Needing to Be Both Old and New

At an Eastercon panel this year, John Clute made a really interesting point about studying science fiction and fantasy. He said that it’s about the old and the new.

On the old side, you need to study the sf+f megatext of the last couple of centuries. This is the mass of stories, tropes, and conversations that have put us where we are. Without an awareness of that, you’ll miss understanding what we have. As a writer, you’ll recreate things that have been done to death.

On the new side, if sf+f aren’t at the edge of what’s new, if they aren’t presenting us with novel things, then they aren’t worth studying. We should aim to provide something new.

I’m sure that his point has far wider application. It’s relevant to other academic fields. It’s relevant to creating sf+f, not just studying it. Maybe that mingling of old and new is relevant to everything in life (though I’m stretching there).

But this is why, much as I dislike facing the cultural cannon, it’s important to know about it. The new and old are intertwined, and they’re both vital.


Judging stories on their own terms

Sometimes with stories, as with any art form, you have to judge things on their own terms, then decide if those terms interest you. Critiquing a dystopian thriller for its use of epic fantasy tropes is usually going to be meaningless. This doesn’t mean that, as an epic fantasy reader, you ought to read it. Just remember what it’s aiming for.

This is something we sometimes lose track of, especially when discussing big cultural phenomenon. Pacific Rim is a recent example. Judge it by the dialogue and you’ll see a pile of cornball hokum. But bloggers such as Hello, tailor have pointed out its powerful use of visual story-telling. Judge it on those terms and you have something impressive. Just don’t try to watch it with the part of your brain that loves Hamlet.

Oh no, the kaiju ate Yorick!
Oh no, the kaiju ate Yorick!

There’s something of the same experience with Game of Thrones. Some people love it, others hate it. If you know it’s got knights and dragons and so expect a tale of heroism then you’re in for a shock. If you’re after succinct prose and snappy story telling then you won’t get past half a book. But George R R Martin is brilliant at what he does, which is something dark and expansive, something where good intentions are never quite enough.

Then there’s the Spartacus TV show. If you’re happy with sex and violence as story-telling elements then it’s a visual treat, but if you want subtle, nuanced acting then it’s not the swords and sandals epic for you. As for the dialogue, it’s pretty weird. Not bad weird – I enjoy its Deadwood-style mix of the archaic and the crude – but what you might call an acquired taste.


11 seconds of John Hannah being gloriously crude

As readers and viewers the lesson is obvious – choose the stories whose strengths are things you enjoy. But what does this mean for writers?

Mostly a bunch of very familiar stuff. Not all writing advice is for you – focus on guidance from romance writers and your techno thriller may not please its audience. Not all audiences are for you – Spartacus would not have gone down so well on HBO. And if you’re struggling with your writing, if something about it isn’t pleasing you, look for the criteria by which it is working – maybe there’s an audience out there for it, if you can recognise what you’ve got.

What do the rest of you think? Can you think of books, films or shows that you think have been judged by the wrong criteria? Or where the aesthetic just didn’t work for you? Let me know – that’s what the comments box is about.