The British music magazine Word had a discussion on its site a few years ago about a common phenomenon in gig-going. Your favorite band releases a new album, but it’s not as good as the stuff they did 3 or 5 years ago. Nonetheless, you go along to see them play live out of a sense of loyalty or somesuch. Inevitably, they insist on leading off with a series of songs from the new album. You feel grumpier and grumpier because their attitude seems to be about disdain for their history – the history that got you interested in them in the first place. And the heckle rises in your throat: “Play some old!” (Word used to have a T-shirt bearing this slogan, but no more, it seems.)
All this came to mind earlier today when I saw that Jonathan McAlmont had tweeted, “If SF isn’t dead then why is 50% of Tor.com made up of posts about really old books? Someone called Leigh Butler is reading Robert Jordan.” Since a good 90% of my work for Locus is made up of writing about “really old books” – at least those more than a few decades old – I thought this might be the time to do a post about the why and how of that. I can’t speak for tor.com , of course, or even for Charles Brown and the rest of the editorial team at Locus. And to be fair to Jonathan, a) he may have been exaggerrating for rhetorical effect; b) the 140-character format of Twitter doesn’t allow for much nuance in argument; c) there was a further exchange with Niall Harrison in which he modified his position a bit. Niall: “I like Jo Walton’s re-reads, but I do find the re-reading LOTR/Jordan/rewatching Trek/etc stuff interminable.”; Jonathan: “Jo Walton’s just good value all round. she’s the only reason I bother to check the site. The rewatching thing is weird tho”
I started doing the “Yesterday’s Tomorrows” column for Locus in the summer of 2006 at the suggestion of Charles Brown. His rationale was that he wanted a sense of whether the classics of science fiction stood up to reading now by a relatively young reader. (How I got to count as someone “relatively young” is an issue we’ll pass over, thankyou very much.) From my point of view, the rationale for doing them has been slightly different. As a reader of sf and, in particular, a reviewer, there’s a kind of compulsion to keep up with the state of the field at present. One of the reasons I took on the column was that I thought, beyond a certain point, this was unhealthy. I don’t make any prescriptions for readers in general, but I’m certain that as a reviewer the more you augment your sense of the history of the field you’re working in, the better.
That’s all very well for me, but what value is the column, then, for readers? My sense, from those people I’ve talked to, is that it’s useful for people because they want an idea of the way into the canonical works of science fiction. It’s for that reason I’m glad I get to write about an author’s body of work rather than just a single novel – I like to try and give a sense of how someone’s career evolved, how things changed, and what works were turning-points for them. I often have to write the column in a state of what I call willed innocence – ignoring, for instance, the secondary literature that’s sprung up since a given author published. (You need to make exceptions every once in a while, though; my next column is on van Vogt, and I don’t think you can read him without talking about Damon Knight’s famous attack on him.) I’d note as well that several other people are doing similar work in looking back at classic sf. Jo Walton’s posts on tor.com are indeed terrific (here’s her latest one on Samuel R Delany’s Nova), and there’s also Sam Jordison in the (UK) Guardian, covering all the Hugo novel winners in chronological order, and Robert Silverberg in his Asimov’s Reflections (scroll down). So us lot at Locus HQ are clearly not the only people who think this kind of work is useful.
None of this, though, answers Jonathan’s real question: what does it say about sf if we’re spending all our time looking back? Well, from my point of view, I’m not that worried, so long as it’s not the only thing we’re doing. My column is only one of half a dozen in Locus, and all the others talk about more contemporary work. I personally don’t follow the posts on tor.com covering Robert Jordan or Star Trek, but that’s because I’m not especially interested in Robert Jordan or Star Trek. Sf is a broad enough church that you ought to be able to tolerate someone liking different stuff from you. And I think there’s a reason specific to science fiction for doing this kind of retro reviewing. More intensely than any other genre I can think of, science fiction tends to be about critiquing and revising predecessors. So, say Charles Stross revises and intensifies much of what’s in Bruce Sterling’s work and Sterling in turn revises Bester, and so on and so on… (Or, indeed, Firefly builds on Blake’s Seven, which builds on Star Trek, which builds on van Vogt…) So even more than with most fields, in science fiction you don’t know where you are unless you know where you’ve come from.
The problem with “Play some old!” as a slogan is the assumption – in the story I told at the start – that the new album isn’t as good as the older stuff. That’s not an assumption I share. The one thing I will say about tor.com is that a critique of them for being backwards-looking seems a little odd given that Tor’s main business is putting out a bunch of new books every month. Presumably they have some success with that, since they’ve been doing it for a few years; which in turn suggests that the sf community is perfectly open to reading new works. But new works get discussed all over the place. If Tor and Locus and a bunch of other venues find that their readers want to pause and reflect and look back, why not provide a space for them to do that?
The final thing to say on this subject – since I’m here, and since it’s relevant – is that “Yesterday’s Tomorrows” will slowly be moving to cover more recent authors. This is a change I discussed with Charles Brown last year but, given lead-times and backlogs it’s only happening slowly. We both felt that we were running out of “Golden Age” authors to cover, and so moving to more recent authors was a logical step. The column in the June Locus on Octavia Butler was a first step in that direction; more will follow (subscribe!). If there are any authors you’d especially like me to cover, comment away.
 Only after it had been running for a year or two did I realise that I’d unconsciously filched the title from a Kate Wilhelm novella published a couple of years before. I hope to atone by covering Kate Wilhelm in the column before too long.