The past is another country… And they’d laugh their a**es off at us if we went there.
It struck me for the first time a few years ago on that Tor symposium on Heinlein that humans – perhaps all humans – have a necessity to view history as a ladder and themselves – or their generation, their kind, their club, their kin – at its pinnacle.
To a certain extent, for a long time, this view was encouraged by the sheer material success and each generation being a little better off than the last – and to an extent a little more knowledgeable, a little more in control of their environment.
But what happens when something is in decline? When a civilization hits one of those potholes that it does hit? (Note that like the Heinlein quote above I believe the future is always better than the past – but there are areas where the golden age turns to silver, or bronze, or saw dust. And there are places and times where the clock of control/comfort/civilization runs backward. Inevitable. Humans are humans and civilizations are composed of humans, so they can’t just march straight forward like machines.
What I’ve seen is that when material civilization and objective markers of achievement have marched backwards, we tend to compensate with moral preening.
Hence, the middle ages (yes, I know, there wasn’t a total collapse. The collapse was greatly exaggerated, etc. BUT in many of the places the hey day of Pax Romana was followed by the strife and squirmish of the barbarians, invasions, warring petty lords. And yes, a lot of the daily comforts were lost, because a lot of the trading was lost.)
Of course, even the most dirt poor peasant in the Middle Ages could and did preen himself on being a Christian, not like those pagans. Now, I’m not going to knock down the moral merits of Christianity versus paganism, nor is this a place for it. (I think part of the exceptional qualities of the Western civilizations are because of first Rome and then Christianity. But that’s not the point here. The point is that–) Often these Christians weren’t particularly Christian. Improperly digested catechizes and a lifetime of tilling the ground for subsistence gave a veneer of Christianity to a lot of pagan superstition. (No, you can’t argue that. That still described probably ¼ the Christians I grew up with. Things get passed on…) And some of the pagans were neo-platonic and probably fairly close to the Christian ideal.
This didn’t stop the preening or the sense of attainment.
I wonder how the culture warriors today would react to being compared to those fairly ignorant peasant Christians who nonetheless preened on the certainty they were better than their forebears because they were more “moral?”
No, wait, I know exactly how they’d react. Yes, I’m smiling right now.
But in point of fact, that’s exactly what they’re like. No, our material civilization hasn’t collapsed. And if we’re very lucky (brother, it hurts to type with my fingers all crossed) it won’t. But to an extent – knowledge, ability, craftsmanship and what the French call savoir faire – it has been on a downward trend for a while.
If you want to know why, look at the demographic bulge of the boomers and the idea of the time (visible in a lot of Heinlein books) that the next generation would be bigger than the last. A lot of this is not the BOOMERS’ fault as such, but the fault of those who gave on teaching on controlling “that many kids” – and of course on the few rotten apples who took over colleges and demanded easier curriculums.
There was a belief that whatever the young wanted was “right.” This combined with a lot of fast changes after World War II and…
Sometimes I feel like my generation (no, not boomers, again, simply on experience. Our class sizes were shrinking, by then) has spent most of its life learning stuff no one taught us. From religious doctrine to how to cook from scratch, I had to go out and learn on my own, because the people who were supposed to teach me were either boomers who’d never learned, or the generation before them who had “given up on that old stuf.”
There are certain arts of living, like how to iron a shirt properly, or a lot of home maintenance, which I had to discover like… an archeologist digging through the past.
And in my field, specifically, a novel from the bad old pulp years could outsell a modern novel (you know, full of significance and meaning, but often nothing else) by a factor of a hundred.
Yes, I’ve heard the excuses “movies, television, games.” To which I say Mierda de Toro. And possibly caballo too.
These entertainment forms don’t supersede each other. And besides, there are still a lot of us who read by preference, for entertainment. And we often have trouble finding anything to read… and often end up re-reading those old pulps.
I wonder if there’s authors out there who don’t know this? Perhaps at this point the reflex to attack the pulps and the writers of the past is just that, a reflex, and not for a reason the authors know.
Or perhaps they know it. Perhaps they know they’re in a diminished age, and their craft, their ability to engage the reader and drag him through the story is not what those other writers’ was. Perhaps deep inside they suspect it, at the very least.
Because lor’ there is enough moral preening to sink a boat.
Someone posted in my conference a link to an author interview, where the interviewer and the writer were agreeing she was not “like the rest of science fiction.”
I speak fluent Female Prog Bragging, so this was like waving a red (eh) flag in front of a bull. I said some unkind things, and my husband (!) sprang to the defense. My friend Dorothy calls her husband “calmer half” – well mine is “reasonable half.” And you see, he didn’t grow up in a Marxist country, so he is not as attuned to signs of trouble. He gives people the benefit of the doubt.
He said she really might be different and new and good, even if she sounded a little literary. And then he went and downloaded five chapters of one of her novels.
And he was disappointed. He said it wasn’t so much because it wasn’t that… interesting, but because it was so “generic” – like every other SF out there, written by a woman of a certain generation and appealing to a certain demographic. And he asked me “How can she think it’s unique?”
And then I had to explain that – like the people who object to “male dominated science fiction” – these people are not in fact comparing themselves to any science fiction that exists… or existed.
Even in the fifties there were women writing science fiction and women tended to play a greater role in SF than in many parts of real life. Certainly than in any literature but Romance.
They have never read Heinlein (they might have skimmed till they found something to be offended at, but that’s not the same.) They certainly have never read Simak, or Schmitz, or even Asimov (though strangely, given his politics, one often got the impression HIS women were mere props. Never mind.) And I don’t have time/inclination/spoons left to go over my bookshelf and quote other names from the fifties, sixties, seventies… not to mention today. And let’s do keep in mind that the seventies were FIFTY years ago, and that we had plenty of women writing both SF and Fantasy. (I am writing a thing about that for PJmedia.)
And yet, today, women can without a trace of irony make the following statements, (I’ve heard them, in panels) – my novel is totally different. It has a strong female main character. (No, really? Astound us. Is there a strong male character that’s not legacy still being published? In recent years?) and “I’m not like all those old pulp science fiction novels. I care about ideas and what they mean to people.” (You mean, like whether an ant-like civilization would be preferable to human; or what happens when a supercomputer runs the world; or what happens when a cloud becomes intelligent; or the complexities of rebuilding a civilization built on the Catholic church after a nuclear holocaust; or whether our dreams exist in another dimension; or– Those pulp non-ideas?) Or – in fact, over the recent kerfuffle – how they’re writing stories about people of different genders, you know, away from the stifling conquering male of the past… or… how YA (interview above) had no cache for years and years (really? It wasn’t a preferential genre, but it was as well regarded as the rest of sf/f. Maybe better regarded. At least since the mid century.)
Do they really believe this? Are they so devoid of knowledge of the field that they believe that all that lies behind there is cartoon-like sci fi, not even rising to the level of Star Trek?
Surely not. These writers, so surely they read. And the evidence of the past is very much with us.
On the other hand, reading past giants is like to make present day pigmies aware of their lack of reach. Much easier to preen and pretend to moral superiority. Even if that can only be maintained by never reading those people you deride. Much easier to keep claiming “but we’re better” by pretending the past was this comic-bookish simple place where simple souls lived; simple souls steeped in the sins of sexism, racism, homophobia, classism and whatever the latest “privilege” of the day is.
This disturbs me, because I hate to see history raped. BUT it is easier.
Much, much easier. Because we know we don’t have the sales numbers. But if we can say we are more moral, more evolved, we’re still better. They were discriminatory meanies, and we’re not!
And that all that sense of superiority and $3 will get them a cup of coffee.
Will studying the masters fix the problem. Probably not. Attracting readers back will take time. And studying the masters will take also knowing their time and what appealed to their time that won’t work in ours. (Jane Austen, for instance, wrote markedly less visual books than we do. No TV among her audience, so techniques were different.) It involves reading old and new or and what is different, and what to keep and ditch of both. And it involves actually trying to be original and think for yourself.
Or you can continue fighting a phantom and claiming you won. It’s not like any of those guys from pulp years are going to complain after all.
But what will the future think of us? And how hard will they laugh at our pretensions?