MICE is Nice: Idea Stories

Before you flee for the exits, this is not about novels and stories with message, although some message books and stories are also idea stories.

No, I’m thinking about books where exploring or sorting out an idea (or answering a question) drives the story.

Mystery novels are the most common idea-based book. “Whodunnit? or “Whydunnit?” are questions that have to be answered, or the reader will throw the book against the wall, or at the author. Depending on the sub-genre, the characters may be flat or fleshed out, the setting could be very specific (Chinatown has to take place when and where it does, likewise Tony Hillerman’s mysteries) or “the big city of gritty streets and long shadows.” The crime could be considered an event, assuming there is a crime, but solving the mystery is what drives the story.

“What if” books also lend themselves to idea stories, especially short stories. What if a genetically modified plague kills all women (The White Plague by Frank Herbert)? What if a rogue asteroid or something rips Earth away from the Sun? What if house pets suddenly develop the ability to talk, and they are as tactful and restrained as you think they’d be? What if aliens arrive and offer humans everything we ever wanted (clean energy, bountiful and pest-resistant crops, cures to all ills) without any strings attached? Whatever it is, the entire story centers on studying and extrapolating from that idea.

I’d argue that The Handmaid’s Tale is at core an idea story. The characters are not especially memorable as people, or at least, none have stuck with me longer than the time it takes to read the book. The setting is not too detailed, landscape and environment don’t play a role, although culture does, and culture centers on the idea of an “Evangelical” totalitarian state taking over and in essence enslaving all fertile women. I vaguely recall a few events, but no single event drives the story. Everything in the book centers on exploring the idea Margaret Atwood developed.

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clark could be considered an idea story, in my opinion. What if humans find an enormous space ship, and explore it? Some of the characters are interesting, and the idea of the Church of Jesus Christ, Astronaut still tickles me a little. But everything in the book focuses on the arrival of the starship and what people find inside.

Idea books are not my favorites, especially those written over the past decade or so. Part of my bias comes about because they seem to be more IDEA stories than about exploring ideas. I admit, I’ve tried writing idea stories and the results were so heavy-handed that even I winced, so I know how easy it is to turn a premise into a sledge-hammer. “Let’s explore a cool what if” seems to slide a little too often into “smother the story in an ideology with a topping of message.” Even when I agree with the idea, that gets old very quickly. Ideas that are poorly grounded also break the story for me. I personally need at least a vague foundation that makes logical sense.

A good idea story spins the story and idea in intriguing directions, but logical directions. Character, milieu, and events are still present, but you the author have to focus on the idea and working it, exploring the nooks and crannies, and satisfying the reader. “What if…?” “Whodunnit?” What if space aliens find Elon Musk’s car and begin to worship it? What if they find the car and decide that cars are enslaved and need to be liberated? What if TEOTWAWKI came along and we all felt fine?

Novellas and short stories are good for exploring ideas. However, this brand new novella explores Hamburg in 1892:

Something lurks in the half-buried channels and canals of Hamburg. Jakob Timmerman wants to ignore it. But warped magic and those who wield it refuse to ignore him.


  1. “What if one of the first super-beings was a Black Man in 1902 Alabama”?

    This is part of the Super-Hero universe that’s rattling around in my head. 😉

    1. Dwayne McDuffie did a comic for DC’s MILESTONE COMICS imprint back in the 90s (best known these days for introducing the “Static Shock” franchise) called “Icon” along similar lines.

      1. IIRC Icon didn’t “come out as a Super Hero” until modern times. IE He lived in the South (for at least part of time) as an ordinary Black Man.

        My character was active as a Super Hero during the Jim Crow Laws period. Obviously, he was opposing such laws but did so without killing people.

        Mind you, Southern Whites didn’t see him as a Hero until he took on a really nasty Super-Being, saving White lives as well as Black lives.

        1. It was implied that some of the folk heroes (like John Henry) were based on actual things Icon had done in the past. If the imprint had continued (and perhaps when it’s revived), there were plans to delve into a secret superhuman history…alas, without Dwayne this time. :/

  2. I suppose by that definition “Nightfall,” by Isaac Asimov would be a very pure idea story. I think it’s a lot harder to make an idea story work at novel length, but they’re fairly common in short fiction, even today.

    1. Agreed. With non-mystery novels it seems more common to have perhaps 50% idea, the rest divided between character, setting, and events. Asimov’s “Nightfall” works far better as a short story than as the novel, in my opinion.

  3. “What if space aliens find Elon Musk’s car and begin to worship it? What if they find the car and decide that cars are enslaved and need to be liberated?”

    What if the ones who find it are robot meter maids, and they give it a parking ticket?

      1. There would be people that would pay loads of money to have the “first car in space”. 😀

  4. I believe it was Joss Whedon who said a TV episode can ask a question, while a movie must answer a question. I apply the same thinking to short stories vs. novels.

  5. A lot of the old, really short scifi was “what if” stories, usually just one idea.

    Which gets quite annoying if you want something besides being told why the author thinks the idea is awesome, especially if you’re looking at it and wondering if he’s ever met human beings. =.= (Oh, Sturgeon’s Law…..)

      1. I think Mr. Brown was the best short-short story writer SF ever produced. I still love his story about the men who build a massive supercomputer that can call on the the entire universe for energy to answer a question. They ask it:

        “Is there a God?”

        “There is now!”

      2. I very fond memories of Brown’s “What Mad Universe”…i.e. “What if the editor of an SF magazine finds himself in a universe where some of the fictional stories featured in his magazine are completely real?” …right down to the weird Raygun Gothic space clothing.

      3. That reminded me of the Through Time and Space With Ferdinand Feghoot stories in F&SF lo, those MANY years ago. One-pagers, ending with a pun.
        The only one I recall is when Ferd and son popped in for the feast when Capt. Cook was the main course. He says to his son, who didn’t want to partake, “One man’s meat is another man’s poi, son.”

        I Wiki’d Ferd, and found it wasn’d written by Brown, as I’d thought. Collected stories are available at Amazon.

        1. Feghoots are probably the single most underappreciated comic form in the English language.

          (“Best appreciated when they’re six feet underground, you mean?” ~ S & W)

  6. The Church of Jesus Christ, Astronaut, didn’t seem funny to me, but for a reason many may not suspect. It was right during all the Chariot of the Gods? craze, and some were really getting caught up in it. The stuff on the “History” Channel pales compared to those days.

    1. True. I was young enough that the Chariots of the Gods stuff was more “OK, that’s strange. Oh look, Battlestar Galactica is on!” I didn’t read Clark until I was in my teens and so missed a lot of the surrounding cultural world.

  7. I note that just because you, as an author, are exploring an idea, it doesn’t mean the characters are. From a character’s point of view, the idea of the neat world could translate into a milieu story.

    1. Good point.
      That may be why so few books are exclusively one type (although short stories can be).
      A mystery would be an idea story from both viewpoints, since the characters are also interested in solving it.

  8. Both 1984 and Brave New World ask: are the societies presented the inevitable end result of the cycle of history due to the introduction of industrialism?

    1. All degenerate societies are the end of “this” cycle of history, but the precipitating cause may not be “industrialism” (in the context of the full cycle) per se, but rather the fragility of complex inter-related centrally-governed societies, for various reasons.

      Just watched an interesting youtube on the disintegration of the Mediterranean/Near East “global society” in c. 1177. Very industrialized for that time (ships & mercantile voyages, division of labor & comparative advantage, etc), but a concatenation of physical catastrophes “broke the links” and led to the fall of everyone but Egypt, which entered a “Dark Ages” period.

Comments are closed.