As much as I talk about older scifi and fantasy, I like some contemporary fiction. I’m a fan of the Witcher stories. I like Harry Potter (is that contemporary anymore?). Hell, I was even on the Game of Thrones bandwagon back before HBO picked it up. But looking at a lot of the material that’s out there these days, something has occurred to me.
So much stuff that comes out today is just so padded, so bloated. Sometimes I look at what other people are reading, and I just want to rend.
641 pages. Book #10. Holy crap, man. I mean hey, if you really love what the writer is doing, maybe you just want to read their story forever. But for me, it’s gotta be something really special, and most of the stuff out there…isn’t really special.
This is another thing that I’ve come to appreciate about older SFF. The short story is a diminished form these days; more a novelty item for anthologies and gimmicky collections. But properly utilized, the short story is wonderful for a punchy, concise tale. It gives the author a flexible medium in which to experiment with an unusual theme or setting, or to slowly build upon an on-going world or character. Sure, this can be done with 700-page novels, but then you’ve got wait years between installations and you often get more than you need.
It’s not even just the sparsity of short stories today, though. Writers and publishers have gotten into this mindset; they have to push out door stoppers now.
It wasn’t always so.
One standalone book. ~130 pages. Reasonably sized print. They don’t make SFF like this anymore, do they? pic.twitter.com/HlLKkdzkE9
— Bushi (@PCBushi) December 5, 2018
Not everyone is a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, or Robert E. Howard, or Jack Vance. But the dudes knew word economy. They knew flow. They knew how to make a story lean.
Have a look at this bit of scifi (!) from one of my favorite Conan stories. Look at how well Howard wields prose. Look, and despair.
Again tears fell as the tortured body was rocked to and fro in the grip of varied emotions. Conan looked on, bewildered.
Then the convulsions ceased; the soft, sightless eyes were turned toward the Cimmerian, the trunk beckoned.
‘Oh man, listen,’ said the strange being. ‘I am foul and monstrous to you, am I not? Nay, do not answer; I know. But you would seem as strange to me, could I see you. There are many worlds besides this earth, and life takes many shapes. I am neither god nor demon, but flesh and blood like yourself, though the substance differ in part, and the form be cast in a different mold.
‘I am very old, oh man of the waste countries; long and long ago I came to this planet with others of my world, from the green planet Yag, which circles for ever in the outer fringe of this universe. We swept through space on mighty wings that drove us through the cosmos quicker than light, because we had warred with the kings of Yag and were defeated and outcast. But we could never return, for on earth our wings withered from our shoulders. Here we abode apart from earthly life. We fought the strange and terrible forms of life which then walked the earth, so that we became feared, and were not molested in the dim jungles of the east, where we had our abode.
‘We saw men grow from the ape and build the shining cities of Valusia, Kamelia, Commoria and their sisters. We saw them reel before the thrusts of the heathen Atlanteans and Picts and Lemurians. We saw the oceans rise and engulf Atlantis and Lemuria, and the isles of the Picts, and shining cities of civilization. We saw the survivors of Pictdom and Atlantis build their stone-age empires, and go down to ruin, locked in bloody wars. We saw the Picts sink into abysmal savagery, the Atlanteans into apedom again. We saw new savages drift southward in conquering waves from the Arctic circle to build a new civilization, with new kingdoms called Nemedia, and Koth, and Aquilonia and their sisters. We saw your people rise under a new name from the jungles of the apes that had been Atlanteans. We saw the descendants of the Lemurians who had survived the cataclysm, rise again through savagery and ride westward as Hyrkanians. And we saw this race of devils, survivors of the ancient civilization that was before Atlantis sank, come once more into culture and power—this accursed kingdom of Zamora.
‘All this we saw, neither aiding nor hindering the immutable cosmic law, and one by one we died; for we of Yag are not immortal, though our lives are as the lives of planets and constellations. At last I alone was left, dreaming of old times among the ruined temples of jungle-lost Khitai, worshipped as a god by an ancient yellow-skinned race. Then came Yara, versed in dark knowledge handed down through the days of barbarism, since before Atlantis sank.