Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 7


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

We’re still in the “plots of circumstance” categories. To recap, these are plots with a protagonist struggling with some problem imposed on them by events in the world.

The next major category of this plot is “a past being in the past”.

It’s a strange plot category, and, if no story example comes to mind, that’s not surprising. After all, we’re dealing with historical people in an historical setting. That’s not the circumstance that readily comes to mind with the phrase “science fiction”.

Of course, Gunn firmly states the obvious. The past here is the author’s past. These are not time travel stories.

Theoretically, stories of set in the world of the author’s recent past could be done, but Gunn says he can’t think of any example he’s ever read.

So, authors using this plot, usually go back to a point in history incompletely documented, where mythology and folklore overshadow the historical record. These are stories of “mysterious archeological remains or historical situations”.

Only one story, in the five anthologies he sampled, fits into this category, and Gunn expresses his disapproval as to how this plot type has a “tendency to degenerate into adventure for its own sake”.

There are three subcategories of this plot.

Facing Problems Important in the History of the Race

A serious use of this plot would, to Gunn, “describe a point of crisis in the development of the human race or some other species native to earth”. (Though why, if science fiction is potentially a literature of utility value to human concerns, we should care about other species is not obvious.)

Gunn has in mind stories where man’s place as the “dominant life form on Earth” is determined. The author using this plot is dealing with matters more important than those recorded in history which often deal with inter-human conflict. This plot would look at key points in man’s biological evolution or use of early technology like fire, crop domestication, and bows and arrows.

But Gunn only cites one actual example of this: Cleve Cartmill’s “The Link”. It deals with how one hairless ape starts using a club and is expelled by the other apes and puts man on the path to the evolution that produced us.

Gunn says he doesn’t see much market value in this fiction. Decisions of the recent past have more immediate and dramatic effect on our lives, and this plot looks to the past and not the future.

Facing Problems Similar to Those Faced Today

Another type of this “past being in the past” plot would be describe a past problem that “duplicates or casts light on a problem we face today”.

Gunn can’t think of a single story in this theoretical category. It has a large drawback for writers. The writer can just as easily deal with the central problem by shifting the story into the present or future. Any problem of the past is very likely going to be a human problem and that, by itself, doesn’t make the story science fiction. Gunn does concede that stories of lost civilizations can be said to be in this category.

Facing Problems of No Significance to the Modern World

As you would expect from its very description, Gunn doesn’t have a high regard for this plot.

The recipe is as simple as one for making a cake: take one savage or uncivilized world, throw in a strong hero with stirrings of nobility, add a dash of romance in the form of a strange girl from another tribe, chop finely a multitude of villains, wild animals, and rampant nature, season freely, pot-boil for a few minutes, and serve on a strong plot line garnished with many simple adjectives. These stories are written only to be forgotten as quickly as possible, and with me they have succeeded only too well.

. . . Nothing good can be expected from this type, although, if it is any mitigation, nothing bad either, I suppose.

His choice of representative authors is rather unfair. He mentions Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan stories though admits they are set in the author’s present. He also brings up Robert E. Howard’s Conan though says the setting is more mythic than historical. I would also add that Howard wasn’t trying to do science fiction.

Next up will be Gunn’s look at the “future being in a future world”.

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