Against Nostalgia

Science fiction as a genre is not compatible with nostalgia.

I’m not advocating ignoring the past as a writer, a reader, or a civic-minded human being. Knowing and understanding our history is not just important, it’s vital.

But we need to do that with clear eyes and deep understanding, not with a dreamy view of the “good old days.” Because those days weren’t all that damn good.

I’m thinking about this because of Jeannette Ng’s speech at the Hugos after being given the award for best new writer and also because I’ve been reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist.

Ng didn’t say anything the science fiction community didn’t already know when she called John W. Campbell as fascist. His blatant racism and misogyny was obvious in the editorials in his magazine and the way he made his authors write. I’m glad the name of the award is being changed.

His magazines were before my time, though I’ve read some of the good work published there in other places and have also read essays about what he did. I’m very glad I didn’t read his publications, because it’s possible they would have soured me on science fiction as a genre.

While I usually think those who disdain science fiction do so because they don’t like reading something where the place and story aren’t obvious on its face or because they think it’s pulp trash, it’s possible that some people rejected it long ago because of the influence of people like Campbell. Having come to serious reading of science fiction through the feminist writers of the 1970s, I missed all that and instead got a glimpse of what the genre could become.

Given the list of winners at the Hugos — which are fan awards and therefore a good marker of what the people who love their SF/F think is important — times have changed dramatically. I see no reason why Ng or anyone else needs to pay homage to Campbell, who is clearly going to be a marginal person in the genre if he’s mentioned at all fifty years from now.

Also, I don’t know why anyone thinks she should have declined the award because of the name attached to it. The award isn’t for writing something Campbell would have approved of, after all. It’s for being the favorite new writer among the fans. Campbell’s name got attached to it for some reason, probably misplaced nostalgia.

And that brings me back to why we science fiction has no room for nostalgia.

Fantasy does, perhaps. It’s a broader genre, one that exists whenever someone puts an element in a story that bends the rules of physics or biology or reality or at least our accepted understanding of those things at this point. I’m not interested in nostalgic fantasy, but rather in the stories where that bending of reality shows us more than we could see without it, but I suppose there’s room for stories that are built on dreaming about the past.

But science fiction? Science fiction is about possibilities, about the future, about what we can become. It can be hopeful, even utopian, or depressing and dystopic, or perhaps a combination.

Many of the stories published in the 1950s gave us those possibilities, but they did so in the trappings of their times. Confusing those trappings with science fiction makes us misunderstand what the genre is truly about. And being nostalgic about the trappings is silly.

The world that gave us those stories has changed, and stories set in outdated realities, even good ones, often don’t make sense to anyone who doesn’t live in that period. There are a lot of times when you need context, which doesn’t mean saying someone is a “product of their times” and skipping over what they did, but looking at other layers in the story (assuming it’s a story that’s worth spending that much time on).

These days the audience for science fiction is much broader than the mythical 13-year-old (white) boys the Golden Age fiction was supposedly aimed at. We have a strong need for science fiction that breaks us out of the misogyny and racism and colonialism on which so much of western culture has been built. And the audience is worldwide, drawing from their own cultures and experiences.

If you believe storytelling is a vital part of being human – and I do – you have to realize that there are a lot of ways to tell a story and a lot of different ideas of who might be the hero.

It’s possible to respect the contributions of those who have gone before us without indulging in nostalgia for a world that was never actually like the one they presented. It’s also possible to understand that some of the people who were powerful and important once upon a time are no longer worth remembering.

Maybe the solution is to stop putting people on pedestals. Treat everyone with respect, but don’t idolize people. No one can live up to that status, anyway, and anyone who wants to be worshipped in that manner probably isn’t worth your time, no matter how wonderful their prose may be.

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Against Nostalgia — 14 Comments

  1. Good Fantasy doesn’t “dream about the past”. It’s not nostalgia at all. The past, even the ancient past, still influences us. Where do you think misogyny comes from?
    Those old ways need to be examined so we be aware of their continuing power. Just to use my stuff as an example, a lot of Deverry concerns the honor code and the bad effects it has on the lives of everyone around the alpha males bellowing at each other. You can see the residue of this behavior in Trump and his minions and followers.

    • I agree about good fantasy. I was just thinking there might be room for nostalgia as well, though I wouldn’t care for it. And you’re definitely right about the need to examine old ways about to understand their continuing power.

      • I think I should make it clear that I don’t think most fantasy dreams about the past but rather uses it in interesting ways to give us new ideas. I just was speculating that there was more room for nostalgia stories there than in SF. I really wasn’t trying to make snide remarks about fantasy, only giving people who wanted to indulge in dreaming of the past an outlet.

  2. The thing is, Campbell’s brand of SF -was- nostalgia disguised as futurism. Men were men and pioneers and warriors, just like Davy Crockett. “The stars” were just new territories for Real Men to conquer. In one of the Heinlein juveniles, there is a line about “the housewives of Mars”. Consider the implications of that phrase.

    • Yep. That was my suspicion. Almost all of what I’ve read of Golden Age stuff had the equivalent of housewives in it. That drove me crazy in Asimov’s Foundation books even when I enjoyed some of the rest of the story.

  3. I have to disagree — or maybe I just define nostalgia a little differently. I think there’s plenty of room in SF for nostalgia that’s both affectionate and critical. I’m old enough to have grown up on Heinlein’s juveniles, and I still like love many of them, but that doesn’t mean I think they’re above reproach. And kids today and in the future may not see anything of value in them — and that’s ok too. Let them read newer stuff that speaks to them. SF is and has always been at least as much about the present as the future. For myself, I’m also fascinated by visions of futures past.

  4. I don’t object to reading the old stories and finding value in them. What I meant was writing new stories now based on a nostalgia for the parts of those stories, as what Kit mentioned above, about men as pioneers and warriors, not to mention the housewives. I like a lot of older stories; I just don’t want us to get stuck there.

    • As long as people think “Star Wars” is science fiction, we’re stuck. 🙂

      Back in the 80s, when heroic fantasy was becoming very big, there was a lot of screaming by established SF writers about how it was Ruining Everything. Nostalgia! People who wanted to live in the past!
      It was also supposed to be written by and for females until someone finally noticed that the big money went to men. This is were the term “FFW” comes from, female fantasy writer. It was not a compliment.

      • Pretty much all the nostalgia stuff that annoys me was written by men. Only so much imitation Tolkien I can handle. Women mostly use it to do interesting things, or at least the ones I read do. You certainly do.

        I’m very fond of Star Wars, but a lot of that is because when the first one came out in 1977, it upended movies in a useful, though not science fictional, way. Now that those effects are ordinary, I’d like to see people do something very different with movies. Very few catch my attention these days.

        • 1) “imitation Tolkien” is a whole different can of worms than nostalgia, I think, and it drives me bananas to watch lesser writers try to spark the Tolkien magic, fail miserably, and end up with feeble cookie cutter generic ‘fantasy’ that isn’t nostalgia it’s just BAD. I”m sorry if there are any fans out there but the whole Shannara experiment made me just MAD. There wasn’t an ounce of originality in that – someone else did all the heavy lifting and the so-called originator of the imitation series just slopped a bad coat of word-paint on something and then demanded respect for that. Gggaah. It ain’t nostalgia. It’s entitlement writ large.

          2) I’ve always thought of Star Wars as hybrid, as “science fantasy” rather than science fiction. That has its pros and cons, I guess. The thing about Star Wars is that it DID break my world into Before and After – and I would never be quite happy with a princess again if she wasn’t Leia 🙂 I remember walking into the cinema for the first time to see Star Wars when it came out in 1977 – I walked in one human being, and walked out another. it’s one of those “do you know where you were when” moments. It’s perhaps ludicrous to admit this…but when it first landed Star Wars was HUGE. It was watered down some over the years (which is why I found myself getting riled by a pair of pontificating teens in front of me in a line to go in and see the remastered SW movie in a theater when it came out lo many years later and it occurred to me that the opinionated teens WEREN”T EVEN BORN when the original movie had come out. It was a definite “get off my space lawn” moment…

  5. When I taught an eight-week unit on writing SF to my daughter’s class, I made an entire group of 4th graders explode when I told them that Star Wars was not Science Fiction. “But… but space! And robots! And aliens…”

    I walked them through different versions of the plot dressed up as a western, as a Viking saga, as an Revolutionary War saga (and those were just the Euro-centric settings). By the end they were beaten down enough to ask what was Science Fiction …

    I was kind, and didn’t suggest that the film Singin’ in the Rain could be considered SF. They’d been through enough. The notion that something in the past could examine the effect of technology on the social fabric would have been interesting, but too much.

    • Saying Star Wars is not science fiction may make my point more clear than anything else. I seem to recall that what drove George Lucas to make Star Wars in the first place was the idea of doing the likes of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers with good special effects. That’s nostalgia to the nth.

    • Writer Warren Norwood used to toss a thought bomb into panel discussions. He would say that most SF was fantasy. People would start yelling, and he would say “The Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke.

      Silence.

      Then the real discussion would begin.

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