God’s blessings to you on this the first day of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.
John C Wright has a fascinating review of ARMAGEDDON 2419 A.D., by Philip Francis Nowlan. The story is better known as the introduction of Buck Rogers, who Mr. Wright notes is not known for this story but rather for the comic strip, radio play, movies, and later TV show in which he was the main character.
It’s an interesting review which is very much worth reading, but the thing which particularly caught my attention was when Mr. Wright, after detailing the bad aspects of how the story is written, then talks about why the story had such an impact, or in other words what was good in it. And the main thing was, roughly, the setting. It was an imaginatively great setting, full of possibilities for adventure. To over-simplify, the basic idea of a man frozen in time and emerging into a world of marvels who becomes great because he is able to merge knowledge now-forgotten with new marvels really captures the imagination in a strong way. There are other very interesting aspects, relating to the specifics of the story, which Mr. Wright outlines as important; how people are living a life of low civilization in hiding because a more powerful group of people are hunting them, and how they have grown strong through suffering while the more powerful group has grown decadent and weak through comfort. (Which is an interestingly Christian theme, by the way.)
Now, the curious thing about the power of a good setting, which is essentially the power of a good idea, is that good ideas are not generally regarded as very important by writers. I don’t mean that writers think that bad ideas make for good stories, but rather that usually a good idea is not the hard part. The hard part is writing the story. Furthermore, the same basic story, written by two different writers, can come out very differently, including one coming out well and the other terribly. As I remarked once before, bad as well as good stories can be written with the basic plot and setting of Pride & Prejudice, and indeed many have been. If anyone has ever read fan fiction in high school written by friends, one will be familiar with how good plots can be made unreadable by poor execution. (Or by intermixing; one chap I knew gave himself the quickening from highlander while he was fighting the emperor from Star Wars. This did not turn out as well as mixing chocolate chips and butterscotch chips in cookies does.)
And there are plenty of examples of great works with completely unoriginal plots; I’ve heard it said that Shakespeare didn’t come up with a single original plot, and certainly at least his histories didn’t claim to be original. Further it is said that mediocrity borrows; genius steals.
And yet. It does seem like there are occasionally ideas which are just so good that they irresistibly capture people’s imaginations even if one can barely stand to read the stories they’re in. Light sabers were not the original energy swords, but aside from the flaming sword given to the angel guarding the garden of Eden, they are at this point the most iconic, and given how successful the prequels and now the whatever-you-want-to-call-them to Star Wars have been successful in spite of not always being very good, I think it reasonable to call the light saber a billion dollar idea. Though to be fair, they probably wouldn’t have been as successful without the Force. Be that as it may, this is an example of an idea which was extraordinarily successful in spite of sometimes bad execution. Like demonstrated in the video, The Totally Phantom Menace:
I don’t have any conclusions about such ideas; in one sense it seems counter-intuitive that they should even exist. And yet they seem to; there were well done lightsaber duels, but even a poorly executed lightsaber duel is fascinating to watch.
Glory to God in the highest.