Five 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 ...

Five Collections of Classic SF Ready for Rediscovery


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Time erodes. Time erodes author reputations. When new books stop appearing, old readers forget a once favorite author and new readers may never encounter writers who were once well known.

It’s fortunate that we live in something of a golden age of reprints, whether physical books or ebooks. This is also the golden age of finding long-out-of-print books via online used book services. Now authors perhaps unjustly forgotten can reach new readers. I’ve been reminded of a few such authors; let me share a few of them with you.

 

Katherine MacLean, who I regret to report died earlier this month, had a long career. Most of her short pieces were published in the 1950s; most of her novels were published in the 1970s. She was publishing occasional pieces late in the 1990s, but by then, many fans had forgotten her or never heard of her work. (An exception: SFWA ...

Gender and the Hugo Awards, by the Numbers


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When I heard people were apparently upset about the gender balance of this year’s Hugo winners, I thought “I could give the records a quick eyeball and fill the empty abyss of daily existence for a short time establish once and for all whether or not this year was particularly atypical. If there’s one thing known about human nature, it is that concrete numbers resolve all arguments.

Because I don’t want to offend any gods that are lurking about with the sin of excessive perfection, I only looked at the prose fiction categories. Still, even a quick perusal reveals an astounding trend.

The longer data sets are in the end note (because I am pretty sure a footnote of that length would break Tor.com’s footnote system). Here is the Coles Notes version:

Of 65 years in which the Best Novel Hugos were issued, 45 (69%) had finalist ballots ...

SFF Works Linked by One Canadian University


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You might not immediately identify Ontario’s University of Waterloo as a hotbed of speculative fiction writing. The establishment is far better known for its STEM programs, baffled-looking first-year students, the horrifying things in the tunnels, and vast flocks of velociraptor-like geese. So you may be surprised to learn that the University has produced a number of science fiction and fantasy authors over the years. For example….

 

The earliest UW work of which I am aware is Thomas J. Ryan’s 1977 The Adolescence of P-1. In this vintage text, University of Waterloo student Gregory Burgess writes P-1 (what we would now call a virus) to covertly commandeer computer resources for Burgess. Its spread isn’t covert enough; Burgess is outed and expelled. His creation lives on, however, spreading across the rudimentary computer networks of the late Disco Era and eventually achieving self-awareness and intelligence.

P-1 is determined to survive at ...

Celebrating Poul Anderson with Five Favourite Works


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Poul Anderson appreciation five favorites

Poul Anderson died on this day back in 2001. Anderson’s career spanned over sixty years, from the 1940s to the early 2000s. He wrote fiction and non-fiction. He published in many genres: fantasy, science fiction, historicals, and mysteries. He wrote dozens of novels and hundreds of shorter pieces, all of a level of quality that was never less than competent—and sometimes better. The often acerbic Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls Anderson “his generation’s most prolific sf writer of any consistent quality[…].” (He was the anti-Lionel Fanthorpe.)

Two aspects of his work drew me to Anderson’s work as a teenager. One was his commitment to verisimilitude, which went beyond the usual hard-SF author’s focus on straightforward physics.  Anderson’s interests were broad; as a result we got whimsy like “Uncleftish Beholding,” written in an alternate form of English lacking many common loan  words, and essays like “...

Science Fiction vs. Science: Bidding Farewell to Outdated Conceptions of the Solar System


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Science fiction is often about discovering new things. Sometimes it is also about loss. Consider, for example, the SF authors of the early space probe era. On the plus side, after years of writing about Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and the other worlds of the Solar System, they would find out what those worlds were really like. On the minus side, all the infinite possibilities would be replaced by a single reality—one that probably wouldn’t be much like the Solar System of the old pulp magazines.

Not that science fiction’s consensus Old Solar System, featuring dying Mars and Martians, or swamp world Venus, was ever plausible. Even in the 1930s, educated speculations about the other planets were not optimistic about the odds that the other worlds were so friendly as to be merely dying. (Don’t believe me? Sample John W. Campbell’s articles from the mid-1930s.)

Science fiction authors simply ignored ...

How Science Fiction Imagined the First Moon Landing


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Has it really only been just five short decades since humans landed on the Moon? From one viewpoint, it’s a marvelous achievement. From another viewpoint, a downer—hard-working SF writers can no longer write thrilling tales about being the first man to step onto the Moon.

Of course, we now know going to the Moon is a trivial matter of harnessing a respectable fraction of the wealthiest nation on the planet’s economy for a decade or so. Old-timey SF authors thought it might be difficult, which is why they often wrote tales in which the first human landed on the Moon long after 1969.

Many such tales were published in the days of yore. Here are several that amused me.

Take the first line of Forbidden Planet’s opening monologue, for example:

In the final decade of the 21st century, men and women in rocket ships landed on the moon.

That ...

Bad SF Ideas in Real Life: NASA’s Never-Realized Plans for Venus


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Many readers may find the plots of some SF novels deeply implausible. “Who,” they ask, “would send astronauts off on an interstellar mission before verifying the Go Very Fast Now drive was faster than light and not merely as fast as light? Who would be silly enough to send colonists on a one-way mission to distant worlds on the basis of very limited data gathered by poorly programmed robots? Who would think threatening an alien race about whom little is known, save that they’ve been around for a million years, is a good idea?”

Some real people have bad ideas; we’re lucky that comparatively few of them become reality. Take, for example, a proposal to send humans to Venus. Not to land, but as a flyby.

After the Apollo program had landed humans on the Moon, the obvious question was, “What next?” Some proposals were carried out: ...

5 Ways Science Has Made Science Fiction More Interesting


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It may sometimes seem as if science does nothing but harsh SF’s vibe: “No stealth in space,” “Mars is nigh-impossible to terraform with on-site resources,” “relativity and its speed of light limit has stood up to eleven plus decades of intense testing,” and “all getting bitten by a radioactive spider does is raise a small welt and give one a very slightly increased chance of cancer.” BUT…science gives as well as takes. Here are five examples of ways in which the Solar System as we currently understand it is way more awesome than the Solar System of my youth.

Even limiting oneself to “potential abodes of life (natural or introduced by us)”, the Solar System is far more welcoming than it seemed 40 years ago. Granted, it helps that I grew up in that window between Mariner 2, which ushered in eighteen years of increasingly gloomy revelations about the ...

Remembering the Moon Landing: Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire


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There have been many accounts written about the American Apollo Program, which succeeded in placing men (Commander Neil Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin) on the moon for the first time July 20, 1969. My favourite account is Michael Collins’ 1974 Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys. Collins was the Command Module Pilot. While the Lunar Lander descended to the Moon’s surface, it was Collins’ task to remain with the Command Module in Lunar orbit. Collins is therefore a man who has been within a hundred miles of the Moon without ever touching down on the surface of that world.

Rather than making any attempt at a dispassionate, neutral history of the Apollo Program, Collins provides a very personal account, a Collins-eye view of the American path to the moon. It’s not a short process, which is why it takes 360 pages before Collins and his more well-known companions ...

Five SFF Works Reminiscent of Andre Norton


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What other authors wrote books with thematic similarities to the books of Andre Norton? Too bad that no one has ever asked me that question. Let’s pretend that someone has asked. Here are five suggestions.

 

David Gerrold might be surprised to find himself on this list, and even more surprised to see which book in particular comes to mind as Nortonesque. Moonstar Odyssey (the first and as far as I know only book in the Jobe sequence) is set on Satlik, a terraformed planet orbiting an atypical star. The same superb biotech that has guided the terraforming has also allowed the humans of Satlik to change themselves as they please. They can choose their gender; it’s usual to do this when adolescent. An unfortunate few are physically unable to do so. They are treated as pariahs. (Genetic engineering or no genetic engineering, humans can be jerks and they love ...

Great Lost Civilizations of Science Fiction and Fantasy


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As previously discussed, it’s possible to do such a thorough job of destroying a civilization that all knowledge of it is lost…at least until inexplicable relics start to turn up. One example: the real world Indus Valley Civilization, which might have flourished from 3300 to 1300 BC, across territory now found in western and northwestern India, Pakistan and northeastern Afghanistan. It was contemporaneous with the civilizations of Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China. History did a thorough enough job of erasing the Indus Valley Civilization from the records that when modern archaeology began to study it, it wasn’t at all clear whose ruins were being explored. It just goes to show that no matter how great a civilization might be, time is greater.

Thanks to the exploits of 19th-century archaeologists (many of them no better than Indiana Jones, digging for statues and jewelry while ignoring evidence of daily ...

Heinlein’s Juveniles vs. Andre Norton’s Young Adult Novels


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About five years ago, I reviewed all of the Heinlein Scribner juveniles (plus the two associated novels). Immediately thereafter, I reviewed fifty Andre Norton novels. This was not a coincidence. It just so happens that back in the 1970s, Ace re-published most of the Heinlein juveniles. Those editions usually contained a full-page ad for Heinlein’s Ace books and right next to it, an ad for fifty Andre Norton novels. Clearly someone at Ace thought the market for Heinlein and Norton overlapped.

So, how do their YA books compare?

Heinlein’s books are easy to read; the prose is fluent, if frequently halted for folksy lectures. Norton’s prose…well…it’s functional but stilted.

In the books written between Rocket Ship Galileo and The Rolling Stones, Heinlein was careful to make sure that his setting was plausible. Most readers might not notice this, but I did: he cared enough to get his orbital mechanics ...

Slide Rules and Nuclear Apocalypse


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People often fear (or dislike, or get stressed out about) change—in culture, in fandom, in fiction, in science… and they like to make their displeasure known. For the record, I find complaining that the inexorable passage of time has transformed fandom or other realities as ludicrous as assessing people by their preferences in slide rules… but I suppose shouting at clouds fills the empty hours.

Still, it must be said: slide rules are pretty cool and way important to the history of science fiction, as evidenced by the ray gun and slide rule toting space pirate on the cover of Astounding Science Fiction.

Like so many of us, I cut my teeth on a Pickett. Pickett made fine slide rules and I still know where mine is. Hence you may be surprised to discover that the slide rule I have used most often was not one of my Picketts. It ...

4 SF Works Featuring a Far-Future U.S.A.


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From the perspective of a foreigner, there’s a baffling lacuna in American science fiction.

The U.S. has moats on three sides, an arctic desert to the north and a somewhat warmer desert to the South. It outnumbers its immediate neighbours; those times it has actually lost wars have been erased from memory; and yet…in SF, it’s a nation doomed to splinter, to be crushed by enemy troops, scorched off the face of the Earth, or absorbed into a bland world state. It’s been supine under the unstoppable might of Grand Fenwick, streamlined thanks to rapacious Canadian imperialists benefactors, or covered in ineradicable crab-grass.

Isn’t it possible that the U.S. might turn out to be as durable as Rome, China, or Ancient Egypt? That something continuous with the United States could be puttering around in the 45th century? I have wracked my fannish brain for examples of such ...

Ten Favorite Flawed Books That Are Always Worth Rereading


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We all love to assemble lists of the best this and the most impressive that, the masterpieces of science fiction…but what about those books to which one returns despite flaws that are undeniable? I expect all readers have their own lists of flawed or problematic personal faves. Here are ten of mine.

This is in no sense a comprehensive list.

 

Rocketship Galileo was Robert A. Heinlein’s first juvenile and it shows. RAH was still working out how to write a compelling long narrative (he already knew how to write fine short stories). Rocketship Galileo, in which plucky engineer Don Cargreaves, his teen nephew Ross, and Ross’ pals Art and Maurice head off on the first trip to the Moon, features characters thin as typing paper. The science and tech were long ago superseded by history. Still, to quote an old review of mine: “if it’s wrong for an ...

The Expert’s Guide to Writing Book Recommendation Lists


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It is as inevitable as the green sky above us, the annual migration of the giant oak trees, and the monthly return of the triple moons: sooner or later, well-read fans will be inspired to assemble a list of recommended books for younger people or other fen.

I’m a list veteran, having compiled my first list in grade thirteen at a teacher’s request. Surely my lifetime of reading and listing qualifies me to offer timely advice to others contemplating their first lists—lists that I am sure will end up being every bit as apropos as the ones that populate so many discussions of this sort.

The most important rule is do absolutely no research.  If the titles don’t come to mind at once, then how on Earth can they be significant works? Disregard those croakers who dwell overlong on just how many science fiction and fantasy books have ...

Single Star System Space Opera; or, Those Pesky Belters, Revisited


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Paul Weimer recently asked:

“I saw JJ’s comment above about Space Opera and wonder just how much space is required to make a Space Opera a Space Opera, as opposed to being something more akin to Planetary Romance.”

It’s an interesting question that prompted responses on File 770, Cora Buhlert’s blog, and no doubt elsewhere. There probably is no hard line between Space Opera and Planetary Romance; that does not mean we cannot argue incessantly discuss passionately where the line should be drawn. Here’s my two cents (rounded up to a nickel because Canada phased pennies out in 2013)…

One world is not enough (probably). There are space operas that center on one world—novels such as Dune or The Snow Queen come to mind—but their plots require interactions between that planet and the rest of the narrative universe. The story may take place on one world, but this ...

Five SFF Stories Of Revenge and Forbearance (But Mostly Revenge)


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When one is affronted, one may choose to respond with forbearance (settling differences over a glass of wine… or a can of beer) or revenge. Offer the prospective victim a cask of Amontillado and then wall the bastard up alive. Preferably whilst singing a cheerful song of vengeance, because who does not like music?

On the whole, society works better if people choose forbearance. But revenge gives ever so much more opportunity for drama. Guess which option science fiction and fantasy authors seem to prefer?

Here are five of my favourite SFF novels of revenge (and forbearance).

 

H. Beam Piper’s Space Viking starts with a happy event, the marriage of Lucas, Lord Trask, to Lady Elaine. But the mad Lord Andray Dunnan has decided that Elaine’s rejection of his suit was a personal insult and has plotted to kill Trask and Elaine. Dunnan kills Elaine, misses Trask, and flees ...

Light Sails in Science and Fiction


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The classical rocket equation—M/m = e^(delta-v/exhaust velocity)—is a harsh mistress. If you want increased velocity, you have to increase fuel. For every increase in delta-v, you increase the ratio between the dry mass of a spacecraft and the fully fuelled mass. The ship gets heavier, needs more fuel, yadda yadda.

This is a pain for the sort of SF author who aims at a patina of verisimilitude: chemical rockets, for example, are limited to comparatively small delta-vs (which is why, for example, so few probes have been sent to Mercury). There are a number of ways to sidestep the limitations imposed by the rocket equation, the most straight forward of which is to somehow obtain the necessary thrust from some external source…which brings us to light sails.

Light bouncing off a mirrored surface does not exert much force. A light sail one square kilometre ...