Tuesday, December 25, 2012

On the Undervaluation of Present-Day Creativity

This developed from a comment to this post on Livejournal.

Historically, there is a tendency to overvalue the average merit of past works, because we only KNOW of the BEST past works. To take my own specialty, I have read some really great Interwar science fiction stories. Since I began producing and editing Fantastic Worlds, I have published some of them. And, I have also read some amazing garbage that managed to get published in the Interwar Era. I'd never encountered the bad Interwar science fiction before because I'd only read the anthologies, and only the better stories get anthologized.

Now, I'm drawing my stories mostly from Astounding and other major interwar sf magazines, no less. That means I'm picking from the best Interwar science fiction. There were far worse stories written, which ran in obscure magazines, fanzines, or didn't run at all. Ever wonder what it must have been like to be Harry Bates or John W. Campbell reading the slush? I think I know now why Campbell cultivated his famous "stable" of writers -- he was tired of wading through the slush!

Also, whole genres get stigmatized or trivialized. I personally think that, for instance, J. R. R. Tolkien stands the comparison with the greatest writers of the 19th century and before. More controversially, I think that Dreamworks and other modern animation studios are producing comedy and drama as gripping and (sometimes) timeless as anything done by the Elizabethans or the Ancient Greeks.  But the first is "mere" fantasy and the second "just for children."

I am currently (re-) reading Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky (1999), and I am awed at rediscovering the complex characterization, the elaborate worldbuilding, the complex plot (two major story lines, involving three distinct civilizations, which weave together into one by the story's end), and the awesomely philosophical themes. It compares favorably with anything ever done by H. G. Wells or Jonathan Swift, to name two prominent writers of very different classic science fiction tales.

But do we (well, most of us) think of this as "great" on the same scale? Do we even think of it as being as good as, say, Isaac Asimov's Foundation series or Robert A. Heinlein's "Future History"? No, because we grew up awed by Sophocles and Shakespeare and Twain and Campbell and Clarke, whereas A Deepness in the Sky is so recent that a child born the same year would now just be beginning to form his opinions of literature.

More, do we think of Western science fiction as being "great" on the same scale as Elizabethan or Classical Greek drama? No, because we are living now in the time of its production, so we see it warts and all: we read anthologies including huge piles of steaming cliche-ridden crap and sometimes fail to notice the flowers that grow from the fertilized fields. Anyway, it's harder to make a mythic being out of a writer you can meet at a convention or argue with on Usenet than it is to idealize Jane Austen or Christopher Marlowe or Aeschylus.

If you look at the writers and genres of 50+ years ago which we today consider great, you may notice a pattern:  much of the work (and genres) that we today consider to be great was considered then to be trivial.  And much of what contemporary production the critics considered to be important we today find trivial, dated, almost unreadable.

To take an obvious science-fictional example, H. G. Wells between 1895 and 1908 -- just thirteen years -- wrote novels which are not merely classics of but in many cases established whole sub-genres of science fiction.  The Time Machine (1895) was the first story of technological time travel;  The Wonderful Visitor (1895) in which an angel shows up in contemporary England, an early example of "urban fantasy"; The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) the first story (as far as I know) about a technological attempt at species Uplift; The Invisible Man (1897) one of the first contemporary stories to examine the corruptive effects of super-empowering technology (though Wells cribbed from Plato's fable of Gyges).  Then two new subgeneres:  The War of the Worlds (1898), the first alien-invasion story, which established many of the tropes; and When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), the first modern-man-in-suspended-animation-wakes-in-future-society tale.

Notice that I've just covered the first four years of his output?  It slackened-off as time passed, not so much because Wells' imagination failed, but because Wells decided to do "serious" writing:  which is to say Social Novels about how contemporary Britain was corrupt and needed to be reformed by Socialism.   I've read one or two of these:  only one or two, because they're disappointing -- they're perfectly good books (Wells throughout his life could write), but they are such an incredible waste of his fertile talent.  The only books Wells wrote after 1899 that are much read today are The First Men in the Moon (1901), The Food of the Gods (1902) and In the Days of the Comet (1906) -- all science fiction.  His Important Social Novels are read only by scholars, and occasionally by bibliomaniacs like myself.  They have become trivial because the utopian socialism for which they argued is today considered puerile; the more pragmatic Marxist-Leninism has been revealed as nightmare rather than dream; and at best democratic socialism is but dreary bureaucracy writ large.

Go back a bit.  In his day Mark Twain was thought of as a mere humorist.  Charles Dickens wrote sentimental serials for the cheap-magainze market.  Jane Austen was just a spinster who spun romantic fiction out of her fantasies.  Jonathan Swift engaged in sarcastic flights of fancy.  And William Shakespeare?  He was a mere actor and theatrical producer:  he didn't write serious works (which would have had to have been in Latin anyway, he wasted his time scribbling in English)!  With a little research you'll find out what was considered "serious" in each of their days, and you'll be astonished by how little of the "serious" stuff from their eras is remembered.

Here is a Great Truth:

We are living in a Golden Age of Civilization, and not just a Golden Age but perhaps the most productive that humanity has ever known.

And we won't realize it until it's over. Which hopefully will be long after my own time in life has ended.

But I think they'll still be reading Tolkien and Vinge, just as they'll still be reading Shakespeare and Jane Austen, when the Mars colonies launch their first starships.

1 comment:

  1. I have always find that writers who survey the history of something -- say, attitudes toward Shakespeare -- never manage to learn from the obvious fact that many people made idiots of themselves by their pronouncements on the topic and the views of their day. They always end up with a final chapter when they pontifate on the current state of the question, where they don't have enough distance. This can be extremely silly, especially if we are far enough away to see what actually happened.