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that SF is a literature that ‘expresses, represents and confirms faith in science and reason’ seems not so much outdated as occluded entirely from the other half of the SF literary tradition that does exactly the opposite.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.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

12 thoughts on “Should new writers know their SF history?

  1. I’m always on the side of lack of ignorance. But I think it’s equally important if not more so to have a wide and deep knowledge of fiction generally, including samplings from before the twentieth century.

    The research for our weird antho having erased some of my reading gaps, it was fascinating to see, in that context, which modern writers held up and which didn’t.


    1. But I think it’s equally important if not more so to have a wide and deep knowledge of fiction generally, including samplings from before the twentieth century.

      This, this is an important point that I agree with. I think a wilful ignorance of all literature is a flaw, and that limiting one’s self to just genre fiction is a bad idea. This isn’t, for me, about reading widely so that one avoids cliché from all areas of fiction , but so that one has the ability to recognize and work with what can be considered cliché ideas to write something more than the sum of its parts.

      That, and I’d argue that it is very good for someone’s personality to have read widely.

      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.

      I could address this whole paragraph, as I’m certainly in the chest thumping side of the SF is really about the modern day, but I won’t because I’m rather enjoying my wine and suspect I’d overfill the reply box. My argument for being well read extends into history and current affairs from previous years, as well as the literature of those distant and not so distant times. If you are going to write about the present you need to be aware of how the past was written about as it was happening. These are your case studies to learn from and build on.


  2. The field is so big now that it is impossible to have read everyone but it is hard to justify not having heard of an author of Silverberg’s stature. There may be reasons older writers slip from popular memory but Silverberg has published significant and acclaimed work within even the youngest contemporary writer’s lifetime.

    Our constant criticism of mainstream authors slumming it in genre is that they reinvent the wheel badly, but it seems that some genre writers do the same.


  3. To enjoy science fiction I don’t think you necessarily need to have read widely either across genres or within the one we particularly enjoy. It helps, if you want to have an academic discussion about the subject, but we shouldn’t criticise ignorance, just encourage and signpost those novels, and sometimes short stories, that we have found to be rewarding in some way.


  4. There isn’t enough time in the day to read all the new books coming out, much less to read every single masterwork and make a study of a genre. There are so many books out there that I just read what I expect to enjoy. Reading is a one of my greatest pleasures. I don’t want to have to work hard. If that colours my own writing one way or another I’ll likely never know.

    I feel more at home with the latter half of your final paragraph. I don’t feel the need to be part of an ongoing conversation, although I love the idea that this happens. I guess I’d just be useless in a literary discussion.


  5. Hm… Ignorance and blank looks are my specialty. :-)

    Still, I prefer the read what rocks your heart method of reading. I think that writers need to read loads of all kinds of writing: non-fiction, brain batteringly literary, fluff, zingy action, perfectly constructed mysteries, glorious poetry, sharp journalism, and so on and so forth. Without that kind of variety, you’re turning up your nose at all kinds of possible colors in your palette.


  6. Nope, it certainly was not you Kurashige. Although you have given me enough blank stares about SF writers that it easily good have been! I agree with you Will and Jeff that SF writers have to read broadly both fiction and non-fiction. I could do with a few perfectly constructed mysteries, I don’t read in that genre at all.

    Kevmcveigh – I’ve been guilty of that criticism of mainstream authors. However, while its sometimes true, I think we might as a genre need to concede that some of those mainstream authors are actually doing considerably more sophisticated things than we sometimes give them credit for. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road being a case in point.

    Terry – I agree with not criticising to a certain point, but at the same time there are many authors in the SF field who practice almost a deliberate ignorance of their own genre and mainstream literature and I think that, sometimes, criticism is valid.

    Sam – I think reading purely for pleasure can be enough, especially if you are writing the kind of fiction that gives you pleasure. But is there a place for fiction that is challenging there as well? Things that are difficult and stretch us as readers?


  7. I think it’s important to be knowledgeable about some of SF’s foundational writings, but this question rapidly becomes like a canon argument in mainstream literature. Should an aspiring SF author have read Asimov? Heinlein? Lovecraft? Sturgeon? Le Guin? Who to put in the list and who to leave off?

    I think it’s OK to follow your nose, and find your history that way. I read “Forever War” by Haldeman, and only afterward realized that there was this book called “Starship Troopers” that was being referenced. For me, Heinlein came second, even though I know the dates.

    And when I read a book that seems like it’s mining a theme from another book, I wonder if it is intentional. Adrian Tchaikovsky has ornithopters and animal-totem warriors in “Empire in Black and Gold,” reminding me of the Granbretan in Moorcock’s Hawkmoon.

    Of course, I love history. I think it’s important to understand the history of science & engineering, too. On the way from London to Cardiff, I surprised a colleague when I knew the Severn was the river spanned by the first iron bridge ( So maybe my view on SF history is not exactly mainstream.


  8. One of the things about genre fiction of any kind is that people come at it from a variety of roads. I’d think that particularly in SFF, it’s become diverse enough as a field that new writers can want to work in the form without having walked through the traditional canon. (I’d argue that’s a good thing, by the way.)

    A lot of us read Silverberg as kids, and that childhood reading was what led us to a love of genre. If new writers are coming at it from being turned on by someone like China Miéville as adults, they may have missed Silverberg completely and still fairly claim to be interested in the field.

    I’m all for the notion of knowing and learning more about the conversation you participate in as a writer. And a con like that seems like a great place to learn more and find the roads you may have missed. Still, I’d be a little bit careful of setting up a canon of people Who One Must Have Read If One Has Writerly Pretensions.


  9. “could do with a few perfectly constructed mysteries, I don’t read in that genre at all.”
    There is, of course, the classic SF mystery novel “The Caves of Steel” by Asimov. Published in 1958, it is way ahead of its time in many ways, though now dated in small things. Many times exploited as a source by other SF writers, I’m sure.
    For current detective fiction, you can’t do better than Michael Connelly or Ian Rankin, imo.



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