Buck to the Future: The Many Incarnations of Buck Rogers


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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 we think about stories that brought science fiction to the attention of mass audiences, today we tend to think immediately of Star Wars. For decades before George Lucas brought his creation to the big screen, however, there was one character who stood at center stage: Anthony “Buck” Rogers. Because Buck has visited us in so many forms over the years, I’m going to look at three different works today. The first is Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan, a book combining the two novelettes from Amazing Stories that first introduced the character. ...

Gone to the Dogs: City by Clifford D. Simak


This post is by Alan Brown from Tor.com Frontpage Partial - Blog and Story Content


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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.

Sometimes, a book hits you like a ton of bricks. That’s what happened to me when I read City by Clifford D. Simak. It didn’t have a lot of adventure, or mighty heroes, chases, or battles in it, but I still found it absolutely enthralling. The humans are probably the least interesting characters in the book, with a collection of robots, dogs, ants, and other creatures stealing the stage. It’s one of the first books I ever encountered that dealt with the ultimate fate of the human race, and left a big impression on my ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

Science and a Thrilling Space Rescue: A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke


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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.

Humanity has long referred to the flattest areas of the Moon as “seas.” And for a time, it was theorized that those seas might be covered with a dust so fine it would have the qualities of liquid—dust deep enough that it might swallow vehicles that landed upon it. That led to author Arthur C. Clarke wondering if you could build a craft that would “float” upon the dust…and what might happen if one of those vessels sank. While it is rare to find someone who hasn’t heard of Clarke and his major works, ...

(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 ...

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


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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


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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


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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 ...

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


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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


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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?


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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


This post is by Alan Brown from Tor.com Frontpage Partial - Blog and Story Content


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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?


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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


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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


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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


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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


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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 ...