Looking Backward, Looking Forward

One of the nice things about inter-generational warfare in any field is that eventually — about forty years later — the young turks start getting what they fairly earned from the next generation of young turks.

Currently, it’s fashionable to diss Heinlein. Not only that, it’s fashionable to diss an entire generation of established older writers as “angry greybeards” for not being out there on the cutting edge of whatever is the current -ism. (I’m not sure what the current -ism is, I stopped paying attention sometime after “deconstruction.”)

I think it’s stupid. I think it’s counter-productive. I think it’s self-destructive.


Because as a writer, I write the stories I want to read, but no one else is writing. I write in the language and the style and the idiom and the voice and the context that I learned and developed over half a century. I am my own voice. Every writer is.

Yes, I’m not writing in the same world as today’s twenty-somethings. They’re writing in the language and style and idiom and voice and context that they are still learning and discovering — and while it’s valid for them today, it’s not the end point, it can’t be. It has to be one more step in the learning process, in that necessary evolution toward authorial maturity.

In my own learning process, I learned from Poe, Dickens, Twain, Hugo, Hawthorne, Dumas, and Petronius. I also learned from Heinlein, Ellison, Spinrad, Pohl, Sturgeon, Delaney, Bester, Brunner, Blish, and others. Female writers who informed my writing include Joanna Russ, C.L. Moore, Kate Wilhelm, Zenna Henderson, Andre Norton, Marion Zimmer Bradley, D.C. Fontana, and more. With the exception of D.C. Fontana, all of these authors seemed to me to be the previous generation when I started publishing. That I was allowed into their ranks was an honor and a privilege — because it was an opportunity to keep learning.

So when I see a newer generation of writers, muttering darkly about those who came before, I get an uneasy feeling that they’re putting their attention in the wrong place.

My experience as an art student — which I have written about elsewhere — was a key starting point. The instructor had us study a different artist every week and then draw or paint something in that artist’s style. Not to imitate, but to understand why the artist saw the world that way, why he expressed himself that way.

When I figured out that painting was not for me, I returned to my first love, writing — and applied the same lessons. Why did Sturgeon write the way he did? How did Heinlein make his worlds so believable? Where did Pohl’s sardonically precise world-view come from? How did Delaney make the language sparkle? And my god, how did Ellison get so much emotion packed into a single story?

How did LeGuin create such methodical societies? How did Norton paint such wonderful word pictures? How did Zenna Henderson evoke so much compassion with such simple situations?

Reading back — with older eyes — I can see the flaws in many favorite works. This one depended too much on coincidence. That one stacked the deck. This one substituted flash for substance. That one really didn’t know much science. It didn’t matter. My twelve-year-old eyes were still dazzled, my adolescent mind was still caught up in the sense of wonder — the event horizon of my imagination had been permanently expanded.

What each of those authors did in all of their stories was simple — they demonstrated that such a story was possible. They were laying a foundation on which other authors could and would build. Today’s generation of writers has benefitted from the labors of the past — the SF vocabulary is so commonplace that an author doesn’t have to stop and explain FTL or black holes or trans-human. The pioneers did that for them.

Today’s generation of new authors are passionate, humane, impatient, flashy, exciting, occasionally clumsy, wondrous, and committed to excellence — the intensity of their various feuds and complaints, diatribes and screeds, demonstrates that wonderfully, but so does their fiction — and it’s the stories and novels that are going to last, long after the various self-righteous arguments about definitions and purposes are long forgotten — just like the various self-righteous arguments among the Futurians and the New Wave and the whatevers of the various decades have also been relegated to the shelves of antique curiosities.

Authors cannot compare themselves with each other. I will never write like Delaney or Heinlein or Ellison or Sturgeon — no matter how much I aspire to. But I can learn from their stories, I can look at how they got where they were going — and I can use those lessons to inspire my own efforts.

And that’s why I think inter-generational warfare is a fool’s errand. Instead of dissing Heinlein, we could be dissecting his work so we could learn from him. Okay, yeah — we can point out that he only wrote four basic character types, naive hero, competent journeyman, wise old patriarch, and the competent woman who loves the hero. But we should also recognize that he used those characters to create conversations in which ideas were explored. He wasn’t just writing stories, he was creating worlds that worked differently than our own so he could look at alternate ways of being. Taken in context, we see he was pushing the envelope. Taken in today’s context, we see what he missed. That’s useful. Both parts of that are useful. We often learn more from the mistakes than we do from the successes.

We could apply the same microscope to Bradbury and Sturgeon, Asimov and Clarke. Why were these authors successful? What about their work was also annoying? LeGuin and Russ and Tiptree as well.

These authors were successful, each in their own way, because they touched their various audiences. That’s not to be dissed. It’s to be admired, respected, and studied.

Myself, I have a personal rule against dissing any author as a person, and I generally refrain from too much analysis of his/her work, as well. Anyone who gets published knows how hard it is to get from page one to page last. Anyone who can write a readable story has likely fought their way through a recalcitrant paragraph. I look for the ambition in a tale. How big a challenge did the author take on? I don’t care if he/she succeeded brilliantly or if he/she stumbled along the way as much as I admire the effort. And if he/she keeps me turning pages, then I got my money’s worth.

Yes, I found things in Heinlein’s books that annoyed me. I’ve found things in Tolkien and George R.R. Martin and Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett that I might have said or done differently — but I’m there for the roller coaster ride, not the self-righteous game of “look how much I know.”

I respect an author’s right to tell the story the way they saw it. I have too much love for storytelling to dismantle the magic or those who created it.

Those who play the critic’s game … I dunno, maybe it’s just me, but it doesn’t feel like they’re having a lot of fun reading anymore.