It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

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Aiming Deep

I don’t normally write about television series here – in fact, I think I’ve only done so less than half a dozen times in the past. And usually then it’s about programmes I really like and think are very good – which would be, in no particular order, Battlestar Galactica, Waking the Dead, Scott & Bailey, In Plain Sight, Fringe, Twin Peaks, The X Files, Life on Mars / Ashes to Ashes, and Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets. (I make no apology for the last of those.) However, on this occasion, I’m going to write about something I didn’t think was very good at all.

Last weekend, I watched all five episodes of The Deep, a Tiger Aspect Productions serial originally broadcast on BBC 1 during summer 2010. Much like the movie Sphere – with which it shares some similarities – there are some neat ideas in The Deep, and a setting that could be really cool…


The neat ideas first: 1) exploring vent-fields beneath the Arctic icecap, and finding a thermophilic biodigester which produces biogas with unprecedented metabolic efficiency; and 2) discovering that the Russians have been secretly drilling for oil under the seabed in a UN Exclusion Zone beneath the icecap (shades of Frank Herbert’s The Dragon in the Sea?). Idea 1 provides the motive for the expedition to visit the vent-field on the Lomonosov Ridge and a satisfyingly earth-changing end-game. Idea 2 gives us the villains and the obstacles they present which the protagonists must overcome in order to win through to the end.

The setting is 2,000 feet deep in the Arctic Ocean. So the cast are confined to the interior of submersibles and/or submarines. At that depth, the pressure is around 70 atmospheres. Submarines make for really dramatic environments – they’re claustrophobic and subject to unforeseeable external hazards; and in this case, they’re high-tech too. The Deep features three such vessels: Hermes, a research submersible, which disappears with all hands at the start; Orpheus, a second research submersible which is sent six months later to continue Hermes’ research and also discover her fate; and Volos, the giant submarine the Russians are using as a base of operations for their illegal drilling. Each vessel also carries a mini-submersible, single-person but they can carry two at a squeeze.

So far so good. Orpehus arrives at the Lomonosov Ridge, discovers the wreck of Hermes, but is then disabled – and one of the crew killed – by… something. They are captured by Volos, but the Russian submarine remains silent. Aboard Volos, the Orpheus crew discovers all but two of its crew dead, cause unknown. The two survivors try to commandeer Orpheus, but she’s going nowhere because her systems are down. These are fixed by salvaging “the motherboard” from Hermes. But, oh no, the nuclear reactor aboard Volos is over-heating and will soon explode. Except there are other survivors aboard Volos, including a member of Hermes’ crew. It’s a race against time to rescue them before the Russian sub blows up.


Which happily it doesn’t, as one of the crew does a Spock and saves the day (at the cost of his own life). Oh, and the thing that killed the Volos’ crew and disabled both Hermes and Orpheus proves to be… a giant underwater radar. Which the Russians were using to probe beneath the seabed and find oil deposits.

Only now there’s another problem. That thermophilic biodigester is really important, but all the samples aboard Volos are dead. Fresh ones are required… from the oil well at the bottom of the nearby Laurentian Abyss. Well, they call it the Laurentian Abyss, and claim it’s 8,500 feet deep; but the real Laurentian Abyss is closer to 20,000 feet deep. So they have to go and get another sample. But the captain of the Volos won’t let them go, and in fact plans to use the giant underwater radar to destroy Orpheus. But they defeat him. And go and fetch another sample of the thermophilic biodigester by lowering a one-person sub into the well itself. And then the Volos blows up. And the good guys – well, the ones that are left – escape.

There you have it: five sixty-minute episodes of nail-biting underwater drama… Except. There’s just so much that is plain wrong in those five hours that the entire serial can’t help but sink into the abyss…

Those mini-submersibles I mentioned… They’re carried inside each of the vessels, and leave it via a moon pool. At a depth of 2000 feet, at a pressure of 70 atmospheres. So the interior of Hermes, Orpheus and Volos would also have to be pressurised to 70 atm… or be instantly flooded. We’re informed the crew are breathing “neonox”, a neon-oxygen mix, at high pressure, so, you know, it’s a little bit plausible. The current depth record is held by Theo Mavrostomos who, as part of Comex’s HYDRA 10 experiment in 1992, spent 3 hours at 2,300 feet (71 atmospheres) in a hyperbaric chamber on land. But the entire experiment took 43 days: 15 days compression, 3 days at 68 atmospheres, and 24 days decompression. There are no two weeks of compression in The Deep.


It’s borderline plausible – one man has spent 3 hours at 71 atm and survived, but that was 20 years ago. However… there’s no reason why any of the subs should have a moon pool. The mini-submersibles could just dock to a hatch. So then the interior could be pressurised to 1 atm. Just like real-life submersibles. In Sphere, the film adapted from Michael Crichton’s novel, the underwater habitat is 1,000 feet beneath the surface, but it has a moon pool. However, it’s needed because the cast go saturation diving. They go out into the water. No one does in The Deep.


And, of course, nuclear reactors don’t explode when they overheat. Nor do they require the control rods to be inserted by hand – as they must be aboard Volos (hence, the Spock scene). The US Navy has been operating nuclear-powered submarines since 1954, and the Russians since 1959. Several have been lost with all hands. None have exploded. (Incidentally, it’s never mentioned what powers Orpheus. Really really powerful and long-lasting and giant and heavy batteries, I imagine.)

Then there’s that giant underwater radar. And numerous mentions to “calling on all frequencies” by various members of the subs’ crews. Radar doesn’t work underwater. That’s why they use sonar. And radio doesn’t work very well below the surface either. Various navies have used extremely low frequency radio for communication with submarines (ie, with wavelengths of several thousand kilometres), but it’s expensive and technically difficult. Which is why acoustic transmission is the most common form of communication with vessels underwater.

And when the high-powered radar waves hit the Orpheus and shorted out its systems? That’s because it “reversed the polarity” on the motherboard. That’s what one of the characters actually says. And it seems Orpheus has one motherboard through which everything must be routed – not just for its failure to totally disable the sub, but also to allow it to be fixed in one fell swoop later. Never mind building in redundancy…

But, you cry, these are piffling! What do I care about HYDRA 10 or nuclear reactors going boom? The Deep was jolly exciting drama and those are mere trivial details. After all, the moon pool looked pretty neat, so what does it matter if no real submersible could descend to 2,000 feet with one? Or even to 8,500 feet.

As for the other niggles, they’re even more trivial. So what if one of the Russians lights up a cigarette at 70 atms pressure? So what if another character declares Volos, at 300 metres long, larger than any surface vessel – when both supertankers and US Navy aircraft carriers are all over 300 metres in length (and the largest supertanker ever built, Seawise Giant, was 458 metres long)? So what if a marine biologist is asked to do an autopsy and seems to know what he is doing, despite saying he’s only ever dissected a rabbit for his Biology GCSE? So what if the thermophilic biodigester produces nitric acid as a byproduct of its metabolic process, and the acid has been corroding all the subs’ hulls  - but the concentration would be so weak in, like, the Arctic Ocean that it couldn’t even corrode tissue paper? So what if the underwater well, from where they fetch the fresh sample, is a hole several metres in diameters and when have you ever seen an oil well that large or even a drill bit? That’s less than trivial! It is meaningless.


There were problems with the story itself, true; and with the script. Characters telling each other stuff they should already know – “We’re breathing Neonox, a mixture of neon and oxygen”, “That’s a vent-field”, etc. Not to mention a dramatic scene resulting wholly from the fact two switches had been swapped over but their labels had not been changed.

My point is that the details I’ve mentioned above could all be easily checked. And putting them right would not have affected the story (although a hatch doesn’t look as cool as a moon pool, I’ll grant). But when you leave stuff like that in, it will annoy some people and you will lose them. Why not get it right and keep them? No one’s saying it should be, “That submarine must be 300 metres long, that’s nearly as long as a supertanker or a US Navy aircraft carrier, but not as long as Seawise Giant, which was 458 metres long.” Because that would be silly. Instead of, “That submarine must be 300 metres long, that’s longer than anything you’ll see on the surface,” why not, “That submarine must be 300 metres long, that’s really big for a submarine”?

The giant underwater radar is more problematical as it’s a plot device. Something has to generate the EMP which leaves Orpheus dead in the water, something has to kill the crew of Volos. There’s a lovely line in the Wikipedia article on offshore geotechnical engineering, which goes, “For the sub-bottom stratigraphy, the tools used include boomers, sparkers, pingers and chirp.” The article explains that geophysical surveys make use of a combination of sonar and seismic refraction, so perhaps one or more of those might have been used instead of the implausible giant underwater radar.


When I started this post a few days ago, it was with the intention of just pointing out some of the howlers in The Deep. But yesterday’s discussion on Twitter suggested to me there’s a wider point to make. When you’re writing, there’s stuff you make up and stuff you look up. And if you don’t know which is which, then perhaps you need to rethink your story. Never assume your readers won’t spot it when you’ve got details wrong. It’s perhaps forgiveable when the knowledge required is arcane or difficult to find. But the simple stuff? Characters using the Jubilee Line on the London Underground in 1940, 37 years before it was built? Characters referring to the Paras as “redcaps”, when that’s the nickname of the Royal Military Police? Why would a writer not bother to look these things up? If they’re that lazy with the details, what does that say about the story, or the novel, as a whole?

You can’t, as they say, please all of the people all of the time – but you can at least make an effort to please as many as you possibly can. If I’m writing and I want something to happen in my story but I’m not clear on the details, then I look them up. I don’t just wing it and hope no one notices. This does not mean every story needs to be fact-checked. It’s not always necessary. I wrote a story about an ATA pilot who flew Spitfires, so I researched both. I wrote another story set in an unnamed town during an unnamed decade (which sort of resembles the 1940s) – no research was necessary. If a story is set on an invented world in an invented galactic empire, then there’s not much you can look up anyway. But if it’s set in London, or Belfast, or beneath the Arctic icecap – then it’s time to get googling.

The internet is an amazing tool, so why not make use of it? Pretty much all of the information mentioned in this article, I found online. And if I could find it, so could anyone…


On genres, modes, distances and invention

I won’t say where, or on what, I was at the time but this weekend I was thinking about definitions of hard science fiction for a podcast, and my thoughts spiralled out from there to definitions of science fiction itself. And it occurred to me that sf narratives break down into three rough forms: encountering the Other, embracing the Other and rejecting the Other. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to hold true. Think of a random sf novel, like… Dune. That’s embracing the Other – both Paul Atreides becoming a Fremen and learning to  use his new-found powers.

Since its earliest days, science fiction stories have been characterised by distance just as much as they’ve been characterised by science and/or technology. Alongside the Gernsbackian tales of new inventions which would improve the lives of all were stories of alien places and the strange peoples found there. Distance is a signifier for the “exotic” (in both meanings of the word). Before science fiction, they told tales of the South Seas.

The further away a place is, the more Other it is – it’s a simplistic formula, but this is pulp fiction, after all. The difficulty of the journey is less important than the distance travelled. There are very few Shangri-Las hidden in inaccessible mountain valleys, or their galactic equivalents, but lots of worlds on the rim of the empire or the edges of the galaxy. Travel itself is not uncomfortable, but does take time. Real spacecraft are small and cramped, with no amenities. Sf’s starships are interstellar ocean liners with cabins and restaurants and promenades. This is because the journey does not matter, it is only a metaphor. If there are hardships, they are associated with either finding the destination, or at the destination itself. Off the top of my head, the only sf story I can think of in which the journey itself is an obstacle is Ursula K Le Guin’s ‘The Shobies’ Story’ (in Gwyneth Jones’ Buonarotti stories, and her novel Spirit, there’s a similar effect with interstellar travel, but it does not make the journey an obstacle). No doubt there are other stories, though I maintain such stories are rare within the genre.

But then, there’s not much that’s Other about the act of travelling from A to B. Even in the Le Guin story mentioned above, the means of making the journey affects the travellers’ perceptions of their destination, making the act of encountering, or even embracing, the Other so much harder and more prone to misunderstanding.

Space opera, of course, is traditionally predicated on rejecting the Other, as is military sf. The drama in both subgenres typically derives from conflict, either from within the world or from without. And the further the enemy is from known space, the more Other they generally are. Even when they’re humans, they’re typically barbarians from the edge of the empire – though that may simply be science fiction ripping off the history of the Roman empire… which it has done far too many times.

The same argument might well apply to fantasy, even though it is a different genre. I suspect there are more narratives of rejecting the Other in epic commercial fantasy than of the other two forms. Given its generally consolatory nature, this is no surprise. Other modes of fantasy may well be more evenly distributed – I’m not as well read in fantasy as I am science fiction. It might well be that the same argument does not apply to fantasy, given that it is an entirely different genre to sf.

Science fiction is not, and has never been, a branch of the fantastic. You can’t categorise fiction by the degrees of invention it exhibits. All fiction by definition contains invention, whether it’s literary fiction with made-up characters , fantasy with made-up worlds, or science fiction with made-up science and/or technology. Nor can you categorise by trope… because first you would have to define each and every trope. And lay out the conditions under which each trope is fantasy and not science fiction, or vice versa. If a fantasy novel has a dragon in it, then it does not follow that all novels containing dragons are fantasy. And so on. Science fiction is a fundamentally different genre to fantasy, and it’s an historical accident that the two are typically marketed alongside each other.



Public speeching

Last week, I was invited to give a talk – along with two other speakers – to the University of Sheffield Natural History Society. The topic was “science in science fiction”. This wasn’t quite the same as my only previous other public engagement, at the National Space Centre in February. This wasn’t a reading, it wasn’t about my books. So I had to write a new speech. And presentation slideshow. I stuck to a similar topic, however: real space and space travel and how science fiction has traditionally been getting it wrong.

Despite a couple of technical problems, the talk went well. First, Pieter Kok, Senior Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the university, spoke about time travel and showed how to solve the grandfather paradox using quantum mechanics. Then it was my turn. And finally, David Kirby, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication Studies at the University of Manchester and author of Lab Coats in Hollywood, talked about the use of science consultants in Hollywood films. We then had a short Q&A session.

It was a fun evening. I don’t think my delivery was as polished as it could have been – I’m still not used to public speaking. And I did feel really old sitting in a venue full of students. A couple of them spoke to me afterwards – I think I may have upset them with my talk. I was a little dismayed that most of the sf novels they mentioned were all a good twenty or thirty years old, though one did name Ken MacLeod’s Learning The World. The society then laid on a barbecue, but because it was raining they just bought food into the venue – a burger, corn on the cob and coleslaw. I spoke to a couple of lecturers who were present, and then caught the tram home in time to watch the +1 edition of that night’s episode of In Plain Sight.

And here is the talk I gave (I’ve inserted the slides as jpegs):


My name is Ian Sales and I write science fiction. But you won’t find any of my books in the local Waterstone’s as I’ve yet to sell a novel to a publisher.

But I have written and published two parts of a quartet of novellas, called the Apollo Quartet: Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself.

Adrift on the Sea of Rains won the BSFA Award in the short fiction category earlier this year.

I’ve had short stories published in a number of anthologies and magazines, and last year I also edited an anthology, Rocket Science, for Mutation Press.

Tonight, I’ll be talking about space and space travel in science fiction literature.

You probably all recognise this quotation – in fact, most of you, even the non-sf readers, have probably read the science fiction novel in which it appears. And yet, despite the vast, huge, mind-boggling bigness of space, Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Trillian and Zaphod Beeblebrox zip about the galaxy as if it were no bigger than the South Seas.

But space really is big.

Last month, Voyager 1 – the most distant human-made object from Earth, some 18 billion kms away – left the Solar System. It’s not aimed at any particular star but it will pass within 15 trillion kilometers of Gliese 445, 17.6 light years away.

At its current speed of 38,000 kph, it’ll reach there in 40,000 years.

The fastest human-made objects ever built were the Helios-A and -B space probes, launched in 1974 and 1976 by West Germany and NASA. They reached a velocity of 252,792 kph. That’s London to New York in 79 seconds.

The fastest human beings ever were the crew of Apollo 10, who hit 39,897 kph during their return from the Moon. That’s London to New York in 8 minutes and 20 seconds.

Our nearest star is Proxima Centauri. It is 4.24 light years away, 4 years and 3 months at light-speed. But those Helios probes, the fastest objects ever built…

… they only reached 0.000234% of light speed. It would take them 13,000 years to get there. If Voyager 1 were heading toward Proxima Centauri it would take it nearly 74,000 years.

So, you see, space is really really really big.

But you wouldn’t know it if you read science fiction. In novels by Iain M Banks, Peter F Hamilton, Lois McMaster Bujold or Elizabeth Moon, humans or aliens flit about the galaxy in starships, travelling from planet to planet in either hours, days or weeks.

But space in science fiction plays a metaphorical role. It is a signifier of distance. And distance itself is a measure of strangeness or exoticism.

In science fiction’s early days, Mars was a common locale for stories – not just Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars in 1912, but also Robinsonades like Rex Gordon’s No Man Friday from 1956.

However, as scientists learned more about the Red Planet, so it became closer and less exotic. Locales in sf moved further afield. But by that point, the limits of the knowledge of the time had been reached, so imagination took over. The worlds were made-up, with no basis in reality. The universe itself became a fiction.

And that’s how science fiction continues to treat it.

Because it’s all about distance.

To Westerners of yore, the South Seas were exotic. And I mean that just as much in its demeaning colonialist definition as I do its less provocative meaning. Africa, South America – they were the same. Both were a long way away – weeks or months by sea travel. Science fiction authors just substituted weeks on the open sea with weeks in a spaceship.

Which is why spaceships in science fiction pretty much resemble ocean-going ships.

They have bridges, they have crew stations for everything from communications to navigation. They have cabins and wardrooms and storerooms. They have captains and first officers and chief engineers.

Real space travel isn’t like that at all.

Back in April 1961, just over fifty years ago, the human race sent someone into space for the first time. Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth in a steel ball 2.3 metres in diameter. That’s about as unlike an ocean-going ship as you can get.

This is the Skylon, a spaceplane being developed here in the UK by Reaction Engines Ltd. It can carry passengers, but it doesn’t have any crew. It’s completely automated.

The Boeing X-37B is robotic.

Even the Soyuz is chiefly controlled from the ground.

Real spacecraft are tiny.

On each of nine Apollo missions, three men travelled to the Moon in a command module with an interior volume of 5.9 cubic metres. That’s about the same as a Ford Transit van.

The Soyuz is even smaller – the re-entry module is only 2.5 cu metres. It’s so small, in fact, that in order to fit in three seats, the centre seat has to be set back from the other two – so the person sitting in it, the commander, can’t even reach the control panel. They have to use a small stick to press the buttons.

There are other issues, as well. It’s all very well travelling to other stars and planets at physics-busting speeds, but it’s no good to you if you arrive there dead.


Given current technology, a fast transit journey to Mars would take about 150 days. It would be expensive, of course – vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly expensive, in fact. But we don’t know yet how to keep those astronauts alive. We have yet to build a Closed Environment Life Support System capable of keeping human beings alive in space for any useful length of time.

Our only beachhead on the real universe, the International Space Station, requires around eight supply missions per year. And it’s only 400 km away.

But even before we take that first step, we have an obstacle to overcome. And it’s a biggie.

Our gravity well.

The best method we have to date for throwing things into orbit is a chemical rocket. And it’s horribly inefficient. You have to chuck away most of the rocket to get off the planet. It took 2.3 million kilos of Saturn V to send 45,000 kg to the Moon. That’s throwing away 98% of the total mass.

Worse, rockets are limited by the very science which makes them possible.

This is the rocket equation.

The important variable here is ve, the effective exhaust velocity. (It’s “effective” because, for obvious reasons, it’s lower in atmosphere than in vacuum.) The problem with exhaust velocity is that it’s determined by the propellants used in the rocket, and there’s only so much energy that can be generated from a chemical reaction involving two specific propellants. You can’t magically make dinitrogen tetroxide and a 50/50 mixture of hydrazine and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine generate more energy than it does. Chemistry doesn’t work like that. Those, incidentally, were the fuels used by the Saturn V to send men to the Moon.

Because getting into orbit is so inefficient, it’s correspondingly expensive, between five and ten thousand dollars per kilo. Which means you need to make the most of what you can throw up there. Spacecraft are tiny because every kilo counts. You don’t want to waste valuable weight on cabins and wardrooms.

Of course, if you had some magical means of propulsion that could power your spaceship to escape velocity without all that chemical inferno, then it would be a different matter. But we don’t, and science fiction has a bad tendency to gloss over that lack. Authors wave their hands and invoke the phrase “anti-gravity”, but really it’s not at all scientific.

The same is true of interstellar travel.

Science fiction likes its hyperspace drives and warp drives and FTL drives and such, but they’re about as scientific as an Infinite Improbability Drive. Even theoretical ones like the Alcubierre Drive would require more energy to operate than actually exists in the universe, so that’s not going to happen any time soon.

Which begs the question – how important is the science in science fiction?

There are science fiction novels which contain bona fide science, or have premises based on real science:

… like Greg Benford’s Timescape or Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero or Gwyneth Jones’ Life or anything by Greg Egan. But they’re more the exception than the rule.

You can’t even say that once upon a time sf stories were all about the science, even though the inventor of the genre, Hugo Gernsback, described science fiction in 1926 as:



Science fiction was born in the white-hot enthusiasm for technological progress implicit in the electronics magazines of the 1920s. But few of its purveyors were trained scientists, and when the genre was repositioned at the end of that decade as yet another form of pulp adventure fiction, whatever scientific credibility it had demanded subsequently lapsed. Since then, it could be said science fiction has been little more than a  mechanism for delivering bad ideas to impressionable members of society.

In other words, science fiction is, and always has been, scientifically bankrupt.

Happily, the genre’s name comprises two words, and if the genre has long since lost the intellectual rigour demanded by one of those words, it has at least always been driven by the second. Science fiction is fiction, it is…

stories. And it is in its approach to those stories that it comes closer to science than any other mode of fiction. It posits a rationalist scientific worldview. It might fumble the details, or just make them up out of whole cloth, but it recognises that the real universe is a place where…

… physics and chemistry and biology and such all hold sway. It may use magical science and technology, but it’s still science and technology, it is still assumed to work like science and technology. It doesn’t work because. It doesn’t require divine powers or chicken entrails or a magic hat.

Despite the fact science fiction gets it wrong so frequently and so consistently, I still prefer to call it that and not “speculative fiction”. All modes of fiction are essentially speculative. Telling stories is a way of speculating about something. By unpacking the abbreviation “sf” as science fiction, it tells us it’s a mode of fiction which views the world with a scientific eye – even if its actual scientific record is pretty damn poor…

As I’ve outlined, we have a fifty-year tradition of real space travel, but science fiction insists on using its ocean-going ships in space.

We know the universe is even more vast, huge and mind-bogglingly big than Douglas Adams could even imagine, but science fiction still pretends interstellar distances are crossable within a human lifetime.

Here’s an example of that mind-boggling bigness:

… the Sculptor Wall is a superstructure of galaxies. It’s 370 million light years long, 230 million light years wide and 45 million light years deep. That’s millions of light years.

In kilometres, that’s 3,500 with 18 zeroes after it. And the Sculptor Wall’s not even the largest superstructure we’ve found.

The more science tells us about the universe, the less significant we discover we are. By manipulating our sense of scale, science fiction puts us back where we want to be – at the centre. Important. Sf humanises a universe which is completely indifferent to us.

And, in order to do that, science fiction writers all too often fall back on metaphors that they, and their readers, find comfortable. The chemist’s down the road.

Spaceships with a captain sitting in a big important chair on a bridge. The real world isn’t like that, real space travel isn’t like that, real interstellar distances aren’t like that.

As Korzybski might have said, “the metaphor is not the thing itself”. But use that metaphor too much and too often, and it might as well be – even if it has become completely decoupled from the thing it metaphorises.

Of course, it may well be that we’ll hit a Kuhnian paradigm shift sometime in the future and render everything I’ve said so far completely irrelevant. It may well be that all those science fiction novels of galactic adventure really are maps of the future.

But I’m not holding my breath.



Metaphorising the metaphors

To some people, science fiction is a toy-box packed with neat gadgets and shiny gewgaws, which they pull out and deploy in service to their story. They need, for example, a locale in which certain events happen a certain way, so they invent an alien world. That alien world needs to be distant, so some form of travel to reach it is required. And since distance in most people’s minds equates to time taken to reach the destination, some type of long-journey travel is required. To early writers of science fiction, there was only one model they could use: sea travel. And that worked pretty well because distant lands were exotic, and the distance – ie, journey time – itself was a signifier of exoticism.

Initially, Mars was pretty distant, but as we learned more about the Red Planet, so it became closer and less “colourful”. Locales in sf thus moved further afield. But by that point, the limits of the knowledge of the time had been reached, so imagination took over. The worlds were made-up, with no basis in reality. The universe itself became a fiction.

We now know a great deal more about the universe than we did in the 1920s and 1930s. We know that it is unimaginably vast, that the distances between stars preclude any meaningful relationship in human terms. The universe is no longer a fit place on which to map distant shores and strange new lands.

We also have over fifty years actual space travel, and we know how difficult it is to keep alive in space the fragile human organism and to travel useful distances in useful times. We also know there is an enormously expensive barrier between our world and the rest of the universe: our gravity well.

The spaceship-as-ocean-liner trope belongs to the fictional universe, not the real one. But the metaphor for the journey to far-off places has become so embedded in genre that it’s used as if it were no more than setting – as if it were a signifier of the genre itself. And while sf writers over the decades have rung a variety of changes over the spaceship trope – inventing new and more imaginative ways to explain how it circumvents the real universe, how it can traverse those distances beyond imagination in an eyeblink – the spaceship still operates very much as it did back in sf’s earliest days.

Except now, the spaceship trope is not enough. Now it has to be disguised, by referring to it metaphorically.

I work in computing, so the illustration of this which works best for me is that of the operating system. An OS is, according to Operating Systems Design and Implementation, by Andrew S Tannenbaum and Albert S Woodhull, a fundamental system program “which controls the computer’s resources and provides the base upon which the application programs can be written”. In the beginning, as Neal Stephenson once said, was the command line. Using it, computer operators could call on programs which would perform specific tasks. They understood that listing files from an area of the filesystem entailed reading data embedded in a magnetic media and then rendering that data in a human-readable format. But when computers moved onto the desks of business people and then into the home, that knowledge was unnecessary. Worse, it was potentially confusing. So someone invented the idea of a metaphor to represent the data on the magnetic media and the programs which performed operations on the data: the Graphical User Interface. (Invented by Alan Kay at Xerox PARC in 1973.) A GUI such as Windows or OS X or X11 is a metaphor which allows users to easily and simply perform complex operations on a computer using its built-in resources.

An interesting aside: several people have researched, and even built, orthogonally persistent operating systems. These are ones which run entirely in memory, and the complete memory-state is flashed to persistent storage (disk, flash card, etc) at regular and frequent intervals. Should the computer crash, the last memory-state image can be loaded back into memory, and the user returns to exactly where they were before the crash. The interesting thing about an orthogonally persistent operating system is that it needs a new metaphor. The existing one has become uncoupled from the underlying reality. The orthogonally persistent OS does not keep files in folders on a disk because it doesn’t need to put data way somewhere safe while it’s not in use. It doesn’t need to organise the stored data so it can be navigated. Everything is in use all the time. So it has a workspace, and everything is accessible within it all the time.

This concept of the operating system metaphor is one of the chief problems I had with cyberpunk as a subgenre – aside from its uncritical use, and tacit approval, of neoliberalism, of course. It took the metaphor that was the GUI and then layered another metaphor, cyberspace, on top of it. Cyberpunk writers wrote about the metaphor as if it were the thing itself.

And that’s what I see some twenty-first century sf writers doing. They’ve taken sf’s tropes, and are not only using them as if they were the thing itself but are adding a layer of metaphor on top. So when you dig deep into the story, you don’t find reality, you find a metaphor which has become uncoupled from its underlying reality. This is how I interpreted Paul Kincaid’s reference to “exhaustion”.

Personally, I think understanding how something works is key to learning how to do it better. It’s important to my development as a writer, I feel, to know what science fiction does, how it does it, and in what ways I can bend or break or subvert it to best effect. The uncritical use of tropes, and subsequent disguising of them, doesn’t appeal to me as a technique for writing sf. It pushes all the emphasis to the presentation layer, to the prose. Yes, good prose is important, I appreciate good writing. And I like to think my prose is good. But choosing pretty words is not enough for me.

I would sooner explore science fiction itself. I think as a genre we’ve stopped doing that. We’re either playing postmodernist shellgames, or metaphorising the metaphors, or deep-mining the genre for tropes as if those tropes were its sole raison d’être. Some might say these are indicators of decadence. Perhaps they are. But I don’t think it means science fiction is dead or dying, just that it needs a good kick up the bum…


The journey is the metaphor, not the spaceship

Most science fiction treats space travel like air travel or sea travel. This is hardly surprising, since only a handful of authors of sf novels have actually experienced space travel (Buzz Aldrin, Edward Gibson, Mike Mullane, Scott Carpenter… I think that’s it). And back in the early days of the genre, of course, no one had. A couple of rocket scientists – Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley, for example – had a bash at sf; but most early sf authors simply adapted what they knew.

So there was the spaceship as ocean liner, requiring a dock (space station), with cabins for passengers, a bridge, and a bloke who sat in a comfy chair and just gave orders. Or there were the spaceships based on the barnstormers, small aircraft that people kept in their backyards, that required only a couple of hundred feet to take off, so they could jump in them, take to the air and fly off somewhere.

Of course, we now know space travel is nothing like either of the above. To get into orbit, an expensive task in terms of both energy and hardware, travellers are crammed into a tiny module. And everything is controlled by computer. If Skylon or the X-37B is any indication, future spacecraft won’t even have crew. And yet sf continues to use those old metaphors: the ocean liner in space, the barnstormer of the stars.

These metaphors completely ignore the basic realities of space travel. Not just the vast distances involved, distances that pretty much make it impossible to map any kind of human story onto an interstellar setting. But the whole metaphor of space as “the final frontier” breaks down as soon as you realise how hazardous simply being in space actually is.

The problem is not so much that these metaphors for space travel exist, but that they have become so embedded in science fiction that no one bothers to question them any more. They’re picked up and slotted into stories as if they’re part of the background. It’s a bit like writing contemporary fiction, only the trains in the story still run on steam. We have more than fifty years of actual space travel. Necessary practicalities and the history of space exploration have given us a tradition we can use in sf – and I don’t mean cosmonauts peeing on the back wheel of the bus that takes them to the launchpad, not that sort of tradition.

But sf is wedded to those patterns first laid down back in the 1930s, and all that’s been done in the years since is a gradual refining of them. Not only do I think it’s time we ditched those metaphors for space travel and came up with something inspired by post-1950 history, but I also think we need to look carefully at every metaphor and trope currently in use in sf. Because metaphors are narrative tools, not plug-in modules for story settings. We need to go through all those tropes and strike through the ones which are based on models that no longer hold true and haven’t done for almost a century. I chose space travel as my example as it’s a topic that both interests me and which I’ve researched for my own fiction. But there are plenty of others – robots, cyberspace, aliens, etc…

This is where the interesting science fiction is going to be, in the stories that re-engineer the tropes, that relate them to the real world. Slotting together identikit tropes only results in identikit fiction, and I don’t want the genre to be defined by such stories.



Science fiction was born in the white-hot enthusiasm for the future found in the electronics magazines of the 1920s. Electronics – engineering – was going to build a better future for everyone, and science fiction would show the way forward. But there was also the pulp tradition as well, and that quickly polluted the pure-strain “scientifiction”, adding escapism and implausibility to the didactic rationality of the new genre.

Ninety years later, it looks like pulp won the battle for the hearts and minds of science fiction readers. In other words, there is very little science in science fiction. But then a lot of people think the acronym formed from the genre’s name, sf, should really mean “speculative fiction”. Ugh.

It’s true that that much sf could be placed on a sliding scale – at one end it would read “scientific content” and at the other “literary merit”. But scientific content and literary merit are not mutually exclusive. You can have both in a fiction. The fact that those who have tended to one have been poor at the other, and vice versa, is an historical accident. It’s neither a law nor a defining characteristic of the genre.

But taking the science out of science fiction does invalidate it. Sf is not some big amorphous playground in which you get to leave your grubby fingerprints over all the cool toys. Just because a fiction appropriates the trappings of sf – the spaceships, the robots, the Singularity, etc – that doesn’t necessarily make it sf. There is an underlying philosophy to the genre, a consequence of its beginnings, and to ignore that and treat sf like just another branch of fantasy is to ignore the genre’s history and its character. Which is why claiming sf pooh-poohs categorisation and boundaries is to miss the point of what it is.

When an author of mainstream fiction writes a story set in, say, the 1950s, or Budapest, or featuring a cellist, they do the research. They ensure their fiction has verisimilitude, that their 1950s isn’t just 2012 with hats, or Budapest isn’t a middle-American city with funny accents. Why do sf authors refuse to do that same? True, their invented worlds may not obey the same rules as the real world, but even when it does they blithely wave their authorial hand and magic allows the story to progress. That’s not science fiction. Treating the world as if it were some magical woowoo sort of place is anathema to science fiction. And, more than that, it’s entirely pointless.

Science fiction certainly needs the science putting back in, but perhaps it also needs to think about being didactic again. Don’t hide the science, don’t pretend you’re really writing woowoo futuristic fantasy. If there’s science in there, take pride in it.

Show your reader, I did science.


5 tropes science fiction and fantasy should really stop using

These speak for themselves, I think.

1. rape as lazy characterisation
You want to show your villain is a Bad Man, so you have him rape a woman. You want your fluffy princess to become a feisty amazon, so you have someone rape her. No no no no no no no. Do not treat women like this, not even in fiction. And when Mr Fantasy Author responds, “that’s what it was like in the Middle Ages, you moron”, but also quite happily replies with “it’s a made-up fantasy land, you moron” when the accuracy of his Middle English has been questioned, then I would suggest that Mr Fantasy Author is the real moron. If you’re going to make shit up, don’t make up regressive sexist shit.

2. the lone gunman
Thousands have died, perhaps millions, and it’s all the fault of one man (it’s almost always a man). He deliberately gave the order, or pressed the button, that resulted in all those deaths. He’s a monster, and he acted in a vacuum, according to motives of his own. He’s not part of a political or religious movement, he’s not the general of a conquering army. He is the lone gunman, the lone psycho. Like the corporate executive, in a Hugo-shortlisted space opera, who hires gangsters to seal the exits of an asteroid city with a population of 1.5 million, and then subjects them to a fate worse than death by infecting them with an alien virus… just to see what will happen. If your plot depends on one person acting like an inhuman monster, you need to rethink your plot.

3. post-catastrophe man is an animal
Thirty years ago, we were waiting for them to drop the big one and then we’d all be scrabbling for survival among the radioactive ruins. Now it’s more likely that climate crash, or nation-state failure, will do for us. Either way, our current way of life will be toast. So, of course, once this happens the men will all run rampant, rape all the women, steal everything, and kill anyone they don’t like the look of. This, at least, is what fiction tells us. We will not try and rebuild our communities, we will not recognise that cooperation increases our chances of survival. It’s every man for himself, and the women are chattel. Of course, our present ruling classes want us to believe this – they need law and order to maintain their rule, so they want us to believe that without law and order we will turn into brainless animals. In Davide Longo’s The Last Man Standing, a middle-aged couple break into the protagonist’s house and steal all his food and clothing. Regressive, but relatively plausible. They also shit all over his furniture. Why? Why would anyone stealing food to survive also shit on their victim’s furniture? If you have characters in your post-apocalypse novel raping women and shitting on beds, do “select all”, followed by “delete”.

4. the tart with a heart
It’s not just that it’s a horrible cliché centuries past its sell-by date. Think what it says about your invented world. If prostitution exists, or even flourishes, then it is not an equal society. It is patriarchal. And that makes it sexist. Is the human race – one half of it, at least – doomed to be sexist until the heat death of the universe? Biological apologists are no better than creationists. Leave regressive crap like this where it belongs – in religious books.

5. artificial people are not people
Humanity finally manages to create a race of artificial human beings. And promptly enslaves them. No no no no no no no no no. If they’re human, they’re human. They will have the same rights as everyone else. We did the slavery thing centuries ago, it was wrong and we know it was wrong… so why would we do it again? This goes for AIs too. If it’s sentient, it’s not a tool. And if you should find yourself writing a sex slave character, take your manuscript and burn it. And do not write another word until you know better.

ETA: I have added “as lazy characterisation” to the first point as it was rightly pointed out to me that it originally read as though I felt rape should never appear in fiction, when it was my intention that its use as lazy shorthand characterisation should be avoided. Rape should be written about, and as a man I am not in a position to say otherwise. I apologise for any confusion, and take to heart everything written by Kari Sperring in her response here.


How science fiction works

Let’s be reductive and say science fiction refers only to those subgenres which occupy what is generally considered the genre’s heartland – hard sf, space opera, soft sf, first landing, first contact, military sf, etc. Let’s call all the rest “speculative fiction”, a term I dislike, but since they seem not to bother with the science aspect it is perhaps more appropriate.

Let’s say there are two types of science fiction as defined above. There is the type of science fiction that appeals to people who would happily read supplements for a role-playing game. And there is the type for people who would prefer to read a physics text, or a book about the engineering involved in building the Saturn V. Both types, at heart, operate by adjusting a reader’s sense of scale and turning that which cannot be conceived into something which can. Or vice versa. For example…

Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Look at the photograph above. That’s the surface of Titan, a moon of Saturn. The photo was taken by Cassini-Huygens, a space probe which launched in 1997, and the Huygens part of which descended to Titan’s surface in 2005. Saturn orbits between 1.3 billion and 1.5 billion kilometres from the Sun. Earth orbits between 147 million and 152 million kilometres from the Sun. If you could travel to Titan in a straight line (which you can’t), it’d be a journey of around 1.2 billion kilometres… That’s equivalent to flying from London to New York and back over 108,000  times, or 6.5 million circuits of the M25 (at an average speed of 120 kph, that would take you about 1,150 years).

Numbers. They define our world – what we can directly see and experience, and what we can’t see or experience. As those numbers increase in size, so our sense of place in our world is increasingly diminished. Using science we can investigate, and gain an intellectual understanding of, this feeling of diminution. Science fiction, however, postulates situations in which we can experience it directly. It also gifts us with agency in this new world being explored. It is a visceral, albeit vicarious, manifestation of what science can show us.

Science fiction is scale, its uses and abuses. It can take something huge and beyond direct human experience, and by giving it the purpose of something within the reader’s real-world frame of reference, render it unfamiliar:

Planets. Seven of them. Armed and powered as only a planet can be armed and powered; with fixed-mount weapons impossible of mounting upon a lesser mobile base, with fixed-mount intakes and generators which only planetary resources could excite or feed. (p 40, Second Stage Lensman, EE ‘Doc’ Smith (1953))

It can directly manipulate the human frame of reference, and make of it something which would otherwise be strange and impossible to fathom:

It was not clear what had happened to the man for the next million years or so. One line of argument held that he had expanded himself to encompass a massive swathe of galactic space – swallowing hundreds of thousands of systems, across thousands of lights. (p 239, House of Suns, Alastair Reynolds (2008))

Or, it can simply map parts of the real world we cannot experience, and allow us to compare the scale of our frame of reference with that being described:

It took an effort to remember that the distance to the horizon was more than ten times that on Earth. That the storm was two thousand kilometres across. That the sky was hydrogen and helium a thousand kilometres deep, with cloud layers of ammonium ice above and decks of ammonium hydrosulphide and ammonium-rich water-ice and water-droplet clouds below, endlessly blowing around this vast world. (p 215, The Quiet War, Paul McAuley (2008))

There are a number of rhetorical tools and literary devices science fiction uses to manipulate scale and the reader’s perception of it. Analogy is a particularly common one – by directly referencing something known, and of a size encompassable by the reader’s mind, the sf text can make manageable the scale of something normally beyond comprehension. This is not always a good thing, as it can have a trivialising effect.

There is a great deal of implication in the findings of science. The photograph earlier in this post does not in and of itself present a particularly impressive-looking picture. It’s a stretch of orange ground littered with pebbles. But it’s on Titan. Which means… the launch of the space probe, the journey there, the distance the probe travelled, the mechanisms which comprise the probe and the science behind them, the descent into Titan’s atmosphere, Titan’s surface conditions… the real and true fact that it is an alien world.

Science fiction not only gives us the orange photograph, but it also shows us how it was achieved. It makes explicit the wonder. And since wonder is central to science fiction, then to define wonder is to define science fiction:

W = wonder
lg = greatest distance mentioned in the text
tg = greatest length of time mentioned in the text
Nn = number of ideas/nova in the text
Nf = number of ideas/nova reader has encountered previously
ir = closeness of the viewpoint character to the reader as a function of background, worldview, attitudes, etc – ie, an indicator of their ability to identify with the character
jn = number of situations of jeopardy for point-of-view character(s)
ja = amplitude of situations of jeopardy for point-of-view character(s), where 1 is fatal
Cn = size of cast in the text
Br = bandwidth of the reader (calculated from educational level, number of books read, age)
Dr = willingness of the reader to suspend disbelief

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So a year or two ago I had this idea for a postmodern planetary romance, a Leigh Brackett-style story as much about story as it was about the events in its strange and implausible world. But like most such projects – and I have an embarrassingly large number of them – it never got beyond some vague ideas and a couple of hundred words. I had a great title, ‘Gods of Saturn’, and what I thought was a pretty cool opening, but then other new shiny ideas captured my attention and my postmodern planetary romance got filed away in a forgotten folder. Until now. Maybe one day I’ll do something with it, actually finish it off perhaps, but for now it qualifies as one of those “stories that never were”, of which I have far more than I care to enumerate. But rather than let it go totally to waste and, in part, to perhaps prompt me into actually working on it and maybe finishing it, here’s the opening of ‘Gods of Saturn’ for you to enjoy…

Of all the winds which blow across the sand seas, an easterly is the most disagreeable. From that quarter, the town of Kumpara boasts no defence against the scouring grains of sand. The western wall of Pu Chou rises behind Kumpara’s tumbled blocks, and curves enfolding arms to north and south. But to the east: nothing.

There was, however, much which could be said about the couple who strolled along Kumpara’s long stone jetty one day in the Age of Helium, as small wisps of easterly wind whipped up dancing devils of sand.

Kumpara had seen better years, but had yet to reach the nadir of its decline; or its subsequent rise to quiet gentility. See it now, and perhaps you would find it hard to picture the narrow streets thick with blinding red dust, the sand whipped into fountains fifty feet high, and every house shuttered and doors firmly bolted. Those who lived there knew better than to risk the wind’s wrath.

A local spy – and there was one – who watched the young couple will have deduced they were strangers to Kumpara. The wind was not yet dangerous, but only the foolhardy or ignorant remained out once it began to blow. So too did their garments advertise their origins. The young lady was dressed in a fashion yet to be seen in the town. The eye in the telescope might have glimpsed the split skirt which was common at that time in the capital city, Xu; the high-collar, with its arcane symbols of rank and allegiance; the long gloved sleeves. Her companion was equally well-dressed.

As they turned to stroll back along the jetty, some feeling or whim caused the young woman to look back. She halted, head turned and, as if conjured into being by her gaze, features formed on the face of Saturn. The lemon and orange and tan stripes swirled like the ingredients of some decadent cocktail. It was a vast face, a face which filled the planetary canvas on which it appeared, and it caused the spy to drop his telescope and scramble from his vantage point.

As a result, he did not see the reactions of the Xuan lady and her companion. He did not see her turn her back on the face in disdain.

If such an occurrence sounds remarkable but the couple’s reaction does not, it is because at that time the gods of Saturn would often manifest on the face of the gas giant. From their celestial vantage point, they would gaze on each of the moons and on each of its civilisations. Their impact depended very much on the moon’s distance from Saturn. Here on Janus, where Saturn occupies a significant portion of the horizon, the gods held sway more than on, say, distant Iapetus.

When a god appears, all see him or her. When a god speaks, only those to whom they direct their instructions hear.

Lady Eresu turned to Captain Quradu and took his arm. She gently pulled him about. “Ignore him, Quradu,” she said softly. “He cannot harm us.”

The captain dropped his hand from the butt of his tantalum-pistol. That looming face – its presence alone in the sky suggested great power. Quradu looked up at Lady Eresu – as befitted her rank, she was a head taller than he – and noted her lack of concern.


Looking backwards to the future

Science fiction is an American mode of fiction. It was born in the white-hot enthusiasm for technology which prevailed in the electronics and mechanics magazines of the US during the 1920s. A prosperous future was imprinted on every page as new devices, new inventions, new scientific breakthroughs improved the standard of living of the USA’s technophilic middle class. It was the beginning of the age of the mod con, better living through engineering. The centre could not only hold, it was invulnerable. Even from internal threats. External enemies were defeated by technological mastery (and overwhelming force).

The American Dream was the only desirable and sustainable narrative of the future.

Even then, sf’s visions were problematical. The hopes and aspirations of these Americans, the mores and sensibilities of the US middle class, provided the culture in which sf blossomed and grew. Achievements were embodied in those who were first, not in those behind the scenes who made it possible. Neil Armstrong conquered the Moon, not NASA. Indeed, NASA was seen as a brake on the exploitation of space – private industry was the best vehicle for progress. And it was powered by the most powerful engine of all: the profit motive. Profit led to riches which provided the freedom to self-actualise – and so profit came to trump all other considerations. Riches became an end, not just a means to an end. Since governments curbed such headlong growth in the name of society and not individuals, they were characterised as obstacles. Humanity – well, man – could not reach his true destiny unless his growth were unfettered.

And yet…

Progress should lead to a world which is fairer and more just. The futures we narrate should reflect this. If we look back at the history of our world, we see a clear, if somewhat irregular, progression toward a more moral and socially-improved present day. So why should we base our visions of the future on the sensibilities of the past? Why should we embody in our science fictions the aspirations of a generation ninety years ago? Their present is not our present. Some of their dreams have already been achieved, some have already been discarded as unattainable, some of them have been determined to be undesirable.

These are not thought-experiments, stories in which the world itself provides some object lesson to those unable to look up from the page. These are action-adventure stories set on alien worlds, in galactic empires, in corporate-dominated futures, in urban wastelands and plutocratic societies. And in every one, many of those freedoms and rights painfully won over the past 250,000 years have been reversed to give us… Sexism. Racism. Slavery. Endemic violence. Brutish behaviour. Rape.

Of course, science fiction is the fiction of the privileged. It’s the culture of the privileged displaying their mandate in the most naked form imaginable. Only in this way can civilisation be wrested from savagery – or so their carefully-doctored history books tell them. They have the right to kill and maim and rape and impoverish those who do not accept their dominion because they will better off for it… whether they want to be or not.

This dominion extends into the realms of the imagination, into the worlds of the yet-to-be and the never-to-be. New science leads to new forms of life and, almost universally in sf, such new people are treated as non-people, as slaves, as property. Though our science fictions demand we present them as human as ourselves, their origins tell them against them. New science leads to new scientific bigotry.

Even worse, it’s not just these new people we have invented whom sf mistreats. Women are often no better off in sciencce fictions than they were during the genre’s golden age. Other cultures are blithely ignored, or pillaged in a quest for the “exotic”. Invented worlds are always monocultural – and that culture is the culture in which sf was born and grew to squalling infanthood. But then sf is designed to explore the desires and concerns of this culture. The only Others who appear are either aliens or enemies. Foreigners need not apply.

Too many of us refuse to look too closely. We are blinded by the wonder, our gaze is captured by the shiny toys. We privilege the “idea” and forget it is only one aspect of the stories we tell. We allow our assumptions and preconceptions and prejudices to validate our fictional futures. We forget to challenge. We want our future to be comfortable for us to visit, even if it is a dystopia. So we populate it with things we will unthinkingly accept, and never question its likelihood, its rigour, its plausibility, or the effects it might have on others.

Were such Randian technowank fantasies what Hugo Gernsback had in mind when he first published Amazing Stories?

I keep on finding myself circling around a pair of genre movements from recent years: Mundane SF and Optimistic SF. I was a fan of neither when they originally appeared. They seemed unnecessary restrictions – in fact, Mundane SF felt like it was throwing out of sf all the best toys. But when genre becomes defined by its toys, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate their usefulness.

And what should we replace those toys with?

The real world of the twenty-first century, of course.


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