What would happen if you made people who didn’t like science fiction anyway read really old science fiction?


I think that would be a better title for this project, Young People Read Old Science Fiction & Fantasy. The premise:

Young People Read Old SF was inspired by something award-winning author Adam-Troy Castro said on Facebook.

nobody discovers a lifelong love of science fiction through Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein anymore, and directing newbies toward the work of those masters is a destructive thing, because the spark won’t happen. You might as well advise them to seek out Cordwainer Smith or Alan E. Nourse—fine tertiary avenues of investigation, even now, but not anything that’s going to set anybody’s heart afire, not from the standing start. Won’t happen.

This is a testable hypothesis! I’ve rounded up a pool of younger people who have agreed to let me expose them to classic works of science fiction1 and assembled a list of older works I think still have merit. Each month my subjects will read and react to those stories; I will then post the results to this site. Hilarity will doubtless ensue!

Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up well for a couple of reasons.

  • The sample size is small, and with a limited range of critical ability. Literary criticism actually takes some skill, you know.

  • None of the critics seem to like this particular genre. Any interesting generational difference is quickly swamped out by the fact that none of these readers are willingly reading this stuff by choice.

  • I’m an older reader and am predisposed to like SF, and if you hand me Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein now, I’m going to gak explosively. Genre fiction tends not to age gracefully. Why not torture them with Edgar Rice Burroughs and Hugo Gernsback if it’s hilarity you’re looking for?

  • One of the clues that will alienate modern readers is not the poor writing, but the casual racism and misogyny. Take a look at that cover of Amazing Stories I’ve put at the top right — you don’t even have to read anything to be saying “OMG, WTF?”.

  • Packaging matters. Star Wars is hugely popular, but it’s really the same crappy serialized soap opera with ray guns that E.E. “Doc” Smith was writing in the 1920s and 1930s, with the antique stilted dialog updated to modern stilted dialog.

Reading the reviews, I’d have to say that the Adam-Troy Castro Hypothesis is so far well supported. I have to question the sample size and the methodology, however.


  1. Katie Anderson says

    The first few that I clicked into started with a review admitting that they had already read it or other works by the author in the past. Kinda kills the premise of the “experiment.”

  2. says

    Isn’t that kinda the point though? People currently recommend Asimov and Heinlein to people new to the genre, where more contemporary authors would be more constructive. That the subjects not yet care for the genre is necessary to get at the hypothesis, and they’re not looking for literary criticism, just a reaction of a young non-sf reader.

  3. =8)-DX says

    Asimov? Clarke? Heinlein?
    Nonsense, read all of Jules Verne, then watch Metropolis and finally hand them Dune and say: this is the finished product.

  4. devnll says

    A lot of the old guard were racist old misogynists; I would _hope_ most teens would rebel against it. I read Clarke’s Tales of the White Hart recently for the first time and it terrified me that this was ever acceptable: the one-line “moral” of Clarke’s own shaggy dog story is that, if you have to murder your wife to get out for a beer with the boys, go ahead; every one of them will conspire to help you get away with it. Go on; tell me he was just joking, so I can tell you that that kind of joke just aint funny.

    Also, if Cordwainer Smith doesn’t thrill you to the brain then you’re dead to me. But that’s just an issue of personal taste.

  5. taraskan says

    They shouldn’t be reading Clarke and Heinlein, they should be reading Swanwick and Banks.

  6. starfleetdude says

    Science fiction written back in the 1940s and 1950s wasn’t all bad, but 90% of it was more or less crap. But some, like Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, do hold up.

  7. cedrus says

    I am fascinated by old SF, but from a sociological perspective. The past is a different country; their models of reality are different. It’s perhaps never more obvious than when you watch them try to predict the future.

    For instance, the classic Foundation series by Asimov…mild spoilers, but it is screamingly obvious that it was written before chaos theory. In a world where most SF readers understand “butterfly effect” and “black swans”, the story just goes boom. It’s really interesting to try to put yourself back in that 1950s headspace where this story makes sense.

    (There’s also a passage in there that I think of every time I’m tempted to get arrogant about the current state of our knowledge. The whole scene is meant as an excuse to talk about the vast galaxy-spanning trade network that exists 25K years in the future. There’s a businessman in a fancy office; he plays grab-ass with the secretary who brings his cigar, muses about how she’s cute but useless, then proceeds to smoke the cigar in his office. Because these are all unremarkable things you do in the distant future, of course.)

  8. says

    I’d recommend James White’s Sector General books to those who already like SciFi, and maybe to those who don’t, in spite of the near fatal eye-rolling sexism, and the incredibly annoying focus on the one character, a sort of all purpose wonder dude, just because White was the only early writer who actually grokked extraterrestrial life. The beings he imagined are so very wondrous, whether hospital staff or patients.

  9. 00001000bit says

    @starfleetdude #6

    There are a few things about The Stars My Destination that are a product of the sexism of the time:
    (spoiler alert)

    The casual disregard of the rape of Robin Wednesbury is the big one.
    The surprise at the cunning displayed by Olivia Presteign (presumably, because she’s a woman) is another.

  10. starfleetdude says


    It might as well be a product of the sexism of our time, but it’s Bester’s verve as a writer that still make’s it a great read.

  11. Katie Anderson says

    @cedrus #7,
    There’s an episode of Star Trek where Kirk, a man from the 23rd century, uses “dipping girls’ curls in the inkwell” as an example of a boyhood prank.

  12. bachfiend says

    I work on the assumption that only about 10% of everything published – whether fiction, films, music, scientific research or whatever – is really first class.

    A lot of old science fiction was just rubbish. So too is a lot of new science fiction. If you’re trying to introduce a new genre to novice readers, then you have to pick the pearls, which then becomes a matter of taste.

    As an example, I would put John Wyndam’s ‘the Day of the Triffids’ on my list (is that old enough?), but I wouldn’t include any of his other novels.

    As an unrelated example, I’m currently listening to all of Mozart’s symphonies, one after the other. Mozart is one of the greats of classical music, but many of his symphonies are just ordinary and I wouldn’t inflict them on a novice listener I was trying to introduce to the joys of classical music.

  13. microraptor says

    For a real laugh, we could make them read Farham’s Freehold.


    Strike that, people shouldn’t even be sentenced to read Farham’s Freehold

  14. microraptor says

    bachfiend @12:

    I work on the assumption that only about 10% of everything published – whether fiction, films, music, scientific research or whatever – is really first class.

    I’ve had that discussion with friends regarding modern vs older music. It only seems like the music from a few decades ago is better than the stuff we’ve got now because we only listen to the really good stuff from back then and all the schlock gets forgotten about.

  15. cgilder says

    We have a n=1 study going on at our house. We handed our 11y/o Heinlein’s _The Past Through Tomorrow_ a week ago, and so far the verdict is “this is really good!” I think my father-in-law bought the book used, then passed it on to my husband, and we’re continuing the tradition. The poor book doesn’t have a cover or much of a spine anymore…

    So… score one for old SF?

  16. dreamstone says

    I would recommend James H Schmitz’s “Witches of Karres”, “The Demon Breed” and his Telzey Amberdon series. His work even from the 50’s and 60’s are refreshengly nonsexist and fast and funny.

  17. magistramarla says

    I had never read a Science Fiction book or watched a Science Fiction film when I met my husband in the mid-70s.
    He persuaded me to read some Heinlein books and I was hooked. I moved on to Asimov and Tolkien. He introduced me to Star Trek, and I’ve unabashedly loved it ever since. Star Wars is fun, but Star Trek will always be my favorite.
    We’ve watched Dr. Who since 1976, and I’m a die-hard fan.
    I had never read a comic book as a kid, but I now enjoy the Marvel universe films and TV series and the DC universe TV series.
    We’re going to dinner and a movie this evening – a lovely Italian meal followed by going to see “Logan”.
    I have friends who laugh at me because I’m always enthusiastic about seeing Science Fiction films as soon as they are released, but the chic flicks that they love – not so much.
    I did see La La Land with my retired music teacher friend, and enjoyed it, but I enjoyed Dr. Strange and Hidden Figures much more. I’ve offered to take her to see Hidden Figures – I think she’ll like it.

  18. Rob Grigjanis says

    Caine @8: I bought my first James White (The Aliens Among Us) 48 years ago. Ouch. It’s still sitting in my bookshelf, after a major clearing out a few years ago.

    For me, the Immortals will always be Le Guin, Zelazny and Delany. With a supporting cast including Blish, Haldeman, White, Vonnegut and a few others.

    Heinlein has the honour of being one of the few authors whose work I have thrown against a wall with violent force, years after first reading it. Prat and a half.

  19. Nemo says

    Science fiction written back in the 1940s and 1950s wasn’t all bad, but 90% of it was more or less crap.

    I work on the assumption that only about 10% of everything published – whether fiction, films, music, scientific research or whatever – is really first class.

    Are you guys intentionally citing Sturgeon’s Law without naming him, or what?

  20. kaleberg says

    A lot of that older science fiction holds up better than one thinks. Isn’t the whole point of reading science fiction to see life through alien eyes and in an alien culture? If you want to read about the modern world full of people just like us, then choose another genre. If you read a lot of old science fiction, you can get a lot of insight into other societies and often some good story telling.

    For example, Jules Verne started writing in the era of colonial expansion, and this is reflected in his techno-optimism and exploration of our own world. Later writers were more hemmed in by the very success of colonialism and needed to invent new places to set their stories. Some set their fantasies, like Graustark, in, a middle-Europe that never existed. Others set their fantasies in an “Africa” of lost civilizations and humanoid apes. Yet others moved into outer space.

    I’ll admit that older science fiction can be full of racism and misogyny, but I’ve found a surprising amount of pernicious misogyny in more modern books, like The Hunger Games trilogy. It helps if you remember that writers, even science fiction writers, are writing about their own times for readers in their own times. I often wonder how well our own modern science fiction is going to hold up over the next five or ten decades.

    (For a great take on science fiction metaphors: http://www.somethingawful.com/news/science-fiction-summary/).

  21. chris61 says

    @4 devnll

    Loved ‘Tales of the White Hart’ (and all things Asimov) and also loved Cordwainer Smith. Interpret that as you will.

  22. bachfiend says


    I wasn’t aware of Sturgeon’s law. But there’s a difference between my ‘only 10% of everything is first class’ and ‘a lot of old science fiction is rubbish’ and Sturgeon’s 90% of everything is crap.

    Of the 90% non-first class material there will be a lot of non-crap stuff. Worth reading, but not the best.

  23. peptron says

    About things not ageing well… Tintin used to be liked in the past. But now anybody googling ‘tintin racisme’ will go WTF IS THIS THING?

  24. davidw says

    I unabashedly love Asimov; he’s one of my personal heroes. Having said that, his writing reflects his times. Just tonight, the Star Trek TOS episode “Metamorphosis” was on TV, and there were some obvious sexist lines in the dialog that my SO and I groaned at – again, a product of their times. We recognize that and, hopefully, recognized that we’ve (hopefully, again) gotten better. Are these examples embarrassing in hindsight? Yes. But overall, despite their obvious faults, there’s still something to be enjoyed, appreciated, and learned.

  25. konservenknilch says

    I got into SF with the SF masterworks collection ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SF_Masterworks ), I guess that counts as “old”. Never had a problem with it, some turds notwithstanding. Of course, n=1. But I’m also a guy who generally tends more towards “classic” literature. I don’t really have the patience to sort the good from the crap in current publications, so I let the years do the work for me. The only current SF I read is the Expanse series, which I quite like, and that was only so I could get into the TV series everyone keeps going on about.

    Having said all that, the very first SF novel I read was an Asimov (something from the Foundation series), and I haven’t warmed up to him to this day. Content-wise, he’s great, but the prose is just a bit too pedestrian for me. Favorite SF author of all time… probably PK Dick, or Vonnegut, if you can count him.

  26. konservenknilch says

    Addendum: Thinking about it, what _really_ got me into SF, before any books, was watching TNG every afternoon after school. So I guess I’m not that oldschool after all.

  27. says

    I see what you mean. The level of casual cephalopodophobia in that cover is just unacceptable these days.

  28. says

    I think I got into SF through Gerry Anderson originally. Probably Fireball XL5 first, then Stingray and Thunderbirds. Even written SF, I think my first was the fabulous TV21 comic which was cover-to-cover Gerry Anderson strips. The first SF book I remember was probably Harry Harrison’s Spaceship Medic which had a gloriously modern art cover (I remember the cover better than the story now).

    Hmm, I think I had a point to this but I seem to have dropped it somewhere….

  29. witm says

    In terms of quality of writing, most modern Sci-fi is hands down better craft. I still like older authors, like Asimov, but I have a hard time separating the fiction from the man, and it suffers. Herbert and PKD are still the only ones I reread annually, and The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin is one of my favorite short stories. I try to read new authors from ‘the olden days’, where it makes sense, or as with Bester’s Stars my destination, where many people say it still holds up.

    My recommendations w.r.t. sci-fi are usually very specific and tailored to the person. YA, protagonist, length, sub-genre etc. There is enough ‘good’, not necessarily great, sci-fi out there to meet just about any demand you could cook up.

  30. lotharloo says

    Actually one of my favorite books of Arthur C Clarke is Imperial Earth:

    Reading it now, it gets astonishing points for all the things old books usually have to get a pass on. It has gay characters, bisexuality is considered normal, there are poly relationships, the main character is a person of color and so are large numbers of the other characters, it contains an older female character, it passes the Bechdel test, the president of the U.S. is female. I’m sure I didn`t notice any of this when I first read it except the nifty blackness of Duncan Makenzie. There’s not much in the way of ethnicity—this is pretty much a post-ethnic world, but as far as skin color goes, darker is considered more aesthetically pleasing. There is one minor character who is a Muslim and a haji. He’s a cloning specialist. There’s one fat bald character—these things are considered to be unusual aesthetic choices because they’re both fixable.

    I recommend it, not only because of the above but also because of the feeling of reminiscence that you get from it.

  31. flyv65 says

    What? No props for Ray Bradbury? I think Martian Chronicles was one of the first books I ever bought by saving my allowance up…

  32. aziraphale says

    His choices are odd. For Clarke I would have chosen The City And The Stars, for Leiber Our Lady Of Darkness… And why no War Of The Worlds or The Time Machine?

  33. hemidactylus says

    I don’t read much fiction so sci fi is out unless for a reason. I read several of Asimov’s Foundation books to better understand his version of psychohistory some memeticists were hyping. I preferred Asimov’s nonfiction such as In the Beginning which was about the bible. And he had a book about physics.

    Also read the typical dystopian stuff by Orwell, Huxley, and Rand if that qualifies. Have Zamyatin’s urdystopian around here somewhere which seemingly influenced the others.

  34. daved says

    I loved Heinlein in my youth. Some of his juveniles, like “Have Space Suit, Will Travel” hold up. Eventually, he just ran out of things to say, but kept writing anyway. Clarke had interesting ideas, but kept trying to write thrillers and wasn’t good at it. Asimov was a hack; his dialogue is ghastly. (Though his short story “Author! Author!” is still one of the funniest things I ever read.)

    For something a bit more contemporary, especially for, say, teen-aged readers, no love for Gibson’s cyberpunk novels, or for John Varley? I loved Varley’s “Red Thunder” series, even if the final book was fairly weak.

    And I still love “Dune,” though the sequels weren’t much. Oh, and John Brunner. “Stand on Zanzibar” is magnificent, and “The Shockwave Rider” is good too.

  35. blf says

    I definitely got into SF because of Asimov although — and this will perhaps sound odd — I’ve never read any(?) of his Foundation series (and very little of the Robot books), nor various other well-known SF series (e.g., Dune or The Chronicles of Amber or…) — I don’t like series, in general, with exceptions like Discworld. I haven’t read any Asimov for some time now, but still dig out some Zelazny on occasion, as well as other “old” authors between A–Z.

    I suppose for quality of story, in no particular order, Tolkien, Zelazny, and Verne come to mind as very good “old” writers that are perhaps likely to interest the current lawn-roving fiends.

  36. says

    Hey, one of the ‘young people’ here. Really only one of us is entirely new to SFF. The rest of us have read recent stuff. In fact one of us does a podcast about science fiction. We just haven’t really read old SFF.

    The majority of the stories have been new to me, but I admit I’ve read Le Guin and Asimov because they continue to be big names.

  37. cherbear says

    Loved Ray Bradbury and his Martian Chronicles. Of course, it was a thinly veiled North American Aboriginals Meet Europeans and are Wiped Out story, so maybe if I read it now I would be throwing this book at the walls too. Haven’t read it in years. I also recall some of his shorter fiction seemed less racist, and sexist than some of the writers that were part of “classical” science fiction.

    I also got into SF through Asimov, Clarke, and other writers, LeGuin, when I was a child and went on to Zelazney, Niven Delaney, Robinson, and most recently Banks. Although writers are products of their times, and someday the modern writers may look as quaint as the ones who wrote in the 50’s and 60’s.

  38. cherbear says

    Darn. Is there anyway to edit comments? Cross out the Although and just start with “Writers”. Man what a dumb sentence.

  39. says

    Cherbear @40, I’d’ve said South American aboriginals, myself, with the cities being left behind and not much warfare against the colonists. Maybe the whole theme of the colonists becoming the natives, too.

    Jamie Bragg @39, [waves]. Don’t worry about PZ, he’s just a bit cranky with overwork and losing his sabbatical.