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Literature of Ideas

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RichardGarfinkle

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Science Fiction was in the past described as a literature of ideas. The concept being that an SF story was always, whatever else it was, the exploration of one or more concepts.

Isaac Asimov described three types of SF stories which he called gadget science fiction (essentially SF about invention)' adventure science fiction (SF about doing cool stuff with inventions) and social Science fiction (SF about social consequences of invention).

In looking for a quote of this, I found this page which is part of a lesson plan for an SF course. The quotes are in the middle of the discussion.
http://www.aboutsf.com/main/book/export/html/24

We've obviously gone a long ways since Asimov, which begs the question, is SF still a literature of ideas or has it become something else?

And has the mainstreaming of some SF elements had an impact on the ability to tell idea centered stories?

Finally, to broaden the topic, has Fantasy taken on some of the idea character of SF with explorations of concepts of magic and divinity?
 

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I've become so fantasy-centered that I'm not the right person to ask about sci fi. But as far as fantasy is concerned, I think that it boasts some of the best "literature" out there -- and that its concepts are intricate and sophisticated, to say the least.
 

Rob Lopez

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There are some who not only think that SF is about concepts, but that it should be exclusively about concepts, and thus get miffed when they see an entertaining SF novel that doesn't say anything 'new'.

Where SF is now is hard to say, because it is pretty fractured.

But if you take out the 'SF is important because it's about our future' conceit, you'll find that SF and fantasy has always been about 'ideas'. Meaning, it's about stuff that doesn't exist.

Crime novels for instance depict what we know already, in a world we can already see. SF & F however always has to dream up something that isn't readily available to a reader's senses. Homer's Odyssey for instance explored worlds (islands) that could not exist. Its not what we call scientific, but it is speculative. He had to make stuff up that wasn't there.

So ideas will always be present in SF & F - the world building. Of course, many writers won't come up with new ideas - they'll just use what others came up with. But they're still using concepts that don't, or can never, exist. That's how we recognise it's SF & F.

A detective solving a crime is in a Crime novel. If he uses telepathic means to do so, or some strange fictional gadget, it's SF & F. That's how the marketing types will label it anyway.
 

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I think it stopped being about ideas a long time ago, which is why there are few sci-fi stories I still enjoy. Nowadays most sci-fi are soap operas IN SPACE. Hence the term space opera.

Great fantasy is also about ideas, in my opinion. Consider the film Being John Malkovich. It took an idea and then speculated "What would happen if...?"
 

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I think it stopped being about ideas a long time ago, which is why there are few sci-fi stories I still enjoy. Nowadays most sci-fi are soap operas IN SPACE. Hence the term space opera.

But that's just it. They're still about ideas, just old ideas. The complaint about no ideas (and the perennial topic of 'is SF dying?') is really about no new big ideas that give an adreneline shot to the genre.

But people do still enjoy the old ideas. Ask any film maker.
 

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But that's just it. They're still about ideas, just old ideas. The complaint about no ideas (and the perennial topic of 'is SF dying?') is really about no new big ideas that give an adreneline shot to the genre.

But people do still enjoy the old ideas. Ask any film maker.
Well, in that case, any story is about ideas. For me, sci-fi and fantasy is supposed to give me a sense of wonder and awe, open me up to things that hadn't occurred to me before. I think that was originally the point of the genre.

I appreciate that isn't what everyone wants, and that's why space opera and paranormal romance exists. I don't expect the entire field of literature to mold itself into what pleases me. :)
 

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Science Fiction was in the past described as a literature of ideas. The concept being that an SF story was always, whatever else it was, the exploration of one or more concepts.

Isaac Asimov described three types of SF stories which he called gadget science fiction (essentially SF about invention)' adventure science fiction (SF about doing cool stuff with inventions) and social Science fiction (SF about social consequences of invention).

Wha...?

OK, I think I've just had an epiphany. When we get incommunicado, me and other SFF folk? I think I look at it top-down and most of you guys look at it bottom-up. The books I tend to love the mostest are mostly top-down and often have weaknesses in worldbuilding and plotting (holes that drive some other people crazy but don't bother me in the least, even when I see them) and strengths in character and internal conflict. I like a lot of bottom-up fiction too, but I think it's magic. A wizard did it! !SCIENCE! It's, like, inductive versus deductive or something. They're both based on ideas, just from totally different sources and directions.

Whew. Glad that's settled.

So obviously I'm not the best person to talk about this, because that makes no sense to me. Well, the social science fiction almost does. Care to provide examples of which each one is? I'm going through all the science fiction I have ever read or seen in my head and trying to put it into one of these categories, and I'm failing, big time. On the surface these categories seem quite limiting, though. I mean, obviously Margaret Atwood writes social science fiction... But take A Handmaid's Tale, for instance - it's obviously social sci-fi but I don't remember any inventions. Some of my favorite fantasy is what I'd call social fantasy, but the logic behind the world is weak. Hunger Games may be social sci-fi, but again, top-down, not bottom-up, weak worldbuilding results.

We've obviously gone a long ways since Asimov, which begs the question, is SF still a literature of ideas or has it become something else?
Well, you know what I think. The main problem I see is that x must include y and cannot include z. It all seems so limiting.
 
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Rob Lopez

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Well, in that case, any story is about ideas. :)

To clarify, I meant ideas that don't exist. The future, for instance, doesn't exist yet. We're confident that it will, but we have no proof. Until it happens. Then it's no longer the future.;)
 

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I think I look at it top-down and most of you guys look at it bottom-up.
This sounds intriguing, but I'm not sure what you mean exactly. Could you clarify what is bottom-up and what is top-down fiction?

But take A Handmaid's Tale, for instance - it's obviously social sci-fi but I don't remember any inventions. Some of my favorite fantasy is what I'd call social fantasy, but the logic behind the world is weak. Hunger Games may be social sci-fi, but again, top-down, not bottom-up, weak worldbuilding results.
I would argue that dystopian fiction is a genre unto itself.

To clarify, I meant ideas that don't exist. The future, for instance, doesn't exist yet. We're confident that it will, but we have no proof. Until it happens. Then it's no longer the future.;)
But all fiction is about things that don't exist. It would be non-fiction otherwise.
 

Rob Lopez

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But take A Handmaid's Tale, for instance - it's obviously social sci-fi but I don't remember any inventions.

If you replace Asimov's 'inventions' with 'concepts', I suppose that might work.

Asimov had a gadget fetish.:)
 

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I think the word "invention" there is the problem. I love social science fiction and fantasy. But it's not primarily about mechanical gizmo kind of inventions. The interesting inventions are the _author_'s inventions of racial biology or cultural philosophy. It might be facilitated by some kind of technology, like a machine that enables anyone to easily change appearance or gender, or a machine that makes everyone immortal. Or you can replace that with "sufficiently developed magic indistinguishable from technology" *cough* and it will work pretty much the same. The point of social science fiction is that it is about studying human nature in a typical drama/romance way with a few monkey wrenches thrown in so it's not the same old human nature in the same old situations we've seen a hundred times before.

Actually I think that's the real way to look at SFF: it is about changing things up to make them more interesting than reality, but it can do that with any plot genre (e.g. drama, adventure, comedy, etc.)
 
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Rob Lopez

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But all fiction is about things that don't exist. It would be non-fiction otherwise.

If I write a fictional story about a one legged man's adventures in Paris, it would still contain things that, today, concretely, exist.

One legged men, adventures and Paris.
 

RichardGarfinkle

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So far, it sounds like a big part of the change since Asimov wrote that is what kind of ideas, SF is a literature of. In his day you could have stories focusing on a single piece of technological or scientific change. Nowadays, the ideas are already social innovations. So that what was for him the most sophisticated form of SF is for us the ground state of what an SF story needs to have, a change in human society and the implications thereof.

Does that sound right?
 

Rob Lopez

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So far, it sounds like a big part of the change since Asimov wrote that is what kind of ideas, SF is a literature of. In his day you could have stories focusing on a single piece of technological or scientific change. Nowadays, the ideas are already social innovations. So that what was for him the most sophisticated form of SF is for us the ground state of what an SF story needs to have, a change in human society and the implications thereof.

Does that sound right?

Sorry, not clear on what you mean. Are you saying that, since 'inventions' are no longer such a big deal (we're too used to them now), that SF has moved onto social change rather than technological change? Or social change because of technological change?
 

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This sounds intriguing, but I'm not sure what you mean exactly. Could you clarify what is bottom-up and what is top-down fiction?

OK, one of my favorite fantasy books is called The Secrets of Jin-Shei, by Alma Alexander. The author has said (paraphrased), "I started out with eight characters in search of a plot. I searched and searched and finally found it in an ancient secret language passed from mother to daughter..." So she based the world not-so-loosely on an imperial China without a particular time or historical events, and that was the extent of the worldbuilding involved, pretty much. A jin-shei sisterhood between two women was a lifetime unbreakable bond, so the conflicts (and resultant theme) are all about loyalty, sacrifice, and betrayal. Plus there's some alchemy thrown in there, but its purpose was for the conflict.

I believe Suzanne Collins said that she started with reality tv and how much it bothered her, which says to me that she started with theme and conflict. Theme of Hunger Games: loss of human dignity. Good characters, great internal conflict/character value changes/etc., weak worldbuilding, weak plot. I haven't read the books yet, but I watched the movie, and from what I've read from other posters, many aspects of the world - crazy plastic surgery and clothes, the televised nature of the hunger games, the very concept of the games being based on hunger - they're not very well causally linked on a worldbuilding or plot level. But they're thematically linked. They're all about human dignity. The question is about human dignity. Nothing about Panem, or whatever, is the question; Panem is the excuse to ask it.

At least, that's what I'm now thinking of as "top down" fiction (I kept thinking of it as "character-based" fiction and I knew that wasn't right exactly). And bottom-up fiction? It's magic. I dunno. It's everything that is not that. I do not even speak that language, but that's what most of you guys are speaking.

I would argue that dystopian fiction is a genre unto itself.
Ah, true. It's not unlike social sci-fi, though. I have trouble with the conception of "genre" sometimes.

But all fiction is about things that don't exist. It would be non-fiction otherwise.
ITA. :)

I think the word "invention" there is the problem. I love social science fiction and fantasy. But it's not primarily about mechanical gizmo kind of inventions. The interesting inventions are the _author_'s inventions of racial biology or cultural philosophy. It might be facilitated by some kind of technology, like a machine that enables anyone to easily change appearance or gender,

Like shapeshifting. Yeah, my WIP needs shapeshifting. I knew it needed it for a character trajectory (ETA: 3 character trajectories, actually), and then I was all, "Wait. These characters, these conflicts, this setting? NOT urban fantasy. Urban fantasy denotes vampires and they do not relate at ALL with what I'm doing here, and this will not work" and discarded it. But I finally figured out, it's thematically linked. That's what I knew on an intuitive level. It's part of the story, I know that, but I'm still figuring it out.

Anyway, this is all why when I first ventured in here, I felt as if I were speaking a different language. And why I'm chafing against the intellectual boundaries of the subgenres.
 
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Oh I see. Interesting distinction. I guess I look for the top-down stories that start with a concept and then put some characters in it. Though I can definitely see the appeal of starting with some characters and saying "Hey guys! What if we put this interesting, complex character in a post-apocalyptic dystopian world? In space. With cyborgs."
 

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So far, it sounds like a big part of the change since Asimov wrote that is what kind of ideas, SF is a literature of. In his day you could have stories focusing on a single piece of technological or scientific change. Nowadays, the ideas are already social innovations. So that what was for him the most sophisticated form of SF is for us the ground state of what an SF story needs to have, a change in human society and the implications thereof.

Does that sound right?

I really have no clue, just trying to be helpful, but this sounds true. There may be a lot one could do with space, for instance, since our knowledge about it is far from complete. But you could run into problems, both for writer and reader, on the learning curve.

And, you know, the space race is long over and NASA's practically been dismantled (uh, I think), which could mean one of two things for both writers and readers:

(1) People don't have a lot of wonder about space anymore, or

(2) There's big untapped cultural angst out there due to our lack of comparative progress on it.

I'm just wondering about the current state of wonder in (non-social) scifi - there are things that are niggling at people's brains, there have to be, but what are they? I come at all this from a different perspective so I have no clue, but there has to be something, right?

Oh I see. Interesting distinction. I guess I look for the top-down stories that start with a concept and then put some characters in it. Though I can definitely see the appeal of starting with some characters and saying "Hey guys! What if we put this interesting, complex character in a post-apocalyptic dystopian world? In space. With cyborgs."

Yeah. I think the origination just comes from how people think. Like inductive versus deductive logic or something.
 

RichardGarfinkle

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Sorry, not clear on what you mean. Are you saying that, since 'inventions' are no longer such a big deal (we're too used to them now), that SF has moved onto social change rather than technological change? Or social change because of technological change?

Essentially social change, but often social change with technological change or social change brought about by radical circumstances such as environmental disaster or plague.
 

RichardGarfinkle

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I'm just wondering about the current state of wonder in (non-social) scifi - there are things that are niggling at people's brains, there have to be, but what are they? I come at all this from a different perspective so I have no clue, but there has to be something, right?.

I wonder about sense of wonder. Having entered fogeydom, I don't think I see it much around anymore, but that could just be age and cynicism. I do think that the sense of something beyond one's grasp may be lacking in the era of "There's an app for that."
 

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I wonder about sense of wonder. Having entered fogeydom, I don't think I see it much around anymore, but that could just be age and cynicism. I do think that the sense of something beyond one's grasp may be lacking in the era of "There's an app for that."
Until there's an app that lets you hack the universe, there will always be plenty of wonder.
 

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I wonder about sense of wonder. Having entered fogeydom, I don't think I see it much around anymore, but that could just be age and cynicism.

Haha. I'm not sure I disagree with you, but since I'm not much for !SCIENCE! without the accompanying fiction, I couldn't completely tell ya. I will say this: my best friend is obsessed with space. My husband is obsessed with what I will refer to, for lack of a better term, "weird crap science," everything from the hydron collider (sp?) to things about dinosaurs that I tune out. They're both former humanities majors, so it's not like they have more of a background than I do. And they're in their thirties. I don't know about Gen Y the younger, except that I think they have deep cultural angst about the loss of meaning, and perhaps, wonder. Look at how ironic they are.

I'm thinking of great or almost great sci-fi movies I've seen in the last few years and there's Primer, Moon, District 9... I'd look to film and pop science magazines to figure out this question, methinks.

I do think that the sense of something beyond one's grasp may be lacking in the era of "There's an app for that."
Maybe, but I think that generates untapped angst. Look at Moon.
 

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Haha. I'm not sure I disagree with you, but since I'm not much for !SCIENCE! without the accompanying fiction, I couldn't completely tell ya. I will say this: my best friend is obsessed with space. My husband is obsessed with what I will refer to, for lack of a better term, "weird crap science," everything from the hydron collider (sp?) to things about dinosaurs that I tune out. They're both former humanities majors, so it's not like they have more of a background than I do. And they're in their thirties. I don't know about Gen Y the younger, except that I think they have deep cultural angst about the loss of meaning, and perhaps, wonder. Look at how ironic they are.

I'm thinking of great or almost great sci-fi movies I've seen in the last few years and there's Primer, Moon, District 9... I'd look to film and pop science magazines to figure out this question, methinks.

Maybe, but I think that generates untapped angst. Look at Moon.

Nice to have cynicism dispelled.
Speaking of spelling its Hadron.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hadron

I was probably being too self indulgent and whiny. I have seen sense of wonder in my kids and nephews. But it seems to be lacking in the kind of staying power that led to long term in depth interest in science and SF.

Of course, that may just be more fogeying. You kids these days with your Hubble images of distant galaxies. In my day, we had to look through reflector telescopes from rooftops. Which wasn't easy in New York.

Seriously, I think they may be less sense of wonder as a distant thing but a more up close at your fingertips sense of wonder, like being able to see up close views of the sun in close to real time.
 

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I was probably being too self indulgent and whiny. I have seen sense of wonder in my kids and nephews. But it seems to be lacking in the kind of staying power that led to long term in depth interest in science and SF.

Right now I'm wondering about the nature of "wonder." Does it have to be optimistic? My husband and I brainstormed through all of the SF we can remember reading or watching, and most of it concerned horror rather than optimism, from The Time Machine to Solaris. I mean, I love horror and hope pretty much equally within fiction, so they're both "wonder" on my list.

I think we ought to add one category to Asimov's list: psychological science fiction, about the consequences of science both on the mind and the psyche. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Moon, Primer, Donnie Darko. The oeuvre of Philip K. Dick. Solaris. They tend to concern themes of identity, human isolation, the loss or renewal of hope, madness... and it often deals with God in relation to those themes, and/or the idea of God as machine. Modern sociological sci-fi deals with some of these themes as well, e.g. Children of Men.

So it may be true that you can't get away without including a social or psychological aspect in today's fiction. I think most modern fiction tends to include either a psychological or sociological aspect within their concept. But that doesn't mean that's all that they are - Primer was about a time machine, but it included both physical and psychological consequences of time travel, even sometimes merging the two. The most recent work that our collective brains could come up with that was neither psychological or sociological at all was Neuromancer (that's his contribution, so don't blame me if it's wrong).

So... is there an equivalent psychological fantasy out there?

Of course, that may just be more fogeying. You kids these days with your Hubble images of distant galaxies. In my day, we had to look through reflector telescopes from rooftops. Which wasn't easy in New York.
Actually, you know what? We may have something here. Moon landing versus Challenger. And the new generation gets Columbia.

Seriously, I think they may be less sense of wonder as a distant thing but a more up close at your fingertips sense of wonder, like being able to see up close views of the sun in close to real time.
Yeah, I actually came of age with all this stuff, along with the interwebz, which was fun - I may not be into the science (it's rebellion against the 'rents, I think), but must have spent six hours playing with Google Mars on the first day it came out. My buddies and I get so crochety about the new young'uns with their lack of appreciation for being able to look stuff up on the internet. "You kids with your user-friendly interfaces... I lived through WindowsME and MS-DOS command prompts and start-up disks that you had to physically load into the machine! Walking uphill both ways!"You ain't the only one with fogeydom! I think the rapid pace of technology has made me prematurely grumpy. I absolutely lash out when anyone insults wikipedia. Remember what bullcrap encyclopedias used to be? Ugh.
 
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Science Fiction was in the past described as a literature of ideas. The concept being that an SF story was always, whatever else it was, the exploration of one or more concepts.

Wasn't it that editor, Harold Garfish or Gene Gerswinger (somehow those sound wrong). *hurries to the interwebs*

I'm thinking of somebody earlier than Campbell and larger than a breadbox. Titus Gerwiller?

Anyway, here's the melodrama from wikipedia:

End of the Golden Age
It is harder to specify the end of the Golden Age of Science Fiction than its beginning, but several coincidental factors changed the face of science fiction in the mid to late 1950s. Most important, perhaps, was the rapid contraction of an inflated pulp market: Fantastic Adventuresand Famous Fantastic Mysteries folded in 1953, Planet Stories, startling stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1955,Other Worlds and Science Fiction Quarterly in 1957, Imagination, Imaginative Tales, and Infinity in 1958. At the same time the presence of science fiction on television and radio diminished, with the cancellation of Captain Video, Space Patrol and Nancy Pace, Space Cadet in 1955. Science fiction had flourished in the comics in the early 1950s, where it was by no means restricted to juvenile material; however, the introduction of the Comics Code in 1954 hurt science fiction comics badly, and one of the most notable publications, ECs Incredible Science Fiction was dropped at the end of 1955.

Tragic. As usual, I blame the Comic Code.
 
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Maxx

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I don't know about Gen Y the younger, except that I think they have deep cultural angst about the loss of meaning, and perhaps, wonder. Look at how ironic they are.

Are the Post-Millenials still ironic? Ironically, don't you have to get the app for the irony thing?
 
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