Monday, November 18, 2013

Guest Post: Why I Turned my Back on the Masters by Ian Sales

Ian Sales has been published in a number of magazines and original anthologies. In 2012, he edited the original anthology Rocket Science for Mutation Books. He founded Whippleshield Books, through which he is publishing his Apollo Quartet of literary hard sf novellas. The first book of the quartet, Adrift on the Sea of Rains, was published in April 2012 and won the BSFA Award for Best Short Story. It was also a finalist for the Sidewise Award. The second book, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, was published in January 2013, and the third book, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, will be published at the end of November 2013. He can be found online at

Like many science fiction fans, I started early - they do say the Golden Age of SF is thirteen, after all. During my teens, I read all the so-called greats: EE ‘Doc’ Smith, Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, van Vogt, Simak, Harry Harrison, Vance, etc. During the 1980s, I discovered contemporary science fiction, and in the late 1980s, when I joined the British Science Fiction Association and began subscribing to Interzone, I discovered good contemporary science fiction.

My reading diet wasn’t entirely genre. During school holidays, I’d read whatever was available--and that sometimes included the likes of Shirley Conran and Judith Kranz, not to mention countless thrillers. In the 1990s, I moved to the United Arab Emirates to work, and within a week of arriving I joined a subscription library. Unfortunately, it had only a small SF selection, so I was forced to widen my reading. I’d read some literary fiction over the years, but now I found it forming a substantial part of my reading. There were also a couple of remainder book shops in Abu Dhabi, and I’d often find US and UK paperbacks by obscure SF writers in them.

The more science fiction I read, the more literary fiction I read, the more I found myself wondering why the likes of Asimov and van Vogt and Heinlein were held in such high regard. When I started writing science fiction for myself in the early 1990s, I looked to the authors who were being published at that time, who were well-regarded among my peers in the genre, to see how it should be done. I wrote stories that were like those being published in Interzone, or in British genre small press titles of the time. No one was writing like Asimov, no one was re-writing Dune.

By the time I returned to the UK in 2002, I’d had little success with my writing. I’d finished the first of a commercial steampunk space opera (which landed me an agent but has never sold), and had also  learned that my favourite writers were either literary writers or writers of literary science fiction. They were the authors I wanted to emulate in my own writing. And let’s be fair, while people may still read the so-called masters, and some of their books are still in print, and you’ll find them cluttering up various lists of alleged SF classics... no one actually writes like them any more. Decades have passed since their heyday and the genre has progressed. Genre readers in the twenty-first century are more sophisticated. It’s only nostalgia that keeps the likes of Asimov and Heinlein in print.

Nostalgia is no basis for a career; writing like, say, van Vogt is unlikely to lead to publication. Van Vogt, of course, is famously one of the most successful writers to build a career on the advice given in a how-to-write book. He wrote his stories and novels in 800-word sections, each of which ended in a cliffhanger. Larry Niven, I believe, once wrote something like “prose should be as transparent as possible to let the story shine through”. That’s complete nonsense. Great literature is not remembered for its stories but for the way it tells its stories. Language is a tool and wielded with skill it can only add value to a work of fiction. Much of the plot of Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, for example, is nonsense. But the prose is beautiful. SF authors who write beautiful prose, whose characters are more than super-competent cardboard cut-outs, who use subtext and motif and theme… these are known as literary science fiction. And none of the so-called masters qualify.

It wasn’t a difficult decision to choose to write literary science fiction. But it did come as a surprise to discover that I wasn’t very good at making things up. All that pie-in-the-sky stuff you find in SF… I can’t do it. I need a safety net. I need the real world in there somewhere, I need research. The very first story I published when I returned to writing short fiction in 2009 was about the Amber Room. That required lots of research. I’ve written stories featuring the Air Transport Auxiliary from World War II, the bathyscaphe Trieste, Nazi occult science, prosopagnosia, and even the lyrics from a death metal album.

When I decided to combine my fascination with space exploration and my writing needs, I stumbled across a writing space in which I felt comfortable. It happened by accident. Despite having a quite large collection of books on space exploration, it had never occurred to me to write about it. For a start, it wasn’t really science fiction - SF was all magical spaceships and habitable worlds. And it seemed a little old-fashioned - the last person to walk on the Moon did so 41 years ago. But back in 2009, I decided to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing by writing a story about Apollo astronauts. I never finished it in time, but later that year I pared it back to 1,000 words and published it as flash fiction. I’d enjoyed researching it and writing it so much, I wanted to try something similar at a longer length - novella-length, say. And so was born the Apollo Quartet.

As I’ve worked on the, to-date, three books of the Apollo Quartet, so I’ve found myself drifting to the harder side of science fiction while my writing has become even more literary. Now, even more so than before, I find the alleged masters, all those sf novels from fifty and sixty years ago, they have absolutely nothing to offer me - not just as a writer, but also as a reader.

I’ve tried rereading some of them. It did not go well. After rereading The Stainless Steel Rat a couple of years ago, I purged my bookshelves of everything by Harry Harrison. It wasn’t just the lumpen prose, or the fact you could set the story in the twentieth century without changing anything, it was that most of the sensibilities embedded in the story were offensive. Angelina is a psychopath because she was ugly (and had cosmetic surgery)? And Jim DiGriz falls in love her, even though she’s a murdering psychopath, because she’s now beautiful? WTF.

See--there’s another reason why I no longer read the alleged SF classics. Not only is the prose eye-stabbingly bad, the world-building little more than men in hats on alien worlds (i.e. middle America transposed to the galaxy at large), and the characters implausibly super-competent, but there are so many default sensibilities in those books which are now no longer acceptable. Women confined to the kitchen. Everybody is white. The galaxy is Anglophone. Natives need to be taught the “benefits” of civilisation, etc. I don’t want to read books by sexists and racists, and sexist racists--even if the writers were “products of their time”. Which is in no way an excuse. You’d think science fiction writers would be capable of imagining far futures populated by people other than white male Americans.

There are far too many books I want to read, and new ones appearing each year. I can’t see the point in choosing to read books which I will not enjoy, or which will make angry for the wrong reasons. Life is too short. And it pains me when I see those same bad books and terrible writers held up as not only emblematic of science fiction but also as the books and writers we readers of science fiction admire. I self-identify as a reader of science fiction but I find those bad books and terrible writers, those masters of the genre, an embarrassment.

Science fiction has much to offer readers. Done well, it transcends all genres of fiction. But it is also a genre with pulp origins, and it often seems that element of its heritage overpowers all others. I want to see that change, and I work toward making that change happen in my own writing. Turning your back on the so-called masters of science fiction is the first step in that process.