The Fallacy of Comparing Modern Writers to the Golden Age of Sci Fi

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There’s a conversation going on in my writer’s group about science fiction that I wanted to pull out and discuss with a larger, different audience.

In a nutshell, there’s a large contingence of up-and-coming or as-yet-unpublished writers who believe that the golden age of science fiction was in the 1980s or beyond, and that modern sci-fi isn’t as good.

It’s a conclusion that is hard to argue with, partially because the goalposts can be moved at any time. Still I feel compelled to make a case against this perspective, and I need more space to do so than would be allowed in that group.

So here we go.

There are a number of arguments raised, each that seem on the surface to be valid, and may in fact have some merit.

First, there’s the argument that it’s all been done before. No, it hasn’t. Read The Wind Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, Read Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu.

Then there’s the argument about quality. It goes something like this: Scalzi, they say, is the highest paid sci-fi writer and therefore the best, and yet his work is mediocre, derivative.

So... that was a bundle of assumptions.

Is he the highest paid? I don’t know. I know he signed a very big book deal for ten books a few yesrs ago. So, maybe, and it makes a better claim if he is. Is his work derivative? People point to Red Shirts, which drew heavily on the Star Trek mythos. That’s true, but it offered an interesting take on the mythos without rebooting the franchise into the Kelvin timeline (I'm looking at you J.J.!). Is Scalzi the best scifi writer out there? He’s entertaining, if disposable, much like James Patterson, the undisputed king of paperback novels.

Do people insist that Patterson is the best writer, or just the most successful? THe latter, not the former. So Scalzi’s our Patterson, not our Hemingway. Let’s move on.

Next argument: No one today is as good as (fill in the name you want here - Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert). But we only remember the best that these authors wrote. I am a huge Frank Herbert fan, have read many of his books, not just the mandatory Dune books. Some of his works sucked. Sorry, they did. Some of them were very good, but none of them approached his first novel, Dune (God Emporer of Dune stands on Dune's shoulders. It wouldn't be as great in isolation).

Even though it’s his first novel, I would hold Andy Weir’s The Martian up to anything by Clarke*. I think they make good comparisons. And once Weir has written a dozen or so books, then we’ll see if he’s a one-hit wonder or a new legend.

Anne Leckie is an amazing new generation author. She has four books out, a trilogy and a new novel. They may not all be as good as Asimov’s best, or as Bradbury’s best, but then you’re comparing her four book output with the cherry-picked best of the approximately 450 books that Asimov wrote or edited. That’s one hundred choices for every one of Leckie’s. How can she compare? Give her a full career, and then run a bell curve on everyone’s work and see where she averages. I bet it’ll be high.

Also, nostalgia affects our memories.

I’ve been looking for a book for years. I was sure it was written by Heinlein. It was what we’d now call an MG or YA book, but back then was probably considered a “Boy’s Own Adventure” story. In the story, a teenage boy wins a trip to space station, then he has some adventures. I remembered it quite fondly. Last week, I finally found it. It’s not by Heinlein, it’s by Arthur C. Clarke, and it doesn’t live up to my memory of it at all. It’s boring. It’s simple, it has a naivete that fits the time, but fails in the modern era. It lacks nuance. But if Leckie is going to be compared to Clarke, it won’t be this story that people will drag out. It’ll be Rendezvous with Rama, or 2001: A Space Oddity.

Well, how can anyone compare to those?

Ah, the other side, leaps. That’s our point. Nothing today can compare to those books, because nothing today is that good.

I disagree.

The Wind Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi will stand up against anything from the golden age. He is our John Wyndham equivalent. Vernor Vinge’s works will stand the test of time also. As will Kim Stanley Robinson, Peter Hamilton, and yes, John Scalzi. George R. R. Martin is probably our generation's Frank Herbert (He’s not our Tolkien, that’s Guy Gavriel Kay, or Stephen R. Donaldson).

Beyond simply finding equivalencies, there are areas where writers today are far superior to those of the golden era. Philip Jose Farmer and Spider Robinson may have been seen as humorists writing scifi and fantasy in their day, but neither of them could hold a candle to Terry Pratchett. Douglas Adams' works, are, in my opinion, not ageing well. Again, the humour is from a more naive time. it doesn't fit the modern zeitgiest.

Then again we get back to the question of when to categorize certain authors. The late Terry Pratchett was a contemporary of Farmer, Robinson, and Adams, however he was at the beginning of his career, and published up until 2015. So should he count as the golden age group or modern? Good writers come and go, and they overlap each other. They don’t start and end in batches.

I don’t care what the answer to that question is, I care more about the question, because it highlights a weakness in the argument. There was no fixed ‘Golden Age.’ In the 1950s, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were the golden age. Now, we have this amorphous term that embraces the 1950s-1980s. That's four decades' worth of the best stories, with the crap filtered out. Talk about confirmation bias!

The point is that a good writer has a long career, and it takes even longer for good writing to age (much like wine, and like wine, it can become vinegar if aged too long. See Adams, above). We don’t know that the writing today is worse than some mythical golden age.

We won’t know for decades. And that's fine.

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* And here I go, doing exactly what I warned you not to, comparing current writers to the Golden Age ones. Damn (click to return).