Today we’re focusing on science fictional ideas. The ones that capture our imagination and fire the sense of wonder that drives us to read science fiction. Things like psychohistory, or the Culture, or Rama. There’s plenty more. We asked several authors about these ideas, but with, as you’ll see, a twist.
An ‘idea’ here meaning a character, setting, piece of technology or anything else that fired your imagination and, possibly, made you a bit envious that you didn’t think of it first.
A little professional jealousy isn’t a bad thing, right?
I kind of wish I’d been the guy to think up the idea of a giant ringworld, like Larry Niven, because if that was the case I’d been on the phone with every press outlet I could find saying ‘hey, they ripped off my really cool idea.’ I wouldn’t sue them or anything, but what a great platform that would be for talking about your own idea! Halo is totally an incredible world that every Xbox player recognizes, any attempt to reach out to those players would be a lot of fun. Plus, then you’d be able to frag bad guys in a video game that looks like it crawled out of something you wrote. How cool would that be? I think it’d be pretty cool.
Brave New World. I’d steal it all, if I could. But I especially like how Huxley’s characters participate in a combination meditation/orgy worship of “Ford.” Looking at today’s MBA programs, it seems prescient. Unfortunately, since he’s already done it, I’ll never be able to write a similar scene with Google, GE, Whole Foods, and Disney. I’ve always liked the idea of everyone wearing Mickey Mouse ears while seated in a lotus pose on networked rainbow-colored SearchEverywhere! vibrators as they chant along to tracks from Britney Spears’ early days and graze from large bowls of organic granola.
On reflection, I wish I’d beaten Cordwainer Smith to the punch on the concept of his Underpeople. His canvas was so immense, he’d have had to have lived another thirty years to do all his ideas justice; but his stories featuring the Underpeople are some of his best. So much story is crowded into “The Dead Lady of Clown Town”, for example, that it cries out to be a novel in its own right, like Norstrilia. The idea of genetic alteration giving animals human appearance and intelligence offers so many possibilities! Especially now, when studies of animal cognitive abilities and genetic engineering are in the news. Other people have played around with the concept, but none quite with Smith’s wisdom and humanity.
For me, the greatest Science Fiction idea is that of the robot, but more specifically, in its Philip K. Dick replicant variety. I was brought up with the Star Wars movies in the late 70s, which had their fair share of C3POs and R2D2s, little metal robots trudging around and moaning, but it was Scott’s Blade Runner that really caught my imagination closely followed by Cameron’s Terminator. I know at this point robots were old hat, but the concept of a robot disguised as a human really fired my imagination. This sent me on a whirlwind of Dick reading, starting with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which to this day remains my favourite novel of all time. So yes, despite it being done to death, hot damn, I wish I’d invented the replicant.
For me, the replicant embodies everything, from deceit and paranoia to the need to survive in a human-run world, despite being ersatz. I have shied away from including this sort of construct in my own writing previously, because, I suppose, with it being my favourite idea I did not want to destroy my own perfect little mental model. In War Machine, however, I do touch upon the replicant model a little with the Seed Hunters, and intend to expand upon this creation in future works… Although I’m not conceited enough to ever believe I could better Philip K. Dick! He was ze genius!
In conclusion then, I wish I’d lived around the corner from Phil Dick in the 60s and 70s, I wish I’d snook into his house when he as outta his skull on a big jar of pills, and cheekily I would have pinched the very first draft of Do Android’s Dream. Then I could have passed off replicants as my own invention and I wouldn’t have to moan about it here!!
I’ve a huge soft spot for the fantasy side of the genre, so my jealousies lean towards these writers more so.
I wish I invented Latro, in Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of the Mist. This is such a simple creation. If we’re after a literature of ideas, then getting some simple, smart, striking concept is the best thing you can do. I hate Gene Wolfe for this. A soldier who after a battle injury, possesses no short term memory. He has to write down his daily events in on a scroll and read them back the next day. Oh, and he can now converse with mythical beasts and gods. There’s your narrative. So simple. But Wolfe is a genius?in less capable hands it may have gone wrong. And he has to tell it so damn beautifully, too, doesn’t he?
China Mieville’s New Crobuzon. A pulpy mish-mash of many genres, for me this took my mind into new territory. It made me want to write. It promised stunning new directions. For a few years it opened up the genre, although it’s impact in genre fiction isn’t so clear these days. I got excited about it. At the time, it said here is a city in which anything can happen. Truly exotic races and creations. Dark and inventive. quintessentially British, also. I wish I’d drawn the map first.
Lastly, Conrad William’s London Revenant. I’m jealous of the whole book and how it was written. Murders on the Underground. A narcoleptic with nasty dreams. A strange blend between reality and fantasy. Conrad has a way of digging up the horrors in everyday life as much as the fantastical. He’s the best writer in the genre today, in my opinion. A stylist who can deliver the goods. Recognition of that is long overdue. He’s like a dirtier, harder Gaiman. Read him if you dare.
Bob Shaw’s Slow Glass.
The concept that floored me and made me think “Why didn’t I think of that?” was Robert Holdstock’s “Mythago Wood,” from the novel of the same name, in which he created a tiny scrap of ancient woodland that somehow had the power to interact with the human collective unconscious and draw out its contents in living, three-dimensional, (sur)reality. I had long been an amateur acolyte of the great comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, whose The Hero With a Thousand Faces showed George Lucas the way to the original Star Wars hero tale, and I had brushed up against the thought of Carl Jung, discoverer (or inventor, depending on your school of psychology) of the collective unconscious and its resident archetypes. I even had fond memories of John Myers Myers’s Silverlock, which featured an island on which figures from story came to life. But not until I read Holdstock did the idea of bringing it to real life occur to me. I’ve since found a way to weave the idea into a novel, Black Brillion, and a fix-up of several stories, The Commons. But I think Holdstock went in there far deeper and with much more psychological ooomph than I could manage. I admire and envy him.