Time for the return of the Big Idea

So I’m a geek. I admit it.

I actually embraced my geekhood a few years ago, about the same time I finally admitted I’m a cat person, not a dog person.

Part of that geek-dom is a love of science fiction and fantasy.

I’ve been a fan since I was a little kid, watching the Apollo-Soyuz meet up with my parents. I was all of three years old, and yet it captured my imagination and never let go.

But how to explain the allure of science fiction?

Well, at least once upon a time, it was the optimism, the grand vision. The Big Idea.

SF was the fiction of what could be. It was the literature of a limitless future when man (usually American man) would take to the stars, simply because we could, and a new Manifest Destiny would spread us across the galaxy. There were no limits. Problems would be solved, obstacles surmounted.

Heady stuff to a young boy — even still, to a middle aged man.

Of course that was the stuff mostly written in the 1960s and some into the 70s. But by the 60s a new type of writer was taking over. Epitomized by Phillip K. Dick it was called the “New Wave” and new wave was characterized by grittier, more realistic writing — and this was not wholly bad. Character was not always a strong suit of some of the Golden Age writers and some of the stories could be rather pastel.

But with the gritter settings came gritter endings. And with the New Wave came a batch of writers who wanted to be Taken Seriously. They wanted to be Literary. And so we began to have books where the characters were of rather ambiguous morality. Where the endings were not always happy (that, in and of itself is not bad, Hamlet does not have a happy ending after all, nor does King Lear) where too often the book began to resemble Tolstoy. (Tolstoy has often been described as “People with unpronounceable names do nothing for 800 pages and then someone’s aunt dies.”)

Soon enough, in an attempt to be taken seriously by the literary dahhlings in New York we had writers like Margaret “I’m not really an SF writer” Atwood who wrote paens to communism with characters no one liked in books no one enjoyed — and then they won lots of awards, patted each other on the back and congratulated themselves on How Intelligent and Enlightened they were, and then they went out and gave each other more awards, meanwhile readership and publishing contracts were declining and no one could figure out why since all the big houses were releasing Important Books.

The fans called these books, and the ones still being released, “Grey Goo.” Most of the big houses continue to commit grey-gooism and wonder why their profits suck.

Some of this was the result of the malaise of the 1970s and early 80s when everyone thought either we were going to be taken over by the Soviets or there was going to be a nuclear war and we were all going to die anyway.

In the middle of all this comes a young editor named Jim Baen. Jim didn’t give two small craps about your political orientation (conservative authors simply don’t get published by, say, Penguin) your sexual orientation or anything else about the author except for one thing — can you write a good story? He founded a house, Baen Books, which is built on that premise.

Character? Piffle. World building? Secondary. Plot, plot, plot uber alles. Jim wanted books that told a story and told a good story that people would buy.
And it worked. Baen makes money when most of the other houses are hemorrhaging cash and leveraged to the eyeballs. Baen gets denigrated as a “pulp house” and it, frankly, is. Who cares? Other than the literary dahhhlings of course.

Most of the greats of SF were pulp writers. Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein (pause for genuflection), Ray Bradbury, all these men were pulp writers for most of their careers, and they are now venerated as the big four of the Golden Age (I’d put H. Beam Piper in there and kick that commie schmuck Asimov off the list if it were me, but I digress.)

What these writers shared, what Jim Baen saw and realized in their writing, was the primacy of plot. Asimov’s writing was … awkward at best. I found Clarke to be often stilted in his dialogue. Bradbury’s world building was often iffy. But they told whacking good stories. (As another aside for most of his career J.R.R. Tolkien was dismissed as a mere fantasist.)

There’s an emerging movement in SF these days, Human Wave. It’s centered on Baen authors and independent authors who are often in the Baen community. It’s trying to bring back the hopeful stories, the grand vision.
Real scientists have often enough been inspired by SF but SF has done precious little inspiring of late.

It’s time that changed.


23 comments on “Time for the return of the Big Idea

  1. This, this, a thousand times, this! That is exactly what I’m speaking of in a post which seemed to hit a little too close to home, and caused a lot of SJWs that might just have been smarter to ignore it, to scream about the sand in their nether regions.
    By the way, someone remember to thank the SMOFs (Secret Masters Of Fandom) for calling attention to, and thus boosting the popularity of a blog that they could have ignored and allowed to fade into obscurity.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I watched Jim Baen’s career from his Galaxy days when I was in high school, through the Ace period and then as Baen pub. He had a true talent for picking great stories, big ideas and a stable of authors that made you think. Who else would publish columns from Spider Robinson and Jerry Pournelle in the same magazine? When he started Baen he kept up the trend and created things like the Bar. It’s too bad there is no archive of those early bar days as all sorts of stuff and ideas went around. Jim Baen will truly be missed.


  3. Reblogged this on The Arts mechanical and commented:
    I watched Jim Baen’s career from his Galaxy days when I was in high school, through the Ace period and then as Baen pub. He had a true talent for picking great stories, big ideas and a stable of authors that made you think. Who else would publish columns from Spider Robinson and Jerry Pournelle in the same magazine? When he started Baen he kept up the trend and created things like the Bar. It’s too bad there is no archive of those early bar days as all sorts of stuff and ideas went around. Jim Baen will truly be missed.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. “Character? Piffle”

    Why on God’s green Earth would I want to support a writing movement that says “Character? Piffle”? Why am I going to be inspired by a book that isn’t interested in character? I can get a book that has character _and_ plot from another writer.


    • It’s a rhetorical device, I’ve seen very few Baen books where the characterizations were not good to excellent, however you can have the most interesting characters in the world and if they don’t DO anything the you have a boring book. Baen’s genius was in realizing story had to come first. If you don’t have an entertaining and engaging story you have nothing but masturbatory exercise by the author.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Conversely, you can have a highly entertaining story and weak characters and STILL have a good book.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Character development is nice, heck, it’s darn good stuff done right! But if the character doesn’t really *do* anything, well, all that development going on in his head doesn’t make for that interesting a story.

      Of course character is important- but it’s not the most important. We tell stories that aren’t biographies all the time. *grin* Put character development and plot together, and you can get good stuff.

      Take Larry Correia’s Hard Magic series. There’s quite a bit of character development there, especially Faye. But the plot leads the story, not the character. Sure, there are some really good character-driven stories out there, too. But the story’s the thing, see. The best stories keep you turning pages past your bedtime because you have to know what happens next.

      If another writer suits you better, all to the good. Read that guy. Or gal. Human Wave fiction is about darn good stories. They might happen during a zombie apocalypse with death tolls in the billions, but they are by and large stories of hope. Human Wave seeks to capture that sense of wonder and amazement, too, that we had when reading classic S/F. Stirring, inspiring tales that have characters that take action and meet the challenges life gives them head on.

      It’s tough to write stories like that and not make them trite or shallow. Downer books where everybody dies unless living is worse, those pull the easiest to grab strings on the human heart. For some reason, pessimism comes all too easy- perhaps because it requires such little effort. Making the challenges tough but believable, the characters flawed enough to be human, but embodying the qualities we’d like to have in ourselves is much harder.

      Give Human Wave a try sometime. If it doesn’t suit you, that’s okay. We don’t want to eliminate other kinds of books. There’s a lot of ’em and that would be too much like work for some of us! *grin* Seriously, though. Human Wave aims to be fun and entertaining, adventurous and exciting, without turning into the quagmire of grey goo where there are no real heroes and the future is about as hopeful as leftover gruel. It may be pulp, but it’s bloody good pulp nonetheless.

      Liked by 3 people

      • What human wave books would recommend I start with?

        Liked by 2 people

        • Depends on what you like, really. I like Brad Torgerson’s “Chaplain’s War,” it’s sci-fi but really mil-sf even though the main character is a soldier. If you’re a gun nut, Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter is quite the ride- the first one is has more gun nuttery in it than the rest of the series. It reads like a comic book, lots of action.

          Amanda Green’s Nocturnal Origins is a shapeshifter/police book. Quite good, but those aren’t my favorite genre (about third or fourth down the list). Dave Freer has a swathe of different novels out that I like: Bolg stories read something like Glen Cook’s Garret Files novels, if you’ve read those. Cuttlefish is a good solid YA, steampunk Victorian Era coal powered submarines. For science fiction, he has Stardogs, and I wish he’d hurry up and write the next one. *grin* Sarah Hoyt has several, the Darkship Thieves is S/F and she also has shapeshifter books (starts with Draw One In The Dark).

          I’m sure the rest of the folks here have their favorites, too. Right now I am reading Peter Grant’s “Stand in the Storm,” in his Maxwell series. He’s really improved over time- this is his fifth that I know of, fourth in that series (six if you count the tale of his time as a prison chaplain: “Walls, Wire, Bars, Souls.”). Good stuff. Look around, see what you like, and happy reading!

          Liked by 2 people

          • Sorry, Brad’s “Chaplain’s War” is not really mil-sf. I forgot to put in the “not.” Tired brain is tired…

            Liked by 1 person

          • Monster Hunter _does_ look up my alley


            • If it has a “look inside” option, try the first chapter here. It has one of the best hooks to grab you into it that I’ve come across. *grin* Hope ya like it.


            • Bum. Scratch that, I found Correia saying “I’m the one who suggested [Vox Day] to my fans” and that’s an automatic write-off on the “Vox Day’s non-fiction posts make me want a bath in holy water”. I’ll slot in Chaplain’s War onto the to-read list in its place


            • Whatever works for ya. Larry’s books and what he says on his blog are different things, though. Monster Hunter is more about mowing through monsters with an automatic shotgun than his personal opinions. I’ve not read much of Vox’s fiction, so can’t say how it reads.

              If you find a copy of Monster Hunter International at your library, give it a shot if you’d rather not give him your money. It’s still a fun read, even if you disagree with the author on basically everything.

              Liked by 1 person

        • Anything by Ringo, but I’d start with “Live Free or Die,” anything by Larry Corriea as noted. Freehold by Michael Z. Williamson. The Con books by Kate Paulk (hilarious, snarky and an insider’s riff on Con Culture) are also excellent.

          For a very quirky but entertaining book, “Dragon’s Ring” by Dave Freer.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Ringo’s “Black Tide Rising” is the one I was referring to with the zombie apocalypse line. I’m a sucker for zombie books, but I know not everyone is. *chuckle*

            I’d actually say Dave Drake’s Lt. Leary books qualify for human wave. Y’all may not agree, but even though there’s war, death, and the issues with Adele and Tovera, there’s still that sense of can-do, like an island of calm within the storm. He handles the dynamics and pressure of command as well as I’ve seen it.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. Star Trek was way ahead of its time, the first quality SF on TV. It had the wow factor and the sense of wonder that brought most of us to SF.

    The thing about Star Trek and what some of the current SJW’s don’t get is that terms don’t mean the same today as they did several years ago. Roddenberry wasn’t and SJW as modern SJW’s are. He was a liberal. A man who could think, and a man who was truly tolerant, and believed in tolerance.

    It was mentioned that in Next Generation, that Worf being a member of the Enterprise crew means Roddenberry was preaching tolerance. True, but not the modern SJW meaning of tolerance, but real tolerance. The Federation in that universe tolerated other people’s cultures and allowed for freedom of thought. Worf stands for tolerance of other’s cultures {like the modern Conservative culture} as well as races and religions {like Christianity}.

    Another Star Trek idea can be brought to the present too, the Borg. If SJW’s had their way, we’d all be widgets, like the Borg. But Roddenberry had the Federation heroes stand up to the Borg {modern SJW’s}, and defeat them. Individual effort beat the collective {SJW universe}.

    Liked by 1 person

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