Tag Archives: Science fiction

Touchdown

Imagine it—you’ve been on the ship for ages, maybe cooped up in cryosleep, maybe just passing time while in FTL, but now you’re here, at the target planet. The ship is in orbit above you, and the shuttle is touching down… now.

The pilots shut everything down, and for a few moments, it’s dead quiet. No need for environmental suits—this planet was targeted because a probe detected an atmosphere like Earth’s. It’s a rare find, so being on this mission is a privilege. You weren’t picked to be the first to step foot on this world, but you will be among the first.

You exchange glances with the other members of the initial exploration party, then you all get to your feet and shuffle to the door. The team leader opens it with a hiss and daylight floods the compartment. A whine of electronics as the ramp lowers, followed by a brief clang as it locks in place, and the member chosen to go first steps out of the vehicle.

You try to appear patient, but inside you’re bursting. Just because you aren’t the first doesn’t mean you aren’t eager to step outside. For one, you’ve spent so much time inside this ship you’re ready for broader horizons. But more than that, there’s the idea of being among the first to step foot on a new world, one everyone hopes will be ripe for colonizing. Earth certainly needs the resources and to lighten its population load.

Finally, it’s your turn. You walk down the ramp, inhaling your first breath of alien air. It’s clean, not like the polluted air back home, and full of scents that are strange to someone used to fumes and little else.

And the sights! My God, it’s amazing. Not a building or car anywhere, and the only voices are those of your teammates. You step onto the ground—a big moment for you, even if the big moment for mankind has already happened—and it takes a few seconds, and a bump from the person behind you, to remember to move. The novelty isn’t lost on you.

This. Is. Another. World.

You step to the side so the others can experience their moment of discovery too, but you barely see them. You’re standing on this planet’s version of grass. It’s soft and springy, and it looks a lot like pictures of wild grass back home, with long leaves that are a pale green in the center edged around with a greenish yellow. It slowly springs back up when you lift your foot off it.

In the distance, trees tower into the sky. They’re shaped like oversized broccoli—no limbs at all until the top, and then it forms a dome-like shape that’s a good twenty or thirty meters above the ground. A breeze ruffles the leaves and brings with the sweet smells of flowers.

An entire world, and only ten people on it at the moment. Soon there’ll be more—they can’t bring colonists here until it’s reasonably sure this is a safe world—but for now it belongs only to you and your teammates.

It’s worth the trip. All those months cooped up in a spaceship, trying your best not to snap someone else’s head off at times, staring out what few portholes there were at the cold depths of space, all of it was worth this moment, this time in your life that nothing else will equal. It’s your first time on a planet that’s not Earth, not the planet of your birth. There’s work to be done, and no doubt you’ll grow accustomed to this place, but for now, this moment, you’re an explorer, one of the privileged first few to leave footprints, as it were, on this world. Even if your name never goes down in a history book, you’ll still cherish this forever.

The moment is over. Time to go to work. But you’ve got something now that very few others have, and it’ll keep you going for the rest of your life.

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Synergy

It’s not very often you see authors working as teams. There are a few, such as Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child—who also write solo—but on the whole, you don’t see it very often. Writing is very much a solo endeavor. Even if you bounce ideas off other people—as I often do—or you refine your story after it’s written by taking in the feedback you get from beta readers, in the end, you’re the one sitting there at the keyboard pounding out the words.

Musicians work in teams all the time. In fact, it’s rare to see a song written by just one person. I just finished reading Dancing with Myself, Billy Idol’s autobiography. It’s a great story about a guy who started out in punk in the seventies and worked his way up to be one of the most iconic stars of the eighties and beyond. One theme I saw throughout the book was that he worked with his guitarists to write his songs. Primarily, this was Steve Stevens, one of the most proficient guitarists out there, though he did work with Mark Younger-Smith for a time in the nineties. But almost any album you pick up will show the songs are a collaborative effort, whether it’s a solo artist or a band.

Kill SwitchBut even though we writers tend to work alone, that doesn’t prevent something special from happening when a few of us get together to hatch shared world projects. That’s just what happened to me this week—last night, in fact—as I got together with Casey Cowan, creative director of Oghma Creative Media, and science fiction authors Gordon Bonnet, whose conspiracy theory-heavy Kill Switch is available as an eBook preorder on Amazon, with print copies available April 14, and JE Newman, author of Changeling, a novel about the world after the superheroes have left (also available on Amazon).

Even though it was an informal visit, Casey hoped putting us together in one place would spark something, and it did. Over dinner, we hashed out a shared world project, the details of which I can’t reveal at this time. I think it’s gonna be an exciting thing to work on, though, and I think readers will like it. Part of the experiment will also involve reader feedback to determine the later course the project will take. The idea is to be on the edge of where writing is going, at least in part, a direction posited by Jason Merkoski, author of Burning the Page. Jason was on the development teams for the first two Kindles, and I highly recommend his book, which predicts some trends in the eBook market, one of which is a form of audience participation in the plot line of novels and stories.

When I went back to school, one of the classes I had to take was a business communication course. One of the things taught in that course is brainstorming and how companies can use it to initiate new projects. I thought it was a neat concept, but never expected to take much part in such things myself.

And yet, that’s exactly what we did at that meeting. We may not have followed the “letter of the law” by all of us writing down every single idea that came to mind, but we didChangelingFrontCover-200 end up with a consensus, nevertheless. We did it through talking, first about separate ideas we’d all come up with that might lend themselves to a shared world, then by hatching a concept completely independent of our solo projects.

Then we started paring them down, bouncing ideas of one another, evolving things suggested, dropping some things and completely changing others so they didn’t even resemble the initial suggestions, until we had something we were all excited about: a project that allows each of us to explore the world in our own unique ways while contributing to the whole, with the finale to be determined by reader consensus. And, in the end, the hope is that we attract readers to our solo projects while at the same time finding new writers to possibly extend the concept in a unique way by adding that twist at the end you expect from good science fiction.

I’ll keep you posted on this project, which should debut sometime next year, hopefully coinciding with our science fiction/fantasy ezine we intend to launch sometime in early 2016. So stay tuned to this blog for further developments, and I’ll pass them to you as I get them. If you’re a science fiction/fantasy fan, I think you’ll like what we’ve come up with.

Later,
Gil

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Cinder

Do you like fairy tales? How about cyberpunk? Are you into good YA?cinder

Cinder by Marissa Meyer has all of the above.

Welcome to the future. It’s 126 years after World War IV, and the world is divided up into six large nations: the United Kingdom, the European Federation, the African Union, the American Republic, Australia, and the Eastern Commonwealth. And, on the Moon, we have the Lunars, ruled by Queen Levana.

All of this is a bit above Cinder. She lives in New Beijing, the capital of the Commonwealth. She’s sixteen, and she’s been a cyborg since she was eleven, when she was involved in a hover crash that left her parents dead. Originally from Europe, her adoptive father brought her to New Beijing only to succumb to letumosis, a deadly plague that’s killing thousands around the world with no cure in sight. Cinder lives with her adoptive mother and step sisters, and thanks to her cybernetic alterations, she’s a top-rate mechanic and can fix anything from a hover that doesn’t run correctly to an android that’s crashed and won’t turn on again.

But she’s not rich. Her stepmother, Andri, never wanted her, so every bit of money Cinder earns is controlled by Andri. Cinder has managed to squirrel away enough to buy a new foot to replace the undersized one she’s had since she was eleven.

When the book opens, she’s visited by Prince Kai, who’s in line for the throne of the Commonwealth. He’s in disguise because he wants Cinder to fix his crashed android—supposedly because he’s had it since he was a kid and doesn’t want to let it go to the trash heap even though it’s an obsolete model.

Cinder suspects there’s more to it than that, but has no way to confirm it.

Yes, it’s a science fiction re-imagining of Cinderella, and it’s very well done. I read the book in less than two days and can’t wait to get on to the next one.

There’s a lot of good writing coming out of the YA field right now, as I’m sure most readers are aware, even if they’re not reading it. It started with Harry Potter, which I credit with raising the bar on YA, and it continues to this day. I’ve also been reading a post-apocalyptic series called The Conquered Earth (which I recommend as well), but I wasn’t aware of Cinder, which is the first book in The Lunar Chronicles, until my daughter asked for books two and three in the series for her birthday. Apparently the author got the idea from writing a futuristic version of Puss and Boots as a short story and now has this update on Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rumpelstiltskin (with a character who is Rapunzel), with two future books to cover Queen Levana (basically every fairy tale wicked queen wrapped up in one character), and the conclusion is titled Winter.

Quite honestly, I was sucked in from page one. Ms. Meyer (unlike another writer of that name) knows her stuff, and she immerses you in this world without a lot of draggy exposition. Like any good writer, she lets you learn things about her setting as the story progresses, and she’s very good at doing it without bogging you down. I can remember one time when she has to give you some exposition because there’s simply no other graceful way to do it in the flow of the story, and it comes so late in the book that you don’t care. You’re invested and you’re ready for the information. And even then, it’s only a couple of long paragraphs—not quite half a page.

All through this book, I kept wondering how a fifty-year-old man was able to relate to a sixteen-year-old cyborg girl, but the writing is so good that age and gender don’t really matter. Cinder is a character you can care about and root for. There was one very predictable subplot (and it had to be for me to predict it; I’m just not that good at it on a first read most of the time), but I’m not gonna tell you what it is because I don’t put spoilers in my reviews. Suffice it to say that, even though it’s predictable, I’m still left at the end of the book wondering just what the author is going to do with it—because, as she leaves thing at the end, she could go in a lot of directions with it. That left me wondering if she let that part be predictable so she could wow you with something else about it that’s not.

This is very much a serial series, so be forewarned. The concluding volume doesn’t come out for another year (November 2015), so if you don’t want to wait that long for the end after reading the first volumes, you might hold off on starting this series.

For me, it’s too late. I’m hooked, and I guess I’ll just have to wait for the conclusion.

Go out and get this one. It’s a good one.

Later,
Gil

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Why Crime?

I’ve called this post “Why Crime?”, but I could have called it “Why Science Fiction?” or “Why Romance?”. I’m using crime because that’s the genre I seem to have settled into very comfortably. And I ask the question because, well, I ain’t sure if there’s an easy answer. Why are we drawn to write in a particular genre?

Well, I don’t know why we are, but I might be able to say why I am drawn to crime.

It wasn’t what I started out to write when I discovered I wanted to be an author. If you’ve paid any attention to this blog at all, and if you’ve read some of the writing samples I’ve posted here, you know that science fiction/fantasy (sf/f) is my first love. I fell into it quite happily when I had The Hobbit read to me in sixth grade. You’ll find that story elsewhere on this blog. Tolkien’s Middle-earth took me to places in my mind I’d never been and I wanted more.

It wasn’t long after that I discovered the flip side of fantasy: science fiction. I can’t remember the first sf novel I read. The first one that really stands out is Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy. It seems there’s a thing in sf/f for trilogies, though Foundation was written, or at least published, before LOTR, if I remember correctly. Of course, it’s been expanded past a trilogy since then. Asimov had a simple writing strategy: eight hours a day, seven days a week. No exceptions, no holidays. I read an anecdote where he was on a sf cruise once as a featured speaker (along with several other sf/f authors). While the fans were enjoying the attractions of the cruise ship, the authors were in their cabins writing, Asimov among them. He brought his typewriter. I’m not saying everyone has to have that kind of work discipline, but the man did publish an average of twelve books a year. On all kinds of subjects, not just sf or even fiction. He seemed to have an interest in pretty much everything.

Another sf author I cut my teeth on was Robert A. Heinlein, author of such classics as Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land. If you’ve never read either of these books, do yourself a favor and go get them. Even if you don’t like sf, you might like these books. Heinlein, like Asimov, is one of the Grand Masters of sf, and there’s a good reason for that.

I could go on and on about the sf/f authors I’ve read in the past 30+ years, but I won’t. That’s not the point of this post. I just need you to get the idea of why I decided to become an author. Like fantasy author Dennis L. McKiernan, I soon ran out of the kinds of stories I liked. Tolkien died in the early ’70s and, let’s face it, not many can write up to his level. For modern readers, LOTR is probably dry and stiff, especially when you consider Tolkien was a linguist and let it show in his writing. But the story, in my opinion, is wonderful.

I do not now and never did pretend to approach the level of Tolkien or one of my other favorites, Stephen King. But they did inspire me to write, King especially. I’m sure he’s inspired more than one author. For me, it was the first inkling that you don’t have to write like a stuffy professor. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. With his penchant for indirectly addressing the reader and writing in a thoroughly modern style, it was easy to get caught up in the story and, later, think that maybe I could do this writing thing, too.

My first efforts, good as I thought they were then, were embarrassing, to say the least. I came upon one several years ago, something I wrote while I was a teenager, and though I kept it around for a while, I cringed when I read it. I can also remember submitting a story to Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine somewhere around that same or perhaps a little later, and when I think of it now (I can only vaguely remember the story, thank God), I picture the editorial staff doubling over with laughter after reading the thing. I was about as far from being a competent, much less good, writer then as I am now from being an astronaut.

But I started out writing sf/f because that’s what I read. I still enjoy the stuff. You can’t read the same genre for as long as I did and not have an abiding love for it. I’ve read several times where some folks always dismiss their reading sf/f in their teen years as being juvenile. As if the only way you can enjoy the subject is by being immature. They look back on it from their lofty positions as sophisticated, hip, modern, urbane writers who can only shake their heads in wonder that they were so immature that they once read such icky stories. Ridiculous!

Well, bite me.

If you read any real sf/f and not that Tom Swift stuff, you’d know that sf/f authors, especially back in the Golden Age of Heinlein and Asimov, took on some pretty weighty subjects there beneath the spaceships and alien races. Speculation about the future and how humans would conduct themselves abounded. Heinlein has a novel called The Menace from Earth that tells the story of First Contact from the alien’s point of view. It’s one of the few (of his) I have yet to read, but you can see how it would be a challenge to write. It’s not just a man trying to write a woman character, which would at least have some kind of familiarity to work with, but a human writing from an imaginary alien character.

It was this kind of thing that made me want to write sf/f. I tried my hand at a few other things, like horror (inspired by my love of Stephen King) and toyed with the idea of doing a Western, thanks to Louis L’Amour. The horror never got off the ground, and the Western never had more than a page or two written before I gave up. I wanted it to be authentic and didn’t want to take the time to know that period of history as well as L’Amour did.

But I devoured sf/f all the time, so it was only natural that I write sf/f.

One of the first serious efforts I made was back in the early ’90s. I set out to write a Tolkienesque fantasy on a world called Aja (stolen from the Steely Dan album of the same title) about a group of characters questing for an object called The Phar Medallion, and artifact crafted by an all but extinct race. I wasn’t sure what its powers were, but I figured I’d know when it came time to write The Final Battle.

That story never got written. Along the way, they met a character named Luke Fontaine, a former bounty hunter on the run from a mysterious past. The more I thought about Luke’s back-story, the more I wanted to write it, so I did. Two novels and maybe half of a third. They’re still on my hard drive as I write this, and I still toy with the idea of rewriting them. I’ve had several ideas over the years, but never sat down and tried them out. I originally wrote them with the idea that I would tell the Phar Medallion Quest from Luke’s first-person POV. The problem I ran into in the third novel was that you can’t tell an epic story like that from the first-person POV. I needed other things to happen, and I couldn’t have Luke be present for all of them. I thought about telling the others in third-person, but never felt real comfortable with the idea. These were supposed to be Luke’s memoirs. How could he tell the things I needed told? I still think about it from time to time.

The bottom line is that I never finished anything, and I couldn’t figure out why. Now, I suspect, it may be that I’m not a sf/f writer. Maybe I’m a crime writer.

I fell into crime through the Tony Hillerman mysteries. If you’ve never read them, do so. The books revolve around Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, two Navajo tribal cops in the Four Corners area. They solve mysteries on the Navajo Reservation, and while they’re at it, their lives go on from book to book. It’s not all just about the mysteries. Each of them has dreams and problems, and Hillerman writes them fully fleshed. I have yet to read them all, but I will eventually.

Thing is, I’ve always had an interest in the criminal mind. Why do they do what they do? Why are certain people attracted, or even driven, to commit acts that the society around them considers wrong? It could be chalked off to one-dimensional reasoning, but that’s not why we write characters. “Oh, he’s a member of a crime family, part of the Mob, and he does it to make money.” Or “He’s evil.”

Please.

Nobody thinks of themselves as evil. Not even such icons of evil as Hitler. He thought he was advancing the German people and removing the insidious threat of the Jew. Sure, the rest of us see that as horrible, but he didn’t. To him, he was being reasonable and good. Most, if not all, criminals are the same way. They know their actions are illegal, even “wrong,” but they just think those are artificial restrictions. Either they don’t apply to them, or they just don’t care.

I’ve always been fascinated with this mindset. It started with serial killer novels, but then, after visiting my daughter in LA, I discovered there is a whole subgenre of crime novels set in LA, just as there is another one set in New York City. I started reading them, at first, as a way of feeling a little closer to where my daughter lives. But when I read Robert Crais, and in particular his novel L.A. Requiem, it became about the novels themselves. LA is a perfect city to tell multiple stories in. The settings are so varied and there are so many different kinds of people there.

At first, the idea of writing a crime novel didn’t really occur to me. Reading them was one thing, but writing one? Naw, I’ll leave that to folks like Crais and T. Jefferson Parker.

I kept this thinking up until I went and saw the movie Winter’s Bone. If you’re not familiar with it, Winter’s Bone is set in southwest Missouri and it’s about a girl who has to try and find her father after he’s been busted for cooking meth and puts the family home up for collateral as part of his bond, then disappears. It’s a great movie, filmed on location in the Ozarks, and it uses real homes and people from the area. It’s based on a book by the same name by Daniel Woodrell.

But it’s so damned depressing. I thought about it, and about the Billy Bob Thornton movie Sling Blade and decided that, as a native of the Ozarks, I wanted to tell a different story about us. In both of those movies, people from this area (yes, I know: Sling Blade doesn’t take place in the Ozarks, but it does take place in Arkansas) are grim and going through life just trying to get by.

Crap.

The people I know aren’t like that. Sure, we have our off days. But we don’t go around depressed all the time. After all, we don’t live in New York City.

But what could I write? I’d tried the idea of a horror novel set here, and it didn’t fly. I’d also written an urban fantasy set here, but it felt a little hollow. Urban fantasies really work better in an urban setting. We’ve got that, but not a big one like most of them are set in, like LA or Chicago.

Then I read an editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about how Northwest Arkansas is part of the pipeline for Mexican meth going further east to places like Virginia. This was backed up when I read Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town by Nick Reding. In an aside, he states that one of the Mexican immigrant informants he interviewed made his first delivery to men with long beards outside Rogers, Arkansas. Rogers is only like fifteen or twenty miles at most from where I live.

Voila. Story. One that started with that infamous what if: what if a local guy got caught cooking meth and was offered the chance to work with law enforcement in lieu of going to prison? That’s how the novel Pipeline was born, and it’s how I discovered Lyle Villines. I’ve gotten to know him very well over the last (almost) 180,000 or so words and I’ll be sorry to see him go. But he’s been a good way to fall into writing crime from the criminal’s POV, and I have a few more ideas on the back burner for more. All told from the criminal’s POV. I figure there’s plenty of cops and private detectives out there telling their stories. I want to tell the other side, the side that fascinates me so much.

And maybe, someday, discover why they do what they do.

Later,

Gil

PS. I just finished re-reading L.A. Requiem by Robert Crais, and I have four words for you: Get it. Read it. It may well change what you think a crime novel is, and it definitely defines what a crime novel should be.

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A (Re)New(ed) Motivation

Yes, I’m making a second post, but I just had to. See, I got something new to share. After I made my last post earlier, I surfed around and looked at some of the blogs I like to follow that I hadn’t had a chance to look at yet today (though, as I write this, it’s actually tomorrow. See what you get for reading an sf writer’s blog? TIME TRAVEL!). One of the first blogs I tend to look at is my daughter’s. There’s actually two reasons for this: 1) I wanna see what, if anything, she’s posted lately; and, 2) she has links on her blog to a couple others I follow (that way I don’t have to crowd my bookmarks bar lol).

So, today, my daughter wrote about a quote that’s been bouncing around in her head that she’s wanted to put up on her blog and she finally did it today. You can read her full blog post about it here (it’s not long, but it’s good. Like Stephen King said, I get diarrhea of the mouth sometimes, but Jesi doesn’t). It will link you back to the original post with the quote in it.

The reason I bring this up is because it made me see things in an entirely new way, and when I told my daughter that, she said that’s why she posted it. Me and my kid, we think a lot alike in some ways, and I dig that.

Okay, let’s start out with my version of the quote (you can read the full post here):

I know what I want to do with my life. I think people think I’m joking when I say, “I’m gonna work dead-end jobs and write novels my whole life,” but I’m being perfectly serious. I could not care less what my day job is; I just want to write. Specifically, I want to write speculative fiction. Fantasy, sci-fi, and everything in between.

Obviously, I don’t know a whole lot about Qzie, but I’ve read enough of her blog to know she’s a college senior at WMU (help me out here, Qzie, cuz I never heard of that one) and she’s taking Creative Writing courses. It’s the quote that really gets me, though, and when I read it on Jesi’s blog I had a consciousness shift.

Let me explain.

I have wanted to write for years. I’ve dreamed of being a professional, full-time author. I’ve been practical about it, knowing that it’s hard to become a full-time writer, but that never stopped me from dreaming. Granted, it’s only lately that I’ve actually gotten serious about it, but that’s life. I refuse to cry over spilled milk. I’ve gone through a few too many things in the last couple years to do that.

The thing is, I always looked at it as an either/or situation. How could I find time to write and have a day job? I always looked at it like I had to either work or write. I was always looking for a way to make the jump from working all those dead-end jobs to being a full-time writer. But I could never find a feasible way to do it.

Then I read Jesi’s post. And my brain shifted.

Maybe it seems like a simple thing to some of you. It should be. I mean, practicality demands that you can’t just wake up one day and be a full-time writer. You have to build up a readership, get fans, etc., etc. I knew that, but I wasn’t applying it, if you get what I mean. I wanted to find a get rich quick method, and those things just don’t exist.

And you have to add in the fact that I didn’t think I could be happy doing both. I mean, I always looked at it like the only way I’d be happy about my writing was if I became a full-time writer. I didn’t want to accept anything less. (There’s a good blog post about that subject here. And he has another good, somewhat related post here.)

But after reading my daughter’s post, I realize that I can accept the dead-end jobs as long as I can write. And if it means I’m making a little extra money on the side selling my stories, so much the better.

I don’t wanna draw this out. I’ve already made a pretty long post today (yesterday). But I had to get this out there. Maybe it doesn’t seem all that cosmic to you, but it’s changed my outlook, and for the better, as far as I’m concerned.

Sometimes, that’s all we need: a new perspective. Try one on sometime.

Later,

Gil

PS. Jesi, good luck with NaNo! You go, girl! Love, Dad.

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Back in the Golden Age

I’ve been reading sf/f since I was a wee lad. Now, my daughter, not having read it much at all, views it as being complicated, and when I asked her why it seems that way to her, it’s because she’s not familiar with it, whereas I’m so used to it that it’s not complicated to me. And that’s saying something, because I can say without bias that my kid is smarter than I am.

But, see, here’s the thing: I was talking with a friend of mine about this a week or so ago, too. We grew up reading most of the same books and have a lot of the same tastes when it comes to sf (though he doesn’t care for fantasy at all). We are both big fans of Robert Heinlein, and we cut our teeth on Isaac Asimov and those like him.

Let me back up and explain something here to those who aren’t very familiar with the sf genre. There are different terms for science fiction that, to insiders, indicate what kind of science fiction is being talked about. For the hard core sf reader, suggesting that he (and most of them tend to be men, as I understand it at least) is reading sci fi is an insult. The term “sci fi” refers to cheap Hollywood movies that depend more on special effects than on quality story. These individuals frown on Star Wars and most cinematic forms of science fiction, viewing it as not being “real” science fiction. Likewise, the vast majority of them will not touch a fantasy novel, and it doesn’t matter how much LOTR might mean to another reader. Fantasy should not be on the same shelf as science fiction, maybe not in the same store. There’s a definite elitist attitude there (which I don’t share).

For these people, what qualifies as real sf can be almost opaque to the rest of us. It needs to be full of scientific concepts and the story should come second to that. There are some sf authors who, let’s face it, aren’t very good storytellers. Pair them up with someone who is and you can get a pretty good story. Leave them on their own and they can be very dry to read. One example that, for me, at least, falls somewhere in between is Robert L. Forward. Mr. Forward is an astrophysicist, and I’ve read two of his books: Starquake and Dragon’s Egg. I won’t go into details about them, just suffice it to say that both novels include math concepts that I simply had to skip over. The only saving grace was that Mr. Forward is a good writer. And though some may view this as sacrilege, I have a hard time reading a Larry Niven novel when he writes them by himself. Pair him up with someone else (like Jerry Pournelle), and he’s good, because he comes up with excellent sf concepts. He just needs someone to remind him that he’s writing for human beings, not computers.

Now let’s skip back in time a bit, to what is called the Golden Age of Science Fiction, when the Grand Masters were writing. We’re talking about Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Jack Williamson, Frederick Pohl, Poul Anderson and so many others. These men were grounded in science, but their stories put story first. The science was another plot device, not the reason the story existed. Many of them had themes to their writing, known as future histories. Usually short stories, they would move through time, usually starting at or just before space travel and going from there, cataloging a timeline of humanity’s future. If you’d like a good capsule version of this, try to find Birthright: The Book of Man by Mike Resnick (I linked it because his books are hard to find, for the most part). Another good future history is Heinlein’s The Past Through Tomorrow, though it’s a little thicker. Both are high quality sf, with the latter being more along the lines of hard sf (there being more science involved). Heinlein was able to pull off hard sf in a way that non-scientists could handle, though. And he was a hell of a good writer (if you read only one book by him, or one sf novel at all, make it Stranger in a Strange Land).

People who read “real” sf also tend to sneer at those like me who read/write space opera. Space opera differs from hard sf in that the science fiction is a backdrop for the story. In space opera, the story tends to be about power struggles, like in Star Wars. In other words, the story and the action are the important elements of space opera. Now, in some cases, some of the plot elements revolve around items that just wouldn’t work in any other setting. For instance, in the one I’m working on right now, the plot centers around the first crew to test a ship with a faster than light (ftl) drive disappears. Now it’s four hundred or so years later and they’ve made their way back—but they aren’t exactly human anymore. In Peter F. Hamilton’s  Night’s Dawn trilogy (talk about Bloated Epic, this one’s huge but well worth the read), the plot device that drives it is an  alien race that evolved into pure spirit form opens a rift between our galaxy and a limbo full of such luminaries as Al Capone and Christian Fletcher. They’ve been deprived of all sensation since they died and now they’re possessing people so they can experience life again. It brings on a crisis for the entire human race, and we learn from the one alien race we’ve encountered so far that every race that ever existed has had to go through this time of trials, but they can’t help us because each race also finds its own unique solution to getting through it. And some of the evidence isn’t all that encouraging, because one race apparently committed racial suicide—blew up their entire planet. Seems a little radical, but what can you do?

On the other hand, there are examples, such as the Robert L. Forward books mentioned above, that are pure hard sf, and others that are even harder to read (as I said, at least Mr. Forward can tell a good story). And that’s fine for the people who like that kind of thing. I struggle with it myself, partly through lack of a science degree of some type and partly because I believe the first duty of a story is to entertain, and hard science doesn’t entertain me. But, I guess people being people, fans of hard sf just gotta look down on the rest of us.

But read any good Heinlein or Asimov story and I guarantee you’ll be in for a story first, even if the science in it is hyper-accurate. These gentlemen understood that, in order to tell a good story, you didn’t resort to a textbook of some kind that happened to have fictional characters in it. And they were able to throw in details that made the stories feel authentic, as if you were reading about real people in real settings.

Any genre needs to evolve and change or it will die. I’m sure there are those who wouldn’t consider paranormal romance to be “proper” romance—and they’re likely missing out on some good stories. Sf now includes such things as alternate histories (I understand Harry Turtledove excels at this) and steampunk, along with cyberpunk (think Neuromancer by William Gibson. He also wrote Johnny Mnemonic, and I’m sure the story is better than the movie) and many others. To people who don’t read these stories, some of then can seem a bit silly. But I’d like to point out some others that we wouldn’t even consider science fiction now, but were when they came out, such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. When that one came out, making such a voyage on a submarine was pure speculation—but our submariners do it for months at a time now, and on nuclear powered subs, at that. And even when John F. Kennedy vowed to have men on the Moon by the end of the Sixties there were people who considered that to be a pipe dream. And there are still those who are convinced our Moon trips were filmed in Hollywood.

The future histories the Grand Masters wrote didn’t necessarily come true as they wrote them—for instance, Heinlein posited that space travel would be achieved by commercial interests, not by government—but the basic concepts have in some ways. So I’m not knocking hard science in that regard. I’m just saying that maybe we need to remember that the idea behind sf is to tell a story. And we’ve been doing that since the days when we squatted around a fire and wondered what those bright specks up in the sky were.

Later,

Gil

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