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SF: Literature of Ideas or Genre of Gimmicks?

Richard Salsbury

People often say that science fiction is the literature of ideas. Itís a fair comment. Although sf is a notoriously difficult genre to define (as the "Definitions of Sf" entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction makes clear), one thing is sure: somewhere, in each piece of sf, there is an idea - something that is outside the readerís normal world-view and which might even be completely new to them.
     If the idea were always new to the reader then everything in the garden would be rosy, but any writer embarking on a story runs the risk of treading old ground. As sf becomes an older genre, and the amount of published work becomes greater, the chances of using an idea that has already been used elsewhere increase.
     For some people, the idea content of a story is the most important - maybe the only important - thing. Theyíre interested in finding that good old Ďideas buzzí.
     They read a new story and say gleefully, "Aha, this idea was used by Ada Kibbutz in her 1942 novel Conquerors of the Doomthrone," or whatever. Finding an idea that has been used before is sometimes used as grounds for rejecting a whole story, which implies that the idea is the only thing that matters. Itís a little like condemning a whodunnit if you figure out whodunnit before you get to the end.
     But is the originality of the idea really that important? Is, for example, Philip K. Dickís The Man in the High Castle less worthy because Katharine Burdekin explored the ĎNazi victoryí theme first in Swastika Night? Should Dan Simmonsí Hyperion remain unread because the structure has been pinched from Chaucerís The Canterbury Tales? Surely not.
     Things get subjective here, because everyone has a different feeling as to what is hackneyed - everyone draws the line in a different place, depending on their tastes and reading experiences. But if readers set their sights too high and expect radical new concepts in every novel or story they read, then not only will they be increasingly disappointed by virtually everything they read, but they will also be persuading sf writers to head down the road of increasing obscurity in order to come up with something fresh. Some areas of the arts have followed this path already, a prime showcase being the annual Turner Prize ceremony. Here, it seems to me, the only requirement for a winning entry is that the work has some whiff of originality. The judges are unfamiliar with policemen standing still for an hour, or pieces of elephant dung attached to a painting, so, hey, it must be good. The Turner Prize can be very amusing to watch, but itís also quite tragic: the most famous art prize in Britain is awarded to the work with the wackiest gimmick, resulting in art which the majority of people utterly cannot comprehend (and I suspect the same of the critics - none of them seem able to give a reason why
the stuff on display is worthy of a £20000 award).
     If originality is of paramount importance to readers of science fiction, then we may eventually find ourselves wading through similar dross. (I can see it now: Jeremiah Grimshanks wins the 2009 BSFA award with his stream of mucusness debut, written entirely in his own snot. Controversy follows as two of the other nominees claim to have sneezed on their early manuscripts. But I digress.)
     As the name implies, science fiction is, first and foremost, fiction. The staple elements of fiction - plot and character - should be present, even if they have been stretched to their limits (and itís refreshing to see it done every once in a while). An sf story that relies solely on its idea for impact is one-dimensional, and inherently limited as a result.
     The most vulnerable story of this type is the one that relies on the idea to provide a twist or punchline at the end. At their best, these punchline stories can work marvellously, as in, for example, Arthur C. Clarkeís ĎThe Starí. But if the reader guesses the punchline, and there is no more substance to the story than its idea, then it will inevitably fail.
     Up until about the 1950s, there was enough new territory for idea stories to work without much in the way of plot or characterisation to hold them up; they provided the kind of intellectual kick that sf has become famous for, and often that was enough. But things have changed since then - the genre has grown enormously, and in many cases, matured. Also, the majority of natty ideas have been used up, so itís virtually impossible to come up with something completely original. Instead of trying to find new ideas in the hope that they havenít been done before, sf writers would do better to improve their fiction in other ways.
     To a large extent, this has already happened, with the best fiction showing increased sophistication in all areas. Although it isnít widely acknowledged by non-sf readers (or reflected in sales), I think itís fair to say that todayís top sf novels can compete in equal terms with the best the literary or popular thriller markets have to offer.
     And yet some readers seem oblivious to these improvements and yearn for those old stories where the idea was king. I think this is what people are generally referring to when they say, "They donít write them like they used to." Well, for the most part, they donít, and a good thing too, because most of the good Ďpure ideaí stories seem to have been written already, and in many cases they were done very well. Attempts to come up with genuinely new ideas will result in ĎTurner Prizeí fiction, and itís surely better to read about an old idea which has been put to good use, than a novelty idea with no drama or meaning.
     Those pedlars of doom and gloom who announce the death of sf are probably the same people who are hunting for the radical new ideas. Unless each story is different, they argue, the genre will stagnate. But each story is different. The fundamental concepts may be similar, but each writer can bring their own unique vision to a piece of fiction. Literary fiction remains in a healthy state using material from our present and past, so how much more potential is there in sf, with the whole of the infinite future as source material?
     Iím not disparaging the role of ideas in sf - they are still essential if weíre going to call it sf at all. And Iím not saying that absolutely all of the new ideas have gone. New ones will crop up: itís a natural consequence of our moving from the present into the future. But originality is not the only reason for the existence of our genre - there are other elements of the story to consider, and different ways to engage the hearts and minds of readers.
     Science fiction at the turn of the 21st century is not the literature of ideas, but the literature of ideas.

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