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