The Episodic Gimmick SF

There used to be a type of science fiction that was the equivalent of the current craze in craft mysteries (which is itself an outgrowth/side spur of the craze in cozies. Remind me sometime to explain how the cozies became craft mysteries. I have the sane theory and the one that involves my certainty that people unnamed are fostering an unhealthy trust in authority. I can give you either or both, depending on the day.) You have mysteries for basket weaving, mysteries for scrapbooking, mysteries for crochet, and mysteries for house-flipping. My own furniture refinishing mysteries (under the pen name Elise Hyatt) sort of kind of tie into that genre. I do talk about furniture refinishing, but I like to believe (maybe I’m fooling myself) that they stand on their own without the craft interest.

The idea, is, of course, simple – the publishing houses believe that people who either practice or are interested in any given craft will also want to read about it. I don’t know if this is true, but I do know that some of the crafts/ideas will draw me, as a matter of course. Say, a mystery where the main character is an amateur chef will always interest me, because I like to cook elaborate dishes. Ditto a mystery where the character likes to make clothing from vintage patterns. I don’t do this, but I intend to, as soon as I have time. I’ve bought the patterns and I day dream about it, so… I’d also be interested – though it’s not a craft – in mysteries about a Natural History Museum, investigated by a volunteer, because I’d like to have time to volunteer at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Back when science fiction was healthy enough to – without fantasy, or with minimal fantasy – take up a whole block of shelves in a bookstore there were many subgenres, ranging from hard science fiction through soft sociological science fiction, through various situational subgenres like post-apocalyptic; colonization of new planet; space war, etc.

One of these subgenres was the episodic, gimmick science fiction. I say that with the greatest respect. These were ideas that were so cool in and of themselves, that they drew readers. They’d also draw readers from people interested in that field. They did, usually, require at least some specialized knowledge. Not always – Star Trek could be considered episodic, gimmick SF in that you have an initial setup that allows for meeting tons of aliens and having a new adventure each episode, and there were any number of “galactic federation clone” sf.)

My favorite of these, which did require specialized knowledge, was James White’s Surgeon to the Stars and other such books. In fact, when it became clear that my older son’s bent was towards medicine, I gave him those books to read, one summer. He enjoyed them immensely – just as I had when I was a young teen, savoring the setup of wildly alien life forms and the problem solving that hinged on alien biology/medicine.

Recently I stole them from my son’s room and have been re-reading them. Oh, the story telling could stand some updating. We tend to demand a different time of setup these days. But that’s current narrative fashion. I still enjoy them a lot.

And I wonder if there would be a market for this still. Did Science Fiction die? Or was it murdered? I keep hearing that kids today don’t read sf because they’re living it, but that doesn’t wash. I fell in love with sf though my life was, by my parents’ standards, more wildly futuristic than my children’s is by my standards.

I think science fiction was a victim of publishing trends emphasizing things like “social relevance” and “scientific accuracy” and such. Not because I’m an absolute believer in fluff. I mean, yeah, sometimes readers just wanna have fun, but it’s almost impossible to write something that’s totally devoid of the author’s beliefs and views.

It’s just that when you demand “social relevance” you’re falling into what’s now trendy and considered a worthy social concern. In the same way “scientific accuracy” tends to mean “accurate to what we know today”. In conjunction, those two make for very boring stories, which I think turned the readers off in droves.

But perhaps I’m full of it and what killed sf was its own success and the publishing of masses of stuff that wasn’t so good.

In any case, now that electronic publishing is providing a greater field to play in, will there be place for fun again? Will there be – once more – the episodic gimmicky science fiction? Will there be a place for my Translator to the Stars series?

What do you think? Is my enjoyment of this type of subgenre proof that I need to bring out the tweezers and elevate my eyebrows some? Or is it, once again, that all readers “just wanna have fun” and ready-built niches are easy to get into and enjoy?

9 thoughts on “The Episodic Gimmick SF

  1. I hope there’s a market for fun. Otherwise I’m going to have to really get to work on that Urban Fantasy and edge it strongly toward Horror.

  2. I’ve always wondered if the demise of the “scientific gimmick story” is simply due to the fact that most of the good gimmicks have been used up in stories already. That subgenre depended on novelty (“a match would go out in zero gravity because the smoke can’t rise!”) but also on science/tech which the reader (and the author) could understand.

    Back in the Eighties or so David Brin rather proudly wrote a science gimmick story for Analog about a space station using the Earth’s magnetic field for orbital adjustment — except that if you weren’t a physicist you had no idea what the hell was going on in the story. I’m afraid the accessible gimmick supply has been depleted.

    1. That type of accessible problem story, yes, probably, but then again I remind you that every ten years or so you have a brand new audience. Or you should.

      I was thinking more of the problem story that is the intersection of today’s profession or whatever and future conditions. Like Ev Mick is a trucker. Space trucking would make for a great gimmick sf series (as I tell him daily.) Or translators to the stars. Or…

      And do not underestimate the possibilities for “it’s all new again.” There are some classics even I can no longer read because they read “dated” mostly because the future has either overtaken them or is close enough. Those should/could be updated. Look at Harry Potter. I splorsh everytime I hear someone talk about how it’s such a new and different idea. It’s not for us, of course, who grew up in the field, but it is new and wonderful to people who were brought into the field by Rawling.

      1. One of the things Dave Freer and I will do, eventually, when we have time, is a whole future of uplifted animals, including land sharks… That’s a “gimmick” in that he’s a shark expert, of course.

  3. Sigh. Do you mean “Star Surgeon” by Alan Nourse, the Sector General series by James White (which had a Star Surgeon in it, actually), or Doctor to the Stars by Murray Leinster (which had a certain kicky attraction, too)? I think you meant the Sector General series, since you mentioned James White, but the title made me hunt up the others.

    Incidentally, you might be interested in Nick O’Donohoe’s trilogy — a veterinarian in a fantasy universe. Fits into the same medical cast.

  4. Okay. I think that must be the ones I know as the Sector General series. ISFDB has it listed that way, too. Google shows Surgeon to the Stars as a TV show, which is kind of frightening. Thanks!

  5. I have to admit, I was sort of hoping that there was a series I had missed somehow. Oh, well…

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