the Little Red Reviewer

Reading Vintage Science Fiction in Context . . . or not

Posted on: January 1, 2016

Vintage SF badge

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.


frazetta cover princess of marsWhich brings me to the title of this blog post.


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 . . . .

the-stars-my-destination 2


11 Responses to "Reading Vintage Science Fiction in Context . . . or not"

[…] Vintage Science Fiction Month The Trail Nerds 2016 slate of events Celebrating Mary’s birthday in March Kansas City’s Planet Comicon MidAmeriCon II, the return of WorldCon to Kansas City […]


Very excited that this has officially begun. I’m well into a couple of classics already that will be a part of my reads for this event, and I hope to get through several more. Thanks for hosting it once again.

I pretty much always read classics within the context of when they were written and judge them that way. It is impossible to not compare them to current novels, and yet part of my enjoyment of reading classics is the feeling of nostalgia that comes with the dated elements.

Of course, shelf life still varies. I remember trying to read the first Lensmen novel a few years ago and it was so dated I couldn’t get past the first bit. For classic novels to hit home with me, the story has to grab hold before the dated elements become too obvious and overwhelming or it becomes hard to look past them.

I’m torn between re-reading favorites and discovering new favorites, and will no doubt try to do both as the month progresses.

Happy New Year, Andrea!


I find that it’s a lot easier to be forgiving of mispredicted tech, silly settings, or now-worn tropes than of social issues, and then with social issues it’s a lot easier if it doesn’t feel malicious. I usually try to take context into account, but then ultimately I also consider how the book reads today. After all, it’s people today who are going to be reading it now, so if it doesn’t work at least a little in the new context then it has become more of a historical artifact–still often worth reading, but for different reasons.

Also, Hooray, kicking off another Vintage Sci-Fi Month! I didn’t plan properly enough (the end of 2015 was really hard), so the only book I currently have for this year is Babel-17. Given that it was in your best-of-2015 list, though, I’m really excited for it. Well, that and I’m watching The Man in the High Castle, and might blog a bit about it, if that counts–I remember someone else commenting on the Vintage page about doing that also.


[…] Red Reviewer’s Vintage Sci Fi event.  The details are here and LRR’s first post is here.  I’m going to start with Starship Troopers and see what comes after […]


Great points-I’ve not actually considered the ‘era’ in which a book was written before, although clearly it has to influence the story. I’ll try to be more aware from now on 🙂


Good post, and it is a thing that applies to all books (and films/tv) as well, not just sci-fi. Characters and plots are the creations of authors. And authors are a product of their times, so it is important to be aware of where people come from (time and society-wise).
Personally, I can make allowances for some things, but not others. It can also affect who I empathise with in a story. I went to see The Heart of the Sea recently, and although I think the makers were trying to balance modern attitudes to whaling while also creating a monster whale (in some parts) I was too busy cheering on the whale rather than worrying about the crew of the ship.

Not a sci-fi, or even a vintage example, I know, but I think we can enjoy stories while acknowledging that they have problems. And knowing the backgrounds, can, as you say, improve our understandings of what the author was actually trying to say, rather than using the standards of the here and now.

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It’s just not fair to the book or author to judge with today’s standards. Read it in context!

There are readers who seem to expect authors had crystal balls and would know everything that might upset someone in future decades so those words, scenarios, situations, settings, plots and characters could be avoided. But, wait, they didn’t have that crystal ball! So books, and films, are written in and of their time. That’s the only fair way to judge them. A book written in the Forties may have language that was common then but not accepted today. So? That was the author’s cultural environment. Accept it. A book is more than it’s individual words. If the plot doesn’t have everyone treated fairly, or “enough” strong female characters (or any), or a balance of gender, race, religion or whatever in it, so be it. That’s the way it was, that’s the world the writer lived in, and what was written reflects that. So accept it, or don’t read it, but don’t judge an old book by current standards.

Imagine instead of a book, it’s an article about an automobile. Yes, that 1956 Ford seems nice, but, you think, it’s not as fast or safe as my 2015 car. That’s irrelevant. That Ford was what it was, when it was. Or perhaps it’s an article about fashion. What they wore was accepted then and what we like no has no bearing.

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I like to read old books, and I do my best to read them in context. I’m not going to get upset because people saw things differently and sometimes thought things that I don’t like. They also did a lot of stuff better than I can, and lots of these books have ideas that I can profitably take on board.

On the whole, different perspectives are good for me and remind me not to get too cocky. 50 years from now, my grandchildren will be horrified by my hide-bound ways.


Great piece – you definitely have to read vintage books in the right context – otherwise you’d probably spend the full read just fuming!
I have Starship Troopers, Dandelion Wine and also – was thinking I need one more but not sure who or what!
Lynn 😀


Interesting discussion – I don’t think it’s possible to read a book without being conscious of our _own_ context and how it differs from the author’s. Sometimes, it’s interesting or quaint – I remember being struck by the fact that in Asimov’s Foundation novels, everything was atomic. They even had atomic washing machines! Sometimes, it bugs me – I cringed at the sexism in old Poul Anderson novels. Like tethyanbooks, I think I’m more forgiving of ‘science marches on’ than I am towards social issues.

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Also, Happy New Year! 😀


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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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