Reading your own future
If you were to ask me why you should bother reading the science fiction of the thirties and forties, I’d say that you probably shouldn’t. At least not until you really felt like it. “The golden age of science fiction is twelve,” the fan Peter Graham famously said, and he was even more right than he knew: most readers get into science fiction in their preteens, and they read it in the way everyone should at that age—which is to say, essentially at random. A tattered paperback cover that catches your eye counts for a lot more than a recommendation from any adult, and you follow your nose from one title to the next, like a bee moving between flowers. For my generation, the gateway drug was likely to be a novel like Ender’s Game, which is still going strong, but the specific books and authors don’t matter very much. What counts is that science fiction scratches an itch that certain young readers never knew they had, and once they’ve experienced that feeling, they’re bound to seek it out again, even if it’s in a haphazard fashion. And it should be haphazard, at least at first. Science fiction has always been characterized by the intense pleasure that it gives to its readers, and by the inexpressible psychic craving that it satisfies, and the writers who do it best for any given individual can’t be predicted in advance. What young readers are really doing, aside from falling in love with the idea of the genre, is refining their instincts about where the loot is buried, which often involves finding characters who look and talk more or less like they do. They take plenty of wrong turns and they read a lot of junk along the way, but it mostly evens out in the end.
Here’s the funny thing: a young reader of twelve today, left to his or her own devices, is recreating exactly the same process that led to the creation of the science fiction community more than eighty years ago. Readers of that generation weren’t particularly picky. They were mostly limited to what appeared in the newsstand pulps every month, much of which was frankly terrible, and there weren’t any anthologies available. When you go back to read some of those forgotten stories now, it’s easy to wonder how the genre survived at all. But if it hung on so tenaciously, even as the magazines themselves struggled or folded, it was because of the urgent, primal need that it filled. When you’re reading to save your life, or to convince yourself that there’s something more to this world than the sticky hell of early adolescence, you’re not going to be overly discriminating in what you consume. This isn’t to say that fans couldn’t criticize the stories once they were done: one of the first things you notice when you go back to read the old letters columns in Astounding is how cheerfully the readers savage the magazines that they claimed to love. Tearing apart stories that don’t meet your standards is a pastime as honorable as fandom itself, and it only works when your confidence isn’t limited by your age or experience. Their opinions were idiosyncratic, unreasonable, prone to falling into violent disputes over tiny differences, and cobbled together from some of the least orderly reading lives imaginable. They were sorting it out for themselves, and the last thing you wanted was to tell them what to read—no more than you’d try to control a preteen who was discovering science fiction for the first time today. The only project that matters is the creation of the reader, and it emerges when it’s left mostly alone.
This doesn’t happen overnight. It might take six months, or twenty years. But once that reader bursts into existence—full of conviction, righteous prejudice, and disdain for the status quo—it becomes easier to see why it’s worth going back to those older writers. Along the way, the average fan will have read scraps of the old tradition here and there, but as soon as you go back to engage with it more systematically, it’s usually for a reason. As Paul Valéry said: “One only reads well that which one reads with some quite personal purpose. It may be to acquire some power. It can be out of hatred for the author.” And it’s fair to say that you can only arrive at these emotions after you’ve spent a while figuring out the genre for yourself. The reasons will differ widely between readers. You may read these stories so that you can cross a title off a list and say so, even if it’s just to a hypothetical interlocutor in your head. Maybe you’re starting to write your own stories, and you see yourself as “a wildcat miner drilling out resources that are shrinking,” in David Brin’s words, which means that you have to see what your predecessors have done for the sake of competitive advantage. You might be reading them solely with an eye to picking them apart. And you might even simply be reading these authors because you’ve heard from multiple sources that you’ll enjoy the hell out of the experience. None of these motivations is better than any other, and they probably only achieve their true strength in combination. But reading the stories of the past is just one aspect, and not always the most important one, of a reading life that can hardly help but assume its own unique, necessary form.
And along the way, something strange happens. If you’ve remained true to yourself, followed your nose, and expressed strong opinions in advance of having the knowledge to back them up, you discover that you’re part of a conversation that has been going on since long before you were born. The test for admission isn’t the mastery of any particular list of stories, but the fact of having been a certain kind of twelve year old—and it’s never too late to begin. Unlike most conversations, much of it took place in print, so you’ll eventually want to investigate what has been said before you arrived on the scene. You may not see much of yourself in the writers you discover, and they might not have seen much of themselves in you, but you also have more in common with them than you will with anyone else. Maybe you’ll only dig a little, or not at all, or maybe you’ll dig so deeply that it becomes an obstacle to your development in itself. But you’re building up an inner life that won’t look like any other, and you’ll spend much of it raiding other writers for parts. Sooner or later, I think, most readers realize that there are useful components that they won’t find if they confine themselves to the obvious: it’s how I felt when I discovered A.E. van Vogt, whom I never would have read if I hadn’t made a conscious effort to seek out these older stories. It will probably be someone else for you, and I can’t tell you who it will be or where to begin, although I’m happy to give you a list if you want it. All that matters is that you become the reader you were meant to be, who is both utterly unlike and surprisingly similar to all those who came before you. Because the only future science fiction has ever been good at predicting is that of its own readers.