Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Old Sci-Fi

I tend to buy lots of used books when I find them - at used bookstores, at thrift stores, at charity sales. This kind of makes me the opposite of Carlo, who has a new-book fetish and must own only perfection. I really don't mind if the cover is scratched and a little torn, if some pages are dog-eared, if the spine is creased and cracked. I'll put up with aesthetic deterioration for the price difference relative to new books. New bookstores, such as Chapters, are still dangerous for me - I also have a book fetish (or perhaps just an obsession), just not as specific as Carlo's.

Currently, I'm reading a book I found at a Value Village; a collection of short stories by Arthur C. Clarke titled "Tales of Ten Worlds". Used books are rarely new books; I cannot keep up with the latest works, and own almost nothing by younger authors. So you might say I have many "classics". Or not, I actually don't care much for the work of Asimov or Bradbury, for example.

Anyways, lots of these stories, short or novel-length, contain many cliches. By themselves, these cliches are mildly irritating, at worst, and can be freely ignored except where the story hinges on them. The cliches I really tend to notice are those that depend on the author and reader being of a particular time period. One of the short stories in this book, "Hate", for example, hinges on the discovery at the end of the story (spoiler warning!) that a hidden character is actually female. The twist at the end comes from the main character's casual murder of a person inside a submerged space capsule, who one is meant to assume is male - and therefore, presumably, it's somehow much worse to murder a woman (she's also described as "beautiful") than a man.

Other stories provide the familiar moral of "old ways can serve when new-fangled technology inevitably fails" - like "Into the Comet", in which the failed computer is replaced by the entire crew of a spaceship working with hastily-assembled abacuses.

Most of these short stories, in fact, seem to be built on assumptions about how the world works that have since become obsolete. Women are more valuable and more timid than men, humans and animals are strictly separate (there's a story about an uplifted chimpanzee), hedonism invariably leads to destruction, and so on.
I've met these themes in other works from this period - most of the stories in this book were written between the years 1959 and 1970. As I said, once or twice in a book, these cliches are excusable - but sometimes an entire volume is like this.

Have we really come so far in attitudes in 50 years? Are there many septegenarians who still think this way, who are surprised and shocked when the motorcycle helmet comes off to reveal long dark hair?

Recently, the Globe and Mail ran an article about the rapid pace of social change in Spain. Apparently, the country has gone from stereotypical-conservative-Catholic to very liberal (gay marriage and massive immigration) in about 15 years. Canada itself is one of a handful of countries to legalize gay marriage, and has remarkable support for immigration, so one might think of us as being on a "leading edge".

So why did so few of the great Science Fiction authors of 50 years ago fail to anticipate these changes? Few of the technological changes presented in these books are particularly correct - no moon colonies yet, to take the most obvious example - so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that they failed to consider social innovations.

Bah, I'm just rambling on about the failings of Science Fiction as a predictive art form - that's not what it's really for, so I should stop whining. But if I can't whine here, on my own personal (free) blog, where can I whine?

*I wanted to post a picture of Tales of Ten Worlds, but I couldn't find one of the cover I have.


Carlo said...

I will post a more relevant comment eventually, but here's a little story:

I recently read a book called Harshini by Jennifer Fallon (I recommend her work, she's a very insightful fantasy author). Anyways, when I was almost at the end of the book, I dropped it, scuffing the spine... It drove me CRAZY. I couldn't stop thinking about it while reading. I finished the book and couldn't STAND having it on my shelf, so I bought it AGAIN, and gave the old one away.

I prefer books with dark black or red covers, as I can usually find a marker or model paint to remove all obvious flaws...

I'm crazy.

Carlo said...

Alright, my second comment.

I find most fiction out there to be extremely painfull. What I can't understand is why most authors cannot ever seem to rise above cliches and make their characters more "real".

From years of the reading, and studying the art of story telling, one theme seems to stand out: The best, most memorable and culturally pervasive stories, are those in which the reader can identify with the characters in the story.

This is partially why mythological figures were used as metaphors. In Greek myth, for example, each figure had distinct, recognizable, human vices and virtues, and thus could be made to relate to the people listening to the story...

But I digress. An example in novels that I hate is the concept of "true" love. Why do the male and female lead always have to be dorky virgins that fall in love at first site, but only hook up at the end? Why don't they hook up right away, or learn to like/hate each other over time?

Why is the villain/tyrant always Orwellian? Why can't the tyrant be more manipulative/secretive? Roger Ebert calls this the "Bad Good-Villain Principle". It goes like this: If a villainous character does anything good, he will eventually do something senslessly, horribly evil, just to remind the viewers/readers that they shouldn't feel sympathetic... WHY NOT? Not all villains were psychopaths!!!

Oh well, anyways I've read many, many cliched plots. Maybe I'll write a post about them...

TheBrummell said...

Carlo said: I'm crazy.

Yes, you certainly are. But so is everyone, at least you know what your particular psychosis is, and it's not a really nasty one. It seems to just cost you a bit of money.

Mine is "Delusions of Vandeur". Again, fairly harmless, but does cost (lots of) money. I'll explain that one in a full post, or maybe even a series of post.

If you're going to go crazy, you might as well go crazy BIG.