Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 1

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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.”

2 thoughts on “Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 1

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