Should You Read the Classics?

By Ryan Howse
By Ryan Howse

One of the long-running debates in science fiction and fantasy reared up again at the Hugos, with Toastmaster George R. R. Martin making a speech explaining fandom’s history. Some people were frustrated that he spent so much time talking about the Glory Days while the current generation of writers waited for their awards. All of which wraps around yet again to the question: should you read the SF Classics?

The answer, of course, is Do you want to?

Do you want to have an understanding of the field, not as it currently stands, but its history? Then yes, by all means. When we discuss that, how far back are you going? A lot of the ‘Glory Days’ discussion centres on the authors of the 1950s and 1960s, when Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein were all popular. In fantasy at this time we had The Lord of the Rings and Gormenghast. And it cannot be overstated that some of the people wishing for the Glory Days are people who would have been young when these authors were in their prime. The field existed previous to that—the pulps of Robert E. Howard and C.L. Moore, the penny dreadfuls, the scientifiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, all the way back to Frankenstein. I’m also partial to the belief that works prior to Frankenstein that involve fantastical concepts should count.

Are those the Glory Days too? Do you want to understand the dialogue that SF and fantasy have had with each other? Again, yes, read the classics. See how Elric riffs off Conan. Scott Lynch’s A Year and A Day In Old Theradane is clearly an homage to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Compare Tom Godwin’s 1954 story The Cold Equations with its 1991 rebuttal, The Cold Solution. Do you want to examine how science fiction and fantasy was used to examine the societies they lived in? Then by all means read the classics.

The threat of nuclear annihilation hangs over much of the nuclear age and Cold War. The New Wave has clear parallels to the 60s counterculture movement. Do you just want to read good books? Then…maybe read the classics. Some of them really are great, and stand the test of time. But if you’re not interested, that’s fine! More books come out currently than anyone could possibly read in a lifetime. Science fiction and fantasy are constantly brimming with new ideas. In the 21st century alone we’ve had subgenres like the New Weird, steampunk, and grimdark emerge.

New Weird was explicitly a reaction against the pastoral and monarchic nature of fantasy, while grimdark was a reaction against its moralism. Plenty of successful authors haven’t read the classics. Plenty of successful authors have, too. Plenty of readers have a small section of it that they love and ignore the rest. Plenty of readers think right now we’re in the Glory Days. And all of them are right.

Ryan Howse

I’m funnier without context.

Okay, you want context.

I’m a mid-30s nerd, married, with two kids. Also two cats–Cathulhu and Necronomicat.
I like, in no particular order, tabletop gaming, board games, arguing over books, ancient history and religion, and puns.
I’m unconundrum on reddit.

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