Classic Science Fiction Tearjerkers

In my post on The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I mentioned that Mike’s death made me cry—that’s me, weeping for the death of an imaginary computer. I mist up very easily and at all sorts of things. Jerry Pournelle has brought tears to my eyes more than once. H. Beam Piper, too. If a book is well written and emotionally involving and something sad happens, the page will swim before me. Really well written moving things will make me cry even in public—there are a number of times I’ve been reading on trains and buses and had to pretend to have got something in my eye.

Early conditioning makes this hard to admit—I feel as if you’re all going to point at me and jeer “crybaby.” I feel as if I have to defuse by making fun of myself in advance. It isn’t a safe vulnerability to own up to. Still, as I’ve grown older I’ve stopped feeling so embarrassed about it, mostly.

In comments to that post, Nancy Lebovitz said:

Heinlein’s skill at tear-jerking is probably worth a post in itself. I can’t think of any other sf author who even tries to do tear-jerking. There was some in Steel Beach, but that was a Heinlein homage.

To which HelenS replied:

What? Even assuming you’re thinking mainly of Golden Age guys, I’d have thought there were lots. Asimov’s The Ugly Little Boy comes to mind, and various bits of Clarke’s Childhood’s End. And Flowers for Algernon—could there BE anything more tear-jerking than Flowers for Algernon?

Nancy responded:

Good points about “The Ugly Little Boy” and “Flowers for Algernon”, and, arguably, “The Last Question”. I didn’t get that effect from Childhood’s End, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re not the only one.

I still think Heinlein did much more of it than most authors, but I’ll be curious to see if there’s more that I’m missing.

And, of course, “Eyes Do More than See”, but I’m not sure it actually made me cry.

On the other hand, I reliably mist up if I think about “The Man Who Travelled in Elephants”.

to which HelenS pointed out:

I think there are also a lot of unsuccessful attempts at tear-jerking in classic sf — e.g., “Helen O’Loy.”

“Helen O’Loy” leaves me cold too. And for that matter so does “The Man Who Travelled in Elephants” which also seems to me to be trying too hard. But I’d never thought about this in these terms before. Was Heinlein trying to produce tears? Was Daniel Keyes? I admit I’ve never seen the the last page of Flowers for Algernon clearly, and just thinking about the line about the blue book with the torn cover can make me need to bite my lip sternly and take deep breaths. (If I had one of those diseases where you have to make your eyes water I could read just that and be fine.) Was this a deliberate effect, rather than a side effect? And are moving bits rare in classic science fiction? Was Heinlein especially good at this? I am clearly not the person to ask. Asimov has made me cry. 

So this is the question. Is Nancy right that this is a rare thing in classic science fiction? Or is Helen right that there are plenty of examples, and plenty of examples of doing it wrong? Do you cry easily, or are you one of those people who laughs at the death of Little Nell? What are the best and worst examples of tearjerkers?

Also, a thought. When you are a writer and people say to you “Your book made me cry,” “Oh good!” is not the appropriate response. Neither is “I’m sorry!” I’m still working on this one. I’ve never deliberately written anything while cackling and rubbing my hands together saying “Aha! This will make them cry!” Leaving aside how hard it is to type while rubbing your hands together, do people actually do this?

Photo of sidewalk stencil by Flickr user Sean Y used under Creative Commons license

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, Among Others. If you like these posts you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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