It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

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Making Worlds…

Another Monday morning, another Monday morning ramble. When I posted my last ramble, and described it as such, I’d no intention of it being a regular thing. But what the hell. At least calling it a “ramble” means I don’t have to put forward a coherent argument. Or even make much sense.

And so, on that note…

Things work the way they do. And, in most cases, we know how that is. Not just physical laws, but society, politics, history, technology… An average reader is unlikely to be an expert in all these, but they know enough. So if, in a mainstream novel, the protagonist drives from London to Glasgow in an hour, we know the writer should go and check Google Maps again.

But in an sf novel, where the background consists chiefly of genre furniture and literary devices…

Much of the trappings of science fiction are convention, rather than any real attempt at constructing a scientifically rigorous future. (This is why sf is not prediction.) Stories set on galactic stages require an abundance of earth-like planets. Yes, exoplanets are more common than we had anticipated, but we’ve yet to find an habitable one. The worlds of the story exist because the story requires them. And, since our heroes need to travel from world to world to resolve the plot, some form of interstellar drive also becomes a necessity. It doesn’t have to be real, it doesn’t have to be based on real-world theorising – such as the Alcubierre Drive.

World-building is the art of choosing genre conventions which fit the story. And without which the story could not take place. That’s the important bit – no convention(s), no story. If the plot still works without the genre trappings, it’s not science fiction. It’s a western in space. Or a WWII story in space. Or the Napoleonic Wars in space. Or…

A purist would claim you use only those genre conventions necessary for the plot. After all, the plot is the thing. But the rest of the background, that’s chrome that’s the the bright shiny stuff the writer hopes will distinguish their novel from their rivals. That’s what readers look for when they want immersion. They want the story’s universe to give the appearance of life outside the story.

And this is where it gets difficult. The writer of a science fiction novel might well be an expert on the world of that novel. After all, they invented it. But that world has to convince on every level. The details have to be right. Earth needs to rotate the right way. No using parachutes to land on airless moons. No earthlike planets sailing gracefully through intergalactic space.

Conventions will only get you so far. And they only pass muster for the most part because they’ve been tested repeatedly during the past 80 years. Perhaps this is why such story mechanisms have changed little. Evolution is a slow process. Those which have survived the testing process have shown they work. They don’t need fixing.

But using conventions makes a novel conventional.

And the good ones are anything but that.

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The Funniest Thing I’ve Read All Week…

… is a review of The Dark Knight by some right-wing nutjob in the Wall Street Journal. It goes like this:

“There seems to me no question that the Batman film “The Dark Knight,” currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war.”

I wasn’t aware that invading a sovereign nation required “moral courage”. However, I suppose some “fortitude” is needed to trample over human rights, or torture people.

Oh, wait –

Batman is a vigilante. He operates outside the law. He’s a criminal. So, by the same argument, George W Bush must be a criminal too.

The article also says:

“Conversely, time after time, left-wing films about the war on terror — films like “In The Valley of Elah,” “Rendition” and “Redacted” — which preach moral equivalence and advocate surrender, that disrespect the military and their mission, that seem unable to distinguish the difference between America and Islamo-fascism, have bombed more spectacularly than Operation Shock and Awe.”

Hang on. Islamo-fascism? That would be right-wing Muslim extremists who blow people up and fly planes into skyscrapers, then. Who are apparently not the same as right-wing American extremists who advocate invasion, extraordinary rendition and torture. Right-wing. Fascism. They look the same from where I’m standing.

Anyway, here’s the full article. Enjoy.

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Searching for Coincidences While Travelling Faster-Than-Light

It’s self-evident that technology has made the job of writing much easier. The word-processor is a far more efficient and effective tool than the typewriter (although, with the advent of in-line spell-checking, you’d have thought the standard of spelling would improve). The Web has also provided a low-cost distribution channel, which gives even the meanest of scribblers access to a potential worldwide audience. And then there’s the access the Web gives to useful information. Of course, you need filters firmly in place – there’s a lot of crap out there masquerading as “fact”.

It occurred to me recently that it’s not just in the “business” of writing that technology has proven a boon. Yes, it has expanded the possibilities for plots, but it has also affected the mechanics of plots. A particular example of this came to mind. Take a story written, or set, for example, in the first half of the Twentieth Century…

In order to advance the plot, the protagonist has to track down the femme fatale. He’s met her, but suspects the name she gave him was false. He can either ask about at the location where he met her, in the hope that someone recognises his description and so provides her correct name. Or, and this is a common technique in stories of this ilk, he stumbles across a photograph of her in the local newspaper’s society pages. A lucky coincidence. And the plot moves on.

Let’s transpose our story to the Twenty-First Century – or even after. Our protagonist could still find his femme fatale using leg-work. Or…

He could search the Web.

It’s not unlikely that the woman should appear somewhere on the Internet. In fact, these days it’s almost certain. Almost everyone is there somewhere – especially a woman who would appear in a newspaper’s society pages… It’s only a matter of defining plausible search criteria for the protagonist to use – a visual search may not be commonplace at the moment, but soon it may well be trivial. Our plot no longer needs an incredible coincidence to advance. Technology has given us a much more plausible alternative. And if this is science fiction, then there’s nothing stopping us inventing even more useful tools. Providing, of course, they’re consistent within the universe of the story, and not too wildly implausible in and of themselves.

The Web itself may not have been foreseen forty years ago – Bill Gates himself famously predicted the CD-ROM would be the “next big thing” in personal computing in the first edition of The Road Ahead in 1995 – but the Web does not contradict what we currently know about our world and the universe. Well, not unless you’re looking it up on the Conservapedia, that is.

Science fiction, however… Well, these days, sf seems all too ready to throw the laws of physics out of the window. It’s not just the sort of stuff that’s been rejected by Mundane SF – i.e., anything that isn’t “a believable use of technology and science as it exists at the time the story is written”. Media sf – films and television – has given us, for example, spaceships that rumble (sound doesn’t carry in a vacuum), spaceships that swoop and bank in space (so much for Newton’s Laws), not to mention all those alien races which happen to bear a remarkable resemblance to humans.

But does sf really need to adhere so rigorously to the laws of physics? Okay, sound in space is just plain silly. But, to me, the faster-than-light drive is a literary device. It doesn’t have to be scientifically plausible, it only needs to get the characters from A to B, the plot from Y to Z.The distances involved in interstellar travel make most plots set outside the Solar system impossible. Some have tried: William Barton’s Dark Sky Legion posits a slower-than-light human empire held together by agents who travel for thousands of years from world to world, ensuring none stray too far from the imperial template. It’s an excellent novel. Also excellent are Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space novels, which feature slower-than-light travel. In both cases, the lack of FTL is a world-building choice by the authors.

And so back to my point about googling for the femme fatale. Most people don’t know how a Web search works. It’s black box technology. And there’s no need to explain its workings when it’s used in a story. It’s a plot enabler. It also happens to be real. FTL is not real, but it’s also chiefly there to enable the plot. The same can be said of other non-Mundane elements in a science fiction story. Time travel. Alien races. A statistically unlikely abundance of Earth-like worlds. Artificial Intelligence.

Technology has expanded the range of plot enablers available in science fiction. Or, at the very least, it has provided opportunities to conceive of new ones. We know more about the universe now than writers back in the 1940s did, and yet all many sf authors have done is trick up those old inventions – FTL, and ever more ludicrous weaponry, for example – in modern scientific jargon. Where’s the leap equivalent to society pages –> Google? Science fiction often seems to be a history of discrete ideas – time travel, FTL, the Singularity… And because the focus is on those ideas as ideas, their role in enabling the plot is ignored.

And so the plot mechanics remain unchanged – and the gloss gets glossier, the surface gets more polished, and science fiction turns yet more escapist and less relevant…

(This has been a Monday morning ramble, and may well be followed up at a later date when I’ve managed to construct a coherent argument out of the thoughts which resulted in the above.)

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Why Am I Still Doing This…? Part 2

I must be mad, I tell you, mad… Well, if I’m not now, I will be by the time I’ve finished my Nightmare Worlds 50-movie pack. The SciFi Classics one was bad enough, but this set is rapidly showing itself to be of even lower quality.

But, never mind. Without further ado, here’s the next batch of personality-wipingly bad films from the set:

Death Warmed Up – many years ago, Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong, started out his career with a bad sf/horror spoof called Bad Taste. The director of Death Warmed Up clearly tried for something similar – but his film is crap.

Doomsday Machine – the Chinese have built the ultimate weapon, so the crew of a soon-to-launch mission to Venus is quickly reshuffled, replacing half the men with women. The ultimate weapon does exactly what it says on the tin, leaving our hardy space explorers as the last of the human race. But, of course, they bicker and fight until there’s none of them left. Not a film to watch if you’re feeling misanthropic, but actually not bad for an early 1970s sf B-movie (if that’s not over-qualifying it too much).

Embryo – Rock Hudson is a genetic scientist who manages to save a dog fetus after its mother was run over. The dog grows to term and proves entirely normal – for a savage Rottweiler guard-dog. So Hudson decides to up his game and try the experiment with a human fetus. He’s successful, and the baby grows – using some super-growth scientific thingummy – into the bright and beautiful Barbara Carrere. But, of course, it all goes horribly wrong in the end. Hudson made a couple of odd but strangely watchable genre films during his career – like this one and Seconds.

End of the World – Christopher Lee is a priest who runs a convent. And he’s also an alien double. The aliens are trying to take over the world, of course. A young couple get involved somehow. I remember some scenes set in a 1970s computer centre, although the computer was apparently capable of tasks even modern ones can’t do. And there were the nuns, who were really aliens. And a transdimensional gate, or something, which was the cause of the natural disasters which were destroying Earth. A very odd film.

Eternal Evil – a television director is taught how to astral project by a mysterious woman, and while he sleeps does just that. And kills lots of people. I must have been astral travelling when I watched this, because I can’t remember any of it.

Evil Brain from Outer Space – Starman saves the Earth again. Sigh. This one had a really strange monster in it – I mean, yes, it was obviously a man in a rubber costume. But it looked very weird. Oh, and the titular evil brain spent the entire film being carried round in an attaché case. I’ve seen plenty of maguffins, but it’s the first time I’ve seen a brain used as one.

Shadow of Chinatown – this is actually a serial from 1936, and it’s real pulp action. A mad Eurasian scientist (Bela Lugosi) plots to put the Chinese merchants of an unnamed West Coast American city out of business. There’s a plucky reporter, her manly boyfriend, fistfights, narrow escapes, bombs, and poison traps. It would have been really exciting if it weren’t so, well, dull…

The Disappearance of Flight 412 – and here’s another one which proved less exciting than its title or synopsis suggested. A USAF plane witnesses a UFO encounter, and is directed to land at a disused airbase. Where the crew are held and interrogated by government agents. Their commanding officer, meanwhile, wants to know where his men have vanished to. It’s all because the policy is to cover up UFO sightings and not to investigate them, you see.

Idaho Transfer – I’m not entirely sure what to make of this one. The transfer was terrible, which didn’t help. But its story, and the way it approached it, was actually quite good. A group of scientists have perfected a time machine, and regularly send people 56 years into future, when the Earth appears to have suffered some form of ecological collapse and humanity has died off. The nature of the time travel device means only people under the age of twenty can go, and when the military seizes the time travel facility, a group of young people maroon themselves in the future. Only the Earth isn’t entirely depopulated, and it does eventually recover. An odd, low-budget, low-tech time travel film, not unlike Primer (although nowhere near as confusing).

Good Against Evil – a pilot for a television series which was never (thankfully) made. It apparently stars a young Kim Cattrall of Sex & the City. I don’t actually recall seeing her in it. But then I don’t actually recall much about this film. Something about Satan trying to possess a woman, and a writer trying to exorcise her. The writer is played by Dack Rambo. Who apparently has a twin brother called Dirk Rambo. Dack and Dirk. You can’t make this sort of stuff up…

Alien Zone – a man is dropped off on the wrong street while trying to return to his hotel. It’s raining badly, so a mortician offers him shelter. As they do. To while away the time, the mortician tells the man stories about four of the bodies currently occupying his coffins. As they do. I don’t actually recall what those stories were, however. Or what they had to do with aliens.

So, a mixed bag this time. Embryo, End of the World and Idaho Transfer weren’t bad – and might even have been quite good, if the transfer hadn’t been so poor. The Disappearance of Flight 412 proved duller than it should have been. The rest were as expected.

Don’t forget part one of this recipe for insanity.


20 British SF Novels You Should Read

It seems to be the season to exhort people to read books, or watch films, from some list of what-appear-to-be-randomly-chosen titles. So, move on over up there on the bandwagon, I’m climbing aboard.


Most of the lists floating about the tinterweb are, let’s face it, a bit Americocentric. Here are twenty science fiction novels by British authors you should read.

Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland
Tabitha Jute is the captain of a space barge, and when she agrees to ferry a cabaret act, Contraband, from Mars to the alien space station Plenty, things go from bad to… well, to crashing her space barge on Venus. A seminal post-modern space opera, and a personal favourite (see here).

Use of Weapons, Iain M Banks
Cheradenine Zakalwe was an operative for Special Circumstances. While the drone Diziet Sma tries to persuade him to come out of retirement for one last job, a second narrative recounts Zakalwe’s career in reverse chronological order… leading to one of the most memorable revelations in science fiction. Probably the best of Banks’ Culture novels.

A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
Alex loves a bit of the old ultra-violence, but the authorities aren’t so keen on it. One such incident gets a bit out of hand, and Alex is arrested, tried and convicted. While in jail, he volunteers for a brainwashing experiment, designed to remove his urge for violence. A novel that’s famous for several reasons – its story, its invented language Nadsat, Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, and Kubrick banning his own film from being shown in the UK…

Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle
In an alternate past in which the mediaeval nation of Burgundy did not disappear, female mercenary captain Ash is battling against invading Visigoths from North Africa. Meanwhile, a present-day academic is researching the biography of the fictional Ash… only to discover his own world slowly changing to be more like hers.

Life, Gwyneth Jones
Anna Senoz is a genetics researcher, and this is her, well, her life. And her career. SFSite said of Life: “You can stop reading right now and go out and buy the book. Otherwise, you’ll have to endure yet another one of these diatribes about how science fiction doesn’t get any respect from the literary mainstream. Because you can’t read this book and not reflect on the fact that had this been written by, say, Margaret Atwood, Life would be receiving more of the widespread attention it deserves.”

Light, M John Harrison
Back in 1975, Harrison reinvented space opera with The Centauri Device. Twenty-seven years later, he did it again with Light. Physicist and serial killer Michael Kearney is haunted by the Shrander. He is also on the verge of breakthrough in theoretical physics which will allow humanity to spread into space… and so populate the edges of the Kefahuchi Tract, a region of space that obeys no known laws of physics. Which is where, in 2400 AD, K-ship captain Seria Mau Genlicher and ex-space pilot Ed Chianese now live.

Absolution Gap, Alastair Reynolds
This is one of those novels which has three separate narratives which seem to have no connection to each other. But, of course, they’re linked. The world of Ararat has found itself dragged into a war between humanity and the Inhibitors. Rashmika Els is looking for her brother, who has joined one of the “cathedrals” which perpetually travel across the face of the frozen moon, Hela. And the crew of the lighthugger Gnostic Ascension are desperately searching for something to improve their fortunes… Of Reynolds’ Revelation Space novels, this one shows the strangeness of his universe best.

Behold the Man, Michael Moorcock
Karl Glogauer travels back in time from Britain in 1970 to Judea in 28 AD. He is obsessed with meeting Jesus Christ… except the Jesus he meets is not the one described in the Bible. Britain in 1970 was a grim place, but Biblical Judea is little better. At least Glogauer finds the fate he was seeking, although it’s perhaps not the one he expected to find.

The Drowned World, JG Ballard
If we don’t get global warming sorted out soon, this might well turn not to be science fiction. Ballard’s second novel, and deservedly in the SF Masterworks series.

The Separation, Christopher Priest
The Second World War ended in 1941. Except it didn’t. It’s all because of identical twins Joe and Jack Sawyer. After competing in the 1936 Olympics, they fall out. One becomes a RAF bomber pilot, while the other is a conscientious objector. Priest rings the variations on their two lives, and the consequences of one or the other, or both, dying.

Somewhere East of Life, Brian W Aldiss
Someone has stolen ten years of Roy Burnell’s memories, and so he wanders about Central Asia hunting for the magic bullet which will restore them. This is one of those near-future sf novels which, now that its future has passed, bears an uncanny resemblance to mainstream fiction. And yet it’s still sf.

The Time Machine, HG Wells
A man invents a time machine and travels to the future. To the year 802,701 AD, in fact. But you probably knew that already.

The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter
This is the authorised sequel to The Time Machine – and in it the publication of Wells’ novel has changed the future. The Time Traveller can no longer rescue Weena from the Morlocks. So he goes back in time to prevent his earlier self from inventing the time machine. Only that changes the future yet again… Baxter manages to pull a happy ending out of his story, but you’ll have to read the novel to find out how.

1984, George Orwell
Some say this isn’t science fiction. I say that just because some governments are using techniques described in the book – left-wing doubleplusungood, right wing doubleplusgood; Christianity doubleplusgood, atheism doubleplusungood – that doesn’t mean 1984 isn’t science fiction. The UK might as well be Airstrip One, anyway. And not even George Orwell would have dared invent Gitmo and “extraordinary rendition” for his novel.

Pavane, Keith Roberts
Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated in 1588, and England remains Catholic. The stories in this fix-up novel are set in a 1968 following on from this, but it’s not a 1968 we’d recognise. Pavane is still one of the best alternate history novels ever written, and Keith Roberts deserves to be better known than he is.

The Road to Corlay, Richard Cowper
A thousand years in the future, the ice-caps have melted and the UK is now a series of small islands (it’s that global warming thing again). Modern technology has been mostly forgotten, and a Church Militant rules everything. But the prophesied White Bird of Dawning could break their rule. It all depends on Tom, whose pipe-playing has the power to stir minds. While this novel may sound like fantasy, it’s very definitely science fiction. It’s also very English.

Chronocules, DG Compton
This novel has one of the all-time great opening sentences: “About twenty years before this story begins—give or take a few years, the Simmons s.b. effect being untried and seriously (not that it mattered) inaccurate—the desolate silence on Penheniot Village, at the top of Penheniot Pill which is a creek off the small harbour of St. Kinnow in the county of Cornwall, was shattered by the practised farting of young Roses Varco.” But then it was originally published under the title Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, the Sandpaper sides of used Matchboxes, and something that might have been Castor Oil, so what do you expect?

Silver Screen, Justina Robson
Anjuli O’Connell is a psychologist working with the Artificial Intelligence 901. Just before his death, a colleague filed a petition with the World Court to emancipate the AI, but the company which built and owns it is resisting. Not many debut novels are shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, but Silver Screen was. And it also appeared on the shortlist for the BSFA Award.

Oracle, Ian Watson
A Roman centurion is dragged forward to the present day by an experiment and finds himself in, of all places, Milton Keynes (that’s the town with the concrete cows). He’s picked up by a British researcher… But then the security services get involved. And so do the IRA. And the book heads smartly into thriller territory.

The Star Fraction, Ken MacLeod
This was MacLeod’s debut novel, and takes place in a balkanised UK. Revolution is in the air, and three very different characters find themselves involved. And behind it all is the mysterious Star Fraction. And the rogue AI, the Watchmaker. An astonishing debut from MacLeod.

Now go and read them.

(Before you all start spluttering about various books I’ve missed off the list, I picked titles which are either set (mostly) in the UK, or at some point in the future at which nation states are irrelevant. So no Black Man or Brasyl. Or Rendezvous with Rama. They’re also books I’ve both read and enjoyed. So no John Wyndham (never read him). Nevertheless, I’ve probably missed an entire county’s worth of UK authors who deserve mention. If you can think of any, then feel free to name them in a comment.)