Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 8



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

We’re in the next subcategory of Gunn’s “plots of circumstances” where a protagonist must deal with problems inherent to the world he finds himself.

That subcategory is “a future being in a future world”.

The future is a great place to set a story, and a successful science fiction story only has to worry about the credibility of his imagination, and Gunn notes “credibility can be stretched a long way”.

However, Gunn isn’t too keen on past examples of stories in this subcategory. He thinks its potential has been abused more than any other plot category. Writers wrenched

the future into any shape they liked – utopian writers the foremost among them. They set up unlikely characters doing implausible things in absurd places; the plot form was undisciplined and chaotic.

Modern sf, realistic sf, occurred when readers started to demand plausible future and writers responded. Attendant to that was better characterization and dialogue. Continue reading “Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 8”


Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 7


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

We’re still in the “plots of circumstance” categories. To recap, these are plots with a protagonist struggling with some problem imposed on them by events in the world.

The next major category of this plot is “a past being in the past”.

It’s a strange plot category, and, if no story example comes to mind, that’s not surprising. After all, we’re dealing with historical people in an historical setting. That’s not the circumstance that readily comes to mind with the phrase “science fiction”.

Of course, Gunn firmly states the obvious. The past here is the author’s past. These are not time travel stories.

Theoretically, stories of set in the world of the author’s recent past could be done, but Gunn says he can’t think of any example he’s ever read.

So, authors using this plot, usually go back to a point in history incompletely documented, where mythology and folklore overshadow the historical record. These are stories of “mysterious archeological remains or historical situations”.

Only one story, in the five anthologies he sampled, fits into this category, and Gunn expresses his disapproval as to how this plot type has a “tendency to degenerate into adventure for its own sake”.

There are three subcategories of this plot. Continue reading “Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 7”

Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 6


The look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues with more looks at “plots of circumstances” and a sharp disagreement with Gunn.

Remember, we are dealing with plots set in the modern world or near future and classified by the problem that propels the plot

Facing a Change in Natural Conditions

In this and the next category, Gunn’s analysis is off and his predictions on the future of the genre falter.

“A change in natural conditions is neither realistic nor probable.”

What does Gunn mean by “a change in natural conditions”? Well, he cites stories that have rogue planets, comets with poisonous tails, the sun exploding or cooling, new ice ages, and new volcanic eruptions and volcanoes.

In other words, we’re talking disaster fiction, and you can probably supply your own titles, some quite popular, written in this vein since 1951. Continue reading “Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 6”

Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 5



The detailed examination of James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues.

We’re still looking at that category of plots of circumstances where the setting is the modern world or the near future and the plot is built around a problem.

Facing Problems Introduced from the Past

Gunn notes this is similar to the “ancient being or primitive being in a modern human environment” plot. This plot, though, is centered around a modern man, and it is that man that provides reader identification.

This is primarily a plot of menace. Some kind of man, animal, plant, seed, or strange alien being comes into our world from the past. (Gunn doesn’t mention disease, but that’s obviously another potential menace.) The menace arrives from suspended animation, some temporal suspension, or time travel.

In threatening human supremacy in the world, this menace allows an examination and reassessment of some human trait, the assets and debits of human nature.

H. P. Lovecraft understandably gets cited as a prime example though Gunn regards his work as “more fantasy than science fiction”; however, he does concede Lovecraft did offer explanations of varying degrees of credibility. That’s a fair assessment of Lovecraft, and Lovecraft didn’t really consider himself a science fiction writer though I’d argue that, whatever the plausibility of the offered explanations, a story that offers a scientific explanation is sf on that ground alone whatever the intended emotional effect the author was going for. Gunn says Lovecraft was one of the few writers to successfully create a new mythology to be in the background of his stories. Richard Shaver’s stories are an example of failing to do that.

Understandably, Gunn cites John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” as a fine example of this plot. However, he makes no reference of its probable influence of Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” on it.

All in all, Gunn is in favor of this plot as well-suited to many purposes, including a philosophical examination of humanity, and providing suspense, the all important “reader identification”, and drama.

Facing Problems Introduced from Another Dimension

Lovecraft and his followers in the Cthulhu Mythos aren’t mentioned here. Gunn sees this as a plot type in decline. (He also says Charles Fort frequently gets cited in this type of story.)

The limitation of this plot type is that it isn’t as flexible as the problems-from-the-past-encroaching- into-the-modern-world plot. It doesn’t seem to be well-suited to comment on “the nature of mankind”. (I’m not sure why Gunn thinks that. It isn’t obviously true.) What these stories mainly suggest is that “man is not the apex of creation”.

As a tool for a horror story, it works well even “though that purpose borders closely on fantasy”.

Facing Problems Introduced from Another World or Space

Obviously Gunn is right in stating this is a popular plot. The problems you can export from another place other than Earth are unlimited. The modern world can be contrasted to the strangeness outside it. Reader identification, as in all the plots set in the modern world, is high.

It also has a higher credibility, an easier suspension of disbelief, than using a plot that brings problems into the world from the past, another dimension, or the future.

It can easily provide that old sf standby, “sense of wonder”.

And Gunn makes the interesting point that it expresses science fiction’s

natural hatred of skepticism—that type of skepticism, at least, which refuses to admit the possibility of any happening out of the ordinary.

Gunn cites the popular “aliens judging Earth” variety of this plot.

He concludes with his high opinion of this plot’s literary value and ease of use for writers:

The form itself is one of the best developed in science fiction; interesting, effective, and occasionally significant stories have been written in this form, and it has promise of even greater merit if it develops its thematic possibilities along new and perhaps more productive lines.

Facing Problems Introduced from the Future

Gunn cites two stories here as excellent examples of sf craft: William Tenn’s “Child Play” and Henry Kuttner’s and C. L. Moore’s “Mimsy Were the Borogroves”.

Both stories are about children’s toys from the future showing up in our world. In the Tenn story, it’s a “Bild-A-Man” kit. In the Kuttner and Moore story, it’s a toy teaching kids how to enter a fourth dimension.

But, in Gunn’s mind, those stories have no “particularly serious or significant nature”. C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Little Black Bag” does. Specifically, it’s a commentary on overpopulation and dysgenics, and Gunn thinks, while it shows this plot, usually written and read just for pleasure, could do more.

The next post on Gunn’s thesis will look at a literary judgement Gunn got very wrong.

Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 4



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

Modern Man in the Modern World

This time we’re looking at another subcategory of the plots of circumstance category.

In Gunn’s sample, it’s the most popular subcategory in the most popular category.

The reasons for this are obvious: the situation is immediate, the characters are easy to identify with, the world is familiar, “the problems presented are often as real to the reader as they are to the characters”. Even if the problems are novel to the reader, they can be made to seem real. If you want to do significant “political, social, and psychological observations and analyses”, this is the plot for you.

However, as of 1951, Gunn saw this plot in decline. Post-Hiroshima it was the vehicle for so many post-nuclear war stories that editors grew sick of them.

Gunn warns there is a “minor writing problem” in using this plot: “the lack of common knowledge of the event described” needs an explanation. Stories can be set in secluded areas or news of them suppressed.

Or, since Gunn says his use of “modern” is elastic, you can just take the obvious tact of putting the story in the near future. To him, if your world has “no inventions or industries impossible to our science or engineering ability today”, your story is modern.

Given that the temporal setting of these stories is all the same, Gunn doesn’t use a time-based classification system for this categories varieties. He does it on the basis of the problem introduced into the “modern” world.

Facing a Continuing Problem

This, Gunn says, is a plot that amalgamates study of a human trait and the problem to various degrees.

Gunn uses, as case studies, a couple of stories. One is Clifford D. Simak’s “Lobby”. The other is Philip Wylie’s “Blunder”. Both deal with problems about nuclear technology. But, Gunn says, these are not pure examples of this plot. He postulates that such a story would have

no wars or threats of war or any other unusual circumstantial occurrence. The story would deal completely with human impulses and the human mind.

But he doesn’t think such a story, at least such a science fiction story, can be written.

Or he did until he read Fritz Leiber’s “Coming Attraction”. Gunn spends a great deal of time on that story showing a remarkable eye for its significance since Gunn finished his thesis in May 1951 and Leiber’s story only came out in November 1950. He praises its “techniques of characterization and symbolism”. At the end of several pages discussing it, he says Leiber’s story and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles are “two of the most hopeful and pregnant possibilities of the future of science fiction”. If science fiction continues in their vein, it will become a “literary medium for literary critics to reckon with”.

Facing a Problem Raised by New Technology

This is the plot that got (at least in a few instances) science fiction the reputation of being a prophetic genre. It’s the stereotypical Analog story (probably more in the breach than practice).

Gunn draws on an analogy from his naval days:

Science fiction is engaged, in one segment of its personality, in the business of prediction, just as it indulges in flights of fancy and considerations of the fictional possibilities of relatively improbable events. It is the same sort of prediction as that produced by the Navy’s gun directors, with an input of the known factors of the target’s position, course, and speed, these directors compute mathematically the target’s future position at any given time.

Not surprisingly, John W. Campbell gets quoted here in regard to prophetic sf stories.

Gunn sees this as a firmly established plot in science fiction, well-exploited and that probably won’t develop further sophistication. It could be argued that cyberpunk developed this plot further by presenting stories that didn’t content themselves to extrapolating one technology but multiple technologies.

Facing Problems in the Mental and Social Fields

This is a rather hypothetical plot since Gunn says none of the anthologies he used as resources have pure examples of it. Essentially, these would be stories where psychology and sociology have developed to become more scientific and the resulting implications explored. Gunn sees a lot of potential here with many more stories to come.

And he was right. The 1950s saw, in the pages of Galaxy and Astounding Stories, many stories where the soft sciences were rigorous and produced spectacular results for good and bad.

Facing Problems of a New War

Not a lot of comment needed here. It’s the near future war story – as opposed to the E. E. “Doc” Smith far future war story of improbable weapons. It doesn’t have to center around weapons technology. Gunn mentions Theodore Sturgeon’s “Thunder and Roses” which centers around the question whether the U.S. should launch a retaliatory nuclear strike on Russia.

Gunn was quite right that the temporary fatigue with future war stories would pass and that this would be an enduring plot that would even show up outside of science fiction magazines.

Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 3


The look at James Gunn’s 1951 Modern Science Fiction: An Analysis continues.

Gunn offers a number of observations about variations on the “future being” plot in its numerous variations.

Its advantages? Numerous possibilities for setting when not constricted to the past and present. Also, one can think of more realistic possibilities to put aliens in than humans.

The disadvantage? “Lessened reader identification” and that problem increases the more removed the protagonist is from a modern human. Skillful writing can make up for that inherent problem of reader empathy, but it can never “hope to achieve the completeness of that secured when modern man is the subject”.

A Future Being in the Past

Gunn gives this one short shrift in terms of significance. It’s seldom used for good reason, and its effect can be achieved by substituting a “modern man” protagonist. Time travel stories use the plot but to set up a future where that possibility is plausible, but to Gunn that’s not a good enough reason to use this plot. He dismisses this as a plot for mere time travel paradoxes and “attempts at wringing humor from interference in historical events of the past”.

A Future Being in the Present

This one is a favorite plot for satire, and Gunn doesn’t equate satire with realism and, remember, “modern science fiction”, for him, is about realism. He cites Olaf Stapledon’s Last Men in London as a prime example here, and he hints that its fatalistic ending is typical of this plot.

Yet, he thinks the plot can be used in a lot better way and has much promise.

He cites H. Beam Piper’s “Time and Time Again” as an example in its philosophical rumination on the nature of time (influenced by the theories of J. W. Dunne). And he cites Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore’s “Vintage Season”. (The exact extent of each contribution by that husband and wife team is sometimes hard to figure out, but these days Moore is usually listed as its author.)

A Future Being on a Strange Planet

For Gunn, this plot is used by some of the best and some of the worst science fiction. He thinks it has the most promise of any plot with stories that range from pure adventure to “reflections on human nature in contact with a strange environment.

Its use for stories of space travel is particularly significant:

 . . . it is more believable that a future being should reach the planets and the stars beyond the planets. There have been stories in which modern man achieved this, but it strains reader credulity that even the adjacent planets should be available in the near future. But the sky is definitely not the limit for a future being—neither the sky nor the solar system nor the galaxy.

Gunn presciently cites Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, published only a year before Gunn wrote his thesis, as a major use of this plot and a significant work.

Bradbury has shown some of the possibilities implicit in the plot type, and other authors have ventured recently into this hitherto almost untouched field. But the plot type is just opening up; it is wide open, and the results may be the most rewarding of any story type in science fiction.

A Future Being in Space

Gunn notes this is a difficult plot to use. Space is an environment of emptiness.

There have been few successful attempts, according to Gunn, up to 1951.

In particular, Gunn the stylist notes that stock descriptions are often used:

the velvet blackness sprinkled with unwinking myriads of stars, the sun undimmed splendor with all its prominences and spots visible to the naked eye, the dim, dark reaches of infinity.

As successful examples, he cites Jack Williamson’s Seetee Shock and Robert A. Heinlein’s “Universe”.

But those exceptions are too few for Gunn. He thinks this plot has “permanent literary value” and great potential because, of all environments, it’s the most alien.

That concludes the “beings in an alien environment” subdivision of the plot of circumstance category. Next up, I’ll be looking at what Gunn says about the “modern man in the modern world” plot.

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”