Tell me – have all the best sci-fi ideas been used?

H. R. Geiger passed away this year, aged 74. Probably best known as designer of the icky thing that exploded out of John Hurt’s stomach in Alien (1980).

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation - cool, free science software.
Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation – cool, free science software.

When it comes to spooky haunted house stories – which is what that movie really was – Geiger’s Alien has to take first price for scare factor.

Also ecch factor.

The funny thing is, Alien wasn’t the first story about a parasitic alien that arrives on a spaceship and breeds using humans as hosts, defying the efforts of the humans aboard the spaceship to defeat it. That prize goes to A. E. Van Vogt, whose novella ‘Black Destroyer’ of 1939 did exactly the same thing.  The story was later integrated into his  ‘fixup’ novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle. His alien, Ixtl, could also pass through solid matter. The similarities were so obvious that van Vogt reportedly raised a lawsuit against 20th Century Fox for plagiarism. Apparently it was settled out of court.

That wasn’t the only movie for which we can find Golden Age antecedents. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, most of the really good Trek stuff was devised first by Robert A. Heinlein – including medical beds, Starfleet and Tribbles, all of which featured in his novels first under other names. (Heinlein also invented the modern waterbed).

Arthur C. Clarke, meanwhile, did one better by being the only person, ever, to predict the world wide web and its social consequences in specific detail. Here he is in 1964; and here is with a spookily accurate prediction in 1974.

Which leads me to ask a question. Have all the best sci-fi ideas been used? I suggest not…but let’s discuss.

It’s certainly a challenge for writers.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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20 thoughts on “Tell me – have all the best sci-fi ideas been used?

  1. Spooky interviews. He was almost exactly right, though we haven’t yet become one endless urban sprawl lacking cities. That could still come to pass, of course, but not yet. Human progress seems to be more difficult to predict than technological progress. Decentralized workplaces still aren’t the norm, not because we lack the technology, but because humans resist the change. On the other hand, I’m living the future he predicted.

    I don’t believe for an instant that the best sic-fi is already used. The world that is sic-fi expands as knowledge expands, as innovation progresses, and as society changes. Every breakthrough in science rewrites sic-fi. Who knows, climate change may eventually cause us to feel as though we’ve traveled to another planet. Thus far curiosity and the quest for knowledge have dominated space exploration. That would change the instant we discover something within reach that we find invaluable, something that we perhaps aren’t anticipating.

    1. Clarke’s prescience was amazing. He even predicted the darker side of it – neat little short story he penned in the early 1960s. I think a lot of it came from the work he’d done on comms satellites (which he invented in 1945) and what would follow if communications was cheap and ubiquitous worldwide. In the novelisation of Space Odyssey there’s even an exact description of what, by any measure, we have to call a tablet.

      I agree – there is HUGE scope yet for sci-fi which must evolve as our society does. Most of the good stuff is social commentary on the author’s contemporary world – indeed, one of the biggest pitfalls I’ve seen in that field is the tendency to write ‘ultra-up-to-the-minute’ stories that precisely reflect contemporary values. These date very, very quickly unless the author also manages to key it into the deeper human condition. So yes, there’s great scope ahead…and that’s good news for those of us who enjoy writing – and reading – sci fi.

  2. Wherever there is quirkiness, there will always be ideas that have not been used. There may be similar ones, but you can always add a new twist.

    1. The essence of great writing! Look at J K Rowling – who’d have thought that Brit boarding school stories and wand-magic could become a winning combo? But it did, and brilliantly.

  3. I think creativity in the Sci-fi genre is stagnant, for example take a look at the Latest Tom Cruise movie “Edge of Tomorrow” this is a movie that is far original, it is just a modern take on the 1904 book by Major General Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton, The Defence of Duffer’s Drift. Set in the Boer war, Lieutenant Backlight Forethought, has a dream in which he is given command of 50 men and told to defend the ford to a river. In a series of six dreams, the Lt Forethought learns how to lead 50 men in the defense of the river. But then I suppose the Tom Cruise version is more political correct in that is uses aliens as the bad guys rather than Boers.

    1. I haven’t seen that movie – I confess that I try to avoid Tom Cruise movies at all cost… But I agree that the movies, these days, generally fail to explore SF as it should be explored. Imagination is often killed stone dead in the mires of mediocrity and cliché. A consequence, I guess, of the way the industry has become dominated by accountancy and the need to appeal to what the studios think is the widest audience. Is it actually the widest audience? Not so sure about that. But who, these days, is going to take the punt by funding a non-mainstream ‘blockbuster’ to find out? Sigh.

      I must check that book out – the Boer war, as the last of Queen Victoria’s ‘little wars’ but also the first of NZ’s ‘overseas adventures’, has never had the attention it deserves. Nor has Swinton – an extraordinary fellow! I’ve always been amazed at the way his tanks were also very much seen as ‘science fiction’ even when the first ones waddled (literally) into action at Flers in 1916, backing the Kiwi advance. I’ve got eyewitness accounts of the moment in which the only thing the soldiers can find to compare these machines with is what they’ve read in the proto-SF ‘penny dreadful’ stories of the day.

  4. Isn’t this sort of like those arguments about Shakespeare and the 50 (?) basic plots?

    Regardless, between the first moon landing in 1969 and the Viking probes to Mars surface in the late 70s, a lot of SF territory passed into a sort of gray area. Is it historical fiction if you write a fictional story based on Apollo (with technically accurate details)(like Heinlein in Space Cadet, for example) or is it science fiction?

    You can’t write about Barsoom if we know that Mars looks a lot like parts of Arizona. It narrows the range of possibilities enormously. That vast range of possibility is what (to me) gave SF its charm as a genre. Now we as SF writers have to be a bit more cautious in our flights of fancy.

    Have the best ideas been used? Maybe. Is science a character in SF? If it is, I think the best ideas are yet to come. We maybe just need to think about the genre a little differently.

    1. There is no question in my mind that science is vital to SF – and I agree, we lost something after the first Moon landing (45 years ago today as I write this!). The best SF, to my mind – even if the focus is on character and philosophy or metaphysics, as Clarke often explored – is also solidly based in real science. I still recall Heinlein’s ‘Have Spacesuit Will Travel’, in which he gave a very precise engineering description of an EVA suit, this in 1958. Sure, there were pressure suits around at the time – BF Goodrich, I think, were up to the Mk III or IV full suit for the US Navy, later adapted as the Mercury pressure suit. But Heinlein’s was a leap ahead of that, yet described in very real detail. Fantastic. I discovered later he had based a lot of it on hands-on work he had done himself developing pressure suits for the US Navy in WWII.

      So I think science is definitely a character in SF; and that, as you say, gives enormous scope for stories. And I think it would be quite acceptable to write something, even today, set in the ‘old’ solar system – the solar system of John Carter’s Mars or Doc Smith’s ‘Spacehounds’. Not hard SF, not by any measure. But perhaps ‘science fantasy’.

  5. I hope the one I’m working on is different enough, but by the time I get it done someone else may beat me to the punch. Considering there are only 19 plots, there has to be a whole lot of twisting going on.

    1. There are indeed only so many combos. My favourite is “hero jolted into leaving home by sudden event, guided by older mentor, loses mentor, finds courage on the way & returns enriched and grown up” – Wizard of Oz, Star Wars and The Hobbit…to name but a few… 🙂 The trick, as you say, is to find your own twist (of the above, I kinda like Tolkien’s one the best).

  6. As much as some people complain about it I think there is a certain familiarity that audiences actually enjoy about “the same story packaged in a slightly different way”.

    Also it seems to me that science fiction is often a commentary on what is relevant to our real lives, on challenges that our real society faces, on ways that we are interpreting our own past and identity and what we see in our dreams and nightmares. All those things evolve with time and all act as inspiration for a good science fiction story. I think there is plenty of room for new ideas – as well as plenty of room for the old ideas to get recycled as well.

    1. I agree – absolutely weird stories seldom gain traction; there are, I think, reasons why the hero journey (particularly) keeps surfacing in different incarnations. People want ‘the same but different’. Mix that with changing values and I think there is plenty of scope – now and in future – for new – and good – science fiction.

  7. I had an English teacher who said the first truly original story was the Iliad and the Odyssey. After that, everything else has a slight variation on these stories. I think there’s a certain amount of truth to that.

    But, as you mentioned earlier, a lot can be said for “how” the story is told. It’s the journey, not the destination that matters. A truly great science fiction story is always about humanity, even if you’re writing about aliens. It is treatise about the human condition, where it’s going, what could happen if things go wrong, what we might do that makes us better. The science aspect is often the thing that drives humanity in scifi. It answers the question, “what will we be like when ‘n’ technology becomes available?”

    To answer the original question, ‘are the great ideas already used,’ I think not. Science Fiction is driven by scientific understanding, and scientific knowledge grows everyday. We learn new things all the time, and all of this knowledge has consequences and impacts upon society. And then there’s the detail of ideas. The idea of the internet is a macro concept and it was dreamed up long before it happened, but did anyone predict Facebook and Twitter? People driving while texting? The idea of cloning has been around a long time, but did anyone predict such opposition to stem-cell research? We’ve cloned sheep, but human cloning seems decades away at this point. Did anyone dream up Nanotechnology before Von Neuman? A bazillion different scenarios can arise from it’s use up to and including the absolute destruction Earth down to the last atom. I think there’s plenty of room for new science fiction ideas in there somewhere.

    1. I agree. SF is a reflection of our society and the intersection of the human condition with science. There will always be new things to say. I guess the onus is on us writers to say them!

  8. Well, I am late to this discussion–health adjustments–but have to add that optimist that I am I was glad to hear Clarke speak of the demise of the city. One of my favorite “daydreams” is where we pull down the buildings and put up parks. Lots of jobs involved including jobs that study life forms once the parks were finished. Oh, the possibilities! This post made my day! Thanks, Matthew!

    1. Clarke’s vision was incredible. His projection of the social consequence of the internet and the role of the computer was spot on. Nobody else came close. We can but hope his vision for a greener world on the back of that revolution also comes to pass. As you say, it is an appealing thought.

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