Timeless Books

Sometimes I often rag on fantasy for being redundant and uninspired genre. It’s not that I hate it, it’s just that I find it a rather one-note genre with very little originality. In fact, I would go as far as call it a sub-genre of speculative fiction. After all, can aping and remixing the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and R. E. Howard be actually called a genre of it’s own? I’m not entirely sure. How do you reconcile calling this very homogeneous set of sword and sorcery novels (with a rare injection of steam and gunpowder) with a heterogeneous genre such as Science Fiction which contains works like The Windup Girl, Anathem, Dune, Left Hand of Darkness, Neuromancer, Accelerando and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom?

But, alas, I did not come here to discuss literary taxonomy. I came here today to actually say something nice about Fantasy for a change.

When I was younger I became positively enchanted by The Lord of the Rings. I believe I mentioned this somewhere else on this blog, but I was a late-comer to the world of all that is geeky and awesome. My inner nerd was in stasis most of my childhood as I lacked positive role models I could actually even remotely relate to. I was blindly fumbling through childhood and early adolescence in a world of odd people I was able to intellectually comprehend but not relate to. It wasn’t until high school when I met like minded people and emerged from my chrysalis into full geek hood. My gateway drugs were Tolkien and Frank Herbert.

I grew up in a big city, and a lot of the kids I grew up with were getting into trouble with weed, acid and experimenting with the harder stuff. Luckily for me, I never trusted any of them enough to let myself get drunk with them, much less to take mind altering chemicals in their presence. Never a social butterfly I distanced myself from my “cool” childhood friends (with whom I had nothing in common, our shared experiences creating a gap of irreconcilable mutual incomprehension rather than tying us together), now circling the drain of oblivion and found real friendships among geeks, nerds and losers I was taught to scorn and pity. My imagination and curiosity unleashed, I would stay up till 6 am, heating up phrases from the Fellowship of the Ring on a spoon and injecting them into my eyeballs. I would stand on street corners and trade my Middle Earth: The Wizards collectible cards with people similarly addicted. I played Middle Earth RPG. In essence I lived and breathed Middle Earth for a while – I knew it’s map, it’s people, their cultures and their “special rules”. It was the first fictional world that absorbed me, and gave me a sane asylum from the mind braking monotony, and banality of real life. Others followed shortly – Dune, Star Wars Expanded Universe, Warhammer and etc.. But Middle Earth was my first plunge into adult literature that was not one of my dad’s action adventure / spy thriller novels. And it was glorious.

Most people these days build up to Tolkien by way of video games, movies, D&D, perhaps some Dragon Lance novels, some R. R. Martin and etc. By the time they plunge themselves in the intricately built world of Middle Earth, it may seem quaint, tame and familiar to them. But it is because nearly everything they have read and experienced till now, built on top of it, using Tolkien’s imagination and robust mythological skeleton as a launching board for their own ideas. For me, Tolkien was the first. I was trapped in his finely woven web of myth and fantasy for long enough to let it seep into my bone marrow. After that, everything else seemed a pale shadow of Tolkien’s master work.

By definition, Fantasy can be roughly defined as “stuff like Tolkien did” and when my yard-stick for judging the works of the genre is one of the most critically acclaimed, epic, timeless works of fiction you can sort of see how everything else tends to come up short. “Original fantasy” is almost an oxymoron by the very nature of the genre.

But yes, Fantasy can be wonderful. Read everything by Tolkien and then cherry pick the stuff by guys that really did something interesting working off from his template. I haven’t really tried R. R. Martin yet, but I have been absolutely enchanted by the elaborately plotted HBO series that adapted his novels, so he might be a good pick amongst the many who carved out their niche in Tolkien’s shadow.

Here is the point where I say something nice about Fantasy. These books are timeless. Tolkien wrote Lord of the Ring in the 50’s but you probably wouldn’t be able to tell. His prose is highly stylized, and avoids use of slang or contemporary colloquialisms that would betray it’s age. It has been enchanting the English speaking readers all over the world over six decades now, and it will stay relevant for at least six more. Or until English mutates into some bizarre Clockwork Orange / Ridley Walker argot that would be as unintelligible to us as Chaucer’s Middle English.

My beloved Science Fiction is not always like that.

A lot of the books on my Essential SF List are very, very dated. Orwell’s 1984 for example was written long before the digital revolution, back when information left paper trails. While still relevant, modern reader may be thrown aback by the backwards efforts of the “Ministry of Truth” which keeps reprinting books and newspapers, in an age when every image can update and change, retract and censor their story in real time, and images that have not been doctored in Photoshop are a rarity. Huxley’s rampant consumerism and cultural bankruptcy may seem quaint in a time when millions of people choose to poison their minds watching horrible reality TV while the corporations that produce them are privatizing their government lock, stock and barrel.

The gender roles, and social conventions in Heinlen’s future America of Stranger in a Strange Land are eerily out of touch with current sensibilities. Same goes for a lot of stuff by Asimov or Lem. Clarke’s Childhood’s End seems a bit naive, considering what we now know about biology, and the modern concepts of technological singularity. A lot of stuff by Philip K. Dick – especially stuff like VALIS, A Scanner Darkly, Divine Invasion, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer are very contemporary, and a product of the era in which they were written. As the time passes, we gain more and more distance from these novels, and they become historical snapshots of futurist thought. Which does not make them less relevant, important or interesting. It does not rob them of their message, and their content. But it may alienate potential readers – after all, most young SF enthusiasts do not expect men wearing hats and referring to females as “dames” to be part of the deep space fantasy they wanted to plunge themselves into.

I personally consider folks like Charles Stross and Vernor Vinge to be a vanguard of modern SF, boldly exploring the bleeding edge of science in their fiction – stuff like transhumanism, and singularity. But I have no qualms about what will happen to their work in the next five decades. Accelerando, a book that I consider to be fantastic, timely, incredibly imaginative, interesting will age just like the work of Heinlen, Asimov and Clarke. Stross’ ideas about singularity will probably prove to be wrong, silly or preposterous after it happens, or if for some reason never will.

Fantasy, on the other hand, especially well written Fantasy, will always be timeless. Your children’s children will still be able to plunge themselves into the world of Middle Earth and it will be as vibrant, and ageless as it was for you when you were a teenage nerd. Good fantasy is much more resistant to the ruthless ravages of time than Science Fiction – especially grounded, well researched Hard SF.

But it is not always the case. There are rather timeless works of SF out there too. Frank Herbert’s Dune written in the 60’s doesn’t really show it’s advanced age. It is set in a distant future, separated from us by many technological and cultural revolutions. The world it’s characters inhabit is not our own, and it is about as abstract and alien to us as the world of Middle Earth.

Anathem which was published in 08, has a similar timeless quality. While Stephenson did a lot of research for this book (as evidenced by the huge appendix) he masked references to real world philosophers and scientists in the context of his parallel reality. His Avout scientist-monks will entertain young nerds decades from now, and they will likely be non the wiser as to when this book was written.

Same could be said about Hyperion, which is essentially a tour the force across many sub-genres of SF, blending space opera, cyberpunk, singularitarian transhumanism with elements of mystery, horror and religious mysticism. It will very likely stand the test of time, on that quality alone

I’m not saying that everyone should write their books this way – setting them in distant future or parallel realities. Contemporary SF dealing with issues plaguing us here and now is just as relevant and interesting now, and later (for historical purposes). I’m just saying that this timelessness is a nice, built-in feature of Fantasy as a genre.

I’ll leave you with this: what other SF books I did not mention have this sort of timeless nature? Can you name any? Let me know in the comments.

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7 Responses to Timeless Books

  1. vukodlak Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    The classification of something as SF or Fantasy always baffles me. While it’s clear that Clarke, Asimov and Stross write science fiction I’m not really sure why ‘Dune’ is considered SF as well? There’s precious little ‘science’ there, and the whole thing has a feel much closer to fantasy (magic, warrior tribes, giant wyrms worms, knife as a viable weapon…). Ditto Star Wars (the prequels’ attempt to make them more ‘sciency’ made them much, much worse). And it’s not a case of “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, more like “any sufficiently garbled technobabble is indistinguishable from mystical mumbo-jumbo…”

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  2. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I can’t believe that Zelazny is not on your list. While it could technically be argued to be on either side of the Fantasy/SF divide, I think his Amber Cycle has both the writing quality and the timelessness required to belong to future classics. I personally count it as Fantasy, and it is highly original in my humble opinion in the sense that it has absolutely nothing at all to do with either of the “fathers” of the Fantasy genre and in any case make no reference to Howard or Tolkien in any significant way.

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Mac OS Terminalist says:

    @ vukodlak:

    Good point – we sometimes forget that the SF/Fantasy distinction is not as clear cut. I guess there is a spectrum of works in between that could fit into either category. The traditional distinction of “future = SF even if magical, past = fantasy even if scientific” is a tad limited.

    @ Alphast:

    Believe it or not, but I haven’t really read that much of Zelazny. I remember reading the first (I think) Amber book, but never really looked for more. It seemed kinda silly at the time, and I remember disliking the fact that the protagonist was essentially a smug, immortal demi-god, even if amnesiac at first. Perhaps I ought to give his works another chance. Any suggestions?

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  4. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I think you should give it a shot, at least for the second and third. The series has 10 volumes and most of the philosophical implications are not very clear until much later. Also the multiverse seen by Zelazny is very interesting, with its own laws and “physics”. And the guy is not nearly as smug as the rest of his family and none of them is really immortal. They are just kind of super-resistant and age very slowly, but they can been killed very well. And most of their time is actually used in attempting to kill each other in rather complicated ways, so it makes for some entertainment.

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  5. vukodlak Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    And Star Wars is SF even though it’s set in the past? :D

    But you make a good point nonetheless: ‘hard’ SF tried to predict the future based on today’s understanding of science and technology. This will make them at least partially dated – by definition. Charlie Stross once wrote about this on his blog: writing near-future SF is risky. The readers will find it more relatable, but the author will be proven wrong very quickly.

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  6. Jack UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows says:

    @ Alphast:
    You asked for some examples of timeless science fiction, Luke. Some titles that immediately come to my mind are: “Frankenstein (Mary Shelly),” “Dracula (Bram Stoker),” “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” (Robert Louis Stevenson), “The Fall of the House of Usher” (Edgar Allen Poe), “Young Goodman Brown” (Nathaniel Hawthorne). Many students of American Lit would also consider “Moby Dick” (Herman Melville) to fit within the SF genre, along with a few other genres. And please don’t look down your nose at the “Harry Potter” series. Like you, I discovered Tolkien in my youth. I’m 65 now, so that was a long time ago. Back when I was in college, majoring in English, Tolkien was dismissed as mere pulp fiction by my professors. However, I have heard some very distinguished English professors of late refer to “Lord of the Rings” as a “masterpiece.” Only time will tell, but I’m willing to bet that some day the “Harry Potter” series will likewise be viewed much more favorably than it is today.

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Jack:

    I’ll bite – Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde could potentially be considered Science Fiction because there is at least some pretense of “science” in them. Dracula is classic horror I think. Moby Dick is… Well, partly a whaling manual. :P

    That said, they are all “aged” not in the sense they are no longer relevant, but in the sense that the reader is immediately aware of how old these pieces are.

    As for LOTR – Tolkien was a linguist first and foremost. If you read the linguistic apendix you can see the depth of research he did preparing to write these books. He actually invented several fictional languages, in order to build the vast mythological background, which he used in his story. His son is still releasing original LOTR related material based on previously unpublished notes. The amount of hard work that went into that trilogy is baffling – and my book store actually has a whole shelf lined with books about LOTR – as in literary analysis of the stories, the background and Tolikiens many conlags.

    JK Rowling is a decent writer and her story has to be commended for promoting literacy among children but her work does not even compare to that of Tolkien. You are right, Harry Potter series will not be easy to dismiss as just pulp due to the immense cultural impact it had. Yes, it will be talked about as a cultural landmark. Yes people will write academic papers about it (I believe it has been done already) but it will be more about HP as a phenomenon, or deconstructions of book’s success. But no one is going to study Rowlings technique or linguistic patterns in her books because that stuff is just not there. Tolkien is in a way an exception to the rule.

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