Reader Request Week #3: How, and If, I Will Be Remembered

Steve asks:

Have you ever wondered how you will be remembered by the “science fiction community”? How future critics will use you in comparison to future authors……about the legacy you have left behind you when you have gone……if you will be lost among the hundreds of authors, as many from the 50’s have been…..? No offense……but even great authors have no books reprinted….etc etc…..

Well, one, after I’m dead I don’t think I’ll be worried about how I’m remembered, by the science fiction community or anyone else, because I’ll be dead, which I suspect means I’ll be beyond caring about anything. This is a strangely comforting thought: So long, universe! It’s your problem now! So there’s that.

Prior to my incipient oblivion, which is to say for the next 40 to 50 years, I don’t worry too much about not being remembered. One, presumably I will continue to produce work for the next 25 or 30 years at least — writing is a career where one can have some longevity — so I’m likely to continue to be in the stream of commerce and notability in my field. Two, I have enough status in the field thanks to existing work, sales and awards that my inevitable decline into irrelevance might be managed as a gentle descending glidepath rather than a precipitous cliff fall.

Three, you know what, if until I die I have friends and family and people I care about and who care about me, even if I were forgotten by the science fiction public while I were alive, I would probably be fine. I had a nice run in there, and there are worse things than to be forgotten.

In any event, the question is not whether I or my work will be forgotten, but when. Why? Because nearly every writer is forgotten, as is their work, given enough time. A couple get cosmically lucky in terms of their cultural legacies — Shakespeare is the go-to example in English — But between 1616 (Shakespeare’s death) and today, 400 years later, hundreds of thousands of published authors in English alone (if not millions) have slipped out of history. Their work may exist, in libraries or rare volumes or in archives like Project Gutenberg, but no one reads them, save the occasional academic desperate for a serviceable thesis. When you know that the vast majority of those who write, and the vast majority of what is written, tumble down history’s hole, you have a pretty good idea of what your eventual fate will be.

You don’t even have to be dead for it to happen. The large majority of my published work prior to 2005 is “out of print” — either officially out of print in terms of publication, or accessible only through specialized archives, digital or otherwise. I have a publishing history that goes back to 1991 (or 1987 if you want to throw in my college newspaper), which includes thousands of film and music reviews, hundreds of columns, dozens of newspaper and magazine features and several books, all published before 2005. Unless you already have a physical copy of any of these, you are unlikely to see any of them, ever. For that matter, the first four years of this blog — 1998 through 2002 — are not on the current iteration of the site; they’re accessible through the Internet Archive, but there’s no real indication anyone visits that. Other things I’ve written on other sites on the Internet are likewise inaccessible, though closed sites, reorganized sites, link rot and other such things.

Again: The majority of everything I’ve ever written — things that had audiences of hundreds of thousands of people when they were printed — has already effectively vanished from history, when I’m 46 years old and still actively writing. Is this a horrifying tragedy? Well, no, not really. I mean, if you really want to find my Fresno Bee review of, say, the long-forgotten 1993 Wesley Snipes thriller Boiling Point, then knock yourself out. But I guarantee you that if you do find it, you will not marvel at its genius. The review doesn’t necessarily deserve to be forgotten, but it doesn’t make a very good argument to be remembered, either. A lot of my “lost” writing is like that.

But in time even my good writing is likely to slip out of the public consciousness, even in specialized fields like science fiction. Look, new science fiction readers have heard of Asimov and Clarke and Heinlein — the chances they’ve read them, or at least read anything more than their one or two “greatest hits,” is increasingly slim, and will get slimmer the more time passes. This may outrage some folks who think you can’t truly appreciate the genre unless you take a survey class in it, but the average reader doesn’t care about that. They’re not going to go all the way back to Jules Verne or even Larry Niven just to have sufficient historical perspective in the genre to read the latest book by James S.A. Corey, or Ann Leckie or by me. 40 years from now, new readers aren’t going to read our stuff as a prerequisite to read whatever is new and exciting in the genre then.

And that’s fine. I’ve frequently said that I’m not interested in writing for the ages, since I won’t be there and the ages will take care of themselves in any event. I’m writing for people now, who will enjoy the work now, and also and not entirely coincidentally, pay me for my work now, so I don’t have to do anything else for a living. Will it last? You got me. I suspect I’ll still be remembered fifty years now because people who are reading me now will still be alive then. A hundred years from now I may be remembered for one book. If I’m remembered two hundred years from now, I’d be impressed as hell with myself, if I weren’t already dead for probably 150 years.

(Incidentally, the book of mine that already exists that I suspect I’d be best remembered for in 100 years? Redshirts. It’s not my “obituary book,” the book that’ll show up in the opening graph of stories about my death; that will be Old Man’s War. But I suspect it’s the one that will age the best, in part because it’s specifically about its time and therefore resistant to going “out of date” in terms of technology and prediction (particularly of social mores) the way science fiction can do; in part because it functions as both story and metastory, commentary and metacommentary, which means it’ll be interesting to teach, and being taught is important for the longevity of a work; and in part because it’s funny and easy to read. Will I be right? Well, on the slim chance anyone’s reading this in 2116: You tell me. Or tell my corpse; again, I’m probably long dead.)

None of this isn’t to say I wouldn’t be happy, in an existential sense, to have my work, and therefore me, remembered 100 or 200 years (or more!) into the future. I’m not going to live forever and any personal immortality I will earn will be through what I write. I think it might be nice for any future descendants of mine to brag to their friends that the book they’ve been assigned in class is from their great-great-great-grandfather (or granduncle, or whatever). I think it’d be fun to have people argue about whether I still have relevant things to say or should be considered “of my time.” It’d be nice to be remembered for being a writer, hopefully positively, when I’m gone.

I’m just not staying up nights worrying if it will happen. If it does, great. If not, I’m having a hell of a lot of fun now, and enjoying the small serving of notability I get today, for doing what I do. It won’t last; it never does. On this side of the grave or the other, I’ll likely to be forgotten, and no matter what the sun will eat the earth five billion years from now anyway and eventually the entire universe will proton decay out of existence, so, you know. Be ready for that.

In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy what I have today, with the people I have with me now. Seems the best thing to do.

(There’s still time to ask questions for 2016’s Reader Request Week — get your requests in here.)

28 Comments on “Reader Request Week #3: How, and If, I Will Be Remembered”

  1. It’s interesting this just came up. Over the weekend, I listened to a bit of NPR that featured Piers Anthony (who I thought was dead, but apparently it was a case of “Not hardly.”). That reminded me that only less than a couple decades ago, Anthony was a big-time, popular writer in the “humorous fantasy alternate worlds” kind of area. I don’t pay a lot of attention, but do many people even remember his stuff now?

  2. Well, I have a friend from high school who still buys Anthony’s books like clockwork…

    I wonder if the Hugo Awards retain some prominence, if people will also read Redshirts as part of that — use the Hugos as a way to get a sense of what was going on in the field at a certain time. But I agree that many fans don’t feel the need to do that; there’s many ways to be a fan.

  3. Doc Smith’s stuff was still in print in the 80’s, when I encountered it. I’d heard of it previously. I first read Piper’s work in the 80’s when Ace reprinted it with the Whelan covers. Still have those editions. Verne and Wells are still in print over a hundred years after they wrote. I read them when I was in my teens.I suspect that much of Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov will still be in print 40 years from now. But the definition of “in print” is radically different. As you said, Gutenberg. But libraries also do e-books, and I think that many e-books will be “in print” in that venue.

    But, yeah, in a hundred years? Two? I wonder who the modern equivalents if Mary Shelley and Jules Verne are? Boy, could we have fun speculating on that. ;-)

  4. Interesting thoughts, thanks for them. I had Redshirts pegged as the one most likely to last, both for the reasons you state but also because it is playing off Star Trek, which as a cultural icon looks like it’ll be around for a while.

    (There’s a ‘fun’ debate if ever there is one; which will be more culturally lasting: Star Trek or Star Wars?)

    I think Old Man’s War might be more remembered though. I’ve only read the first one – series is on the ever growing ‘to read’ pile – but although plainer than Redshirts it is a classic Sci-fi story on the Asimov and Heinlein model; so it may well get a more dedicated and continuing following.

  5. It’s interesting to me how the process of “forgetting” or “moving on” from certain science fiction authors plays out even in my own reading history. I’m 46 years old, and 30 years ago, I read tons of golden age science fiction. I tore through the stuff. But I found recently, when I tried reading some of the earliest Hugo novel award winners (Bester, and Leiber especially), I couldn’t get through them. For the most part they just didn’t hold my interest enough to keep reading.

    I used to love Asimov; I have no real interest in re-reading him now, or seeking out works by him that I haven’t read yet. Same with Clarke. I find that the older I get, the more I wish I could give Heinlein a smack. The only one I consistently go back to is Bradbury. Part of all this is that I’m older, and a different person than I was. I didn’t think my taste in reading had changed that much, but I guess it had. However, the intervening years and decades make a difference in what seems readable, relevant and interesting, as well.

  6. Out of curiosity, in this day and age of eBooks, where presumably having a book on sale has a very low up-front cost, why are any of your books “out of print”? i.e. why not just offer the entire catalog as eBooks?

  7. i agree with Redshirts also because it won the Hugo. Award winners stay in print. When Kate DiCamillo won the Newbery medal (the first time) she said she was most thankful knowing the book would stay in print!

  8. Dave DeBaeremaeker:

    When a title goes out of print the rights to the work revert back to the author, who may then find either another publisher or put the books back out themselves, either or both for more potential money. So it’s useful to have an OOP clause in the contract.

    Here in the days of ebook files “out of print” usually means that the book sells below a certain number of units in a certain amount of time, basically signifying that the publisher has stopped marketing or promoting it.

  9. Wow, for a leading SF author, I find your prognostications to be a bit myopic! :)

    In the future we will: all live forever, our brains will be wired up directly to the cloud and everything will be in the cloud.

    We’ll WISH we could forget stuff, but it will be impossible to do so. Doing a survey of ALL of the golden age of SF will take approximately 20 microseconds, after which we’ll be looking for something else to do and our thoughts will naturally turn to reading ALL of Scalzi (12 microseconds), watching the films based on his works (18 microseconds – one of them gets franchised), binging on the TV shows (8 microseconds), perusing the authorized fanfic (4) and playing several rounds of the various games (4).

    Then we’ll all be off to something else (I sense a western fad coming on) – but don’t worry, Scalzi-nostalgia will roll around again sometime in the next fifteen minutes or so…..

  10. John, as a follow up to this, have you ever considered trying to put together an anthology of your older work or have some else do it for you, like Terry Pratchett had done in “Once More* *With Footnotes” or “A Blink of the Screen”?

  11. I suspect Old Man’s War will be remembered in the 50-75ish year term. To place even one work on that shelf is a remarkable achievement. The future gets vastly more cloudy when you go beyond that.

  12. Well, if the history of the language is any indication, you’re going to cap out at about 600 years as the language will probably change enough in that time to make you incomprehensible to the regular person. Here’s a nifty video I saw a little while back on it:

  13. “[B]etween 1616 (Shakespeare’s death) and today, 400 years later, hundreds of thousands of published authors in English alone (if not millions) have slipped out of history. Their work may exist, in libraries or rare volumes or in archives like Project Gutenberg, but no one reads them, save the occasional academic desperate for a serviceable thesis.”

    I have a quibble with just one detail of this otherwise sane and sensible post. I’m not an academic, but I know lots of scholars who specialize in the study of particular obscure writers, or groups of associated obscure writers. In all the instances known to me, these people are doing it because they like the writing and/or find it interesting, not because they’re “searching for a serviceable thesis.”

    I’m sure you meant this just as a tossed-off joke, but it’s a little close to a kind of assertion we’ve seen all too often in the SF&F world lately — the claim that Certain People are only reading and enthusing about particular authors and books for discreditable self-serving reasons, instead of because they actually like them. In my experience this kind of charge is most often leveled by would-be populists against anyone who says they enjoy something considered “literary” — that they don’t actually like it, they’re just showing off or trying to make someone else feel bad. It’s almost always nonsense. People do sometimes cop attitudes, but most of the enthusiasm in the world is exactly what it looks like — unfeigned.

  14. We all invest in our immortality when we influence those around us. Writing is certainly one effective way of influencing and one with some longevity over others. You have been read by many people. Some of those will go on to write, create art, be inspired/influenced in various (often subtle) ways by the art that touched them. Their works will touch others in turn. Our influence outlives the memory of us. That is not a bad thing.

    Actually, I think it is rather awesome.

  15. Cosmo Tiger: I believe you’re describing what Jo Walton called the “suck fairy” phenomenon that may occur when revisiting older stories one hasn’t read in a long time. But sometimes (at least in my case) the reaction may not be “How could I have enjoyed this, it’s awful” but rather just plain indifference.

    I think the 20th-century SF writer most likely to endure is Phil Dick, on the basis of how often his work gets mentioned in the non-SF press (and not always in relation to some movie or TV series loosely based on his writing). Irrespective of the various reasons why this might be so, I would note that his work wasn’t much of a sales success while he was alive. Dick had no best-sellers (unlike Heinlein, Scalzi, et al.), but today his entire ouevre remains a going concern; even his earliest non-SF work such as Gather Yourselves Together has made it into print in recent years.

  16. Cosmo Tiger: I believe you’re describing what Jo Walton called the “suck fairy” phenomenon that may occur when revisiting older stories one hasn’t read in a long time. But sometimes (at least in my case) the reaction may not be “How could I have enjoyed this, it’s awful” but rather just plain indifference.

    Two things, vaguely connected:

    Where SF is concerned, works which were published before a certain point in time (before the wide availability of the internet, before the creation of microchips, before the telephone network was created, on back through to the creation of movable type) can be forgiven for their lack of foresight in the same way that one can read, say, Georg Ebers. The plot of A Fall of Moondust is no less valid because the characters use paper to write upon rather than some form of tablet. Read such stories with one thought in mind: this was written by someone in the future of the work’s timeline with an imperfect grasp of historical records.

    The second notion is more complicated to expand upon, though it has cropped up a remarkable number of times in the past few years – It is entirely possible to remember sequences in older novels (read during childhood, for instance) which aren’t in the text. It is remarkable to look back at certain titles and remember the answers to plot holes, or detail on the lives of secondary characters, which are never addressed. A certain H.G. Wells novel benefits greatly if you read it a decade ago, less so if you perused it recently.

  17. @mrtoads If Reddit threads in r/books and r/fantasy are anything to go by, quite a lot of people still remember Mr. Anthony’s works fondly, though much less fondly if they’ve gone back and re-read them recently. To borrow one of the other fairies- his books were visited by the sexism/misogyny fairy at some point in the last few decades. The average conversation tends to go “I loved the Xanth books when I was a kid!” “Yeah, me too, but have you thought about the plots now that you’re an adult?” “Oh wow, there was a heck of a lot of ‘old guys lusting after 14 year olds’ and ‘it’s not the guys fault if he sexually assaults a girl as long as she’s hot, and she’ll decide she likes it anyway’ and ‘the best kind of girl constantly cycles between pretty and dumb, and ugly and smart, that way the guy doesn’t get bored of her!’. I… didn’t notice that as much when I was 12.” “Yeah, they… haven’t aged too well.”

  18. @gottacook: “…But sometimes (at least in my case) the reaction may not be “How could I have enjoyed this, it’s awful” but rather just plain indifference.”

    Yes, my feelings about golden age SF are more like the latter. I don’t consider Asimov or Clarke to be bad writers, but they wrote about ideas that just aren’t particularly interesting to me anymore. I think there’s a certain generational component as well. Heinlein is the best example of that for me. His writing has a personality: an imprint of his own time, experiences and outlook that tends to alienate me from his books, regardless of his skill as an author. On the other hand, authors like Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick, who wrote about concepts and ideas that I care about, still have relevancy to me (even in spite of the anachronistic references to transistors, typewriters and magnetic tapes).

  19. “Ah yes, dead, but not forgotten. Could be worse. Could be dead AND forgetten. Worst still, could be forgotten and not even dead…” Rowan Atkinson sketch circa 1978, probably by John Lloyd.

  20. John wrote: “I’m not going to live forever and any personal immortality I will earn will be through what I write.”

    I’m not a Jungian, but I do see evidence that our works live on through their influence on those who read them in some kind of collective unconscious. For example, I’ve often seen your work described as Heinleinian, and I can see where that notion comes from: a whole generation of writers was shaped, for better or worse, by RAH in much the same way a generation of Tolkeinites emerged in the 1970s. All the works we’ve read tend to create this cultural gestalt that subtly shapes how we think and write about what we think, so there’s kind of a “genetic” passing down of cultural knowledge from generation to generation. The original genes may be largely unrecognizable after a few generations, but they’re still there, alive and well in different guises.

    I’m not sure who my literary gene-parents might be — they’re probably a remarkably promiscuous bunch — but I’ve seen this kind of “inheritance” in the book reviews I write: there’s a hefty dose of Gary Wolfe’s influence in how I write them. (Speaking of which, if you’re an aspiring writer and don’t read Gary Wolfe, he’s sufficient reason for subscribing to Locus. He’s kind of like John Clute’s intelligible older brother, or like Sherlock’s Mycroft.)

    John again: “I think it might be nice for any future descendants of mine to brag to their friends that the book they’ve been assigned in class is from their great-great-great-grandfather (or granduncle, or whatever).”

    I’ve seen something even more interesting happen. I used to do a lot of pro bono teaching and mentoring in the technical communication field, and I see two things happening. First, I see some of the things I’ve taught popping up in the work of my students and mentees (mentorees?). Second, I see others following my example and paying forward the way I’ve done. As legacies go, that kind of cultural transmission is pretty damn fine even when (not if) I’m no longer remembered.

    Of course, as any parent or other person blessed with family and friends knows, this kind of exchange of beliefs and acts happens all the time. I see scary echoes of myself in my kids, for instance. A few years back I wrote a bit of doggerel that I still think works well:

    What I leave behind on paper, all my works and all my verse
    Will outlive me by some time, which is mortal mankind’s curse
    But my writings aren’t eternal, and in time they too will fade
    As in time will any structure that the hands of man have made.
    If I’m lucky, what I’ve written will make someone cry or laugh.
    But the works of all my loved ones make a better epitaph.

  21. I don’t seem to recall who won awards in Shakespeare’s day, so even the Hugo might not save Redshirts. I do think if something becomes taught in school it lasts longer, but not necessarily in a good way. Maybe you’ll be remembered longest for something you haven’t written yet, so your readers would have THAT to look forward to.
    Also, yes, of course, Bacon Cat.

  22. Intriguing post. I really liked going through your very rational assertions. You are, in my opinion, right – you won’t be remembered for long and it should not matter to you. On the other hand, technology is bringing some important changes to the game, so maybe you will be remembered, studied, and analyzed by those who would try to understand our thinking about the future. I would gladly prefer you being remembered instead of Star Wars or some other bad quality legend that arose from the Hollywood film industry.

  23. As to who won awards in Shakespeare’s day : there was Robert Greene, a popular writer and playwright then, who is best known now for taking a swipe at a young Shakespeare in one of his essays.