Modern SF: Plots of Creation, Introduction


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

Gunn’s taxonomy of science fiction after approximately 1930 was based on plots with two main categories: “plots of circumstance” and “plots of creation”. We’re now looking at the second category.

So what is a “plot of creation”? It’s a plot where the problems the protagonist faces are largely the results of something they did. Specifically, it’s usually some experiment the protagonist ran.

In the five reprint anthologies Gunn sampled for his 1951 thesis, this plot category was a distinct minority – 20 story plots vs. 125 for the plot of circumstance. A major reason is that plots of circumstance are unbounded in their access to the imagination. Plots of creation are not.

The plot of creation was not unknown before 1930, of course. But Gunn says there was little realism as to why all those early scientists built the machines they did –

little purpose beyond a desire to construct something or to prove their point in some dispute over “pure” science.

Realistic sf demanded

 demanded not only a reasonable creation but also logical motives and even more logical theoretical possibilities.

Another reason these plots are scarcer is that they depend on novelty. A “reasonable creation” not done before has to be thought of and dramatically worked out. There is also the problem of reader identification –

for few of us are creators in any unusual or dramatic sense, while we all know what it is to struggle against circumstance.

Still, if a writer can overcome those difficulties the rewards are great. Human psychology can be explored and, even more significantly, the relationship of man and his creations can be examined.

Gunn divides his plots of creation along two lines – the creation of life and the creation of technologies. Naturally both have a long history in mythology as well, but Gunn says these are largely allied to a superstitious suspicion that creation is an inherently dangerous activity. (That seems a bit overstated. In the case of creating life or, say, something totally novel like human flight, it’s probably true. But there were thousands of other acts of creation in crop and animal domestication that passed largely uncommented on. That was probably because those weren’t perceived as all that novel.)

Since Gunn wrote this thesis in 1950 and after the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was an understandable public anxiety about technology. Gunn doesn’t have a lot of patience for that kind of thinking even when it’s voiced by scientists:

Even the scientists of today are given to public breast-beatings and are reaching a near-neurotic state of indecision, starting at shadows, skulking in darkened laboratories. This is not to dismiss all this alarm as without foundation; but alarm itself can do no good when there is no practical way to turn back, when the only way to go is forward.

That public anxiety about technology and science was addressed fictionally by Gunn in The Burning.

Experiments, of course, can go good or bad with the last, in pre-modern science fiction, being the favored outcome.

Next up, I’ll look at plots that involve the creation of “life”.

2 thoughts on “Modern SF: Plots of Creation, Introduction

  1. “…these are largely allied to a superstitious suspicion that creation is an inherently dangerous activity. (That seems a bit overstated…”

    I’m not sure this is overstated. Creation is but one form of change, and we seem to have a general fear of all change, i.e., human nature leads inevitably to self-destruction. We dare to bite the apple and get thrown out of the garden.

    Today people and whole countries panic over GMOs and vaccinations. “The Time Machine” was Well’s look at where we might be headed, also “Frankenstein” which warned against misguided creations. Like cats, our curiosity will kill us.

    We can never fully grasp what paths technologies might take and many find that frightening. I remember Steve Jobs comment that computers would never record and play music … on the question about naming his company “Apple” and its possible conflict with the Beatle’s label, “Apple”. Renegotiating that decision cost a few bills and caused Apple to lag in the music field.

    1. You can certainly find cautionary myth and folklore around things like blacksmithing.

      We do fear change, and it’s arguably wise to do so. (Dangers known — or thought known — vs. dangers unknown). However, humans are more than willing to adopt change if it means survival in war, greater convenience, or to meet a primal need like having children (or avoiding pregnancy).

      Remember that sf story of some decades back, “The Gentle Seduction”? We can say no to using technology with just one tiny exception. And one more exception. Repeat.

      And, even if we fear technology, we’ll often use it because we fear our economic and military competitors using it.

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