The real science of science fiction

25 January 2015

From The Guardian:

There is a co-dependency between science and science fiction. Many scientists and engineers acknowledge that science fiction helped to spark their imagination of what was possible in science.

. . . .

And science fiction authors are inspired by future science possibilities. But how do novel scientific ideas get into SF authors’ heads in the first place?

Sometimes, authors just make things up, but untutored imaginings tend not to make the best science fiction. As JBS Haldane put it: “the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose”. We need scientific input to sustain a rich science fictional imagination.

. . . .

Some authors can play with deep scientific ideas because they already have a solid technical background on which to base their work. Isaac Asimov had a PhD, in biochemistry (although gained after the Thiotimoline publication). So did EE “Doc” Smith, as you can probably guess. (In chemical engineering as applied to food production, though from reading his fiction you might think it was more in coruscating beams of power.)

Some authors are (or were until retirement) full-time scientists and academic researchers in their own right. Astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, who coined the term “Big Bang”, claimed to write his SF in order to publish ideas that would not fit into scientific journals.

. . . .

SF authors do their research. They tend to read widely, to generate ideas, and then think deeply, to focus in on the details. In the age of the author blog, readers can observe (some of) the authorial process. A lot of research can go into a book, much of it hidden, or even discarded. Inferior authors will info-dump every little last detail they’ve discovered; better authors weave their research seamlessly into the story, discarding what doesn’t fit.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

The Anti-Tolkien

1 January 2015

From The New Yorker:

This month, the author Michael Moorcock celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday, which, as fate would have it, fell in the same month that Peter Jackson closed out his hexology of films that began with “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship the Ring” and ended with “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.” The latter is the third part of Jackson’s “The Hobbit” sequence, a book once considered a delightful fable that has been torn asunder to make its story fit in with the vast continuity of the earlier films, while also trying to honor every one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s footnotes, appendices, and letters. The films are astonishing Hollywood spectacles, and for those of us who grew up reading the books and playing elves in Dungeons & Dragons, it was a thrill seeing those characters realized on screen. Gollum and Sauron and Aragorn were drawn from mythic tropes but are now so integral to science-fiction and fantasy culture that they have become tropes themselves. But Moorcock, one of the most prolific living fantasists, sees Tolkien’s creation as little more than a conservative vision of the status quo, an adventure that brings its hero “There and Back Again,” rather than into a world where experience means you can’t go home again. Moorcock thinks Tolkien’s vast catalogue of names, places, magic rings, and dwarven kings is, as he told Hari Kunzru in a 2011 piece for The Guardian, “a pernicious confirmation of the values of a morally bankrupt middle class.”

. . . .

It is also a lovely irony that it was fifty years ago this year that Moorcock, then twenty-four years old, was offered the editorial helm of the British magazineNew Worlds. It was there that the young editor called foul on the old guard of science fiction and fantasy by publishing writers who—with a counterculture fire under their feet—changed the very course of science fiction and fantasy: J. G. Ballard, Roger Zelazny, and Samuel R. Delany, to name a few. It was also here that Moorcock gave a platform for some of the most insightful critiques of Tolkien’s vast influence.

Moorcock and his peers had become tired of the dominant science-fiction landscape: vast fields of time travel, machismo, and spaceships, as well as the beefcake heroes of the fantasy subgenre “Sword and Sorcery.” The Golden Age of Science Fiction, held aloft by authors like Frederik Phol, John W. Campbell, and Robert Heinlein had, by the nineteen-sixties, sputtered out into a recycling of the same ideas. Within the pages of New Worlds, Moorcock created a literary revolution, one that would have science fiction fans calling for his head. It would be termed New Wave, and it was characterized by an insistence that speculative fiction doesn’t need to rely on laser blasters, one-eyed Martians, and sub-light engines to expand its imagination. The stories in New Worlds under Moorcock were often experimental, sometimes pushing the boundaries of what some considered good taste. His first editorial, titled “A New Literature for the Space Age,” set the bar high:

More and more people are turning away from the fast-stagnating pool of the conventional novel — and they are turning to science fiction (or speculative fantasy). This is a sign, among others, that a popular literary renaissance is around the corner. Together, we can accelerate that renaissance.

. . . .

Because Moorcock is a fiction writer, it was only fitting that he would offer a critique of Tolkien through his own work. In the nineteen-seventies, swimming in the shadows like a remora alongside Tolkien’s legacy, was a hero of sorts with a slightly darker nature than that of Bilbo or Gandalf. His name is Elric, a frail, drug-addicted albino and the reluctant ruler of the kingdom of Melniboné, where revenge and hedonism are abiding characteristics, and human beings are enslaved. The inhabitants of Melniboné are not the spiritual, almost angelic elves of Lothlórien, but a race of decadent autocrats whose magical gifts are bestowed by demons. While Elric loves his people, he despises their selfishness, and the stories and novels follow Elric across strange lands and times as he tries to come to terms with his own internal struggle with his companion, Stormbringer, a sentient sword that feeds off the souls of those Elric kills.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker and thanks to Kathlena for the tip.

Here’s a link to Michael Moorcock’s books

Why The Best Fantasy Stories Include Mundane Everyday Life

31 December 2014

From io9:

When Ursula K. Le Guin’s fourth Earthsea novel, Tehanu, came out, I read it and was underwhelmed. I wanted lots of magic and spells and glorious heroes, and instead I got a farmer’s widow and a used-up mage. There was a lot more about goats than there was about dragons. It just didn’t seem very much like fantasy to me. At the time I was fairly fresh out of college, renting a room and commuting back and forth to my job at a D.C. law library. I wanted magic and adventure in my hum-drum life, damn it!

Now Tehanu is one of my all-time favorite books. I did my first reread after a few years of writing and literature classes in grad school and fell in love. I don’t know exactly what changed in the interim – perhaps it was maturity, perhaps it was having been exposed to a lot of different ideas about literature, perhaps it was knowing more of Le Guin’s ideas about women and writing. At any rate, what I love about the novel now (besides the excellent craft of it) is exactly those things I initially did not like: domestic life, ordinary characters, lack of pageantry, lack of violence. I like that a fantasy novel can feature a middle-aged woman and that descriptions of shelling peas, weaving baskets, keeping up a farm, taking care of goats, and other quiet activities are the center of the story.

I still really like epic fantasy, and especially the world-building part. What I’ve come to realize, though, is that for me world-building is necessary but not sufficient to suck me into the story; for the epic to be epic, it needs to be set against the mundane. By “mundane” I mean “worldly as opposed to spiritual,” rather than the more colloquial usage implying boredom and dullness. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote about “exoticizing the domestic,” and I think that concept is what makes for really good fantasy and speculative fiction. The writer takes the ordinary and twists it, or puts it into a different context.

Link to the rest at io9

The One Character JK Rowling Regrets Killing

17 December 2014

From i09:

The Harry Potter books are packed with heartbreaking deaths. Friends, family members, and mentors all march off to the literary guillotine over the course of the series. There is one character, however, that author J.K. Rowling regrets killing—and it’s a bit of a surprise.

Over at her site Pottermore, Rowling has revealed that the one character she feels truly guilty about killing is not Fred Weasley or Sirius Black or even Dumbledore, but the relatively minor character Florean Fortescue.

Link to the rest at i09

Here’s One Genre That Could Replace Post-Apocalyptic Stories

5 December 2014

From i09:

We’re in the middle of a huge boom in post-apocalyptic storytelling, including some of the most acclaimed novels and some of the biggest media properties. Will the apocalypse ever stop? What could replace it? Here’s one idea: Instead of the apocalypse, maybe we can start writing about colonizing other worlds, which is much the same experience.

. . . .

Creators say that they want to write about life after an apocalypse, partly to see what happens to people when all of the trappings of civilization, and all our amazing comforts, are stripped away. A post-apocalyptic world contains the remnants of our post-industrial grandeur, and all of the cultural references still apply, but in a lot of ways it’s like a world that’s gone backwards in time, into a less civilized age.

At a certain point, though, all post-apocalyptic stories share a few characteristics in common, whether the end came from a plague or zombies or a natural disaster. There’s a certain grimness, and a sad resignation that we were doomed to fall apart one way or the other.

The good news is, a story of colonizing another world can include pretty much all of the stuff that you’ll find in a post-apocalyptic story: 1) People who began in “our” near future, or their descendants, are finding themselves in a barren, inhospitable world. 2) Maybe there’s some advanced technology that came from Earth, but spare parts are going to be hard to come by, and when things break they’re gone for good. 3) The advanced, prosperous life on Earth is just a memory, and instead, the colonists are going to have to rough it. 4) Terraforming a new planet, the hard way, is probably going to have a lot in common with reclaiming Earth after a major disaster. 5) Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and all of the cozy assumptions people made on Earth will get tossed out and trampled on.

Link to the rest at i09

Words That Authors Are Sick Of Hearing

28 November 2014

From i09:

Science fiction and fantasy readers are in a constant dialogue with their favorite stories. At conventions, workshops, and online, people geek out about their favorite books. But sometimes, authors get a little tired of the same old memes. Ten authors told io9 about the writing terms they’d like to see retired.

. . . .


Kim Stanley Robinson (2312, Shaman) tells us he hates this word, “for a couple of reasons”:

It stupidly tries to define expository writing as something necessary but mechanical and ugly, which is terribly inaccurate, as expository writing is often necessary, crucial, beautiful, and hard to categorize or even see; and also the term comes out of a workshop aesthetic that tries to reduce fiction to mechanical parts, and to denigrate fiction itself as part of a fearful attempt to assert mastery of it, most often used by people who don’t really like fiction, even if they pretend they are trying to write it.

He adds, “It’s a term of contempt, used to abuse by fearful people. Definitely worth hating!”

. . . .

Mary Sue

Says Seanan McGuire, author of the October Daye and InCryptid novels:

I genuinely wish that everyone would delete the word “Mary Sue” from their vocabulary. In its original, fanfic usage, it described a character who was, yes, usually female, but whose greatest crime was not perfection: it was twisting the story. A Mary Sue in that sense literally walks into someone else’s world and makes everything about her. Flash forward to the modern day and it’s a rare female protagonist who doesn’t get accused of being a Mary Sue, and hence worthless. Here’s the thing: she can’t distort the story if the story already belongs to her. The protagonist, regardless of gender, is awesome and interesting and has a milkshake that brings all the boys, girls, or genderfluid space pirates to the yard, because that’s why they’re the star of the story. So calling female protagonists “Mary Sue” is sexist, belittling, and reduces them in a way that is very rarely applied to their male counterparts—even when those male counterparts are just as guilty of being a little too perfect to be real.

Elizabeth Bear (The Steles of the Sky) adds that Mary Sue seems like “a term which had some useful specificity when it was coined, but has since become a broad-brush catchall used to dismiss any competent female character who acts like a protagonist.”

Link to the rest at i09 and thanks to Sandra for the tip.

Amazon has too much control over what books get published

19 November 2014

From Salon:

On Nov. 19, at the annual National Book Awards gala, Neil Gaiman will present the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Ursula K. Le Guin. At 85, Le Guin could be resting on her well-earned laurels, but she continues to write, mostly short stories, and to explore new fictional terrain, particularly in Earthsea, the imaginary archipelago where some of her most memorable fiction is set.

. . . .

Not bad for a writer who, wearied by rejections, started sending stories to science-fiction magazines because she thought she might have a better shot there.

. . . .

 The first question I have is about genre, since you’ve written in so many. “Lavinia” is historical fiction and made me think you could easily have had a whole alternate career writing books like those of, oh, Mary Renault. There are some strong similarities between science fiction and historical fiction, but you also write fantasy, poetry, etc. How do you decide which genre to write in — is that part of the plan from the beginning (“I feel like writing a fantasy novel next”) or does it emerge in some other way?

Ah, genre. A word only a Frenchman could love. Well, you ask how I decide which genre to write in, and I have to answer, mostly I don’t. My mind doesn’t work that way.

Way back, around 1960, I did make a conscious decision to see if I could write for the science fiction magazines, because editors in other fields kept telling me they didn’t understand my stories, and I thought maybe sf editors might. I got my first two acceptances in one week. One story sold to a science fiction magazine, and another, not aimed at any market, was accepted by a small literary magazine.  The fact that the sf magazine paid encouraged me to go on learning how to write fantasy and sf. Thirty bucks was welcome back then.

I didn’t follow the sf rules and conventions unless I felt like it; essentially I went on writing what I wanted to write, and they could call it what they liked. To publish genre fiction of course branded me as a sub-literary writer in the eyes of the literary establishment, critics, award-givers, etc., but the great potentialities of the field itself, the open-mindedness of its editors and critics, the intelligence of its readers, compensated for that. Genre fiction was looked at as a ghetto, but I wonder now if realist fiction, sealing itself off in the glum suburbs of a dysfunctional society, denying the uses of imagination, was the ghetto.

A degree of recognition, a fearless agent, several loyal editors, and fiscal solvency allowed me to go on writing what I felt like writing, overstepping boundaries.

. . . .

You’ve been outspoken on both the Google Books settlement and, more recently, on Amazon. And you’re a founder of Book View Cafe, an alternative publishing operation, but you also still publish with small and large presses. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what today’s authors need to know or understand about publishing.

Book View Cafe is a professional authors’ co-operative, relying on member volunteer work. It fills a largely blank place in the publishing field. I do publish when I can with small presses that continue to regard and sell books as books, not as products indistinguishable from other commodities. I think corporate ownership and management of the big commercial publishers has grown steadily more misguided, to the point of allowing commodity marketers such as Amazon control over what they publish, which means what writers write and what people read. Dictatorship/censorship by the market or by government is equally dangerous, and crippling to any art.

There’s still a whole range of options for professional writers — between the poet who has no “market” at all, yet writes and publishes for love of the art, through the ordinary novelist who tries to balance artistic standards and conscience with demands for easy salability, to writers eager to sell themselves and their product to the highest bidder. E-publication has changed the rules, and made self-publication temptingly easy. It’s not easy to know how to be an author these days! I’m way too old to give any advice on the matter to anyone. All I can do is keep on going as I always did, in the direction that seems to promise the most freedom.

Link to the rest at Salon and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Six-Word Stories

14 November 2014

i09 asked its readers for six-word stories.

“Run, Maria!! The hills ARE alive!”


6 astronauts depart, then 7 returned.


We figured robots would vote wisely.


“Are you from the future?” – “Sometimes.”

Link to the rest at i09

Women Rise in Sci Fi (Again)

6 November 2014

From The Atlantic:

In February of this year, Ann Leckie’s book Ancillary Justice won a Golden Tentacle Award from The Kitschies—an award that celebrates “the year’s most progressive, intelligent and entertaining works that contain elements of the speculative or fantastic.” Leckie was elated. The Kitschie trophy is a hand-sewn stuffed tentacle of sorts, and it sits proudly on Leckie’s mantle. “I was like, ‘Oh that’s really wonderful, how could anything be more validating,’” she says. “I love my golden stuff tentacle with the sparkly pom poms.”

Then the rest of the awards rolled in. First there was the Hugo Award for Best Novel. Then the Nebula Award. Then the Arthur C. Clarke. Scattered amongst them is a BSFA Award and a Locus Award. It was hard for Leckie to believe. “It was kind of like hallucinating,” she says. “It’s still kind of like hallucinating. I’m sitting here on my couch and I can turn my head and see them on the mantle and it’s really hard to see that they’re there.”

It appears as though women in science fiction are having a moment, and perhaps even more. This year, women were nominated for, and won, close to half of the major science-fiction awards out there. And much of that work touched upon gender in some way. In Ancillary Justice, the main character is a space ship (this sounds strange, but it’s worth reading the book to see what I mean) and the genders of the characters are continuously ambiguous. LIGHTSPEED magazine Kickstarted a series called “Women Destroy Science Fiction” that showcases work entirely written and edited by women. It asked for $5,000 and got $53,136 in return.

But to say that all of this represents progress for women in the traditionally male-dominated world of sci-fi oversimplifies the history of the genre a bit.

As with anything else, women have long been working alongside men to create fiction that covers on science, the future, technology and more. Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein is often cited as one of the first classics of the sci-fi genre, and even before that Margaret Cavendish wrote The Blazing World—a satirical utopian vision—in 1666. “We’ve been doing this for ever,” says writer Kameron Hurley.

. . . .

“It’s always Asimov and Heinlein,” she says. “You don’t hear about Russ or LeGuin. And there are very particular ways that people talk about it. One of those is by saying ‘well she did it, but it wasn’t really science fiction,’ or ‘her husband has a big impact.’”

Link to the rest at The Atlantic and thanks to Laura for the tip.

Re-reading a modern day romance classic.

3 October 2014

Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon.

From Stephanie at Fangs Wands & Fairy Dust:

I read a lot and always have.  But it is a testimony to the excellence of this book that I can remember when I first bought it, and where in the now defunct bookstore I bought it. Furthermore, I remember going back there again and again waiting for the next book in the series.

I always thought I remembered a lot from my first reading. But, even reading through the last couple of books in the series, I realized I had forgotten an awful lot of the details, had some out of order, and thought different characters did different things. So about a week and a half ago I began rereading the story.

There has been a lot of contention since the series came out about whether it would stick to the book in plot and character. And, I have to say that it has really kept to the book, the last couple of episodes in this first season took some not unwelcome liberties, but all in all it has.


There is a lot less Jamie in the first few parts of the novel.  He doesn’t appear nearly as much as I seemed to recall. I’ve chalked it up to wishful thinking on my p[art as who wouldn’t rather Jamie than his gnarly uncle?  And the paradox of marriage to someone who has not yet been born is still really, really interesting.

This is a long book but really worth the time and money. It is in all likelihood at your local library in a couple of formats.  I think it is well-written, engaging, gripping and un-put-down-able — even after the second read.  And, I enjoyed reading it even as I watched the series.

I admit to having read Outlander when it was first released. In fact I’ve read the entire series. The characters are so real to me that I’ve had mixed feelings about any translation to either the big or small screen. The Starz series has managed to win me over, despite some lingering trepidation. Dear Ms. Gabaldon, it’s been 23 years, yet Claire and Jamie still have the power to enchant.

Read Stephanie’s perspective here.

Julia Barrett

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