Where has the idea in Science Fiction gone?

I have been reading the Craft of Science Fiction, published in 1976. It is chockfull of writing tips and howtos and definitions. Each article was written by a giant in science fiction.

Unlike a mainstream novel, which is about the developmental journey of a character, science fiction is about the idea. The science. The scientific idea. The idea trumps writing style, character development, nature, description, setting, philosophy, unless your idea is the philosophy of an alien race, and even world creation. The idea is central in science fiction. The more the story turns on the science of the idea, the harder the science fiction. The science fiction novel runs from the intersection of science and technology through the soft sciences, psychology, sociology, all the way to philosophy. Hard science fiction to science fantasy. But in all cases, the idea is the story.

As a matter of fact, one of the givens written in this howto book of the craft of science fiction is that science fiction demands flat characters. Rounded characters will not do simply because rounded, fleshed out, internal dialog driven characters get in the way of the raison d’être of science fiction: The Idea. These giants go so far as to say, the first paragraph or two should present the idea. Not the conflict. Not a scene description, setting or anything but the idea. Create a world, create aliens, create a whole field of rubber science or even a rubber social science, psychohistory, for example, but everything needs to be in service to the idea. And what ideas are those? FTL travel, time travel, brain transplants, creating life from spare parts, creating life from a test tube, nuclear weapons, robots, perfect humanoids, the world seen through two different cultural lenses, one scientific and one magical, or perhaps more modern ideas, eleven dimensions and strings, magic as math. The list is endless and boundless or rather bounded only by a writer’s imagination. (It helped that these giants had advanced degrees in the sciences and engineering or even the social sciences and psychology.) But the contemporary short science fiction I have been reading lately is more character driven than idea driven.

I have been reading recently published short stories in a variety of science fiction and fantasy magazines. All of the stories are well written. Many of the stories are interesting. Some are even great. Perhaps not Flowers for Algernon great, or Jack of Shadows great, or With Folded Hands great, or The Man From Earth great, but lightening doesn’t strike that often. However, no matter the quality of the story, I have noticed that the idea is no longer central. Many of these short stories and novellas, with minimal tweaking could be mainstream short fiction.

Science Fiction and Fantasy has gone mainstream. It’s been going mainstream for the last fifty years or so. So far, my favorite story with the best idea, where the idea was central, was Kristine Kathryn Rusch‘s story Stealth. In her story, the idea was very compelling. I want to read more stories like Stealth not because I care one whit for her main characters but because I am interested in where she’ll take the technology and what the Empire will do with their cloak research and how that will turn out since they are looking at the wrong end of the research stick, or log. Looking at ancient human technology incorrectly and disastrously is an idea worth exploring. I am also interested in seeing how the history of her world, the ancient technology that was lost, fleshes out. This is not to say Squishy, Boss, Quint and Turtle aren’t compelling and interesting characters, they are. Round enough to set the stage for the cloaking technology and her new ancient drive technology, but flat enough not to take away from her idea.

Another writer who puts the idea front and center is Charles Stross. Science and math are very central to all of Mr. Stross’s writing. There is very little of what I would call hard science left in science fiction but Stross manages to put a lot of nice, hard, theoretical rubber math, rubber science and rubber computer tech into his stories while creating a very believable world of government intrigue and intergalactic aliens posing as demons.

I am also very fond of funny science fiction and fantasy stories. My favorite so far, in the magazines I’ve been reading, was Nik Houser’s History’s Best Places to Kiss. History’s Best Places to Kiss is a time travel romance and divorce story. The ending caught me by surprise though I should have been able to guess it. The story was very droll. I want to read more.

I would like to read more stories like these. Leave comments; give me a reading list. (Of course, Fantasy tends to be more character driven and those characters are more rounded than Science Fiction. But do include fantasy stories and novellas and novels. I have a long reading list for SF and F but still I feel starved. So, please, leave a comment and a link if you have one.) In the meantime, I will continue reading short fiction.


  • Thanks for the thought provoking article. I’ve heard it said that the difference between technology-driven (e.g. Asimov) and character-driven (e.g. Anne McCaffrey) is commonly described as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Science Fiction. While there will always be a place for decent characters in a narrative, Science Fiction is has traditionally worked well as a vehicle for exploring “what if” predictions, technology driven scenarios / counter-factual realities, etc. The shift from hard to soft science fiction mirrors the shift from hard to soft news journalism… major news firms, like major publishing houses, no longer exist for the purposes of creating & championing original product, they exist as subsidiaries to companies who desire a source of reliable income, rather than as a core business. In both cases, the owners are looking for cheap production costs and accessible content rather than paying a premium for the expertise required to create a quality product. As the publication base has expanded, the content providers have (often) become less specialised and therefore less able to convey technology based subject matter expertise, hence, a decline in the emphasis on plausible depictions of future technologies.

    • Mark LaPolla says:

      Or could it be that science and mathematics has advanced so far and so far in the last 50 years that it is hard to even think of a new rubber science? So, writers instead look to the rubber social sciences and character development to be their central raison d’être? Or perhaps it is because more mainstream writers have decided that science fiction and fantasy is now the main stream?

  • Mark LaPolla says:

    As Samuel Johnson wrote, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

    “All science fiction is essentially extrapolative fiction…” as Theodore Sturgeon began in his article Future Writers in a Future World in the Craft of Science Fiction. This is because we do not know the future, neither what will happen later today, nor tomorrow or a thousand years from tomorrow. And that is also why most predictions of the future are inaccurate and usually incorrect. We extrapolate from what we know and what we know is the world of now.

    I think you misunderstood the distinction I was making with respect to hard science fiction and soft science fiction. As Norman Spinrad says in his article, Rubber Sciences, again in the same book, without the “speculative element, it isn’t science fiction. (Emphasis added.) Spinrad points out that it is very hard to pin down exactly what hard vs. soft science fiction is. However, he gives it a try. Defining hard science fiction as “…science fiction which convinces the reader that its science content is as sound, metallic, and conservative as a Swiss franc.”

    The point I was making was that if a story turns on the science content, whether rubber science, such as FTL, psychohistory, teleportation, or actual science, such as Maxwell’s equations, then it is closer to hard than soft. If it is more “straight fantasy in science fiction drag” (Spinrad) as are some of Anne McCaffrey’s wonderful books, then it is closer to science fantasy, the softest of the soft. I consider writers such as Roger Zelazny, one of my favorites, to be science fantasy. But the distinction does not depend on how character driven a science fiction novel is because science fiction in the end has flat characters and needs them.

    As James Gunn, in the same volume, says: “…to understand the problems of characterization in science fiction, we must understand why science fiction has different needs than other fiction.” He goes on to quote Elizabeth Bowen from Notes on Writing a Novel: “Each character is created in order and only in order, that he or she may supply the required action.” And later C. S. Lewis in “On Science Fiction”: “Every good writer knows that the more unusual the scenes and events of his story are, the slighter, the more ordinary, the more typical his persons should be. Hence Gulliver is a commonplace little man and Alice a commonplace little girl.”

    To sum up, if the story turns on the development of the main character as it’s raison d’être, then it is mainstream fiction. If it turns on the idea, the future speculation, then it is science fiction.

    Now, all I need is a good definition of fantasy. Fantasy, I think, is more like mainstream fiction in that it often turns on the character, to reveal character, by putting those characters into fantastic and otherworldly and nonscientific environments and situations.

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