Thursday, January 20, 2011

Updating science fiction for republication

I read something over at Dear Author that got me thinking:

I was reading the Jennifer Greene books which are being re-released through Carina Press and I was struck by the small ways in which the book details were being updated. One character refers to text messaging another character. Another character was watching CSI and the kids were listening to Lady Gaga. These Greene books were originally published in the 80s when CSI, Lady Gaga, and text messaging were in someone’s deep subspace, not having come to fruition yet. I actually thought these were nice touches and that Greene was making good use of opportunities afforded through a republication.

The thing is, as the article goes on to note, you can't just update the details; sometimes the attitudes need serious adjustment. This is especially true of romance novels published decades ago. Women's social and sexual roles and attitudes have come a long way.

Updating science fiction is just as tricky, perhaps more so. In 2004, when three of my stories (that is, two stories and a novella) first published in the early 90s were collected by Aqueduct Press and published as With Her Body, I had to take a hard look at the fiction. I didn't have to worry so much about "Yaguara," a shape-changing tale set in the jungles of Belize. Or "Song of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese," set in a gently post-apocalyptic Atlanta. But "Touching Fire..." Oh dear: laser discs and Fairlight synthesisers and having to go to the library to do research.

So I made some cosmetic changes: to DVDs, and laptops with faulty batteries and storms and power hits (this actually happened a lot in Atlanta when I lived there, so I didn't feel as though I was exceeding the bounds of credulity). I think it works okay, because the point of the story isn't the thrillery what-happens-and-who-knows-what-when event series, it's the emotional impact of same. Also, given that all this fiction was about dykes, and none of my dykes have ever worried about what people think, I didn't have to take into account changing attitudes.

So why am I thinking about all this now? Because With Her Body will soon become available as an ebook. (In a variety of platforms, with and without DRM, depending on the retailer--which which will include nifty new stores like Wizard's Tower as well as Amazon and others.) So soon, hopefully, my stories will be reaching a new audience--only I haven't looked at those stories for years. And I'm wondering what I've forgotten.

In fifty years, of course, none of those details will matter. Readers will just smile nostalgically and glide past the lack of cell phones with a fond smile, the way I can happily read 1930s space opera with their vacuum tubes and busbars and not blink. But right now I'm just feeling thankful that most of my sf still works. Mostly.

What do you think? Do you think work should be updated or left alone?



  1. I actually find it fun to read books that haven't been updated. I love stories where detectives don't have cell phones and have to find pay phones or have big bulky computers that you have to put you phone into a holder in order to connect to the internet. Those were the times, that was when the story took place and its nostalgic to me to remember those times when we weren't always connected.

  2. Leave them alone. (I've always found the constant "updating" of Nancy Drew et al. just annoying.) Where s-f is concerned, I find it more amusing than anything else to see how an author "guessed wrong." (Still waiting on those flying cars!)

  3. Heidi, oh, those cup-holder modems!

    Phoenix, and the personal jet packs...

  4. I'm just relieved you're not updating them for Republicans.

  5. I agree with Heidi.

    I think the updating of a story should be the exception and not the rule. Something that is done to correct poor research or mistake on the part of the author.

    To me, a story’s relevance isn't due to the technological details or the Political correctness of the characters attitudes based on the time I'm living in. I’ve never read anything by Richard Matheson or any author who wrote great books in the past and thought to myself “This would be better with cell phones, laptops, and facebook.”

    I think relevance is gauged by what the story says about society, be it the one I live in, or the ones that came before me. Or, at the very least, whether or not the story can still take people on a fun adventure.

  6. Eileen, it took me forever to figure out why you were talking about Republicans! (Massage makes me enormously dim...)

  7. Please don't. I *like* reading old fictions, seeing what has changed. Heidi already pretty much said it perfectly, so I'm not going to repeat it.

    But as an example: imagine if Raymond Chandler was no longer a quiet alcoholic, or could have searched for Wade's doctor on the 'net, or if DNA testing caught out Lennox' faked death.

    [I also thought you said Republicans, and was wondering if you were talking about editing out reality.]

  8. I utterly disagree with it and have corresponded about it with beloved young adult novelist Lois Duncan whose books are being updated and reissued. Every word in a story should be necessary and intrinsic to the order. If you change a few details it doesn't correlate to the rest of the story. Lots of stories would be senseless if that happened, I can't even comprehend how many plots rest on things that would never happen if there were cell phones.
    I think it is unnecessarry dumbing down. Kids understand that things are different in different eras. Lois chose to do it herself though so that's her right.

  9. Kids are always smarter than we give them credit for. It's the adults I worry about.

  10. It's funny you should bring this up now because I was just thinking about it last month. In a post a while back you made a comment about potentially needing to update The Blue Place. When I read your comment initially it struck me as wrong.

    Last month I was reading a book published in 1990. While the story itself is rather timeless, you can't avoid the fact that it's prior to the time when everyone had a cell phone and personal computer. As I was reading it I thought of your comment and the idea of updating novels.

    My resounding answer to the question of whether books should be updated is, hell no! While there may be a certain percentage of the reading population who can't seem to relate to a novel that is quickly becoming a period piece, they aren't the readers that writers should be concerned with. I love reading a book that was written in the 50s or 70s. It's very different than reading a book written now that is set back then. You get the full flavor of what the world was like because it's written in its own time. I don't think that should ever be tampered with. It changes the tone of the book in unexpected ways and for no actual gain. The updating will only last for a short period before it's again out of date, and then what? You have a book written in one time period, updated in another, and it loses something in the process. And it's no longer a snapshot of life for those who read it fifty years from now.

    I don't even agree with updating SF. Part of the context and meaning of a novel comes from when it was written, maybe even especially with SF. Does someone reading Heinlein snort and throw his early novels into the trash just because he was way off about some things? No! When he wrote his books gave them a unique context and ambience. Novels should be left alone to stand on their own. If they fall out of sight and never pick up new readers it's not because they are outdated, it's because the story wasn't one that can stand the test of time.

  11. What utter nonsense to update sci-fi. If you don't want to read an old book, read a new one. Don't go out and buy an updated book. Updating old books smells to me like quick cash. It's art that's being updated for quick cash. I wish that was a crime. Sci-fi is something contemporary and it should stay that way. Else you're just raping it for money.
    Don't even get me started on 're-imagining' Make new things. Don't alter old things because you don't like it or because you think it won't make money in its current form. It was made to be a certain way. Don't ever think you have the right to change that.

  12. Psst, just change all dates in the stories to 1976 and say it's alternate history. Insta-Sidewise!

  13. In a visit to Borderlands in San Francisco recently, I picked up a ton of old DAW "Best SF of 197X" books for a few pennies.
    I think the only thing that would strike me as wrong in those stories is if the KEY SFness, the "what if," has been shown to be old, outdated or completely false. Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat uses magnetic tapes to program robots, but you can still do that, and it's not key to the story.

    Most importantly, it's not key to the character.

    Stephen King's "The Stand" was updated twice - once for a paperback edition and then once again for the massive 1990 edition. Many cultural touchstones were updated in the 1990 version because they informed the characters and gave the reader cultural handholds with which they could identify the characters.

    I think the rule is: if your SF is sufficiently weird (Martian Chronicles comes to mind) that your character is required to respond the way that they do, then it can go untouched. But if your reader will cease to identify with your character or her actions, you can probably give her a new coat of paint with no harm.

  14. The way I see it, stories are a slice of either reality of fantasy, captured and preserved in time. They're as much a product of the time in which they were written, and of the time in which they are read, as they are of the author him/herself.

    Yes, laser discs and Fairlight synthesisers are dated, but I bet they also trigger significant memories for many readers (myself included). While minor updates may not impact new readers, I think rereaders would find them jarring.

    Once you start tweaking and adjusting, of course, you get into the questions of how far do you go, and where does it all end?

    Finally, unless the updates are handled really well and thoroughly explored, one minor change can have a snowball effect that destroys the entire plot. Take just about any horror story from the 80s, hand the characters an iPhone, and suddenly they're rescued and on their way home with 200 blank pages to follow. :)

  15. I don't think stories should be updated. Sure, tape-recorders and VHS are passe, but that is part of the story and the fun of it. I'd actually feel offended if some if my favourite stories got the update treatment! I'd feel like the author thinks I'm too stupid to get the tale.

  16. Well, I haven't touched the stories in With Her Body since that one minor tweak in "Touching Fire" for the 2004 print publication and I don't intend to. But perhaps when it comes out you can tell me what is jaw-droppingly out of date. Of course, you can all tell me what's super fabulousness stunningly brilliant and luscious, too :)

  17. I just had to update a book for submission that I wrote a number of years ago. They kept referring to hand helds but really, now everyone would have most stuff on their phone. There were a couple of other instances I had to fix, as well.

    Generally something I LIKE about older fiction is the dated factor. Even for SF, it takes me back and it's just plain fun.

  18. ssas, I'm beginning to formulate a notion: change a word if it detracts from the story i.e. distracts the reader. Otherwise, leave it alone. And definitely leave it alone if it had knock-on effects, which almost any change does, even single words. They change the rhythm of the prose, if nothing else.

  19. There's a minor thread about this over at Shelfari Science Fiction and a lynch mob seems to be forming to go after anyone OTHER than the author should they "update" a text.

    I admit I'm torn. I think there's value in a kind of "historicity" in fiction, which is why I'm having fits about the expurgated Huckleberry Finn. If the author decides to revisit, that's one thing, but just a blanket "let's keep it up to date and trendy" can't maintain artistic integrity, it's just a gimmick.

    When I did the Robot novels I received feedback from some fans that the "updates" I made to the Asimovian universe were very welcome---nanotech, some sociology, etc---but I got the distinct impression that any such revisions made on Asimov's original work would be dimly-viewed.

    I suppose I feel much the same way about most updated versions of old movies and tv shows. Once in a while you get a real benefit, a winner, but for the most part, leave it alone.

  20. I think an author certainly has the right to alter previous work, especially in the emerging world of digitally published works being available theoretically forever. Previous editions won't be replaced by updates any more than revisions of embarrassing material on a website truly change the content for those that want to look for it.

    Sure, it's reprehensible to go back and bowlderize the classics (Huck Finn is a recent example) but a living author who wrote a book that relies on being set *now* should have the ability to maintain that sense for new audiences if they want.

  21. Left alone - scifi says things about the time it was written in, not about the future

  22. One reason I lean towards 'keep it as written originally' is that the reading experience emerges out of the interaction between the words on the page and reader's preexisting 'mental world,' and the relationship between particular words and the effect they contribute to the mental model of the story-world and the reader's narrative expectations can be subtle and hard to disentangle. So I suppose I advocate a sort of Burkeian/Chestertonian conservatism--if it worked before, and it's not *absolutely clear* that X is a distraction rather a productive contribution to building a coherent world (the past is another country!), leave it, and just resign oneself to the fact that everything except one's own diary entry from the day before involves a bit of challenge for the reader.