Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A Literature of Ideas?

A long-standing theme in SF criticism is that science fiction is a literature of ideas, meaning that an SF story should have some speculative concept in it that is so integral to the story that you could not tell the story without it. This is in contrast to the imagined exemplar of bad SF, "Bat Durston" - a Western with the barest trappings of SF, the hero relying on his quick blaster and trusty spaceship instead of his Colt and trusty horse.

I have always rather wondered about this argument, and a counterexample is at hand. Bat Durston never existed even fictionally, but Firefly came pretty damn close - including an unabashed, overtly Western flavor, even with actual six-guns, blasters evidently being hard to come by in the outer reaches of the 'Verse where the good ship Serenity plies the spaceways. Moreover, in spite of the bold move of having someone fire a gun in vacuum without a bang on the soundtrack, the scientific background of Firefly is dicey even by the modest standards of Hollywood sci-fi.

Yet I was a major fan of Firefly, and so were a lot of other SF people. The reason, I would argue, has far less to do with any "idea" than with the show's very powerful flavor. The setting of Firefly is not - as I've heard of the new Battlestar Galactica - essentially the contemporary US Navy with fancier tech. In Firefly we are palpably in a different time. People don't quite speak the way we do, or dress as we do, or think as we do. Few of the specific details would stand up to critical examination, but the overall weight transcends the specifics. This, we sense, is what the era of interstellar expansion might feel like to the people living through it.

You could fairly argue that this is the "speculative idea," elevating Firefly above Bat Durston status in spite of the fair number of horses to be seen. Certainly anyone who's read classic Heinlein has encountered the retro flavor of colony worlds, and the argument behind it: Horses can burn unprocessed biofuel, and if you have a stallion and mare they'll manufacture more horses for you. (Whether this really holds up is uncertain, but it is a well-established SF trope.)

Certainly the world in which a story takes place shapes what happens in it. This is a characteristic that SF - at least the kind set significantly into the future - share with historical fiction as well as most fantasy. A lady-in-waiting in a Tudor-era court is not like a modern-day professional woman, just all dressed up for a RenFaire. Her life is different, her concerns and goals are different, and if the king crooks a beckoning finger her way she cannot file a workplace sexual-harassment grievance. (I owe to Karen Lindsey the insight that for a lady-in-waiting this wasn't merely an awkward social situation: in some sense her position at court was her job.)

The lamer grade of historical romances regularly gets slammed for ignoring any sort of historical authenticity. Even historical fiction with far more pretention to seriousness is full of heroines who evidently misread the calendar, and go around spouting feminist rhetoric that sounds a lot more like Germaine Greer than Christine de Pisan. SF has it tougher, because at least you can research the past; when you're writing about the future you just plain have to fake it. But while good world-building takes a great deal of thought, I'm not sure that even the best world-building qualifies as an "idea." Indeed, a world built around an idea is likely to be one-dimensional, much like traditional utopian fiction.

The "literature of ideas" notion works far better for short stories than for novels. Short stories (which I can't write for beans; my attempts all read like Readers Digested novels) are structured more or less like a joke, leading up to a punch line at the end. This lends itself to working out the implications of some specific speculative assumption. A classic example is one of the most controversial of all SF stories, "The Cold Equations." Arguments over this story would fill a book longer than Lord of the Rings, but it certainly works at the most basic level: It kicks you in the guts.

This sort of idea-based - or, to put it another way, gimmick-based - plot works well in a short story. It is not an accident that SF (at least in the US) developed largely as a short-story medium; some critics say that it is inherently a short-story medium. However, plots of this type rarely sustain a novel - which may be why it's also been said that SF novels tend to fall apart in the last third. ("It's been said," because I am far too lazy to try and find where I read this some years ago.) A long story cannot depend for its resolution on the spaceship only having oxygen enough for one person, or rapid tech progress in wartime backfiring on the side that achieves it.

Long stories are built by complex human interactions, and their resolutions have to flow from those interactions. (I don't say "novels," because of a real question whether there is any such a thing as a science fiction novel - but that's a topic for another post.) The Iliad is not about the Trojan Horse; it is about the (pretty childish) wrath of Achilles. The Odyssey is not about cyclopses or other monsters; it is about a man trying to make his way home, and a woman fighting to hold that home. Though afterwards Penelope may have had a word or two about Odysseus' ten-year "wandering" - seven of which were spent cozily shacked up with Calypso.

The point is that long stories are necessarily centered on people, in a way that short stories don't have to be, and to a degree cannot be. (There's only so much characterization you can do in a 5000-word story.) Yet people have not fundamentally changed since Homer's time, and if they fundamentally change in the future we probably wouldn't be able to write about them anyway, because they wouldn't quite be human. So stories about people will be fundamentally the same, no matter what the setting or era.

Firefly, in its essentials, could be set in the Wild West. You'd have to change details - 19th century ships performed poorly in New Mexico, and even the highest-class hooker wouldn't bring the added respectability that Inara does. The essentials, however, would be the same. In long fiction, we are all Bat Durston.


Carla said...

Interesting suggestion that short stories can be about ideas whereas long stories have to be about people. I might take exception to the latter with the techno-thriller, some of which seem to me to focus more on the technology for a submarine/bomb/whatever than on the people involved. Would you say the 'idea' short story only applies to SF? I was thinking about some of Kipling's short historical stories and although some of them focus on a specific event/question from history (did Harold survive Hastings?) most of them seem to me to be character vignettes.

Carla said...

PS - In defence of Odysseus, wasn't Calypso holding him prisoner?

Rick said...

Carla - you're right about techno-thrillers, but people are probably reading them less for the story than the cool stuff about subs or whatever.

I think the "idea" short story is distinctive to SF, but it works because it follows the pattern of most short stories, the idea doing the job of the story twist (e.g., she cut off and sold her hair to buy him a watch fob; he sold his watch to buy her a comb).

Prisoner? For sure that is what he told Penelope! I don't remember what Homer actually says, but even if so, you don't get the impression that he was serving hard time.

Anonymous said...

the question is:

is a good scifi story about simply playing out ideas....
...or provoking new ones ?

Canageek said...

I'd say that setting isn't nearly as important as the ideas. If I want to explore the implications of a have/havenot divided society does it matter if I do it using a transhumanist setting like Eclipse Phase, a Steampunk setting, or a cyberpunk setting?

Isn't the whole point of Steampunk to explore the ideas of Cyberpunk, but set in a psudo-Victorian period instead of a gritty futuristic setting?