Science Fiction Memes

Wait, before you ignore this post, know that this isn't a discussion of internet science fiction memes, but rather replicating trends in the genre. I'm not going to post a list of books or movies with an embarrassingly small number of titles bolded or italicized. Just saying.

In any case, I've been milling about the memes in science fiction, the trends that repeat (with varying degrees of utility) for a number of weeks, and it remains a chief nagging point on my todo list. As I return to science fiction writing it's something that I've found myself eager to consider as I make sense of the genre (again).

This was, like a number of the essays/posts about writing methods and practices that I've posted in recent weeks, spurred by listening to one of Cory Doctorow's podcasts of a panel he was on with a few other science fiction writers.

There were a lot of somewhat germane debates that are so typical of science fiction discussions, over literary-ness, over "accuracy" and the ability of science fiction to predict the future [1], and originaity in the genre and so forth (actually I need to write a post about this). But one thing that Cory said that struck me, about both, I think literary tendencies and originality was that science fiction is a genre where almost cut their teeth on a retelling of Isaac Asimov's "Nightfall," story. To drive this home, in the next week or so I listed to Nancy Kress' "Ej-Es" on Escape pod. Which was amazing, and then I realized that of course it followed the basic "Nightfall" type story structure. (Sorry for the semi-spoiler, it's still a great story.) Nightfall is not only a great story, but its framework gives us the possibility of thinking about our reflexes, and habits, that can be a great tool for getting into "sociological sf."

After recognizing the nightfall meme, I thought immediately about another huge trope in (particularly hard) SF: the Mars book. In addition to retelling nightfall, there's also a meme of writing "the mars book" about the red planet. Think: Martian Chronicles, and Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trillogy, and not to forget Stranger in a Strange Land and so on and so forth. Hell, my current novella project is a Mars Book, though it's by no means a hard-sf project. The Mars book/story, I think is the hard SF trope, because it lets writers talk about space travel, colonization, and so forth, without getting "fantastic."

There's also sub/alter-genres, like space operas, and alternate history, and the various -punks (cyberpunk, steampunk, Cory's disneypunk, etc) and so forth, that are in their own way memes. There are conventions which are played with and broken/bent to varying degree's, but still replicate throughout significant swaths of the literature, and if nothing else I think that's incredibly interesting.

I guess the main point of this argument is to say that, I'm not sure that Memes are such a bad thing. In a lot of ways they seem to be a lot of the connective force behind the genre. I mean it can be taken to extremes, of course, but all things can. Also, I think it would be foolish to suggest that SF is the only genre that has such memes. I guess this all got started by a question about "is there anything that's truly new and original happening now," and the answer is, yes and no.

Everything new, even recombinations of old material is, original. Even, dare I say, Kirk/Spock Star Trek fan fiction represents some kind of forward movement for the genre and the community. Now don't take the Kirk/Spock too far, and there is such a thing as blatant plagiarism, but I think at the heart of the matter is the fact that we don't actually really want things that are original and different, that kind of thing is jaring, and by its very nature difficult to understand. This doesn't mean that a given retelling of Nightfall, or a book about Mars, doesn't further a discussion along. Even in science, where new studies are supposed to create new knowledge, it's all incremental.

The qualities that make good science fiction, captivating stories, interesting questions and perspectives, honest characters, and enjoyable settings are for the most part independent of there being "something new," and I think you can say something really new in a fairly typical space opera, and tell a completely contrite in the new thing that we've never seen yet. o So there.

Have fun, Tycho

[1]Cory rehashes some of these ideas here, but I think on the whole, science fiction isn't really about the future, and never has been. "True" to current understandings of science, or not, science fiction is always both future oriented (looking forward) and about the present. If you're a contemporary setting using contemporary technology, or in a near future setting, using "accurate" technology, or if you're writing a story ten thousand years in the future using wildly futuristic technology, it's all to a certain measure irrelevant, and even more importantly, it's all made up anyway.
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