Science Fiction Studies

# 15 = Volume 5, Part 2 = July 1978

Genrikh Al'tov

Levels of Narrative Ideas: Colors on the SF Palette

Translated by Nicholas Galichenko; edited by DS.

Readers of SF must have noticed that in recent years this genre has begun to examine itself most rigorously. From 1967 to this day over sixty articles devoted entirely or in part to the theory of SF as a genre have appeared in various Russian anthologies and journals, as well as three books — Georgii Gurevich's Karta Strany Fantazii (Map of the Land of SF), Boris Liapunov's V mire mechty (In the World of Imagination), and Anatolii Britikov's exhaustive monograph, Russkii Sovetskii nauchno — fantasticheskii roman (The Russian SF novel of the Soviet Period). Thus, a foundation for the theory of SF is steadily being laid down. As with all new theories, its task must begin with a description of its object. Before it can question their purpose, it must study the factual data and chronology.

1. Wells published The Time Machine in 1895. A half-century later Wyndham's "Chronoclasm" and Asimov's The End of Eternity followed. So much is chronology. As for factual data — both Wyndham's and Asimov's works borrow the idea of chronoclasms (i.e., paradoxes arising from interference in preceding historical events) directly from Wells's story.

But why were the problems of "Chronoclasm" and The End of Eternity not already dealt with by Wells? The possibility of chronoclasms originates with Wells's concept of time travel. At one point in the story, Wells's Time Traveller encounters the problem of chronoclasms, but for some reason ignores it.

We may first assume, perhaps, that Wells intentionally chose not to burden his story with chronoclasms. But he continued to work in SF for a further forty years. He went on studying hypothetical situations associated with time, so that in 1903 he published "The New Accelerator." However, the accelerator and his other ideas about time are much weaker in terms of literary possibilities than the highly productive theme of chronoclasms. Hence, there are only two or three imitations of "The New Accelerator," while chronoclasm is a very popular subject. It seems unlikely that Wells would have rejected ideas that formed the basis of works like Wyndham's "Chronoclasm," Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder," Boulle's "Endless Night" or Asimov's The End of Eternity; there must have been some kind of psychological barrier to stop him.

What was the nature of this barrier? Why had it been so difficult to overcome? And, in general, how do new SF ideas originate? Can there be some objective laws governing their appearance? And if, indeed, there are such laws, could they not also be applied to find still newer, totally unmapped ideas for SF?

In its present state the theory of SF can be compared to a newly discovered continent where only a thin shoreline is outlined on the map; beyond it, shrouded in mystery, there lie vast unexplored areas with amazing, unsolved secrets. I would like to mention one voyage that I had undertaken into this mysterious and marvelous land. It was a small-scale reconnaissance, and like all missions of this kind, uncovered only partial evidence — to some extent merely of a hypothetical nature. In time, of course, an army of researchers may clarify and correct my findings. But meanwhile, would it not be worthwhile at least to take a casual look at things that will become discoveries of tomorrow?

2. In his autobiography, Roald Amundsen compares voyages to icebergs: nine-tenths of what they consist of (namely, the preparation) is invisible, and only the one-tenth that appears above the surface makes up the actual journey. That is precisely what happened on my voyage. In order to study the mechanism of SF, it was necessary first of all to collect ideas scattered in thousands of works, to classify them, and then compile A Register of SF Ideas. This work has been in progress over several years with the result that now there are some 3000 ideas in the Register, catalogued according to classes, sub-classes, groups, and sub-groups. Up to this, no one had attempted to collect SF ideas systematically. But the Register served as a research instrument to help in the examination of the sophisticated and curious process of how SF ideas originate.

It turned out that in the evolution of any SF theme ("cosmic voyages," "contact with extra-terrestrial civilizations," etc.) there are four distinct categories of SF ideas: I) ideas based on a single object, with a certain fantastic result; II) ideas based on several objects, which add up to a rather different fantastic result; III) ideas leading to similar results, but obtained without an object; and IV) ideas based on a set of conditions that do not require these results.

Any SF theme can be developed through these four levels of ideas. Each level is substantially different from the next. For example, given the theme of "man's contact with extra-terrestrial civilizations," any ideas about contact with a single civilization would be found on Level I. There are numerous works based on this objective. However, Ivan Efremov's idea of the Great Ring in Andromeda is found on Level II, because its objective involves contact with several extra-terrestrial civilizations. Similarly, Wells's idea of a single "time machine" differs from Asimov's "Eternals," since the latter is based on simultaneous contacts with several epochs of history.

Two qualifications should be added. First — the higher levels are not "superior" to the lower ones. At issue is the underlying logic governing the development of ideas; the literary potential of any idea does not depend on the level on which it is found. And second — the existence of four levels does not mean that only four ideas are possible in relation to a given theme. In fact, an unlimited number of "isotopes" or "iso-level" ideas (each distinct one from another) may be found on each level; they are unified only by corresponding to a particular level within the general formula.

Let us now turn to an examination of one of the most prominent of the four-storied models, namely "the ways and means of interstellar travel."

The peculiarity of such voyages is that they must overcome enormous distances, even as compared to interplanetary travel. A spaceship must fly at velocities approaching (though never quite matching) that of light. At such velocities the time-dilation effect becomes greater. Thus, astronauts might return to Earth after tens, hundreds or perhaps thousands of Earth-years. This provides the basis for a number of literary conflicts.

Level I may be represented by a single spaceship making a flight. Significantly, this will be a maiden voyage, and the author will focus entirely on its difficulties as well as on the characterization of the crew-members traveling through the starlit void for the very first time — e.g. in Lem's novel, The Magellan Nebula.

Level II is represented by "several starships." The universe is now crisscrossed with a complex network of space routes. On this level SF writers set themselves a different set of objectives, utilize different devices, and resolve different questions. For example: will the different streams of civilization lose their unified identity as they branch out in various directions, and will each of the colonies isolated from each other by hundreds of light-years, determine their own path of evolution? That is the conflict in Zhuravleva's story, "The Second Path"; these types of conflicts simply cannot occur on Level I.

Level III consists of "ideas leading to similar fantastic results, but obtained without an object": for example, the idea of interstellar travel without special starships. One of the earliest ideas on this level to be suggested was Efremov's in his tale "Star-ships." It was based on the hypothesis that tens of millions of years ago a star from another planetary system had come close to our Sun, and made intergalactic travel a possibility even for ordinary interplanetary spaceships. Georgii Gurevich used another idea from the same level. In the story "Infra Draconis" he asked: what if invisible infra-red stars existed in close proximity to our solar system? If that were the case — then, just like in Efremov's tale, interstellar travel would be no more difficult than inter-planetary voyages.

Clifford Simak proposed a more original idea in his story "Target Generation" — a long voyage on an ordinary, "slow" inter-planetary ship. The journey might take several centuries to complete, but each successive generation would replace the preceding one until the final destination was reached.

From the above examples, the logic behind the development of new SF ideas becomes quite clear. Interstellar distances must be overcome without special starships that can approach the velocity of light. Therefore, the author operates only with two constants: the distance between the stars, and the life expectancy of the space crew. The distances must somehow be shortened, but in a way that would not conflict with visible evidence. Today we see great distances between the stars, but at one time, perhaps, they may have been much shorter; this is Efremov's idea. But if the distances to visible stars are known, perhaps there are invisible stars that are very close; thence Gurevich's idea. The flight distance also might be increased at the expense of the life-expectancy of her crew. Two possibilities suggest themselves: either to send a fantastically long-lived astronaut into space, or to count on succeeding generations. Both of these possibilities are utilized by Simak in the stories "Founding Father" and "Target Generation."

But Level III is not nearly complete yet. Since Earth had no intelligent life in the very remote past, Efremov's idea that at that time two stars and their planets approached each other within "flying" distance offers only literary possibilities. Thus, an author might wish to explore a more productive course by assuming that the stars' approach could take place in the future.

Finally, on Level IV we find "ideas based on a set of conditions that do not require these results," namely, conditions that exclude the necessity for making interstellar voyages. I had used such an idea in my story, "The Port of Stone-Storms." Here, all developed civilizations link their solar systems in a spherical cluster in order to eliminate once and for all interstellar distances (not only for astronauts, but for everybody), and to establish permanent communications with thousands of other civilizations.

3. Although it is entirely possible to develop a four-level structure of ideas in connection with any SF theme, contemporary SF is fundamentally based on a single-level or double-level model. As is often the case with quickly developing genres, SF is today still in the scaffolding stage.

Yet the building process is not only vertical, but also horizontal — i.e., a multitude of "iso-level" building blocks may be found on every level of the model. In general, there is more than enough for the development of SF. It is unfortunate, therefore, to find it following well-trodden paths: endless variations on simplistic clichés about alien visitors, berserk robots and bionic twins fighting with each other. This is because psychological barriers keep springing up in the way of new SF ideas. The ability to overcome them largely determines the artistic success of an SF writer. By shedding light on the structure of SF, the four-level model assists in this task.

Let us now analyze a concrete example of how new ideas are conceived on the basis of the model. First, we shall take a modest one-level structure such as "the space-suit," and try to build up the higher levels. Level I is "one space-suit," and there are several good stories that describe man's isolation and protection from the hostile environment of outer space (we may perhaps recall Robert Sheckley's "Earth, Air, Fire, and Water"). But for the moment there is a lack of ideas on Level II (the use of "many space-suits"). This is not surprising, because the difference between the use of one space-suit or their mass utilization does not suggest any particularly interesting literary possibilities. However, we are faced here with an exceptionally interesting phenomenon — the frequently perspectiveless Level II impedes the writer's search for ideas on higher level. Yet, we should not forget that above the "uninhabited" Level II the writer may continue to build further levels.

On Level III "similar results (i.e., man's isolation from a hostile environment) are obtained without the use of a space-suit." SF arrived at this level long after the scientific hypothesis was already available (unfortunately, this is often the case). I refer to the idea of "cyborgization" as proposed by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kleine2 — i.e., reconstructing a human organism so that it could function in outer space without the aid of a space-suit. Nonetheless, this level is not nearly filled up, and there is ample room for many more "iso-level" ideas.

On Level IV we find "conditions that do not require this result," — i.e., conditions that exclude the necessity for any kind of isolation. A man simply finds himself in outer space without a space-suit and without any changes to his organism. This may seem improbable at first, but the current of improbability signals the opening of the doors into the universe of SF.

In order for a person to be in space without a space-suit, we must presuppose the existence of some type of cosmic atmosphere. Doesn't this increase the sense of improbability? Precisely. Nonetheless, the more formidable the obstacle, the more intriguing the SF idea that lies behind it. Thus, we have arrived at a concept of atmospheric change in outer space, and we find that Dyson has a project to "pulverize" Jupiter and reduce it into a sphere around the Sun. Dyson did not know that such a layer could not exist, since the Sun's gravitational pull is equal to the centrifugal force of rotation only at its equatorial belt. To overcome this problem, Professor G. Pokrovskii suggested building a bowl-shaped casing consisting of a series of belts, each one moving at its own speed.

Dyson's sphere and Pokrovskii's bowl are both useful ideas for catching all of the Sun's rays in order to expand man's habitable space. Both ideas are proposed by scientists; unfortunately, neither is believable. The explosion of Jupiter and pulverization of its huge mass verges on SF, but the process of bringing the dust particles closer to the Sun and "shaping" them into a casing whose diameter is equal to Earth's orbit is almost beyond the parameters of SF. When we see Pokrovskii's illustrations of rocketships towing the sections of the casing into place, this strikes us as being overly naive.

But what if Jupiter were exploded, and the dust particles set adrift? They would form a gigantic disc extending from Mercury (particles closer would fall into the Sun) right out to Pluto (particles further from the Sun would drift away). Such an interplanetary atmospheric disc, inclined at an angle in relation to the plane of the planetary orbits, would provide a denser environment, though not yet an atmosphere. This presents yet another psychological barrier.... However, even if the disc were not from oxygen, it would make available large quantities of matter from which a spaceship could process or extract oxygen. The matter from the disc might also be used as a source of fuel ... or even act as a supporting layer for wings.

Let us then for the moment discard the idea of breathing in the interplanetary disc's atmosphere, since it may be of relatively little interest when compared to the idea of the disc being able to support a pair of wings. Because the cosmic void separates the planets, they have remained isolated and accessible only to an insignificantly small number of people — even with a new and sophisticated space-flight technology. The interplanetary atmospheric disc would change the planets into ports sharing a common ocean; space technology would become simplified; the numbers and types of ships would increase; the cosmos would become a vibrant place, as accessible as our seas and oceans.

According to Dyson's and Pokrovskii's theories, thin casings would have to be created around the Sun. But, a montage of these is beyond even the concepts of SF. Therefore, the disc would have to form itself from the dust particles which would be set adrift after the explosion. Moreover, such a disc had existed in fact. 0. Iu. Shmidt's theory on the origin of planets claims that this disc preceded their creation. His works contain much information about the primary spatial dust-cloud (its composition, its stability, atmospheric conditions, etc.), and SF writers would do well to avail themselves of such sources. However, the scientific or technical authenticity of an idea is not at all the issue at hand. The disc is entirely plausible as an idea for SF, and for us the literary potential of an idea is infinitely more important than absolute technological proof.

A large number of works have been written about all manner of space voyages. And always outside the space-ships silence and emptiness reign, interrupted only by the usual sound of meteorites striking the ship's cabin. But presently we are being given the chance to show a living universe: all of the Earth's atmospheric phenomena could be transferred into the disc, magnified millions of times, thus becoming cosmic in scope and hence entirely new.

Just try to imagine a storm in this disc, or a rainbow, or perhaps an endless kaleidoscope....

4. Critical literature on SF still suffers very much from a naive "theory" that SF ideas are not essential to the development of good literary works. This theory relies on simple proofs. First, for the term "SF ideas" is substituted "technological ideas"; then it is followed by the argument that fictional literature (belles lettres) is man-oriented. A categorical conclusion is then reached. "One must choose between technical matters or study of man."3

It may be interesting to assess Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in this light. We would note then that Captain Nemo is a "study of man," and that the Nautilus is a "technical matter." Professor Arronax would also be a "study of man," while the seascapes of which he is enamoured would be "technical matter".... But could there be a Captain Nemo without the Nautilus? Or could Professor Arronax exist without the thoughts and feelings that the ocean stirs in him?

The weakness of many contemporary works is that they are full of "Captain Nemos" who are incapable of inventing a Nautilus, and "Arronaxes" who never saw an ocean. For example, in V. Mikhailov's story "Den', vehcer, noch', utro" ("Day, Evening, Night, and Morning"), the heroine is an architect who must decide whether, if she went into the future, she would be able to continue her beloved work there. This is quite typical of the "study of man" situations. The heroine asks a visitor from the future about architecture: "He began to answer her with gestures, finally stopping just for a moment to sketch a contour in the sand. All of the concepts were unfamiliar to her. Kira could not agree with some of them, and simply could not understand others. But one thing was very clear: this architecture utilized different materials and technology, dealt with quite different problems, different needs, and its unusual aesthetic criteria were clearly also marked by some changes."4 Just try, on the basis of the preceding, description, to imagine the architecture of the future! The author does not have sufficient "technical matter," and yet the dialectic of SF is such, that "study of man" without this turns into pure fabrication. The heroine's decision ("I won't be able to work there!...") lacks aesthetic conviction, and naturally does not arouse any emotions in the reader.

SF ideas (including "technical matter") function as colors on the palette of an SF writer. If the palette lacks colors, the canvas will seem gray and drab. The concept of a Giant Disc is a typical "technical matter," but in aesthetic terms it is a color that waits for the right artist to come along and use it ... Without colors there can be no painting.

5. The researcher into the "technology" of writing is often faced with two objections. "Why" — some opponents argue — "is this of interest to us? Why should we be concerned with this technology? Is it not enough to know that a good writer writes well, and a bad one poorly?" This line of reasoning presumes that good-tasting loaves of bread grow on good trees, and bad loaves on poor ones. It is consumer logic, and it is pointless to argue against it, because consumers do not stop to think about the true nature of things. To them literature is merely a product.

Other opponents argue from a position that on the surface seems to be more tenable. "If you find out about the mechanism of writing" — they say — "will this not lead to conformity of thought and method?"

Indeed, the "four level" model seems generally accessible. Just take any generally accepted concept, fit it to the various levels of the paradigm, and begin to derive new SF ideas, situations and themes.... In fact, this is misleading. The four-level model does not induce conformity. On the contrary, it helps the writer to avoid endless repetition and cliches. Individuality does not suffer. Surely the art of painting did not cease to exist once the laws of perspective had been discovered and were being consciously applied?

6. I do not wish to suggest that the four-level model is the most important or only avenue open to the development of new SF ideas. Probably several such lines of logic exist: probably there exist devices for coming upon "iso-level" ideas, and some complex, only very vaguely known mechanism that facilitates the interaction of "technical matter" and "study of man." All this is material for future research.

The 1960's were a decade of dynamic growth in Soviet SF. The number of avid readers of SF increased several dozen times. At first these readers were undiscriminating. A tenth-grade student, for example, after having read Kolpakov's Griiada and similar works for the first time might have thought that he was being introduced to fairy-tale, star-studded universes. After maturing through a dozen books, however, the same tenth-grader would discover that the author had merely retold him (often with monstrous gaps) what had been said before by Aleksei Tolstoi, Efremov, Asimov, Simak or Sheckley. It is a fact that people read SF mostly at random, but always in great quantity; gradually this "quantity" disciplines the reader into acquiring a genuine perspective about the real and imaginary values of SF. Consequently, he notices when contemporary SF bogs down in outdated themes, situations and ideas. Alien visitors, berserk robots, bionic twins fighting with each other, and none-too-clever catastrophes caused by time-warps — all of these are yesterday's exotic fare that no longer satisfies the mature reader. And it is not surprising, therefore, that a recent questionnaire circulated by the Azerbaijan Union of Writers' Commission of SF showed that most readers of SF saw as its greatest weakness a deficit in new SF ideas.

Like the photon that is never completely at rest, SF can only exist in a state of flux and evolution. Thus, in the 1970's SF must search for new frontiers. This situation will necessitate a shift to new problems, new heroes and new literary devices. Much, very much depends upon the development of a theoretical foundation for SF.


1. This essay was published in the anthology Fantastika-71 (Moscow: Mol. gvardiia, 1971). For notes on the Russian books mentioned in this paragraph see also my Russian SF 1956-1974) (Elizabethtown NY: Dragon Press, 1976)—DS.

2. The Cyrillic script being phonetic, and no similar names having been found in accessible catalogs, the spelling of these two names is a guess-DS.

3. V. Revich, "Realizm fantastiki" (Realism in SF), Fantastika-68 (Moscow: Mol. gvardiia, 1969), p. 279.

4. Iskatel No. 4, (1968), p. 28.



In the evolution of any SF theme ("cosmic voyages," "contact with extraterrestrial civilizations," etc.), there are four distinct categories of SF ideas: 1. ideas based on a single object, with a certain fantastic result; 2. ideas based on several objects, which add up to a rather different fantastic result; 3. ideas leading to similar results, but obtained without an object; and 4. ideas based on a set of conditions that do not require these results. Any SF theme can be developed through these four levels of ideas. The higher levels are not "superior" to the lower: at issue is the underlying logic governing the development of ideas, and the literary potential of the idea does not depend on the level on which it is found. Stories by Ivan Efremov, H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Stanislaw Lem, Georgii Gurevich, Clifford Simak, Robert Sheckley, and others are used to illustrate this theory; the author's own story "The Port of Stone-Storms" is considered as an example of type 3.

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