Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Ecclesiastes 1:9. Nothing new under the (spec fic) sun.

I don't delve into matters of religion very often- I am somewhat theologically neutral, despite a Catholic upbringing. The biblical verse quoted in the title above is not meant to preach. On the contrary, it is meant to draw attention to the preaching that is being done by some editors to myself and other authors.

For those that have no idea what I am talking about, Ecclesiastes 1:9 reads as follows:

That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun.

This quote about nothing new under the sun is remarkable given that it was written thousands of years ago. If there was nothing new in biblical times, then surely there can be nothing new now, right?

The short answer, when it comes to science fiction, is: well, yes and no. 

On the one hand, most if not all plots have been done before. I'm sure you have heard it said that there are only X numbers of possible plots, and every story out there is a variation on one of those themes (I use the variable X because the number varies depending on the source). A popular episode of Southpark brought this fact to a satiric climax, as anything that episode attempted to do, The Simpsons had already done. Simpsons Did It!

This has led to some frustration on the part of writers, who are constantly challenged to be new, fresh, different. I began writing this post as a reaction to the words of an editor (of an SFWA market) who told me that my premise was not new and in fact had been done before. He said that even if my story was the most technically sound he had ever read, he would not buy it because the premise aired on a Star Trek episode 30+ years ago.

But therein lies the rub.

Literature, especially science fiction, has to be new, has to be exciting and different. It is a genre that pushes the boundaries of humanity and the very possibilities of the universe. But that does not excuse this fiction from the immutable law posited by Ecclesiastes 1:9. Just because we have to push boundaries and be novel, that does not mean we can do something that no one has ever done before in all aspects. 

So when an editor sees a story and says "Gee, I've seen that story where the guy walks on Mars 1000 times- REJECT," he is ignoring the possibility of new twists on an old theme, or even the artistic rendering of a tired theme that makes it new in and of itself. 

Still, it is an Editor's prerogative to publish interesting pieces, and so true innovation indeed has to be rewarded. But an editorial hard stance against using certain tried and true themes, regardless of their technical competency, emotional depth or other factors that make great fiction, seems a bit short-sighted to me.

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