There’s a well-known journalistic book about my home state titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Written by James Agee with photographs by Walker Evans, the book chronicles the lives of poor white sharecroppers in Alabama during the Great Depression. As the book's title attests, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men essentially contrasts these sharecroppers with the so-called “famous” people society usually believes are so vital and important to life.
Often the people we think matter the most are forgotten the fastest. And those we ignore end up mattering the most.
I’ve been thinking about this truth lately and how it relates to the science fiction and fantasy genre. After all, ours is a passionate genre with a long and distinguished history. Millions of authors and readers and fans across the centuries created the fertile ground of today’s science fiction and fantasy. Even if only a few of these people are remembered, what they built lives on.
My grandfather was a big science fiction and fantasy fan, which was very unusual for someone in Alabama during the 1940s and ’50s. My first exposure to the genre was through the Golden Age pulp magazines which lined his bookshelves. Astounding Science-Fiction. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Galaxy. Thrilling Wonder Stories.
I still have many of his magazines, which are filled with authors both famous and unknown. As I write this the February 1953 issue of Startling Stories, with its subtitle of “Today’s Science Fiction — Tomorrow’s Fact,” sits on my desk. The magazine’s table of contents list several well-known SF authors including Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, and Philip Jose Farmer. Alongside them are authors few people read today, including George O. Smith, whose novel Troubled Star is the issue’s cover story. The magazine also contains works by authors such as Fletcher Pratt along with fans and editors like Jerome Bixby and Samuel Mines, all of whom have been forgotten thanks to the vagaries of time.
And that's not even touching on other reasons the contributions of some genre fans and authors have been overlooked, such as issues of race and gender and class. Just as James Agee and Walker Evans focused only on white people in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men even though some of the areas they visited had far larger black populations, so too did science fiction and fantasy for many years ignore the contributions of all the people who long embraced the genre.
But no matter whether SF/F authors and editors and fans are remembered or forgotten, they left their mark on our genre. We wouldn’t be where we are today without them.
Despite this, there’s a tendency in our genre — as in all things in life — to give credit for our genre’s success to a few big names. In science fiction there’s the Big 3: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein. In fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien is afforded a similar place of honor.
Last year I kicked up a small controversy when I said young people are not finding their way to SF/F through classic authors like Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and Tolkien. Which is true. New readers are discovering our genre through young adults novels and fiction by authors who weren’t even born when the Big 3 and Tolkien were alive.
And that's how it should be. Every generation discovers the authors who resonate with them. At that point they may dig into the older authors — the classics, if you will — who set the stage for their new gen love.
By pointing this out you’d think I’d blasphemed against all that’s holy is a SF/F world. People accused me of not being a true genre fan. They said I must have something against SF/F. That I hated Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and Tolkien.
Thankfully a number of authors and fans also reacted positively to what I wrote, including Hugo Award winning author John Scalzi. As Scalzi wrote in an essay responding to my comments, "The surprise to me is not that today’s kids have their own set of favorite authors, in genre and out of it; the surprise to me is honestly that anyone else is surprised by this."
Scalzi’s point — which I agree with — is that no one should expect new genre readers, and especially young readers, to find resonance with works originally written a half century ago. Scalzi says this would be like telling teenagers who want to see a movie about people their age to only watch the 1955 film The Blackboard Jungle. Yes, Scalzi said, that’s a fine movie, just as the classic works by the Big 3 are fine literature. But to expect these works to be the first exposure young people and new readers have to our genre is silly.
Young people are discovering our genre through works which speak to their generation's issues and concerns and ideas. The diverse books they're reading resonate with them in ways the Golden Age of SF doesn't.
A few years ago I was on a SF/F convention panel about bringing new readers into our genre. I mentioned that science fiction needed more gateway novels, which are novels new genre readers find both approachable and understandable (a type of novel the fantasy genre is filled with but which are more rare in the science fiction genre).
As I stated this another author on the panel snorted and said we don't need new gateway SF novels because the juvenile novels written by Heinlein in the 1950s are still perfect. This author believed the first exposure kids have to science fiction should be novels from the 1950s. And that this should never change.
That is the attitude people should fear because, in the long run, it will kill our genre.
This brings me back to my earlier point about the “famous” people our world holds up to acclaim. Yes, many famous authors helped build our genre, but so did the work and love of countless forgotten people.
Eventually we’re all forgotten by history. But maybe we’re also never truly forgotten as long as what we created lives on.
I love Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and Tolkien, all of whom were among the first genre authors I read. Their impact on our genre can't be ignored. With luck new readers will eventually discover these classic authors. But don't be shocked if that doesn't happen.
What matters is that as long as the science fiction and fantasy genre lives, a little bit of everyone who ever loved our genre will also live on. And that excites me more than arguing about the fate of a few famous names.