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 ...

Light Sails in Science and Fiction


This post is by James Davis Nicoll from Tor.com Frontpage Partial - Blog and Story Content


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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 ...

Better Science Fiction Through Actual Science


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Science fiction purports to be based on science. I hate to tell you this, but a lot of SF is as close to science and math as Taco Bell is to authentic Mexican cuisine.

I revelled and still revel in mass ratios and scale heights, albedos and exhaust velocities, evolutionary biology and world history. (I’m not the only one. Big wave to my homies out there.) So…as much as I love SF, I’m constantly running head-on into settings that could just not work the way the author imagines. My SOD (suspension of disbelief) is motoring along merrily and suddenly, bang! Dead in its tracks. Perhaps you can understand now why so many of my reviews grumble about worldbuilding.

Teen me had no net, no Wikipedia. It was dead-tree books or nothing. Teen me also had his father’s library card and could access the University of Waterloo libraries. (In retrospect, ...

Hope Springs Eternal: Five Unfinished Series That Remain a Joy to Read


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Readers seem to spend a fair amount of time complaining about ongoing, unfinished series—perhaps they’ve always done so, but when they do it online, we all hear the kvetching. Grumbling about books seems an odd way to spend one’s spring (if one is in the northern hemisphere of Earth), but no doubt winter is coming. Allow me to offer these words of comfort: if you read widely, eventually you will discover yourself mid-way through a series as yet unfinished, with no clear idea when or if the next book will come out. (Unless you are one of those stalwarts who absolutely refuse to start reading a series unless it is finished. Poor souls.) Here are some of my favourite unfinished series…

 

Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman series. Set in what initially appears to be a stock fantasy realm, the books focus on Steerswoman Rowan’s efforts to turn a vast body ...

The Sad But Inevitable Trend Toward Forgotten SF


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I ran my “Young People Read Old SF” review series for about three years. Although it’s currently on hiatus, and while the sample size is of course small, I think it’s large enough that some conclusions can be drawn. The comments sections around the net are similarly a small sample, but again large enough that I can conclude that a lot of you are not going to like what I have to say, which is:

Love your beloved classics now—because even now, few people read them, for the most part, and fewer still love them. In a century, they’ll probably be forgotten by all but a few eccentrics.

If it makes you feel any better, all fiction, even the books people love and rush to buy in droves, is subject to entropy. Consider, for example, the bestselling fiction novels of the week I was born, which was not so long ...

The Luddites Were Right: SF Works That Show the Downside to New Technology


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It’s a given: new technology is always better than old technology. And even if it were not, it’s our duty to the economy to purchase the new shiny.

Only a reactionary would object to ticket scanners merely because they are much slower than the bespectacled eye. Or object to mandatory software upgrades on the specious ground that everything they do, they do less well than the previous release.

Sure, sometimes the new thing is a bit disruptive—but isn’t a little disruption good for us all? At least that’s what the people who stand to profit from disruption tell us….

Let’s examine the contrarian position: newer isn’t always best. And let’s take our examples from science fiction, which is dedicated to exploring the new…and, sometimes inadvertently, showing that the newest thing may not work as intended.

 

Take the humble tramp spaceship, for example, puttering along at a reasonable 10 meters/second/second. ...

Eurovision 2019 Is Here: Science Fiction Fans, Rejoice!


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Any SF fan who loves spectacle, who also loves or at least can tolerate music, is utterly missing out if they don’t follow that glorious tribute to musical excess known as the Eurovision Song Contest.

Eurovision is an international competition that promotes unity by setting nations against each other. Drawing mainly from the member countries of the European Broadcasting Union, the dozens of contestant nations are primarily European or at least Europe-adjacent (although for some reason Australia takes part). It was founded in 1956, which makes it roughly as old as the Hugo Awards. As you know, Bob and Bobette, creating awards and events is a lot easier than maintaining them, but the contest has since been broadcast every year without fail. Go Eurovision!

After the performances have been aired, each nation casts a positional ballot not entirely unlike the Hugo’s final ballot. This ballot is prepared from a combination ...

On Needless Cruelty in SF: Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations”


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Science fiction celebrates all manner of things; one of them is what some people might call “making hard decisions” and other people call “needless cruelty driven by contrived and arbitrary worldbuilding chosen to facilitate facile philosophical positions.” Tomato, tomato.

Few works exemplify this as perfectly as Tom Godwin’s classic tale “The Cold Equations.” The story is perfectly spherical nonsense, absurd from any direction one looks at it. Because it provides an apparent justification for doing terrible things in the name of necessity, a lot of fans and editors love it. Just look at how often it has been anthologized.

I suppose if I don’t put in a spoiler warning for a 65-year-old story, someone somewhere will complain. So here it is in bold print…

[Spoilers below. And also murderous jerks.]

I am totally going to reveal in the text below that the adorable young girl in the ...

A Brief History of Pamela Sargent’s Women of Wonder Anthologies


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The 1970s may have been an era when most of the interesting new writers were women, but you sure would not know it from that era’s Best SF of the Year anthologies. These were almost always overwhelmingly male .

Women pushed back. They managed to fund and publish their own anthologies, filled with notable works by women—anthologies like 1976’s Aurora: Beyond Equality, edited by Vonda N. McIntyre and Susan Janice Anderson, and Virginia Kidd’s 1978 Millennial Women. Which brings us to Pamela Sargent’s Women of Wonder anthologies.

Sargent had been shopping the initial anthology around for several years without luck. Publishers generally felt the market for such an anthology would be small. She got a lucky break when Vonda N. McIntyre asked Vintage Books how it was that despite having done all-male anthologies, they’d never published an all-women one. Vintage was interested in the idea, provided ...