What they can’t see yet is that something happened

Monday, April 9th, 2018

Jeffro notes that contemporary science fiction and fantasy is godawful and discusses how to handle this fact with less-enlightened fans of the genre:

At this point you mention that they should really check out the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard. Whatever it is that they like or dislike, one of these stories is going to be a perfect fit for this person. Recommend one… talk about how you were surprised at how good they were and how they weren’t what you expected they would be. And then shut up.

(Note 2: On the internet, the argument never stops. In real life… you have to downshift to have an impact.)

A couple weeks later they should have more to talk about. They will be blown away by somethings, left cold by others. Cut them some slack: these sorts of people are taking their first steps into a larger literary world. And holy cow. Think about it. Nothing in this fantasy addict’s life is pointing this person towards the work of Robert E. Howard except you. Which means that you got to be the one to introduce them to Howard. That’s just crazy awesome in and of itself.

I think that’s weird, really. To get to be that guy to someone in this way. But here’s the thing: if you can do it once with an author as significant as Howard, you can do it a half dozen times.

Because here’s you two weeks later: “Oh, you thought Howard was good? Well you’re gonna love C. L. Moore!” But they’re going to tell you they’ve never heard of C. L. Moore. This is where you look baffled. “You never heard of C. L. Moore? How can you not have heard of C. L. Moore?!” Tell them to go read “Shambleau”… and they will come back later to thank you for it.

Wait a couple of weeks and you can run the exact same gag again. “You never heard of Leigh Brackett? That’s insane! She wrote the scripts for The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and [the first draft of] The Empire Strikes Back. How can you not have heard of Leigh Brackett?!” Tell them to go read The Sword of Rhiannon.

There are other authors and stories you can drop on them depending on how they handle this. Heck, no matter what thing in fantasy or science fiction that they like best… they have no idea who it was that pioneered its original tropes or just how danged good the old authors were and how well their works stand the test of time.

But these sorts of people… they see nothing amiss in any of this at this point. They have no idea what has transpired within the critical space and the overall commentariat over the past few decades. Right now you are just some guy that has some positively stellar book recommendations which no one else in their lives seems to know about. They can intuit that they are looking at the fantasy and science fiction canon for the first time. They can see the astonishing literary quality of the old stuff. They can see that contemporary authors do not fare well in comparison. This is all self-evident.

What they can’t see yet is that something happened. But these people are in a very precarious position here. What does it take to push them over the edge? Just mention that these books and authors are routinely excluded from top 100 book lists and accounts of science fiction and fantasy history. Even watershed books like A Princess of Mars. What happens next is surprising. They won’t believe you. You can gently reiterate that it’s the case… but they will push back on this. This just doesn’t make sense. As far as they’re concerned… this CANNOT BE.

Fortunately, cell phones are ubiquitous enough now that someone can bring up the NPR list. Watch them as they go book by book mocking the more ludicrous entries. If they slogged through Patrick Rothfuss’s stuff, I’m sure they’ll have some choice words when they get to that one. Then watch the reaction when they get to the end and it sinks in that there’s not one mention of Edgar Rice Burroughs anywhere.

That’s right. In a couple of months they’ve gone from never having heard of the classic authors to being outraged that nobody else has.

Ask them to explain just what the heck happened? Or more importantly…. what is still happening.


  1. Ross says:

    “…the supposed “golden age” of exemplified by Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke…”

    He kind of lost me here.

  2. Kirk says:

    It’s not accidental that “science fiction”, such as it is, became unreadable dreck about the time the SJW types discovered it and colonized the genre.

    Which is tragic, because before they showed up, the genre was probably the most likely one to have subversive ideas about the things most of the SJW types mouth their pious words in theoretical support of. Hypocrites all, they deny that there were any authors in the genre who were saying the things they claim they believe in, before they arrived to “reform” the genre.

    Most of what they call “science fiction and fantasy” is entirely unentertaining and unreadable, these days. That ain’t accidental.

  3. Don Edwards says:

    Problem with the author’s proposal is that tastes vary so much.

    If I thought the Conan stories were typical of “good” F&SF, I wouldn’t be reading F&SF. But I’ve read quite a lot of much-better stuff, so now I’m trying to *write* F&SF.

  4. Isegoria says:

    I think it’s important to note that most Conan stories aren’t good, because most Conan stories are bad pastiches of the Robert E. Howard originals.

  5. Isegoria says:

    New Wave science-fiction author Michael Moorcock famously attacked the popular works of Tolkien (Lord of the Rings), C.S. Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia), and Richard Adams (Watership Down) as Epic Pooh.

  6. Harold says:

    ‘Even watershed books like A Princess of Mars.’

    I haven’t read Howard, but I have read Burroughs; I had to double-check that I was reading the right thing, since it seemed unbelievable that something so famous could be so bad.

  7. T. Greer says:

    I, um, liked Those Who Walk Away From Omelas.

  8. Kirk says:


    You have to read those things with the eyes of someone whose eyes are contemporary to the era. I found Burroughs and Howard as a kid, conducting archaeology in my grandparent’s library. As I was reading through all that, when I look back at it, I was more-or-less doing so as someone whose eyes were fresh to the material, and that had been exposed to what was contemporary (mostly…) to the era. From that standpoint? Both Howard and Burroughs are amazing. Compared to the most of the “state of the art” today? Turgid, archaic, and only interesting as a read-through to see where the original ideas were ripped off from. Everybody seems to think that modern SF and fantasy stuff is something new, but it ain’t. Jirel of Joiry, anyone? C.L. Moore vastly predates any of the various contemporary female SJW writers, and did far better at her work than they can every dream. And, most of them deny that women like her even existed, let alone got published.

    You have to look at those works through the eyes of a contemporary–We, who know Tolkien, and have seen the screen interpretations of the tropes in endless B-movies over the years…? We see that stuff as dated and trite, but when it came out? Lord… You have no idea what a huge, mind-expanding thing it was, when all you’d ever seen was endless piles of Hardy Boys and the usual turgid “young adult” fare of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

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