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  1. #1
    trolling > dissertation nquixote's Avatar
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    British space opera - the great Idea Recycler

    I've recently (i.e. in the last year) been catching up on all the British space opera that I long overlooked - Banks, Hamilton, Reynolds, etc. And I've noticed an awfully large amount of "idea recycling" present in a lot of these books. For example:

    * The "Adamists" and "Edenists" of Hamilton's Night's Dawn series are very similar to the "Mechanists" and "Shapers" of Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix.

    * The "Prime" from Hamilton's Commonwealth Saga are very similar to the "Moties" from The Mote in God's Eye by Niven & Pournelle.

    * The "Inhibitors" of Reynolds' Revelation Space series are very similar to the "mechs" of Gregory Benford's Galactic Center series (the "alpha" and "beta" simulations and the realm of the "Shrouders" are also highly reminiscent of elements from the Galactic Center series).

    * Banks' Culture series contains a lot of elements from Star Wars ("drones" = "droids") and Star Trek (most of the aliens, most of the technologies).

    This is not to say these books are copycat trash. Original stories and characters count for a lot (which is why I like Hamilton and dislike Reynolds). And there are a few apparently original ideas here (Banks' Culture Minds, Reynolds' Demarchists). But it seems to me that, in terms of ideas, recent British space opera is generally less about new sci-fi ideas than about using established tropes as a backdrop for original stories.

    (Charles Stross, of course, is a big exception to this rule. And I haven't tried Ken MacLeod yet.)

    Has anyone else noticed this?

  2. #2
    Registered User Werthead's Avatar
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    * The "Inhibitors" of Reynolds' Revelation Space series are very similar to the "mechs" of Gregory Benford's Galactic Center series (the "alpha" and "beta" simulations and the realm of the "Shrouders" are also highly reminiscent of elements from the Galactic Center series).
    The Inhibitors are actually much closer to the Beserkers of Fred Saberhagen's Beserker series, starting in the 1960s. I think Reynolds has acknowledged the tip of the hat there.

    * Banks' Culture series contains a lot of elements from Star Wars ("drones" = "droids") and Star Trek (most of the aliens, most of the technologies).
    IIRC, the first three Culture books were written between 1974 and 1977, although they were revised for publication a decade later, which makes a Star Wars influence impossible. Also, the drones are completely different from the droids (they are not subservient to organics, they cannot be memory-wiped, they are capable of independent thought and action without human orders etc) aside from both being artificial in origin.

    Generally speaking, there are few original ideas in SF and if people got annoyed with other people for re-using ideas, the genre would not be able to progress. People also tend to come up with ideas together. Arthur C. Clarke and Charles Sheffield both commented on how odd it was that their two novels on space elevators - The Fountains of Paradise and The Web Between the Worlds - were published within literally weeks of one another.

    It should also be pointed out that even where pre-existing ideas are used, SF is still a considerably more progressive genre than mainstream fantasy, where the wholesale lifting of ideas from one author to another has occasionally reached truly incestuous levels

  3. #3
    SF is not just about ideas, I do not mind if an idea is reused if the book is well written otherwise. Thus, I like Reynolds, but I do not like Benford. An original idea does not necessarily mean a good book.

  4. #4
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    Quote Originally Posted by BlackVoid View Post
    SF is not just about ideas, I do not mind if an idea is reused if the book is well written otherwise. Thus, I like Reynolds, but I do not like Benford. An original idea does not necessarily mean a good book.
    Agree!!

    Asimov recycled Gibbon, Shakespeare recycled (insert your favorite play to get the answer) - who cares as long as the result is great; ideas are cheap, execution is hard

    I remember a joke about a famous mathematician who on hearing - "this is the idea, the rest are technical details", will draw a large rectangle and say, well "this is the idea for a great painting, the rest are technical details..."

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    trolling > dissertation nquixote's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by BlackVoid View Post
    SF is not just about ideas, I do not mind if an idea is reused if the book is well written otherwise. Thus, I like Reynolds, but I do not like Benford. An original idea does not necessarily mean a good book.
    I completely agree. I'm just noting that British space-opera authors, far from taking over thought-leadership from Americans in the past decade, have mostly been filling in the envelope that was pushed outward by American writers in the later 20th century.

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    Member of the Month™ Ropie's Avatar
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    I do agree to an extent, that there is not much original in space opera currently, and largely find it quite dull. It usually seems to me to be 'normal', earth bound life transposed into space. If I want to read about normal life I can read a well written piece of literary fiction from any era I choose. This is why your original comment doesn't really make sense as space opera is not about ideas; it's about the everyday.

  7. #7
    Registered User livens's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by nquixote View Post
    ...

    * The "Prime" from Hamilton's Commonwealth Saga are very similar to the "Moties" from The Mote in God's Eye by Niven & Pournelle.

    ...
    Has anyone else noticed this?
    Ill have to disagree with you on this one. Other than they are both aliens, and both pose a threat to humanity I didnt see anything that makes me think these two are related. What similarities did you find?

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    trolling > dissertation nquixote's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by livens View Post
    Ill have to disagree with you on this one. Other than they are both aliens, and both pose a threat to humanity I didnt see anything that makes me think these two are related. What similarities did you find?
    The aliens exist in two castes, one to think/command and one to perform menial tasks. The thinking caste exists in a state of permanent warfare over prestige and territory, causing unrestrained population growth. The alien race is trapped in a single star system, until humanity shows up bearing a new FTL technology (previously the aliens had tried to escape their confinement via a slower-than-light voyage). At that point humanity has no choice but to bottle the aliens up in their home system forevermore.

    Even the names are similar. In A Mote in God's Eye, the aliens are the Moties from Mote Prime. In Pandora's Star, the aliens are the Prime, consisting of Motiles and Immotiles.
    Last edited by nquixote; August 24th, 2009 at 08:36 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by suciul View Post
    Agree!!

    Asimov recycled Gibbon, Shakespeare recycled (insert your favorite play to get the answer) - who cares as long as the result is great; ideas are cheap, execution is hard

    I remember a joke about a famous mathematician who on hearing - "this is the idea, the rest are technical details", will draw a large rectangle and say, well "this is the idea for a great painting, the rest are technical details..."
    Me too. There are superficial similarities between Iain M Banks' Culture and Neil Asher's Polity but I'm a big fan of both. It's the plot and small detailing that make a story, a unique idea is icing on the cake.

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    Climate Change Denier WhiteWolf's Avatar
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    Hmm, good thread. It looks like most of what I immediately thought of since reading the first post has already been said, like in the second post.

    I will only add that, I have no problem with an author using ideas that have already been done, and I certainly wouldn't say that this is the first time it has been done or that it is ever limited to a specific genre or even a specific nation writing in that genre. The best part, for me, is when an author can take an old idea, even a very well known (or oft used) one and put his or her own original spin on it, refresh it, and make it interesting all over again in only a way that author can do. Alastair Reynolds succeeds very highly at this. Alastair Reynolds rocks.


  11. #11
    trolling > dissertation nquixote's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by WhiteWolf View Post
    The best part, for me, is when an author can take an old idea, even a very well known (or oft used) one and put his or her own original spin on it, refresh it, and make it interesting all over again in only a way that author can do. Alastair Reynolds succeeds very highly at this. Alastair Reynolds rocks.

    You must be talking about a different Alastair Reynolds than the one I (tried to) read...

  12. #12
    Registered User Werthead's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by nquixote View Post
    I completely agree. I'm just noting that British space-opera authors, far from taking over thought-leadership from Americans in the past decade, have mostly been filling in the envelope that was pushed outward by American writers in the later 20th century.
    Gregory Benford was recently whining like a little girl about SF being pushed out by Fantasy in the USA (i.e., his income is going down) and wanting to know why that was happening. There is a very simple reason why it was happening: him, and people like him (most notably Greg Bear) have not produced any science fiction worth reading in the last decade and a half, maybe longer.

    David Brin seems to have retired. Dan Simmons seems to half-abandoned the genre in favour of pseudohistorical fiction. Neal Stephenson wrote historical books for a few years and hooked enough of a literary crowd to follow him back to SF with Anathem (and I've already seen the, "It's not really SF...." arguments beginning from 'serious' critics about that). Kim Stanley Robinson stopped producing big ideas science fiction in favour of cozying up to Al Gore (although his new book about Galileo is pretty good). Vernor Vinge is doing greatest hits remixes of his earlier work which is okay but uninspiring. Robert Charles Wilson is uninspiring.

    The only really successful new US SF author to emerge recently is Scalzi, and his success is down to the fact his books are so MOR and inoffensive it hurts. American SF sales are dominated by Star Wars and people like Weber because they write simple, straightforward space opera which is what a large chunk of the SF fanbase wants. As the 'cutting edge' of hard science has moved into quantum entanglement and nonlinear time, which no-one (except maybe Greg Egan on a good day) can make into a good story, interest in SF is thus waning in the United States.

    In Britain, however, SF authors seem to have found a sweet spot where they can tell more speculative, interesting stories with cutting-edge science but threading them into big, brash but intelligent space operas or SF action thrillers. Iain M. Banks and Peter F. Hamilton have been doing that for years, but Reynolds, Neal Asher and Richard Morgan are all achieving the same thing, and we're seeing a fresh wave of newcomers like Jaine Fenn doing good work in their footsteps. You also have other British writers like Liz Williams and Charles Stross doing good work through similar means (with Stross hitting the big time thanks to his SF/fantasy hybrid series). Even Baxter seems to be making a resurgence.

    British SF at the moment is fresh, exciting and vital. American SF is in the doldrums. And that is purely down to American SF not really getting a clue and all the new SF authors being told to write fantasy instead as that sells. As for 'thought-leadership', given the biggest 'ideas' writer of SF for most of the last century were a Brit (Sir Arthur C. Clarke), it would appear that the USA's claim to that position was largely illusionary anyway.
    Last edited by Werthead; August 25th, 2009 at 08:41 AM.

  13. #13
    trolling > dissertation nquixote's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Werthead View Post
    Gregory Benford was recently whining like a little girl about SF being pushed out by Fantasy in the USA (i.e., his income is going down) and wanting to know why that was happening. There is a very simple reason why it was happening: him, and people like him (most notably Greg Bear) have not produced any science fiction worth reading in the last decade and a half, maybe longer.

    David Brin seems to have retired. Dan Simmons seems to half-abandoned the genre in favour of pseudohistorical fiction. Neal Stephenson wrote historical books for a few years and hooked enough of a literary crowd to follow him back to SF with Anathem (and I've already seen the, "It's not really SF...." arguments beginning from 'serious' critics about that). Kim Stanley Robinson stopped producing big ideas science fiction in favour of cozying up to Al Gore (although his new book about Galileo is pretty good). Vernor Vinge is doing greatest hits remixes of his earlier work which is okay but uninspiring. Robert Charles Wilson is uninspiring.

    The only really successful new US SF author to emerge recently is Scalzi, and his success is down to the fact his books are so MOR and inoffensive it hurts. American SF sales are dominated by Star Wars and people like Weber because they write simple, straightforward space opera which is what a large chunk of the SF fanbase wants. As the 'cutting edge' of SF has moved into quantum entanglement and nonlinear time, which no-one (except maybe Greg Egan on a good day) can make into a good story, interest in SF is thus waning in the United States.

    In Britain, however, SF authors seem to have found a sweet spot where they can tell more speculative, interesting stories with cutting-edge science but threading them into big, brash but intelligent space operas or SF action thrillers. Iain M. Banks and Peter F. Hamilton have been doing that for years, but Reynolds, Neal Asher and Richard Morgan are all achieving the same thing, and we're seeing a fresh wave of newcomers like Jaine Fenn doing good work in their footsteps. You also have other British writers like Liz Williams and Charles Stross doing good work through similar means (with Stross hitting the big time thanks to his SF/fantasy hybrid series).
    I sadly agree with you. The glory days of American sci-fi were the 80s and 90s. The best writers from that generation (the ones you mentioned, plus others like Lois McMaster Bujold and William Gibson) got old or moved on, and almost nobody has stepped up to replace them.

    And America seems less inspired by the promise of scientific progress these days, and more simply scared that its best days are over and that its society is going to collapse, hence its turn toward fantasy...well, maybe that's a bunch of worthless armchair sociology, but in any case you're totally right.

    British SF at the moment is fresh, exciting and vital.
    About this part I'm not so sure. There are definitely some fresh, exciting, vital writers I really dig (McDonald, Stross), but the big sellers seem to be the aforementioned Massive Space-Opera Epics (by Reynolds, Hamilton, etc.) and Gritty Secret Agent Shoot-Em-Ups (Morgan, Asher, etc.), the former of which at least seem to me to be roughly the equivalent of the bloated Tolkien-derivative American fantasy epics of the 1990s (Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, etc.). I guess that's only natural, though, given the nature of the fiction market. And Vinge/Simmons retreads are definitely still "fresher" than Tolkien retreads...
    Last edited by nquixote; August 25th, 2009 at 08:55 AM.

  14. #14
    Are there any science fiction stories that have not been given the television or movie treatment? Or at least the ideas in them?

    Interestingly enough after watching most Star Trek or Twilight Zone episodes I get the feeling one is already exposed to many of the common themes found in science fiction literature. The various series offers a way to sample a variety of ideas. On the other hand fantasy stories by not being as prevalent on broadcast mediums contain imaginative content only accessible through reading.

  15. #15
    Quote Originally Posted by livens View Post
    Ill have to disagree with you on this one. Other than they are both aliens, and both pose a threat to humanity I didnt see anything that makes me think these two are related. What similarities did you find?
    I agree with this disagreement. The prime and the Moties are very different. The moties retain individuality and some freedom of action.

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