Modern SF: Plots of Creation, Experiments

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And my look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues and concludes. I’ll be looking at some more of Gunn’s fiction, but this will be the last look at his critical work for a while.

We’re at the final plot in Gunn’s critical schema: plots of creation involving experiments other than the creation of chemical and mechanical life.

Gunn sees this plot, unlike the creation of life and artificial minds, as more realistic because the ultimate is not often sought. These experiments aren’t about creating life or minds. The experiments these stories deal with, therefore, have more plausibility.

Gunn divides this type of plot into three categories: the experiment that helps mankind with a problem, the experiment that gets out of control, and the experiment that causes new problems.

Gunn says the first type, as you might expect, is the least common variation. After all, if the experiment works, where’s the drama? The drama must come from something “external to the creation itself”.

The other option is somebody interfering with the running of the experiment:

ignorance, stupidity, disinterest, or malevolence, through an inability to see the possibilities of the creation, a disbelief in the ability of the creator to accomplish what he has set out to do, or an interest in seeing that the creation does not succeed.

Gunn says this type of plot is fairly common. He even cites a story he wrote (unpublished) as a teenager about attempts to sabotage the development of the first “practicable space rocket”.

An interesting variation he cites is exemplified by John Taine’s “The Ultimate Catalyst” in which the results of an experiment to change the chlorophyll in plants to hemoglobin are misrepresented. The failure is covered up by feeding some patients snake blood (the story is set in the Amazon). The biologist running the experiments has, in fact, succeeded in doing the opposite transformation of hemoglobin to chlorophyll.

It may be an interesting variant, but, to Gunn’s mind, it avoids confronting the consequences of an intended experiment.

As for experiments out of control, they are popular (and, as far as I know, still popular to this day) and account for a third of all the plots of creation in his sampled anthologies. Their philosophical significance is similar to plots of creation involving created life.

There, however, is a distinction. The experiments at the center of this plot have much more modest goals. Or, at least, they do in post-1930 realistic science fiction as opposed to earlier stories that dealt in romantic “superlatives and ultimates”.

Speaking of realism, is there anything more realistic than the solution to one problem causing more problems? That’s the “experimentation that causes new problems” category.

Among other examples he cites, Gunn mentions Edwin James’ “Guaranteed” without mentioning that was Gunn’s own pen name. Even though he wrote a story with this plot, he is guarded about its literary potential:

If this type of story can steer clear of becoming more involved with machines than with man, it can accomplish some worthwhile things. It can never, however, be as worthwhile or as satisfying as the stories built around the creation of life, although it may, more realistically, indulge in more accurate prophecy and occasionally come out with an interesting philosophical application.

And, with that, Gunn’s thesis wraps up its plot discussions.

He concludes his thesis with:

The science fiction authors of today have an opportunity to make their work immensely more significant and by so doing to make science fiction the most significant literary medium today. To do this, however, they must write with the theme implications of plot constantly in mind, and they must study the philosophical implications of each plot development. Plot alone is no longer enough; unlike Archibald MacLeish’s poem, it is not enough for a story to be—it must mean, and the more it means, on all levels of communication, the better for the story and for science fiction.

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