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