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The Ideas! The Ideas!

Clive Thompson remains the single journalist most perfectly calibrated to my interests, and his latest essay for Wired is no exception. It’s about science fiction:

If you want to read books that tackle profound philosophical questions, then the best — and perhaps only — place to turn these days is sci-fi. Science fiction is the last great literature of ideas.

From where I sit, traditional “literary fiction” has dropped the ball. I studied literature in college, and throughout my twenties I voraciously read contemporary fiction. Then, eight or nine years ago, I found myself getting — well — bored.

I had a friend in college who, upon hearing a science-fiction book recommendation that cited plot, characters, setting, etc., would reply: “Yes, yes, but what about the ideas? The ideas?

(P.S. So yes, it’s probably me who is actually calibrated to Clive Thompson’s interests, given the nature of media. That’s fine, too.)

January 22, 2008 / Uncategorized


I like Clive Anderson too. But…

1) First of all, screw Cory Doctorow. Seriously. Screw that guy. I spent three years reading that guy waiting to hear anything resembling an idea assemble itself, and all I saw was crap come out of his mouth. Crap that turned into digital crap ink. I had to stop reading Boing Boing. If he’s what passes for a great thinker-novelist in the 21st century, let’s all go kill ourselves right now.

2) Anyone who reads what sound like the most boring contemporary fiction possible and can seriously say to themselves “I see how today’s world works” is either completely fooling themselves or setting up a totally transparent straw man.

3) Anderson says that sci-fi is the only literature for serious ideas, but then goes on to exempt Phillip Roth, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Cormac McCarthy and co.? Calling The Plot Against America “counterfactual lit” just doesn’t cut it. And did Cormac McCarthy grow a brain exactly when he wrote a book that was remotely sci-fi? Or is it possible that Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses and No Country For Old Men are pretty good books for ideas too? Or is it, “contemporary literary fiction is bereft of ideas, except for the very best writers of contemporary fiction”? Because who wouldn’t disagree with that?

4) Speaking of which, I have to mention my stock response to this issue. All genres are capable of exploring remarkable ideas. Westerns have great ideas. Gangster movies have great ideas. Even romantic comedies can have great ideas. If you think science fiction has better ideas than Westerns, that’s because you like spaceships and aliens and robots better than horses and guns and hats. But that’s it.

5) I’m reminded of the Hollywood notion of “high-concept.” It’s an idea for a movie that can fit on a 3 by 5 card. You can’t fit Ulysses or The Magic Mountain or In Search of Lost Time on a 3 by 5 card. But damn. Those are novels with f—ing ideas. Give me a break.

(Making Snarkmarket extra-snarky since 2003)


Couldn’t say more. Tim’s post drank Clive Thompson’s milkshake.

Agree with the commenters!

Clive has become one of my favorite popular writers, but this piece didn’t have any, well, ideas. The thesis: “SF is smart; everything else isn’t.” Oh, really?

This’ll be a first, but I’ll offer up a quote from Klosterman: “Science fiction tends to be philosophy for stupid people.”


Okay, agree re: Doctorow. He is not an exemplar in this case. My defense does not extend to him.

And it’s hardly fair to drop Ulysses, etc. — we’re not talking about the recent classics of the ages here, and nowhere does Clive say ‘Man, 20th century literature all sucks! Asimov kicks Joyce’s ass!’ That’s not the comparison. It seems to me he is specifically talking about people writing NOW, or very near to now.

But putting that aside, here’s the defense. Clive is looking for books that tackle big ideas, and I think it’s totally fair to say that most recent realistic fiction a) restricts itself to a pretty limited set of ideas, b) doesn’t ‘tackle’ them so much as perfectly, sensitively describe them.

It dilutes the word ‘idea’ a bit to apply it evenly to any interesting claim about the world, e.g. the kind you might find in a western or romantic comedy.

I mean, what are the *really* interesting ideas in the world today? And which of them are *new*? I think of things like the climate, our understanding of our own biology, the relationship of ‘virtual’ stuff to ‘real’ stuff, the nature of families in the hyper-developed world, etc. — there are lots more.

Are there interesting ideas to be explored via, say, immigrant life in the West End of London? Sure. Interesting ideas about human morality bound up in life on the frontier circa 18-whatever? Sure. But honestly I don’t find them as compelling as ideas about *what happens when we can rewrite our own DNA*.

Concrete example: I’m thinking of “Counting Heads,” this terrific book I just read, the first novel by a guy named David Marusek. Absolutely horrible book-jacket — looks like the lamest, most generic sci-fi novel you’ve ever seen. Inside, though, wrapped in a surprisingly solid plot, are THE craziest and most cutting-edge ideas about what life might actually be like in the future that I’ve ever read. It blew my mind.

Great writing? No. Great ideas? Off the charts. There is a distinct and precious utility to that, and I think that’s what Clive is talking about.

Cormac McCarthy is a great counter-example, actually, because his foray into pseudo-science-fiction isn’t a book of ideas at all. “The Road” is a story of great style, feeling & resonance — the pure distillation of bleakness into words — but there is not a single useful idea in there about how the future might actually be. ‘In case of scorched wasteland…’ — not quite.

It really is about utility, as lame as that sounds. I know I’m not the only person who reads biographies largely for advice — templates and patterns for how to live a life and do big things. And so it is for science fiction: This is not reading for pure pleasure, for the suppleness of the prose and the structure of the plot. This is reading for new big ideas — intellectual arbitrage via narrative!

And re: Rex’s channeling of Chuck, I think that’s exactly wrong. It’s philosophy that’s been left behind by the smart stuff. I still wonder why we bother reading Plato, Mill, Hegel, etc. for anything other than historical value — all of their claims are based on assertions or assumptions about the universe & the human mind that have been completely obviated by scientific evidence.

It’s THOSE guys, not the science fiction writers, who offer up simplistic, ungrounded, coffee-shop philosophy. The smart, relevant, useful stuff is in the science books — and, by extension, in good science fiction.

(Not trying to overplay science’s hand, here; but seriously, any philosopher who lived in a time before we knew about relativity, DNA, & the approximate size of the universe just can’t be trusted!)

You realize the contradiction of this, right? We know far less — about ourselves, about the universe, about cognition — than we will mostly likely know in, say, 1000 years. Which means that everything that goes on now is worth only its “historical value.”

Also, I’m concerned about this apparent divergence of “the idea writer” and “the style writer.” It’s inherently part of the problem with sci-fi — only a few of its best writers actually embody their ideas with prose. It’s actually that moment when genre fiction leaps forward stylistically that we all recognize it as being “full of great ideas.” It PK Dick, who often gets dismissed as a “bad writer” (even Lethem did this in his essay), wrapped his characters in crummy ’50s garbled sentences that seem perfectly appropriate for the crack-pot theorization.

Yes, and if I could read science fiction from the year 3000, I would. But we’ve got to make do with what we’ve got. 🙂

(And for the record, ‘historical value’ is still great value — I’m not saying we shouldn’t read old philosophers at all.)

Well, there’s a problem here too, insofar as what you seem to be looking for “ideas about what the future will be like.” Science fiction does well here, as imaginative representations of the future are its stock in trade. But “ideas about the future” are only a subset of “ideas.”

I also think “high concept” fiction is a subset of “ideas,” and a pretty limited subset at that. The reason why I mentioned Ulysses and other early-20th century texts is that I think that kind of scale and complexity of vision, ideas in the hundreds of thousands (plus the aesthetic achievement, which is not negligible), is the gold standard to which we should hold novels of ideas, not the isolated thought-experiment as such.

And I’ve got to stick up for the Western. Deadwood and Unforgiven and The Wild Bunch and The Searchers are chock full of ideas. So are The Sopranos and The Wire. We don’t need to imagine a post-apocalytpic scenario to explore Hobbesian states of war: we have 1870s South Dakota and contemporary West Baltimore.

And as your example of biography shows, one of the best ways we can understand ourselves is to try to grapple with our own past. I am all about historicizing philosophy; trying to understand Hegel (or Wordsworth or Jefferson) in the fold of the early nineteenth century, and Nietzsche and Joyce and even Einstein in the fold of the early twentieth might actually help us to understand where we begin. That doesn’t mean I’m going to turn to Zeno for ideas about spacetime, but it doesn’t mean we have to rip it up and start again either. In the meantime, let’s try to make the minds catch up with the evidence.

I think that the “contemporary literature is boring because it doesn’t engage any ideas” criticism is actually a rather bold, if problematic argument to try to advance. Particularly if you extend the argument to visual art, I’m used to hearing the opposite: “modern art is boring because it’s about nothing but ideas,” and I think that a similar claim can be made about postmodernist literature—that much of it takes a particular set of ideas rather too seriously, and loses sight of the pleasure that motivates most genre literature (and film/TV/drama).

A great deal of early 20th Century literature is indeed interesting exactly because a few particular sets of ideas and technological developments—psychoanalysis, existentialism/phenomenology, and photography/film—provided a great deal of material to writers. It is indeed difficult to find a parallel in contemporary fiction.

However, it’s worth repeating again and again that these trends were hard to detect when early 20th Century literature was contemporary writing as well. Even great writers are notoriously bad at predicting what will survive, and we tend to take for granted that what we read from a particular period is representative of the literature of that period, when, in fact, we’re usually still reading it precisely because it isn’t representative of the larger mass of writing which has been largely forgotten. And, with a few exceptions, the ideas that we spend most of our time talking about in a particular literary work are usually not the ideas that the writer thought s/he he was writing about. (This is usually more true the further removed in time we are from the date of composition of the work in question.)

Robin is right that it’s unfair to compare contemporary literature to Proust, but he has it exactly backwards. It’s unfair to compare contemporary writing to a few, selected, unrepresentative works from any earlier period. To dismiss all contemporary writing just because most “literary” writing is misguided pretentious and dull is the very definition of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

I’ll freely grant, and even support the position that the best writing in science fiction (as with most other genre writing) is unfairly dismissed both for the quality of its ideas and style. I’ll also grant that there are a number of ideas that find a quality of examination and presentation in sci-fi that they do not get elsewhere. Sci-fi is an amazing venue for a particular kind of extended thought experiment. (Just as westerns are an amazing venue for particular examinations of morality and masculine social codes, and even romance, at its best [c.f. Jane Austen] provides amazing examinations of social and reproductive mores.)

I’m also not so sure that all of Plato, Mill, Hegel, etc.’s “claims are based on assertions or assumptions about the universe & the human mind that have been completely obviated by scientific evidence.” Sure we know that the stars aren’t inverted bowls in the sky as Plato speculates, but is that really the basis of his intellectual project? And for all the advances in psychology and neuroscience, I’m not sure that we have a more compelling account of human consciousness than is available from philosophy, especially when philosophy takes neuroscience into account and vice-versa. Certainly it would be foolish to say “I read Plato, and thus I can ignore Steven Pinker.” But I think that the reverse statement is equally foolish.

We’re straying from the subject here, but what would you miss if you read Pinker and skipped Plato? You wouldn’t be able to catch jokey inside-baseball references to eternal forms (which, admittedly, I enjoy). Other than that, I do not think you would be in any way less equipped to deal with the big questions and challenges of modern life. Whereas if you skip Pinker (or a suitable Pinker substitute) you’re missing out, big time.

And listen, I’m not going to argue that no literature other than sci-fi has good ideas, obviously. I just think the ideas being presented in good sci-fi are, at this moment, generally and significantly more important and interesting.

Plato’s answers might be highly unsatisfactory, but his questions I think are still quite good, and much broader in range and deeper in import than Pinker’s. How do we know or learn things? What’s the nature of justice? And — get this — what’s the relationship between literature and ideas? If nothing else, every sixteen-to-nineteen-year-old needs a dose of youth-corrupting Socratic skepticism in their lives, and I’d rather they got it from The Republic than The Matrix. And that’s much more valuable than the inside jokes about Alcibiades’s sloppy seconds. (Plus, Plato is totally the granddaddy of utopian/dystopian fiction.)

Why Steven Pinker? If we’re serious about language, why not Donald Davidson, or Jacques Derrida? (Other than it’s much harder to read the latter two without having first read Plato.) It just seems, again, like there’s a resistance to thinking of certain kinds of ideas as ideas, or at least ideas in the same sense. (Note also that Derrida is much stronger on the relationship between language and technology than Pinker.)

Okay, let’s concrete-ize this. I give in; of course there are awesome ideas to be had in literature of all sorts. But I want recommendations. In exchange for these three mind-blowing sci-fi novels of ideas from recent years (i.e. post-2000, and better yet post-2005) —

1. Light, by M. John Harrison

2. Counting Heads, by David Marusek

3. Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge

— I request the names of three mind-blowing NON-sci-fi novels of ideas from recent years.

(P.S. Sci-fi books listed in decreasing order of prose quality. Harrison is actually incredibly good by any standard, while Vinge borders on truly bad. But the ideas! The ideas!)

Ugh! Robin! Going for the jugular! Since, alas, I’m too busy reading literature from the last century to stay up on novels from this one.

I can only list the three best and most thoughtful contemporary books that I’ve read (and two aren’t even pure fiction):

1) The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen

2) The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion

3) Living To Tell the Tale, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Our guy Gerard is crushing on you guys right now. He dropped a multi-link in our Hypertext Bazaar today. Check us out – All the best! tjc


Making lists is probably defeating the purpose of intellectual pursuit (or is it?), but here we go:

1) The Last Novel, David Markson

2) White Noise, Don DeLillo

3) Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

…actually, I’m going to stop myself and point out something: one could make a legitimate point that all three of these admittedly-overused-examples are heavily influenced by sci-fi. Throw in Neil Stephenson (pre-post-sf) and contemporary Gibson (post-pre-sf), and you’ve got an interesting trend. Whereas noir, memoir, western, romance, and historical tract were one once popular for literary fiction to borrow from, now sf seems to be the genre of choice. (This is probably traceable to a couple decades back with Pynchon, Eco, etc.)

It’s dangerous for me to make this list, because it’s all too easy for it to become “my favorite books of the last 5-8 years,” but we’ll give it a go.

I’m also going to try to give a rough category for “ideas” for each set.

1. “historical” ideas (as in alternate circumstances, trying to re-imagine broad trends and the individual’s place within those trends): The Plot Against America by Philip Roth and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon.

2. “brain” ideas (brain physiology, the effect of brain conditions on experience) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, Remainder by Tom McCarthy, in a bit of a stretch, You Are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett. (Great book, though more about the experience of mental illness than physiological elements.)

3. “gender and race” ideas (biological, social, and cultural, identity and fluidity, the role of art and aesthetics in such) Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, On Beauty by Zadie Smith.

Granted, a. none of these ideas are metaphysical/epistemological ideas and b. there are probably better, more obscure exemplars of each of my categories.

Still, I’d second The Corrections as the really outstanding example of both style and idea within American literature of the past ten years, and even put up Chris Ware as another idiosyncratic example of a “literary” writer artist who does take ideas very seriously, even if you sometimes have to read his small panels to find them. (And, at least in my world, graphic novels are literature.)

Ha ha, you’ll find no argument re: the literary status of graphic novels here. But if you want a REALLY fun exploration of an idea in comic book format, try the (now quite epic-length) “Y: The Last Man” series written by Brian Vaughan and drawn by the amazing Pia Guerra.

Oh yeah, and the idea is: What if all men on earth except one suddenly died? (Eeeeeep!)

Yeah, what what I’ve seen and as much of it as I’ve read, Y is pretty fabulous.

What if all men on earth except one suddenly died?

That’s not an idea. That’s a conceit.

The ideas are presumably whatever Vaughan/Guerra use to answer that question.

Tim, of course, is correct, on both counts. “The last man alive” is indeed Y‘s conceit, and happily, it does deliver on the ideas over the course of the series.

It may sound like I’m switching sides here, but neither Tim nor I was ever arguing that sci-fi (and Y falls entirely into that category) lacks ideas, simply that it is not the only contemporary genre meaningfully engaged with ideas.

I am not remotely well-read enough in contemporary fiction to enter into the fray on this, but I would like to point out that this whole discussion is happening in a slice of fiction thatstrikes me as operating in a very narrow dichotomy. I haven’t been reading nearly as much as I’d like, and god knows I love science fiction and ideas about the future, but when I think about the newish non-SF books I’ve liked in the last few years–In the Skin of a Lion, Snow Falling on Cedars, Fury, Love Medicine, The Namesake, Wonder Boys—there’s lots of good ideas in there. It’s just that they’re ideas about the individual’s relation to family and community, the managing of an interior life, new sexuality and gender archetypes, new ways of synthesizing a life’s work and a life, learned optimism. If you’re not looking for those kinds of ideas, they are going to be invisible to you, I think.

Aaron says…

“Science fiction tends to be philosophy for stupid people.”

I am not a philosophy major, but wasn’t it Plato who wrote one of the most enduring and influential science-fiction stories of all time?

I’m not going to attempt to argue with people here since I agree with most people’s points when considering their relative contexts. But I was moved by Robin’s passionate defense and I’ll say a few things in support of why SF should get a few extra shout-outs over contemporary lit.

The first thing that strikes me as fundamentally different about SF is that it has a unique and symbiotic relationship with science — and indeed (real) philosophy.

This is true even in the beginning of science. Voltaire, an early influence on scientific thought, wrote a story in the mid 1700’s about an alien from space. There’s also the well-known Gulliver’s Travels and Frankenstein. These stories (and their lineage) were fundamentally important to the development of the relationship between science, society, philosophy and morality. They still affect the way we think about science today. Franken-food is label which transparently invokes a cultural image which activists use to disparage genetically-modified food.

I just mentioned the Frankenstein book, but I want to make to point out directly that [good] science fiction does not necessarily promote, support, or justify science. It explores the implications, impact, morality, etc, on society. It’s importance and also it’s ability to engage a reader is elevated now only because there is, in my opinion, a critical-mass of amazing shit going on science. It’s almost overwhelming. I mean, hell, we’re CLONING PEOPLE! Scientists are about to fucking CURE AGING. We’ve actually demonstrated teleportation and TIME TRAVEL is an old idea. I am a composer of musical artificial intelligence. I shouldn’t forget to mention that we all carry devices in our pockets which rival super-computers from a few decades ago – and that’s not including people with iPhones. So, of course Science Fiction which still has the ability to blow our minds, is going to be FUCKING mind blowing.

Never-the-less, I agree with Saheli. If you are more interested in ideas about “the individual’s relation to family and community” (in today’s world) than ideas about “the individual’s relation to family and community in a world where people never get older and who live lives hundreds of years long”, than yeah, stick to the contemporary fiction.

Aaron says…

I wanted to pose an idea/question I had recently to you all (hopefully, the conversation isn’t totally dead).

I was wondering if you knew of any books which explored the idea of writing a science fiction novel about the present. What I mean is, write a story which is set in present-time, but write in a such a way that somebody from 50 years ago would be able to follow along. The same way that science fiction is written now about 50 years in the future. You know – ridiculously long discussions about contemporary politics, weird historical time-lines (that would be obvious to a contemporary), and of course, over-long descriptions of mundane objects (like, how people get their news in the future).

Maybe it would be boring… but I think if done in the right way, it would be really interesting and illuminating. It would be especially interesting if it was written specifically to be understood by somebody from a specific time period. How would you describe a computer to somebody from say, 1898? What analogies would you use?

I think that’s an interesting idea!

Reminds me, in a roundabout way, of “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Russian SF from the ’20s. It has the distinction of being the FIRST sci-fi story that featured a character *from* the future living in the future-world as if it was, you know, perfectly normal — not, instead, a modern man being transported into the future and marveling at all the strangeness of it, which had been the standard format ’til that point.

And more importantly it’s about how people will THINK differently in the future — it’s totally the proto-1984, and indeed, George Orwell read it before he wrote his sci-fi masterwork.

That’s one of the great functions of science fiction: Besides giving us a glimpse of how our world might change, the good stuff shows us how our *minds* might change.

Come to think of it, the word ‘change’ is important. The books Saheli mentions — and so many of the classics — deal ultimately with universal themes. That’s the whole point: They are about the things that, in the rush and sweep of history, don’t change.

Science fiction is about the things that *do*!

Aaron, that actually sounds like a really fun idea. A good excuse to stock up on old dictionaries and read up on old worlds fair descriptions. Also just to (re)read the classic sf of the golden age. (If you’re going back 50 instead of a 100 years.) It reminds me a little of the Indian in the Cupboard.

I think the validation of this project—I almost imagine it as a contest!–would be pretty interesting.I think there a few ways you could try to validate your story–

1) You could find a scholar who is deeply engrossed in that time period and enough of a luddite to be able to forget the current time period. The older and more curmudgeonly the better.

2) You could find a really old person who lives a very insular existence and has a really good memory.

3) You could find someone who grew up in a severely isolated part of the world who hasn’t experienced a lot of “modernity” first hand but is somehow still schooled in the “classics.”

4) You could find someone who’s been in jail for 50 years and hasn’t read a lot of new stuff.

5) You could travel back in time. . .but I’m more interested in exploring 1-4 and what their possibility says about the world. 😉

That’s the whole point: They are about the things that, in the rush and sweep of history, don’t change.

Science fiction is about the things that *do*!

No, not at all! Good contemporary fiction is about what’s changing right now, or just now. That’s what Balzac is about, and Joyce, and Proust and Faulkner and Woolf and Roth. Crap, it’s what Sophocles is about.

One criticism you could advance of a piece of literary fiction is that it doesn’t adequately address the present, or what’s changing in the present — that it may as well have been written thirty years ago, or fifty. But could you really say this of the entire present field, or of the genre as such?

Good science fiction likewise addresses what’s changing now, what has just changed, or what will change in the near future. Otherwise, it’s a fantasy of the future, where either ideas that haven’t changed much or at all or no ideas at all get submerged behind cliches, likewise sinking whatever “utility” you might try to find in them.

They are about the things that, in the rush and sweep of history, don’t change.

Oh, I disagree. The themes are universal. But ideas are not themes. Ideas are statements about those themes, and the ideas can change, and the way we people have to deal with those themes can change. Gender conflict is a universal, but it has changed a lot, and there are new ideas about it. Tribalism is a universal theme, but it has changed a lot, and there are new ideas about it. Etc.

The books I mentioned were novel to me because they said new things. In the Skin of a Lion says something very different–weirdly syncretic and positive despite the novel’s tragedy–about how a person can negotiate the tension between personal fulfillment and political duty than anything I had read before–it described a dynamic optimization and a vision of community duty within individuality that I don’t think is very cliched at all. Snow Falling on Cedars hides perfectly (perfect in that the efficacy of this idea’s telling is married to its hidden presentation) a fairly non-universal, non-cliched idea about female sexuality. Fury explores ways of deliberately changing one’s identity but takes it on as less irrevocable and more fluid than most writers previously allowed. Similarly with The Namesake. Love Medicine describes plenty of the grief and tragedy and humor of reservation life, but it also posits points of hope and possibilities of change that are not technological but also not totally cliched.

After all if there universal problem in the human condition, I would like to think we can imagine making them better, and all those solutions don’t have to be based around technology.

It’s partly a matter of scale — perhaps Aaron and I are both guilty of a sort of blunt preference for Obviously Huge Ideas, vs. Subtle Quiet Ideas.

Good call on the technology angle, Saheli. You’re right, this is another way in which the battle lines are drawn — either you think technology is THE most powerful force driving change in the world today (and, er, maybe always), and in fact everything else is sort of a rounding error, or um, you think something else, which I cannot even really articulate b/c I am so firmly in the former camp.

I mean, I’m no techno-utopian (nor a techno-determinist!) — I just think its influence on everything, from geopolitics to how you get along with your grandma, basically can’t be overstated. Nothing else comes close.

Maybe that’s a crucial distinction, then: ideas that engage with the reality of technology in a serious & informed way vs. ideas that don’t.

Hmm. Obvious is not the same thing as Huge, and Subtle and Quiet is not the same thing as Small. Ideas about the polis, the society, the family–these aren’t necessarily small.

Hey, I’m a big technologist too. My entire adult life has revolved around the notion that technology is singularly important. But I’m askance at the notion that nothing else comes close. You can have have all the technology in the world and not actually change your world view or how you relate to other people or how you think your community should work. There are people surrounded by technology whose lives are still so fundamentally restricted by culture, convention, family pressure, and political reality that their interior life is still more connected to the past than the future. Chips and wonder drugs can only drag them so far forward.

May I humbly submit that from a woman’s point of view, ideas about community support in times of poverty or war, ideas about the continued ability to provide for children, ideas about escaping from the suffocating dichotomy of virginity–these are not small ideas. These are ideas that can save lives.

Well put! If Snarkmarket had a feature by which comments could be awarded stars for composition & persuasion, I would award one now.

Not to get all postmodern on anybody, but I have to echo Tim’s argument that most “literature” is indeed about change (social, technological, whatever), and not “universal” themes. (In fact, “universal” is one of those red flag words—I subscribe wholeheartedly to the argument that what most people think of when they use the word “universal” doesn’t really exist, and, furthermore, if you examine instances when the word “universal” is used, it’s usually a content-free signifier, that is, it’s not really being used to mean anything specific.)

Robinson Crusoe (1719!), for example, is really about the New World, the emptiness and space it implies compared to the old world, a (new) encounter with an other so different so as to seem to be inhuman (or, the tendency to dehumanize the other), and an exploration of how to live in the transition to the seeming moral vacuum of the (new) modern age.

Proust? All that memory and madeleines stuff? In Search of Lost Time is just as much about an encounter with technology—particularly the telephone and photography—and the new ways in which these technologies affect our social interactions and memory itself. A good argument can be made that Proust’s narrator, with the influence of the photograph on memory, is a cyborg, down to the descriptions of “natural” processes like sight and memory as mechanistic and automated.

I don’t know that I can comment on a “huge idea/small, quiet idea” continuum. I think, as Saheli points out, that the metaphor is better applied to the style or expression of the idea rather than the idea itself. (To paraphrase a cliche, there are no small ideas, only small writers.)

Besides, I still think there’s trouble in privileging a particular medium over another. Sci-fi often reaches people that “literature” doesn’t, and, as Robin points out, the best Sci-fi does engage some really important ideas in unique, rigorous, and irreplacable ways. However, just as in “literary” fiction, a lot of it doesn’t, and if you take a close look at the best “literature” and the best science fiction, you’ll have a hard time finding an idea in one that the other neglects.

Otherwise, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that this question is about anything other than style and trappings. Is it adventure that we’re looking for, or contemplativeness? (Not to say that there isn’t contemplative sci-fi or adventurous literature, but isn’t that the duality we’re setting up?)

As follow-up questions, Saheli’s point asks us to consider sci-fi by women writers in particular. Where does The Handmaid’s Tale fall in this spectrum we’re discussing? Why?

Second, what exactly are these huge ideas that we’re talking about, and how does sci-fi discuss them in a unique way? I’m particularly reminded of the way that the original Star Trek series is put forward for the way that it discusses race. How does that compare, to use a similarly popular example to To Kill a Mockingbird, much less Ellison’s Invisible Man?

Finally, is it fair to consider the shelf life of Science Fiction? What are the great 30-year old, or even 20-year-old sci-fi books? Once again, I’d like to remind everyone that I’ve already emphasized that most “literary” fiction is dross, and is quickly and rightly forgotten. I’m not trying to say that sci-fi has a shorter shelf life than “literature,” but to suggest that it doesn’t seem fair to privilege one form over the other if they have similar shelf-lives.

Finally, if you care to, you can actually find books about people from the past who suddenly encounter the present day. Most of them are in the romance section of your local bookstore, and most of them are crap. Likewise books written by experts in earlier periods who attempt to ventriloquize. Most such experiments are not just bad, but painfully, painfully bad. I look forward to the counterexample, but I’m not holding my breath.

I suppose that I could get behind the idea that technology is the dominant force in human history, but only if it involves the recognition that in large terms, we’re still trying to figure agriculture out.

Aaron says…

Robin, I never thought about that, but you’re right about the person from the past living in the future via time-travel thing. I guess Back-to-the-Future 2 wasn’t so original. One thing going for that plot device is that it isn’t so weird to over-explain things. It makes sense in the context of a time traveler.

Star Trek TNG kinda did something like that in a few episodes where they had Mark Twain running around 400 years in the future. That’s an interesting juxtaposition — a perspective of the distant past re-imagined in the distant future. I guess Bill and Ted did the same thing for the 1980s.

But I still can’t think of anybody who wrote a story using the device I mentioned earlier. I guess it would only work in the form of literature as the interesting stuff would be in the narration and not the plot/setting/character. Or could you imagine a plot/setting/character that would communicate the idea of present-day relative scifi in a cinematic way?

Btw, what would you call this particular sub-genre of SF?

All right, breaking my commenting embargo. “Idea” is such a frickin’ floofy word. In this discussion, we’ve been using the same broad useless word to mean everything from “thought experiment” to “dissection of shared experience” to “future scenario” to “alternate history” to “intriguing plot premise.”

Like any other art, different modes of literature are suited for a drastically variant set of functions. Some music is intended to evoke emotion, some to provoke it, some to dissect it. Painting can be judged by how well it clarifies reality or how well it transcends it. Rhetoric can be influential or inspirational.

If you want scenarios about the future, science fiction is often a nice choice. If you’re trying to cope with the idea of death, Joan Didion beats Harlan Ellison any day. For literature intended to change society, we turn to the Omnivore’s Dilemmas and Silent Springs of the literary pantheon. If we want literature that cuts to the core of how society is changing and coping with that change, I’d put my money on the Gothic.

All of these are philosophical inquiries, but none of them is the exclusive or even primary provenance of science fiction. Even scenarios about the future. Fiction is popular for such scenarios because it plugs directly into the imagination — cf. EPIC. But sometimes, using fiction to depict how the world is changing is like using NASA for materials research: sure, it works, but it can be an awfully roundabout way of getting at it. Sometimes, rather than dreaming up a perfunctory plot and characters to walk through what the world could look like, it’s best to just explain what the world could look like. (There’s a big idea/conceit/premise for you — what if all the men and women on earth suddenly died?! And not a pedantic plot device in sight!)

Part of the reason literary fiction tackles themes that are timeless and universal is that these are some of the biggest problems we haven’t yet solved. Our species has spent all its history grappling with death and what it means for life, and we still don’t understand; that is how huge these questions are. And we may never answer them, but every Year of Magical Thinking or Ulysses (the Tennyson!) or Fun Home is a step closer to conquering a piece of it. (As, one could argue, is every The Singularity Is Near or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)

So Robin, I’m reinterpreting your question as asking which recent non-SF novels sent our thoughts sprawling in a hundred different directions. And there are lots. Just last year, there were David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk and Dave Eggers’ What Is the What, each a fictional narrative fascinating for its interplay with reality. Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami continue to explore layers of fiction in very different ways — Oracle Night (postmodernism) and After Dark (surrealism) — but each produces stories that throw you into your own mind the way dreams do. Read Sunday’s NY Times magazine story about the waning influence of America, then read Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, and reflect for a moment on what we stand to lose or gain from the events that come. Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell bursts with intellectual provocations small and big; as fantasty, of course, it also plays in the same universe as science fiction. Ditto William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (which was a non-SF novel from an established SF writer; also a novel I didn’t love, but which has stuck with me).

Maybe painting a vision of the future is the highest function literature can perform for our society, but I’d argue that its strengths are in a variety of much subtler things. While I was reading Roth’s Everyman, there was a moment when I looked around me and the room I was in felt suddenly like a coffin, and I experienced a palpable chill and placed the book down and thought for longer than I ever had before about how it will be to age and die. There’s a power there that can’t be boiled to “I learned something new about death.” Robin, you said, That’s one of the great functions of science fiction: Besides giving us a glimpse of how our world might change, the good stuff shows us how our *minds* might change. I’d respond that one of the great functions of literature is that the good stuff actually shapes our minds.

Well played, Matt. It’s my turn to say ditto that. Props to Saheli too.

My original comment was going to be that “idea” had somehow morphed into “big new ideas about technology in the future.” Where, yes, sci-fi does seem to have home team advantage, even as literary fiction frequently conjoins any three out of those four qualifiers.

But since “idea” is amorphous all-around, I propose that we only use it to denote the Platonic Ideas. 😉

Here’s a question — and maybe this might direct this discussion differently than Anderson’s original post, while remaining in its spirit.

Clearly, at some point in the not-too-distant past, part of literary fiction’s purview was to analyze/describe the effects of new and emerging technologies on human society. Is it possible that either 1) contemporary literary fiction has partially or completely vacated this role, or 2) science-fiction images of the future have effectively displaced lit-fic from it?

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