Change is Good: Addition Over Subtraction

Earlier this week, I talked about how, over the decades, science fiction has grown by leaps and bounds, rising up in the face of an ever-changing world to combat xenophobia. And I thought I'd said all that I wanted to say on the topic.

But then the brilliant Gwenda Bond posted an article called "Call the Reading Police," and I realized I had one more thing to say.

I remember early on in my writing career (which, honestly, isn't that long anyway), joining a conversation online with professional writers. It was a thrill for me just to be able to talk to these idols of mine--it was like getting invited to the ultimate cool kids table.

But you know, the only thing I really remember happened near the beginning of the conversation.

Moderator: We have a lot of new people this time. New writers, please introduce yourself and your debut work.
Me: I'm Beth Revis, and I wrote Across the Universe, a YA science fiction.
Veteran Colleague: Oh, like a dystopia? Another Hunger Games?
Me: No, not really--it takes place on a space ship.
Veteran Colleague: I have no idea why you'd bother to write that; we already have the Heinlein juveniles. 

I was...gobsmacked. At the time, I was so shocked and cowled that I just ultimately silently left the conversation. How does one recover from that? I was essentially told by someone who I'd hoped to be encouraged by that my work was useless, and there was no place for it.

I have since learned to not be silent about this topic. Which is good, because at a signing I did in November, an audience member (who also happened to be an aspiring SF writer) accused me of plagiarizing Heinlein. His reasoning? Heinlein also has a story with a generational space ship. And this is not the first time such an accusation has been laid at my feet--at least a half dozen other people have said the same, often to my face, in person.

Because of my space ship. Because I have a space ship in my novel and write for teens, I have been accused of plagiarizing an author whose works I have never read.

It's not that I've not tried to read Heinlein before. I almost made it to the end of Starship Troopers when the movie came out. And I've started a couple more of his works. While I respect and appreciate all Heinlein has done for the genre, I couldn't help but feel his works were not written for me. I was born a few years before his death; we are of very different generations. And I'm a female, and, frankly, his works are not very kind to females.

And yet, the pervading argument among some is that there is very little need for more YA SF; after all, we already have the Heinlein juveniles.

Lest you think I'm exaggerating about how prevalent this attitude is among the community, let me point you to this Locus Roundtable discussion, held because so many people were posing the very same question during a series of posts about SF for kids and teens. Or how about this article by John Scalzi, commenting on this article by a publishing professional which argues that Heinlein is the ruler against which all other SF is measured. Or, just ask your friendly local YA SF author--nearly every YA SF author I've met has mentioned a similar attitude to their work by some.

Now, one of the most important things I want to make clear now before saying anything else is simply this: I do not want to take away from Heinlein's legacy. Although his work is not for me, I don't want it gone.

I experienced a similar attitude when I was in college, working on my Masters degree in literature. I'm in the South, so of course, everyone likes Faulkner. Everyone, that is, except me. I actually rather dislike Faulker, and find his works pretentious, and aside from a handful of his short stories (which I think have as much substance as his novels, just, thankfully, more succinct), I don't like anything he's written.

This did not go over well in most of my classes.

The thing is: despite the fact that some of my professors loved Faulkner with an all-burning passion, he is not the be-all and end-all in literature. There is NO standard against which all literature can be measured, because literature is personal. Literature is more than just the words on the page; those words morph and become something more in the mind of the reader. And that cannot be measured.

That said, I cannot deny that Faulkner means a lot to some people, and that some people find something within his words that I simply do not see.

So I don't want to take away from what Faulkner is and has done. I don't want to take away from what Heinlein is and has done.

But what I am saying is this: we should not stop writing.

The suggestion behind the Heinlein debate is that Heinlein's juveniles were the epitome. YA SF peaked there, and everything else is downhill. That nothing more needs to be said.

And that, frankly, is bullshit.

Here's the thing: we will never have the epitome of story. Never, ever. The world is constantly changing, and while there are threads within our stories that always stay the same, the shape of those stories is just as amorphous as the world we live in.

As literature evolves, it is not at all about denying the history of the genre. Heinlein has a great place in history, and even if I've not been influenced by his work directly, I know that he's influenced the world of SF enough that his mark is on most of the genre today. I don't want to take away from what he's done--no more than any author--and his work still has power in the hands of the right reader.

But I also present a plea to the YA SF community. Change is good. Moving on from Heinlein isn't about forgetting him. We're not taking away from his legacy by adding to it.

Illustration by Zen Pencils; available for purchase here


Alexa said...

I think this is true with every book in every genre. It is the reader who decides if they like something or not. If they feel the book is too close in story to another author's then that is their experience and opinion but not all readers are alike. This is why one person reads a book and gives it a rating of five stars and gushes about how great the story is and another reader picks it up and says they couldn't finish the book because it is not for them.
Everyone has an opinion when they read and no one is right or wrong, it just is.

Great Post!!

Hestia said...

Oh, man, I got into it with a Locus Roundtable a while back on a discussion about education in America (and how very, uniformly bad it all is, because of course it is.)

It amazed me how many established science fiction authors, writing in a genre that often involves speculation and questioning, could prove to be such boring, conventional and gullible thinkers.

And this mostly wasn't old-guard, either.

(My favorite complaints boiled down to: "because I was so smart in high school and my English teachers were bad and stupid.")

It doesn't surprise me that an author would post the quote about Heinlein, but wow does it make the author look ignorant.

Danny Adams said...

Chances are that whatever Veteran Colleague was writing was "said" before already too, but I doubt that would have stopped them.

JDsg said...

I've read most of the Heinlein juveniles, and I love them. But most, if not all of them, are dated. I wouldn't necessarily expect kids of this age to enjoy reading them, as opposed to adults of my age, who re-read them for the nostalgic value.

I would say, keep writing your YA SF, regardless of the accusations. And if it makes you feel any better, Alexei Panshin wrote a YA SF novel that involved a generational space ship and is very similar to Heinlein's juveniles. It's called Rite of Passage, and it won the 1969 Nebula for Best Novel.

DoingDewey said...

I know someone who won't read anything written after the 1930's or so because he believes literature has gone downhill since then. And he's certainly correct that we'll only get through so many books in our life so it makes sense to choose them selectively. However, his choice of books make me so sad because there are so many things missing from older books - like diversity and women and romances teenagers of today can relate to and light reading I can enjoy on a bad day and of course books that take place in the modern era. Which is all to say that I think the idea something has to have never been said before to be worth writing or that people should just stop writing is bullshit. Some of the books I've loved the most have been published in the last few years and I'm so glad they were written :)

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