EXCITING IDEAS VS PROFITABLE STORIES: some notes on a text by Lester Del Rey

The recent boom of science fiction and fantasy franchises has led to a rise of spectacular effects to the detriment of intellectual content. The eyes are solicited more than the brain, and the excitement of speculative content is increasingly subordinated to the feel-good sentiments of the family romance. Violence is excusable if it is shown to be a step on a feel-good character arc, otherwise it must be punished. All criticism should be kept at a minimum, as critics are haters and hinder our enjoyment.

Jesse Willis of SFFAUDIO shared an interesting editorial by Lester Del Rey entitled IDEAS vs. STORIES (see below) which was published in Space Science Fiction, September 1953. The complete issue in which Del Rey’s editorial appears can be found here:


In his editorial Del Rey speaks about the difference between the good old days of science fiction, when the fun of inventing ideas and the good time of sharing them were the most important values, and the new post-boom writers for whom ideas are to be hoarded. In the first case the more ideas in a story the better, in the second the goal is to get as many stories as possible out of the same simple set of ideas.  Unfortunately, some authors do not seem to be able to distinguish between ideas and plot points.

Sharing the ideas of a good story doesn’t spoil it but makes you want to read it. Revealing the plot points of an idea-impoverished story does often spoil it. I do not think that DUNE or ANATHEM, to take two ideas-heavy novels, can be spoiled (in a tweet Jesse Willis cites Olaf Stapledon’s novels as unspoilable). Not to mention books that need to be read twice or more, such as Gene Wolfe’s THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN.

Also the idea that one has to « hoard » plot twists and gimmicks goes well with the current anti-spoiler obsession. If a story is full of ideas and permutations and twists it cannot be easily spoiled. If it is just a compilation of gimmicks then it is born spoiled, and the only interest at this level is curiosity about which one of a small number of possibilities will in fact be chosen, and how will it be treated.

I think this analysis by Lester Del Rey applies even more today to films like AVENGERS ENDGAME and to tv series like GAME OF THRONES. The number of ideas compared with the comics or the novels is quite low, and the experience of watching them is memorable for quite other reasons.

Another interesting aspect of Del Rey’s espousal of idea-centered fiction is his call at the end of his text for fans to criticise stories so as to improve writers’ stories. Anything goes as long as it moves in the direction of intellectual excitement and abundance. This is the opposite of the condescending attitude to fans that high-budget films and series evince today.

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