Tag Archives: ideas

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

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.

Outquistion of The Future

At the WorldChanging blog, Alex Steffen has posted an article that could be the seed of half a dozen sf stories. He talked with novelist/activist Cory Doctorow about a number of topics, foremost among them the social and economic changes facing America in the future:

We were talking about the slow-motion collapse here in America, the looming climate crisis,the futility of survivalism; and we began to play with the thought, what kinds of heroes would actually do some good for the communities that get hit hard?Because if the ruins of the unsustainable are the new frontier, and if, as is already happening, the various economic and environmental transitions we face will leave many people unmoored from their familiar assumptions…a huge number of people are going to need help forging new ways of life.

What they come up with in answer to these problems, is The Outquisition:

What would it be like, we wondered, if folks who knew tools and innovation left the comfy bright green cities and traveled to the dead mall suburban slums, rustbelt browntowns and climate-smacked farm communities and started helping the locals get the tools they needed. We imagined that it would need an almost missionary fervor, something like the Inquisition (which largely destroyed knowledge) in reverse, a crusade of open sharing, or as Cory promptly dubbed it, the Outquisition.

Imagine these folks like this passing out free textbooks, running holistic programs for kids, creating local knowledge management systems, launching microfinance projects, mobilebanking and complementary currencies. Helping rural landowners apply climate foresight and farm biodiversity… In other words, these folks would be redistributing the future at a furious clip.

It’s a very engaging article, and definitely worth a read, if only for the huge number of SFnal ideas that it posits.

[story from WorldChanging, found via Beyond The Beyond]

Walking the Walk

WalkGet this, the next time you’re at the airport, security cameras could be watching your every step and feeding it into a computer, from where security officials could crosscheck your gait-type with CCTV footage to spot suspected terrorists:

A database of different gaits thus created may enable security officials to recognise the gait of individuals checking in at an airport, even before they entered the concourse. The researchers say that a comparison of such data with CCTV footage may also be used to track suspect terrorists or criminals who may otherwise be disguising their features or be carrying forged documents.

What about privacy issues?

They insist that gait recognition has a significant advantage over more well-known biometrics, including fingerprinting and iris scanning, in that it is entirely unobtrusive.

It seems like a workable idea, but when you consider how many people pass through airports everyday, and how long it would take to capture the gaits of enough people to have an unbiased sample size to work with, and the accuracy of the gait recognition, you start to override the practicalities that are initially presented. [image by chilling soul]

A cornucopia of hard science fiction ideas

Old-school typewriter Here’s one for the writers among our readers. The excellent Jim Van Pelt* has an article at The Fix Online wherein he lists a number of potential sources for the kernel ideas of hard science fiction stories.

“So, do you need a degree in science or math to write hard science fiction? Nope. Numerous hard science fiction authors write their stories without that background. […] Admittedly, though, the non-science or math authors will have to work a little harder to not write laughable hard science fiction. They need to cheat a bit. They may need help coming up with ideas, and they certainly will need help for the science that is not at their fingertips. Fortunately, the help is no farther away than the nearest bookstore.”

Or your local library, I’d add to that statement (use ’em or lose ’em, folks). [Image from Image*After]

And, of course, the internet has its value for the same sort of process, once you know where to look. Jeremy Tolbert thinks it would be good if that process were easier, though:

“Someone with access to the big primary biological sciences literature should post reviews/summaries in laymen’s terms of each issue. Nature, Science, and more. People could volunteer and write in summaries for any primary literature they want. Group blog the literature. Get it out there in the web, in a format that science-interested people can understand.

Because I think there’s a barrier still between that level of academic knowledge and the web population. I’d like to see a gateway giving me a glimpse at what’s going on. I don’t know where the local university’s science library is, and I can’t afford to subscribe to those magazines (who can?).”

Well, we do a sort of low-calorie version of that here at Futurismic, but we’d be happy to run more beefy material. Any volunteers? 🙂

[ *I’ve linked to Jim Van Pelt’s writing advice numerous times, both here and on my own blog, and I feel sure I will do so again. The web is full of writing advice, much of it sincere and well-meant, but I have yet to discover a regular source of clear and honest advice that’s as reliable and fun to read. Being subscribed to Jim’s LJ feed is like having an avuncular writing tutor all of your own. This is not a paid plug, nor is it ass-kissing – I just think the guy deserves recognition and respect. ]

[tags]writing, science fiction, hardware, ideas, science[/tags]