Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Aliette de Bodard’s Ignorance of Golden Age and New Wave SFF

Over at Over the Effing Rainbow, Aliette de Bodard notes that she is beginning to have yen to try something a little different with her fiction:

I used to be quite rigid about genre separation: in particular, though I read both fantasy and science fiction, I wasn’t very keen on “merging” them together. In recent years, I’ve found myself being more and more elastic with my definition of genre, and in particular with my definition of “science fiction”.

For Appendix N junkies, this is hilarious, really. I mean… it’s almost like she’s never really read Jack Vance or something.

(Wait… that sounds so crazy, I should probably check that.)

Well then…!

I gotta say, it’s almost like many contemporary fantasy and science fiction authors are not only ignorant of the history of their own field, but they’re also surrounded by people that are actively campaigning against them ever getting a clue. What are you going to do, though? I mean… lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas, sure. But man, someone really ought to write a primer on this stuff so they can get up to speed here…!

Check out this bit, though:

You’re going to ask me why we need to deal with these works at all–why we can’t stick with “proper”, “hard”, Golden Age Science Fiction as it was historically done. Well, first off, because it’s rather impolite and hurtful to exclude people (to say the least!). But the second thing… It’s because genres, for me, are a living thing. And any living thing must breathe and grow and take in new things, new modes of thoughts–or else ossify and decline.

You know… if anything’s ossified right now, it’s sff genre conventions since sometime around 1977 or so. But this really is yet another example of someone taking contemporary notions of genre and projecting them onto the past. (This is the same error that File770’s “Aaron” commits.) There’s a reason why so many people do this. It’s because they have no idea what they are talking about.

Consider the following:

  • Is H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness” fantasy, science fiction, or horror?
  • What about Robert E. Howard’s “The Tower of the Elephant” and “The Pool of the Black One”?
  • Is Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan and Manly Wade Wellman’s Hok the Mighty fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, or something else…?
  • What about L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt’s The Carnellian Cube? Michael Moorcock’s Hawkmoon stories? Fred Saberhagen’s Changeling Earth…? Margaret St. Clair’s Sign of the Labrys…?
  • Is Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions fantasy or science fiction…?
  • What about the entirety of the Planetary Romance genre…? Seriously, is that fantasy or science fiction…?

This didn’t have to happen. All Aliette de Bodard needed to do was be surrounded by the sort of people that knew well enough to insist that she read Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth as soon as she brought his name up. Instead, her posse alerts her to the fact that this grandmaster of science fantasy is not only a conservative, but also a sexist Western-centric homophobe whose only saving grace is that he was born in California. (Jack Vance…? Conservative…? Really?! Compared to who?)

But the fact is, whole swaths of fantasy and science fiction from about 1912 to 1977 or so blurred the lines between the genres. Things were so wild, it’s safe to say that what we tend to think of as fantasy did not even exist yet during the bulk of that period! Truth be told, the lines that Aliette de Bodard is so keen on crossing were laid down in shortly before she was born in 1982. Not during the Golden Age. Not even during the New Wave era!

This is of course more evidence that the Appendix N Generation gap is real. People on both sides of it have often no idea how significant it is or what the implications of it are. And many people don’t even know that they aren’t even aware of it. You don’t have to read very much to be confronted with the extent of your own ignorance, though. That makes me think that Aliette de Bodard far less well read than I would have suspected before.

I like the way the guy on The Tome Show put it:

One of the things that I’m learning as we go through Appendix N is just how little I actually know about 20th century science fiction. It’s a little bit like trying to get across the Untied States with a map that just has Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Dallas on it.

You see, people keep telling me that contemporary sff authors are in conversation with the classics, but based on what she says, I really have to wonder if Aliette de Bodard’s “map” even has the major cities on it.

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17 responses to “Aliette de Bodard’s Ignorance of Golden Age and New Wave SFF

  1. Cirsova November 25, 2015 at 9:30 am

    In fairness to Aliette, just last April she tweeted about tearing her house up to find her copy of Lyonesse. So maybe there’s hope for her yet?

  2. Sky November 25, 2015 at 11:12 am

    Stop trying to Jeffrosplain Appendix N to the oppressed, shitlord!

  3. jlv61560 November 25, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    LOL. Gotta love that WitchySpinster finds it necessary to give her a “trigger warning.” Perhaps there’s a reason she’s a spinster…in every sense of the word.

    As far as being “in a conversation with the classics” goes, it’s a typical liberal conversation; as in, they talk, everyone else has to shut up and admit white privilege.

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  5. MishaBurnett November 30, 2015 at 6:49 am

    Somebody should ask her if she’s read Jo Clayton. A Black woman (also from California) who wrote and published prolifically in the 1980s and 1990s and who mixed science fiction and fantasy. A brilliant writer who tackled tough issues of racism and sexism and homophobia while also telling compelling stories with great characters. In fact, she did everything that the “anti-old SFF” crowd claims they want to do, only she did it better and never asked for special pleading–her work sold because it was really good.

  6. Gaiseric December 4, 2015 at 10:21 am

    I certainly believe that the gap is real—but I suspect that it’s more porous and of more recent vintage than you seem to be portraying it as. Reading between the lines, I think we’re more or less the same age—I’m young enough to have the original Star Wars movie be literally the first movie that I ever remember seeing in theaters while new; I was about five years old. I played my first game of D&D in probably 1979 or maybe early 1980, although it wasn’t until about ’82-3 with the Moldvay boxed sets that I really “got it.”

    But even then, it would have struck me as odd that someone playing the game literally not know who Edgar Rice Burroughs was, or having read at least some of his books. Or Robert E. Howard or Michael Moorcock or Fritz Leiber. All of my gaming friends had. When I first started interacting with gamers online in the mid-90s (and beyond) most gamers had. Even if they complained about the “racism” and “sexism” and other “problematic” elements in the fiction, they knew to do so because they had actually read at least some of it.

    True; I’ve since read of younger, tragic folk who have literally never read a fantasy book that wasn’t a work of D&D fiction, and true, there’s certainly been a movement to cast that kind of stuff out of our conscious. But in the 80s, when I went to the bookstore or the library there was a whole shelf of ERB titles. Conan was actually undergoing a Renaissance of sorts, as a bunch of authors were writing pastiches (Robert Jordan got his start doing this, if I recall); heck, there was even a lot of shelf space dedicated to John Normal and his massive Gor series; which we certainly looked at as trashy at the time, but not “offensive.”

    I don’t think that the gap set in until a fair bit later, and with quite a bit younger readers. And it’s not an impossible one to bridge, given that since the advent of Amazon, it’s been easy to find even stuff that’s much more obscure than Appendix N books.

    • Cirsova December 4, 2015 at 10:54 am

      I’m in my early 30s. ::waves from the other side of the gap::
      Some of us older millenials are now fighting tooth and nail to climb aboard the Gen X culture ship, because our own is clearly unseaworthy and full of holes.

    • jeffro December 4, 2015 at 11:09 am

      The gap is clearly on some kind of spectrum. If you were born before 1970, you probably wouldn’t have felt it– as I have documented, fantasy fandom in the seventies from here to Italy would have taken the same canon of literature for granted. If you were born in 1975, your chance of missing that culture become significant. If you were born in 1980, you might not have come across even the vestiges of it.

      Something happened. Something changed. If you want to quibble about when and how, hey feel free. But there is a gap. The old stories are largely unthinkable. The new stories are part of the same narrative enforcement machine that academia and journalism are under. The sff establishment of today gives you “permission” to enjoy the classics, but only if you are willing to submit yourself to the proper struggle session when called upon.

      • Gaiseric December 4, 2015 at 2:10 pm

        No, I don’t want to quibble at all, because I agree. I’m interested in exploring the whys and hows. It’s clear that it wasn’t really a deliberate decision by any one in particular. I mean, even as recently as about ten years or so ago, Wizards of the Coast published an excellent series of online articles by John Rateliff called “Classics of Fantasy” that had a high degree of overlap with the Appendix N—and even when it was something NOT on the Appendix N, it was clearly something in the same general oeuvre (like Eddison or Morris, for instance.) So there was even a deliberate effort to keep the consciousness of the older classics alive in the player base of much more recent RPGs.

        To apparently little avail. I think the blame rests more squarely on a much greater cultural zeitgeist than anything happening specifically in the SFF world.

    • jeffro December 4, 2015 at 3:02 pm

      Kristine Kathryn Rusch detailed some of what went on from the publisher’s side. There are plenty of mundane factors.

      But if you read 43 Appendix N books back to back, the ideological diversity is astounding. If you look at what the establishment is putting out right now… it’s about as diverse as the typical university’s faculty.

      You have a choice when confronted with that. You can pretend that non-leftists spontaneously lost interest in culture some time in the eighties. Or you can interpolate the fact that there was some kind of policy change that kept them out.

      • Gaiseric December 4, 2015 at 3:35 pm

        There we go. That’s good stuff.

        To add to that, I recall that a few years ago Paizo decided to try and run an imprint of reprinted old “Appendix N” type stuff: And they couldn’t keep it going either; even in the age of Internet orders. Granted; I think they were charging too much for prestige format trade paperbacks, when cheaper mass market paperbacks or Kindle files would have been the way to go, but I also think that there’s been an effort made to try and get this stuff back in front of gamers, and it’s just not really catching fire the way one would hope or think.

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