What makes an SF novel creative?

Science fiction is known as the genre of ideas. A genre that some expect to see through a glass lens into the future, predicting the technology and human behavior that we will one day encounter. With the large amount of novels in the field, it is difficult to come up with new ideas. To go where no man has gone before. But does that need to be the goal in writing science fiction? Can a story that retreads on old ideas still be deemed creative?

Creativity is often equated with originality, but uniqueness on its own does not make something creative. A creative work also needs value. To do this, the artist must blend the familiar with the unfamiliar. If an entire work is unfamiliar, the reader will not be able to make a connection with the text. If it is all familiar, well… then it just isn’t science fiction!


To best understand the spectrum of creativity, we will look at some key works in science fiction.
Retelling: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version by Philip Pullman. In his retelling of Grimm’s fairy tales, Pullman rewrites the classic stories to make them more readable by modern eyes. The collection has been received well and while it is far to the left on the originality spectrum, it achieves a high-level of usefulness, deeming this at least some standard as a creative work.

Fan Fiction: I have browsed a couple of sites that specialize in fan fiction and I am amazed at the community that is involved in it. There are some authors like Hugh Howey who encourage others to write in his world. Others, such as Anne Leckie, encourage it as long as the writer is not looking to turn a profit. There are still others, like Orson Scott Card, who do not like people writing in the fan fiction space at all. Before I looked into this community, I used to frown upon the fan fiction. I have later come to respect the creative activity and the value it gives people who like to share this adaptive type of writing. I do think it is critical, though, that fan writers respect an author’s wishes as to what level characters and worlds can be used in writing a story.

Shared World: The Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn. Written shortly after the period following Return of the Jedi, The Thrawn Trilogy is often credited with jumpstarting Star Wars’ expanded universe. Many of the characters and the universe are borrowed from Lucas’s original trilogy in a commissioned form of fan fiction. This is also a highly adaptive work with a story line that expands beyond the published story arc.

Heavily Influenced: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. If anyone has read Starship Troopers or The Forever War, they will quickly see where John Scalzi got his inspiration for Old Man’s War. Many of the familiar tropes are there with a common plot and setting. The novel should not be brushed off as merely a derivative work – Old Man’s War brings a fresh voice and many unique ideas, building upon previous writers. It’s a top pick that I recommend for newbies looking to get into SF. I would also include alternate history books in this category, that borrow from real life instead of fiction and then build upon it.

Loosely-Inspired: The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. In interviews, Wolfe credits his inspiration for his amazing tetralogy to Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance. The characters and story are all new, but the theme and setting have a consistency with Vance’s stories. A vast majority of science fiction falls in this category as most authors are intentionally or unintentionally borrowing from writers they have read. Even terms like Tolkienesque fantasy have been coined to identify sources of inspiration.

Innovative: Neuromancer by William Gibson. Many may point to Philip K. Dick’s, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, or Tiptree’s, “The Girl who was Plugged In,” or even Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and robot stories as progenitors of the cyberpunk movement. But it was Gibson’s novel that started the wave of fiction, which captured the angst-filled mood and grim, Japanese-inspired setting that would become a genre of its own. Innovation still has some level of inspiration and Neuromancer is no exception. Innovative authors I would include in this category would be folks such as Tolkien, Alfred Bester, Harlan Ellison, and James Tiptree.

Weird Fiction: Embassytown by China Meiville. Science fiction often blends the unfamiliar with the familiar and Meiville’s fiction proportionally shifts the balance to the weird. His characters are often non-human, often non-anthromorphs, and in some novels like Embassytown, they don’t even speak in a normal, audible language. Weird fiction is often highly original with characters and setting that are completely unfamiliar to the reader. A careful balance must be maintained to avoid losing too many readers who like a certain amount of grounding in reality.

Experimental: The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Danielewski. Even more original than weird fiction are works that break free from the typical prose structure of a novel. The author of House of Leaves put out an experimental work called The Fifty Year Sword that for my taste is too abstract to enjoy. Words and quotes are written largely on the page, mixed with art and sometimes blank pages. While it is very original, it alienated many readers like myself because of the lack of perceived value or usefulness.

I do not intend for the above categories to represent the entire spectrum of creativity in science fiction, but they demonstrate the various ways in which it can be expressed in the genre. One type of fiction is not meant to be superior to another – they are merely different forms of expressing creativity. A similar approach could be taken with art, ranging from realistic paintings to abstract art, or in music, ranging from cover songs to what amounts to random noise. While many people strive to be innovative (and something we should continue to do!), it is often the loosely-inspired works that achieve the greatest success (a walk through any bookstore will convince you of this). For those struggling with writer’s block, don’t think that you have to have something completely new. Odds are that it has been written about in some form before.

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