I recently read The Forever War. I’m pretty sure I must have read it as a teenager as well, but I still can’t remember for sure. The thing is, I kept thinking about how much I wanted to love that book. It was many of the things that I love about space opera. It reminded me of Old Man’s War a little bit. The concept of how interstellar travel worked and the changes on a societal level were really interesting. But. And you knew there was a but.
The book was so obviously written by a straight, white American man. And it was super jarring, too, from a modern perspective. I won’t even get into some of the pretty glaring consent issues because while I’m sure they would have made me uncomfortable as a teenager, I don’t think the vocabulary was there to discuss them yet. Let us leave it at “multiple rapey asides”. But. This book came out 5 years after the Stonewall Riots and when the soldiers – chosen at random for prowess in the intellectual arena – come back and find that homosexuality is not only accepted but fashionable. And yet, among the dozens of soldiers, there is not one person who’s queer. And later, everyone in society goes through a forced conversion therapy instead of, you know, for example neutering all the men.
There’s this massive resistance in science fiction fandom to admit that anything written after 1985 is any good. In some parts of the fandom it seems to be a badge of honor to never have read anything after 1990. These same people will also always recommend that you read the same 10 books, never mind what the starting point. These people are the reason why lists of “Best science fiction to read in 2020” contain books published in the 1950s, 1970s, and 1980s, with a couple of books published after 2000 for the look of the thing. Imagine any other genre or medium doing the same! A list of 10 or so best movies to watch in 2020 containing Strangers on a Train. It’s a great movie! But it has no place on a list like that. Especially accompanied by Annie Hall, The Breakfast Club, and the Dead Poets Society.
And here’s the thing; the canon of science fiction has to change in order to stay relevant. Just because some old fogie somewhere doesn’t recognize the conversation the new authors are in doesn’t make those conversations any less important. The Forever War and its contemporaries are interesting for where they led, but the active conversation of science fiction has moved on from where they were. Science fiction matters, which is why it has moved on with the times. Science fiction has changed and has to keep changing in order to stay relevant.
I’ve read Bradbury, Haldeman, Asimov, Heinlein, all those guys from way back before I was even born. I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to. Time has moved on. Science fiction is relevant to the modern age. And that means that the canon has changed, even if a lot of people don’t want to admit it. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t read all those classics. But I am saying that to find out where the science fiction is now, you need to read completely different books. John Scalzi, Nnedi Okorafor, Rivers Solomon, Cory Doctorow, Emma Newman, Ann Leckie, James S.A. Corey. Of course there are so many others as well, but these are all good authors to start with. There’s so much good science fiction coming out every month, let alone every year, and decade.