In 1957, an earth-born object made by man was launched into the universe, where for some weeks it circled the earth according to the same laws of gravitation that swing and keep in motion the celestial bodies—the sun, the moon, and the stars. To be sure, the man-made satellite was no moon or star, no heavenly body which could follow its circling path for a time span that to us mortals, bound by earthly time, lasts from eternity to eternity. Yet, for a time it managed to stay in the skies; it dwelt and moved in the proximity of the heavenly bodies as though it had been admitted tentatively to their sublime company.
This event, second in importance to no other, not even to the splitting of the atom, would have been greeted with unmitigated joy if it had not been for the uncomfortable military and political circumstances attending it. But, curiously enough, this joy was not triumphal; it was not pride or awe at the tremendousness of human power and mastery which rilled the hearts of men, who now, when they looked up from the earth toward the skies, could behold there a thing of their own making. The immediate reaction, expressed on the spur of the moment, was relief about the first “step toward escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth.” And this strange statement, far from being the accidental slip of some American re- porter, unwittingly echoed the extraordinary line which, more than twenty years ago, had been carved on the funeral obelisk for one of Russia’s great scientists: “Mankind will not remain bound to the earth forever.”
Such feelings have been commonplace for some time. They show that men everywhere are by no means slow to catch up and adjust to scientific discoveries and technical developments, but that, on the contrary, they have outsped them by decades. Here, as in other respects, science has realized and affirmed what men anticipated in dreams that were neither wild nor idle. What is new is only that one of this country’s most respectable newspapers finally brought to its front page what up to then had been buried in the highly non-respectable literature of science fiction (to which, un- fortunately, nobody yet has paid the attention it deserves as a vehicle of mass sentiments and mass desires). The banality of the statement should not make us overlook how extraordinary in fact it was; for although Christians have spoken of the earth as a vale of tears and philosophers have looked upon their body as a prison of mind or soul, nobody in the history of mankind has ever con- ceived of the earth as a prison for men’s bodies or shown such eagerness to go literally from here to the moon. Should the emanci- pation and secularization of the modern age, which began with a turning-away, not necessarily from God, but from a god who was the Father of men in heaven, end with an even more fateful repudi- ation of an Earth who was the Mother of all living creatures under the sky?
Essay by Paul Di Filippo
Isaac Asimov memorably identified the three major types of science fiction as “What if,” “If only,” and “If this goes on.” Magnificent works have emerged from each of these categories, but readers — and writers — have reserved their greatest love for the first of the trio. Asking simple, counterintuitive, counterfactual, or even childlike and naïve questions — the kinds that begin with those two words — seems to unlock the storytelling imagination like nothing else.
In many cases, what follows naturally from “What if” is something almost as fundamental to speculative fiction: the Big Idea. A massive, revolutionary, visionary conceit that practically begs to be instantiated in fiction. Big Ideas are the highbrow cousin of the Hollywood “elevator pitch,” a concise formulation of a winning premise. (And sometimes a Big Idea gets positively reductive, producing a “Big Dumb Object,” such as Larry Niven’s Ringworld.) The Big Idea might very well be attended, in an SF novel, by a flock of lesser idealings to help support it. But generally, the core notion looms at the center, like a monarch on the throne. Recognizing the centrality and importance of such crystallizing conceits, author John Scalzi even invites his peers to discuss the Big Ideas behind their own projects at his popular blog, Whatever.
Some Big Ideas, of course, prove derivative; others shrink on the page for want of narrative oxygen. But two recent novels exemplify the marvelous possibilities of this classic approach to speculative fiction.