Ever since I had an operation last August I’ve noticed that my enthusiasm for science fiction is waning. Partly, that’s due to a loss of vitality after the operation and partly, I’m getting older and just more tired. I know this because I can measure my activity level by how well I keep up with my reading group. It reads and discusses one science fiction short story every day. I was reading and commenting on every story before my operation. Now, I can’t keep up.
I read about 1,500 science fiction short stories between 2019 and 2022. Most of those came from retrospective anthologies and best-of-the-year anthologies that featured outstanding examples of the genre. The memory of so many great stories brings high expectations to anything new I read now. I can no longer tell if a story is ho-hum because it’s not very good or because I’m jaded by the ideas that the story uses. I suspect younger readers find many of these stories very exciting.
Our group also reads the finalists for various awards that cover the previous year, which means I’m also reading a lot of current science fiction. Unfortunately, new science fiction seldom feels as good as science fiction from the past. I don’t know if this is because I’m old and out of sync with modern science fiction. Or, because I’ve read so much science fiction for over sixty years makes it extremely hard for new science fiction to feel original. Or, older science fiction had a storytelling style I prefer. Do I just give up on current science fiction and retreat into the past? Or do I work harder to find new SF I like?
Last year I read several mainstream/literary novels which I thoroughly enjoyed. I felt like I was covering a new and exciting territory. I love it when I read science fiction that covers new territories, but that rarely happens anymore.
I have become more excited about reading and thinking about the genre than reading science fiction. While reading each new short story or novel I get most of my reading pleasure from considering how the story fits in the evolution of all the stories covering the same theme. I seldom read a new story and get excited by just that story. One example where I did was “Two Truths and a Lie” by Sarah Pinsker. Another example is “You Have The Prettiest Mask” by Sarah Langan (excerpt). Neither of these stories is really science fiction.
Amazon has decided not to carry five science fiction magazines I’ve been subscribing to for years: Analog, Asimov’s, F&SF, Lightspeed, and Clarkeswork. I seldom read these magazines, but I wanted to support them. I keep thinking that one day I’ll write a story and want someplace to send it. I figured my $20 a month was a tiny way of being a patron of the arts. And I liked having copies of these magazines on my iPhone so I could quickly find a story to read when the group picks it, or when it was mentioned online. These magazines might show up in Kindle Unlimited but since I don’t read them regularly, subscribing to KU won’t get them as much money. I could use another ebook source but I detest keeping up with ebook files, and they would never be as convenient to read and manage as they were in my Kindle app. I’m considering subscribing to print magazines, or buying them on the newsstand. I could kill two birds with one stone by buying them at my favorite bookstore. That way I’m supporting my bookstore and the magazine.
However, I’m not keen on piling up a bunch of magazines I’ll seldom read unless our group reads the story. We’re currently going through the finalists for Asimov’s Readers’ Choice Award, and will do the same for Analog. However, all those stories are put online. I also read newer stories when we read best-of-the-year anthologies.
I’d hate not to support the magazines. This is a quandary for me. I’m not sure I even like modern science fiction anymore, but I’ve always loved science fiction magazines since the mid-1960s. I don’t know if I can give up on them now. On the other hand, I have more back issues on my shelves to read than I could read in several lifetimes, and I have digital scans of nearly all the science fiction magazines from the 20th century. I’ve got more than enough to read.
I think I need to spend less time reading. At 71, I need to be more active. I need to get into hobbies where I’m not just staring at words all the time. However, giving up a lifelong addiction is hard. I might have to accept that basically, I’m just a science fiction fan. That, being a science fiction reader was my purpose in this life.
On the other hand, I want to read a greater variety of fiction and nonfiction. I’m sure I’m missing out on other great genres and subjects. However, I have been reading more that’s not science fiction and I feel like I’m moving in too many directions at once. It’s much easier to read more about science fiction than read more about the world and the history of the world. Again, this is another mental conflict I need to resolve. But I have hundreds of nonfiction books on many subjects waiting on my shelves to be read. I collected them for years planning to read them in my retirement. However, I’ve spent a lifetime specializing in science fiction and to learn a new specialty would be impossible.
I’ll start with an analogy. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, I spent a lot of time flipping through record bins at record stories. When I was young I could barely afford one album a week. And even after I got a regular job I seldom bought more than four albums at a time. But I flipped by thousands of albums I wanted to buy. Now with Spotify, I can go back and listen to all those albums that looked interesting but that I couldn’t afford.
The same is true for science fiction. I have a choice between reading a book I didn’t pick back then or reading a new science fiction novel that just came out. Both in terms of music and science fiction I’m strongly drawn to the years 1950 to 1980.
Think of it this way. The past and present are two extremely large picture puzzles. I have more pieces in place seeing a more complete view of the picture for the past puzzle. Filling in the holes in that puzzle is more rewarding. Or think of it this way. The SF genre is one giant puzzle. I’ve got more pieces in one area put together, and fewer in another area. Theoretically, if I read all science fiction it would fill in the entire puzzle. I would see connections between all time periods. I’d love to fill in the picture between 1950 and 2023 but I have more pieces I see fitting together in the 1950-1980 area that I want to be matched up first.
I don’t like where current science fiction is going. The science fiction I grew up with was mostly set in the solar system and nearby stars. Humans were humans. Too much of modern science fiction is about faraway places and post-humans. I really dislike the idea of brain downloading and uploading. Sure, it’s a fun idea, but too unbelievable. A lot of modern science fiction feels like it’s inspired by comic books or movies which push ideas, characters, and plots into ridiculous places.
I’m realizing something about science fiction with my study of fiction about surviving nuclear war. I used to think science fiction promoted certain new concepts into the public consciousness. I thought science fiction lead when it actually was following. So far, I’ve found nearly all the concepts about nuclear war were public knowledge before science fiction stories and novels used them. Actually, by reading much older science fiction, stories, and novels from 1850-1950, many of the science fiction concepts I thought were original with science fiction after 1950 weren’t. And I suspect the science fiction writers back then got their ideas from concepts already spreading around in the public mind.
This makes me want to go back and reread science fiction and see if it was ever creatively original. One reason I don’t take to modern science fiction is that it feels like recycled old science fiction. How many concepts do science fiction writers keep repackaging over and over again? When were they first discovered? Where can science fiction still innovate?
James Wallace Harris, 3/11/23
16 thoughts on “10 Reasons How I’m Reevaluating My Interest in Science Fiction”
“I might have to accept that basically, I’m just a science fiction fan. That, being a science fiction reader was my purpose in this life.” Sounds good to me! However, one can qualify the “just” and be mainly a reader of SF but occasionally venture into other things. I just started reading Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory. My dad introduced me to Greene’s work many years ago, and I’m finally catching up on some of his works which I haven’t yet read.
I’m also getting into mainstream novels before 1970. I’ve only read two novels by GG. The End of the Affair and Travels with My Aunt.
I read The End of the Affair, but not (yet) Travels with My Aunt. What are some of the mainstream novels before the seventies you’ve been reading? Maybe I’ll explore them.
I write about them on my other blog where I don’t talk about science fiction. That bores my friends. A recent book I really got a kick out of was Miss Buncle’s Book:
I really went nuts for Elizabeth Strout, but she’s not pre-1970s.
Two pre-1970s authors I’ve recently gotten into were Anthony Powell and Nancy Mitford.
But here is where I track my reading:
Many thanks, Jim!
I’ve read remarks by science fiction/fantasy writers (Poul Anderson, Michael Moorcock, Octavia Butler) that it might be a good idea to occasionally read something besides SFF. In one interview, Butler recalled the tons of SF she read as a teenager, and commented, “In other words, like many science fiction fans I read too much science fiction and too little of anything else.”
I’m a bit younger than you but I agree with nearly all your reasoning. I’m attracted to the old classics more than most of the modern publications. But, as a leader of an SF book club, I try to schedule a mix of themes, authors, eras, etc. in our monthly selections. Most I like, some I don’t.
I’ve also found that, with age, I’m less happy reading books with dense print. My eyes get tired and I’m more likely to not finish the novel. White space is our friend.
There are exceptions but in general I tend to be a fan of individual works rather than genres or authors. In my 20s I went through a deep dive into SF and read most of the classics but a very small percentage of my current reading is science fiction. Not sure I can help.
My perception however is that like mainstream fiction, the most interesting current SF is coming from countries other than the US or England and in languages other than English. I would recommend the work of the Strugatsky bros, Boris & Arkady (one of the aforementioned exceptions), whose work has been issued in brand new translations over the last few years. If you haven’t read them start with ROADSIDE PICNIC or HARD TO BE A GOD and go from there. I’m informed Chinese SF is really happening.
I have read some Soviet SF and started Roadside Picnic a couple of times. I have read a fair bit of World SF. I have Tidhar’s The Best of World SF Volume One. I’ve also read the first book in the Three Body trilogy.
Reflecting on a lifetime as a Tolkien reader and as someone who used to read a lot of fantasy, I wrote an essay a few years ago on reading outside the fantasy genre that often, for me these days, has more appeal than rereading a lot of that work or (I believe) most new fantasy would. For example, I realized that one of the things I love most about The Lord of the Rings was just the “walking bits” with which some readers today are impatient as they want to hurry on to the next battle. It turns out that I often enjoy books about long, long walks, such as Patrick Leigh Fermor’s trilogy that begins with A Time of Gifts, or Evelyn Waugh’s Ninety-Two Days, or Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, or Alan Booth’s The Roads to Sata. I liked the way hobbits lived in a rural location and were shaped by it, so I liked Walter Murray’s Copsford and the chapter in Bede Griffiths’ The Golden String about the “experiment” of himself and a couple of friends in living like medieval people, and Eric Brende’s Better Off. More here:
Click to access PortableStorage-01.pdf
Your fanzine article reminds me of all those fantasy books that I saw in bookstores in the 1960s and 1970s. I especially remember the covers from the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. I never got into fantasy books that much, although I’m tempted by them every once in a while. I think I’d like to read the Gormenghast trilogy. I’ve read The Hobbit twice, but gave up on the trilogy after the first volume. Fifty years later I sometimes think I should give it another go. I did like The Night Land and thought I might try some Dunsany, Cabell, and CAS sometime.
I didn’t get very far with Lord of the Rings either–it might have been the sheer length of the work and the thought of all those pages to come. However, I like fantasy in shorter forms. I have a broad conception of fantasy–for me it includes “high fantasy” (Lord Dunsany), Victorian/Edwardian ghost stories, fabulist/magic realism (Borges, Cortazar, Kafka, etc.) Also, as Robert Silverberg commented, science fiction is basically a branch of fantastic literature, albeit a highly specialized variety. I understand the differences between SF and fantasy, but I think they’ve always been intertwined.
Re: the abundant literature of walking
Dale do you know Frederic Prokosch’s THE SEVEN WHO FLED? Seven disparate people flee a Chinese warlord across the Gobi desert. On foot of course. Beautifully written. It’s astounding that Prokosch is not better known.
I don’t think I had heard of this novel before, but your remarks are intriguing. I enjoyed Rawicz’s The Long Walk about 30 years ago — perhaps a somewhat similar book. I lean to nonfiction accounts, though. Reaching back to books published before the ones I mentioned in my earlier comment here, I’d recommend at least a couple of the books by Stephen Graham: Undiscovered Russia and With the Russian Pilgrims to Jerusalem. Going back well before those, there’s Alexander Kinglake’s Eothen.
I enjoyed Peter Levi’s The Light Garden of the Angel King, which, to me, sounds like a Jack Vance tale.
James, nice article mostly good points.
I venture away from science fiction into always reading about Science and medical articles.
I do not read mundane novels (non-SF). I do not read fantasy novels and rarely ever read a horror book.
I do read a good amount of War History — especially WWI, WWII, and Vietnam. I need to expand to American Revolutionary War and the American Civil War — having visited a few of these war’ battle sites thru the years.
I do not think I could ever live with myself if I didn’t maintain my subscriptions to Analog and Asimov’s. F&SF a close 3rd and then the rest.
Live long and prosper, James. Regardless, Health is and will always be #1.