A friend of mine used to run a second-hand bookstore on eBay. Then he wrapped it up and was intending to take his unsold stock to the tip. This is sacrilege to me—you do not throw books away, never ever. I now have two—yes two—copies of the Da Vinci Code to prove this. My friend (hmmmm, that might be overstating the case here) slipped another copy into the job lot of books he gave me. Oh how I laughed. And I still can’t bring myself to throw ‘em in the bin.
I said I’d take any Speculative Fiction books he was going to toss. So a few hundred or so came my way. I was slowly working my way through them when I stumbled on some SF magazines from the 60s. Specifically New Worlds #107 from June 1961 and Galaxy #81 from August 1960.
So I read them.
And started thinking.
Have we lost something over the decades? Have all the writing courses , and latterly writing blogs, created an imbalance in the actual writing? Has fiction as a whole gone too far in the direction of literary quality and forgotten the basic rule of writing fiction: first tell a good story?
If you ever get a chance to read some old magazines from the 1950s and 1960s, do so. This is just before the New Wave came crashing into the party. You see a similar sort of disconnect with early 1980s SF, just before Cyberpunk spiked the wine with acid, but this disconnect between Golden Age and New Wave is really quite marked because up until that point literary concerns were subservient to the ideas.
The stories in these magazines are good, strong, well written, with clever ideas behind them. Apart from Brunner, Pohl, and Tubbs, they are written by writers I have never come across before—though they might be pseudonyms for famous writers, that sort of thing went on a lot back in those days. These stories were not collected into anthologies. These stories were considered average, normal stories of their day.
The science is, naturally, old fashioned; the cultural aspects can be a little disconcerting; the ideas are tropes that have now been mined to death; and the pace can be a little slow, but I think the average level of story-telling ability is higher than I see now in various modern SF magazines and sites. I was sucked into the stories, reading on to find out what happened next.
Yes, these are rather muscular stories, but they do drag you along. Modern SF, not so much. There are of course reasons for this.
We know all the tropes. We don’t have to explain them, we just point to the version of the trope we are using and get on with the writing. But this means that the idea quotient is lower so the literary quotient has to go up to raise us above the slush pile. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I favour clarity in the prose over pyrotechnics, because I think pyrotechnics are no use if the reader can’t ‘see’ the scene or comprehend the idea, but I do try to write great prose; I love it when somebody says, “cracking line”, or even better quotes a line back to me.
However, I also try to write good stories, with strong characters, and clever little ideas.
The lack of need to explain how a trope, like say faster-than-light drives or time travel, works in your universe (its a warp drive, its hyperspace, its the grandfather paradox, its quantum time leading to parallel worlds) frees up the writer to concentrate on other aspects of the writing. But what we forget is that these are tropes only to those of us who have read a large chunk of what came before. We forget that we should explain at least some of it for new readers to the genre. And in those explanations are spaces for new variations, new ideas, new plot lines.
Great prose is all well and good but without a great story it is essentially onanism as a spectator sport.
Read some old SF sometime. Those writers knew how to tell a story.
PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.
First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/