How Cordwainer Smith’s Work Influenced the Writing of Mecha Samurai Empire

My relationship with Cordwainer Smith’s work began in high school thanks to my 11th grade AP English teacher, Mr. Hom. I grew up in an abusive family and I hated going home, so I used to stay after school as long as I could, talking with my teacher about the weird worlds of literature.

He introduced me to many of my favorite literary works, from the musings on philosophy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to the maniacal defiance of godhood in Moby-Dick, as well as the suppressive thought police of 1984. But the writer that stands out most was one I’d never heard of before: Cordwainer Smith.

Mr. Hom would tell me all sorts of fantastic stories about the Instrumentality, how Smith was influenced by his time growing up China (his godfather was Sun Yat-Sen, the founding father of the Republic of China), and the unique way ...

A Hit and Two Misses: The Starchild Trilogy by Fredrick Pohl and Jack Williamson

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Today we’re going to revisit a trilogy by two authors, Fredrick Pohl and Jack Williamson, who each had science fiction writing careers spanning more than seven decades. The first book, The Reefs of Space, is one of the first science fiction books I ever read, and every time anyone talks about the Oort Cloud, the Kuiper Belt, or indeed any trans-Neptunian object (TNO), those eponymous reefs are the first things that come to my mind. So, lets see how that book holds up upon re-reading after fifty years (pretty well, actually), and ...

Five Ways Science Has Made the Solar System a More Interesting Place

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 ...

How to Make a Near-Utopia Interesting: John Varley’s Eight World Stories

Between 1974 and 1980, John Varley wrote thirteen stories and one novel in the classic Eight Worlds setting. These worlds do not include Earth, which has been seized by aliens. Humans on the Moon and Mars survived and prospered. Humans have spread across the Solar System (with the exception of alien-owned Jupiter and Earth). The human past has been marked by a calamitous discontinuity (the Invasion and the struggle to survive the aftermath), but their present is, for the most part, technologically sophisticated, peaceful, stable, and prosperous.

Peace and prosperity sound like they’re good things, but perhaps not for authors. What kind of plots can be imagined if the standard plot drivers are off the table? How does one tell stories in a setting that, while not a utopia, can see utopia at a distance ? The premise seems unpromising, but thirteen stories and a novel argue that one can ...

Doing the Math: Aliens and Advanced Tech in Science Fiction

Everyone loves them some aliens. But …if the encounter is to work out to the satisfaction of all concerned, it is best if the aliens not be too advanced (because they could brush us aside like ants) or too primitive (we might brush them aside like ants). No, there’s a Goldilocks zone for aliens, in which they are close to the same tech level as humans … and can interact peaceably with us.

Which leads me to wonder: just how likely is it that two unconnected civilizations could reach the same technological level (roughly) at the same time?

Time for some large, round numbers.

The universe is about 13.8 billion years old. The boundaries of the era in which rocky planets could form are a bit fuzzy, but Kepler-444 seems to point to them. Say the boundaries are 11 billion years old, plus or minus a billion years. OK, ...

Who Are the Forgotten Greats of Science Fiction?

Time is nobody’s friend. Authors in particular can fall afoul of time—all it takes is a few years out of the limelight. Publishers will let their books fall out of print; readers will forget about them. Replace “years” with “decades” and authors can become very obscure indeed.

The Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award was founded in 2001 to draw attention to unjustly forgotten SF authors. It is a juried award; the founding judges were Gardner Dozois, Robert Silverberg, Scott Edelman, and John Clute. The current judges are Elizabeth Hand, Barry N. Malzberg, Mike Resnick, and Robert J. Sawyer1.

I wish the award were more widely known, that it had, perhaps, its own anthology. If it did, it might look a bit like this. Who are the winners? Why should you care about them? I am so happy I pretended you asked. In order of victory, from 2001 to 2018:

Olaf ...

Trailblazing through Time and Space: The Essential Murray Leinster

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

When I was a youngster reading my dad’s Analog back issues in the mid-1960s, there were many authors I enjoyed, including H. Beam Piper, Mack Reynolds, and Poul Anderson. Among them was an author named Murray Leinster, whose stories always felt fresh, always had an aspect that made you think, and often had a rather ironic or humorous view of the human condition. What I didn’t know was that this author had begun his writing career just after the First World War, back in the days before the genre was even popularly known as “science ...

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 ...

Surprisingly Timely: Andre Norton’s Rereading Night of Masks

Most of the Andre Norton novels I’ve read and reread so far have had issues with being, as we say here, “of their time.” Even when they try very hard to be diverse and inclusive, they’re dated, sometimes in unfortunate ways.

Night of Masks feels amazingly modern. It’s vintage 1964 in its technology (records are kept on tapes, starships are rockets with fins), and there’s only one human female in the book, whose name is a patented Norton misfire: Gyna. But at least she’s a top-flight plastic surgeon, and she performs in accordance with her pay grade; nor is there any reference to her being a second-class human.

The plot is pretty standard. War orphan Nik Kolherne scrapes a living in the slums of the planet Korwar. Nik is the sole survivor of a shipload of refugees that was brought down by enemy fire; he was severely burned, and ...

Destruction and Renewal: Nova by Samuel R. Delany

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

There are authors who work with the stuff of legends and make it new and fresh and all their own. There are authors who make their prose sing like it was poetry, and authors whose work explores the cosmos in spaceships, dealing with physics and astronomy. And in a few rare cases, there are authors who bring all those elements together into something magical. One of those authors is Samuel R. Delany, whose book Nova is a classic of the genre.

Delany, still in his 20s, burst onto the science fiction scene of the 1960s ...

My Formative SFF: Forgotten Classics of the ’70s and ’80s

I’m a nerd from a family of nerds, and I grew up reading a lot of science fiction. Specifically, I grew up reading a lot of my mother’s science fiction collection, which included a lot of brilliant writers, some of whose works are not as well-known today as they once were.

Since this is a pity, I’d like to introduce you to some of the books that affected me strongly growing up, and influenced me as a reader—and probably also as a writer.

 

Phyllis Eisenstein, Sorcerer’s Son (1979)

This is a delightful little book about two sorcerers, a demon, and their child. (Yes, it’s complicated.) One of the sorcerers has extremely powerful nature magic; she’s a woman with a gift for working with woven things, and she spends her time nerding out about botany, mostly. The demon is a decent-hearted sort who is bound by the second sorcerer. ...

Creator of Worlds: Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Science fiction is a broad category of literature: you can have stories set in the far future, the present day, or the distant past (and even mix these together in a time travel tale). You can set your story right here on Earth, on a distant planet, or some more exotic place. Or you can create a world to your own specifications. Your protagonists can be human, alien, animal, vegetable, mineral, or some combination thereof. But there is one thing that binds all these stories together, and it is printed right up front, “on the ...

Cities in Flight: James Blish’s Overlooked Classic

James Blish was a popular science fiction writer and critic who began his literary career while still in his mid-teens. Not yet out of high school, Blish created his own science fiction fanzine, and shortly thereafter became an early member of the Futurians, a society of science fiction fans, many of whom went on to become well-known writers and editors. From the ’40s to the ’70s, Blish submitted a slew of fascinating tales to a variety of pulp magazines, including FutureAstounding Science Fiction, Galaxy Science FictionThe Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Worlds of If, just to name a handful. Although Blish’s most widely recognized contribution to the science fiction genre may be his novelizations of the original 1960s Star Trek episodes (to which his talented wife Judith Lawrence contributed), his magnum opus is undoubtedly the numerous “Okie” tales written over the span of a decade and ...

Classic SF for Young Readers: The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Rey and Revolt on Alpha C by Robert Silverberg

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

The paths to science fiction fandom are numerous. Some people are hooked by a movie, a paperback picked up at an airport, a TV show, a book loaned by a friend, or a musty-smelling stack of magazines in the corner of a basement, and the joys of reading open up to them. For many years, a major source of books for young readers has been the Scholastic Corporation. They distribute books and educational materials by mail order, through book fairs, and more recently via the internet, and among these offerings have been many science fiction ...

C.L. Moore’s Northwest Smith Stories: Pulp Hero vs. Cosmic Horrors

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

There was a day when magazine racks were far larger than they are today, and choices were far more varied. If you wanted science fiction adventure, you could read Planet Stories or Amazing Stories. If you wanted stories with science and rivets, you could read Astounding Science Fiction. For Earthbound adventures you could read Doc Savage Magazine, Argosy, or Blue Book. And if you wanted horror stories, your first choice was Weird Tales. The stories in that magazine ranged from the pure horror of H. P. Lovecraft and the barbarian tales of Robert ...

A Brief History of the Big Dumb Object Story in Science Fiction

For reasons relating to my on-going Because My Tears Are Delicious To You reviews over on my site, I was reminded of the golden age of what reviewer Roz Kaveny called the “Big Dumb Object” story. Perhaps a definition is in order.

Contrary to the name, BDOs are not necessarily dumb. In fact, most of them have rather sophisticated infrastructure working away off-stage preventing the story from being a Giant Agglomeration of Useless Scrap story. What they definitely are is large. To be a BDO, the Object needs to be world-sized, at least the volume of a moon and preferably much larger. BDOs are also artificial. Some…well, one that I can think of but probably there are others…skirt the issue by being living artifacts but even there, they exist because some being took steps to bring them into existence.

There may be another characteristic BDOs need to have to be ...

Revisiting Ringworld: Larry Niven’s Timeless Classic

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

There is nothing quite like reading about the act of exploration: tales of expeditions up mysterious jungle rivers, archaeologists in lost cities, spelunkers in caverns deep beneath the earth, or scientists pursuing the latest discovery. And in science fiction, there is a special type of story that evokes a particular sense of wonder, the Big Dumb Object, or BDO, story. A giant artifact is found, with no one around to explain it, and our heroes must puzzle out its origin and its purpose. And one of the best of these tales is Larry Niven’s groundbreaking ...

Quality Over Quantity: The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum

Sometimes, a story hits you like a ton of bricks, and you immediately resolve to look for more by that author. For me, “A Martian Odyssey,” by Stanley G. Weinbaum was one of those stories. I read it in an anthology I’d found at the library, but couldn’t find other books by him on the shelves. Years later, though, I came across a collection with his name on it and immediately shelled out $1.65 to purchase it. And then found out about Weinbaum’s untimely death, which explained why I couldn’t find any of his other works. It was soon apparent that he was not a “one-hit wonder,” as every story in the collection was worth reading.

In the mid-1930s, when Stanley Weinbaum started writing science fiction, the field was considered the pulpiest of pulp fiction. The stories were full of action and adventure, but thin on character, realism, and ...

Classic SF Radio Dramas to Stretch the Imagination

You can have your Star Treks, your X-Files and your Expanses. I prefer my SF dramas on radio, partly because I was raised on CBC Radio, BBC World Service and CKMS1, and partly because (as Stan Freberg pointed out) radio’s visual effects are so convincing. We live in a golden age of online archives; many of the classic anthology-style science fiction shows are online. That said, not all radio shows are created equal.

Mutual Broadcasting System’s 2000 Plus (1950 – 1952), for example, is historically significant as the very first anthology-style SF radio. It’s not especially entertaining. The existing archives of CBS’s Beyond Tomorrow (1950), ABC’s Tales of Tomorrow (1953) and ABC’s World Security Workshop (1946 – 1947) are fragmentary or nonexistent.

The Mutual Broadcasting System’s Exploring Tomorrow (1957 – 1958) adapted stories from Astounding Magazine (now Analog Science Fiction and Fact). Astounding editor John ...

Lessons in Chivalry (and Chauvinism): Have Space Suit—Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

There are many gateways into science fiction—books that are our first encounter with a world of limitless possibilities. And because we generally experience them when we are young and impressionable, these books have a lasting impact that can continue for a lifetime. In the late 20th Century, among the most common gateways to SF were the “juvenile” books of Robert A. Heinlein. The one that had the biggest impression on me opened with a boy collecting coupons from wrappers on bars of soap, which starts him on a journey that extends beyond our galaxy. ...