Torching Literary Groupthink


You may or may not have heard of Cory Doctorow; but years ago when I first read Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom, something blew my mind. It kind of makes my point, so I thought I’d hit you with it to see what you think.

I grew up reading white physicists writing about white physicists in my science fiction, which made me all kinds of happy because I was into spaceships and slick graphics of hydroponic farms tended by robots and that sort of thing. My view of a successful and breakthrough idea in a sci-fi book or movie would’ve  been just some cool extrapolation of:

  1. Spaceships or living in space
  2. Robots
  3. Plasma-based weapons
  4. Time travel
  5. Post-apocalypse stories

That’s what the pulps built up for us, and it’s what folks are still doing well. I’m glad that’s there, and those fields of science were starting out in the 1930s and 1940s in the first golden age of science fiction. That’s what those types of stories are doing there because it’s what people were thinking and dreaming about. The momentum’s still there, as anyone can see by a tour of Netflix’s Science Fiction offerings or basically any sci-fi movie Hollywood puts out. Go ahead to Netflix or Amazon Prime right now to check me out on this – I’ll wait here.

Back? I could of course make a similar argument for horror and list something like this:

  1. Vampires
  2. Werewolves
  3. Ghosts
  4. Demons and possessions

Just because you make one of these a lesbian or mash these together or make them love each other, that doesn’t make it a breakthrough idea. It’s groupthink no different than just tweaking a fancy spaceship or coming up with yet another way of dropping the world into an apocalypse. Look, I’m no better – I’m just pointing out that much of what we’re consuming for our fantastic literature is stuck in a mold. Don’t get me started on the endless recycling of anything Tolkien strung together.

So what did Cory do right?

In Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom, characters die and are rebooted like a computer. I have no idea if he was first to that idea – he’s just the first place I saw it. Then I saw it elsewhere, maybe something by Charles Stross. It became a trope. A thing people started using in more than one place. Like laser-style weapons did one time. Like robots did once. A new trope! Fantastic. My impression when I started seeing that idea making the rounds years ago was that finally people are laying new tracks. He came from the computer science world, even having started a software company. That was his world, so it was nothing for him to carry those ideas over to his fiction. Yet it was a very different and rich world of computer-based analogies from the standard list of ideas, the toolbox we were all using.

Today, if you scan the latest awesome news in science…the daily nuggets of treasures where people are making world-changing gains, over and over it’s molecular biology or biochemistry work. Not a lot of folks are well versed in that world and putting out hard science or fantastic literature following its analogies and stretching on its ideas. I see that as a rich quarry for us.

You might be writing a myth-style work, but find yourself rehashing the Jesus Chris-style suffering savior motif. If you’re stuck, then read some myth that’s exotic for you – maybe Hindu or Tibetan or Chinese.

You might be writing a horror story and struggle on how to make vampires interesting. How about dropping that entirely and go read something about Norway’s folklore on mares or vardogrs or some creepy tropes from Russian folklore to get something novel.

Let’s all challenge ourselves to put something new in the world. It’s what I want to do.

3 thoughts on “Torching Literary Groupthink

    • In your post, you commented that the prisoners in your story couldn’t cause trouble for their jailers. It made me think immediately of “Silence Of The Lambs” where Hannibal makes a mess of his jailers; and also of a few episodes of “Lost” when Ben Linus first showed up, was help captive by Jack and Sayid, and managed to freak me out and run circles around them with just the things that he said. I’m curious how you wind up injecting the drama into this – it strikes me there are lots of chances for character sparks that could resonate with your themes.


      • The norm is conflict between prisoners and jailors, sometimes between prisoners. It’s easy to write and it’s what readers expect. In this case, there’s no possibility of even verbal conflict between prisoners and the staff; I cut off that path right from the beginning. But the story is character-based rather than action-based, so it gives me scope for the protagonists’ internal conflicts, and a degree of conflict between the two protagonists. I know that’s awfully vague, but even a few details could act as spoilers. There are plenty of character sparks, though.

        Liked by 1 person

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