The Importance of Contextualization When Reading Classic SF
by Bryan Thomas Schmidt
In a recent blog post, author/podcaster Mur Lafferty was lamenting her difficulty with reading classic SF and how hard it is to admit that to others in the field because the classics are so revered. While the comments quickly frustrated her and went in directions which led her to cut them off, the final comment really sparked something for me I’d like to discuss here. Here’s that comment:
November 29, 2011 at 10:39 am
I think this conversation says more about us than about the classics. As Derek mentioned these works were written in a different era. We are capable of reading the Odyssey and separating out the crazy viewpoints of two thousand years ago but are either unwilling or incapable of doing the same with things that were written 50 years ago. Early SF was a male dominated genre in a a male dominated world.
We need to be the ones who can contextualize these books and accept them for what they are. Are they sexist? Absolutely! Is there clunky writing? Yup! You do not read Popular Mechanics because you are looking for exquisite prose. You don’t read Asimov looking for it either. You go to the classics for the ideas. And they are there. You go for Clarke’s satellites, Asimov’s robots, Heinlein’s introduction of Military Scifi.
Understand, we are the elitist. We place expectations on others to understand and conform to our worldviews and then properly display them in their works. That is on us, not on them.
Personally, I cannot stand Thomas Covenant. But I can appreciate the moral dilemmas of a true anti-hero and appreciate it for what it is. I read through the classics and struggle through the bad dialogue and horrible pacing and flawed worldviews and … But when I read through them I recognize them for what they are. I am the one that must remove myself and my worldview and explore this writer’s world.
For those who don’t realize, I have spent a great deal of time working cross culturally with a non-profit I founded called Anchored Music Ministries. AMM spends a lot of time teaching leadership development training in the arts for churches and individuals in the developing world. We are hyper sensitive to past well meaning missionaries who have gone in and taught westernized concepts, so we spend a great deal of time and effort educating ourselves and our teams on cultural context and how to ask questions and present material in ways which inspire/encourage students to apply concepts as tools to their own cultural context rather than learn how to do it the “western/American way.” This is very important to the students and their culture. For one thing, material won’t be accepted by their congregations/audiences if they can’t contextualize it properly. For another, they are ministering to a particular culture not performing western concepts and thus must present things with consideration for cultural concerns.
What does this have to do with Mur’s post and said comment? Well, I have also spent a great deal of time reading classic and contemporary SF and F books and stories, and one thing I do by nature is try and examine cultural assumptions the author makes, I make as reader, etc. I try and explore the culture from which the story is written, the culture to which its presented, etc. and evaluate the story appropriately. And I think what the comment above is suggesting is the need to do the same when reading older classic stories. Those stories are powerful because their storytelling and craft inspire stories today. But at the same time, they can contain cultural concepts we might find offensive or backwards today. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read them or find value in them, and, as is pointed out, I think when people like Mur struggle with that it’s because of their own cultural assumptions and difficulty putting stories in proper context. Many, many readers and writers struggle with this. It’s not a skill emphasized in schools. In our cross cultural contemporary world, I think that needs to change. People need to learn how to do this.
It’s important to say, I am not criticizing Mur, nor do I question her sincerity, intelligence, motives, etc. A lot of people struggle with this. She set herself out, boldly, as an example, and I am using her the same way.
We are not good at putting ourselves in others’ heads these days. I see it daily when people call anyone who disagrees with them stupid or bigoted. There are a lot of gray areas which never get considered nor examined in such cases. People make it black and white-wrong or right. But the world is rarely so simple. It’s easy to look at concepts we disagree with us and don’t understand and write them off as wrong and ignorant. But who’s really ignorant? People deserve the same careful, thoughtful consideration from us which we might demand from them and cry out if we didn’t receive it, don’t they?
People are a product of their times, their culture, their families, etc. So many factors play a part. We can’t really expect classic writers to express modern views on female roles, homosexuality, heroes, etc. Sometimes they do surprise us, and that’s great. But they write from the perspective of a different time. And we shouldn’t write them off as irrelevant just because we’re challenged by the way they saw the world. Their perspectives can still inform us: about what we want to write, how we want to write it, the themes we care about, etc. And often the richness of their prose and storytelling craft offer great lessons for us which should not be ignored because of cultural issues.
Contextualization is a hard thing but very necessary when reading as much as it is when teaching, writing, or conversing. A reader and author are, after all, effectively in conversation every time a book or story is read. It may be harder to unpack them due to distance in time, space, culture, etc. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it? I can’t accurately tell you how odd African culture has often seemed to me. Brazilian and Mexican culture as well. But I can tell you I’ve learned lessons from all three that make any discomfort more than worth the effort: lessons about community, for example, family, being joyful despite circumstances, and more. I wouldn’t trade these lessons for anything, because they have enriched my life. And I believe the classic still hold similar lessons for us today. We might have to dig for them. We might have to work hard to uncover them and decipher them. We might need to discuss with others to tear aside our assumptions and cultural blocks to get to the meat, but that meat is worth discovering nonetheless.
Think about it, outdated technology or future tech is common in classic SF stories. It can’t help but be because things people could only imagine then actually exist today. I recall a recent post on Things We Have Now That Star Trek Invented. Would this be an issue that would prevent you from finishing a story? I hope the answer for most of you is, no, and if it is, that’s because you can contextualize the tech. Why wouldn’t you do the same with ideas? Philosophies? Beliefs?
As the commenter I quote says: “I am the one that must remove myself and my worldview and explore this writer’s world.” How much worse off will our culture be if we never go back and explore things which make us uncomfortable? Should we never explore the Holocaust or slavery or child abuse? Sure, let’s ignore them, they’ll go away and never happen again. Not likely. I am a firm believer that arming yourself with ignorance leads to more ignorance while arming yourself with knowledge can prevent it. Oh not entirely. We all have our moments, yes. But the more you know, the better informed you are, the better decisions you can and will make.
It’s hard to set aside ourselves and read someone else who’s perspective and ideas conflict with our own. But it’s also hard to have readers misunderstand and harshly criticize you for the same reason, isn’t it? Who enjoys that? In a world where we find ourselves more and more at each other’s throats and divided over ideological conflicts, politics, ideas, can we really afford not to be more thoughtful and dig deeper? If we don’t, think of where it will lead. Would you really want to live there?
For what it’s worth…
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch.