many decades and he is releasing a book published by Knopf this year. I’ll also mention Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother and ditto Lois McMaster Bujold

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If the story creates a character that readers care about and places that character in some peril, especially when that peril arises from the intersection of science and ethics, the story will “stand the test of time.” At the risk of using an example from television, rather than from books, let me point to the Twilight Zone. The stories are as wonderful today as when they were first telecast.

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Childhoods End, The Stars my Destination, More Than Human all hold up very well. Asimov on the other hand I find unreadable now. The quality of his writing doesn’t pass muster anymore.

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Good stories can stand the test of time even when time has moved on. Others seem to constantly be on the horizon–you’ll find people invoking Brave New World and 1984 even though the technology has advanced well beyond. Science fiction is always tied to a date platform where the author is looking out over the horizon.

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Any heavy emphasis on technology will probably certainly make things feel dated. Books like my last year’s favorite, Love Minus Eighty, could potentially be very dated by that point. Certainly Charles Stross’ books Halting State and Rule 34 which are near-future science fiction will feel dated.

Those are books with a “heavy” emphasis on the tech. I think those with a lighter emphasis could stand the test of time. Dune is a perfect example of a classic book in that there are certainly dated elements about Dune, but as this is less about predictive technology and more about political and economic and social factors that are surprisingly relevant today, that book itself could still be relevant in another 50 years depending on where we are at in these areas.

I’m not sure what current books won’t feel dated. I just read several short stories by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller which are a mix of future technology that isn’t wildly specific and old fashioned ways of doing things that are based on a society that continues to function with old world norms in some areas. That kind of thing probably won’t feel any more dated 50 years from now as it does today because the stories are much more about characters and human interactions which don’t change wildly over time.

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Thank you for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed it🙂

As to your question, I reckon Maybe Mievelle’s Bas Lag books, if only as exemplars of the New Weird. Plus alternate world stuff always has a get out when it comes to the march of progress.

And, if you really want to unpack stuff, maybe I should mention where I originally thought that post would go before the jokes took over and, honestly, I kinda chickened out. If we hold to the theory I set out that SF is really about *social* change, then of the speeches I show my kids, the one about going to the moon is actually the *less* SFnal of the two. Obviously that’s relatively sensitive territory and the truth is I has minimal confidence I wouldn’t plod in there with my size elevens and kick stuff all over the shop, but maybe you good people can give it better consideration here.

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was my pleasure. I know who I’m e-mailing when I want a thought provoking guest post! and next time, I won’t let you chicken out.😉

I do much prefer science fiction that hits the social buttons rather than the tech hard sci buttons (although I do love me some good hard SF). We don’t know how to look at ourselves, we block our own perception of well, everything. Shit, is that van Vogt I read last month finally starting to kick in? Scifi is a safe place to expose, look at, and pick apart sensitive territory, to steal and repurpose some of your words. if the characters in the book can figure out how to live, maybe we can too.

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Fred Pohl’s GATEWAY is timeless as are, THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT, THE SPACE MERCHANT, THREE HEARTS THREE LIONS, K E Wagner’s KANE books and stories, Moorcock’s ELRIC books and stories and many more.

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I’ve been trying to put together an insightful comment for 24 hours now, but am no closer. I think SF faces problems with aging that are unique to the genre. In addition to the Suck Fairy and the White Male Privilege Fairy, which can affect any book, SF must contend with the Obsolescence Gnomes that sneak in at night, give everybody cell phones and the internet, and completely bollix up everything some author carefully constructed.
There’s not really any way to avoid the Gnomes, except through luck, but I do think that SF today has a better chance at dodging those two pernicious Fairies.

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In this old guy’s opinion, “dated” is a state of mind, an attitude, an opinion. Unless you just got them for Christmas, your clothing, car, appliances and furniture are dated. The book written three years ago is dated. What most people mean when they say an old book is dated is that it’s out of sync with their own view of the world, in other words, it’s old fashioned. Novel with no cell phones? Dated. I could go on but you see what I mean.

I don’t think it matters, not at all. If the lack of current world surrounding bothers the reader, he or she should be reading current fiction, not old fiction. I prefer to accept the book I’m reading in the context it was written. I think a lot of the very, very good SF written in the Fifties and Sixties had tech that was very believable at the time and in many cases still is believable. Take a look at the novels of Arthur C. Clarke, for example.

The other thing I think is important to remember is that science fiction is as much setting as theme. Genre fiction, whether science fiction, mystery, romance, gothic or whatever must meet expectations the reader puts on it. In SF, if it’s labeled “space opera” there is an expectation of action in space – thus in the future – as opposed to “urban SF” which may all take place in a future Earth city. Future may be the only thing that may have in common.

As for the test of time, I think the only thing that’s important is that it’s a good tale, well told.

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This is a really good topic! I don’t read a lot of what is currently considered vintage SF, but I’m curious to see how long our new SF releases stay current. A lot of the books are only relevant now because they either specify a year/time period, or are very specific about describing technology, which we may see turn into science fact someday.

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[…] much my perspective as a viewer had changed without my being consciously aware of it. When I read this post at the Little Red Reviewer, it got me thinking in a broad sense about what makes a work last. […]

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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