SF Stories That Cut the Vastness of Space Down to Size


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Collapsing Empire Cover

As previously established, three-dimensional maps present increasingly intractable problems for two-dimensional media. SF authors who want to create a coherent map for their setting (even one they never plan to share with their readers) can make the task easier for themselves by using one simple strategy: instead of permitting travel between any two stars, they can restrict travel to a few systems. Authors need only keep track of the connections between systems, not the 3D relationships between the stars.

One way to achieve this is by placing limits on the space drive’s useful range. The roleplaying game 2300 AD provides an example: stutterwarp drives generate lethal radiation if used to cross distances longer than 7.7 light years. While 2300 AD did, as explained in my previous article, provide a 3D map of near space, it was more relevant to know what stars (or massive bodies that could discharge ...

Mapping the Stars for Fun and Profit


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A recent discussion here on Tor.com, one which mentioned C. J. Cherryh’s starmap, reminded me of a few remarkable roleplaying games (one of which was reviewed here ages ago). Remarkable because they were fun to play; notable in this context because each game wrestled with a then-intractable problem: user-friendly starmaps.

When you read a novel, short story, etc., you may be given hints as to star locations and the distances from star to star. Most of us just take those vague gestures at maps as given and focus on the exciting space battles, palace intrigues, and so on. Only a few nerdy readers (ahem!) try to work out star positions and distances from the text. And only a few authors (like Benford and McCarthy) provide maps in their novels. There are reasons why maps are generally left out, and who notices an absence?

Roleplaying games ...

Stay Frosty: 5 SF Narratives About Global Cooling


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Soaring temperatures may bring rising seas, disrupted agriculture, vast migrations, and the inundation of coastal cities around the world—and there are a lot of coastal cities around the world. Still, I live three hundred metres above sea level in a region that may well benefit from global warming (the risks of invasion, famine, war, mass extinction, and the complete collapse of civilization aside). What would really throw wooden shoes into Canada’s proverbial gears is cooling. Only a mere 12,000 years ago, the place where I live was just emerging from an ice sheet a mile thick. You may think Canadians hate shovelling snow now… wait until there’s nearly two kilometres of the stuff. Straight up.

So, if we wanted to cool down the Earth, how would we go about it? One way is to screw with the atmosphere (or distribution of the continents) so that either less light ...

5 SFF Stories About Surviving the Dangers of Boarding School


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J.K. Rowling has done much to revive the literary genre of boarding school stories, which achieved its greatest (pre-Potter) popularity in the period between Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857) and the mid-twentieth century. As a setting, boarding schools allow for the construction of thrilling narratives: concerned parents are replaced by teachers who may well prioritize student achievement over student welfare, e.g. maximizing points for Gryffindor over the survival of the students earning those points. Because the students cannot easily walk away from the school, they must deal with teachers and other students, some of whom may be vividly villainous (Miss Minchin, for example—the antagonist in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess).

Are there any SFF novels featuring boarding schools? Why yes! I am glad you asked—there are more than I can list in a single article. Here are just a few.

 

Joe and Jack ...

Did We ALL Write a Book About Space Elevators? (And Other Coincidences in Science Fiction)


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An author has an epiphany, spots a story idea nobody ever had before, writes it in the white heat of inspiration, sends it off and gets a cheque in the mail. All is as it should be. At least, that is, until they discover someone else had the exact same idea at exactly the same time. Or worse—the other person’s version saw print first.

One of the more remarkable examples of this type of unfortunate concurrence occurred in 1979. Working on opposite sides of the planet in an era long before everyone had email, Charles Sheffield and Arthur C. Clarke wrote novels about…well, let me just quote Mr. Clarke’s open letter, which was reprinted at the end of Sheffield’s book…

Early in 1979 I published a novel, The Fountains of Paradise, in which an engineer named Morgan, builder of the longest bridge in the world, tackles a far more ...

SF Stories Featuring Abandoned Earths


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Space colonization stories are a subgenre of SF. Space colonization stories in which the Earth has become a backwater world, cut off from thriving colony planets, are a thriving sub-subgenre.

At first glance, this seems odd. Earth is rich in resources and offers humans a shirt-sleeve environment . Why wouldn’t it continue to be the leader of the pack?

Sometimes it’s because we have trashed the Earth, rendering it uninhabitable. Stories like Thomas Scortia’s Earthwreck, Arthur C. Clarke’s “If I Forget Thee, O Earth,” and Joe Haldeman’s Worlds Apart are set on Earths where nuclear and biological weapons have turned the surface of the planet into a death trap . Any humans remaining have two options: flee or go extinct.

(In reality, even a radiation-soaked Earth would be still more habitable than any world in our Solar System. SF authors ignore or downplay that because they want to tell ...

Saturn’s Rings are Doomed, so Enjoy Them While You Can!


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Carpe diem—seize the day; everything passes quickly away.

We see Saturn’s rings as an abiding feature of the solar system. But if we are to believe “Observations of the chemical and thermal response of ‘ring rain’ on Saturn’s ionosphere,” the rings are transitory. In a mere three hundred million years, less time than has elapsed since the Permian Extinction, the rings may be reduced to wispy remnants of their former glory, like the frail rings we see around Jupiter, Neptune, and other outer planets.

Nor are Saturn’s rings the only marvel slated to vanish in the near future. Mars’ moon Phobos is spiraling inwards toward the planet; it will either form a ring system or impact the surface of Mars. This may happen in fifty million years or so, less time than has elapsed since the more enjoyable Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum.

Consider Earth’s Moon. It is slowly ...

Classic SF Works Set on Thrilling Space Habitats


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In 1974, Gerard K. O’Neill’s paper “The Colonization of Space” kicked off what ultimately proved to be a short-lived fad for imagining space habitats. None were ever built, but the imagined habitats are interesting as techno dreams that, like our ordinary dreams, express the anxieties of their time .

They were inspired by fears of resource shortages (as predicted by the Club of Rome), a population bomb, and the energy crisis of the early 1970s. They were thought to be practical because the American space program, and the space shuttle, would surely provide reliable, cheap access to space. O’Neill proposed that we could avert soaring gas prices, famines, and perhaps even widespread economic collapse by building cities in space. Other visionaries had proposed settling planets; O’Neill believed it would be easier to live in space habitats and exploit the resources of minor bodies like the Earth’s Moon and ...

100 SF/F Books You Should Consider Reading in the New Year


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Last year, I was so inspired by the various Best Of, Must Read, Smashing Science Fiction and Fantasy lists I encountered around the net that I decided to make my own book list, books chosen entirely on the basis of merit and significance to the field . People enjoyed the first list so much that I perpetrated sequels. I posted a number of lists, each twenty books long, each selected entirely on the basis of merit and significance to the field (ahem). Here, at last, the quintessence of Nicoll lists, comprising the books I would most heartily recommend. Each entry is annotated with a short description that I hope will explain why I picked it.

I am not implying that these are the only one hundred you should consider reading .

You may not know all of these. Congratulations! You are one of today’s lucky ten thousand. I will never ...

Six Means of SF Transportation You Should Probably Avoid


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I was lucky enough to grow up in an age when people weren’t as worried about safety. Especially transportation safety. That’s why:

  • I remember the brief glorious moment of flight when jumping an old beater car over a railway crossing, followed by the thud when the engine falls out on touchdown;
  • I know the exact sound of a windscreen and face collision after an abrupt stop;
  • I know how fast a VW Beetle has to take a corner before the kid riding the running board flies off;
  • I can boast of walking four miles through a blizzard after breaking four ribs in a mid-winter car wreck.

It was a glorious time to be alive.

Science fiction offers even more exotic transportation choices—choices that even I would avoid. Here are six of them.

 

The Orion Drive

Poul Anderson’s Orion Shall Rise (1983) is a tale of conflict between technological exuberance ...

Five Classic SF Novels of Anthropogenic Climate Change


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Climate-focused science fiction is not a recent development. Even if we were to reject all the works in which climate change is an unexpected benefit of thermonuclear war , or where the climate change is part of the process of terraforming other worlds , examples of classic works featuring anthropogenic climate change are not all that hard to find. It’s as though discussions of anthropogenic climate change date back to the 19th century and earlier … or something.

 

If H. Beam Piper is remembered at all these days, it’s as the author of a future history whose hopeful moments added up to a depressing portrait of historical inevitability over the long run, where happy endings are a matter of cutting the narrative short before grim reality reasserts itself. On rereading his popular first contact novel Little Fuzzy (1962) I was somewhat surprised to rediscover that the plot is ...

Five Works of Hard Science Fiction That Bypass the Gatekeepers


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Hard science fiction: is it actually a coherent subgenre or is it just an arbitrary body of work defined nebulously enough to facilitate gate keeping? On the one hand, I claim to be a fan of the stuff so it sure would be handy if it actually existed. On the other, a lot of works marketed as hard SF have features like psionics, faster than light travel, and an Earth spinning in the wrong direction  that seem pretty hard to reconcile with actual science.

Still, I think there’s a gap between hard SF defined so narrowly only Hal Clement could be said to have written it (if we ignore his FTL drives) and hard SF defined so broadly anything qualifies provided the author belongs to the right social circles … that this gap is large enough that examples do exist. Here are five examples of SF works  that ...

Get Out of My Head: SFF Stories About Sharing Brain-Space With Somebody Else


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I have a modest dream. I hope one day to live in an isolated skull-shaped mountain guarded by carnivorous birds. My lair would be surrounded by a fearsome fence, adorned with the heads of uninvited guests. I like my privacy. It should not surprise anyone, then, that I would emphatically NOT like to have a second person sharing my head.

Mental timeshares are a rich source of plot for science fiction and fantasy authors. I was reminded of this trope when I was reading, or re-reading, a few novellas in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric series.

Penric is a sorcerer. He has no power of his own; he owes it all to the demon who shares his head. The demon (whom he calls Desdemona) has been a sorcerer’s demon for many lives. When one host dies, Desdemona jumps to another one. In the world of the Five Gods, this process is ...

Recent Interstellar Asteroid May Have Been Alien Artifact, Speculates New Paper


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Arthur C. Clarke’s 1973 Rendezvous with Rama is a classic example of how First Contact is supposed to go. In the 2130s, astronomers make a chance discovery: an interstellar object traversing the Solar System. In this future, spacecraft of various kinds swarm through the Solar System. It’s possible to divert two spacecraft (one a robot, one crewed) towards the object. The robot probe reveals that Rama is an artifact. The crew of the other vehicle get to explore Rama.

Clarke’s optimistic predictions are driven by narrative need—it wouldn’t have been much of an SF tale otherwise. “We saw something really weird but didn’t get a close look at it” is only satisfying in ghost stories, not in First Contact tales.

In the real world, First Contact may have played out very differently.

Consider  ‘Oumuamua  .

“Just what is ‘Oumuamua?” you may ask. I am so glad you asked. It’s ...

13 Stories About Surviving a Nuclear War — At Least Briefly


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Most people now living are too young to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was a fun time when the Americans and the Russians (who at that time were not good buddies but rivals), toyed with seeing just how close they could come to World War Three without pressing the (metaphorical) button. For various reasons, not least of which was that the balance of power of power greatly favoured the United States and the Soviets apparently didn’t fancy atomic suicide for some reason, the stand-off stopped short of nuclear war.

For me, living as I did in Herne Hill, well within the buildings fall, people burn like shrieking candles zone of London, England, that was probably for the best. But that experience (wondering if I would die soon) was life-changing. I was forced to imagine the horrors of a nuclear apocalypse. Even though governments (which have invested trillions in ...

How to Destroy Civilization and Not Be Boring


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So you’ve decided to destroy your fictional civilization and for reasons of verisimilitude, you want to draw on a historical model. Your first thought may be to rotoscope the collapse of the Western Roman Empire … and why not? It worked so well for Isaac Asimov. The problem is it worked for a lot of other authors, too—the Fall of Rome is well-chewed gristle at this juncture. Perhaps other models would make a nice change?

Granted, other models may not be as well known as the Roman one, at least to Western readers. Generations of Westerners learned Latin and read Roman history; generations read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.

Plus, other collapses were, no doubt, so thorough that we have no inkling they even happened.

Still, there are some collapses and calamities about which we have some knowledge. I have a few suggestions.

 

Boom, Baby, Boom

Volcán de Fuego eruption ...

(Semi-)Plausible Strategies for Moving a Whole Damn Planet


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Has this ever happened to you? You’re living on a perfectly good planet in orbit around a perfectly acceptable star—and then suddenly, the neighbourhood goes to crap and you have to move. For a lot of people, this means marching onto space arks.

Recapitulating Noah on a cosmic scale is such a pain, though. All that packing. All that choosing who to take and who to leave behind. And no matter how carefully you plan things, it always seems to come down to a race between launch day and doomsday.

Why not, therefore, just take the whole darned planet with you?

(Warning: spoilers for books that are all insanely old venerable.)

Of course, this raises the question of how to do this without destroying the world. You could just slap rockets on one end of the planet (and at least one author did) but the side effects of ...

The Best Arthurian Novels for Fans of Actual History


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I suspect a lot of people’s minds ran in the same direction mine did at the news that a girl named Saga had pulled a fifteen hundred-year-old sword from a lake. Not all swords are Excalibur, of course, and the lake in question was in Sweden, but Britain could do worse than seeing if Saga has any interest in becoming Prime Minister.

All of which reminded me of Arthuriana, and my first and favorite Arthur novel, Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers (1959). The novel takes its title from a statement by Eugenus the Physician:

“We are the lantern bearers, my friend; for us to keep something burning, to carry what light we can forward into the darkness and the wind.”

Arthur (or Artos, as he is called in this book) plays only a supporting role, but it’s enough of a role for this to be the ur-Arthur story for ...

Fighting Erasure: Women SF Writers of the 1980s, Part III


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The next stop in our tour through the science fiction and fantasy of the 1980s is “women whose surnames begin with C.” The usual disclaimers apply, foremost among them being that, as I am monolingual, I am only covering authors who were published in English at some point.

 

Lisa W. Cantrell was active in the horror field in the 1980s and 1990s. Her novel The Manse, a tale of a haunted house attraction that proves all too realistic, was well received at the time, but if Cantrell has had a novel published since 1992’s Boneman I am unaware of it. This may reflect the hazards of being active in horror, a genre subject to dramatic booms and busts.


 

Mary Caraker debuted in Analog in an era when Analog wasn’t much interested in publishing any women at all. Although she has since moved onto other fields, over ...

Five Books That Improve Upon Heinlein’s Juveniles


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Nothing fills me with dread quite like a middle-aged male writer announcing that he plans to write a YA novel just like the ones Robert Heinlein used to write . I could explain why this is such a harbinger of disappointment…but Charles Stross has already beat me to it. Instead, allow me to offer some non-Heinlein novels that succeed in scratching some of the same itches that the RAH juvies once scratched. For me, that requires the intended audience to include teens, that the genre be science fiction in the narrow sense, that the protagonist be a young adult, and that they get to do something that actually matters in the course of the book .

For the most part, I think RAH juv-a-likes work better when they are not series, but since I am not sure why that would be, I won’t insist on it.

 

Falling Free by ...