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August 1st, 2008


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02:15 am - Musings on Changes in SF literature
When I was a child and teen (way back in the 1970s), I read truly vast amounts of SF. Most of these novels were around 150-250 pages long, and I could easily read them in a few hours. Regardless of whether they were by John Brunner, Ursula K. LeGuin, Robert Silverberg, or Andre Norton, I read then exceptionally swiftly, easily reading a book an evening. For the past 15-20 years or so, I haven't been able to read books nearly that fast. For a while I simply thought I read books more slowly, but in the past few years I've been reading more older SF again, including books that I haven't previously read, and I find that I can read books from this era as rapidly now as I could 30 years ago.

Part of the reason is obviously that (in part due to the availability of word processing technology) novels are now significantly longer, with a typical SF novel being more like 300-350 pages now, and some weighty tomes being considerably longer. However, I've also noticed that it often takes me twice as long to read a 300 page modern novel than 250 page novel written in 1970, so length is clearly only part of the issue. Is standard SF writing that much more complex now, are the common fonts or font sizes slightly different now, so that there are more words per page (which doesn't seem at all true from a brief scan of half a dozen novels I have lying around from the 1960s & 70s and a similar number of novels from the late 90s to 00s), or is it simply that I read books of the style and type that I grew up with faster than more recent works?

Has anyone else experienced this difference in reading speed? Does anyone have an explanation for it?

On a vaguely related note, I am once again struck by the fact that up until the early 1980s, it was possible to be a general SF fan, in the sense that you could easily keep up with all major novels being published while also reading enough short stories in the magazines to know who the upcoming new authors were. For at least the past 25 years, SF publishing has grown at a tremendous rate, and has also become separate from fantasy publishing so that now there is no possible way that anyone who did not spend almost all of their time reading could keep up with SF in the same way that a serious but not monomaniacal fan could 35 years ago. The genre has splintered, sub-divided, and separated and so my internal assumptions about SF as a whole have been rendered nothing more than historical curiosities. This is made even more true in my own case, because I have always been interested in speculative fiction from the 1920s & 30s. It was relatively easy for me to read a significant percentage of the non-horrible works written back then and thus gain a very firm grounding in what 1930s SF was like. It's far more difficult to describe what 2000s or 1990s SF is like, since (in comparison) the field is so broad and so large.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

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From:bruceb
Date:August 1st, 2008 09:39 am (UTC)
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Some of this is aging and affects readers of any genre when it comes to stories that have anything significant in the way of allusions, imagery that reaches outside the immediate context, and so long. The older we get, the more associations we have on call, and the more work our memory and mind are doing as we read. As true of mysteries, history, and espionage stories as of sf/f/h. Someone ten years younger than you would probably read what you or I do significantly faster than we do.

It's still possible to have quite good sense of where the field has just been if you read the annual anthologies edited by Dozois, Datlow and Wendling, and Hartwell. (Jones as well if you want to keep up with horror, but last I checked that wasn't such a priority for you. :) )

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From:heron61
Date:August 1st, 2008 09:45 am (UTC)
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Someone ten years younger than you would probably read what you or I do significantly faster than we do.

That's almost certainly true, but I can still fly through a John Brunner or Robert Silverberg novel from the late 1960s (and that I had not previously read) in a couple of hours, while reading an Alastair Reynolds or Kage Baker novel written this year requires considerably more time per page, and that's the differential that seriously puzzles me.
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From:heronheart
Date:August 1st, 2008 04:24 pm (UTC)
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It may be that a previously unread Brunner or Silverburg novel is still using metaphors and tropes which you are already familiar with while a Kage Baker novel is using metaphors, tropes, and idioms which you are less familiar with and which therefore require more time to "decode".
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From:werekat
Date:August 1st, 2008 09:41 am (UTC)
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I've thought about this, myself, as I've encountered this same difference. I believe that the main idea is in the sin of wordiness that many never authors seem to possess. I remember re-reading Zelyazny once (Jack of the Shadows, I think it was), right after a Lackey novel. I was struck by the sparsity of his descriptions. He provided only the bare minimum. The old joke "Aragorn had no pants because they were never described" - could be applied in full. And yet it was enough, more than enough.

The tempo was different, as well. Many of these older books could be seen now as sketch-like. Much quicker and much lighter, all in all.

I'm not sure about the technical sides of publishing - things like letter size - but that gets checked easily: if one looks at more recent editions of older books. I find that in Russian SF and fantasy we do have this problem: the publishing quality is significantly lower than it was in the Soviet Union (the old schools mostly fell apart, and there aren't any new schools of publishing yet, as far as I'm aware of) - and books really are that much more difficult to read. The eyes get tired after a few dozen pages, and, of course, it's "the author's fault for writing badly".
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From:heron61
Date:August 1st, 2008 09:48 am (UTC)
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The tempo was different, as well. Many of these older books could be seen now as sketch-like. Much quicker and much lighter, all in all.

I'm not certain that this is the crucial difference, but it's not a bad working theory. I have definitely noticed this difference. Comparing modern supernatural books like Poul Anderson's Operation Chaos, with Laurell K. Hamilton's early Anita Blake novels (before they became far too wretched to read), the level of detail is vastly greater in Hamilton's work, and I can definitely see that slowing the pace of reading. I don't know how universally true this change has been, but I can definitely think of many examples.
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From:werekat
Date:August 1st, 2008 10:25 am (UTC)
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I read Anderson when I was very young: can't say I remember much. But I've read the earlier Hamilton books only in translation, but they struck me as the lighter side of the detail spectrum compared to other English-languaged novels. She does have a tendency for metaphor at the most interesting of times (like in the middle of battle), but on the whole her books are (were? I didn't get past Obsidian Butterfly, or maybe even earlier) pretty quick-reading.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:August 1st, 2008 02:58 pm (UTC)
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"I believe that the main idea is in the sin of wordiness that many never authors seem to possess."

Anne Rice is one of the worst for wordiness. The woman would take an entire paragraph to describe a shampoo aisle at a drugstore. Ornate prose to describe something ordinary does not for wonder make - just overheated.
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From:tlttlotd
Date:August 1st, 2008 05:00 pm (UTC)
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Neal Stephenson has his moments of that, also.
From:nancylebov
Date:August 1st, 2008 01:48 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for posting this. I'd noticed that books have gotten longer, but it's possible that my reading speed is slower for most new sf, too.

I agree about the field becoming unmanageably large, and I don't think reading Best of anthologies is a substitute for keeping up with the field yourself.

I'll recommend Naomi Novik and Rachel Caine (the Weather Warden novels) for having golden age pacing.
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From:pompe
Date:August 1st, 2008 01:51 pm (UTC)
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I'm a very fast reader myself, but I think one reason for the slowdown is that written storytelling in some cases is unnecessary complex and fancy, wordsmithing-wise. Things which could be described in one word are described in one paragraph, dialogues get idiotically extended, and then you have the clunky infodumps. Authors should definitely try to tell complex, multi-layered stories with multidimensional characters, but that has nothing to do with writing in an overly cumbersome way.

Sometimes I think some authors try to cheat. They don't have much to say, but they do it in 500 pages with lengthy sentences, so at a glance we think they have something to say.

That said, I experience a reading slowdown when the author writes too much. I can read a 250-page novel quickly, but my enthusiasm for a 500 page novel is much harder to keep up. I think it in part has to do with the things not progressing as fast as I like, in part that I think there are too many sideplots and side characters messing up the structure.
From:nancylebov
Date:August 1st, 2008 11:29 pm (UTC)
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There were flashy writers in the golden age: Bradbury, Bester, and Sturgeon come to mind. They weren't slow reads.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:August 1st, 2008 02:55 pm (UTC)
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Yay!!! I'm glad the SF field has grown so much!!!

Now if only I could find more of Spider Robinson's novels at Borders.
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From:martianmooncrab
Date:August 1st, 2008 05:09 pm (UTC)
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A lot of the classic SF & F were serialized in magazines and then pubbed as books, so the editorial style carried through, so once the 3-5 editors of the genre were augmented by others, then styles changed. Then the bestselling trends kicked in and the genre became more common. After talking bunnies and seagulls on the bestseller lists, and the rise of genre movies and tv tie ins, proliferation ensued. If you read just one sub-genre (Star Trek/Star Wars/Gaming) that would take up the entire months reading.
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From:helen99
Date:August 1st, 2008 08:29 pm (UTC)
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Some of the older stuff affects my emotions more directly. The opinions and relationships and ways of relating to the world were often closer to what I actually experienced myself (or would, if I was in a similar situation). Writing style could have something to do with it to a lesser degree. The early-to-mid-20th century science fiction writing style feels similar to watching a movie in many respects.

While publication has increased, it seems to me that many books don't stay in print very long at all, which I find disturbing.

I subscribed to Asimov's and Analog for a while (they print a lot of stories written in that style), but don't anymore... they had begun to pile up.

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