It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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The apples and oranges of genre

Apples and oranges are fruit, and you’ll find them in fruit bowls and packed lunches around the world. They’re sold in supermarkets and greengrocers, but not in fishmongers and betting shops. Some people prefer apples to oranges. They like the appleness of apples more than the orangeness of oranges. Or vice versa. Some people like both equally. But the fact you can find apples and oranges in a fruit bowl doesn’t make an apple an orange or an orange an apple.

Comparing_Apples_to_Oranges

Just like science fiction and fantasy.

Everyone knows what apples and oranges are, and they could give any number of reasons why one is not the other. Yet when it comes to science fiction and fantasy, most people can only say, “they’re fruit”. As if that’s all that matters. Of course it isn’t. Otherwise everyone would like the two genres equally – and fantasy wouldn’t outsell sf by five or seven to one.

But because sf and fantasy stories both take place in invented worlds, people lump them together. But not every sf/fantasy story has an invented setting; and not every story which takes place in an invented world is sf or fantasy. So that’s a piss-poor definition. And where do we stop with the invented elements? Robots. Dragons. FTL. Magic. What about an invented organisation? Like… SPECTRE? Are Fleming’s Bond books science fiction? Maybe it’s the degree of invention in the story, then. Like that’s not a movable bar…

The point is, when you start looking at what science fiction and fantasy have in common you soon find yourself tied in knots. However, when you consider why they’re different… then things begin to make sense. Which, logically, implies they must be different things.

So they share a “fruit bowl”, and have done since fruit bowls were invented – but they still exhibit more readily-definable differences than they do similarities. Please stop trying to insist apples are oranges, and vice versa. Accept that they are each their own thing, no matter how many fruit salads you make.


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The Apollo Quartet that never was

The Apollo Quartet is hard sf, but it’s also alternate history. And the books of the quartet themselves have their own alternate history too. They say a plan never survives contact with the enemy and, in pretty much the same way, a synopsis never survives unscathed once you actually get into writing a novel, novella or story.

I can’t remember at what point in the writing of Adrift on the Sea of Rains I decided it would be the first of the quartet… but once I’d made the decision I obviously needed to come up with three more stories. I had one sitting in my “ideas book” (actually, it’s just a Google doc) that I thought would be suitable. It was only when I started writing the second book of the quartet that I realised it didn’t quite fit. So I kept one narrative thread, left the other as implied, added a new narrative about the mission to Mars, set the story decades earlier… and changed the title to The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself.

The original Apollo Quartet 3 and 4 bear no resemblance to the ones that have been/will be published. The original synopsis for Apollo Quartet 3 just simply didn’t fit in with how the quartet was shaping up. And I’d decided I really wanted to write about the Mercury 13 and the bathyscaphe Trieste. So I did.

With the Mercury 13 as the subject of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, another theme was rising to the forefront of the four novellas… and so I needed a new story for the final book. I’d already “borrowed” the title of my favourite film, but the link to Sirk’s masterpiece was too thin. That wasn’t going to work. But with a little sleight of hand, I had myself a new plot which provided a suitable end to the quartet, and then the title – with a little tweaking – would suit it perfectly. Instead of an Avro engineer, my protagonist would be an astronaut’s wife. And rather than just a fan of science fiction, she’d be a writer…

So here, for your delight and delectation, are the original synopses for Apollo Quartets 2 to 4, which I recently discovered in a Google doc created back in September 2011.

2. Wave Fronts The Earth has a single interstellar colony – administered by NASA, ESA and JASA – on SuperEarth2 at Gleise 581, twenty light years from Earth, and which has been in existence for twenty years. By now radio waves from the colony should have reached Earth, but there has been nothing. So Shepard has been sent to find out what’s happened. He travels to Gleise 581 by bubble-ship, and when he arrives at SuperEarth2, he discovers that the colony has completely vanished. Using one of the bubble-ship’s re-entry capsules, he lands on the surface and treks across the land to the settlement’s location. But it is as if it had never existed. And now he stuck there as there is no way for him to get into orbit. A second narrative depicts the dismantling of a colony and its preparations to leave its world before the light front reaches Earth. The colonists move onto another planetary system… where they meet an alien race, engaged in the same method of colonisation as themselves.

3. The Shores of Earth Earth is now home only to the empress of the Healing Empire, her family and staff, who all live in a vast palace. The rest of humanity lives off-Earth, scattered throughout the Solar System. The protagonist travels to Earth and lands in capsule which can reconfigure itself into lifting-body/glider. He is immediately arrested by the empress’s personal guard, and subsequently interrogated by a captain of the guard. The protagonist has come to report the arrival of a vessel from an interstellar colony populated centuries before by a generation ship, but its arrival is too soon – there’s not been enough time to get to the exoplanet, and then build the necessary infrastructure to send the ship back. Perhaps the visiting ship is alien? Except no evidence of aliens has ever been found…

4. All That The Stars Allow It is the late 1950s, and a British electronics engineer is offered a job in Houston with NASA, which entails moving from his current job in Canada where he works for Avro. (A lot of Mission Control was designed and built by British engineers, many of which had previously worked for Avro in Canada.) He packs up and drives south, anticipating the future of manned spaceflight given what he knows of NASA’s plans. The engineer is an avid reader of science fiction, and the second narrative is the text of a story of the period of an engineer in a future in which humanity has colonised the Solar System.

Perhaps one day these stories may appear, no doubt in somewhat changed form. But when all’s said and done, I think the Apollo Quartet as it now exists is a much better piece of work than it would have been had I used the above plots.


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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_deep

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.

725px-Arctic_Ocean_bathymetric_features

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.

1992-Theo-Mavrostomos-HYDRA-10-COMEX-ROLEX-701M

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.

sphere

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.

seawise

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.

thedeep

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…


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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.

 


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A hard defence

On his blog, Paul Kincaid has been writing recently about hard science fiction and its politics. It all started with a reprint of a piece originally published in a magazine in 2008, in which Paul argued that hard sf was intrinsically right-wing – see here. Which promptly generated some comments,and which in turn Paul replied to with a second post – see here. I was one of the commentors. Well, I have written hard sf – the Apollo Quartet has been described as “art house hard sf” – and I certainly don’t consider myself right-wing. Quite the opposite, in fact. But that’s me, the writer; not the subgenre.

It seems to me there are two problems with Paul’s thesis. First, he’s defined hard sf as Campbellian sf. While it’s certainly true the origin of hard sf lies in the pages of Astounding under Campbell’s editorship, and Campbell had a very heavy hand on the tiller, that was fifty or more years ago. Genres and subgenres change, definitions evolve. The term space opera was originally coined as a pejorative; it isn’t one now. The generally accepted definition used today for hard sf is based upon either the sciences a text references – the so-called hard sciences of physics, chemistry, cosmology, etc; or the rigour with which the science is treated in the text. Nothing in that definition mentions politics.

Paul’s argument – and I hope I’m paraphrasing correctly – is that the rigour, ie, the adherence to inviolable natural laws, in hard sf is subsequently transferred to human laws and, as a result, hard sf presents authoritarian spaces in which to tell its stories. The example he uses is Tom Godwin’s ‘The Cold Equations’ (a story he discusses in an earlier blog post – see here – reprinted from Vector, the critical journal of the BSFA). ‘The Cold Equations’ has long been seen as the epitome of hard sf, but I don’t think it actually qualifies. It’s certainly the very definition of Campbellian sf, but I contend that Campbellian sf no longer maps onto hard sf.

In a nutshell, the plot of Godwin’s story is as follows… A rescue starship is carrying vital medical supplies to another world. A young girl stows away aboard the starship because she wants to visit her brother on that world. But her presence aboard means the starship is overweight and cannot land. The only excess weight which can be ditched in order to safely land with the medical supplies… is the young girl herself. Clearly, the situation is completely artificial: why does the starship only carry the exact amount of fuel needed for the journey and its load? Surely there is something else aboard which weighs as much as, if not more than, the girl which could be ditched instead? The only fixed limit in the story, the only natural law in the story, is the amount of energy the pilot can get from the fuel he carries. That is unchangeable. Though the plot of the story is predicated on that limit, it uses arbitrarily applied human limits to present a dilemma… and then completely fails to solve it.

Hard sf generally does the opposite: it presents dilemmas predicated on fixed natural limits, and then finds solutions using human ingenuity. (Godwin apparently submitted three different attempts at such a resolution, but each was rejected by Campbell, who wanted the girl to die.)

Of course, that’s no more comprehensive a description of hard sf than Paul’s reliance on ‘The Cold Equations’ as a defining text. Certainly, “Analog-style” stories fit that mould (Astounding renamed itself to Analog, so Campbell’s legacy does continue to some extent), and there are plenty of examples of such hard sf stories by the likes of Clarke, Clement, Bova, Steele or Nordley. But then what about ‘Hardfought’ by Greg Bear – that’s certainly hard sf, but it’s hardly Campbellian. Or hard sf stories by Kim Stanley Robinson, Stephen Baxter, Paul McAuley, Joan Slonczewski, Linda Nagata, Julie E Czernada, Catherine Asaro or CJ Cherryh…

I don’t think it follows that authoritarian spaces must result from a strict adherence to natural laws. Some hard sf stories are set on Mars, but that doesn’t mean all hard sf stories are. Likewise, not all stories set on Mars are hard sf. It doesn’t help that most writers of hard sf appear to have politics that lean to the right – either conservative or libertarian. But that’s an attribute of the writers, not of the subgenre in which they’re writing. I can’t think of any Marxist hard sf stories off the top of my head – in fact, Marxist sf stories of any type are in remarkably short supply. But there are certainly hard sf stories set in the USSR (as was), such as Fellow Traveler by William Barton and Michael Capobianco, or ‘Red Star, Winter Orbit’ by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (which appeared in Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology but is patently not cyberpunk). The USSR also makes an appearance in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Icehenge, a hard sf novel which is not right-wing. Nor indeed is his Mars trilogy, perhaps the most-celebrated hard sf series of recent decades.

Certainly a lot of hard sf is right-wing, especially the near-future variant. But that’s a characteristic brought to it by the writers, not something innate to the subgenre. That ‘The Cold Equations’ presents a right-wing aspect is irrelevant, because it is not emblematic of hard sf, even if it is emblematic of Campbellian sf. The two modes have diverged in the forty-two years since John W Campbell died, and whatever artificial constraints exist in Godwin’s story – and they were editorially, not authorially, applied – I don’t think they arise from a rigorous adherence to purely natural laws.


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Goings on and off

Last weekend saw numerous awards handed out in science fiction and fantasy. Sadly, Adrift on the Sea of Rains didn’t win the 2012 Sidewise Award for Short-Form Alternate History. That went to Rick Wilber’s ‘Something Real’, first published in Asimov’s and apparently about a baseball player who turns spy during an alternate WWII. Still, I was surprised, and very pleased, to be shortlisted – and while The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself may be predominantly hard sf, Then Will The Great Wash Deep Above is pretty much pure alternate history… So maybe next year.

Of course, the best-known award handed out over the weekend was the Hugo Award. In sixteen separate categories. The Hugo is a popular vote award, and its results reflect that. The winner was John Scalzi’s Redshirts, a book I will admit appeals to me not one bit, nor from the reviews I’ve read would it seem to qualify as the best science fiction novel published in 2012. But that’s the way the award works. Good to see Pat Cadigan win a long-deserved Hugo for best novelette, though I think it’s long past time the category was hurled into the outer darkness. The short story ballot contained only three stories and I was disappointed Aliette’s ‘Immersion’ didn’t win, but Ken Liu’s brand of sentimentality seems to be serving him well – this is his second Hugo win in two years. I’m not much interested in the other categories, especially those which cling to old modes of fandom for dear life and are being badly distorted by recent years’ results.

Other big sf news includes the death of Frederik Pohl at the age of 93. He wrote a huge number of books, and I think I’ve read around a dozen of them. Some of them I remember as pretty good, possibly even genre classics – like Gateway and Man Plus – but others seemed very forgettable, such as Narabedla Ltd, Mining the Oort or Homegoing. But that’s an occupational hazard of being so prolific, or having so long a career. However, Pohl was also an influential editor and like a lot of sf authors and editors of his generation helped shape the genre of science fiction as we now know it – for good or ill. Pohl is the second author of his generation to die this year. The other was Jack Vance, who was also very prolific. I think I’ve read about two-thirds of Vance’s sf output. He died back in May. Vance’s fiction had a very distinctive voice, and while his novels were of variable quality they were also very recognisable. He wrote pulp, but it was better-than-average pulp, and occasionally it transcended its pulpish origins. While it’s always sad when writers whose fiction has brought you pleasure die, the books of the late Iain Banks meant far more to me than those of Vance or Pohl.

On a personal note, I recently dropped the price of the paperback edition of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself for UK buyers by £1 on the Whippleshield Books online shop, so order your copy now. I’ve dropped the ebook price as well – across all platforms and sites. Also, you can now listen to the audio version of Adrift on the Sea of Rains on Starship Sofa (part one is currently up, I assume part 2 will appear this week). Rather than have narrator Logan Waterman read out the glossary, we agreed I would post it online – you can find it here.

I also decided a couple of weeks ago that Whippleshield Books is going to publish a series of mini-anthologies in paperback and ebook, each one containing no more than four or five stories. The submission period doesn’t open until 1 November, and I’ll post more about it then, but here’s the original announcement. I’m also playing around with an idea for a non-genre-specific ebook-only mini-anthology series, but we’ll see how Aphrodite Terra goes. Meanwhile, Apollo Quartet 3 Then Will The Great Wash Deep Above is taking shape nicely. I hope to be able to post the cover art and the back-cover blurb soon.

SF Mistressworks has had to go to a fortnightly schedule. I’ve been providing every other review for the last twelve months, and writing a book review once a fortnight was affecting all the other things I have – or would like – to do. Every other review will still be by me – at least until I build up a bigger backlog of reviews – but now I only have to write one a month. I’d been hoping to get more short fiction done this year but had been finding it difficult. This should help. Incidentally, I have no plans to let SF Mistressworks lapse or close. It’s been going now for over two years, and I plan to keep it running until there are no more eligible books to review – although given its policy of allowing multiple reviews of books, that might never happen…

My list of 100 Great Science Fiction Stories by Women continues to get hits every day – in fact, it’s the most popular post on this blog by quite a margin. I never managed to figure out how many times it was reblogged on Tumblr, but I think it was in triple figures; and it was also linked to by a number of blogs and other sites. Perhaps it’s time to start working on a 100 Great Science Fiction Novels by Women list… though I’d expect that to prove a lot more contentious (“where’s x?! How dare you miss out y?!). We shall see.

Meanwhile on this blog, I shall continue to write about the books I’ve read, post photographs of the books I’ve bought, try and define science fiction, post pictures of cool aircraft, ships, submersibles, cars, Brutalist buildings and futurist fashions… and write posts on any other topic which takes my fancy at the time. Blogging is allegedly on its way out – why generate original content when you can just reblog someone else’s content? why comment on something when you can just click “like”? – but I think I’ll carry on doing it for a while yet…


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The cost of doing business

During the Bank Holiday weekend, while working on Apollo Quartet 3: Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, I stumbled across a book I’d not known about and which would prove very useful for research. So I promptly tracked down a copy on abebooks.co.uk and ordered it. As I added it to the bibliography, it occurred to me that I’d spent more on research books for Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above than I had for the previous two novellas of the quartet.

It’s a somewhat unfair observation as both Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself were written chiefly using books I already owned – books I’d collected for my A Space About Books About Space blog over a number of years. But because Apollo Quartet 3 is partly based on something about which I don’t already own reference books… I had to buy them. But exactly how much had I spent?

Totaling up the cost of all the books, and DVDs, mentioned in each of the Apollo Quartet books’ bibliography proved a bit of an eye-opener. It looked like this:

AQ1 £480.02
AQ2 £452.81
AQ3 £477.77
Grand Total £1410.60

That’s a hidden cost of writing, that is. Yes, I write science fiction, so I could just make it all up. And it would cost me nothing. Or I could just rip off ideas from other science fiction novels (I have quite a few of them too). On the other hand, maybe I could borrow books I need from the library – although I suspect at least 80% of the ones I used wouldn’t be available, even through inter-library loans. However, if I include only the books I bought specifically as research for the three novellas, then the figures are considerably reduced:

AQ1 £9.86
AQ2 £62.52
AQ3 £262.93
Grand Total £335.31

That’s not to say that reading all those books for research has been a chore. Having said that, don’t read about the Mercury 13 unless you need more anger in your life. But, on the whole, everything I’ve read for research has proven very interesting. Who knows; I’ve read books on women aviators before – such as Diana Barnato Walker’s Spreading My Wings – and so I might well have sooner or later ended up reading about the Mercury 13 anyway. I’ll certainly be hanging onto the books, and perhaps even re-using some of the research in later fiction… So it’s not like they were a waste of money.

Besides… books.


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An epistemological model of (speculative) fiction

All too often people point at the trappings of a fiction and claim that they identify it. Book A contains spaceships and robots, therefore it must be science fiction. Book B has dragons and castles, so it must be fantasy. But as a means of defining a fiction, it’s imprecise, often inaccurate and very much open to abuse. For every book which can be definitively identified by its tropes, there are countless others that can’t, or that require the trope itself to be re-defined. Tropes do not identify a genre: if you paint a car yellow, it does not make it a banana.

To date, the one definition of science fiction that has generated the least argument is Damon Knight’s 1952 comment, science fiction “means what we point to when we say it”. It makes the definition purely personal and subjective. Which makes it completely bloody useless as a tool. And I think it’s important to know what science fiction is you’re going to write it or write about it. Having said that, most of the definitions of sf in Wikipedia – see here – are by sf writers. And most of those definitions are completely ineffective.

A useful definition has to describe something intrinsic to the text, not something extra-textual. We don’t, for example, assume every book with a robot on the cover is science fiction – though many sf novels have robots on the cover, and many books with robots on the cover are sf. And to assume that every book which features a robot in the story is science fiction is identification by trope, which is also wrong. A bildungsroman novel set in a car factory, for example, would feature robots.

I’ve been thinking about agency in fiction and how it can be used to differentiate between fantasy and science fiction. In fantasy, objects which do not have agency in the real world are given it by authorial fiat. In science fiction, the agency is applied systemically by the natural world – the laws of physics, cosmology, biology, etc. Just like it is in mimetic fiction. Things happen in mimetic fiction as the real world dictates they happen – planes fly because their wings generate lift, boats float because they displace water equal to their weight, apples fall from trees because of the law of gravity, and so on. The same holds true in science fiction, though some of the elements of the natural world may be invented, such as that allowing FTL travel.

Also important in science fiction is wonder, which is the bit that fills your imagination up to the brim and then spills over. It is the chief reason people read science fiction in the first place. But wonder also applies to fantasy – dragons are objects of wonder, for example. I have in the past had a go at defining wonder – see here – and even managed to turn it into a (slightly tongue-in-cheek) equation.

Then it occurred to me that if I used both agency and wonder, it gave me a handy way to categorise fiction:

epistemo

Works can, of course, straddle borders, which can lead to interesting effects. But as means of distinguishing between various genres, the above chart doesn’t rely on tropes – in fact, it completely ignores them. A story can, for example, feature dragons, defined as cryptozoologic reptiles, and be science fiction. A fantasy novel can feature spaceships which fly between worlds because some person in a cloak waves their hands and mutters gibberish.

Now, of course, someone is sure to think of examples where my definition doesn’t fit…


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The fastest man on earth

No, not me. Though I suppose if you strapped enough rocket bottles to me, I could probably qualify. Which is what happens – to someone else, I hasten to add – in my story ‘The Incurable Irony of the Man who Rode the Rocket Sled’. It was published yesterday in the The Orphan #5. You can find my story here.

sonicwind

‘The Incurable Irony of the Man who Rode the Rocket Sled’ was inspired by some of the research I did for the Apollo Quartet. I’d come across mention of the rocket sleds that were used in the 1950s to test how many Gs a human body could safely withstand, and I thought it would be pretty cool to write about that. So I did. The end result, however, isn’t exactly typical – as science fiction, my fiction, or even fiction per se: The Orphan itself describes it as possessing “footnotes, no plot, and genre content visible, yet near microscopic”. So, no launching rocket sleds into space to fight aliens or anything. Just a man, the rocket sleds, and the world around him.

They were bonkers, the volunteers on the rocket sled programme – especially the man who created it, John Paul Stapp. But what they achieved did prove useful and ultimately saved many lives. Here’s a USAF information film about rocket sleds, which gives you some idea of what it was all about.

Enjoy.


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New look

Today I decided the blog was looking all a bit noughties, so it was time for a fresh coat of paint. It’s just one of the free WordPress themes, so it’s nothing fancy. I’ve kept the widgets the same, so there’s the two book of the Apollo Quartet, but now on the right-hand side of the page. Plus the cover art for the various places I’ve so far appeared in print.

The header photo is Apollo 15 sitting somewhat lopsidedly on the Sea of Rains. I was actually planning to use something completely different, but I stumbled across that one on my hard-drive and it seemed the right one to use. Also in the header… it’s the return of the subtitle! Yes, all these years and this blog has actually been called “It Doesn’t Have To Be Right… It Just Has To Sound Plausible”. The previous theme I used chopped off the second part of the phrase. And now, it has now been reinstated.

All I need to do now is post more regularly… And write more interesting posts…

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