I recently had the opportunity to finally pick up and read a classic of science fiction, E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Triplanetary. I’d had the paperback sitting on my shelf for quite some time, but had only in the last couple of months gotten around to reading it. I was a little confused at first, since none of the stuff about the Arisians or the Eddorians that was on the back cover was in the book. It turns out that Cosmos Books had only printed the original 1934 serial version of Triplanetary, from before Smith rewrote it to fit in with the Lensman series in 1947.
Instead of the actual Lensman version of Triplanetary, that the cover advertised, these folks printed the original, and packaged it along with another story, “Masters of Space,” that Smith had serialized with E. Everett Evans in 1961 and 1962. Not knowing anything about the story, and being unsure if it was supposed to be part of the Lensman series or not, I went looking around the internet to find out about it.
Along the way, I found reviews of both “Masters of Space” and the Lensman series that stated flatly that the series was “dated.” Not because of the science; Smith never made any pretence that Lensman was “hard SF” even when he wrote it. No, it was dated because of “relations between the sexes.” Because a romance between a heroic man who wants to protect the woman he loves and a woman who doesn’t have the kind of physical strength and training that he does is somehow objectionable. Because Costigan is assertive, and Clio isn’t a Mary Sue, apparently, to these people, the story should be tossed on the trash heap.
The same thing was said about “Masters of Space.” After all, the women in that story are all gorgeous and top-of-their-fields geniuses, so it’s somehow “demeaning” that they actually should have romantic relations resulting in marriage with their male counterparts, who also are the best of the best in that story. At least, I’m guessing that that’s the objection. Apparently, in the new orthodoxy of what is “dated,” it’s enough to say that it’s dated and sexist, simply because of how long ago it was written.
I’ve seen this said regarding more recent works too. I’ve even seen someone describe David Gemmell’s Legend as “dated.” (Again, there was no explanation. I guess being published in the ’80s makes it far too old, and there’s too much risk of encountering pre-millenial thought, or something.) Someone (I cannot remember who, off the top of my head) recently described an exchange regarding older fantasy works, in which they were told that nothing that had been published less recently than fifteen years ago was “relevant,” and therefore they should not waste their time.
The whole idea of a story, as such, being dated is ludicrous. Of course there are certain stories that have elements that can be dated. Certain scientific assumptions used in a science fiction story can be discredited. My own predictions in Task Force Desperate, in which the Muslim Brotherhood remained in power in Egypt, were rendered obsolete within a year of the book coming out.
But details being overtaken by events does not discredit a story as a whole. A good story, with good characters, is still a good story.
GK Chesteron once wrote, “It is incomprehensible to me that any thinker can calmly call himself a modernist; he might as well call himself a Thursdayite. … But I never succeeded in saying the quite clear and obvious thing that is really the matter with modernism. The real objection to modernism is simply that it is a form of snobbishness. It is an attempt to crush a rational opponent not by reason, but by some mystery of superiority, by hinting that one is specially up to date or particularly ‘in the know.’ To flaunt the fact that we have had all the last books from Germany is simply vulgar; like flaunting the fact that we have had all the last bonnets from Paris. To introduce into philosophical discussions a sneer at a creed’s antiquity is like introducing a sneer at a lady’s age. It is caddish because it is irrelevant. The pure modernist is merely a snob; he cannot bear to be a month behind the latest fashion.”
To reject older works because of their date of publication, or because the characters do not “represent” one’s particular narrow fantasies of what characters “should” be (and this is always a dogmatic “should” that has little or nothing to do with real life), is a sharply limiting thing. It shuts the rejector into a smaller and smaller box, unable to see the bigger pictures of their culture around them, unable to see the roots of the trees because they are insisting that only the leaves are worth looking at. Eventually, this distorts things, to where they think that the roots are evil, because they are not leaves.
While this “up-to-date” snobbishness as regards fiction really is only an irritant, it is a symptom of a deeper malaise. When one’s entire focus is on the present to the point of condemning the past as unworthy of even studying, one loses perspective. Why are so many societal, political, and strategic mistakes still being made? Because most of the people voting, protesting, or otherwise clamoring for them don’t realize that they’ve already been tried before. There is nothing new under the sun, and the common themes of fiction can speak wisdom, wisdom that is lost when they are tossed aside as “dated,” wisdom that then must be re-learned the hard way.