Been there, done that
Or, has everything in SF/F been done before?
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Science-fiction has been around for a few centuries, really defining itself in the early 19thcentury. With the popularity of the genre in the pulp magazines, it could reasonably be argued that everything really has been done in science-fiction. This could also be said about fantasy, which finds its roots in fairy tales and mythology, and has been around for thousands of years. One could be discouraged from even trying in the medium, anymore, since such a staggering amount of work has already been done in the field. Yet I don’t believe the subject has been exhausted. I actually believe that, while it certainly isn’t in its infancy anymore, it has nearly inexhaustible prospects, and is not anywhere near having been completely explored. There are a few very simple but undeniable facts that explain this.
First, concerning fantasy, while it is the genre that is the most deeply rooted in fantasy, I believe it is the one that has yet the most to be explored. This is due to two facts; one, the limits of fantasy are the limits of imagination, which can be pretty much infinite. That being said, what fantasy can be has barely even been touched, because the simple fact is, too many authors are not willing to put in the work. A lot, too much, I would say, of what is out there is derivative. Many authors I know base themselves on a world that they know, something that has been written before (often things like Lord of the Rings, or one of the realms of Dungeon and Dragons, to name just a few) and make only a few adjustments to personalize it, if any at all, before setting down to write a story in it. The true potential of fantasy, however, is to be able to create an entirely new world, from scratch; that is the first step to writing a truly original fantasy story. But building a world is no small task; in fact, making a fantasy world that is not some alternate version of our own is hard, tedious work, and too few authors are willing to do it. However, the ones who do almost always create something unparalleled and unforgettable.
When it comes to science-fiction, the same could be said about alien worlds, but there is a much simpler answer: science fiction is about science, and not only is science evolving faster and faster, but its discoveries are more accessible to everyone that it ever was before. Since science fiction is so deeply rooted in science, with every new discovery, a new opportunity arises, not only because so much of the stories made before these discoveries are now rendered hopelessly obsolete (Poul Anderson’s excellent Call Me Joe, for example, is set on the surface of Jupiter – a fact that is now very disconcerting and tends to pull you out of the story whenever you are reminded of how impossible it is…) but since science fiction consists mostly of how science will affect the lives of the people who use it, every single one of these discoveries is an opportunity for dozens of stories.
In a way, every story has been told, if you boil the story down to the essence of its structure, the bare bones, you usually get a character struggling with some kind of a problem. Most of these problems will be worked out and resolved as can be found in the 36 dramatic situations, published by George Polti in the 19th century. That being said, the essential dramatic situation at the center of the story is by no means the story itself, and unless all you enjoy is reading a blurb on the back of a book, you will find that even though a situation can repeat itself many times over, it is the characters, the style of the storytelling, and in the particular case of science fiction and fantasy, the setting that truly make a story unique.
Finally, there is one last, very important thing to be said on the subject, which Neil Gaiman explains beautifully in this video. An author’s point of view, his (or her) perception of this world, is and has always been what makes a story, or any piece of art, unique. As long as there are individuals, authors and artists, who will have something to say, there will be something to be said.