I'm afraid that on some level, I see the emphasis in SF crit on Ideas Uber Alles as just another form of wankery. Ideas are great. They're useful. I like books that center around cool ideas--like the Bose-Einstein mines in Spin State, or every cool thing that autopope spits out that has me going, man, okay, that's some nifty shit, and where in his brain does it come from? (I hear a rumor he shaved his head to provide more cooling surface when he overclocked. Next year, look for radiator vanes.)
But I write about people. Ideas are sort of a second-string focus of my work. I think there's a few cool ones in Worldwired and Carnival (the worldwire itself, for one thing, the Birdcage aliens (Peter wants them to be a construct, which I think is much less interesting than a colloidal hydrogen life form) and the Dragon society and their power source in Carnival) but I'm frankly not interested in SF as a predictive medium, or as a showcase for shiny ideas.
I'm interested in it as literature.
Which means it needs (ideally) to have good writing, strong plots, well-developed characters, layers both accessible and deep, thematic concerns, balanced structure (or meaningfully unbalanced structure), sound technique, narrative force, masterful prose, oh, yes--and ideas, too, because the ideas are what separate SF from regular F. But I think we often get so concerned with marking our little corner of the genre--or divvying it up with little white picket fences of subgenre--mundane SF over *here*, New Weird over *here*, New Pulp over *here*, slipstream in the brook down under the troll bridge, and you surrealists had better get back over to Lit or Fantasy where you belong, don't let the sun set on you here, Kelly Link!--that we forget, well, we're writing books.
We are complicit to our own ghettoization, in other words. Because the SF works that transcend genre do so because they are about more than ideas. Neither 1984 nor The Handmaid's Tale had much going on in the way of new ideas, frankly. But they have a powerful thematic resonance that speaks to readers both inside and outside of genre. They have something to say.
SF is so far from a monoculture it's sometimes hard to see it, frankly, as even one culture. And the teapot tempests that concern the in-crowd are club scene issues.
(digression: Don't get me wrong. I love the club scene. But I'm also aware that that's exactly where the arguments about Mundane SF and Sensawunda (and does it exist today, Dave Truesdale?!) and Where Have All The Big Ideas Gone are raging. In the club scene, the maybe ten to fifteen thousand people worldwide who are avid congoers and involved fans and who read some or many of the genre short fiction publications and keep up on the debates and have voted for a Hugo in the last ten years.)
The best big idea! SF has that same resonance, of course. Digging around for examples, The Left Hand of Darkness leaps to mind. But I notice that that's a book that gets taught in lit classes, and not merely by SF apologists.
Heck, I'd even say there are a bunch of 'classic' SF novels that don't really have a lot in the way of ideas at all. Dune (and I am a Dune apologist--I really like that book. I like its scope, its entanglements, its awkward use of omniscient, and its sometimes painful plot. Hell, I even like its stupid caricatures of female characters. God help me.) isn't about ideas. Dune's big "ideas" are plot contrivances, macguffins. Spice = Letters of Transit.)
And I guess that brings me to my point, which is this: in its reliance on idea over character, over theme, over plot, over prosody, SF basically condemns itself to the ghetto of fiction-about-ideas, and then has the nerve to look shocked when people say "but it kind of sucks." Whereas I prefer to think of it as something bigger--and more challenging, alas. Which is to say, what I'm striving for is fiction.
Which also, mind you, has ideas. And preferably really, really shiny ideas. Which I think probably makes it harder than literary fiction, since at that point it's an ape in a dress, and man, getting an ape into a dress is one thing, but getting that ape to look good in the dress is another entirely.
Now, I'm not saying I'm writing The Left Hand of Darkness over here.
But boy, would I like to.
And on that note, I think I need to go write some more of this Randall Garrett/Arthur Conan Doyle pastiche. With vampires.