Know your heritage: pioneers of SF

Among the semi-random books I got out of the library recently was a collection of stories by Clark Ashton Smith under the title Out of Space and Time. Never having read anything by him before I thought I’d give it a go, but the first story, The End of the Story, put me off. The phrase ‘purple prose’ suggested itself; it was from 1930 but seemed 40 or 50 years older at least (more, even – Poe sprang to mind), a suspenseful mild horror story set in the 18th century and concerning a forbidden manuscript in a monastery library. It may be that he’d overdone it on this story as he wanted to create that historic feel, but I had a small pile of other library books demanding my attention so one story was all I gave it. It is of course purely a matter of taste, and if you like that kind of style, you’ll enjoy Clark Ashton Smith’s works much more than I did.

Part of the reason I wanted to try this collection at all was the feeling that I hadn’t read many of the classics of the genre. I read Jules Verne and HG Wells when I was an adolescent (and Edgar Allan Poe, for that matter), and naturally I’ve delved into Tolkien and Philip K Dick, but there are plenty of other names I’ve heard often enough but have no first-hand experience of. I don’t think I’ve read any HP Lovecraft (I might have read one story in an anthology but it obviously hasn’t seared itself on my brain), I haven’t read any Edgar Rice Burroughs, EE “Doc” Smith, Michael Moorcock, Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut… Given my cynical assumption of Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome whenever ‘classics’ are mentioned, I’m often in two minds whether to read them or not. On one hand they’re important influences, it’s a way of tracing the history of stories that I have enjoyed, and I might find that I enjoy some of these classics themselves. On the other, many of them are quite old now, possibly old-fashioned or in a style that’s not to my taste; some of them (I’m thinking sci-fi rather than fantasy here) are even irrelevant and eclipsed by later discoveries.

For when I’m in the mood to read the old stuff, I have discovered a rather wonderful site where you can download (for free) thousands of public domain books in several languages and formats, including a whole host of science fiction, fantasy, gothic and horror (and a pulp section which covers plenty of SF). A bibliophile’s paradise.

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3 comments

  1. No Heinlein, Moorcock, Lovecraft, Smith, Burroughs, or Vonnegut? 😦 I have to admit, Heinlein is overrated in my opinion…. And I haven’t had much luck with Moorcock — but, Smith and Burroughs are great pulp fun and Vonnegut is quite good…

    1. I’ve heard Slaughterhouse Five on BBC7 I think; I bought OneMonkey Stranger in a Strange Land many years ago (for the Iron Maiden reference, naturally) and he didn’t enjoy it so that (fairly or unfairly) put me off Heinlein. Moorcock is disparaged in a Half Man Half Biscuit song, which again (arbitrarily and completely unfairly) put me off. I’ll have to catch up a bit with these public domain ones. Though as OneMonkey said not five minutes ago, if you read all the classics you’ll never get time to read anything newer.

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