Friday, 14 November 1997:

Concept-Oriented SF

My cold has progressed from being merely annoying, to being seriously annoying in the sore throat area, as well as something my body is really working to fight off, as I have felt quite tired for the second half of today. But still not bad enough for me not to go into work. Well, if I don't feel better by Monday I might take the day off just to give myself extra rest and recovery time.

Meanwhile, I've drunk enough orange juice that I feel seriously orange in complexion.

I just finished updating a number of links in my Web page. I see many journalists' Web pages which are, well, mainly just journals. My page is more of a melange of my various interests, those I have time to pursue and time to write up here. So I went back and put links in my journal to the reviews of books I've read in that time (as well as a few pointers from the review to the journal pages). I might do the same for the rock concerts I've seen this fall.

I also put in links to The Journal Collection in those entries of mine which have been included in that list. Don't know what The Journal Collection is? Go check it out! Wondering which entries of mine have been included? Go check it out! (Boy, I really suck, don't I?)

On my way home from the coffee shop tonight (which, by the way, was done while many big, white flakes of snow were coming down; we're supposed to get a couple of inches by morning) I started thinking about the book I just finished reading, Sheri Tepper's Gibbon's Decline And Fall, and the one I just started, Steven Gould's Jumper. (No, not that Stephen Gould; this is a different one.) And that got me thinking about some forms of SF that I enjoy.

Much SF is "concept-oriented", which means it revolves to a large extent around certain science fictional ideas, and how they play themselves out in the world in which they exist. Not all SF is this way, of course; there's adventure SF (a la Star Trek and Babylon 5), social theory SF (e.g., Heinlein's Starship Troopers), biological/alien SF (H. Beam Piper's Little Fuzzy, among many others), and other forms, and many stories are more than one form. But much SF is primarily concept-oriented.

Among concept-oriented SF, there are single-concept stories, and multi-concept stories. Superhero comic books - to the extent that they're SF at all - are quintessential multi-concept stories.

Single-concept stories are, I find, the most satisfying, if the concept is interesting enough to support a whole novel. Jumper is a single-concept story, involving teleportation. Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man is a single-concept story, involving telepathy. But perhaps the best single-concept story I've read was written by Vernor Vinge.

The Peace War introduces the idea of a "bobble". Generated by a man-made device, a bobble is impenetrable - even light reflects off of it, making it appear like perfectly shiny metal. It's a perfect sphere of varying size. In the book, people assume that things that have been bobbled are simply encased in an impenetrable, eternal sphere, and that anything living eventually consumes all the air and dies. This is a red herring; we learn later that bobbles are not eternal - they eventually disappear - and that time within a bobble is stopped, utterly. In the novel, Our Heroes learn to control bobble generation, to set a precise size and lifetime for a bobble, and use it to bring down the empire which has taken over the world.

That's just the beginning, though; The Peace War is a good book, but not a great one. Vinge followed it up with a masterpiece, Marooned In Realtime, which extrapolates the basic bobble idea in two ways:

  1. A bobble's lifetime can be set, and time within it is stopped while it exists. This means that bobbles are a form of one-way time travel. Marooned In Realtime takes place in the far future, involving people who have travelled that far and seen the fall of human civilization.

  2. A bobble is indestructable, but still is affected by Newton's laws of motion. This means that if you were to build a spacecraft, drop a nuclear bomb outside it, and bobble yourself before it goes off, you'd have one hell of a propulsion system! And you could just get up to a good speed and bobble yourself up for a few hundred years, resulting in efficient space travel - at least for the traveller! One of the characters in the book has just returned from a few million years' trip around the galaxy.
These concepts are played out through the novel, and watching them work is immensely satisfying. To be fair, it's actually a dual-concept story, but I won't give away that part of it. The bobble idea is the centerpiece, however.

Multi-concept stories can also be quite good, but for us concept-nuts they can be a bit disappointing, because there's often not enough time to work them all through to their logical (and most fun) conclusions. Gibbon's Decline and Fall is such a book, with several disparate concepts which affect the main story. Bester's The Stars My Destination, although focusing primarily on teleportation, involves several other concepts as well (such as the evolution of its psychopathic character), and is not, in my opinion, quite as satisfying as The Demolished Man.

Apparently, SF author A. E. Van Vogt formed a theory of how to write good SF, which included introducing a new SF concept every few pages or so. I haven't read any of Vogt's work (except the short story "The Weapon Shop"), but it must be pretty chaotic stuff.

VErnor Vinge tried his hand at this sort of concept-SF, and won a Hugo Award for it, with his novel A Fire Upon The Deep. He introduced the idea of "zones of thought", which constrain the possible technology depending on how close you are to the center of the galaxy. There are several superhuman beings existing near the outer edge of the galaxy which we see, and closer to our part of the galaxy is a planet full of creatures called "Tines", which are group-minds of 4-to-6 creatures, each contributing a little piece to the whole. And there are several other concepts, which are touched on less fully. The novel is over 600 pages long, and is excellent, although it, too, is a bit disappointing in that there are some ideas which aren't completely fulfilled.

But I understand that Vinge's next novel will be a prequel to Fire and will expand on some of the concepts more fully. I hope it is to Fire what Marooned was to The Peace War.

One difference between the two kinds of stories is the nature of the hero's antagonists. In single-concept stories, the antagonist is usually either, 1) Normal people who want what the hero has; 2) Other people who have what the hero has who want him to join them, or want to steal it from him, or 3) The hero wrestling with himself internally. In multi-concept stories, the antagonist can be something completely different from the hero, a totally foreign concept which interacts with the hero in some unusual way. Sometimes there are multiple antagonists, who might be antagonistic to each other, as well.

I don't know whether these classifications have much literary use, but they were fun to think about for a while. I'm a kinda classification-oriented guy, if only because it makes a nice foil for examining things I enjoy, whether or not I get any "answers" out of it.

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