Science Fiction Repair Shop: Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Else

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-04-22 08:00:00-04:00 No comments

One of the nastier, if somewhat accurate, criticisms I've seen levied at certain things follows this pattern: "This work hasn't invented anything new, it's just recreated what we already know in a new form." I think I originally encountered this in a discussion of Firefly: why go all the way out into space, the critique went, only to rediscover all the moribund clichés of Westerns in years past? Why not propose something truly new, instead of just taking the old and rejugging it?

Many times, this line is spot-on. I thought it fit for Firefly (it's a pedestrian piece of work elevated to martyrdom, an act that did no one any favors), but there are as many cases where it does not fit. Sometimes the purpose of the thing is not to propose the truly new, but to recreate what we know with just enough alienation effect to comment on it.

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The hard part is telling when this is a good idea and when it's not. And one reason it's often not a good idea is because it's hard to do it well — it runs the risk of just seeming like a rejugging of things. Sometimes it comes down to individual aesthetic choices within the work: nobody would call Equilibrium original, but its style (something that works best on a screen) helps push it up a few notches.

What drew me to SF&F as a yong'un was how, at its best, it did a more ambitious job of proposing the truly new than most anything else out there. Much of it did not do this, though. The big letdown of my life was finding out that most of it — in fact, the overwhelming majority of it — was not like Phil Dick or Stanisław Lem or James Tiptree, Jr. or Theodore Sturgeon or U.K. LeGuin or Doris Lessing. Nothing about the mere fact of something being "fantastic" made it immune to an unimaginative treatment, or being hidebound by its need to be accessible to an audience not really interested in the underlying ideas.

Over time I've had to separate this feeling from the understanding that some things are not about pushing envelopes, that every work has its own particular circle of ambition, and that it's unfair to apply an aesthetic to a work that never asked for it. The counterargument to this is: as long as we're bothering to put anything on paper at all, why not go as far as we can? Why settle for the middle of the road?

If you're a creator, sure. You should always go as far as you can, in the ways you're comfortable. But not to the point where you lambast other people for their choices, because their choices are always going to be theirs. That doesn't mean you're barred from talking about why the works that result from those choices might fall short for you, only that you shouldn't give them grief for choosing a certain genre or style or subniche. Let people make their own mistakes first.

Tags: Science Fiction Repair Shop science fiction