Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 6


The look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues with more looks at “plots of circumstances” and a sharp disagreement with Gunn.

Remember, we are dealing with plots set in the modern world or near future and classified by the problem that propels the plot

Facing a Change in Natural Conditions

In this and the next category, Gunn’s analysis is off and his predictions on the future of the genre falter.

“A change in natural conditions is neither realistic nor probable.”

What does Gunn mean by “a change in natural conditions”? Well, he cites stories that have rogue planets, comets with poisonous tails, the sun exploding or cooling, new ice ages, and new volcanic eruptions and volcanoes.

In other words, we’re talking disaster fiction, and you can probably supply your own titles, some quite popular, written in this vein since 1951.

Gunn didn’t see this as a popular type of sf in that year, and he was probably right. I suspect the audience for apocalypse had the nuclear war story. To Gunn, there are two problems with this plot:

the realistic tendency we have noticed before and the desire of science fiction to keep the probabilities as high as possible.

Gunn mentions H. F. Heard’s “The Great Fog” (included in the fifth volume of Gunn’s The Road to Science Fiction series) as an example and concludes his thoughts on this plot with:

The form is a little too flamboyant, a little too grandiose, a little too indiscriminate for modern taste. The epic is out of style.

Annotator Michael W. Page even notes disaster fiction remains popular.

Now, Gunn got this wrong for a couple of reasons.

First is that disaster fiction actually has quite a lot of utility in examining human nature and society. Think of disaster fiction as sort of an autopsy on humanity and its creations. The fictional scalpel of the disaster subgenre can uncover and instruct: on the fragile technological infrastructure we rely on, the relations between the sexes, who gives orders and who follows them and why.

Second is that Gunn is speaking at a rather quiescent time in scientific thought on disasters. All these were scientific and historical thoughts primarily developed after 1951: asteroid and cometary impacts affecting life on Earth, supervolcanoes, the runaway greenhouse effect, the role of infectious disease on history (though medieval scholars recognized the importance of the bubonic plague on European history), and the Carrington Event. (This brings to mind a geology professor of mine, Henry Lepp, who told us that his 1964 co-authored proposal on the formation of banded iron formations in the Pre-Cambrian was criticized for violating the principle of uniformitarianism because he postulated atmospheric conditions that have never been repeated on Earth.)

Facing New Natural Phenomena

This is a plot similar to the “facing a change in natural conditions” but distinct in that some new natural phenomena or scientific law is discovered. This plot often features such a discover taking place in

the depths of the sea, the upper regions of the atmosphere, or secluded regions of the land surface.

As of 1951, parapsychology was the latest way this plot was used.

Gunn is not to sanguine about this plot though he says it can be used in a future setting (remember this is a “modern world” plot with a setting now or in the near future). He concludes by saying

It is, all things considered, not too fertile or possible a field for stories whose scenes are laid in the modern day.

Next up in our look at Gunn’s thesis, we’ll look at plots set in the past.

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