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3 Some Presumptuous Approaches to Science Fiction “Do you think science fiction should be taken seriously as literature?” Over the past handful of years, I’ve found—what with teaching various SF courses at various universities and giving talks on science fiction to both formal and informal groups—that this question threatens to oust, “Where do SF writers get their ideas?” from the number-one position on the list of baroque unanswerables that plague an SF writer’s life. What makes such questions so difficult is that they presume a set of conditions that any accurate answer could not possibly fulfill. For example , the question, “Where do SF writers get their ideas?” presumes that there is a place, or a number of places, where ideas exist quite apart from writers, and that the writers can go there to obtain them. The question has the same grammatical/logical form as, “Where do restaurant chefs get their steaks?” But there is no answer of the grammatical/ logical form, “From the better West Side meat packing plants below 14th Street,” that can answer it. And an answer in that form is what the question demands. If, however, we change the form of the question from, “Where do SF writers get their ideas?” to “By what process do science-fictional ideas come up in SF writers’ minds?” then the answer is fairly simple: By and large, SF writers get their ideas through having quirky and imaginative responses to the everyday, the ordinary, and the humdrum. An example? My friend Luise is driving down the thruway, and I’m sitting beside her, reading a magazine. At one point I glance out the window just as three billboards go by. But I return to my magazine even before they’ve passed. Five minutes later, again I look up . . . as two more billboards pass. But I go right back to my magazine. Another five minutes, and again I look up . . . to see still another billboard! Now during the time I was actually reading, there may or may not have been other billboards beside the road. I know this perfectly well. Still, over a ten-minute period, every time I happened to look up I saw some. Suddenly 26 starboard wine I think: Suppose the whole side of the road were filled with billboards— along its entire length! Suppose both sides of the road were walled in by advertisements . . . ! And if I had happened to be Frederik Pohl or C. M. Kornbluth, I would have stored that idea away for my 1952 SF novel The Space Merchants, where you can still find it doing impressive duty (among myriad other ideas) today. In general, science-fictional ideas generate when a combination of chance and the ordinary suggests some distortion of the current and ordinary that can conceivably be rationalized as a future projection. Now for what it’s worth, I suspect that for every fifty such ideas occurring to an SF writer, forty-nine are discarded as trivial or silly. And once several, or several hundred, good ideas are collected, putting them together into a story is another game entirely. But like most habits of thought, this one comes more easily with practice . Also, I think it’s safe to say that, in general, this is probably not the way that writers of present-day mundane fiction get their ideas, or that writers of drama get their ideas, or that writers of historical fiction get their ideas, or that writers of poetry get their ideas—unless the idea gotten happens to be a specifically science-fictional one. Try to recall this the next time Jean-Luc Godard’s “science fiction” film Alphaville comes on television. The visuals in the film are all from the ordinary, everyday world: elevated trains moving at night above a Paris suburb, men in identical business suits, fluorescent-lit halls in office buildings after hours, window fans turning behind their wire grills. The voiceover on top of it, however, is all about spaceships moving through intergalactic night, supertrained inhuman spies, superscientific institutions, and monstrous futuristic machines. In short, the visuals are composed not of science-fictional ideas, but rather of the current and ordinary things that inspire science-fictional ideas, whereas the dialogue (and action) are about the science-fictional ideas these ordinary things might inspire. The film is about nothing but the way SF writers (or film-makers) get their ideas! This should explain something I’ve been saying (and writing) for over ten...


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