Reading Vintage Science Fiction in Context . . . or not
Posted January 1, 2016on:
Welcome to Vintage Science Fiction month, where we celebrate speculative fiction from yesteryear. Welcome to those of you who are reading something older for the first time, welcome to those of you who randomly read older stuff all the time, welcome to those of you who read Citizen of the Galaxy or Dune or Babel-17 in their first printings. Vintage Month is a sort of multi-generational book club.
A discussion that often comes up when reading older fiction is “did it age well?”. A corollary to that is it isn’t the books that age, it’s us. Something that was edgy and groundbreaking in 1935 certainly feels old fashioned now. Something I loved to pieces when I was fifteen might not thrill mid-30s me. We age, and the books stay the same. Society and culture changes, but the book that was written in 1962 is still that same book.
As you are reading older science fiction books this month, and hopefully posting your thoughts online, in which context will you be reading the book? Will you read A Princess of Mars in the pulpy context of it’s time, or will you compare it against today’s more diverse fiction? Will you chuckle along with Stanislaw Lem’s Cyberiad, or wonder why his computers and robots were so clunky?
There’s no one right way to review a book, or to frame your thoughts on something. But think about, and be aware of the timeframe in which these books were written, and the lives the authors lived. Some of you will judge older titles against today’s expectations (why are these characters so simple? How come no one is conflicted? Why are there so few women and minorities? Why is this book so . . . problematic? Is it actually problematic? etc). Others of you will be more aware and understanding of the time in which the books were published. Like I said, there is no right or wrong way, and many of us will end up having our cake and eating it too. If you are of the younger generation, I invite and encourage you to ask older Vintage Month bloggers about what was happening the world when certain books were published. Mark Geston makes so much more sense when seen through the eyes of a Vietnam Vet. Space travel stories of the 1940s read more like science and less like fantasy when you realize how little we actually knew about spaceflight, and that NASA didn’t even exist yet, let alone our dreams of a Moon landing.
And for books that are published today? Five, ten, or even fifteen years from now, when you return to the same book, you will have changed, but the book will remain the same. And you’ll remember the context in which it was written. You’ll have a connection to that context.
And twenty years from now, when the books that were published circa 2010 are considered “old”, you’ll be defending your favorite title to some young-un who finds it problematic. You’ll be the one telling that young and annoyingly loud, rascal that if they’d only think about the time in which said book was written . . . .