Since the first book I wrote was a science fiction novel, it shouldn’t be a surprise that over half of the books on my bookshelf or in my tablet are of that genre. If you jump past “Dick and Jane” and the children’s classics of Dr. Seuss, I’m pretty sure that the first actual book I read was Tom Swift and His Flying Lab, followed shortly by A Wrinkle in Time. My local library always had the latest Tom Swift books, so it didn’t take me long to get current on the series.
By the time I was ten I had graduated from juvenile books to adult science fiction. That required a complicated dodge on my part to get by the watchful eye of the librarians but, with the help of a sympathetic adult, I made a surreptitious jump into the worlds of Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke.
Life was never the same for me after that. Those authors, and others, taught me how to wonder and question. They taught me that asking why not was just as important as asking why. They taught me how to dream. That lead to a career as an engineer and a lifetime filled with pushing one technological envelope after another. In many ways I owe a debt to those great writers and it’s a debt I’ll never be able to repay.
A few days ago I was having a conversation with a young man in his early twenties. He’d just finished reading Chara’s Promise and wanted to tell me that he’d liked it. During the conversation, I asked him who his favorite writers were and he named Peter F. Hamilton, Orson Scott Card, Stephen Baxter and Kim Stanley Robinson. Good writers all and surely an impressive list.
Then, based on his list, I said, “I’ll bet you like Heinlein too.” My jaw dropped when he said that he’d never read Heinlein. He knew of him vaguely and knew that he wrote science fiction, but had never actually picked up and read one of his books. I dug further. He’d watched the movies Starship Troopers and The Puppet Masters, but didn’t know that either had been based on Heinlein novels. He’d never read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Time Enough for Love, or Friday. When I was in high school, Stranger in a Strange Land was required reading; this young man had never heard of it.
Obviously, the reading list of one young man isn’t indicative of the genre as a whole, but it did start me thinking. A well crafted science fiction novel is a combination of good plot, well developed characters and either a sprinkle or high pressure flood of, as Rod Serling would say, “the improbable made possible.” The implications of that last bit are what makes science fiction’s hold on the term “classic” tenuous. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a chilling tale that obviously met the definition of science fiction long before the term was coined. With today’s medical breakthroughs, is it still? The technology in Jules Verne’s novels was highly speculative and improbable when they were written. Today that technology seems old fashioned and quaint. Are Frankenstein and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea still great novels? Certainly. Are they still fine examples of early science fiction? Of course. Do they still have the same broad readership? Almost certainly not.
Which makes me wonder, with the rapid advancements in technology we’re experiencing today, how long will it be before the novels of Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke become Wikipedia footnotes? I hold each of those Grand Masters of science fiction with great esteem but, when I re-read one of their novels, even I notice how dated much of the technology is. How long will it be before new readers find those novels and the technology they contain “quaint”?
With any luck I’ll be long gone before the names Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke are no longer mentioned with reverence by science fiction readers. Until then I’ll do my best to ensure that they stay firmly set on the pedestal they’ve earned. My oldest grandchild is just starting to read well. As soon as she’s ready, I’m going to give her a copy of A Wrinkle in Time. She’ll probably want to read it on her tablet but that’s OK; I checked and it’s available as an ebook. After that. maybe I’ll give her Podkayne of Mars.
For now, I feel a need to reconnect with my roots. So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go find my copy of Foundation and start re-reading it. I’ll have to hurry though. I want to make sure that I get through it before the Kepler Space Telescope finds Terminus.