Six Characters With Whom You Should Never, Ever Go Camping

Perseids Watch is an annual foray out to the unmapped wilds of New Dundee, Ontario, there to observe the Perseid meteor show. This year’s Watch has just passed for another year, and without any more mysterious disappearances in the course of the event.

The chances that you or someone close to you will vanish into the wilderness are even greater if you are a fictional character. Particularly a secondary character (known in the SF field as a redshirt). If you are, you should definitely read the following essay, which discusses the protagonists with whom you should never, under any circumstances, go camping. They will survive. You probably won’t.

Odysseus was skillful and cunning; he survived the decade-long Trojan War and came up with that notorious horse gambit. But Odysseus was not canny enough to avoid pissing off the god Poseidon. This is why it took Odysseus ten years to find ...

When Will SF Learn to Love the Tachyon?

Readers of a certain age may remember the excitement stirred up when various physicists proposed to add a third category of matter to:

  1. matter with zero rest mass (which always travels at the speed of light), and
  2. matter with rest mass (which always travels slower than light).

Now there’s C: matter whose rest mass is imaginary. For these hypothetical particles—tachyons—the speed of light may be a speed minimum, not a speed limit.

Tachyons may offer a way around that pesky light-speed barrier, and SF authors quickly noticed the narrative possibilities. If one could somehow transform matter into tachyons, then faster-than-light travel might be possible.

Granted, that’s a very big ‘if’ and, for reasons explained in this essay, tachyon drives are NOT a means of travel I’d ever use. But hey, the siren song of narrative convenience overrides all the wimpy what-ifs. Sure, getting every single elementary particle comprising the ...

Not On Your Life: Six Means of SF Transportation I Would Not Use

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 ...

A Survey of Some of the Best Science Fiction Ever Published (Thanks to Judy-Lynn Del Rey)

The 2010s and the 1970s are similar in many ways: questionable fashion choices1, U.S. presidents under investigation, Canadian prime ministers named Trudeau, the possibility that nuclear tensions might flare up at any moment. The two decades share something else, as well: during both of these decades, it became easier to discover classic SF. In the modern era, we are seeing ebook reprints mining the output of the past. In the 1970s, we had paper reprints, such as the variously titled Ballantine (or Del Rey) Classic Library of Science Fiction.

As with Timescape Books, the Classic series was largely due to the astute market sense of one editor. In this case, the editor was Judy-Lynn del Rey (she may have had an occasional assist from husband Lester2). Under her guidance, Ballantine and later the imprint that bore her name became a signifier of quality; readers ...

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

The number of women active in SF continued to grow in the 1980s, despite pushback that ranged from angry tirades to attempts to erase women from SF history. One can get a sense of the trend by comparing the master lists of woman authors that I have compiled: Women authors who debuted in the 1970s: five pages. Women authors who debuted in the 1980s: sixteen pages.

There was a time when it was possible for a single person to read everything in the field. That changed in the late 1970s and 1980s; more publishers, more titles published. The upside: readers with particular genre tastes were more likely to find something they liked. The downside: it became easier for authors to suffer the mid-list death spiral and vanish.

In a spirit of inclusivity, I am including any woman who debuted in speculative fiction in the 1980s, even if they were active ...

Fighting Erasure: Women SF Writers of the 1970s, Part X

Welcome to the final instalment of Women SF Writers of the 1970s! In this piece, we look at women who debuted in the 1970s whose surnames begin with T, U, V, W, and Z (which I pronounce Zed.) Also, there are no women who debuted in the 1970s whose surnames began with U or Z (of whom I am aware).

Previous instalments in this series cover women writers with last names beginning with A through F, those beginning with G, those beginning with H, those beginning with I & J, those beginning with K, those beginning with L, those beginning with M, those beginning with N, O, and P and those beginning with R and S.

 

Alison Tellure

Alison Tellure had a very small but very memorable body of work. “Lord of All it Surveys,” “Skysinger,” “Green-Eyed Lady, Laughing Lady,” and “Low ...

When Ramjets Ruled Science Fiction

It is customary for old folks (such as me) to fulminate loudly about change. The new is puzzling; loss of the old and the familiar is sad. What do I miss? The Bussard ramjet¹.

The Bussard ramjet purported to address two issues that would seem to prevent Nearly As Fast As Light (NAFAL) travel from becoming a reality: fuel and protection from the interstellar medium (ISM). As you know Bob, the ISM is the faint smear of hydrogen and other matter that is found in the near-vacuum of space. If you are going fast enough, the ISM will abrade and destroy your ship. But ISM can be your friend! Collect and compress the ISM, fuse some of the hydrogen, and use it as fuel. Any unused ISM can be ejected in the exhaust. So elegant!

The Bussard ramjet promised the stars, if one were willing to invest a little time. ...

What’s With Sci-Fi’s Fixation on Single-Gendered Planets?

I recently reread three thematically similar books: Poul Anderson’s Virgin Planet, A. Bertram Chandler’s Spartan Planet, and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Ethan of Athos. All three imagine single-gender planets: worlds whose populations are either all men or all women. This particular selection of books to reread and review was mere chance, but it got me thinking…

There are actually quite a few speculative fiction books set on single-gender planets (in which gender is mainly imagined in terms of a binary model) 1. Most of them are what-if books. As one might expect, they come up with different extrapolations.

Some single-gender planets are near-utopias; humans manage quite well with just one gender, once reproductive solutions are in place.

  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland and James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Houston, Do You Read” suggest that the world can get along just fine without the missing gender. In these cases it’s men who are ...

Classic Sci-Fi Star Systems Keep Getting Ruined by Science

Having recently discussed some possible SF solutions to the vexing problems posed by red dwarf stars, it makes a certain amount of sense to consider the various star systems that have served as popular settings for some classic science fiction—even if science has more or less put the kibosh on any real hope of finding a habitable planet in the bunch.

In olden days, back before we had anything like the wealth of information about exoplanets we have now1, SF authors playing it safe often decided to exclude the systems of pesky low-mass stars (M class) and short lived high-mass stars (O, B, and A) as potential abodes of life. A list of promising nearby stars might have looked a bit like this2

 

Star System Distance from Sol
(light-years)
Class Notes
Sol 0 G2V
Alpha Centauri A & B 4.3 G2V & K1V We ...

How SciFi Can Solve the Problem of Red Dwarf Stars

Certain facts about M-class red dwarf stars are vexing for authors and readers of SF. Not to mention reviewers. I am vexed.

First fact: they’re economical. Because they are low mass, you can make a lot more of them from a given amount of matter than you can make of mid-K to mid-F class stars1). Also, they last a long long time, even by galactic standards. Someone or something must have been frugal, because the vast majority of stars are red dwarfs. This proportion will only increase once the stelliferous era draws to an end in the near future (by galactic standards).

What’s so bad about most of the galaxy being composed of long-lived stars? Well, I am happy you asked…

A lot of science fiction authors simply ignore red dwarfs, if only because simple math suggests that the odds of an Earthlike world being in the habitable ...

Fighting Erasure: Women SF Writers of the 1970s, Part VIII

In this foray into the past, I cover women fantasy and science fiction authors who debuted between 1970 and 1979. In stark contrast to the previous instalment, this essay covers a sparsely populated range of the alphabet. Accordingly, it will include authors whose surnames begin with N, those whose surname begins with O, and those who begin with P. Even so, it’s not as long as the M entry.

Previous instalments in this series cover women writers with last names beginning with A through F, those beginning with G, those beginning with H, those beginning with I & J, those beginning with L, and those beginning with M.

 

Mary C. Pangborn

Mary C. Pangborn’s published works were all short pieces published in respected venues like Terry Carr’s Universe anthologies, Silverberg and Randall’s New Dimensions series, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Lamentably, ...

Why Are There So Few SFF Books About the Very Real Issue of Population Decline?

I discovered last week that if one wants hundreds of likes and retweets on Twitter, one can do worse than to tweet this:

“Inexplicable drop in birthrates for generation systematically denied healthcare, affordable education and even the smallest prospect of economic security.”

…in response to this.

Of course, I was joking. Well, half-joking. What’s going on here isn’t merely an expression of the hopelessness of the current generation. It’s part of a longer trend, one oddly absent from Western SF: the demographic transition.

As the article notes, “The rate has generally been below replacement since 1971.” This isn’t unique to the United States. It’s part of a general process that demographer Warren Thompson noted as far back as 1929, in which economic transformation is accompanied by a demographic change. Nations go from high birth and death rates to low death and birth rates1. When birth rates fall ...

Why Editors Matter: David Hartwell’s Extraordinary Timescape Books

Avid SF readers may know the late David G. Hartwell (10 July 1941–20 January 2016) as one of Tor Books’ senior editors. Or perhaps he may be familiar as the editor and co-editor (with Kathryn Cramer) of Year’s Best SF and Years Best Fantasy, not to mention many other themed anthologies. They might be aware of his role with the New York Review of Science Fiction. Con-goers might well remember his striking fashion sense. His technicolor shirts, waistcoats, and jackets were of eye-searing brilliance and contrast.

Thanks to Asimov’s repeated admonitions that editors matter, I began at an early age to pay attention to the humans responsible for the books I consumed en masse. When I knew which editors were behind the works I liked, I would follow them from company to company. Thus I first became aware of Hartwell as the person behind Pocket Books’ remarkable Timescape imprint...

Fighting Erasure: Women SF Writers of the 1970s, Part VII

At this stage of James’ Tour of Disco-Era Women SF Authors, we have reached M. Certain letters are deficient in authors whose surnames begin with that particular letter. Not so M. There is an abundance of authors whose surnames begin with M. Perhaps an excess. In fact, there are more authors named Murphy than the authors I listed whose names begin with I. Efforts to address this, by providing authors with exciting new initials, perhaps involving the exclamation mark or ampersand, have thus far been greeted with something less than enthusiasm by the powers-that-be.

For readers who have just joined the tour: there are several previous instalments in this series, covering women writers published in the 1970s with last names beginning with A through F, those beginning with G, those beginning with H, those beginning with I & J, those beginning with K, and those beginning ...

Tugging on Superman’s Cape: Simple Suggestions for Avoiding World-Destroying Disaster. Or Not.

The Mummy running archaeology disaster warnings

There are, I think, a few basic safety rules which, if consistently ignored, will almost always provide would-be adventurers with sufficient diversion to create an exciting plot.

Rule number one: do not engage in archaeology. Do not fund archaeology. Above all, do not free that which has been carefully entombed. In most SF and fantasy settings, there were good reasons for entombment…and they still hold.

Indiana Jones did not manage to keep the Nazis from grabbing the Ark of the Covenant. No, the Ark protected itself. As you can see…

Melting Indiana Jones GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

The upside of this experiment in archaeology was that the outcome was beneficial: pesky Nazis conveniently melted! This is not always the case. Angry gods are not always quite so particular about their victims; supernatural phenomena don’t care at all about good or bad. (I shouldn’t have to add this, but it’s 2018: Nazis are bad.)

In the future ...

The Vang: The Military Form

Fighting Erasure: Women SF Writers of the 1970s, Part VI

Once more we venture into the 1970s, this time to celebrate women who debuted between 1970 and 1979 and whose surnames begin with the letter L.

The five previous instalments of the series cover women writers with last names beginning with A through F, those beginning with Gthose beginning with H, those beginning with I & J, and those beginning with K.

 

J.A. Lawrence

J.A. Lawrence may be best known as an illustrator, but she is also an author. She is perhaps best known for “Getting Along” (featured in 1972’s Again, Dangerous Visions) as well as for the collection Star Trek 12, which was part of a long-running series adapted from scripts of the original Star Trek. While many of her works were co-authored with her then-husband, the late James Blish, 1978’s Mudd’s Angels is a solo work by Lawrence.

...

Fighting Erasure: Women SF Writers of the 1970s, Part IV

Another few weeks, another foray into the world of women authors of the 1970s. This time, my subject is women SF writers whose names begin with I or J and who debuted in the 1970s¹. There also three previous instalments in this series, covering women writers with last names beginning with A through F, those beginning with G, and those beginning with H.

This week’s instalment is short due to a peculiarity of (primarily) Anglophone surnames that I notice every time I look at my bookshelves. For some reason, there aren’t many authors whose surnames begin with I or J. When one filters by debut date, the resulting set is downright tiny. I once suggested to a publisher that they rename some of their authors so the distribution of surnames by initial was more equitable, but I fear this was greeted with the same lack of enthusiasm as ...

Why the Hell Are These Books Out of Print?

About two years ago, I reviewed Raphael Carter’s The Fortunate Fall. I could not add a link that would allow readers to purchase the book because as far as I could tell, The Fortunate Fall has been out of print for more than twenty years. I was astounded because I had the impression that the book was warmly regarded. The evidence suggests it was warmly regarded by a small number of very vocal fans1.

I tend to expect that many others will love the same books that I do. I have been proved wrong again and again. Books that I love are not reprinted. Even in this era of ebooks, all but a few lucky books come forth like flowers and wither: they slip away like shadows and do not endure. Ah, the sorrows of the reader!

Not to mention the author….

But there is also a certain satisfaction ...

Why the Hell Are These Books Out of Print?

About two years ago, I reviewed Raphael Carter’s The Fortunate Fall. I could not add a link that would allow readers to purchase the book because as far as I could tell, The Fortunate Fall has been out of print for more than twenty years. I was astounded because I had the impression that the book was warmly regarded. The evidence suggests it was warmly regarded by a small number of very vocal fans1.

I tend to expect that many others will love the same books that I do. I have been proved wrong again and again. Books that I love are not reprinted. Even in this era of ebooks, all but a few lucky books come forth like flowers and wither: they slip away like shadows and do not endure. Ah, the sorrows of the reader!

Not to mention the author….

But there is also a certain satisfaction ...

Fighting Erasure: Women SF Writers of the 1970s, Part III

Today’s joyful romp through history: women SF writers whose names begin with H and who debuted in the 1970s1. There also two previous installments in this series, covering women writers with last names beginning with A through F and those beginning with G.

 

Vicki Ann Heydron

Vicki Ann Heydron wrote most of her published fiction in collaboration with her husband, Randall Garrett. Best known of their collaborations is the six-volume Gandalara Cycle (1981–1986), in which a dying intellectual of our world is transported to a new, young body in a strange desert realm called Gandalara. Although both spouses are credited, Garrett was reportedly in a coma for much of the period in which the series was published. I rather suspect that unconsciousness would have significantly impeded active participation. Presumably, whatever Garrett’s role in plotting the series, Heydron did most of the actual writing. The Steel of Raithskar is ...