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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Literary Explorations: Rethinking the Classics -- Ringworld and the Golden Age (Brief Thoughts)

One of my colleagues recently asked me whether I think he should finish reading Ringworld by Larry Niven.  While he didn't say so directly, I assume that he isn't enjoying his first foray into the Known Space universe.  There are probably a lot of good reasons for that.  His research interests lean toward the last 30 years of science fiction, with special attention to works that fall loosely into the cyberpunk, biopunk, and ecocriticism categories -- authors like Paolo Bacigalupi, William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, etc.  He's made a solid effort to read the classics, though, since knowing about the history of the genre is important to the scholarship.

Personally, I think Ringworld is a fascinating book that falls prey to its age.  True, it is one of the most important works of science fiction ever written.  True, it has affected genre in profound ways.  But it is also a work that doesn't connect as well with contemporary audiences as it did in the decades immediately following publication (1970).  That said, it has not aged as much as the works
of the Golden Age, which have suffered the effects of time more acutely than the stuff from the New Wave.
My first foray into the Known Space Universe
was via an abridged audiobook of Ringworld.
I think this is simply what happens to all literature over time.  While we still read Dickens, Bronte, Faulkner and Hughes today, we do so primarily because they are "classic" writers (with some exceptions, of course).  The real discussion these days surrounds works that have more relevance to the now, from O'Connor and McCarthy to O'Brien and Wallace to Adichie and Atwood.  The list goes on and on.  I don't think this is a revelation, though.  That's just how literature works -- like any other field.  We don't become stuck in time, as it were.

Science fiction, however, has been accused of having the exact opposite problem:  the Golden Age and so on and so forth are viewed nostalgically, not as stepping stones in a much larger literary movement.  I'm not convinced this is wholly true, but it is certainly true in some cases -- Myke Cole would probably agree.  We are often so focused on what were great works "back then," and not on the great works of "just a short while ago" or "now."  "We" as in "the community."  That's not our fault really.  Because most of us think of science fiction as having that "sensawunda" feel, it becomes increasingly difficult to surprise.  So we go back to a time when SF did what we want "all" SF to do, in a way that seems or feels like it's divorced from the unfortunate and material reality we all live in.  Golden Age/Classic SF doesn't care about how the world really turned out and what that might mean for future generations (so the nostalgic argument goes); it just wants to take us to the future, to show us grand adventures, exciting technologies and peoples, and so on and so forth.
Whatever you might think of the classics, the idea of a
giant ring world is still pretty amazing. 
But for someone who doesn't have that experience, these works feel dated.  Lost.  Even somewhat overwhelming in their "simplicity" and "tone" (illusions, of course).  Ringworld, then, is a book that simply falls prey to a duality in genre:  the folks I'll call the Sensawundas and the others (the Contemporaries).  Some might say the Sensawundas are winning...

What do you think about the classics?  In particular, what do you think of Ringworld?  What did you think of it when you first read it?  The comments are yours.

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3 comments:

  1. I'm not sure that a sense of wonder is a bad thing. Nor one that is as exhaustible as you seem to think.

    On the other hand, Ringworld did age badly. I think of a lot of that has to do with social commentary Niven was making as a man who largely already estranged from youth and popular culture at the time he wrote it.

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  2. I honestly don't think "Sensawunda" is what separates the Golden Age (GA) writers from contemporary SF writers. When I look at a lot of contemporary works -- 2312, The January Dancer, The Quantum Thief -- they have, in my opinion, even more sensawunda than GA works. It's just that the genre (both SF and novel) is maturing.

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  3. One difference between then and now is all of the computer graphics on TV and in movies. Back then the reader had to envision what was described without having seen lots of computer generated images of things that were impossible to create. Does science fiction need different characteristics to be appealing now?

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