Friday, May 18, 2018

The Grand Unification Curse

     There have been several large-scale, powerful, and highly observable trends in fiction this past half-century. Paradoxically, the most conspicuous ones have been in the speculative genres: fantasy, science fiction, and horror. I say “paradoxically” because those genres are commonly conceived of as where a writer goes to do something offbeat and innovative.

     The channels into which spec-fic writers mainly funnel themselves are well known:

  • Fantasy has divided into two paths:
    • Traditional (also called medieval or “high” fantasy)
    • Contemporary (also called urban fantasy)
  • Science fiction has also divided itself in two:
    • Technologically oriented (also called hard SF)
    • Sociologically oriented (also called soft SF)
  • Horror’s divisions are much the same:
    • Traditional: i.e., it employs the traditional monsters: vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghouls.
    • Non-traditional: i.e., it employs contemporary motifs such as serial killers.

     There are sub-subvarieties within the subvarieties – e.g., vampire as good guy vs. vampire as bad guy, or zombie horror vs. zombie humor – but those too are “deeply grooved,” such that little discernible deviation occurs within them.

     This seems to me to be a marketing phenomenon. When one particular channel attracts a large following, whether due to a breakthrough novel or a hot new writer, other writers flock toward it in the hope of “getting in on the action.” It might be amplified by the great difficulty of actual innovation, but that’s a subject for another time and another screed.

     However, there’s another trend that unites all these pathways. It strikes me as a dangerous one, for reasons that will shortly become apparent: the trend toward coercing one’s works into a grand unification around a single “future history” or “alternate history.”

     I don’t know who was first to promulgate the notion of a “future history.” I first encountered the idea in Robert A. Heinlein’s early stories, including the ones in The Past Through Tomorrow, Orphans Of The Sky, and Methuselah’s Children. It is notable that while Heinlein continued to develop the characters and themes in those early stories, he also explored several other threads of development that had no relation to them. Nevertheless, he was among the earliest writers to adopt the future history approach to science fiction.

     Big ideas tend to be attractors. The notion of a consistent grand-unified history proved to be one such. These days, a great many speculative-fiction writers go to great difficulty to fit everything they write into that kind of vision. As with the spec-fic subvarieties enumerated earlier, this has had a depressing effect on actual imagination.

     I’m not trying to be critical here; I’ve felt the impulse myself. Indeed, I’ve been encouraged in that direction by my readers. But I’ve tentatively decided that it’s a pull I should resist...and perhaps that others should resist for the same reasons.

     Among other things, an active imagination dislikes to be bounded or blindered. If you’re fortunate enough to possess such an imagination, you know the delight that comes from having it surprise you with an idea you’d never previously entertained. But when it presents you with such an idea, straining to force it into a previously determined paradigm is at best a dubious use of the gift.

     This came to mind this morning when my very own backbrain awarded me a fresh idea for an SF story. After I’d marveled over the uniqueness of it for a few minutes, I sat down to write it out so I wouldn’t forget it...and as I was writing it out, I started to ponder how I could fit it into the established “future history” of my Spooner Federation series.

     A subconscious alarm bell went off at that point, and thank God for it.

     Genuinely fresh ideas deserve to be treated as fresh ideas: not as suffixes to older, already-exploited ideas, however popular they might have been. It’s not because they’re “rare.” As Isaac Asimov has told us, ideas are all around us; all a writer needs to do is observe his own surroundings with an open and receptive mind, and he’ll have more story ideas than we can exploit in a normal lifetime.

     This is a plea of two kinds. I’ve wearied of never-ending series founded on a single set of characters in a consistent setting. I’ve formed the habit of automatically turning aside from any fiction offering that purports to be a volume in a series. But beyond that, I’ve encountered a number of ideas that deserved to be treated with more respect by their originators: ideas that would have been excellent foundations for stand-alone stories, but which the originator forced, Procrustes-like, to fit into a “future history” or “alternate history” structure for which they were not suited.

     The “grand-unified history” series has its attractions. Among others, if such a series starts out well, the reader may reasonably assume that further readable and entertaining stories will be available to him, soon if not immediately. But lately that’s gotten to be a less reliable assumption. Many of us are hungry for freshness, for intriguing departures from what we’ve already read. The “grand-unified history” series doesn’t promise that; indeed, it’s an unbelievable promise in the nature of the thing.

     I could go on, but that fresh SF idea I mentioned a few paragraphs ago is beckoning to me. I simply have to see what I can do with it. Later, Gentle Readers. Wish me luck.

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