Science fiction’s cultural cringe; the ideal of “ideas”

Paul Raven @ 11-02-2011

From Jared of Pornokitsch:

Science fiction (and by this, I mean science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, whatever… dragons seem just as keen to jump on this bandwagon as the starships) is no more or less about “ideas” than any other type of fiction. This isn’t staking a claim, it is chucking fence posts into the ocean. I might be bored shitless reading Moby Dick or The Grapes of Wrath, but I’m not going to argue they didn’t have ideas in them.

Clearly, those two make for a hyperbolic extreme, but flipping through the titles that clog up the top 50, they aren’t suffering fora lack of ideas. If a non-sf author chooses to ruminate about the minutae of a courtroom, the machinations of family life or the shenanigans of Cold War hardmen, that may not be our particular choice of in-flight reading, but their books still have ideas. There’s speculation involved. Imagination. An author making things up. The “literature of ideas”? That’s just fiction.


“The literature of ideas” is also an inherently poisonous aspiration. When I hear Peter Hamilton and Clive Thompson praise the “literature of ideas”, it puts world-building on a pedestal. It is wonderful that we have a genre that can hypothesize about AIDS on the Moon or explore identity problems in a world without eyes, but the roadsides of sf are littered with great ideas. Having a compelling idea is just one part of the puzzle, no more important than any of the other pieces (and often, much less so) . Setting a book on Venus doesn’t give it permission to have paper-thin characters. And the mere existence of dragons doesn’t preclude the presence of plot.

Our literature has enough ideas, it is time to work on how they’re expressed. If there is something unique and magical about sf, it may be that no other genre seems to be as consistently forgiving of poor characterisation and predictable plotting. Like comics, sf has consistently maintained a desperate relevance by feverishly plinking the same, narrow, adolescent band over and over and over again. “The literature of escapism” is a more accurate, if back-handed, definition of sf’s current state. For the genre that has given us timeless characters, brilliant stories and great ideas, that’s simply not good enough.

Your thoughts? Personally I don’t see escapism as a necessarily bad value for any literature to possess (though I’m very leery of consolatory escapism – Baen Books, I’m looking at you), but I think you could argue successfully that there is an urge within science fiction wherein the thing being escaped from is the very future it claims to engage with.

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7 Responses to “Science fiction’s cultural cringe; the ideal of “ideas””

  1. noel says:

    i would happily sew up peter hamilton’s mouth and remove his fingers so he could never write again

  2. Robert Koslover says:

    My thoughts? That essay (or at least your excerpt of it) strikes me as either unfair or outdated. In regard to the latter, it is clear that much of early SF (early- and mid- 20th century) was indeed heavy on speculative technology while being light on plot, character development, etc. But I find that late-20th century and early-21st century SF is, at least in my limited experience, just as well-written as other literature. But then, I guess it depends ultimately upon whose works one is comparing.

  3. Athena Andreadis says:

    I’ve written half a dozen essays on the tangled web of interactions between science, SF and fiction. Here’s the one about why SF needs fiction:

    To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

  4. ConfidentlyDubious says:

    In my view, SF *is* precisely the Literature of Ideas. More precisely, of New Ideas. From an SF work, I expect exploration of concepts that are not part of our everyday life, and (possibly) that are far removed from it. This can, or cannot, require starships, aliens, robots or other typical SF elements: but their presence alone is not (in my view) sufficient to label a work as “SF”.

  5. Jared says:

    Thanks for the link –

    @Noel: I wouldn’t go that far, but I’ll admit I’m not a big fan. One of the interesting things that got elided on the panel was the concept of “soft” SF – do sciences like anthropology and psychology “count” towards “science” fiction? Mr. Hamilton wasn’t looking keen on that, but it wasn’t discussed fully. I’m a little disappointed they didn’t get into it more. I can speculate (wildly) that if those sciences had the same respect within the community, we may be in a different place right now.

    @Robert: I kind of agree – it really is unfair for me to make sweeping statements for *all* SF. (But that’s where the fun is!) I think genre literature has taken some great strides recently, but, then, there’s been brilliant genre literature in every generation. And, of course, crappy non-genre literature. I’m not trying to say that non-genre literature is better – far from it. It is that a desultory re-branding as “the literature of ideas” isn’t the solution to gaining any sort of respect. And, more importantly, just because something has a “great idea” doesn’t mean it isn’t allowed to also be well-written.

    @Athena: Those links are amazing!

    @ConfidentlyDubious: Again, kind of agree. I think the “exploration of concepts that are not a part of everyday life” is a much better (if wordier) definition than “new ideas”. There’s that real danger of getting caught up in the furniture of SF – the robots and whatnot that you mention – rather than the impact. And, again, I think the world-building (concept-building?) is important, but that’s already what SF does really well. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had great characters & stories within those ideas too?

    Anyway, thanks again for the link – glad it has prompted some discussion!

  6. Athena Andreadis says:

    Glad you found them interesting, Jared. I think it’s has long been a given that “soft” sciences — or, more accurately, ones lower on the totem pole — are crucial to SF/F. To put it in a soundbitee: without biology (very broadly defined, which would include anthropology, ecology, etc) who would read SF?

  7. Jetse says:

    When SF is ‘only’ the literature of ideas, it can be gadgety, gimmicky, navel-gazing and quite short-sighted (even if set in huge panoramas).

    When SF is the literature of *change*, then it can achieve greatness.

    Also agree that most SF either avoids the near-future like the plague, or uses it as the setting of the next dystopia/apocalypse/ragnarok. Most of SF is expert at taking the easy way out.

    A few rare exceptions excluded.