Category Archives: Science Fiction

Science Fiction Authors Know All

When I think of people who have a firm grasp on how the world works and what’s going on, really, coupled with the ability to make spot-on predictions, I of course think of science fiction authors. In the last few days, that view has been cemented by a couple of blog posts and news reports.

First, Orson Scott Card recommends someone as McCain’s dream running mate. Psst, Geof, don’t follow that link.

Second, Sigma is back in the news. Sigma is a group of science fiction authors who advise the Department of Homeland Security on how to protect the nation. Sigma authors include Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Greg Bear, and David Brin. What kind of things do they discuss?

The 45-minute panel discussion quickly deteriorated as federal, local and state homeland security officials, and at least one congressional aid, attempted to ask questions, which were largely ignored.

Instead the writers used their time to pontificate on a variety of tangentially related topics, including their past roles advising the government, predictions in their stories that have come to pass, the demise of the paperback book market, and low-cost launch into space.

That’s not the best part, though.

Niven said a good way to help hospitals stem financial losses is to spread rumors in Spanish within the Latino community that emergency rooms are killing patients in order to harvest their organs for transplants.

“The problem [of hospitals going broke] is hugely exaggerated by illegal aliens who aren’t going to pay for anything anyway,” Niven said.

“Do you know how politically incorrect you are?” Pournelle asked.

“I know it may not be possible to use this solution, but it does work,” Niven replied.

Oh, science fiction authors, is there anything you can’t do?

Robert Jordan is Dead, Alas

James Rigney, who wrote under the name Robert Jordan, died yesterday from amyloidosis. He’d been ill for a while, but his death still came as a surprise.

I never read the Wheel of Time books. Somehow I missed starting the series, and only found out about it some three or four books in. At that point I thought, well, I’ll just wait until he’s done to start reading them.

My favorite reminiscence I’ve read so far is from George R. R. Martin, who was the Toastmaster at a convention where Jordan was the Guest of Honor. In introducing Jordan, Martin pretended that “Robert Jordan” was really him and took credit for all of the Wheel of Time books.

Godspeed, Jim Rigney.

Tough Guides to Fantasyland and the Known Galaxy

I’ve known about Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland for a while now. The book is a fabulous tour through the clichés of fantasy novels, from Eternal Quests to Dark Lords to Magic Swords. It’s written in the form of a tour guide, with the reader taking on the role of tourist to a strange new land.

What I hadn’t seen was The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy. It’s focused on SF tropes, from The Fall of the Empire to Libertarian Militarists. I can see this eating giant chunks of my spare time. When I have spare time, that is. Sigh.

Speculative Fiction Authors Considered As High School Students

Michael, thanks for coming. I wanted to give you a chance to see a number of our students before they know you are their new principal and have their guard up. You’re in luck: since it’s lunchtime, nearly all of our students are in the cafeteria.

Right through here, please. Sorry about the color scheme. I suspect the orange walls with blue hexagons looked very futuristic in the 1970s. Perhaps next year will be the year the school board decides we can afford new paint.

I suppose it is very loud. Our students certainly like to talk, though I don’t know how many of them truly listen to each other.

Yes, they do tend to divide themselves up like this. Lunchtime is an especially good time to see the cliques as the students congregate into groups.

Of course. I’d be happy to discuss the students’ groupings with you. Let’s start with the fellows in the camouflage. They’re very interested in military science fiction. It’s all guns and dropships and the like with them. The student who’s holding forth very loudly is John Ringo, and that’s David Weber next to him. The quieter fellow holding the Bob Heinlein mask is John Scalzi. He’s one of our newer students. I’m not sure he’s going to stay at that table, to be honest. The MilSF crowd has been asking to stage mock battles during the lunch break, complete with imitation guns and blood packs. You can imagine how that request has gone over given the political climate. They’ll be in your office the first day you’re principal, mark my words.

Besides, if we let them bring imitation guns to school, the multi-book series fantasy students would want peace-bonded swords and rapiers. Just the other day Robert Jordan was telling me that we catered too much to the MilSF students. I reminded him that these days the only history classes we offer are on medieval Europe, but he was not mollified. They’re on the opposite side of the cafeteria from the MilSF students — look for the students wearing cloaks and carrying staves. I see Steven Erikson over there, and the nervous-looking girl standing near their table is Jacqueline Carey. The other high fantasy students aren’t sure what to make of her yet, I don’t think. One of our teachers, Mr. Tolkien, is of the opinion that she is far too interested in sexual matters for a proper high fantasist.

Ah, Mr. Martin. Your teacher says that you’re late on your term paper again, and that your last draft was above the allowed page count. Mmm? Yes, I see that Mr. Erickson is waiting for you at your usual table. Do try to be more prompt on finishing your assignments, George.

Michael, duck! Mr. Egan! Be careful where you clank! I apologize. Greg Egan’s robot body is a little hard to get used to, but either we let him wear it to school or he will simply upload a copy of himself into the school’s computer network. If we let him get away with that, that entire set of tables would be mostly empty, especially with the large number of Singularity students at that table. Kim Stanley Robinson would still show up in person, I expect, as would Robert Charles Wilson. Not planning on spinning up the school again, are you, Mr. Wilson? Once he accidentally encased our school in a bubble for two seconds and we missed most of the 1990s.

Oh, you’re unfamiliar with the Singularity? It’s all the rage among some students. It’s all computronium and s-curves that never turn over and uploading minds into silicon. Young Charlie Stross is the one with the interface glasses and all of that computer equipment, though his friend Ken Macleod runs a close second in terms of number of gadgets. The boy in the red cape and goggles is Cory Doctorow. He’s something of a Singularity student, though he uses more tag clouds than is usual. And Vernor Vinge is next to him. He could be sitting at the seniors’ table, but he stays at this one instead.

That’s the seniors’ table over there. They’re done with their exams. Many, though not all, of them are just marking time until they graduate. Generally they stay quiet, though you’ll have to watch Harlan Ellison. Mr. Ellison! I see you preparing to throw that food. We’ve had enough of that this year, thank you.

The mostly-empty table next to the hard SF students is where the cyberpunk students used to eat lunch in their leather dusters and mirrorshades. We haven’t had many new students join that group since Richard K. Morgan.

Mr. Ryman, I’ve asked you and the other Mundane SF students not to linger by the lockers during lunch. You can sit at a table like the other students. Yes, I know you have leaflets you want to hand out. That doesn’t permit or excuse your behavior.

I have to admit being puzzled by Geoff Ryman and the other Mundane SF students. Rumor has it they own no rocketpants underwear, which is unusual among our students.

Ms. Bujold, Ms. Asaro, good morning. I see you chose the chili. Brave of you both.

Lois McMaster Bujold and Catherine Asaro are among the students who are interested in science fiction that approaches romance novels. Some of the other students give them grief over that interest, though I enjoy seeing students who are interested in non-mainstream subjects. When you are principal, you may want to investigate an exchange program with a more romance-oriented high school.

Mr. Miéville! Mr. VanderMeer! That is enough! If you want to argue about what is and isn’t New Weird, you can do it after school. Thank you. And you as well, Mr. Duncan; all three of you can move along.

Do you have a handkerchief, Michael? I appear to have nicked my hand on China Miéville’s remade body.

Ah, yes, the urban fantasists. They’ve complained about our history classes focusing on the Middle Ages, and I expect them to bring those complaints to you. Neil Gaiman’s recent term paper on American legends was quite good. Across the table from him is Robin Hobb, and next to her is Jim Butcher, though I see Jim is going back to the high fantasy table to talk to the students there.

I saw that, Mr. Ringo! No, it does not matter that the gun fires Nerf bullets. You’ll turn it in to me right this instant. Thank you.

That very large group of students near the middle of the cafeteria are the short fiction students. They look so underfed because they are. This group contains our poorest students. One of our teachers has called them the “government cheese brigade,” though I discourage such language from our staff. Ted Chiang is the best-fed among them. Also at that table are Yoon Ha Lee, and Eugie Foster off to one side, and I see K. Tempest Bradford and Nisi Shawl as well.

My apologies, Mr. Chiang. I did not mean to point this Nerf gun in your direction.

Mmm? Yes, it’s true that the nec-romance students’ clothing skirts near the line of propriety, but they’re careful not to exceed the bounds of our school dress policy. Laurell K. Hamilton is the de facto leader of that group these days, though Kelley Armstrong has her followers among the group.

Sorry about the glare. The space opera students’ sliver jumpsuits and bubble helmets have an unfortunate tendency to reflect the sun into your eyes. Here, I’ve been carrying this extra pair of mirrorshades around for years and not worn them. Perhaps you will get more use out of them. We’ve spoken to students like Alistair Reynolds, Karl Schroeder and Wil McCarthy about their jumpsuits, but they too are within the bounds of our dress code.

That nearly empty table is where our minority students often sit. I remember when Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany attended this school and sat at that very table. Of course, Butler has graduated, and Chip Delany transfered to another school. What? Who are our current minority students? I mentioned Butler and Delany, did I not? Well, there is Nalo Hopkinson and Steven Barnes. Really, a lot of our minority students these days sit at the short fiction table.

The other nearly empty table is for exchange students. Ms. Atwood, I see you are eating by yourself again, and that you chose the pizza for lunch.

No, I’ve never seen her speak to any of the other students, either.

Mr. Turtledove, Ms. Novik, I see you two are holding forth on historical matters again. Yes, I’m aware of your complaints regarding our history department. I trust you are aware that your teachers are tired of essays and term papers about historical events that did not happen and that include bibliographies filled with books that are not in our school library?

Some of our students are interested in fiction for younger audiences. You can see them over near the food line. Philip Pullman is on the side next to the wall, and Diane Duane is opposite him. Jane Yolen is the one carrying the tiny stuffed dinosaur dressed in pajamas. It’s dark because of the shadow cast by you-know-who — unavoidable in this case.

The new freshmen tend to stay together when they first arrive, no matter what group they might better fit with. Toby Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, and Jay Lake are among our freshman crowd, as is the aforementioned John Scalzi.

Ah, so you’ve heard about a number of our students transfering to other schools. I hear good things from other school administrators about William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, and of course Jonathan Lethem, one of our most recent students to transfer from here, is making quite the name for himself.

Don’t concern yourself about the students surreptitiously smoking under the bleachers and setting off firecrackers. Those are the infernokrusher students. They’ll either tire of blowing things up really good or take off some fingers, after which they’ll no longer be our problem.

Now, you should not think that these are set in stone. Many of our students wander from group to group as the mood strikes them and the groups will have them. Why, Charles Stross is so peripatetic that he’s lunched with the space opera students, the mundane SF students, and even hosted a lunch with the urban fantasists and the high fantasists.

Thank you again for coming, Michael, and I hope this has been instructive. If you have time before you go, I’d like you to stop by our writing classes. Our writing-in-longhand instructors are among the best in the school system.

[tags]science fiction, fantasy, sff, writing, authors as schoolchildren, longhand instruction[/tags]

A Procrustean Approach to Science Fiction

A few years back, a group of science fiction writers announced the Mundane SF philosophy. It aimed to take the overly fantastical out of science fiction. Among the common SF tropes it decried were interstellar travel, contact with aliens, alternate universes, and the like. Mundane SF was to focus on life in and around Earth. As Geoff Ryman, one of the movement’s founders, put it,

OK, SF content is the future, but the function of most SF seems to be about avoiding the future. So much of the inherited tropes are actually highly unlikely. Take faster than light travel… there is a ghost of a possiblity there, but people have run away with it. This is because they like it. It seems to open up horizons of adventure. It also conveys the message, we can burn through this planet and escape to the stars. I don’t think we can. I think we’re stuck on Earth. I want to write stories that are stuck on earth and throw out the unlikely tropes.

I didn’t pay too much attention to Mundane SF. Geoff Ryman may have written one of my favorite books of all time, but I didn’t need his permission to enjoy non-Mundane SF. Besides, if the Mundane SF movement resulted in good novels and stories, all the better.

Today Andrew Wheeler brought the mundane SF blog to my attention, specifically a post on spotting Mundane SF in the January issues of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, and Analog. There are two sections I want to pull out.

A few years back when I learned about this Movement I was attracted to the idea. But I thought, surely there is a reasonable amount of mundane sf being published in short form. It can’t all be time travel crap.

“Gunfight at the Sugarloaf Pet Food & Taxidermy” by Jeff Carlson (Asimov’s): sort of a whimsical chase story; very little speculation and thus perhaps a bit too safely mundane

He’s dropping stories on an iron bed. If they’re too fantastic, he chops off their feet; if they’re too mundane, he stretches them.

Look, artistic manifestos are great for giving artists constraints under which to operate and a warm and fuzzy feeling of virtue for having hewn to them. Ones like the Mundane SF that focus on trappings and tropes are terrible for choosing what to read. When you say, “I’m going to read science fiction,” you’re already limiting yourself to certain conventions of the genre. When you say, “I’m going to read mundane SF,” you’re limiting yourself even further. And you’re not even making your decision in terms of quality. You’re making it in terms of furniture.

It’s like my friend’s review of the 2005 movie version of Pride and Prejudice. She noted the movie’s surprising gritty realism, the avoidance of clichéd period tropes, and the actors’ solid performances. She concluded her review as follows: “And while the two-hour movie necessarily reduces the scope of the original plot, all the essential themes are present and very little, overall, is missing. Except for Colin Firth. Zero stars.” What she meant as a joke, this blog entry is taking seriously. “This story has time travel. Zero stars.

Every time you draw a circle around literature and say, these are the genres I like, you’re excluding great books. As you draw the circle smaller and smaller, you exclude more and more great books. If all you read is Mundane SF, then just within the wider world of SF you’re going to miss a lot. Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. Jack Finney’s Time and Again. Charles Stross’s Accelerando. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, for goodness’ sake!

You want to encourage Mundane SF? Great. But don’t limit yourself to just reading it.