Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 2


The series on James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues with a look at more plots of circumstances.

An Alien in a Human Environment

Gunn sees this as similar to the “ancient or primitive man in a modern human environment” in its use as a vehicle for satire, but it does have other uses and is popular. It’s also more “thoughtful and less adventurous” than the human out of place in the modern world plot.

Alien Being in the Past

At the time of writing his thesis, Gunn says science fiction writers are not fond of “placing aliens in the past”.

His description of when this plot is mostly used is valid:

When such a situation is used, it is usually tied in with human history or mythology to give the story an air of plausibility or a philosophical application. A number of stories, for instance, have tried to explain the presence or evolution of humanity by emigration and later degeneration of an alien race, or by alien experiments with sub-human life forms (usually in such circumstances as to suggest reasons for the springing up of legends of creation, paradise, heaven, Satan, etc.).

He then goes on to anticipate the fiction non-fiction of Erich von Daniken by talking about how some uses of the plot are to explain past mysteries and monuments and mythologies by citing aliens.

He then judges this is a plot of no real importance. It focuses, in his mind, on the opposite of what sf should focus on – the future. Continue reading “Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 2”

Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 1


My look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues with a look at what, in 1951, he thought and predicted about the use of plots of circumstances.

Of the 145 stories Gunn looked at in his five sample anthologies, 123 fell in this category.

The reasons why plots of circumstance are so overwhelmingly favored are not so hard to find. Plots of creation are limited and difficult to write; plots of circumstance provide an immediate dramatic suspense and identification with the characters: few of us are creators but we all know what it is to battle against circumstances. In this category the possibilities are unlimited.

Being in an Alien Environment

Gunn says this is probably the favorite type of science fiction plot. It has fundamental suspense and drama. That suspense can carry something beside “reader’s escapist interest” is what makes this a significant plot for writers to use and to develop sf in a more literary direction.

Oddly, Gunn says

The alien is placed only in a human environment; presumably one could write a story about an alien in a non-human but still alien environment, but this belongs in the same category as the “alien in an alien world in the present” discussed above. It is possible but without significance. Somewhere along the line there must be some relationship to earth or earth problems to push the story across the line from fantasy to science fiction.

That leaves out stories using aliens in an alien environment. Hal Clement’s novels, using that idea, were just a few years in the future.

The idea that such stories can’t have any relevance to humanity and its life on Earth ignores symbolic uses or even naturalistic narratives that exhibit how the physical environment affects human biology and behavior and human societies.

Gunn is on solid ground when he says a modern man as a protagonist allows the greatest reader identification and bestowing of empathy on the character.

Gunn looks at a variety of time travel stories, modern man in the alien environment of the past. He says something provocative about that sub-genre at the end of the discussion:

All things considered, science fiction’s use of time has made some interesting, at times dramatic, at times amusing, but seldom significant stories.17 There is nothing of any thematic importance involved in concepts of time travel and in visits to the past.

The time travel story is still going strong today, stronger than it was in 1951, so strong that sf critic Gary K. Wolfe has argued that it’s escaped the genre of sf. It’s become its own category like the gothic birthed sf.

I think Gunn may be on to something, though, about its ultimate significant. Many stories of time travel involve logic puzzles and paradoxes. The time travel romps of Robert Silverberg, perhaps sf’s heaviest user of the subgenre, are fun. But do they say any thing of “thematic importance”? On the other hand, time travel can be a proxy way of commenting on history and, like the alternate history story, the contingencies that created our world.

Gunn is even more dismissive of the variation of “modern man on a distant world, in space, or another dimension”. After looking at some works of this type, including Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar series and “Goldfish Bowl”, a Robert A. Heinlein story inspired by Charles Fort, he says:

Alone, this plot type has resulted in nothing particularly important to science fiction or the world at large.

I’m not so sure that claim is bore out either. Granted, a lot of these stories are of exotic wonders, but it would seem an author could work in some insights on humanity and human nature. Then again, Gunn only is passing a value judgement on past uses of that plot.

Of the “modern man in the future” variation of the “being in an alien environment”, Gunn is somewhat more sanguine.

He notes stories of this type “tend to more thoughtful or provocative analyses, to utopias and satires”. He says modern sf is “essentially anti-satirical, anti-utopian” in its realism. That means this plot type can’t be used in a realistic way, predictably, though “occasional amusing or satirical story of note” may be hoped to come from this type.

Gunn implicitly warns sf writers that the “ancient being or primitive man in a modern human environment” doesn’t get used much for good reason because readers have trouble switching from their natural identification with a version of “modern man”. It has technical difficulties and “the results are seldom sufficiently rewarding to overshadow them”. Its realism is also hampered because this plot type tends to the satirical. “It is doubtful .. that anything significant will ever be done with it.”

At the Speed of Light

Yes, it’s another review of a “new” book – you know, the whole reason people give me books to review.

Simon Morden is a name only appearing once here before – in the very first blog post. Impressed enough by his “Never, Never, Three Times Never”, I kept his name in mind. So, when NewCon Press was offering review copies of this, I asked for one.

Review: At the Speed of Light, Simon Morden, 2017.

Cover by Chris Moore

You wake up to a voice telling you repeatedly to “Get up”. Your body is covered with a green gel. Well, maybe it’s not your body. It has no hair. It has no genitals.

You get up. Then the voice keeps repeating “Get dressed”. You stagger to a door with strange markings and into a room where a spacesuit awaits.

After dressing, the voice says “Prepare for reduced gravity”. And your body tries to reorient yourself to the room as your up and down shift about.

Your name is Corbyn. This is a recurring dream you tell your therapist.

Morden’s novel is divided into four parts with Corbyn’s conception of his place in the moral and physical universe shifting with each one as he discovers more truth and must decide how to act on it.

To say more would spoil the suspense in Morden’s story. It shifts between detailed hard science adventure and vague cultural extrapolation, but the surprising combination works in what, for all practical purposes, is a tale with only Corbyn on stage but his acts potentially significant on a cosmic and human scale.

A quick and engaging read.

Spoilers and Additional Thoughts

Corbyn is, in fact, not a person but an artificial intelligence managing a ramjet starship hurtling through the universe at a substantial fraction of the speed of light. Continue reading “At the Speed of Light”

“Old Pipes and the Dryad”

This week’s weird fiction is not very weird at all.

Occasionally, the Deep Ones discussion group over at LibraryThing will throw one of these up in the voting process.

Review: “Old Pipes and the Dryad”, Frank R. Stockton, 1885.

Frank R. Stockton’s name is probably familiar to very few readers younger than me, and he’s mostly remembered for one title: “The Lady or the Tiger?”. I have reviewed one story by him before, an early time travel paradox story called “The Philosophy of Relative Existences”.

“Old Pipes and the Dryad” has the cadence and setting of a fairy tale with moral lessons about duty.

In a mountain village, Old Pipes gets his name by playing his pipes and every evening calling home the cattle that have been grazing in the mountain pastures.

However, Old Pipes is getting old. He’s seventy years old and, in fact, his breath has failed to the point where the cattle no longer hear his pipes. However, in appreciation for all his work through the years, the villagers don’t tell him this. They keep paying his salary as always and quietly send three children out every evening to gather the cattle in. Old Pipes keeps up his routine and lives with his mother still. Continue reading ““Old Pipes and the Dryad””

Modern Science Fiction: Definitions and Plot Types

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


Essay: Definitions of SF and Plot Types

So why does Gunn’s thesis classify the genre by plot type?


Science fiction, as we noted in the preceding section, is a medium of ideas, and the only way ideas can work themselves out dramatically is in terms of plot.

Gunn looks at seven different definitions of science fiction from the seven anthologists he mostly relied on in his sample.

The most striking are from Sam Merwin, Jr and Groff Conklin.

Merwin succinctly said, “Science fiction is fantasy wearing a tight girdle”.

Conklin was longer, but I think he hit on something important with needing at least the appearance of rationality:

It may be suggested that science fiction is composed of “supernatural” writing for materialists. You may read every science-fiction story that is true science fiction, and never once have to compromise with your id. The stories all have rational explanations, provided you are willing to grant the word “rational” a certain elasticity.

While Gunn says any literary form that can be confined to a rigid definition has already ceased to grow. (My question when I hear these evolutionary arguments about how the genre must evolve and change is change and evolve to what?  What is the defined standard? Is there no time in that evolution it is more fit for its purpose than other times? If so, what purpose? How will you know you’ve evolved enough?) Continue reading “Modern Science Fiction: Definitions and Plot Types”

The 1000 Year Reich and Other Stories

Yes, it’s an actual book review of a title I committed myself to 25 months ago. I haven’t done a similar review in 10 months.

The reviewing mill of MarzAat grinds slow. Whether it grinds fine or even produces anything useful you will have to decide.

The mill’s scheduling is also erratic. This book wasn’t even the next in the chute, but I found myself limited to what was on the kindle one day, so I started it.

It came from NewCon Press whose offerings I’ve reviewed in the past: Dark Currents and David Hutchinson’s collection Sleeps with Angels. And I’ve enjoyed them. However, even my blogger conscience was starting to feel guilty about asking for any more of their offerings without reviewing what I had been given.

In fact, the next “new” title I will be reviewing is Simon Morden’s At the Speed of Light, also from NewCon Press.

Review: The 1000 Year Reich and Other Stories, Ian Watson, 2016.51wwhW8SFKL

I’ve enjoyed the Watson I’ve read before. There was the amusing bit of recursive science fiction in his “The World Science Convention of 2080” (fan experiences in journeying to the event in a world where technology has regressed). There was “The Great Atlantic Swimming Race” (the link takes you to James Gunn’s The Road to Science Fiction #5: The British Way so we haven’t escaped all Gunn references), a rumination on LiveAid charity stunts. A versatile writer, he turned in a couple of effective Lovecraftian bits with “The Black Wall of Jerusalem” and “The Walker in the Cemetery”. I enjoyed what seemed to be a witty takeoff on J. G. Ballard’s Concrete Island in the short story “Long Stay” in a collection edited by Ian Whales, also associated with NewCon Press.

However, against my enjoyment of those short works, is The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’s description of his novel The Embedding as a novel about perception molded by language with “erratic quicksilver shiftiness”. That doesn’t seem my thing, so I’ve read none of his novels. Continue reading “The 1000 Year Reich and Other Stories”

Modern Science Fiction: Sources and Schematic



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

Before I start looking at the second part of Gunn’s thesis, I’m going to present his plot schematic and the anthologies from which he drew much of his material.


  • The Best of Science Fiction, edited by Groff Conklin, 1946.
  • Adventures in Time and Space, edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas, 1946.
  • A Treasury of Science Fiction, edited by Groff Conklin, 1948.
  • Strange Ports of Call, edited by August Derleth, 1948.
  • The Other Side of the Moon, edited by August Derleth, 1949.

Below is Gunn’s elaborate plot schematic. I won’t copy the census table where a tally is given of how many stories of each plot type show up in those anthologies.

In later posts, I’ll look at what Gunn says about some of the strengths and weaknesses, for would-be sf writers, of those plots and why Gunn chose to analyze science fiction by plot types and not themes.

Plot Types

I) Plots of Circumstance

A) A being in an alien environment

1) A modern man in

a) The past

b) A different world, space, or dimension in the present

c) The future

2) An ancient being or primitive man in a modern human environment

3) An alien in a human environment

a) The past

b) The present

c) The future

4) A future being in

a) The past

b) The present

c) A strange planet

d) Space

B) Modern man in the modern world

1) Facing a continuing problem

2) Facing a problem raised by new technology

3) Facing a problem in the mental and social fields

4) Facing problems of a new war

5) Facing problems introduced from

a) The past

b) Another dimension

c) Another world or space

d) The future

C) A past being in the past

1) Facing problems important in the history of the race

2) Facing problems similar to those faced today

3) Facing problems of no significance to those faced today

D) A future being in a future world

1) Facing problems similar to those faced today

2) Facing future problems

3) Facing problems of no significance to the present day

E) Mutations

1) Of man

a) Superman

2) Grotesque

2) Of animals or insects

a) With whom man battles for possession of the earth

b) Which take over the supremacy of the earth

c) Which cooperate with mankind

II) Plots of Creation

A) The creation of new life or new forms thereof

1) Chemical life

a) Androids

(1) Which aid mankind

(2) Which get out of control

b) Other forms created or converted

(1) Which aid mankind

(2) Which get out of control

2) Mechanical life

a) Robots

(1) Which aid mankind

(2) Which get out of control

b) Other forms of mechanical life

(1) Which aid mankind

(2) Which get out of control

B) Experiments in other fields

1) Which aid mankind

2) Which get out of control

3) Which create new problems




The Philosophy of Modern Science Fiction

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

Essay: The Philosophy of Modern Science Fiction51QhTYVGKDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

So what’s special about 1930? Why does Gunn say that was the approximate year that a new type of science fiction was ushered in? And what defines that new type?

1930 was the year Astounding Stories was created.

That was the year when it became clear, albeit slowly, to science fiction sf writers that “industrial, scientific civilization was here to stay and that man must learn to live with it”. “Authors in the main literary stream” may have been still

 . . . yearning and sighing for a return to the safety of the ordered, static civilization where values were firm and fixed and there was no necessity for soul-searching or mental struggle.

Science fiction authors were starting to look for “new viewpoints” and “new answers to new problems”.

Science was to be the answer to man’s problems. Continue reading “The Philosophy of Modern Science Fiction”

Pre-Modern Science Fiction

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

Essay: Pre-Modern Science Fiction.51QhTYVGKDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Gunn maintains there are two misconceptions about science fiction (hereafter, when I’m speaking, to be called “sf”) as of the year 1951: it’s pure escapism and it hasn’t changed its character since whatever ur-work you want to cite for the genre. (Gunn himself staked out the Epic of Gilgamesh in his The Road to Science Fiction #1: From Gilgamesh to Wells.)

Gunn notes, I think correctly, that pure escapism doesn’t exist. Using the example of Shakespeare and Edgar Rice Burroughs, you can’t even make the case that high vs. low art are correlated to “the possible effect on the reader’s life”. Tarzan and John Carter, as the Burroughs’ worshipping Castalia House crowd would note, can serve as moral exemplars.

But sf can be a peculiar form of escape. Gunn quotes Leo Margulies’ and Oscar J. Friend’s introduction to their anthology My Best Science Fiction Story:

Science fiction is the only literary escape which the bewildered citizen can seek that offers imaginative relief while keeping him in tune with the apparently insoluble problems confronting him and his fellows.

Gunn argues virtually any work has three elements, singly or in combination, which weaken its escapist effect: didacticism, aesthetics, and philosophy. (Why aesthetics would weaken as opposed to, on occasion, strengthen the escapist effect I don’t understand.)

For Gunn the key isn’t whether these elements are in sf but whether they are useful though that’s a subjective judgement. Gernsbackian (Gunn doesn’t actually mention his name at this point) use of sf to teach science “has been somewhat overstressed”. Sf “is not primarily concerned with aestheticism”.

It’s philosophy that is important in sf as a “medium of ideas”.

Like most of the sf critics who came after him, Gunn has to devote some time to definitions of the genre and its history though, obviously, he would extensively develop his views on both in his The Road to Science Fiction series and Alternate Worlds.

As historical markers, he lays down two approximate dates: 1830 and 1930. In between those two dates is sf’s romantic period. Post-1930 is the realistic period.

Pre-1930 works do not, for Gunn, have realism based on rationality. Here he quotes anthologist Groff Conklin’s definition of sf as a sub-branch of fantasy and sharing that relationship with utopian stories, supernatural stories, and fairy tales. Gunn disagrees saying it’s possible to do any of those other three types of story in a science fictional way. It’s just a matter of rationality (or, at least, the veneer of it) and explanation. (In my look at this thesis, I’m going to go light on the examples he uses. You can supply your own or read the actual thesis.)

Sketching out the thesis of his later Alternate Worlds which talked about the proto-science fiction genres of the traveler’s tales, utopias, and satires, Gunn says 1830 is about the time when the industrial revolution started to move fantastic narratives from “wonderful journey” or “wonderful machine” to something that seemed more probable, more possible.

Incidentally, gothics are not considered to contribute much to science fiction since

their mysterious events were presented almost always without explanation and were included entirely for their own sake.

I think Gunn is on weak ground here. After all, Ann Radcliffe’s spooky gothics always end (so I’m told, I’ve only read The Mysteries of Udolpho) with mysteries explained.

There is, it should be said, a distinctly American emphasis in this thesis. That’s understandable given what Gunn had access to and how sf developed. The genre really accelerated into consciousness as a separate genre in the pulps, and the pulps were predominately American. While Brian Stableford has shown how English and French works were significant in terms of philosophy and artistry and theme, they weren’t significant in influence. They were like the Vikings colonizing the New World. Few Europeans paid any attention until centuries later when Columbus arrived in the New World. (That’s my analogy.) Gunn himself tried to rectify this oversight with the last two volumes of his The Road to Science Fiction dealing specifically with stories not from Americans.

What the industrial revolution brought to the public’s mind was that things were going to change – for many people and perhaps keep changing. The machines and ideas that changed life weren’t isolated to the heads and labs of crank scientists who were going to come to a bad end. (That’s my bald statement, not Gunn’s.)

Before about 1830

there were isolated men writing isolated stories, inspired individually and more by external circumstances than by any consciousness of writing within a literary movement.

Then came the “elder statesmen of science fiction” – no names are given at this point but presumably he means Jules Verne and H. G. Wells – from about the turn of the twentieth century to the mid-1920s.

A “brief third section of science fiction’s romantic period” was initiated in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories.

That first phase of the romantic period was marked by Richard Adams Locke and Edgar Allan Poe, literary hoaxers. (Gunn mentions the Shaver mysteries as a “recent and horrible example” of hoaxes in sf.) Poe gets a bit of a short shrift as “running more to dark and mystic fantasy than to science fiction” though Gunn acknowledges Poe’s ratiocination started several trends science fiction picked up on.

Brian Aldiss, years after Gunn wrote his thesis, claimed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first sf story. Gunn certainly thinks she may have started a “significant pattern”, but it wasn’t a good one:

 … the theme of the mad, incautious, or unwise scientist who endangers individuals, a society, or a world through his experiments. With slight modifications, this trend produced a science that could contribute nothing in a moment of crisis. For humor it offered the inept, impractical, or absent-minded scientist.  … The patterns of thought that produced this literature were symptomatic of the attitudes of several generations impressed by the iniquities of early industrialism and sighing for the safe, sane, good-old-days.

To Gunn, the mad scientist is a distrust of knowledge and science, a continuation of the Faust theme that became a stereotype of this period of sf.

Shelley’s novel seems, particularly in its 1831 prologue about the benefits of selectively distorting reality that sf affords in order to better examine something, to be a strong contender as one of the first novels of that genre.

Curiously, Gunn thinks the second period of science fiction’s romantic period is characterized not only by the mad scientist but “world cataclysm”.

The causes were almost always external and unilateral: the machine that gets out of control; the sun which becomes a nova or grows old; the cloud of poisonous gas, sun obscuring dust motes, or meteorites which invades the solar system; the nomad planet which menaces the earth; the natural law which runs wild.

The practioners were a collection of famous and obscure names: H. G. Wells, George Allan England, Charles B. Stilson, Austin Hall, Homer Eon Flint, Garrett P. Serviss, and Julian Hawthorne.

Gunn doesn’t really see the “atomic cataclysm” story – common enough by 1951 that some magazines “placed an editorial ban on all stories involving the threatened destruction of earth” – as a continuation of this. The atomic apocalypse is caused by “internal and/or multilateral” factors, not universal law. It is human centered.

Predictably and validly, Gunn picks three authors of this period as epitomizing a John W. Campbell, Jr. classification system of genre stories:

  • The prophecy story – Jules Verne
  • The philosophical story – H. G. Wells
  • The adventure story – Edgar Rice Burroughs

Gunn argues those types still exist in modern sf, but they didn’t develop a “distinct philosophy” until the pulps.

The next post will talk about what Gunn considers the philosophy of modern science fiction and what makes it “modern”.

Modern Science Fiction: “Introduction”

Today I’m starting a series on different sections of James Gunn’s just published 1951 master’s thesis Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis.

I’ll be calling them essays, but the implies more craft and stylish meanderings than you’ll read. I’ll be summarizing Gunn’s assertions and challenging a few or commenting on how they have or have not held up.

Essay: “Introduction”, James Gunn, Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis, James Gunn and edited and annotated by Michael R. Page, 2018.51QhTYVGKDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Conventionally, Gunn starts by laying out his thesis.

The science fiction of old is “basically escapist” and, like “the two other major escapist genres, the mystery and the western”, it could die a slow death. Well, one out of two successful prophecies is not bad. The western genre is pretty moribund. Mysteries, however, outnumber science fiction in the popular literature ecosystem.

Gunn says science fiction, however, needs to become less concerned about expanding its market share and be more concerned with growing up. He quotes a then noted literary critic, Christopher Isherwood, reviewing Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles in 1950. Isherwood noted a new science fiction emerging that didn’t have utopian illusions, no gadget worship, where aliens are approached in an “anthropological and non-violent” way.

Gunn says science fiction needs to do the three things every literary genre does to realize its potential: realize what it was, what it is, and think about what it can become. It needs to take up “organized, objective self-contemplation”.

Gunn is careful to say he’s just opening up the discussion and his conclusions are “tentative”.