10 Women Who Changed Sci-Fi

29 January 2016

From the BBC:

Mary Shelley

Credited with founding science fiction as a field, Shelley’s key contribution to the genre was Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. She completed the novel in 1817, when she was still a teenager, after she and her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, were challenged to produce a ghost story by their friend Lord Byron. The book’s terrifying insight – that we could make life and intelligence – continues to be one of science fiction’s enduring themes.

. . . .

Connie Willis

With 11 Hugo Awards and seven Nebula Awards to her name, Willis has won more major science fiction and fantasy awards than any other writer. Her work is witty, varied, and often satirical. From her breakthrough story Fire Watch, which was awarded her first Hugo and Nebula awards, her fiction has often explored the great science fiction trope of time travel.

. . . .

James Tiptree, Jr.

In spite of the name, Tiptree wasn’t a man. She was, in fact, a spy who worked for the CIA. Tiptree was the penname Alice Bradley Sheldon used exclusively for her science fiction work, which she debuted in 1968. Explosively influential at the time, her short stories changed the field and there is now a literary prize named in her honour.

. . . .

Anne McCaffrey

The first woman to win a Hugo, the first woman to win a Nebula, McCaffrey also enjoyed wide commercial success. The Ship Who Sang – a 1969 work encompassing five previously published stories – combined space and artificial personalities with utter originality.

Link to the rest at the BBC and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

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How Do You Like Your Science Fiction? Ten Authors Weigh In On ‘Hard’ vs. ‘Soft’ SF

23 January 2016


With The Martian a big-screen success and Star Wars: The Force Awakens blowing box office doors off their hinges, articles like this one from NPR have begun appearing all over, encouraging SF authors and readers to “Get Real.” Meanwhile, debates about whether one movie or another is scientific enough are cropping up in various corners of the internet.

. . . .

So is a deeper, harder line being drawn in the sand about “hard” science fiction than usual? Or are we discovering that perhaps there’s a whole lot more sand available with regards to how imaginative and future-looking fiction can develop, and even entertaining the possibility that these developments could become blueprints for future-fact?

I asked ten science fiction authors about their definitions of “hard” and “soft” science fiction, and how they see science fiction (hard, soft, and otherwise) in today’s terms.

. . . .

Nancy Kress

“Hard SF” and “soft SF” are really both misnomers (although useful in their way). Hard SF has several varieties, starting with really hard, which does not deviate in any way from known scientific principles in inventing the future; this is also called by some “mundane SF.” However, even the hardest SF involves some speculation or else it would not be science fiction.

High-viscosity SF takes some guesses about where current science might go IF certain discoveries are made (such as, for instance, identifying exactly which genes control things like intelligence, plus the ability to manipulate them). Or, alternately, it starts with one implausibility but develops everything else realistically from there (as in Andy Weir’s The Martian, with its huge-velocity windstorm on Mars). From there you go along a continuum toward things that, with our current level of knowledge, do not seem possible, such as faster-than-light travel. At some point along that continuum, high-viscosity SF becomes science fantasy, and then fantasy, when magic is involved. But the critical point is that it IS a continuum, and where a given innovation belongs on it is always a matter of dispute. This is good, because otherwise half the panels at SF cons would have nothing to argue about.

I would define “soft SF” as stories in which SF tropes are used as metaphors rather than literals. For example, aliens that don’t differ from us much in what they can breathe, drink, eat, or how their tech functions. They have no delineated alien planet in the story, because they are meant to represent “the other,” not a specific scientifically plausible creature from an exosolar environment. This seems to me a perfectly valid form of science fiction (see my story “People Like Us”), but it is definitely not “hard SF,” no matter how much fanciful handwaving the author does. Nor are clones who are telepathic or evil just because they’re clones (it’s delayed twinning, is all) or nanotech that can create magical effects (as in the dreadful movie Transcendence).

. . . .

Elizabeth Bear

I feel like the purported hard/soft SF divide is one of those false dichotomies that humans love so much—like white/black, male/female, and so forth. The thing is, it’s really arbitrary. I write everything from fairy tales to fairly crunchy sciency SF, and I think the habit of shoving all of this stuff into increasingly tiny boxes that really amount to marketing categories is kind of a waste of time. There’s no intrinsic moral element that makes a rigorously extrapolated near-future cascading disaster story (like The Martian) “better” than an equally critically hailed and popular sociological extrapolation. Is anybody going to argue, for example, that 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale aren’t worthy books because they are about societies in crisis rather than technology?

I love hard—or rigorously extrapolated physical—science fiction, for what it’s worth. My list of favorite books includes Peter Watts, Tricia Sullivan, and Robert L. Forward. But it’s not new, and it’s not dying out. It’s always been a percentage of the field (though Analog still has the biggest readership of any English-language SF magazine, I believe) and it’s still a vibrant presence in our midst, given writers like Kim Stanley Robinson and James L. Cambias, for example. It’s hard to write, and hard to write well, mind, and Andy Weir kind of knocked it out of the park.

My own pocket definition of SF is that it’s the literature of testing concepts to destruction: space travel, societies, ideologies. At its best, that’s what science fiction does that most other literary forms do not. (Most of them—the ones with a literary bent, at least–are about testing people (in the form of people-shaped objects called “characters”) to destruction. Science fiction does it on a scale up to and including entire galaxies, which is kind of cool. Drawing little boxes around one bit of it and saying, “This is the real thing here,” is both basically pointless and basically a kind of classism. It’s the Apollonian/Dionysian divide again, just like the obsession of certain aspects of SF with separating the mind from the meat.

(Spoiler: you can’t: you are your mind, and your mind is a bunch of physical and chemical and electrical processes in some meat. You might be able to SIMULATE some of those processes elsewhere, but it seems to me entirely unlikely that anybody will ever “upload a person,” excepting the unlikely proposition that we somehow find an actual soul somewhere and figure out how to stick it in a soul bottle for later use.)

Anyway, I kind of think it’s a boring and contrived argument, is what I’m saying here.

. . . .

Michael Swanwick

I go with what Algis Budrys said, that hard science fiction is not a subgenre but a flavor, and that that flavor is toughness. It doesn’t matter how good your science is, if you don’t understand this you’ll never get street cred for your hard SF story. You not only have to have a problem, but your main character must strive to solve it in the right way—with determination, a touch of stoicism, and the consciousness that the universe is not on his or her side. You can throw in a little speech about the universe wanting to kill your protagonist, if you like, but only Larry Niven has been able to pull that off and make the reader like it.

Link to the rest at

SFWA “Star Projects” on Kickstarter – a new initiative for 2016

20 January 2016

From Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America:

Crowdfunded self-publishing has emerged as a viable and increasingly popular path to creative and financial success for writers, and we continue to develop new initiatives to assist our members in their crowdfunding efforts. Now we are looking to expand our outreach beyond our own membership, to support the field at large.

Beginning in January, SFWA will be making small, targeted pledges to worthy Kickstarter projects projects by non-members, designating them a “SFWA Star Project.” Projects will be selected by the Self Publishing Committee, coordinated by volunteer Rob Balder. Selections will be based on the project’s resonance with SFWA’s exempt purposes, and special preference will be given to book-publishing projects in the appropriate genres.

Funds for these pledges will come from the SFWA Givers Fund, from a $1000 pool approved by the Grants Committee in December. When a pledge results in receiving a donor reward such as a signed book, these items will be auctioned off at fundraising events, to help replenish the Givers Fund.

Link to the rest at Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and thanks to Maggie for the tip.

This sounds cool to PG.

Wizards of the Coast launches ‘Dungeon Masters Guild’ self-publishing market for Forgotten Realms setting

13 January 2016

From Chris Meadows via TeleRead:

Dungeons & Dragons fans, take note: Self-publishing has just come to Forgotten Realms. Wizards of the Coast has just announced the “Dungeon Masters Guild,” an e-publishing site for self-publishing D&D adventures and other content set in the Forgotten Realms. The “What is the Dungeon Masters Guild” page on the site has more information.

The Dungeon Masters Guild seems similar to Amazon’s Kindle Worlds—a way that creators can be permitted to use licensed intellectual property and at the same time make a little money on it. In this case, the intellectual property is D&D’s venerable Forgotten Realms setting. There are just a few restrictions on these adventures. The main restriction is that they must use the 5th Edition D&D rule set. Apart from that, they’re about what you’d expect—no offensive or pornographic material, no copyright or trademark violations, and nothing libelous.

. . . .

Revenue from adventures will be divided three ways, with 50% going to the creator, 25% to Wizards of the Coast, and 25% to OneBookshelf, the company operating the Dungeon Masters Guild site (who also happens to be the parent company of well-known e-RPG stores DriveThruRPG and RPGNow).

Link to the rest at TeleRead

A world-building puzzler

7 January 2016

From author Charles Stross:

I get mail. And sometimes I want to share it with you. Especially when it’s email like this one, from Jacques Mattheij:

Question for you: One HN thread caused me to wonder about this: What would a technological society look like that somehow managed to side-step the written word? Would such a thing even be possible? If not why not?

Just to keep you awake at night :)

This question caught my attention like a snagged fingernail, and it’s still pulling at me: here’s my first cut at an answer. I’m taking the no-writing parameter seriously as a limiting condition: what level of technological society can emerge in conditions which preclude writing—for example, if it’s forbidden for religious reasons? I’m going to treat this as holy writ for purposes of this thought-experiment: rules-lawyering around the no-writing rule in the comments will be treated as Derailing and deleted, with one special sort-of-exception which I’ll explain near the end because it opens up a bunch of interesting consequences.

My rule of thumb answer is: it wouldn’t be possible for human beings to develop a technological civilization—at least anything beyond roughly 17th century levels of energy utilization and mid-19th century levels of agriculture—without some form of record-keeping technology. And without writing they might never get that.

The reason is memory capacity. Yes, we can memorize lengthy texts when assisted by verse metrics as a form of mnemonic—the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Koran—but the format is error-prone, transcription is at least as time consuming as copying a mediaeval illuminated manuscript, and the “books” are high maintenance (they need food, clothing, and shelter). I don’t know how many books one human being can memorize, but even if the number runs as high as two digits (which I think would require a very rare level of memory) you’re then faced with the problem of what to do if one of your books gets cancer or dies of old age. So not only is copying more expensive than in a mediaeval monastery’s scriptorum, but the substrate onto which “books” can be copied is extremely expensive (because we’re coming at this from a pre-industrial situation where agriculture is labour-intensive because there’s no copious supply of cheap energy). To put it in perspective, if one “book” can memorize five texts, then those five texts represent an entire productive human lifespan’s worth of opportunity costs.

. . . .

And then we run into mathematics. Assuming they figure out binary, integer arithmetic on fingers and toes gets you a long way for basic counting, multiplication, and optionally subtraction and division. But I’m not sure how they’d explore reals, let alone algebra or calculus, in a notation-free environment. I imagine tally sticks might work if our sophonts have opposable thumbs, but then we’re cheating and getting into writing systems by the back door.

. . . .

Law and arbitration is going to be problematic. The Mediaeval Icelandic parliament is said to have started each session with a recitation of the legal code; any law that no sitting legislator could remember was deemed to have passed beyond the sunset. This is thus shown to work, after a fashion, for non-literate societies up to a mediaeval level. However, reliance on memory means that a case-law system simply can’t develop, except in the sketchiest of ways.

Link to the rest at Charlie’s Diary

Here’s a link to Charles Stross’ books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

The Winds of Winter Will Not Be Released Ahead of Game of Thrones Season 6

3 January 2016

From Nerd Core Movement:

George R.R. Martin has been working tirelessly on the sixth novel in his Song of Ice and Fire series that serves as the inspiration to HBO’s hit show Game of Thrones, but despite a lot of writing done in 2015, the book is still not complete and he’s unsure when it will be delivered.

Martin broke the news to his fans late Friday night with a blog post where he revealed that the plan was to have The Winds of Winter finished by Halloween and then released ahead of Game of Thronesseason 6, which will come out in April.

Unfortunately, Martin says delays continued to plague his writing and deadline after deadline passed and as 2016 begins he still hasn’t finished The Winds of Winter.

. . . .

Martin understands the frustration fans and readers have while waiting for The Winds of Winter to be finished — it’s now been nearly five years since the last book A Dance with Dragons was released — and his goal to stay ahead of the television series will not happen this year.

When Game of Thrones began, Martin already had several books completed with A Dance with Dragons released shortly after the show launched but five years later as the television series continues to churn out episodes every April, the writer behind the source material for the show has slowed considerably.

The Winds of Winter is expected to be the penultimate book in the Song of Ice and Fire series and Martin has admitted in the past that with each passing page and chapter, the novels tend to get more in depth and longer in overall length.

. . . .

Martin did spend about two weeks with the Game of Thrones show runners a summer ago to give them the outline of the rest of his story along with the conclusion so they would have an idea where every character would end up and how the series would presumably end.

Link to the rest at Nerd Core Movement and thanks to Cheryl for the tip.

11 Times Science Fiction and Fantasy Gave Us Hope for the Future in 2015

2 January 2016

From i09:

This has been a tough year. Pop culture let us down in many ways, even as our political system and our social institutions revealed a deeper seam of ugliness. But speculative fiction still offers us hope: not just optimism about human ingenuity, but actual reasons to look forward and keep our heads up.

Here are 11 ways that science fiction and fantasy made us believe in the future again in 2015:

1) Space adventure is back

This is probably the biggest reason why science fiction made us excited about the future again—because the human race doesn’t have much of a future unless we go to space. Not too long ago, we were bemoaning the lack of space adventure on our screens, and even the boom in space-opera books had seemed to be dying down. But this year’s biggest movies included not just Star Wars but also The Martian—and Syfy brought back TV space opera in a pretty big way, with Killjoys and The Expanse. And many of our favorite books were about space this year. (More on that in a sec.)

. . . .

5) Female heroes are no longer even a big deal

There have been approximately 10,000 think pieces unleashed this year about the fact that women are getting to be lead characters in big franchise productions. And that there are more stereotype-busting female characters out there. Katniss, Rey, Furiosa, Susan Cooper, Jessica Jones, Agent Carter, —hell, even Cinderella—this year proved conclusively that there’s nothing edgy or scary about a female action hero, or hero of any sort. Not to mention Rebecca Ferguson stole the new Mission Impossible film, and for all its many flaws Terminator Genisys took great pleasure in flipping the Sarah/Kyle relationship on its head.

. . . .

8) Some truly ambitious books have been filmed

And in the wake of Game of Thrones, conventional wisdom now increasingly dictates that huge, challenging books belong on television. Which is why we got mostly worthy adaptations of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, The Man in the High Castle, Wayward Pines, The Magicians, The Expanse and Childhood’s End this year. With Red Mars and several others on the horizon.

Link to the rest at i09

Scientists Reveal The Science Fiction Stories That Inspired Them

29 December 2015

From The Conversation:

Tales of strange alien worlds, fantastic future technologies and bowls of sentient petunias have long captivated audiences worldwide. But science fiction is more than just fantasy in space; it can educate, inspire and expand our imaginations to conceive of the universe as it might be.

We invited scientists to highlight their favourite science fiction novel or film and tell us what it was that captivated their imagination – and, for some, how it started their career.

Bryan Gaensler, astronomer, University of Toronto

Time for the Stars
– Robert A. Heinlein

Long before the era of hard science fiction, Robert Heinlein took Einstein’s special theory of relativity and turned it into a masterpiece of young adult fiction.

In Time for the Stars, Earth explores the Galaxy via a fleet of “torch ships”, spacecraft that travel at a significant fraction of the speed of light. Communication with the fleet is handled by pairs of telepathic twins, one of whom stays on Earth while the other journeys forth. The supposed simultaneity of telepathy overcomes the massive time delays that would otherwise occur over the immense distances of space.

The catch is that at the tremendous speeds of these torch ships, time travels much slower than back on Earth. The story focuses on Tom, the space traveller, and his twin brother Pat, who remains behind. The years and decades sweep by for Pat, in a journey that takes mere months for Tom. Pat’s telepathic voice accelerates to a shrill accelerated squeal for Tom, as Einstein’s time dilation drives them apart, both metaphorically and physically.

This is ultimately a breezy kids’ adventure novel, but it had a massive influence on me. Modern physics wasn’t abstruse. It was measurable, and it had consequences. I was hooked. And I’ve never let go.

. . . .

Duncan Galloway, astrophysicist, Monash University

– Larry Niven

It was Larry Niven’s Ringworld that led, in part, to my career in astrophysics.

Ringworld describes the exploration of an alien megastructure of unknown origin, discovered around a distant star. The artificial world is literally in the shape of a ring, with a radius corresponding to the distance of the Earth to the sun; mountainous walls on each side hold in the atmosphere, and the surface is decorated with a wide variety of alien plants and animals.

The hero gets to the Ringworld via a mildly faster-than-light drive purchased at astronomical cost from an alien trading species, and makes use of teleportation disks and automated medical equipment.

The appeal of high-technology stories like this are obvious: many contemporary problems, like personal transportation, overpopulation, disease, and death have all been solved by advanced technology; while of course, new and interesting problems have arisen.

Grand in scope, and featuring some truly bold ideas, Ringworld (and Niven’s other books set in “Known Space”) are as keen now as when they were written, 40 years ago.

Link to the rest at The Conversation

Harry Potter Leggings

27 December 2015


Link to the rest at BlackMilk

Did Tolkien write juvenile trash?

17 December 2015

PG’s short answer: No.

A longer answer from The BBC:

Taking Tolkien seriously is inevitably complicated by the fact that he has long been associated in the public mind with a sweaty, furtive gang of misfits and weirdoes – by which I mean those critics who for more than half a century have been sneering at his books and their readers. Self-consciously highbrow types often have surprisingly intolerant views about what other people ought to be writing, and when the first volume of The Lord of the Rings was published in the summer of 1954, a few weeks before Lord of the Flies, many were appalled by its nostalgic medievalism.

A prime example was the American modernist Edmund Wilson, who in a hilariously wrong-headed review for The Nation dismissed Tolkien’s book as “juvenile trash”, marked by – of all things! – an “impotence of imagination”. In the New Statesman, meanwhile, Maurice Richardson, himself a writer of surreal fantasy stories, conceded that The Lord of the Rings might appeal to “very leisured boys”, but claimed that it made him want to march through the streets carrying the sign: “Adults of all ages! Unite against the infantilist invasion.”

. . . .

Michael Moorcock, likening it to the works of A A Milne, dismissed The Lord of the Rings as “a pernicious confirmation of the values of a morally bankrupt middle class“, while Philip Pullman, always keen to sneer at those authors from whom he had borrowed so liberally, called it “trivial“, and “not worth arguing with”. Yet none of this, of course, has ever made the slightest dent in Tolkien’s popularity.

. . . .

In his trenchant defence of Tolkien, the literary scholar Tom Shippey suggests that much of the criticism is rooted in pure social and intellectual condescension, not unlike the snobbery that upper-class grotesques like Virginia Woolf directed at his fellow Midlander Arnold Bennett in the early part of the century. The difference, though, is that while Bennett’s reputation, tragically and very unfairly, has never quite recovered, Tolkien’s star remains undimmed. Not even Peter Jackson’s shameful Hobbit adaptations have damaged his popularity. Shippey suggests that, in the future, literary historians will rank The Lord of the Rings alongside other 20th Century classics such as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Lord of the Flies and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. But there is an obvious difference. The Lord of the Rings is much more popular.

. . . .

For good private reasons, Tolkien was a fundamentally backward-looking person. He was born to English parents in Bloemfontein, then the capital of the Orange Free State, in 1892, which made him 16 months younger than Agatha Christie. When little Ronald (as he was known) was three, his mother, Mabel, brought him back from South Africa to her native Birmingham. The plan was for his father, Arthur, to join them later. But Arthur was killed by rheumatic fever before he even boarded ship, so Mabel raised her two boys alone in the village of Sarehole, then in north Worcestershire, on the fringes of the great Midlands metropolis.

Tolkien had a very happy middle-class childhood, devouring the great Victorian children’s classics and excitedly exploring the countryside near his home, including Sarehole’s old mill, the bog at nearby Moseley and Worcestershire’s Clent, Lickey and Malvern Hills. But in November 1904 his mother succumbed to diabetes, which was then often fatal.

At the age of 12, Tolkien was an orphan. His mother had entrusted her boys to her Catholic priest, who arranged for them to move in with their aunt in Stirling Road, Edgbaston. But their new home, close to Birmingham’s present-day Five Ways roundabout, felt very different from the sleepy tranquillity they had known in Sarehole. They had moved from the city’s leafy fringes to its grey industrial heart: when Tolkien looked out of the window, he saw not trees and hills, but “almost unbroken rooftops with the factory chimneys beyond”. It was little wonder that, from the first moment he put pen to paper, his fiction was dominated by a heartfelt nostalgia.

. . . .

An amateur psychologist could have a field day with the fact that both JRR Tolkien and Agatha Christie lost parents in their childhood and nursed a sense of loss for the rest of their careers. (Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that the only writers of their generation to rival them in terms of sales – Enid Blyton, who was born in 1897; Barbara Cartland, who was born in 1901; and of course Catherine Cookson, born in 1906 – all had similar memories of loss and upheaval. Cookson hated her mother and never knew her father, Blyton’s father walked out when she was 13, and Cartland’s father was killed in Flanders when she was a teenager.)

. . . .

On 7 June 1914 Tolkien and his fellow students enjoyed a lavish dinner to celebrate Exeter’s 600th anniversary. Two years later, on 7 June 1916, he awoke in northern France, having just landed on a troop transport from Folkestone. Tolkien was 24 years old, an Oxford graduate with a young wife. He ought to have been establishing a name for himself in his chosen career: academic philology, the study of language. Instead, he was a signals officer in the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, commanding miners and weavers from the industrial north-west.

But this was not war as it had been portrayed in the adventure stories he had loved as a boy; this was carnage on an industrial scale. In early July his unit moved to the Somme, and there Tolkien remained until the end of October, when he was invalided home with trench fever. What he experienced there was a chaotic, muddy, bloody nightmare. Tolkien himself might easily have been killed: in the three and a half months he spent on the Somme, his battalion lost almost 600 men. Unpleasant as trench fever might have seemed, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to him. For the war fell like a scythe on his generation. Among the dead were no fewer than 243 boys from King Edward’s, as well as 141 young men from Exeter College. John Garth opens his book Tolkien and the Great War with a rugby match between the Old Edwardians and the school’s first fifteen, played in December 1913. Tolkien himself captained the old boys’ team. Within five years, four of his teammates had been killed and four more badly wounded. The sense of loss haunted him for the rest of his life. “To be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years,” he wrote in the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings. “By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”

There is no doubt that the Great War was one of the genuinely defining moments in Tolkien’s life, as it was for so many other young men. The extraordinary thing, though, is that it was at precisely this point, amid the horror and suffering of war, that he began work on his great cycle of Middle-earth stories. Years later, in a letter to his son Christopher, then serving with the RAF in another world war, Tolkien recalled that he had begun writing “in grimy canteens, at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire”. And despite the lazy assertions of the Philip Pullman tendency, Tolkien never saw his work as pure escapism: quite the opposite, in fact. He had begun writing, he explained, “to express [my] feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way: to rationalize it, and prevent it just festering”.

Link to the rest at BBC and thanks to J.A. for the tip.

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