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.