The Life-Cycle of a Trope – Science Fiction’s Tragedy of the Commons?

Jonathan McCalmont @ 23-07-2008

Blasphemous Geometries returns, like a surly postal worker on a rainy day.

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

This time Jonathan McCalmont takes a look at tropes – the riffs, clich

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7 Responses to “The Life-Cycle of a Trope – Science Fiction’s Tragedy of the Commons?”

  1. Dave says:

    This has been an interesting thought experiment. But I’m not sure I buy that writers’ exploration of already-discovered ideaspace (tropes) imposes an external cost, somehow debasing the once-shiny ideas. My intuition is that more fictional exploration just expands and enriches the background that can be put to use in future works, which makes it more like a public good than a public bad.

    The glut of derivative fantasy in the ’90s may have been bad literature (I read a bunch of this growing up, but don’t remember it too well), but I don’t think it had bad effects on the world of possible future fiction. Rather, it defined a new background context for future fantasy to build on. It wasn’t as creative as Tolkien’s work, which arguably birthed the genre, but it wasn’t destructive.

  2. Ian Sales says:

    I rambled on about something similar on my blog, although not so much about tropes as the fact that such plot-enabling conventions have not really evolved. And yes, military sf is the worst offender in this regard. While space opera has reinvented itself, each new military sf series just features a new alien race, a new human empire, and a new way of getting one from star to the next. Everything else is just 1980s middle America…

  3. Jonathan M says:

    Hi Dave ๐Ÿ™‚

    The exploration, as you put it, is the use of ideas to create books. Some people draw heavily on the commons (ideas created by others) without putting very much back. Others draw and either create new ideas or put new spins on old ideas. The key to a vibrant scene, is give and take. The problem is when lots of books start getting published that draw from the commons without putting anything back in the shape of new ideas. The result can be the creative stagnancy and descent into pastiche that was scene not only in 90s fantasy but also by the people who jumped on the cyberpunk bandwagon. It would be difficult to put out a cyberpunk novel now as those ideas are ‘used up’. Hence people moving onto the slightly different post-cyberpunk idiom. The Electric Church by Jeff Somers, for example, was a trad cyberpunk pastiche and while I liked what it did with the old tropes, a lot of people utterly slated it for doing just that.

    As for being destructive, that creative stagnation can indeed be destructive because it creates a steeper slope for future generations of writers. Every work of genre has some new ideas and some old ideas but also ideas that aren’t entirely new but aren’t entirely old yet either. If that stock of middling ideas is all used up then new authors have to completely reinvent the wheel if they want to stand out and that’s not only creatively more difficult, it’s also professionally more difficult as not everyone wants something completely new.

    There was a piece last year by Mark Chadbourn which suggested very much the same idea. He blamed RPGs for using up all of fantasy’s ideas. But this isn’t a problem limited to fantasy. I think that the Singularity is getting “full” and people are starting to get annoyed with it.

    It’s all part of the life-cycle ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Jonathan M says:

    Hi Ian ๐Ÿ™‚

    But that it were 1980s America! The 1980s were late Cold War. Most MilSF is either 1950s America (back when they thought the Cold War was winnable “A Big Red Dog is digging up our lawn Mr. President!”), 1940s America or Napoleonic/French Revolutionary War period.

    Iain Banks’ famous re-invigoration of Space Opera was writing about th geopolitics of the 60s with the moral testing of America as the Freedom-loving superpower that would change the world and the discovery that actually, despite being a democracy and all about spreading freedom across the world, America had a hideously dark side.

    Some periods are easier to understand than others. Some periods lend themselves better to space battles ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. gmoke says:

    Hardin’s tragedy of the commons is that any _unregulated_ common good will be abused and degraded. Elinor Ostrom has devoted her career to investigating how commons are regulated and how some can last for centuries if not millennia.

  6. Jonathan M says:

    Fair enough, how would you suggest that SF’s commons are regulated?

  7. Zach H says:

    “Rather, it defined a new background context for future fantasy to build on. It wasn’t as creative as Tolkien’s work, which arguably birthed the genre, but it wasn’t destructive.”

    Agreed. And I’d add that without the works of R.A. Salvatore inviting me through the genre doorway, I doubt I’d have stuck around to discover the likes of Gene Wolfe, Michael Moorcock, Jeff VanderMeer, etc. Count me as one who benefited from 90s Tolkienesque fantasy in terms of cultural enlightenment.