Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 8



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

We’re in the next subcategory of Gunn’s “plots of circumstances” where a protagonist must deal with problems inherent to the world he finds himself.

That subcategory is “a future being in a future world”.

The future is a great place to set a story, and a successful science fiction story only has to worry about the credibility of his imagination, and Gunn notes “credibility can be stretched a long way”.

However, Gunn isn’t too keen on past examples of stories in this subcategory. He thinks its potential has been abused more than any other plot category. Writers wrenched

the future into any shape they liked – utopian writers the foremost among them. They set up unlikely characters doing implausible things in absurd places; the plot form was undisciplined and chaotic.

Modern sf, realistic sf, occurred when readers started to demand plausible future and writers responded. Attendant to that was better characterization and dialogue.

Writing in 1951, Gunn noted a certain inertia in sf publishing. You could blame this on young writers and the “love of action for its own sake” and them not outgrowing their earlier tastes. (Again, we see Gunn looking askance at mere escapism.) But the greater blame, he says, should be assigned to publishers and editors who didn’t want to go to the effort of publishing more demanding realistic sf or thought it would not be as profitable.

Like the subcategories of plots centering on characters in the past and present, Gunn divides it into three categories.

Those divisions are similar to John W. Campbell’s division of sf into stories of prophecy, philosophy, and adventure.

Gunn empathically says writers of realistic sf using this plot are not utopians, satirists, or propagandists. These writers extrapolate future trends in their stories.

I don’t think this division is as neat as Gunn. One could certainly – and many have – write realistic sf that is extrapolative and satirical or propagandistic.  The utopian use of this plot in a credible fashion is less probable though I think you could cite Kim Stanley Robinson’s Blue Mars as an example of what could be done. (Though I definitely don’t find Robinson’s political order credible or workable, but it still seems, for the duration of the novel, plausible.)

Facing Problems Similar to Those Faced Today

Gunn sees this version of the “future being in a future world” plot as mostly philosophical though technological extrapolation and its consequent social effects use it too. He puts the noted Golden Age stories “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov and “The Weapons Shop” by A. E. van Vogt in this slot.

I buy the van Vogt story. I’m less certain about Asimov’s. Just because he was inspired by a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson doesn’t really mean night coming to a civilization once every 2,049 years is a problem “similar to those faced today”. Gunn, though, sees it as “a comment on the nature of knowledge and the emotional potency of the unknown”.

But it’s hard to disagree with Gunn that this is a very promising plot for a writer to use.

Facing Future Problems

Gunn claims these stories using this plot can

cast some light on our lives. This light can be upon human nature, man’s place in the universe, man’s future.

But he also says the borders between this plot and the preceding problems faced today plot is subjective. Generally, it’s the “immediacy of a problem” that determines its place in Gunn’s plot schematic.

He does note that “academic” stories often use it. These are stories where characters discuss items of theoretical interest.

Gunn puts the famous first contact by Murray Leinster, “First Contact” in this category. Sure, contact with aliens is a future problem and this story is not an academic discussion of it. It involves humans and aliens solving the problems of satisfying their curiosity and defending their homeworlds, but the story’s ideas about managing first contact are now part of such academic discussions.

He also mentions the technological and psychological problems at the center of Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Roads Must Roll” and “The Green Hills of Earth”.

Gunn concludes by placing this plot in the second tier of significant plots:

its freedom and drama, its opportunities for realistic escapism, its ease in writing, will keep it near the top among science fiction’s authors and readers.

I’m not sure why, after starting out the discussion on this category and its demands on being credible, Gunn says this plot is easy to write.

Facing Problems of No Significance to the Present Day

Damning by category title, Gunn says this plot is for “paltry and poorly written escapism”. It’s “unproductive” science fiction.

In this category he puts space pirates and space patrols and space wars and says “further discussion of this classification would be profitless”.

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