Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 4



The look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues.

Modern Man in the Modern World

This time we’re looking at another subcategory of the plots of circumstance category.

In Gunn’s sample, it’s the most popular subcategory in the most popular category.

The reasons for this are obvious: the situation is immediate, the characters are easy to identify with, the world is familiar, “the problems presented are often as real to the reader as they are to the characters”. Even if the problems are novel to the reader, they can be made to seem real. If you want to do significant “political, social, and psychological observations and analyses”, this is the plot for you.

However, as of 1951, Gunn saw this plot in decline. Post-Hiroshima it was the vehicle for so many post-nuclear war stories that editors grew sick of them.

Gunn warns there is a “minor writing problem” in using this plot: “the lack of common knowledge of the event described” needs an explanation. Stories can be set in secluded areas or news of them suppressed.

Or, since Gunn says his use of “modern” is elastic, you can just take the obvious tact of putting the story in the near future. To him, if your world has “no inventions or industries impossible to our science or engineering ability today”, your story is modern.

Given that the temporal setting of these stories is all the same, Gunn doesn’t use a time-based classification system for this categories varieties. He does it on the basis of the problem introduced into the “modern” world.

Facing a Continuing Problem

This, Gunn says, is a plot that amalgamates study of a human trait and the problem to various degrees.

Gunn uses, as case studies, a couple of stories. One is Clifford D. Simak’s “Lobby”. The other is Philip Wylie’s “Blunder”. Both deal with problems about nuclear technology. But, Gunn says, these are not pure examples of this plot. He postulates that such a story would have

no wars or threats of war or any other unusual circumstantial occurrence. The story would deal completely with human impulses and the human mind.

But he doesn’t think such a story, at least such a science fiction story, can be written.

Or he did until he read Fritz Leiber’s “Coming Attraction”. Gunn spends a great deal of time on that story showing a remarkable eye for its significance since Gunn finished his thesis in May 1951 and Leiber’s story only came out in November 1950. He praises its “techniques of characterization and symbolism”. At the end of several pages discussing it, he says Leiber’s story and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles are “two of the most hopeful and pregnant possibilities of the future of science fiction”. If science fiction continues in their vein, it will become a “literary medium for literary critics to reckon with”.

Facing a Problem Raised by New Technology

This is the plot that got (at least in a few instances) science fiction the reputation of being a prophetic genre. It’s the stereotypical Analog story (probably more in the breach than practice).

Gunn draws on an analogy from his naval days:

Science fiction is engaged, in one segment of its personality, in the business of prediction, just as it indulges in flights of fancy and considerations of the fictional possibilities of relatively improbable events. It is the same sort of prediction as that produced by the Navy’s gun directors, with an input of the known factors of the target’s position, course, and speed, these directors compute mathematically the target’s future position at any given time.

Not surprisingly, John W. Campbell gets quoted here in regard to prophetic sf stories.

Gunn sees this as a firmly established plot in science fiction, well-exploited and that probably won’t develop further sophistication. It could be argued that cyberpunk developed this plot further by presenting stories that didn’t content themselves to extrapolating one technology but multiple technologies.

Facing Problems in the Mental and Social Fields

This is a rather hypothetical plot since Gunn says none of the anthologies he used as resources have pure examples of it. Essentially, these would be stories where psychology and sociology have developed to become more scientific and the resulting implications explored. Gunn sees a lot of potential here with many more stories to come.

And he was right. The 1950s saw, in the pages of Galaxy and Astounding Stories, many stories where the soft sciences were rigorous and produced spectacular results for good and bad.

Facing Problems of a New War

Not a lot of comment needed here. It’s the near future war story – as opposed to the E. E. “Doc” Smith far future war story of improbable weapons. It doesn’t have to center around weapons technology. Gunn mentions Theodore Sturgeon’s “Thunder and Roses” which centers around the question whether the U.S. should launch a retaliatory nuclear strike on Russia.

Gunn was quite right that the temporary fatigue with future war stories would pass and that this would be an enduring plot that would even show up outside of science fiction magazines.

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