The Sad But Inevitable Trend Toward Forgotten SF

I ran my “Young People Read Old SF” review series for about three years. Although it’s currently on hiatus, and while the sample size is of course small, I think it’s large enough that some conclusions can be drawn. The comments sections around the net are similarly a small sample, but again large enough that I can conclude that a lot of you are not going to like what I have to say, which is:

Love your beloved classics now—because even now, few people read them, for the most part, and fewer still love them. In a century, they’ll probably be forgotten by all but a few eccentrics.

If it makes you feel any better, all fiction, even the books people love and rush to buy in droves, is subject to entropy. Consider, for example, the bestselling fiction novels of the week I was born, which was not so long ago. I’ve bolded the ones my local library currently has in stock.

  1. Hawaii, by James A. Michener
  2. The Last of The Just, by Andre Schwarz-Bart
  3. Advise and Consent, by Allen Drury (available in audio only)
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  5. A Burnt-Out Case, by Graham Greene
  6. Sermons and Soda Water, by John O’Hara
  7. Winnie Ille Pu, by A.A. Milne
  8. Decision at Delphi, by Helen MacInnes
  9. Pomp and Circumstance, by Noel Coward
  10. The Chess Players, by Frances Parkinson Keyes
  11. The Dean’s Watch, by Elizabeth Goudge
  12. Midcentury, by John Dos Passos
  13. The Listener, by Taylor Caldwell
  14. Through the Fields of Clover, by Peter De Vries
  15. The Key, by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki
  16. In A Summer Season, by Elizabeth Taylor

I am honestly gobsmacked that Kitchener Public Library has no copy of Hawaii. Michener was always a reliable author to turn to when the novels of James Clavell seemed too brief. Hawaii is interesting if only because it covers millions of years (geology setting the stage for later events). Plus, thrown with sufficient force, even a paperback of Hawaii can fell a grown man. Several grown men, if you get lucky with the ricochets.

But I digress. The point is that all of these were books that were wildly popular in their day, yet a mere twenty or so years later… actually, I’ve just been handed a note that says it is closer to sixty years, which cannot possibly be right… later, these once-popular books didn’t make the cut for my local library. One suspects that humane interrogation of my readers would reveal that for many of them, the majority of these titles ring no bells whatsoever. This is the nature of popular fiction—and of course, science fiction is no exception.

What drives this seemingly inevitable slide into obscurity? Values dissonance, rising expectations, and dumb luck.

Social values ebb and flow over decades, but the values expressed in a book are fixed. It may be that science fiction is more affected by values dissonance than other genres by nature of being (often) set in the future. A book written and set in the 1950s might have quaint expectations regarding the proper roles of men and women (not to mention the assumption that those are only two choices), but they would be the quaint expectations of the era in which the book is set. A novel written in the 1950s but set in 2019, one that assumed the social views of the 50s (white supremacy, women denied control of their own bodies, nebulous menaces used to justify outrageous security measures) would surely be off-putting to a modern reader. [Ha ha ha. We wish.]

Moreover, over time the minimum necessary craft needed to prosper in the field has increased. Creaky prose, shambolic plots, and paper-thin worldbuilding might have been enough for the pulps. Aspirations to write something better would be enough to make someone a superstar. Writers learn from each other, however, so some material that sufficed for 1935 seems so unpolished as to be unpublishable now.

There’s also the dumb luck factor (the unkindest cut of all). It would be nice to believe that a great book can survive entirely on its merits… but this is not the case. Even a printed book can be erased from history, thanks to any number of things that are in no way the fault of the author or the book. The author could die without a proper will, leaving their work in the hands of people actively hostile to their career. Publisher bankruptcies can lead to rights nightmares. When a series is spread across several publishers, some books might fall out of print. Personal tragedy could distract the author from maintaining their fan-base. Ill-conceived marketing schemes—marketing a Gothic fantasist as a horror writer just as the horror market collapses, again—could convince an entire continent’s worth of publishers that there was no more market for that author. And there are many more ways for things to go wrong.

We might not have a publishing industry at all if humans weren’t terrible at judging comparative risk.

So if you’re talking to young fans and they just don’t love the same books you do, understand that this is a natural process, one that undoubtedly happened to even older classic SF of which you are unaware. To quote the late Tanith Lee:

Sung in shadow, that was show,
Bitter-tasting are you now,
Music of sweet and delight.

We old-timers might take some schadenfreude-ish comfort, at least, from the fact that the kids’ current favorites will be forgotten one day, as well.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.

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