Twila Price writes in with a really good question:
I am in the older half of the demographic, who grew up with the paperbacks readily available and so I know all these books; read them when I was tiny, and not so tiny, among other books that were just as fine. I loved Black Agnes and Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith and Solomon Kane and Tarzan — I still do. And I have spent most of my life telling people how fantastic these books are and sharing them with the younger folks I’ve come into contact with. I understand your excitement in finding all these treasures. Because they truly are treasures. (Some more than others, and I’m not and never will be a Jack Vance fan. Well, that one short story… but the Dying Earth? Pfui!)
But… I just don’t see the split in sf the way you do, or the way a lot of your fellow bloggers do. It’s not just SJW/modernists versus the hardy pulp superversives — a lot of people I know and read have drunk deep of this mighty current of awesome but take a very different message from it. They choose to diverge and build upon this foundation their own palaces and edifices. Who’s to say they won’t be the equivalents of the Leigh Bracketts and Poul Andersons of tomorrow?
I am so glad you asked that– and especially that you’d invoke those two authors in particular.
There is a particular stream of fantasy that runs from Lord Dunsany to C. L. Moore to Poul Anderson to John C. Wright. This type of fantasy requires a familiarity with the foundational myths and tales and lore that most everyone would have been familiar with back when fantasy was still an extremely niche thing. There wasn’t a whole lot of it, so people would range rather far to get what they were looking for. That meant a whole lot of myth and fantasy than you tend to see today.
Now I’m going to make two claims that people will have varying degrees of comfort with:
- The lack of familiarity people have with the genuine classics (ie, pre-1900) is a primary cause of why most fantasy from after 1980 or so is so derivative.
- The attempt to create a new foundation will necessarily have political/cultural/spiritual motivations that produce a pronounced tendency towards an inferior aesthetic.
Not everyone agrees with the latter. But I’m sure you’ll agree that there are a whole bunch of people that compromise their works in order to fit with the times or else accommodate gatekeepers. People that do not read from before 1980 are incapable of even being able to acknowledge that this happens. People that do not read from before 1940 are not conscious of the extent to which they reflexively do this.
What can you do about it? Read! Because you are not what you write, but what you have read. I expect that to happen and I expect to see change in this area continue to develop.
Leigh Brackett is a special case, though. She really is the hottest of hot potatoes. While ignorance can explain the dearth of Poul Anderson types in the field today, the lack of any successors to Brackett is something else entirely. Consider that reaction that Hooc Ott got when he brought her up to a group of book reviewers. Hooc’s analysis is pretty insightful:
She is fighting, who and what for she makes more then a little opaque sure, but that is war she is doing there.
It’s sort of a secret now that Christianity was integral to the old style fantasy. I thought it was odd that nobody seems to talk about that much, really. But with Brackett’s case, you see outright war. It’s not that you can’t write like Brackett anymore. You can’t even talk about Brackett! People do, but they botch it every single time because everything about her life and career is inconvenient to the wrong sorts of people.
Why is that…? Well… she wrote Edgar Rice Burroughs style fiction… but it was really, really good. Her execution was impeccable. And she is the only person I’ve read that could rival A. Merritt’s delivery of sizzling pulp style romance. Hers is the most undiluted presentation of heroism and romance anywhere.
Culturally speaking, we are light years away from being able to do anything remotely like what she did. I’m not sure if there’s any way for people escape their brain damage on this point even if they wanted to! This is the heart of the matter. You’ve got a whole generation of creators right now that don’t even know they’re ideologically opposed to the sort of thing Brackett produced. It’s going to take a lot more than an acquaintance with the classics to fix that.
But there really is no substitute.