Monday, May 20, 2013

Noted: Algis Budrys on sfnal "ideas"

I have many strong disagreements with Budrys on fundamental assumptions and premises even in this brief passage, but his central observation here on the nature of sfnal ideas is highly provocative. From the long, fascinating historical essay "Paradise Charted," as collected in Outposts: Literatures of Milieux.

A note on terms: Budrys uses stef the way I use sf, as a general term for all science fiction; Modern Science Fiction designates the form developed during John W. Campbell's editorship of Astounding; superscience, the earlier pulp form credited to Campbell and E.E. "Doc" Smith in the early 1930s; and scientifiction, the parade-of-technological-marvels form predating both, as ushered in by Hugo Gernsback in the 1910s and 20s.

For instance, in Campbell's "Brain Stealers of Mars," Penton and Blake--two very well-received series characters--are sent into the "funny animal" subgenre founded by Stanley G. Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey" in the late 1930s. Martian flora prove to be telempathic and mimetic; perfect vegetable duplicates of Penton and Blake begin clumping around, conversing with them in their voices, but exhibiting nasty intentions. Campbell explained this capacity in biotech terms, and the problem was solved. But it came up again in Campbell's much later "Who Goes There?" commonly considered the best stef-suspense novella ever written, in which the ability is displayed by an extraterrestrial being found by an Antarctic expedition.

What's interesting to note is that Campbell didn't really favor any one particular "scientific" rationale for the mimesis; it was the mimesis itself, and its effect on his protagonists' equanimity, that returned him to the theme. One can readily see why, by examining what one knows of Campbell's childhood--but one can see it too readily. Campbell did not actually originate the idea, even if he played on it best. It involves all the common human apprehensions evoked by the classic doppelgänger theme in literature, which turns up repeatedly in "stories of identity" by such littérateurs as Kafka and Muriel Spark, as well as franker variations by newsstand stef writers before and since Campbell. The point is that in newsstand stef it is established as one of the master ideas, and the game is to find new enabling devices through which to exploit it.

If that were not the game, how could Campbell feel safe in giving the same "idea" to several different writers? So is it the tech furniture or the "idea" which is paramount, and is the "idea" technological or an expression of common human psychology? Is the "story" in how Penton and Blake dispose of the brain stealers? Or is it in how Penton and Blake, two friends bonded by many shared triumphant gambles on their mental and physical alertness, must cope with the sudden apprehension and suspicion that arise catastrophically when their social ability to rely on each other is destroyed? Is "Brain Stealers" about brain stealing or about one of the fundamental props of human social interaction? Which of those levels, do you suppose, is of greater interest to the reader, who is located about 60,000,000 miles from Mars but has to function in society every minute of his [sic] life?...

Modern Science Fiction established a catalogue of such "master ideas," drawing on superscience, and beyond it to scientificition and classical sources for prototypes. It funneled them through Campbell, and the inner cadres which responded most readily to Campbell, and then dispersed them irrevocably into all subsequent stef, in all its subgeneric forms, and also into modes commercially identified as fantasy and its subgenres.

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