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Inventing the Wheel


In science fiction stories, there are certain ideas and tropes that writers who aren't well-read in the history of the field often come up with and write stories about, not realizing that that idea first appeared (and was fully explored) in a classic sf story fifty years earlier.

Which isn't a problem, of course, except when the whole story is focused on showing off this shiny new idea that the writer doesn't realize isn't shiny or new to people who've read classic sf.

A while ago, it occurred to me that it might be fun to put together an anthology of the first, or most famous, or best, sf story that did each of various particular things--the primary goal being to provide a primer for sf writers who are relatively new to the genre so that they won't reinvent the wheel. (And with the hope that non-writer readers might enjoy the stories as well.)

For example, every so often we see a story based on the idea of having a bunch of monkeys sit down at typewriters to see if they'll write Shakespeare's plays. Some of those stories have been pretty good--but to me, the canonical monkeys-with-typewriters story is R. A. Lafferty's 1970 story "Been a Long, Long Time."

Another example: we regularly get stories in which the whole point of the story is some specific twist on the idea of time travel. In a surprise twist ending, time travel turns out to behave in unusual way x. In most such stories that I see, the particular twist was done by Fredric Brown in one or another of his short-shorts from the 1940s and 1950s. And the canonical time-loop stories, for me, are Heinlein's 1959 "All You Zombies..." (the loop can't really get any tighter than that) and del Rey's (less well-known) 1951 "...And It Comes Out Here."

I'm not really gonna put together such an anthology. But I thought it might be fun to discuss what stories might go in it, if someone were to put it together.

So: what works would you suggest for such an anthology? (Or call it a reading list, if you prefer.)

The concept could be interpreted broadly: What was the first or best or famous work of sf to deal with time travel, or alternate history, or hyperspace? But I'm more interested in more specific tropes and twists. Usually there's a lot of room for reinvention of (say) hyperspace, and usually the whole point of the story isn't "wow, we can travel through hyperspace!" I'm mostly focused on the kind of thing where (a) newer writers tend to rediscover the idea and think it's new, and (b) someone who's read a lot of sf would say "Yeah, this story was written, better, by Fredric Brown in his 1954 story '[whatever].'"

Still, newer writers might find it instructive to read some of the classic first stories that cover broader areas as well, so feel free to suggest those if you want to.

Fantasy and horror tropes could also be included, but I think those genres are less prone to the kind of issue I'm talking about. In fantasy and horror, I think writers are less likely to focus a whole story on a specific Cool New Idea, and thus it's less likely to be an issue. Although I guess that, for example, the canonical horror story in which the surprise twist ending involves an insectoid creature laying eggs under someone's skin might qualify.

If you aren't sure what particular story ideas newer writers tend to rediscover on their own, feel free to list classic first-or-best stories that cover particular tropes anyway.

(And yeah, I imagine most newer writers wouldn't bother reading such an anthology, which is one reason I'm not really interested in actually putting one together. But I still think it's a fun thought experiment.)


It's funny that you mention this: I had a discussion with my father last night about Inkheart and the new Adam Sandler movie. It seems both films have a very similar premise. Though, the concept of writing/telling reality that comes true didn't seem especially new to me. It seems the critics (according to yahoo) aren't especially impressed with either movie.
It was just a funky coincidence, and I'm stalling from the work I should be doing :)

Your post makes me think of the ultimate syllabus/reading list for a History of Science Fiction course. Following terms would cover other genres, such as fantasy. ;)

How about a chapter(s) on the wonder (or horror, etc.) of an alien encounter? I guess this would have at least a couple subcategories, such as first encounters, immersion in the "truly alien" (culture shock?), etc. In any case, when it comes to alien encounters, Ray Bradbury's _Martian Chronicles_ come to mind. Although I do admit that I don't know enough about classic sci-fi to realize if there have been earlier (better?) stories than Bradbury's in this subject.

Is there an earlier or better all-female utopia than Joanna Russ' "When it changed" or Tiptree's "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?"

I remember when I read those stories that I smacked my head, because I'd read (and seen on TV) so many other all-female world stories, and in my opinion no one did the traditional take better than Tiptree (men are nasty and violent and women are beautiful and gentle). But Russ' story is much more complicated than that, and I have to say it's still the best version of it I've ever seen. However I'm sure there's probably some even earlier "Planet of the Amazons" type version of the story.

Hmm, I think Arthur Clarke's "The Star" is a pretty iconic usage of the whole "some biblical miracle is explained scientifically" trope.

Not sure if it's exactly what you're looking for, but Terry Carr's "Brown Robert" was written precisely to debunk all travel-in-time stories.

The trope of humans becoming reliant on technology to the point of losing their humanity, most recently widely seen in WALL•E, was probably done first and best in E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops."

Oh, and Larry Niven's "All the Myriad Ways" has to be the last word on many-universe stories. It's certainly not the first, since it was written in response to the trope, but it is kind of the definitive explanation of what's kind of wrong-headed and odd about the idea.

The Guarniad is listing a thousand novels everyone must read (I don't think they are actually enforcing it), and their list of specfic is bad and wrong, although not always in the usual ways.

Anyway, they mention Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1915 Herland as the definitive all-female Utopia. I haven't read it, myself, but I've put it on The List.

The Guarniad for all their problems have made an effort to include nineteenth-century stuff and Genuine Pre-War stuff, which underlines for me what you are on about. There is a tradition, here, and conventions, and it goes back a long way, and readers tend to be aware of it, even if we haven't read Herland or Mizora or New Amazonia... or Heinlein or Asimov, either, for that matter. We still know the tropes.

And an odd thing: if you are going to write a vampire story, you have to deal with Dracula, even though you don't have to actually read the book or see any of the movies, and even though nobody in your audience will have read the book, and most of us haven't seen the Definitive Movie (or the Other Definitive Movie, the silent one). That's something of the point of your list, as I take it--the it's been done thing has to be dealt with somehow.

Having said that, I thought the book of Inkheart was lovely, and dealt with the elderly stuff in books comes into the real world! and perhaps vice versa! trope quite well. I haven't heard great things about the movie, though.


Just remembered the Majipoor books by Robert Silverberg. They were (specifically Lord Valentine's Castle and Majipoor Chronicles) the earliest books I've read which dealt with the massive-world and multiple-sentient-species-living-together themes. But are the better, or earlier stories, that deal with either of those themes?

I think this a very cool idea. I rarely read short stories (I know! I and I don't know why I don't), but the first-best-of idea appeals to me, as does a collection.

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