When I was young I read new science fiction. It was cutting edge and hated by the old fans. Now that I’m old, I read that same science fiction, but it’s now old. It’s quaint and tired – to the young, but not to me.
Once upon a time, the foundation of higher education was based on the great books of the past. These classics were part of the Western Canon, or the Literary Canon, or just The Canon. Then young people started yelling, “Wait a minute! All these books are by dead old white guys.” The new people decided we should also have great books by women, writers of color, and non-Europeans. Being the old white guy meant being a cultural imperialist, a pariah. Now on the internet we see lists of classic books they are by authors who aren’t all white, male, or from Western civilization. Science fiction has never been part of the literary canon, but it’s classics have followed the same path.
However, in the future when the next generation of young writers and readers evaluate these revised lists of classic books, they are going to find their own version of the old white guy to rebel against. And it won’t always be a guy. For years younger feminists were nipping at the heals of Ursula K. Le Guin.
In the subculture of science fiction some people, usually old white guys, complain that women are winning all the Hugo awards. And I think that’s just great that they are. However, I don’t think the trend is about gender, but age. That younger SF readers are just tired of the old SF guard, and they’re just more women writers in the advancing guard. This generation wants their own time, and it’s here.
I’m getting old myself, and I don’t see the young rejecting old classics as ageism. One interesting aspect about getting old is we become invisible to the young. This bugs my friends. But I consider it natural. I remember as a kid in the 1960s seeing older dudes at parties in hippie attire, wearing long hair, smoking dope, pretending to be young. I thought they were invading of our territory — youth. These old guys would come to parties tell us about all the great stuff they’d done, expound on their mountains of knowledge, describe all the zillions of exotic places they’d visited, and it would make us high schoolers and college kids feel inexperienced and ignorant. Sure, it was old gray backs competing with the young males for women. I guess back then they were our version of the old white guy.
When I read Rebecca Solnit’s essay that inspired the term “mansplaining” I thought she was just talking about some old dude who needed to pontificate, hitting on her and her friend just like these old dudes who came to our parties in the sixties. Ultimately, I expect mansplaining will be less about gender, and more about lonely old folks cornering the young to lecture about what they love. I get my need to pontificate out in this blog. I don’t expect the young to even read it.
I know many people my age who see replacing the old for the new as a form of prejudice, but I don’t think it is. The weight of past creativity can crush current creativity. E. E. “Doc” Smith or Robert A. Heinlein or Samuel Delany can’t always be the greatest SF writers. The abundance of experience can take the oxygen out of new ideas. The young need vast open spaces to create. There are many ways to think about this. The weight of old art can discourage the young from trying. New art needs a fresh canvas to explore. And sometimes you remove the pictures on your fridge from your second grader to make room for your kindergartener.
But here’s the thing, sooner or later somebody gets to be the new old white guy. It’s part of life. Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders just won a Hugo for their savvy hip podcast Our Opinions Are Correct. I see them as youthful experts on what’s current in science fiction even though they’re well into middle age. Newitz and Anders report on current SF while I’m obsessed with the past. I greatly admire what they do, because I can’t. I even envy the hell out of them. But I can’t be that young again.
Although Newitz and Anders aren’t as young as the up-and-coming people they profile, they’re still in touch – for a while. They’re part of the first generation who rebelled against the old white guys of science fiction. I expect that one day a younger generation will rebel against their generation and they will become the new old white guys. By the way, I’m not singling them out for any reason other than they are the hippest of the new I know. I’m sure there will be even younger fans out there that will laugh at that. But part of getting old is learning to live with losing touch with whatever is currently hip. The reason why I don’t complain about the Hugos is I accept being unhip. I accept my state of exploring being old.
These days feels like a renaissance to the young. Their version of the Copernican revolution feels like it’s new, obviously right and perfect, and will always exist. Yet someday the political correctness of today will be the political incorrectness of tomorrow. Thus, the avant-garde becomes the old guard. That the books revered as classics today will fade with memory and go out-of-print. Some cherished works will even be sneered at as unsophisticated writing lacking in modern ethical understanding.
That’s just how things are. The more interesting aspect of getting old is finding our own territory. We don’t need to try to keep up with the young, or lord our “great classics” over them, but find our own creative spaces. We also can’t let our failure to keep up with the young to crush our own spirit and creativity.
At my age it’s a challenge to create anything at all, to be productive when the body and mind are in decline. I tell myself it’s okay to retreat into the past and enjoy the old SF canon, but I think it might also be interesting to create another canon, one for the last third of life that does include the new stories winning the Hugos. This week I read Brian Aldiss and Roger Zelazny, last week I read two novels by Mary Robinette Kowal, the week before that read an Isaac Asimov novel from the year I was born – 1951.
I don’t care who the Hugos are given to as long as they find me something good to read. I quite accept that my generation is being passed by. Here’s the odd thing, all those old dead white dudes in the Western Canon were truly great, however, you have to be old to really appreciate them. If by any chance a young person got this far in this essay, you’ll see what I mean if you live long enough.
James Wallace Harris
3 thoughts on “What Do You Do When You Become the Dead Old White Guy?”
But what about science and technology in so called science fiction? Regardless of how society and culture change in a few decades the fundamental physics of the universe does not. We just may learn more about it. Now we have smartphones more powerful than 70s mainframes. The technology increases our options but what do the new writers do with the tech? If the science gets worse in new SF what does diversity of the writers matter?
That was one thing I noticed about diversity in old SF. The green and orange aliens are stuck with the same physics as humans. It was only a matter of who had the best technology. We are simply creating a new alien culture in the real universe.
Even in the old days, most science fiction was full of bad science. Science fiction has never been scientific. It is art. And every story in a creative interpretation of reality, or commentary on reality, or just a make-believe fantasy. The modern diversity of writers gives us science fiction with more variety of personal visions. Science fiction is generally wishful futures we want to create or futures we fear and want to avoid based on today’s insights. We can’t know the future.
It would be great if science fiction writers only speculated about what was just beyond what real science knows, but most writers and readers just want a good story set in a fantastic locale. We’re lucky if it also gives us genuine insight, and I think that’s where diversity helps.
Karl, I doubt if I’ve really responded to your comment because I’m not sure if I understand it.
That is why I liked Heinlein’s original explanation of “speculative fiction”. Most SF did not qualify as speculative, just adventure stories in a sci-fi environment. Some that might not qualify as speculative can raise thought provoking questions.
Panshin’s Rite of Passage can make the reader question the ownership of knowledge. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice was not thought provoking for me. The rearrangement of sexual pronouns was just mildly annoying for the first third and then I stopped noticing it, but I didn’t continue the series.
How much science would young kids assimilate by osmosis if it permeated SF they were encouraged to read? I doubt that I can comprehend today’s grade school environment. SF changed my thinking so I expect it to be informative.