6 Different Ways Sci-Fi/Fantasy Characters Avoid Traditional School

16 October 2016


As summer winds down and students troop off to school, we found ourselves thinking about the many different types of learning in SFF. One of the most fun aspects of genre is that writers who choose to tell coming-of-age stories and campus stories have so many more options than writers of realistic fiction—where your litfic author has to choose between, say, high school and college, or public, private, and parochial school, a genre author’s options are a lot cooler. Hey, how about if your teenage protagonist learns how to fly when he becomes a goose? That can totally happen in SFF! Want to send your characters to boarding school? Why not make it a magical boarding school? A summer internship in an office can make for lackluster reading, but what if you up the stakes by apprenticing your character to aliens… who are fighting a battle to save the universe?

. . . .

Learning by some form of transformation goes hand-in-hand with a dearth of genre fiction–and so do disguises! Of course, some transformations are disguises in and of themselves–such as changing your students into animals, as The Once and Future King or The Magicians would have it. Merlin’s more naturalistic brand of teaching imbues a young King Arthur with a great deal of wisdom, while a similar exploration for Quentin Coldwater was decidedly… less useful on that front.

Literal and permanent transformations often lead to an elevation of consciousness, like Binti’s transformative experience in Nnedi Okorafor’s eponymous novella, or David Bowman’s transformation into the Starchild in 2001. And then there are types of transformative learning that involve passing down one person’s experience to another; the Bene Gesserit of the Dune series have Reverend Mothers that are imbued with the knowledge of all women who held the position before them, and the metacrisis of the Doctor-Donna on Doctor Who seemed to give Donna Noble access to all of the Doctor’s knowledge as a Time Lord (though that proved deadly).

. . . .

To some degree, most epic quests have a degree of learning-via-travel: go forth, save the world, pick up a few fighting tips and camping skills on the way! But some feel a bit more like legit gap years than others. Foremost among these? Westley’s transformation into the Dread Pirate Roberts. Our boy had gone into the world to seek his fortune, but what he got was something else: an education. And let’s be honest: his fencing skills (and cool mask) were probably way more interesting to Buttercup than plain ol’ money would’ve been

Then there are the hobbits, who might never left the Shire if not for that pesky ring. They had the whole wide world to learn about, even if it was slightly—ok, more than slightly—traumatic. Arthur Dent learned about towels, flying, and large swaths of the galaxy when Ford Prefect whisked him off-planet. You could make a pretty good argument for Arya Stark’s time at the House of Black and White as her gap year away from Westeros—no longer a child, not a fully fledged assassin quiteyet. And when Syenite, in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, sets out on her mission with Alabaster, she learns just how much she didn’t know about her world. And what was the voyage of the Dawn Treader if not a really excellent semester at sea?

Link to the rest at

Dispelling the Myth of Strong Female Characters

3 October 2016

From SFWA:

When it comes to equal representation in fiction, women have a long way to go. There simply aren’t enough female characters in books and that’s counting those that appear only as romantic interests, victims to be saved, or someone’s mother. Is it really so much to ask for an equal number and variety of well-written, three-dimensional female characters?

What is a ‘strong’ character?

It is important to understand what we mean when talking about strong characters, be they male or female. This isn’t physical strength or the strength of their convictions. A strong character has strong characterisation. They are flawed, complex, varied, fallible, and realistic.

A common issue with novels claiming to have a strong female character is the creation of an arbitrary distinction between strong and weak, useful and ineffectual, passive and active. In such cases, women are often pigeon holed into stereotypes – the weak woman is caring and vulnerable, overly emotional, and concerned with domestic issues, while the strong woman is aggressive, abrasive, violent, and has difficulty connecting emotionally with others.

. . . .

The fallacy of the exceptional case

The chosen one is one of the most common tropes in SFF. The chosen one, by definition, must be exceptional. If the narrative involves a chosen female, many writers – and readers – will, by default, exclaim that they have found an example of a strong female character. But simply being the prophetic wunderkind does not make a character strong by default.

If your story hinges on this particular woman being special, an exceptional member of her gender, it is easy to brush off the majority of women as ‘weak’. While stories involving such characters often involve men slowly realising they shouldn’t be so surprised that a woman can handle herself so well, the very framing of the narrative in a way that has men writing off most women as incapable is an issue unto itself. If only one woman is ever shown to be capable and is presented as an exceptional case, gender equality has a long way to go.

Link to the rest at SFWA 

PG says that one of the many benefits of indie publishing is that authors no longer have to please acquiring editors in Manhattan or elsewhere.

Indie authors of any gender can create and self-publish books with exactly the plots and characters they think best, free of any archaic or outmoded tropes that encumber their genre.

Indie authors have already shown that there are markets for all sorts of fiction and many reader interests that were either overlooked or ignored by narrow and tradition-bound publishers.

The Space Between Us

30 September 2016

Interesting premise for a scifi movie.



A Glossary of Terms Useful in Critiquing Science Fiction

29 September 2016

From SFWA:

This is only a partial list of the terms we have found most useful in critiquing sf. The glossary is issued now and then … but it is a living document. Amendments are welcome. If you use additional terms, or have better examples than those listed here, please suggest them.

  • Action outline presents the plot and conflicts with little regard for staging. The author is describing a world idea, not telling the story. An action outline is a synopsis of a book not yet written; it is a precursor to a scene outline. See Scene Outline.
  • At stake. Drama is powerful if something is at stake: that is, if the characters involved have something to gain and something to lose. The reader must have something at stake as well — a desire to see the outcome. Usually this is either a stake in the theme, in the characters and their aspirations, or in the resolution of the conflict. When nothing is at stake, there is no drama. (Jim Morrow)

. . . .

  • Cookie. An element, not necessary to the plot, which rewards the reader who has been paying careful attention. Ideally, a cookie is a clever turn of phrase, an image, an allusion, or some other element of richness which the lazy reader will pass by Then the careful reader, who finds it, realizes that the author has left this small package just as a reward for paying attention … and that, in turn, encourages the reader to pay even more attention. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Countersinking. Expositional redundancy, usually performed by an author who isn’t confident of his storytelling: making the actions implied in the story explicit. “‘Let’s get out of here,’ he said, urging her to leave.” (Lewis Shiner)
  • Dare to be stupid. An exhortation by a critic to an author whom the critic thinks is not stretching enough. Authors grow by daring to write bolder, more imaginative, more personal, or more emotionally powerful situations and confrontations. Since writing that stretches is by definition unpracticed, the result may be rougher than a less ambitious effort. The author must trust the critics to recognize the stretch and help the author build or expand his talents. (CSFW: Steve Popkes)
  • Destage. To move offstage action which has been shown onstage. Things can be intentionally destaged (when they’re undramatic) or unintentionally (when the author’s staged the wrong things). (CSFW: Steve Popkes)
  • Destination. The emotional endpoint of a story: where the author’s intent coincides and rings with the action in the story, where the experiential contract between writer and reader is fulfilled. The author sets out to create certain responses in the reader; the destination is the place where the author does so. One may have plot destinations (Frodo gets to the Crack of Doom), character destinations (Frodo masters the Ring and himself), or understanding destinations (Frodo learns he’s adult and strong enough to scour the Shire). But stories must always have destinations. In the best writing, the characters’ struggle involves multiple destinations that relate to one another (inner and outer journeys echo each other). (CSFW: Steve Popkes)

Link to the rest at SFWA and thanks to Felix for the tip.

One of the Earliest Science Fiction Books Was Written in the 1600s by a Duchess

21 September 2016

From Atlas Obscura:

No one could get into philosophical argument with Lady Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and walk away unchanged. Born in 1623, Cavendish was an outspoken aristocrat who traveled in circles of scientific thinkers, and broke ground on proto-feminism, natural philosophy (the 17th century term for science), and social politics.

In her lifetime, she published 20 books. But amid her poetry and essays, she also published one of the earliest examples of science fiction. In 1666. She named it The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World.

In the story, a woman is kidnapped by a lovesick merchant sailor, and forced to join him at sea. After a windstorm sends the ship north and kills the men, the woman walks through a portal at the North Pole into a new world: one with stars so bright, midnight could be mistaken for midday. A parallel universe where creatures are sentient, and worm-men, ape-men, fish-men, bird-men and lice-men populate the planet. They speak one language, they worship one god, and they have no wars. She becomes their Empress, and with her otherworldly subjects, she explores natural wonders and questions their observations using science.

And Cavendish starts it all by addressing the women in the audience. “To all Noble and Worthy Ladies,” she begins, and lets us know about the strange trip in store for them:

“The First Part is Romancical; the Second, Philosophical; and the Third is meerly Fancy; or (as I may call it) Fantastical. And if (Noble Ladies) you should chance to take pleasure in reading these Fancies, I shall account my self a Happy Creatoress: If not, I must be content to live a Melancholly Life in my own World, which I cannot call a Poor World, if Poverty be only want of Gold, and Jewels: for, there is more Gold in it, than all the Chymists ever made; or, (as I verily believe) will ever be able to make.”

But when Cavendish put her pen to paper, she didn’t just aim to tell a fun story. She also examined popular theories about science.

. . . .

Growing up during the English civil war, Cavendish had an unusual upbringing for a woman in the 17th century. Described as a “shy” child, she lived for years with other royals in exile. But upon her return to England as a Duchess, she gained entry to a scientific world that most women of her time could not access. Her husband, who was also involved in natural philosophy, supported her interests and connected her with Thomas Hobbes, Robert Boyle, and René Descartes.

Cavendish was recognized as the first female natural philosopher, or scientist, of her time. She was also the first woman to be invited to observe experiments at the new British Royal Society, a forum for scientists, in light of her contributions to natural philosophy in her poems and plays.

Link to the rest at Atlas Obscura and thanks to Valerie for the tip.

Individual science fiction stories

21 September 2016

Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today – but the core of science fiction, its essence has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.

Isaac Asimov

A Man Keeps His Memories But Loses His Body

17 September 2016

From i09, a trailer for an Australian-made short film:

Elements of Total Recall, Ghost in the Shell, and, uh, Face/Off pepper the trailer for Restoration, a noirish thriller about a man who is horrified to awaken from a memory-upload procedure to find he’s been zapped into the wrong body. Even worse, his old self is still out there—but occupied by someone else’s mind.

Link to the rest at i09


Amazon France Mistakenly Lists Release Date for George R.R. Martin’s The Winds of Winter

8 September 2016

From GalleyCat:

Rumors were spinning earlier today that a publication date for George R.R. Martin’s The Winds of Winter has been revealed. According to the Amazon France website, the release date for the sixth installment of the A Song of Ice and Fire series was listed as Mar. 9, 2017; the date from the listing has since been taken down.

Entertainment Weekly reports that Random House, the United States publishing house behind Martin’s beloved fantasy series, issued a statement to address the gossip. The publisher declared that “any on-sale dates currently listed online for the novel are incorrect.”

Link to the rest at GalleyCat

Codification, Re-Codification, and Alternate Future History

7 September 2016

From Ground Based Space Matters:

Sometimes when you are reading science fiction you find that the story’s future is in our past.   What could have happened clearly didn’t because that future is over. The emotionally satisfying convention here is to treat the story as an alternate future history, an alternate timeline. This way we can continue to enjoy classics like Robert Heinlein’s Door into Summer, despite the lack of cold sleep in 1970.

A lot of people use the easy method to determine whether the writer must have been describing a time line that branched off from our own. They will notice—without error—that the ‘90’s are over. There are other, more subtle ways to catch on to the creation of invisible timelines. Space law can help you out here.

Michael Flynn’s Firestar series contains those kinds of clues. The books are set in the near-future for the time he wrote them; but in 2016, we are looking at the 1990’s in the rearview mirror. The books are a rollicking read, a bit of a soap opera, and sprawl from the New Jersey suburbs to orbital construction. The series tells the tale of a commercial titan who kickstarts the industrialization of space out of fear that an asteroid might hit Earth. This being fiction, it’s a good thing she does, because….. Let’s just say it’s good someone’s getting ready for the sky to fall.

When I read the books, I’d been working at the FAA for years, helping draft regulations to implement what is popularly referred to as the Commercial Space Launch Act, which was then located, sensibly enough, in Title 49 of the United States Code in chapter 701 (aka 49 USC ch. 701).

. . . .

Anyway, back to Firestar.  Our heroes are recruiting youngsters for space (and fixing the education system while they’re at it), building rockets in Brazil, selecting the first person to pilot the new vehicle, and making mysterious references to the U.S. government’s application of Chapter 35. In my defense, I was engrossed in the story and didn’t rush off to look up this Chapter 35, and even if I’d thought to do so, what title would I have looked in? Then it happened. I got to the part where the unduly burdensome government shows up to enforce Chapter 35. What is Chapter 35? It’s the Commercial Space Launch Act. But Flynn was not wrong. He was just in an alternate timeline.

. . . .

Firestar takes place in 1999. In that universe, the Commercial Space Launch Act still resides in Chapter 35. In other words, no one codified this law, and an alternate universe sprang into being. The story was in our past, the writer’s future, and no longer matches our reality, so it’s alternate future history. I hope this is clear.

Link to the rest at Ground Based Space Matters

The author of the post is space attorney (how cool is that?) Laura Montgomery. Laura also writes science fiction. Here’s a link to her books.

Star Trek at 50

27 August 2016

From The Wall Street Journal:

Klingons, Romulans and blue-skinned Andorians roamed the corridors of a Las Vegas casino recently during the nation’s largest annual Star Trek convention. Other fans were dressed up as Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and characters who appeared more fleetingly in the franchise’s six TV series and 13 movies. The most obscure reference to the Star Trek universe came from a young woman wearing a vintage dress and red curls piled on her head: a Lucille Ball costume.

The star of “I Love Lucy” played a key role in launching one of the most influential and enduring pop-culture franchises. In the mid-1960s, her Hollywood production company was in search of new TV shows. Lucy might not have ever read a “Star Trek” script (she initially thought the show would be about movie stars on a trek to entertain U.S. troops, producer Herbert Solow recalls), but the comedy mogul and her Desilu studio gave creator Gene Roddenberry’s space adventure a green light.

. . . .

The pilot episode fell behind schedule and was over budget, costing $616,000—or about $4.7 million in today’s dollars—only to get rejected by NBC. The network asked the producers to try again, and “Star Trek” finally made it to air, premiering 50 years ago, on Sept. 8, 1966. It was groundbreaking (a diverse crew represented all regions of Earth on the Starship Enterprise) and prescient (their “communicators” were flip phones 30 years before their time). But “Star Trek” was no hit. Ratings were modest and critics were indifferent—Variety dismissed the show as a “lowercase fantasia.” William Shatner recalls, “We were always about to be canceled, always a sword of Damocles hanging over us.” The series survived just three seasons.

. . . .

How did a show that stumbled out of the gate become so successful after the fact? Though “Star Trek” didn’t catch on with a broad audience in prime time, its enormous following later on became testimony to the growing power of reruns. At the same time, the trappings of modern fan culture took shape around the show. The first major Star Trek convention took place in 1972—three years after the show was canceled—and served as a model for other tribes of pop-culture obsessives. Even if the visual effects of the original series didn’t age well, it was built on a thematic DNA that remained relevant: humans and alien crew members cooperating on a mission of exploration and altruism enabled by technology. As people increasingly celebrated and pored over those 79 original episodes, producers fed the fandom with spin-off movies, TV series and books and games (of varying caliber) that expanded the core story with new space vessels, crews and settings.

. . . .

Herbert Solow, an executive producer of “Star Trek,” was hired at Desilu in 1964: “They called Lucy ‘Madam President.’ When I met her on my first day, she said, ‘Get me some shows.’ The only thing she had on the lot was ‘The Lucy Show,’ and the rest of the stages were rentals for other shows. Desilu was suffering at the time, and they desperately needed some continuing flow of income.”

Solow met with Gene Roddenberry, a former pilot and policeman who had a military drama on the air called “The Lieutenant.” Roddenberry pitched the concept for “Star Trek,” which he summarized as a “‘Wagon Train’ to the stars.”

Besides the potential cost of producing such a show, there were other drawbacks. Roddenberry had imagined Spock as a half-Martian with reddish skin and a pointed tail.

. . . .

Dorothy Fontana, who wrote scripts as D.C. Fontana, started out as Roddenberry’s secretary before becoming a story editor during season 1. She says many recognized Spock as a potential breakout character—a factor that would later cause tensions on the set.

Ms. Fontana: “The fact that Spock was half human intrigued me. What about him is human and what is not? It wasn’t someone we were seeing every week on national television.”

NBC commissioned a pilot episode from Desilu, but not all of the Enterprise’s iconic crew members were on board yet. The captain, then named Christopher Pike, was played by actor Jeffrey Hunter. NBC rejected the pilot as “too cerebral,” and a little too sexy, featuring a suggestive dance by a scantily clad female slave from the planet Orion.

Mr. Solow: “A dancing green girl is great in California, but it’s not going to work in Tennessee.”

. . . .

NBC gave the producers a rare second chance. The original captain jumped ship, however, and producers hired Mr. Shatner for the second pilot. The Canadian actor, a rising star who had appeared in “The Twilight Zone” and the film “Judgement at Nuremberg,” took on the character with a new name, James T. Kirk.

William Shatner: “I heard Patrick Stewart [who later led “Star Trek: The Next Generation”] say that Gene told him to study a book about Captain Horatio Hornblower, the fictional navy officer. Gene gave me the same book. Well, he didn’t give it to me. I had to go get it myself.”

Long before marketers relied on comic-cons to hype new shows and movies, Roddenberry recognized that science-fiction lovers could be a critical support network for “Star Trek.” Shortly before the first episode hit the air on NBC, he screened a film print of it at the World Science Fiction Convention, an annual gathering since 1939. Such sneak peeks were almost unheard of, as was Roddenberry’s idea to bring “Star Trek” costumes for the convention’s sci-fi fashion show, organized by a fan named by Bjo Trimble.

. . . .

“Up to then, science fiction was about taking a Western and changing the six-shooter to a laser and the horse to a rocket ship. Gene was hiring real science-fiction authors for the story lines, which gave them quality and depth. There was always a message, even if it was heavy-handed at times.”

George Takei, a Japanese American whose family spent several years in a World War II internment camp, says Roddenberry was overt about his vision for a multicultural crew on the Enterprise, including Mr. Takei’s character, Sulu.

Mr. Takei: “I was auditioning for the character representing Asia, and Gene struggled to find a name for my character, because all Asian surnames are nationally specific. Tanaka is Japanese, Wong is Chinese, Kim is Korean, and 20th-century Asia was turbulent, so he didn’t want to take sides. He had a map pinned to his wall and was gazing at it one day and saw off the coast of the Philippines the Sulu Sea. He thought the waters of the sea touch all shores. That’s how he came up with the name.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

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