Why Some Stories Age Well

Posted: August 29, 2012 in Genre
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Instead of my usual book reviewy type post in regards to my latest finished read, Jandar of Callisto by Lin Carter, I had an interesting question pop into my head as I was finishing this I wanted to talk out. I’m sure you can guess what that question was, what since it’s the title of this post. (sidenote, Jandar has the best author note ever)

Why do some stories age well?

Jandar is from 1972 and was recommended to me by my dad on my last trip to The Bookbarn, which has come up in the last three or four posts of mine. When John Carter was made into a movie, it made me want to read the book much more than see the green screen fest. My dad picked out this book for me when we couldn’t find any of the John Carter books. It’s similar in genre and style. In fact, Lin Carter dedicates the book to John Carter’s author, Edgar Rice Burroughs. So what we’ve got here is a forty year old book written in homage to a book almost sixty years older than that. I enjoyed the book a lot. It was straight up fast paced and fun. There’s no deep science to it. Any scientific or fantastical question is answered in the simplest manner and we’re moved on. Pacing and action are paramount on Callisto but there’s some character growth going on too, mostly with Koja, an insect-like alien Jandar makes friends with eventually.

There were some things I found a little bit dated, mostly with the treatment of Darloona, a princess in exile who Jandar gets the warm fuzzies for. We meet her throwing down with a biggun jungle beastie. Here she’s a tough hunter. She’s in a bit over her head since it was a very large beastie but she’s out in the wilderness being awesome. The bad guy treats her like she should be a trophy to be won. Eh… I’ll let that one slide. He’s the bad guy and he’s doing it so he can inherit her kingdom. I’ll bite on that. I just get a sense that the author isn’t quite sure what to do with Darloona, wavering between her being tough and progressive for ’72 and a more ‘traditional’ and dated role.

Even with those faults, Jandar of Callisto is a worthy read, fast and fun. This is a crazy juxtaposition with the book I read prior to this.

His Majesty’s Dragon? Nope. It was Element 79 by Fred Hoyle.

I didn’t even realize this was a book full of short stories until I pinged the Goodreads page. There’s nothing to actually indicate this on the back cover review or in the front of the book. I figured they were just titled chapters, something common in older books. I couldn’t get through the first twenty pages. A bunch of people were abducted by aliens that they never see and are held in captivity on a space ship. They’re pretty much a zoo. Upon finding out this was really a short story, I went and read the end of it… and it was horribly vague with no actual ending. The whole thing is dated from 1967, smack in the New Wave of science fiction. I’m familiar with New Wave, early Zelazny is considered part of it. It’s very cerebral and psychological and barely readable.

So why is one still a successful read forty years later and the other had me tossing it aside in twenty pages? Seriously, twenty. I usually give a book a hundred, although twenty is a lot when a book only has 149.

Adventure tales, like that of Jandar or John Carter, have never really gone away. They’ve always been in the public eye larger than just the SF genre. Just look at Indiana Jones. Even that was created because Spielberg and Lucas wanted to make something reminiscent of when they were kids. It makes the tropes of an adventure story somewhat timeless and universal. Swash some buckles, clang some swords, save the day. That sort of thing transcends time and culture. Jandar fights swarthy sky pirates on a Jovian moon. Indiana Jones fights Nazis. There’s not much of a stretch to that.

It’s still going on today too. I was just talking to my dad on the phone before I started reading this and he was raving about In Fury Born and how much fun it was with the pirate navies and rogue planets and super space marines. He’s on an international road job for work servicing a Navy sub (building submarines is genetic apparently) and said “This book is so good, I had to share it. I gave it to the sailors to put in the ship’s library.”

So adventure books are thriving. Why the New Wave fail? Well I think it has to do with the in vogue science. Social sciences and psychology were big. I think there was a prevailing attitude that in order for the genre to be taken seriously, it needed to be serious. It got smart. I think it got way too smart for its own good. Character and fluid pacing were sacrificed in order to be ‘smart.’ And I don’t think it is just an author thing, I’ve noticed it with other books from the 60s and 70s I’ve picked up from The Bookbarn and then sent right back to them. Things like Kampus and even some of the early Zelazny is tough to digest and he’s my all time favorite author.

I am not saying a book needs to dumb itself down in order to be enjoyable. Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is one of the smartest books I’ve ever read, steeped in philosophy and science and math, blurring the lines between them like really high level science tends to do. I think there was just a precedence placed on abstract social science to make itself sound important in these older novels.

What’s going to make a story last? How can we make the SF powerhouse that’s going to last as long as Shakespeare? Well, do like ol’ Bill did and transcend your setting. It sounds slightly pretentious but the human stories are the ones that are going to last. The hero overcoming the odds. The tragic romance. The behind the back treachery. They worked in Elizabethan days. They worked for Burroughs. They worked for Carter and Weber and dozens of other authors I’ve read across all different times and genres. The set dressings still need to be up to snuff. Changing what aspects get the short shaft is a lateral move, not an improvement in writing. But years from now when we snicker at “blazing fast 28.8 modems” or a “futuristic 2020,” we can overlook a dated setting if the rest of the story holds up strong.

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