Should new writers know their SF history?

I’m between social engagements, and reading the introduction to The Mammoth Book of 20th Century Science Fiction. Editor David G Hartwell offers a cogent history of the SF genre through the last century, one that considers not just the genre but the field (the former defined as the body of texts, the latter as the people involved with creating them). Hartwell discusses SF as a literary tradition in it’s own right, a position I always argue for given half an opportunity.

(I’m not entirely in agreement with Hartwell’s argument. In particular his statement that SF is a literature that ‘expresses, represents and confirms faith in science and reason’ seems not so much outdated as occluded entirely from the other half of the SF literary tradition that does exactly the opposite. )

I was lucky enough to briefly meet David G. Hartwell (with whom I suddenly realise I share a middle initial!) at the World Fantasy Convention in San Jose, along with a number of other senior members of the SF community including Robert Silverberg. Later, explaining my speechless response to meeting such a legendary author to another delegte, I was met with a look of blank ‘Robert Who?’ In fact I was surprised at WFC by the number of people, many of them aspiring writers, who had a very narrow understanding of the history of the SF genre.

But is knowing the history of SF essential to becoming a writer in the genre? On the one hand SF can be considered as an ongoing conversation spanning decades. It you enter that conversation without knowing what has already been said, you are not liable to say much of interest to people who have been following the arguments unfold for decades. But on the other hand if SF is a genre that seeks to find meaning in modern life, raw responses to that life might be mire interesting than viewpoints filtered through the mirror shaded gaze of the SF genre.