Literature of Ideas

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sunandshadow

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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?
In my opinion the idea that time is responsible for the difference here is wrong. Sociological science fiction has its root in weird tales, oldschool horror (village of fish people worshiping elder gods, anyone?), and adventure stories about tribes of cannibals and witches and such. Consider the mythological amazons who lived without men - that's sociological sf right there. Faeries too have a strong tradition of thinking in a non-human way. The idea of using gadgets and mechanical inventions got into the act with Poe and Hawthorn, who were influenced by inventions of things like shock "therapy" and clockwork toys. All of it is older than Asimov. Sociological SF and gadget sf are two subgenres that exist alongside each other and can be combined; neither replaces the other.
 

DaveK

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I would say that SF has for the most part abandoned its roots of being about ideas and become mostly space opera. When one of the largest magazines, Asimov's, says, "In general, we’re looking for “character oriented” stories, those in which the characters, rather than the science, provide the main focus for the reader’s interest." the literature of ideas concept is mostly gone.

I'm surprised that no one has as yet mentioned OSC's MICE quotient. I would argue that the M, I, and E are all in the "idea" category.

When reading a story I generally skip over the interpersonal stuff and quote Eleanor Roosevelt, "Great minds discuss ideas; Average minds discuss events; Small minds discuss people." From, http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/36354.html

In any case, it is the idea stories I like. A great compliment to me is when one of my readers says - that story made me think. They say write what you want to read, I just have problems finding a place to sell them. I'm sure that my writing ability has nothing to do with that lack. ;)
 
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Don't forget, though, that people generate both ideas and events.
 

FalconMage

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I'm not so sure that SF has effectively (or actually) abandoned being a literature of ideas. I just think readers expect more than some new gadget or some singular change. Niven's Known Space universe has teleporters, and yet the different locations on Earth are unique.

<blink blink>

Looking at how Internet connectivity is having a slow, (possibly) inexorable pull towards homogeneity of thought...

I'm speculating pretty heavily there. But I think readers and writers understand that tech and ideas have consequences beyond the immediate change (like the instantaneous travel above).

So... maybe it's not that ideas have stopped. We just expect more from them?
 

veschke

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When reading a story I generally skip over the interpersonal stuff and quote Eleanor Roosevelt, "Great minds discuss ideas; Average minds discuss events; Small minds discuss people." From, http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/36354.html

I wanted to pull this out, as I thought it was interesting. Not that I haven't heard it before, but I've always thought the quote should be taken in the context of personal gossip. If one is talking about writing, there is no room for fiction in that statement at all; it's philosophy or science, history, or biography. Once one does start to write fiction, people are necessary. Without characters, the brilliance of the conceit doesn't matter.

I'm not so sure what I think about the "literature of ideas" concept. It seems to be applied to Golden Age SF mainly (I came of age during the 80s). Heck, the existence of the term Golden Age highlights the cultural truism that everything is always in decline, the past is always better than the present. There was a lot of really awful SF published back then, too. We may be in a bit of a fallow period right now, for all I know, but that's not to say that the genre has reached senescence.

Just occurred to me... literature is generally a reactive force; things happen in society, and we write about them. There's a lot to keep up with these days, and it tends to be in the gradual accumulation of changes fashion rather than grand events -- the space race is behind us, most of us have gotten over our terror of The Bomb, the world has gone without a major war for an unprecedented length of time. Eventually we'll get another shock to our system.
 

RichardGarfinkle

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I wanted to pull this out, as I thought it was interesting. Not that I haven't heard it before, but I've always thought the quote should be taken in the context of personal gossip. If one is talking about writing, there is no room for fiction in that statement at all; it's philosophy or science, history, or biography. Once one does start to write fiction, people are necessary. Without characters, the brilliance of the conceit doesn't matter.

I'm not so sure what I think about the "literature of ideas" concept. It seems to be applied to Golden Age SF mainly (I came of age during the 80s). Heck, the existence of the term Golden Age highlights the cultural truism that everything is always in decline, the past is always better than the present. There was a lot of really awful SF published back then, too. We may be in a bit of a fallow period right now, for all I know, but that's not to say that the genre has reached senescence.

Just occurred to me... literature is generally a reactive force; things happen in society, and we write about them. There's a lot to keep up with these days, and it tends to be in the gradual accumulation of changes fashion rather than grand events -- the space race is behind us, most of us have gotten over our terror of The Bomb, the world has gone without a major war for an unprecedented length of time. Eventually we'll get another shock to our system.

The eighties gave us Cyberpunk which while remarked on for its style and character attitude as well as what some authors declared to be innovations in writing (Bruce Sterling liked to talk about Fractal Prose), but it can also be seen as being firmly a type 3 Asimov story type exploring the question: what are the consequences to society of the inter connectivity of computers and communication.


The reactivity of literature is certainly always present, but it is also coupled with an exploration of possibility within the current questions of a society which can lead to asking new questions.

Theodore Sturgeon made a little symbol which had a Q and an arrow in it, that he said meant ask the next question.
http://www.physics.emory.edu/~weeks/misc/duncan.html

To a great extent literature of ideas is coupled with this concept of asking the next question.
 

Cliffhanger

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A few days old but I'll still jump in...

I think science fiction is the literature of ideas, and it will exist forever, because we can't help but make up stories and wonder about the future.

I don't see sf as only being about ideas, that's untenable. If that were the case, you'd get one story about an alien invasion... and no more. SF is the literature of ideas because, at its core, sf is about speculation of the unknown, and unknowable, future. It's a great game of "what if?" but everyone gets to answer in their own way.

What if psychic powers were real? And how many stories picked this up and ran with it? Novels, short stories? Throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s. But, the idea wore thin and the field largely moved on.

SF isn't about a purely new idea for every story, that's not possible. It's about a new expression of the idea with every story. Which is why new sf writers are admonished, far more than writers in other genres, to read as much as they can as widely as they can before setting pen to paper.

Oh, and the term space opera has existed since 1941, so it's not new really.

The trouble with sf compared to say fantasy, is that there are a lot more subgenres of sf than just about any other genre that I'm aware of. In fantasy you have sword & sorcery, high fantasy, and low fantasy. Depending on how you parse those, comic fantasy and urban fantasy are added to the mix. With sf you have hard, soft, social. Cyberpunk and time travel. Alternate history and military sf. Superhumans and apocalyptic. Space opera and space westerns. Anthro sf, steampunk, steampulp (some debate), and comic sf. Among others.

When you say "fantasy" so someone, 90% of the time you'll both be thinking of roughly the same thing. When you say "science fiction" to someone, 90% of the time you'll not be thinking of the same thing at all. SF is the literature of ideas. So many in fact that it's hard to classify them all.
 

Rob Lopez

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When you say "science fiction" to someone, 90% of the time you'll not be thinking of the same thing at all. SF is the literature of ideas. So many in fact that it's hard to classify them all.

Are we approaching the point where we can call it the Literature That Cannot Be Defined?


I'm also wary of the very term 'ideas'. Because that means a lot of things to a lot of people too. For a goodly proportion of authors 'ideas' means simply political ideas, and this is the only genre I can think of where I am tired of the author attempting to ram their political propaganda down my throat while skimping on story, plot and characterisation.

Has the term Science Fiction become devalued to the point of being utterly useless? I mean, even on a science fiction forum it cannot be used without some degree of confusion and misunderstanding.
 

Cliffhanger

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Are we approaching the point where we can call it the Literature That Cannot Be Defined?

I'm also wary of the very term 'ideas'. Because that means a lot of things to a lot of people too. For a goodly proportion of authors 'ideas' means simply political ideas, and this is the only genre I can think of where I am tired of the author attempting to ram their political propaganda down my throat while skimping on story, plot and characterisation.

SF has a long history of being tied to the so-called political idea of increasing liberties, and increasing who have access to liberties. If that's the author's propaganda, then yeah.

Has the term Science Fiction become devalued to the point of being utterly useless? I mean, even on a science fiction forum it cannot be used without some degree of confusion and misunderstanding.

The trouble is the fans are often unrepentant hardliners about the definition of sf. A fan of hard sf will say that only hard sf is real sf. No true Scotsman, that. Bad part is there are a few sf authors who say the same, and a few editors to boot.

It is useful if people just accept the dictionary definition and get on with it.
 
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