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Feb 2, 2013

Reading Science Fiction

I suspect that I've spent more hours reading science fiction stories by Jack Vance than the stories of any other author. For me, time spent reading Asimov's science fiction probably ranks second behind reading Vance. However, I do not spend very much time reading fiction. These days I get more enjoyment from writing science fiction than reading it. I find it amusing that Vance does not like to talk about reading the science fiction stories of other authors. I think I can guess why.

The science fiction that I write has been hugely influenced by both Vance an Asimov. I've mentioned the science fiction stories of Vance in about 20 percent of the posts to this blog. Asimov gets mentioned by me in more than twice as many blog posts because Asimov was trained as a scientist and his wide-ranging scientific interests and hard science fiction ideas appeal to me. For me, Vance is less of interest from a scientific perspective, but much more so for his writing style. Asimov was very open and direct about confessing to the fact that he was not a out to impress anyone with stylistic flair. Once I know the plot of an Asimov story there is usually not much value in re-reading it. In contrast, I can endless re-read Vance's stories simply to enjoy his writing style.

Asimov wrote about growing up reading science fiction stories that were published in magazines and his early work was all published in that format. The image to the left shows a Galaxy cover illustration for Vance's story Star King. Here is how Vance described Hildemar Dasce: "the strangest human being of Gersen's experience"..."His head was tall and round with a ruff of red hair...he had stained his face and neck a bright red, excepting only his cheeks which were balls of bright chalk-blue"..."at some stage in his career...his eyelids had been cut away". 1963 was when I was learning to read and years before I had even become aware of the existence of published science fiction. The plot of Star King involves the idea that people ("locators") have to fly exploration ships out into the galaxy in order to find new worlds. For example, the world of the Dryads is discovered by a locator named Lugo Teehalt. Here in 2013 we are using telescopes to find exoplanets, so the entire structure of Star King might seem antiquated, but Vance's prose makes the story worth reading even if the "future science" imagined by Vance has not aged well.

When I was growing up I first became aware of science fiction by watching television. Finally one day I discovered the science fiction section of the local library and from that point on I became increasingly disinterested in most science fiction that ends up on television and in film. I prefer science fiction novels over short stories and I've never bought a science fiction magazine. However, I was introduced to Jack Vance through his short story The Moon Moth.

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As shown in the image above,  the human brain retains some forms of plasticity into young adulthood (see also). Is there a critical period in the mid-20s after which it is increasingly difficult for humans to change their personality and literary preferences? For me, my tastes in science fiction have not changed much since I was in my 20s. Before I was 25 I enjoyed looking for new science fiction authors...I did not always enjoy the work of each new author that I sampled, but I was willing to keep looking for good ones. In my late 20s I eventually gave up trying...I was no longer really interested in finding new varieties of science fiction to read. Since that time, I've been satisfied to simply stick with the science fiction that has been written by my favorite authors. Over the years I've occasionally tried to pick up and read the work of newer science fiction authors, but I've failed to find their work worth reading. I can imagine that for a craftsman like Vance it might be very painful to even try to read most published science fiction. To some extent, my discovery and appreciation for the science fiction stories of masters like Vance and Asimov contributed to my disinterest in lesser science fiction authors. Why should I make an effort to read the work of new science fiction authors (who are likely to not be very good) when I can simple keep reading my favorite authors?

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I'm willing to admit that part of my poor reading habits are due to my narrow tastes and the fact that this old dog (me) can't learn new tricks (or appreciation of new science fiction authors). However, I think there were two other major forces at work shaping my reading habits...one being the rise of the mega-bookstore companies. When I was young there were quirky little bookstores in every college town where nerdy employees knew the difference between science fiction and fantasy and where you could find an amazing diversity of science fiction books...books that were on the shelf because another lover of science fiction, an employee in the store, made sure to share them with me. When the mega-bookstore companies started taking over it became common to have a single section in the mega-bookstores where science fiction and fantasy novels were mixed together. The mega-bookstore employees typically knew nothing about science fiction and I doubt if they knew the difference between science fiction and fantasy. Their idea of "good science fiction" seemed to be limited to the works of a few authors that some drone at corporate headquarters decided to buy in bulk and force down the throats of readers by flooding the shelves with just those books.

The other change in science fiction that was external to my subjective preferences was the entry into science fiction of authors who wanted to profit from the growing popularity of the science fiction genre. In the early days of SciFi, people wrote science fiction for the love of the genre, with $$$ not being involved. Rather than write stories to advance the genre, for example, by creating interesting adventure stories, a newer generation of authors found that they could get published by slapping together dystopic misadventure stories. My generation grew up with the fun of science fiction adventure, going where no man had gone before. The next generation of science fiction was dominated by anti-science fiction authors who tried to take readers to miserable places where no sane person would ever want to go. The writing and ideas were ugly, uninteresting, often sickeningly perverse and designed to sell because of their "realism", grittiness or shock value. My response to the "new wave": NO SALE. Maybe things will come full cycle and science fiction will return to sanity. With mega-bookstores removed from the equation the distance between science fiction authors and readers can decrease and we will once again be able to discover and patronize the authors who we enjoy, not the authors who are promoted by corporate "decision makers" who have highly questionable judgement about what constitutes good science fiction.
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