It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Fables of the Deconstruction, #1: Robots

All too often, people point at the tropes in a piece of fiction and use them to categorise it. This story has spaceships in it, therefore it’s science fiction; this one has elves, so it must be fantasy. One of the tropes often used to “identify” sf is the robot – well, a robot is clearly the product of technology, it’s an artificial person, a mechanical man or woman (or neither). What’s not science-fictional about that?

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The term “robot” comes from Karel Čapek’s RUR (1920), and is derived from the Czech word robota, a local form of serfdom in which serfs had to work only for a specified number of days each year for their liege. RUR was first translated into English in 1923 but, according to the OED’s Science Fiction Citations, the word’s first appearance in English wasn’t until 1925, in a novel by French-born British writer Thomas Charles Bridges, The City of No Escape. However, it was the mid-1930s before “robot” appeared in US science fiction magazines. It was then, of course, co-opted by Isaac Asimov, who wrote some forty short stories and a few novels (it’s hard to be precise as Asimov spent much of his later years trying to stitch his oeuvre into one great stupid shared future history, featuring both psychohistory and robots).

Čapek’s robota were actually biological – what are now commonly referred to as “androids” – so I’m not entirely sure why the term was adopted for purely mechanical beings. Perhaps this was because the mechanical being was an already existing trope: the automaton. (The SF Encyclopedia indicates there was a story in the November 1931 issue of Amazing titled ‘Automaton’.) But automata were real things – marvels of mechanical ingenuity, show-pieces, designed to display their inventor’s cleverness and so win them the patronage of some wealthy potentate; and they were often fake (the Mechanical Turk, for example). Automata were typically good for a single task, and in no way a replacement for a human being.

L6.1Talos

Go even further back, of course, and you have the golem, an automaton powered and controlled entirely by magic. There are also automata in Greek mythology, built by Hephaestus – such as Talos, the giant bronze man who protected the island of Europa (although it seems the clockwork owl in Clash Of The Titans is an invention of the film’s writers). But neither automata nor golems fit in with early science fiction’s burning enthusiasm for science and engineering, for technology. If electronics magazines showed readers how to build their own television sets, their readers were hardly likely to be interested in a mechanical servant which required magical incantations to operate.

robot_maid

And yes, servant – because technology exists, so these magazines would have you believe, to make life easier and more comfortable, and what could improve comfort more than a servant – to do the cooking, cleaning, laundry, fetch the mail, etc. And because these robots are servants, so they must be in the shape of a human being. Unlike real servants, however – and here lies their obvious superiority – they don’t require wages, food or rest, will always perform tasks to the high standard required, and will never be lazy, sullen, unresponsive or rebellious. In other words, robots are perfect slaves, but without offending anyone’s delicate morals. This could, however, be taken too far, as in Jack Williamson’s ‘With Folded Hands…’ (1947), in which robots do such a good job of looking after humanity that the race becomes too weak to survive without them. Or they could prove so ubiquitous that some humans might believe they were robots themselves, as in Margaret St Clair’s ‘Asking’ (1955) – although once the protagonist learns her true nature, she adopts all the arrogance of a slave-owner toward robots.

VW-Puebla-Robot

In the real world, robots are entirely different. They’re more often referred to by a name specific to their purpose, such as a Computer Numerical Controlled Machine or Autonomous Underwater Vehicle or space probe. They’re built for specific tasks, or to perform within specific spheres of operation; and programmed only for that task or for that sphere. They’re used in situations that are too dangerous for human beings – eg, AUVs and space probes – but they’re not capable of everything a human could do. Or they’re used to perform repetitive tasks more quickly, more frequently and more accurately than a human could. In such cases, building robots in the form of a human being is not an advantage.

Science fiction, however, rarely shows robots as CNC machines, AUVs or space probes, but almost always as anthropomorphic machines. (Although Star Wars didn’t – not only is R2-D2 one of the most famous robots in sf cinema, but remember the variety of robot forms in the Jawa Crawler?) The SF Encyclopedia claims robots have proven popular in sf cinema because they can be played by human actors. (These days, of course, they’re done using CGI.) But in written sf? Why this insistence on human form? Why this need to present them as mechanical humans? After all, pretending robots are human is effectively treating them as an underclass, as slaves. If they are human in all but origin – something which applies just as much to artificially-created persons, such as the title character in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, – if they are human to that degree, then to treat them as not-human is no more than scientific bigotry, it’s the sort of immoral rationalisation used by owners of slaves.

Io-robot

There are certainly science fictions featuring robots which question the morality of their existence, but they’re uncommon. Asimov used his robots to solve simplified moral conundrums, based around his Three Laws, which are themselves a moral code reduced to a single dimension – a moral code, that is, which does not question the existence or ownership of robots. Implicit in the use of anthropomorphic robots in almost every science fiction is an acceptance of slavery. And, to make matters worse, such robots are often then dehumanised – Cylons referred to as “toasters” in Battlestar Galactica, for example. Having created these ersatz people and enslaved them, they need to be reduced to the status of machines in order to justify ownership. They’re the people we demonise because we want to excuse our poor treatment of them, because we want to justify our belief that they are inferior to us. Much like the Tories are doing to the poor and unemployed in 21st Century Britain – calling them “skivers” and “scroungers”, as if it is their own fault, it is something they’ve done themselves, which means they’re not as good, not as human, as everyone else.

weapon

And speaking of Cylons, they’re another form of robot common in science fictions: the killer robot. Arguably, these sorts of robots are more common in twenty-first century science fictions (horribly old-fashioned Hugo-nominated stories by Mike Resnick notwithstanding). Robots make an excellent enemy because they are implacable – unlike humans, or even aliens, they will not stop, they cannot surrender, and you can destroy as many of them as possible without worrying about the morality of it all. Likewise, generals can sacrifice countless numbers of robots for the most trivial of gains, and it doesn’t really matter since they’re little more than smart bombs. It’s the machine-nature of war-robots that is stressed, and not their human-like qualities. Owning people, it seems, is fine in sf, but the genre still feels some small qualms at killing them in great numbers.

Of course, real robots are not people. No matter how sophisticated their programming, the code which drives them is still a series of IF and WHILE and FOR loops. Any operation they perform must be part of their programming… or they can’t do it. Even if they do have the right snazzy tool fitted to one of their manipulator arms. Smartphones are pretty damn clever devices, but no one would ever consider them more than a machine. The same is true of supercomputers, Voyager 1, Curiosity, a UAV or those dancing industrial robots in that old Volkswagen advert.

voyager

Perhaps people think there are no dramatic possibilities, other than in military sf, in robots-as-machines. Perhaps that’s why authors and film-makers have their robots look and behave like human beings. But once upon a time, science fiction’s spacecraft all used to resemble pointy rockets, of the sort painted by Chesley Bonestell in those Collier’s Magazine articles by Wernher von Braun. Look at the cover art of any late twentieth century or twenty-first century science fiction novel, however, and you’ll now see a huge variety in sizes, shapes and designs of spaceships.

What I think would be interesting would be to ditch the anthropomorphic robot, the ersatz human, with all its dodgy moral baggage, and instead treat robots as they actually are – like space probes, CNC machines, UAVs: ie, accept that they are products of their programming, they are tools, very sophisticated tools, but ones which can only perform tasks for which they have been designed and programmed. After all, it’s the twenty-first century, we shouldn’t be presenting worlds in which people, artificial or otherwise, are enslaved; we should be creating visions of the future in which technology plays a true role, is not just setting or a piece of hand-wavery used to justify magical maguffins. Far too many science fictions use genre tropes as little more than window-dressing for stories based on historical templates and loaded with historical baggage.


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More on women-only science fiction anthologies

Back in April, I posted a list of women-only science fiction anthologies – see here – but since then I’ve discovered two more that should have been on my list:

futureevesFuture Eves, Jean Marie Stine, ed. (2002) Subtitled “Classic sf by women about women”, this anthology is split into two sections: From the 1920s – ’30s and From the 1940s – ’50s. It contains stories by Leslie F Stone, Margaretta W Rea, Hazel Heald, Evelyn Goldstein, Marcia Kamien, Joy Leache, Betsy Curtis, Beth Elliott and Helen Clarkson. There’s a couple of names there new to me – Rea’s story is apparently the only one she ever had published (in Amazing, Jan 1933), Goldstein had eight stories published between 1954 and 1960, Kamien three in the mid-1950s, Leache three from 1959 to 1961, and Elliott only one in 1959. Clarkson is also known for a single story, which was reprinted in New Eves – see my review here.

rotator_women-225x300Women Resurrected: Stories from Women Science Fiction Writers of the 50’s, Greg Fowlkes, ed. (2011) This is from a small press which seems to specialise in “resurrecting” old and forgotten genre works – not just science fiction, but also mystery and adventure. Women Resurrected contains stories by Pauline Ashwell, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Florence Verbell Brown, Barbara Constant, Betsy Curtis, Dorothy de Courcy, Miriam Allen deFord, Helen Huber, Jean M Janis, Elisabeth R Lewis, Katherine MacLean, Judith Merril, Evelyn E Smith, Lyn Venable, Ann Walker, Elaine Wilber, Therese Windser and Mari Wolf. Yet more unfamiliar names – Brown (1 story only published), Constant (2 stories), de Courcy (20 stories), Huber (1 story), Janis (2 stories), Lewis (1 story), Venable (7 stories), Walker (1 story), Wilber (1 story), Windser (1 story) and Wolf (7 stories).

None of these “unknown” writers had careers that lasted beyond the early 1960s. It’s tempting to wonder why – marriage? children? no longer welcome by editors? It also seems odd that de Courcy, with twenty stories published between 1946 and 1954, should prove so obscure, especially given that a woman sf writer – Pamela Zoline – is still known today for a single story published in 1967 (and she only published 5 in total throughout her career). Perhaps the fact de Courcy co-wrote with – husband? brother? – John de Courcy explains it. The same might also be said of Mari Wolf, who wrote alone – I mean, how can you forget a writer whose first story was titled ‘Robots of the World! Arise!’.

So that’s a pair of anthologies which focus on the early decades of science fiction and women’s contribution to it. According to Partners in Wonder by Eric Leif Davin, there were 65 women writers published in science fiction magazines between 1926 and 1949, and a further 138 who debuted between 1950 and 1960. In total, those 203 women sf writers produce 922 stories during those 34 years, averaging between 5% and 16% by title of the total contents for genre magazines throughout the period.

After 1960, of course, and the appearance of massmarket paperbacks in supermarkets, there was a huge influx of female sf readers and writers… and yet common perception still has it that women writers are a small minority – as if the situation prior to 1960 has held true for the last 50 years. Even worse, little or none of those pre-1960 women sf writers are ever collected, or appear on lists of “classic” sf… further feeding into the myth that women did not write sf during those decades. Happily, the above two anthologies prove this untrue . More like them, please.


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SF Mistressworks in Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly

Starting this month, Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly will reprint a review from SF Mistressworks. You can download #3 Apr-Jun 2014 of the magazine here. For this first appearance, they’ve chosen my review of Vonda N McIntyre’s Fireflood and Other Stories. I’m very happy with Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly’s offer to host a SF Mistressworks review each issue as it will bring some excellent science fiction by women writers to a wider – and appreciative – audience.

Issue3-Cover


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Memory jog

The latest issue of Perihelion Online Science Fiction Magazine has appeared, and among its many fine stories is one of mine – ‘Waters of Lethe’. It’s about a bathyscaphe journey to the bottom of Europa’s world-ocean. Sort of. You can read it here.

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I’ve now written stories which feature Wilfred Owen, Spitfires, the Bell, Apollo astronauts, flying boats, rocket sleds, bathyscaphes… What to do next?


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Fables of the Deconstruction

I’ve recently been reading a new science fiction anthology for review for Interzone and this, coupled with David Hebblethwaite’s remarks on science fiction awards here and Nina Allan’s comments here, has brought into focus some elements of my increasing dissatisfaction with the genre and its resistance to progress. Especially hard science fiction.

David complains about the lack of experimentation in form in sf, but I think there’s also a lack of experimentation in settings and narratives in hard sf. It’s all very well using cutting-edge science, the latest descriptions of exoplanets or the moons of Jupiter… But it always remains outside, outside the reader’s viewpoint on the plot, outside the characters’ psychology, their motivations or perceptions or worldview. While it’s true human beings need a specific environment to survive, and will take their society and transplant it wherever they may find themselves, irrespective of that external environment… their new surroundings will affect them, will change them. Not only must they make accommodations with their location, but their society will likely change as a result. But it rarely seems to in science fiction stories. Writers simply transplant a society little different to the writer’s present to their new environment, and add some technological bells and whistles to justify its presence. Even worse, they often model their society on an older one, such as the Wild West, with all its lawlessness and amorality, and stick it on, say, Io. How progressive is that? It’s not, of course. For all the story’s gimmickry and ideas, it still posits the sort of individualistic and brutal human (male, usually) that hasn’t characterised human society for centuries and is certainly unlikely to do so in the future.

To me, hard science fiction’s inability to reflect its settings in the psychology of its protagonists is a failure of the imagination. A good non-genre example would be Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, comprising The Jewel In The Crown, The Day Of The Scorpion, The Towers Of Silence and A Division Of The Spoils. It covers the years leading up to, and during, the independence of India, but much of the story is set among British expatriates in the country. While the British in India built communities that were models of those back home in the UK, they could not help but evolve into something different through contact with the country’s population. And the people living in those countries changed too – so much so that they often suffered culture-shock on their return to Britain.

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If you look further afield in sf, particularly in the short fiction market, there’s plainly a twenty-first century strain of the genre, one which freely borrows imagery and tropes from fantasy and New Weird. It also displays a greater spread of settings, societies and protagonists. Personally, I think the focus on imagery is mostly surface and usually hides a lack of sfnal progress – that’s progress in terms of how science fiction works, of course; the elements which go together to create science fictions and so differentiate them from other works of literature. The other areas in which sf is progressing – diversity, non-binary gender, etc – I think are excellent and long past due.

All this makes hard sf’s insistence on sticking to old story patterns all the more puzzling. I once defended hard sf from an accusation of being inherently right-wing. I still think it’s not right-wing, though I recognise many of its proponents write from a right-wing perspective. But certainly the subgenre is reactionary and conservative (with a small “c”, note). It doesn’t have to be. The laws of physics may be immutable, but there’s nothing that says human societies always tend to the Competent Man (usually a white Westerner) lording it over others by virtue of his competence, wits and willingness to commit violence. In fact, that’s a pretty offensive characterisation of human society. It’s sadly also widely prevalent in hard sf (and in sf too, in a wider sense).

Nina Allan, in her post, writes that sf no longer seems to comment on political and social issues, nor displays “evocative and original use of language”. She also makes a very useful distinction – between authors who write from within science fiction and authors who “draw their influences from science fiction”. Both her and David’s comments are addressed to the former – as are mine.

I think Nina makes some interesting points, but her comment about language seems to me to forget that science fiction is chiefly a genre of commercial fiction, with much of its DNA provided by pulp fiction. The current economic climate (well, actually, the global economy the neoliberals and neocons have gifted us over the past thirty years) means publishers prize commercial science fiction more than they do literary science fiction. The small presses – and self-published authors, to some extent – have picked up the latter baton, but they are still small fry in a large profit-driven ocean. When writing commercial fiction in any genre, there’s a tendency to stick to tried and tested – and familiar and lucrative – patterns. So it doesn’t really surprise me that prose in sf novels is blanding out, or even that ideas and the presentation of those ideas is tending to more… comfortable forms. I can rue this, I can compare it unfavourably with the situation thirty or forty years ago… but there are too many things that need to change, many of which the publishing industry has no control over, before it can be resolved. Plus, there are other issues which need to be addressed first – notably the lack of diversity, and the preponderance of sexism and racism – and it’s good that the sf conversation keeps on talking about these topics and is making progress at combatting them.

But. Science fiction. The stuff that makes these stories what they are. Nina uses this year’s Clarke Award shortlist as a barometer of the state of the genre. Which is not necessarily a fair argument. It has never been part of the award’s remit, and the jury are, as she acknowledges, all too human – in fact, I suspected one of the judges of championing the Mann but when I asked they said they hadn’t… which only shows the danger of making such assumptions. And speaking of Phillip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise, for all the book’s faults, it can’t be accused of not being experimental in form. True, its structure is hardly original – a story-within-a-story, with “author” interpolations, plus ancillary material presented as appendices – but neither is it the far more common straightforward linear narrative, or indeed the relatively common dual narrative, past versus present, of the eventual winner, Ancillary Justice.

The point I’m trying to make, which unfortunately I keep on ruining by drifting from the point, is that the science-fictionalness, to coin a phrase, of a text, particularly hard sf, has not appreciably progressed for decades. I don’t doubt that the bulk of sf authors in years past never really bothered to interrogate or deconstruct the tropes they used – although some did, Samuel R Delany certainly did – and likewise very little present-day science fiction makes a serious attempt at examining the science-fictional assumptions, the tropes and genre furniture, of which it makes use. Nor do they explore the psychology of their protagonists. These, I think, are not only a missed opportunities, but also make sf, for me, a less interesting genre than it could be in the twenty-first century.

So let’s add these things together – from David, the lack of experimentation in form; from Nina, the lack of contemporary commentary; and from myself, the failure to examine what science fiction actually does and why it does it… Surely there’s something in among that lot worth exploring? Which is why the hard sf anthology I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this post proved so disappointing a read – and also seemed to be so emblematic of much that I feel in sf isn’t working for me. The anthology’s contents certainly met its theme, and they definitely qualified as “hard science fiction”… but there were so many unaddressed assumptions implicit in the stories, and so little examination of what makes a story hard sf rather than simply sf, that I couldn’t understand why the editors had even bothered to put it together.

Science fiction is by definition fecund terrain for stories. Hard sf may add some restrictions, but that should in no way limit how it tells its stories. Why can’t sf writers dig a little deeper into the tropes they use so blithely? Why can’t they take science fiction apart, examine it from all angles, and then put it back together in interesting ways? I’d not only like to see that happen to a much greater extent than it does presently, I’d like to see it as the default mode for writing science fiction – especially hard science fiction.


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Science fiction under pressure

As a species, we have little experience with naturally hostile environments, a century’s worth perhaps. By “hostile”, I don’t mean environments such as the Arctic, which are uncomfortable, or could prove fatal without basic survival tools. I mean environments which are pretty much instantly lethal without complex technological assistance. Human beings have to date visited two: space (including the lunar surface) and the sea deeper than 200 metres below the surface (it’s actually shallower than that, but the depth record for free diving currently stands at 214 m).

A scene from Luc Besson's The Big Blue

A scene from Luc Besson’s The Big Blue

Science fiction has covered the first of these in countless stories and novels, with varying degrees of accuracy. But no reader of sf doubts the hazardous nature of outer space. While all too many science fictions present magical technology allowing human beings to live and work and make war in space, there’s still a background of ever-present danger. In fact, it’s almost become a cliché.

But what of the opposite extreme? High atmospheric pressure rather than vacuum? Certainly the former have been covered in science fictions, though the genre tends to treat it as much the same as the latter – ie, both are survivable when wearing a spacesuit. But spacesuits are actually just personal spacecraft, designed for the same environment as spacecraft – ie, space. (If that’s not belabouring the point a bit much.) They provide a self-contained atmosphere and protection from radiation. A spacesuit wouldn’t work on a planetary surface with a datum pressure of, say, 50 atmospheres. It would be unwearable, constricted by the gas pressing against every square centimetre, its joints locked since they are designed to maintain a constant internal volume. When submarines get squished when they sink too deep in the sea? That’s what would happen to a spacesuit… and the person inside it.

A JIM suit

A JIM suit

Which doesn’t mean hyperbaric environments would necessarily be out of reach. One solution would be to use an Atmospheric Diving Suit, which is much like a spacesuit but designed to keep pressure out rather than in. The current depth record in an ADS is 610 m (2000 ft), which is 61 atmospheres. Perhaps with the advent of new and stronger materials, or some sort of force-field, environments with much higher pressures would be accessible to someone in an ADS.

Chief Navy Diver Daniel P Jackson in the Hardsuit 2000

Record holder Chief Navy Diver Daniel P Jackson in the Hardsuit 2000

The only recent example that comes to mind of a sf novel set (partly) on a world with a hyperbaric environment is Alastair Reynolds’ On the Steel Breeze (2013), the second book of his Poseidon’s Children trilogy. Several chapters take place on the surface of Venus, which, as well as a mean surface temperature of 462° C, has a surface pressure of 92 to 95 atmospheres. In the novel, some of the characters go EVA on the surface, an apparently not uncommon pasttime, in “surface suits”:

The suits were essentially ambulatory tanks. They were glossy white, like lobsters dipped in milk. They had no faceplates, just camera apertures. Instead of hands, they had claws. Their cooling systems were multiply redundant. That was the critical safety measure, Chiku learned in the briefing. Death by pressure was so rare that it had only happened a few times in the entire history of Venus exploration. (p 128)

Clearly – refrigeration aside – Reynolds’ surface suit is much like a beefed-up ADS, and in no way resembles a spacesuit. Which is as it should be.

But what if a closer interaction with the environment is required? Perhaps there’s a need for something more dextrous than “claws”? Or human beings must be as unencumbered as possible in order to live and work in this hyperbaric environment. Obviously not the surface of Venus, but perhaps somewhere less extreme…

Theo Mavrostomos at a simulated depth of 701 m

Theo Mavrostomos at a simulated depth of 701 m

You can saturate a human body up to pressures around 70 atmospheres – that’s the current record, set during a simulated saturation dive by Theo Mavrostomos in 1992. He spent two hours at a depth equivalent to 701 metres (2300 feet). The term “saturation” means the person’s tissues have absorbed the maximum possible partial pressure of gas. A sudden return to normal atmospheric pressure would result in explosive decompression. A too-quick return would cause the absorbed gas to bubble out of the person’s tissues – the “bends”, or decompression sickness, which can be fatal. There are other hazards associated with hyperbaric environments. At pressures above 5 atmospheres, nitrogen causes nitrogen narcosis, or “the rapture of the deep”; and at pressures higher than 15 atmospheres High Pressure Nervous Syndrome can affect people breathing helium-oxygen mixtures.

A pair of North Sea saturation divers

A pair of North Sea saturation divers

High pressure air is extremely difficult to breathe – not just the physical act of drawing it into the lungs, but also the lungs diffusing it into the blood. By using a less dense gas, such as helium, to maintain the correct partial pressure of oxygen (too much oxygen is poisonous), the human body can handle greater pressures. But this also presents its own set of problems – there’s HPNS, but also helium’s excellent conductivity of heat, not to mention the shortening of sound wavelengths resulting in the infamous “Donald Duck” voice (at the limit of saturation diving, this can make divers pretty much unintelligible). HPNS can be mitigated by adding some nitrogen back into the mix, and “unscramblers” are used on the radio links to divers but these are not wholly effective. There is no solution to helium’s conductivity other than bloody great heaters scattered throughout the saturation system.

At present, we’ve about reached the limit possible with saturation diving. In the oil industry, working at depths of 100 to 250 metres (320 to 820 ft) is routine. Deeper than 450 metres (1500 ft), ROVs are used. Greater pressures than 70 atmospheres may be possible – perhaps by using hydrogen, which has half the atomic weight of helium. Unfortunately, hydrogen is extremely flammable, although some helium could be added to render it safe. French diving company Comex consider it possible to reach depths of 1000 metres (3281 ft), or 100 atmospheres, using a hydrogen mix, but no one has tried and there’s currently no impetus to do so.

A still from Ridley Scott's Alien

A still from Ridley Scott’s Alien

Where this gets interesting is that, as far as I know, no one has used this in science fiction. While hyperbaric environments, or dense atmospheres on high-gravity planets, perhaps even gas giants, have undoubtedly been used, it’s either been with some science-fictional equivalent of a ROV, or magical spacesuits which operate as well in 100 atmospheres as they do in a vacuum, or perhaps even a kind of armoured suit capable of withstanding great pressure like a souped-up ADS. Dense atmospheres seem mostly to appear in science fiction only as settings for winged aliens or humans, such as in Vonda N McIntyre’s ‘Fireflood’ (1979) or Wings’ (1973; see here). Gas giants are quite common in sf, though mostly the action takes place in their upper atmosphere. One that doesn’t is Poul Anderson ‘Call Me Joe’ (1957), in which a disabled operator “drives” a ROV on Jupiter’s surface – James Cameron used a similar idea in Avatar (2009).

But sf typically treats alien worlds – what we now call exoplanets – as either extensions of space, or Earth-like, or near enough Earth-like not to make any difference. Those hardy explorers of countless science fictions often have little more to deal with than inclement weather, although perhaps one or two might need a breathing mask… No one has ever thought of the Earth’s surface as remotely like space – it’s an environment entirely distinct, and although it covers a wide range of conditions they’re all survivable. So why no variety in alien worlds? Ignorance initially, almost certainly; but then it becomes about the story, about some “alien” aspect of the exoplanet which drives the plot, as in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Endless Voyage (1975; see here). Yet, allegedly, science fiction is about science and technology, and how we use it…

Mars Arctic Research Station

Mars Arctic Research Station

Surely it would be more interesting to explore the techniques and technology that might be used to explore, or perhaps even colonise, an environment that is neither Earth-like nor vacuum? A saturation system strikes me as a perfectly suitable method to use in a hyperbaric environment; and one that is filled with dramatic possibilities. Just think, you could murder someone by knocking them out and them putting them in a balloon’s gondola… Too much science fiction, to my mind, fails to get across the true experience of the strange environments in which it takes place. It’s passed off as “setting” using a few incidental details, but in all other respects treated as if it were, say, middle America, or the Wild West. A more rigorous approach to such things would be far more interesting.

Of course, it’s not just exoplanetary environments. There’s certainly science fiction set underwater at great depth (see my earlier blog post on the topic here), but most such sf imagines that human beings have been physiologically engineered to survive in that environment. But, as far as I’m aware, no one in sf has made the mental leap from deep sea to hyperbaric planetary surface.


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Writing, creativity and the internet

So apparently George RR Martin writes his novels using some 1980s software running on a computer that has no internet connection. Because obviously Game of Thrones needed to be mentioned again in the national press and this seemed like a good excuse. But seriously, I don’t see what’s news-worthy or admirable in someone who continues to use thirty-year-old technology when far more sophisticated and useful wordprocessors exist today. It has nothing to do with “creativity”.

As for the internet being a “distraction”. Well, okay, Martin doesn’t exactly have to check his facts or look things up because he’s writing big fat commercial fantasy and where do you research that sort of stuff? (Other than the history the author is ripping off, of course.) But some of us do a lot of research, and the internet is pretty damn useful for that. Sometimes it’s just a first port of call, before moving onto more detailed books on the topic; other times, the internet provides more than enough information for the purpose.

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I’ve often wondered how writers – especially science fiction writers – managed before the invention of the Web. I remember James P Hogan on a panel at the 2005 Worldcon talking about the various contacts he had made during his career – he admitted he was quite shameless at approaching people he thought might prove useful and blagging their contact details – and how he’d telephone them if he needed their expertise. So that was one method. And, of course, there are libraries. But reading some Golden Age science fiction, it’s plain a lot of sf authors didn’t even bother – they just made it up and assumed no one would catch them out. Nowadays, given that readers have access to exactly the same tools as writers, getting caught out is almost a certainty. (And it’s not like authors before the Web weren’t pulled up on their mistakes either – cf Larry Niven having the Earth rotate the wrong way in Ringworld; or indeed the design of the ringworld itself.)

There’s no such thing as too much research, although it’s certainly possible to put too much of the research into the narrative. Unlike Kim Stanley Robinson, I don’t consider the info-dump just another narrative tool in the sf writer’s toolbox – so no, I don’t think it can be used freely without embarrassment. Exposition is a speedbump, or a pothole, in the reader’s journey through a story. However, I do think a writer can make a virtue of the research. Some, in fact. do. But there are those, on the other hand, who do it really badly – like this one:

“Ready, Barn,” the lunar commander replied.

“Okay. TIG 142034700 NOUN 67 5530000370 plus 0002, need A 47 in plus 37364 plus 05607 plus 58642 plus 56955, needle 465 is plus 00370, needle 546 is NA. Ignition 1 Rev late is 1440209, toug weight 10789. Over.”

“Roger. Copy 142034700 55350000370 plus 0002 plus 37364 plus 05607 plus 58642 plus 56955 plus 00370, NA 1440209, tug weight 10789. Over.”

“That’s affirmative, Kathy. P32 CSI PAD follows. NOUN 11 143015060 NOUN 37 14438 all zips NOUN 81 0492 all zips. Need A 473 is 01818, 275 is 02780, AGS DELTA Vs plus 0492 all zips plus 0010. Over.”

No, that’s not from Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It’s actually from Space Station Friendship by Dick Lattimer, published in 1988.

Of course, not all science fictions require research. A style that has become quite common over the last few years – I’ve seen it labelled with the horrible term “sci fi strange” – seems almost completely made-up. Nothing requiring research there (unless you include the frequent references to other science fictions, that is). Still, it’s not for me  – don’t like reading it, have no intention of writing it. I like my research, it’s often what motivates me to write a story. And finding a way to use it in a narrative that works is, for me, part of the fun of writing.

Also, the shit that I look up is usually just plain interesting.

(Incidentally, the picture is, as the front of the machine states, a Research Machines 380Z, the first computer I ever used. The school I attended had two of them. These days, most of my colleagues at work are younger than that computer…)


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Apollo Quartet review copies

It’s been two years since Adrift on the Sea of Rains was published, and reviews of it continue to appear online. Which is very gratifying. But for some reason books two and three of the Apollo Quartet, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, published sixteen and six months ago respectively, haven’t been reviewed to the same extent. So this is just a note to say ebook review copies of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above are still available. If you fancy one, either leave a comment or tweet me at @ian_sales. I can do epub, mobi or pdf. At a pinch, I can even do paperback.

Meanwhile, of course, work continues on All That Outer Space Allows. I’m at that stage where I’m reading research materials to get a feel for the period and place and cast, and getting some early words down on paper. The story opens in 1965 at Edwards Air Force Base and ends in Florida on the evening of 16 April 1972. It will be about astronauts and it will be about science fiction.

E-USAF-X-15-2

Here’s the opening paragraph. As you can see, it’s going to be a bit different to the preceding three novellas…

Ginny is at the table on the patio, in slacks and her favourite plaid shirt, hammering away on her Hermes Baby typewriter, a glass of iced tea to one side, a stack of typescript to the other. Something, a sixth sense, she’s developed it during her ten years as an Air Force wife, a presentiment, of what she can’t say, causes her to glance over at the gate to the yard. And there’s Bob, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Lincoln Hollenbeck, cap in hand, his movie-star profile noble with concern. Ginny immediately looks over to her right, across to the Air Force Base and the dry lake. Her hand goes to her mouth. Oh my God my God my God. There’s a line of dark smoke chalked up the endless sky. My God my God my God. She pushes back her chair and lurches to her feet.

The above may change as I get further into the story and things start to come together. But for the time-being at least it gives a good idea of what I have planned.


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My reviews on SF Mistressworks

It occurred to me that while most of the reviews on SF Mistressworks are reprints, all of mine are original – which means that unless you follow that blog, you won’t have seen them. So here’s a list of the sf books by women authors I’ve reviewed so far this year on SF Mistressworks:

The New Women of Wonder, Pamela Sargent, ed. (1978) The third and final all-women sf anthology edited by Sargent, at least until the two reboots in 1995. Probably the best of the three. Review here.

Journey, Marta Randall (1978) The first of a duology about the Kennerin family and their trials and tribulations colonising the world of Aerie. I wasn’t entirely convinced. Review here.

journey

Fireflood and Other Stories, Vonda N McIntyre (1979) McIntyre’s only collection, which is a shame as judging by the stories in this she deserves to be much better known. Review here.

The Children of Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985) The first of duology about the semi-feudal world of Ruantl and the adventures of galactic rogue Blaise Omari after he crashlands there. Solid core genre, although it didn’t survive this most recent read quite as well as I’d expected. Review here.

Requiem for Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1990) The sequel to The Children of Anthi, which probably makes a better fist of the background even if the protagonists do prove to be infeasibly special. Review here.

anthi

Extra(Ordinary) People, Joanna Russ (1984) Excellent collection, containing Russ’s only Hugo win, ‘Souls’, as well as ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’, which immediately became a favourite piece of short sf. Review here.

Countdown For Cindy, Eloise Engle (1962) Early Sixties tosh about the first American woman in space, a nurse sent to the Moon to look after a pair of injured scientists at the Moonbase. Very much a book of its time – its titular heroine is not going to be seen as much of a role model these days. Review here.

Still to come over the next couple of months: reviews of Ark Baby by Liz Jensen, Busy About the Tree of Life by Pamela Zoline, We Who Are About To… by Joanna Russ and Queen of the States by Josephine Saxton. I have many more eligible books than those, of course – they’re just the ones I’ve actually read and am working on reviews of at this moment.


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Eastercon is over

So that’s Satellite 4, the 2014 Eastercon, over and done with. It was a con of ups and downs. On the one hand, it’s always good to spend time with friends, especially ones you don’t see IRL all that often. On the other… I didn’t reckon much to the programme, the dealers’ room was disappointingly small, and the hotel isn’t all that well-suited to conventions – the main bar and function space are separated by two staircases… or a shortcut through the main restaurant.

The train journey to Glasgow didn’t start too well, but proved mostly painless. British railways are still an embarrassment, however. The ROSCOs seriously need to be nationalised, they’re robbing us all blind. I hadn’t managed to get a room in the con hotel, the Crowne Plaza, but was instead staying in the Hilton Garden Hotel about five minutes’ walk away. It proved to be the better hotel – while the rooms were small, and the en suite bathrooms tiny, they did contain a fridge, a safe and an… iMac. The hotel breakfast was nothing special, although unfortunately I managed to poison myself on the Saturday – I suspect the mushrooms. I think they must have been cooked in butter, because I spent most of the day feeling like I’d been kicked in the stomach. Lactose intolerance will do that to you.

In fact, I didn’t eat well all weekend. It was either bar food or the hotel restaurant, and there wasn’t a fat lot on the bar food menu I could eat. So I pretty much had chips. Just chips. Every day. Including a trip to Strathbungo with the Steels and Dougal. (Which happened during the Hugo Award announcement, so I watched the shortlists appear on Twitter on my phone with mounting disbelief, sitting in a car in Strathbungo, eating chips.) Bizarrely, the con ended with Hal Duncan and myself eating in the hotel restaurant on the Monday night… which is what happened the last time the Eastercon was in that hotel, back in 2006.

Other “downs” – being glass-fronted, the hotel was uncomfortably hot throughout the weekend. What is it about the UK and its inability to air-condition buildings effectively? And on one night, someone turned off the lights in the gents while I was in one of the cubicles. I was not happy.

I only managed to make three programme items, though I’d promised myself I’d be more diligent. First was the NewCon Press / PS Publishing launch. It occurred to me during it that it’s only small presses who launch books at Eastercon now. It must be several years since I last saw one of the big imprints do so. Then there was Neil Williamson’s talk about how he uses music in his writing – which managed to put one member of the audience to sleep (the second time that person has done so during one of Neil’s readings). And finally I attended the BSFA Award ceremony. It’s gratifying to see the BSFA can still be resolutely amateur – with the slideshow not always working, at least one of the list of nominees given to a presenter proving incorrect, and a plain lack of script. Still, I guess it’s an improvement on (some) previous years… I correctly called the winners in three of the categories, but I thought Christopher Priest might take the Best Novel. I certainly wasn’t expecting a tie, and while Ancillary Justice was my second favourite to win, I hadn’t thought Ack-Ack Macaque stood much chance. I’d not reckoned on the effect being on-site has, however. Anyway, congratulations to all the winners.

I spent much of Satellite 4 in the hotel’s main bar, talking to friends and meeting new people. In that respect, the convention was much like any other. I can remember the topics of only a handful of the conversations, nor can I remember everyone I spoke to. But it was nice to speak to you if I did speak to you. I do sort of recall one conversation about Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows, and discussing a dinner scene from something that I fancied taking off in the novella… But when I got home on the Tuesday, I’d completely forgotten in what it was the dinner scene had originally appeared. Which was bloody annoying. But then – and this is apparently how my brain works – last Sunday I was reading a short story by Margaret Atwood and it mentioned in passing Walden Pond and I remembered I had a copy of Thoreau’s book, Walden, which I wanted to read for All That Outer Space Allows because in Sirk’s film All That Heaven Allows it’s Rock Hudson’s favourite book and he shows it to Jane Wyman just before… the dinner party. Aha! After all that, it proved the most obvious answer – the dinner scene is in the movie which partly inspired the novella and which its title references. Doh.

Anyway, I digress. I enjoyed Satellite 4 for the socialising, but after the 4 am finish on the Saturday, I was definitely wondering if I was getting too old for this shit… Except one of the other people who stayed up until that ungodly hour was Jim Burns. And he has a couple of decades on me. So clearly I must be doing it wrong. Ah well.

No con report would be complete without a catalogue of book purchases. So here it is…

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My haul from the New Con Press / PS Publishing book launch: Neil Williamson’s debut novel, The Moon King; the first in the Telemass Quartet by Eric Brown, Famadihana on Fomalhaut IV; his latest collection, Strange Visitors, part of NewCon’s Imaginings series of collections; The Uncollected Ian Watson is precisely that; and Memory Man & Other Poems is Ian’s first poetry collection. (The NewCon Press titles have yet to appear on their website, so the titles link to the site’s front page.)

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Some books for SF Mistressworks: Second Body by Sue Payer I just couldn’t resist after reading the blurb – “Five hours later, Wendy’s head was fused to Jennifer’s tall, voluptuous body, and her life would never be the same!”. Queen City Jazz by Kathleen Ann Goonan, The People: No Different Flesh by Zenna Henderson, The Journal of Nicholas the American by Leigh Kennedy and A Billion Days of Earth by Doris Piserchia are all books I’ve heard of – in fact, they’ve all been reviewed once already on SF Mistressworks.

2014-04-27 10.48.23

I also collect fictional treatments of first landings on the Moon published before Apollo 11 – First on the Moon by Hugh Walters from 1960 is one such novel. The Testimony by James Smythe and The Serene Invasion by Eric Brown are both books I didn’t have and want to read.

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Finally, Paul Kincaid’s latest critical work, Call and Response.

As for Whippleshield Books… All three books of the Apollo Quartet were available in the dealers’ room throughout the con on the TTA Press table. I even sat behind the table for an hour with Jim Steel, so Roy could attend a programme item. We were not exactly mobbed. Over the entire weekend, I managed to sell around two dozen books, which was slightly better than I’d expected. I still had a 1.5 boxes of books to ship back home, however.

Next year’s Eastercon is in Heathrow, with Jim Butcher and Seanan McGuire as Guests of Honour. I doubt I’ll be going. I don’t like the site, and I’m not a fan of urban fantasy. I shall stay home and write something instead…

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