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Genre neuroses 101

Being on vacation (more or less) has given me a lot of time for reflection. It's also given me a little time to catch up on my reading — beach books, or what passes for them in my universe. I'm quite capable of immersing myself in trashy brain candy — indeed, of wallowing in it to excess — and that's pretty much what I've been doing (with a few notable exceptions).

Actually, that's a little bit unfair. "Trash" is probably the wrong word for any kind of literature; it's just a convenient (and somewhat condescending) shorthand for easy reading — stuff that is undemanding, and doesn't expect too much of the reader. Within any given genre, there's a certain body of work that conforms most closely to the expectations of the readers — the normal patterns and preoccupations of their particular field. It's not transgressive, it doesn't question the normative expectations, it shares the collective cultural outlook, etcetera. Nevertheless, it performs a vital task for those of us who aren't content to go with the flow: it tells us where the flow is.

Talking about genre ... I work in three roughly overlapping areas: science fiction, fantasy, and horror. (I also occasionally make excursions into the undergrowth of technothrillers and even romance, but those aren't my main stomping grounds — they're not how I'm perceived by readers.) Of these fields, fantasy out-sells SF by a factor of 2:1, and has done for most of my life. Horror used to sell well, but crashed and burned around 1990. There's recently been a tenuous recovery. Where you draw the dividing line between these fields is a matter of some debate, especially among the more tiresomely obsessive-compulsive fans — the rest of them (myself included) just go with the old judicial definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it".

So what can the lightweight normative exemplars of these genres tell us about the state of the reading public?

For starters, the strange rebirth of the horror field is quite illuminating. We used to know what horror was about — it was about Killer Whelks menacing a quiet English seaside town, from which a strong-jawed but quiet fellow and a not-totally-pathetic female lead might eventually hope to escape with the aid of a stout two-by-four and a lot of whelkish squelching after trials, tribulations, and gruesome scenes of seafood-induced cannibalism. Then Stephen King came along and transcended, becoming a mini-genre of his own. Attempts were made to replicate the phenomenon, but instead the bottom dropped out of the market.

The new horror isn't about whelks, killer or otherwise: it's about vampires, werewolves, and middle America. With police and detectives. Hell, you could even call it cop/vampire slash and have done with it, except that you'd be missing out on the tedious Manichean dualist drivel into which all these series eventually descend (unless they end up as soft porn instead — a very lucrative market, as Laurel Hamilton and her imitators have discovered — call it the fang-fucker subgenre). For the sad fact is, there seems to be some kind of law about contemporary American horror getting into furry sex by volume three then suffering a fit of remorse and going all god-bothering and Jesus-fondling by volume six. It must be all the crosses and holy water they need to fend off the blood sucking fiends, I suppose, but the endless re-hashing of tired old religious-sexual neuroses is getting to be a stereotype of the genre, and it's not healthy. Horror isn't about being born-again: it's about bloody screaming catharsis, not a warm security blanket of belief that blocks out all menaces. But in the new horror, if the bloodsuckers are remotely sympathetic the story turns into some kind of supernatural redemption epic, and if they're not, the protagonist eventually goes all googly-eyed and born-again. (Or the author does — I'm thinking of Anne Rice here, you understand.) It's enough to make this old-time atheist throw the book against the wall. I mean, these are meant to be horror novels! Where's the sense of dread in living in a universe where there's a cuddle and a warm glass of ambrosia waiting for us all in heaven?

(Parenthetically speaking, one of the reasons I'm so pleased with Liz Williams' recent foray into the supernatural detective field is that her two novels, The Snake Agent and The Demon in the City have nothing whatsoever to do with warmed-over Christian theology. They're straight Confucianism all the way, and when one of her demonic protagonists discovers that he has a conscience this is cause for regret rather than redemption. The result is oddly like Chow Yun Fat trying to make a supernatural kung fu action movie version of Miss Smila's Feel for Snow. If the rest of the pack would follow suit, my vacation reading pile would be a lot less predictable ... but I digress.)

Enough about the crap new horror, now for the crap new SF.

Probably the fastest-growing sub-genre in the swamp is alternate history. I've been known to dabble in it myself, I hasten to admit: it can be fun and educational, a desert topping and a floor wax. But mostly floor wax these days, I find, because a lot of authors who should know better are turning to it in a mad collective ostrich-head-burying exercise rather than engaging with the world as it is.

Science fiction is almost always a projection of todays hopes and fears onto the silver screen of tomorrow, and so you get such excesses as the cosy catastrophe genre in British SF, 1947-79 (in which all those annoying Other People get put away in their box — six feet under — while the protagonists have post-fall-of-civilization adventures, all with a bone china tea-set: John Wyndham was of course the master) or the sixties counterculture and lysergide fueled paranoia trips of Philip K. Dick and William Burroughs — and the deafening silence about the future that is radiating from the United States today.

Oh, there are exceptions. Vernor Vinge is swimming strongly against the flow in "Rainbows End", where he envisages a future just a couple of decades hence where the machines dance. Peter Watts is doing stuff with the genre that just shouldn't be possible (evolutionary biology, exobiology, and vampires in spaaaaaace — all done with a deft touch of plausibility and a refreshingly pleasant dose of bleakly nihilistic existential despair). And there are a few others. But for the most part, the loudest movement in the genre has been the buffalo stampede over the cliff of historical might-have-beens. Our field's strongest energies are going into tiredly re-hashing the US Civil War, the Second World War, the War of the Triple Alliance, and the Russian Revolution. And they're not even Doing It in spaaaaaaace. Well, some of them are: if I see one more novel about the US Marine Corps in the Thirty Seventh Century (with interstellar amphibious assault ships and a different name) I swear I'll up and join the Foreign Legion. Folks, the past is another country, and you can't get a visa. Ditto the future: they speak a different language and they get capitalism and the war on terror and the divine right of kings confused because they slept through history class. (Just like half the folks writing alternate history epics — and the other half ought to know better.)

This turning away from the near future is going to be remembered as one of the hallmarks of the post-9/11 decade in American science fiction, as the chill wind of change blows through the hitherto cosy drawing room of the American century. The Brits aren't drinking the Kool-Aid — well, some of them are serving it up in pint glasses, but most of them have got better things to do with their time — and this is why just about all the reviewers in the field are yammering about a British Invasion or a British New Wave or something: it's not what the British are doing, but what the American writers aren't doing that is interesting.

American SF was traditionally an optimistic forward-looking genre, the marching music of the technocrat movement (which, thankfully, withered up and blew away before it got a chance to build any mountains of skulls, thus providing us with the luxury of a modernist movement that we can remember fondly). Now the whole space exploration thing has dead-ended and the great American public have shuddered in their political sleep and realised — crivens! — that not everybody likes the way their lords and masters have been carrying on for the past five decades — the fragile optimism is lacking. So where better to flee than into the nostalgic past, to fight Nazis and communists and slave-trading aristocrats?

Finally, there is the blasted heath that is fantasy. At least the two decade long post Lord of the Rings hang-over is mostly over, and the post-movie-trilogy bean fest has faded somewhat. There's some really interesting stuff going on there (paging Paul Park, Paul Park to the white courtesy phone — or Steven Brust, at a pinch). But fantasy is, almost by definition, consolatory and escapist literature. Pure fantasy doesn't really tell us anything about the world we live in, and I fail to discern any huge new movements sweeping the field as symptoms of the cultural neuroses of one country or another.

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1:

One trend I've noticed in the US that's been there for awhile byt seems to be growing or expanding is military scifi, fantasy, and alternate history.

Look at the current and up and coming books at Baen and you'll see what I mean. Most of the characters are military, doing miltary things, in implausible places.

Alternate History is transitioning as a genre, I think. In the past it was a sub-genre that often served to critique th present by means of an alternate past. Now it's reaching the point where it's a tabula rasa for any story you want to tell.

Lately I've found British SciFi&Fantasy to be much more satisfying and interesting. Banks, MacLeod, Mieville, Reynolds, Hamilton, and Baxter.

Though there are still US authors I like such as Stirling and Turtledove.

2:

AndrewG: I'm not sure that Baen releasing large amounts of military SF is a new thing - they've been doing it for a while now. (Do you mean as a percentage of total output?)

3:

Huh. I hadn't put it together, but you're right. I've been reading more Brits lately, too. I even wanted to say, "What about Neal Stephenson" before I realized what his last trilogy was...

Well, it's pretty much shit being American lately. Hard to see any real hope coming out of this mess. And yeah, the militarists seem to have the bulk of the market right now.

Personally I like alternate histories, always did even before they were cool. But they don't constitute the bulk of my SF spending dollar.

4:

Most of us jaded U.S. scifi and fantasy readers have been in an extended communal coma, waiting in joyful hope for the next Gene Wolfe or Samuel Delany, or at least their next full length works.

5:

I would not, speaking as an American, describe America's experience of the 20th century as a "cosy drawing room". To quote a well-known British SF author: "The world they find themselves trapped in is a maze of secret histories and occult organisations, entities that overlap with the world we live in, hiding beneath the surface like a freezing cold pond beneath a layer of thin ice." If American SF was optimistic, that wasn't because Americans were comfortable, but because we hoped to find comfort once the struggle was over; the drawing room was a goal, not a present reality.

The current absence of near future SF, if it reflects current politics, reflects that America reached the cosy drawing room -- and discovered that the tea party being held there is full of malicious gossip and petty treacheries, and the refreshments might possibly be poisoned. It's much more difficult to be an optimist when you're not even sure what to hope for, and the object of your old hope is unworthy.

6:

So which books did you read this vacation, mr Stross?

7:

By and large I agree. Especially on the Fangfucker side of things - LK Hamilton was hiding some passable detective novels in amongst the vampires there for a while, but the last 8 books or so have been so full of furries and vampire wangst that one needs industrial metal shears to cut through it all to find the plot (I blame White Wolf). On the Alternate History front, I really enjoyed Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, but thats more Steampunk Historical Swashbuckling than actual Alt H, and I like the absolute sheer density of it.

I'll pick up Stirling, Weber and Flint if I want, for want of a better phrase, the Scifi/Alternate History version of a trashy romance novel and a nice cup of tea. I think its also because I've spent so much time as a medieval/military re-enactor that I like the sort of story that puts all my obsolete anachronistic skills to use.

I'd like to think that the US is capable of producing a new Octavia Butler, but I'm not sure where they're going to come from.

8:

Alternate history has never been my cup of tea. There's something derivative -- and frankly, boring -- about rehashing the past.

Also, alternate history tends to bring out the "armchair generals" (for instance, in the Japanese "The-Empire-Beats-America-In-World-War-II" sub-subgenre) and the U.S. brownshirts of the genre -- no names named...

I've been writing horror-mixed-with-detective/police stories in the past two years... but only for my personal amusement (all of them can be read for free at http://yngve.bravehost.com/aboutprecinct20.html). And I make sure the horror stays unredeemable -- crucifixes are pointless, and the afterlife is never an issue. Horror should be about "bloody screaming catharsis", as Charlie puts it.


9:

I agree with 90% of this, and share your frustration with the blasted fang-consecrators. However -

"Pure fantasy doesn't really tell us anything about the world we live in, and I fail to discern any huge new movements sweeping the field as symptoms of the cultural neuroses of one country or another."

Well, let's look at the New Weird, then (ie China Mieville and pals). Very political, set in a dystopia, mostly British - not saying anything about the increasing British unhappiness and resentment toward our government, or the frustration of the liberal minority toward the political apathy of the majority?

Or the rise in quest fantasy, which happened in the 1980s - lone hero gathers small rag-tag band and sets out to achieve impossible goal, right at the same time as the individualistic conservative ethos of "you can do it on your own!" was strongest?

Fantasy is, by definition, a fantasy. A dream. And you can learn a lot about any person or group of people by studying their dreams.

(BTW, I would argue that Harry Dresden, Anita Blake et al are fantasy, not horror stories. They've got elves, demons and magic, and they don't have, well, much horror. And their rise ties neatly into 1) The mainstreaming of BDSM and 2) the rise of the dominionist Christian movement in the US.)

10:

If you're right, here's the part I don't understand. If there's any time the current moment politically resembles, it's the 1970s. Americans were, if I may generalize, really, really depressed then for a number of reasons; "national malaise" eventually made the headlines, for cripes' sake. A lot of the same things were going on as today: the war in Vietnam had killed way more Americans than Iraq and was tearing society apart; there were oil shocks and environmental scares; the government had been revealed to be run by corrupt thugs; it seemed to a lot of people as if the American moment was over; and the economy was in even worse shape.

But Americans didn't stop writing near-future or extrapolated-future science fiction then; instead, they wrote critical and dystopian science fiction. It was depressing and grim (and to some extent they were following the lead of British writers) but it was out there and had things to say.

So, the question to answer is: why aren't we seeing more American near-future dystopias and critical social SF right now? Is it that the market's just changed in such a way that they don't sell, and you can make better bucks writing the military stuff?

11:

...and if you want my own answer to the question, it's that not enough time has gone by. Right now we're still in the equivalent of the British New Wave period and the somewhat modified American echo has yet to resound.

12:

So, the question to answer is: why aren't we seeing more American near-future dystopias and critical social SF right now? Is it that the market's just changed in such a way that they don't sell, and you can make better bucks writing the military stuff?

For starters, the old dystopian stories are something of a laughing stock now and no one wants to fall into the same trap. It's difficult to make near future SciFi, since in a few years you'll find out how wrong your books are. Look at all of the dystopias from the 70s -- overpopulation, pollution, nuclear war. None of those things happened, and it makes people who said they would happen look silly.

13:

AndrewG: I'm not sure that Baen releasing large amounts of military SF is a new thing - they've been doing it for a while now. (Do you mean as a percentage of total output?)

They always have, that's true, but it seems to be expanding and crossing genre. Look at recent books by Ringo, Weber, Drake, and Flint.

14:

Military SF is and has long been very closely tied to alternate history. You could blame it on the SCA but I think it even predates stick jocks :)


The baseline of US scifi is very much in the past (mostly a fairly conservative past, with plenty of Values) and the military. (fortunately, the level of military killing kids stuff in scifi is lower than reality, giving me some hope that we aren't TOTALLY lost)

Then there's Ringo. Who seems to think that the God Given Duty of a proper Conservative in Any Crisis is to Nuke the Homeland (continental US) just to make the Evil Liberals Cry. Over. And over. And over. (the Howard impersonation is fun, too)

Stirling has gotten away from some of the alternate and ventured into some interesting, if incredibly pessimistic, whatifs lately.

Then there's Kim Stanley Robinson, and L.E. Modessit, Jr. as well as Michael Flynn, all (not 100% sure about Flynn) are USian and tend to write about what we can/need/could do quickly or not so quickly. Consequences of globalization, environmental scifi, etc.


I think that some fantasy is very relevant. The urban fantasy thing seems to be a push towards a very missing community and tribal/magical sense in life.

15:

At Philcon last year, we had a theme of Mil/SF and it went over gangbusters because THAT's WHATS SELLS. I agree in the fact that we don't seem to be generating the shock of the new nearly as much over here due to the previously mentioned national malaise (generated by hopelessness of our divisive political system among many other causes). It would seem that the oppressive atmosphere would generate escapism, but that seems to have been sublimated into comic books and superhero movies. I often wonder if the Butlers and Dicks out there are being ignored in favor of military/historical WHAT SELLS eye-on-the-bottom-line syndrome. That very eye is killing tons of good stuff in its relentless quest for profit.

16:

"Folks, the past is another country, and you can't get a visa."

Is it, now? Please tell that to the next individual I hear flaming the U.S. because it's a "conservative country" -- i.e., because 51+% of Americans actually manage to at least somewhat resemble, in some recognizable way, Americans from 1906 or 1806.

Whether you like or hate American conservatism, it clearly exists, and at some level clearly works -- the U.S.'s recalcitrance to such things as socialism has been the despair of well-meaning leftists for over a century now. In a real sense, when you look at America, you are looking at a country that in some significant way not only has a visa to its own past but in fact never willingly emigrated from it.

And that isn't the most extreme instance of the past being very alive in the present, by a long shot. Consider fundamentalist Islam, currently in political power in Iran and a major political force in several other countries. Again, whatever your specific view about the causes, justifications, or social forces behind the existence of an 8th-century religion in 2006 C.E., it exists and is very much a living force with real political and social importance right now.

If you need more evidence that the past not only isn't dead, but isn't even past: read any book whatsoever about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and then cross-correlate it with what plenty of people are saying about the American Empire (whether with muddled conservative dismay or bacchantic progressive rapture). Hello, did I hear somebody claiming that the 37th century couldn't possibly be like the 21st? Because I'm living in the 21st, and it sure does seem to have possible similarities to the 4th!

Twain said it best: "The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes." That it does. When I see somebody claiming that the future will have no similarities to the past, I see somebody who's either freakishly optimistic about the Singularity (not many of those around, even among technophilic Americans) or, more likely, somebody who just can't stand looking in history's mirror and seeing his own face.

17:

OK, history repeats itself... fair enough. It does. But our willingness to see the present and future in terms of the past is not only an asset, but also a set of blinders.

The industrial society is not identical to the agricultural society. The Internet is not identical to any other previous cultural infrastructure. Literate societies are fundamentally different from pre-literate societies.

It's not enough to see how humans keep making the same mistakes. We must also try -- tremendously difficult as it is -- to imagine how we will do things differently.

Take literacy, for example: By studying how human culture changed with the invention of written numbers and alphabets, we can better imagine how human culture will change by the introduction of other new technologies which augment/alter our perception of the world.

As for the influence of religion on human thinking... people seem to forget (over and over again) that history is littered with dead religions. All the religions that practiced regular human sacrifice, for instance, are dead and gone.

So change is possible.

18:

While I don't disagree entirely - there are most certainly a lot of Americans dealing with the strangenesses of our current and about-to-be moment; it just happens that many or most of them are working in comix (e.g., Brian Wood) and "literary" fiction (e.g., Jonathan Lethem) - I think it's also a matter of being too close to the future to see it. A lot of the best near-future or relevant SF in the last five years has been written by either Brits or, especially, Canadians (or Americans living abroad) - but many of those stories are American stories, set in America or with American characters. I'd wager that it's probably easier to get a handle on what is going to happen in the U.S. from the outside (even if it's just across the lake) than it is from inside. As a Yank living Stateside, it's been difficult enough to even come close to understanding what happened three or five years ago - getting a sense of what the world is and was - that looking to the future is mostly a grey fog.

19:

Heh, regardless of the discussion, I think you've just set up my reading list for the next month (pulp and all!). Thanks

20:

Killer whelks ... did someone mention killer whelks? Erm ... I've forgot what I was going to say.

21:

As science fiction and fantasy fans, we all like to bat around the question of why sf is in decline in the U.S. I've advanced various, contradictory theories about this myself over the years.

Currently, I'm fond of two, related theories, and one observation:

- Theory #1: It's all just a market coincidence. There's no reason for it, any more than there's a reason why Pepsi might outsell Coke in one year. It's just fashion.

- Theory #2: Those of us over 40 grew up in an unusual bubble of sf popularity. John W. Campbell nurtured a generation of writers, several of whom exploded onto the mainstream bestseller list in the 80s, at the end of their careers. So we're comparing sf's current state against an unnatural boom, and finding it wanting.

- Observation: SF is doing quite well, actually, in movies and on TV.

In particular, I have to quibble with your statement, "This turning away from the near future is going to be remembered as one of the hallmarks of the post-9/11 decade in American science fiction, as the chill wind of change blows through the hitherto cosy drawing room of the American century." Life hasn't been particularly cozy at all here in America since the stock market crash of 1929, during which time we've had the Great Depression, World War II, a couple of brief years of post-war coziness, then the Cold War, Vietnam, riots in the cities, the recession of the 1970s, followed by the Reagan years. During the latter two decades, there was a widespread belief in America that we were in a decadent decline, and the Soviets had it together much more than we did, and they'd likely conquer us (see, for example, the movie Red Dawn, which actually is pretty entertaining). Throughout the Cold War, we faced the constant pall of human extinction through MAD, which is certainly no fun to think about.

Things were pretty cozy here in the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave during the Clinton Administration, so there's a kernel of truth to what you're saying. And 9/11 did turn America's perception of its place in the world ass-over-teakettle. In particular, it shattered the illusion that wars were something that happened over there, and they would never come home (except for that whole MAD thing).

Additionally (as Scalzi points out), we Americans just don't care what the rest of the world thinks of us. We're the cool kids on the block, we get the best table at the cafeteria and we play on the football team. Sure, the cool kids are always hated by the marching band, chess club, and math team--but the cool kids don't care. They barely even notice.

Moreover, Americans have only been pessismistic about the future for the past year or two. While many Americans have always known that Bush is incompetent, most American are only now waking up to that fact; until very recently, Bush enjoyed an extremely high approval rating, and was very nearly worshipped by many Americans.

All of which might be seen as hairsplitting--after all I do agree with your premise that Americans are pessimistic and downright fearful nowadays, and that we're coming out of a period of a cozy, delusional bubble. However, that does not explain why American sf is in decline (if it is), because the various golden ages of American sf happened during periods of American fearfulness and pessimism: World War II and the Cold War.

22:

By the way, the observation about the post-Campbell boom isn't original to me. It was related to me in a private conversation, so I won't name the person who shared it with me, but I daresay he knows as much as anyone alive today about both the business and art of science fiction.

23:

I don't know why American SF isn't doing a lot of near-future stuff, but I agree with Charlie's implied sentiment that it would be nice to see some.

So I wrote my own. (Sorry, shameless self-plug - click my name to read it).

Some of this is just cyclical - like women's skirt lengths. Some of it is relative - Baen has always been a "military" house, and with the relative decline in the number of major SF publishers, they tend to get a larger share-of-mind.

My hope, in terms of both the near future (SF and real) and America, is that some of the smaller shops, (think "alt.space") get big and successful.

24:

Alternate history is getting repetitious and dull because the audience for it is composed of fuggheads. Fuggheads who don't know history. So the poor writers have to keep trotting out "Lee Wins at Gettysburg" and "Hitler Wins" over and over and over. Because the audience has sort of heard of the American Civil War and because they have a vague idea that there was a Second World War and that this guy named Hitler was a baddie, and that's pretty much all the history they know.

Plus, there's a big audience in the American South for the "Lee Wins" fantasy.

Try going to an editor and saying, "I want to write an alternate world novel based on the notion that Titus Annius Milo failed to kill Publius Clodius Pulcher back in 52 BC." The editor might laugh at you, the editor might ask you if you've got any "Hitler Wins" scenarios, but the one thing the editor won't do is give you money for that idea.

Please don't blame the US'ian authors for the dearth of exciting, cutting-edge skiffy. Blame the editors who won't buy it--- who in fact run screaming from it. They know how to sell military SF, they know how to sell space opera, they know how to sell alternate history (at least if it's got a Confederate or Nazi flag on it), they know how to sell Furry Fantasy S&M, but try going to a sales conference with a book that screams "near-future social critique!", and see them all hit the deck like someone's told them Osama is in the room with a vest packed with Semtex.

That's why the Brits get to have an Invasion right now--- their editors are braver. Or better. Or something.

25:

Perhaps now I've seen it all. George Bush is now officially responsible for the dearth of interesting scifi coming out of America. Charlie, you're starting to sound like a Canadian--unhealthily obsessed with the US.

26:

That's why the Brits get to have an Invasion right now--- their editors are braver. Or better. Or something.

It's not just British authors, there are some really great Canadian ones as well. Karl Schroeder, Steve Stirling, Cory Doctrow, Robert C. Wilson, R. Scott Bakker, etc.

Per capita, the UK and Canada seem to turn out more top notch authors of SciFi and Fantasy, for whatever reason.

Come to think of it, the only US authors I rush out to buy are Turtledove and

27:

You guys are reading the wrong alternate history books, if you want my humble opinion.

Down Under the final installment of a World War II trilogy just came out. I helped vette some of the military material for the final novel but I'm not going to shamelessly plug that writer's work here at Charlie's blog.

I will say that while there is enough popcorn shoot'em up material in the three novels to keep your usual Mil SF reader happy, the main thrust of the book is dealing with the social consequences of a group of time travelers with a Liberal culture of acceptance thrust back into 1942.

The result has been a series of novels that not only does a good job creating real soldiers-sailors and such, but also nuanced civilians from both time periods. There is a lot of politics and a lot of political struggling between the future folks and the 1942 folks.

So, not all of the alt history mil pieces are shoot 'em up fantasies.

Now, the mil SF stuff sells because soldiers in the present day buy them. Writers like John Ringo and David Weber, whatever else detractors may think of them, speak the language that most eighteen year old soldiers understand. Those writers succeed even though they commit a number of writing sins (they are legion, I like the novels but I could list at least a dozen) because their stories resonate with soldiers and veterans.

The reason the rest of the SF writer field tends to do poorly with this captive audience is because the writers do not tell stories that resonate with soldiers and vets. I've pounded this point time and again over at Asimov's and I'm politely ignored.

As for science fiction in general, I think we're in the mid decade creative doldrums again. I've been pretty disappointed by some of what I've been reading (enough to finally get me to purchase Baen Novels that I've been holding off on for nearly five years). I think too much time is spent writing polemics that forget to tell a story and often are written with an air of contempt for those that do not live under the dome of the writer's particular brand of political ideology.

In any case, if a writer is going to go political or examine a particular batch of history/political science, then it seems to me they should remember that they still have to entice nonbelievers into their tent and then speak to them in such a way that they don't say, "Fuck it," and walk out.

And a lot of U.S. non mil SF writers are exceedingly adept at demonstrating a fair amount of contempt in their writing for anyone that doesn't hold with their point of view. And that is then reflected in people spending their money elsewhere, like Baen.

Next paycheck or two, I need to get the next Clan Corporate novel. I don't normally like fantasy, but I've enjoyed these so far.

Respects,
S. F. Murphy

28:

SFM: You're talking about John Birmingham, aren't you?

Yes, I agree, that WWII trilogy is fun. (Reading it right now.) But it's near-as-dammit the exception that proves the rule.

Hell. Pace WJW's comment, try selling an alt-hist novel that doesn't revolve around (a) a war, or (b) Jack the Ripper (or a similar high-profile criminal case). It's not easy ...

29:

While the quality of story goes up and down depending on the individual writer, I actually think that what Eric Flint is doing with his 1632 series is one of the most interesting experiments going on in fiction today -- a strange combination of fan fiction, shared world, and online community. It vaguely reminds of of the THIEVES WORLD or WILD CARD books, except that Flint seems as interested in creating writers for the world as creating the world itself.

Certainly it's alt-history, and somewhat war-focused, but the process of creating the narrative seems to follow the same themes of democratic disruption as the narrative itself.

30:

"...the old judicial definition of pornography: 'I know it when I see it'.

Credit where due: that's famously Justice Potter Stewart, of course, not some anonymous judge.

31:

Checking out the description on Amazon - looks like Final Countdown done right. An entertaining, but disappointing movie. Also makes me think of the Mel Gibson movie, Forever Young.

32:

Well, in 2005 I sold an AH series with the premise that hundreds of millions of years ago aliens terraformed Mars and Venus, but we didn't find out about it until the 1950's.

No Nazis, no Confederates, and TOR bought it.

My other ongoing AH series has a change in the laws of nature in 1998. Also no problem selling it to ROC, and the public has snapped it up in very encouraging numbers.

I've been told by various publishers that a number of other ideas are OK if I want to go with them: a strange disease sweeps the world in the 1760's, aliens give us FTL in 1946, etc.

None of them involve WWII or the American Civil War.

(Incidentally, Harry Turtledove's next AH series also involves changes in the geologically remote past.)

The reason for the dearth of near-future SF these days is obvious, IMHO: the original wave(s) of SF did that a lot, and it turned out to date realllllyy fast. SF is no longer such a young field; it now has a history, and that history reveals what problems you're likely to run into.

Heinlein's Future History is sort of strange-looking now, isn't it?

Even if your story is set in, say, 2050, you've got to have some idea of how 2050 turned out that way... which requires a conception of what 2010 was like. And 2010 isn't far away -- say a book takes a year to write, and then a year to get published, you're up to 2008 already.

Anyway SF authors are lousy futurists -- another thing which it is now impossible to ignore if you've read in the classics of the field.

Even lousier than actual futurists. Nobody can forsee the future, and trying to do so usually merely shows up your own hopes, hates, obsessions, loves and fears in a very unflattering light.

My advice: if you're going to write SF set in the future, set it a long way in the future and don't specify any details of how things got that way.

Walter's "Praxis" novels, frex -- first-rate stuff.

Alternate history just doesn't have this problem, which is one reason I like it -- the other being that I originally intended to be a historian.

PS: I don't think Americans are feeling particularly pessimistic; much less so than they did in the 1970's, if memory serves me. Why should they be? On the whole life is good and getting better; not free from problems and threats, of course, but then, it never is.

The Outs predict doom unless they throw out the Ins, but that's always so. Then the Outs become the Ins, and we all change partners and dance more to the same tune.

How did Chesterton put it?

"The accursed power that goes
With women, and champagne, and bridge
Broke; and democracy resumed her reign
That goes with bridge, and women, and champagne."

33:

Also, I don't think either prose fiction or movies are "played" by current events or the zeitgeist in quite that direct a fashion.

Certainly the climate around you affects what you write -- but it's more likely to be long-term, subtle and indirect.

The events which influence your worldview are more likely to be those of your youth and young adulthood rather than current ones. Look at what happened 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, if you want the formative influences on today's writers.

Also consider the long gestation time of movies and books.

Hence things like seeing allegories of 9/11 in "The Two Towers" (Jackson) or WWII in the LOTR (Tolkien) are, IMHO, sort of futile.

For the most part the immediate ebb and flow of politics and current events are too shallow and transient to have that effect on non-journalistic works.

34:

Likewise, I think that the real political and social-cultural effect of genre fiction lies in something quite different than actual polemic.

Take a really neat example from the late Victorian period (which I've been rereading lately for my own purposes), "The White Company" by Conan Doyle -- whose historicals are underestimated, IMHO, and at the time fulfilled many of the functions that SF and fantasy do now.

There's a fair bit of didacticism in it -- quite standard for the period, of course -- but the real impact on the 'impressionable mind' would be, I think, what's portrayed through action and character interaction as admirable and desirable, and what isn't.

For example, there's some preaching on the glories of England, but none of it has as much impact as a bit of homecoming where a character bursts out:

"...where have we seen, since we left, such noble cows, such fleecy sheep, grass so green, or a man so drunk as yonder rogue who lies asleep in the gap of the hedge?"

I found that bit of descriptive dialogue had stayed with me from the first time I read the book, yea these many moons ago -- in Nairobi, of all places.

Thinking back on it, the book (and its cousins) have been influencing me all my life. Certainly influencing my work.

35:

Sure Heinlein's future is strange now. In some ways it's become more a kind of alternate history. Certainly it shows off the "hopes, hates, obsessions, loves and fears" of another time. One could say the same of the Arthurian romances. This is a wonderful and fascinating effect, a mark of true greatness that only becomes apparent from an sufficiently distant chronlogical and ideological vantage point.

36:

Looking at Baen, some of their current successes are no more SF than a novelisation of a James Bond or Rambo movie.

And Ringo's Posleen invasion finishes with as sudden a Deus Ex Machina as the US Cavalry turning up in the last reel of a Western.

Despite the good writers they publish, it's hard to see Baen as a place for innovators.

It's also interesting to see how many of the New New Wave are getting their main sales in the USA. In a sense, Charlie could be as easily called an American writer as his is British or Scots. And the differences may be more like the differences between Californian and New Yorker than the American/British differences of past generations--cultural globalisation.

We're all seeing the Hollywood movies. Maybe it's the fringe experiences of being British which make our fantastic literature that little bit more fantastic? Seeing "Trooping the Colour" on TV, or the Royal Navy loading crates of beer on their ships, gives us a different angle on military affairs.

Have we ever seen Honor Harrington with a pink gin?

37:

Science fiction and various subsets of it have been declared dead before, ususlly just before a huge revival. To the poster who seems our times as just like the Vietnam Era and wonders why we aren't reacting accordingly - no, it's not. It's more like the Cabaret Era.

Walter - if you want to sell an AH based on Milo not killing Clodius, I actually think you could sell it through the folks who handle Steven Saylor and John Maddox Roberts, because there is actually a fairly sizeable Ancient Rome fandom out there - and the era I privately refer to as the Dying Republic Saeculum is enormously interesting. Don't know how you'd pitch it, of course, being a stone total amateur. But if you could sell old G. Marius in space, you could probably sell this.

Kim Stanley Robinson is two-thirds of the way through a very good near-future trilogy. Futurists in general - Heinlein as a very good example - do date rapidly. I rather think David Brin's "Earth" might be an exception. I think the lack of near future sf is because our society - now the world's society - is poined on a cusp and we don't have the foggiest where we're going to.

Or how we got in this handbasket.

38:

Patricia: I'm not declaring SF dead, I'm just waxing indignant at it's dissipated habits.

39:

One of the quintessential near future works that has stood the test of time is 'The Prisoner' which is not only still mostly relevant but is obliquely referenced in Charlie's Glasshouse (an homage?). I suspect this is because it did not depend upon a lot of futuristic technology to make its point (although I do still want a rover of my own).

My daughter (14) informs me that horror is very popular with her friends so perhaps we shall see that sector picking up again. That being said, a lot of the horror appearing at my local booksellers appears to be of the 'suckers and furries' variety.

To a greater extent, romance fiction has also gone 'suckers and furries'.

My view of the U.S. market is that it has retreated into its own safety zone until it regains a new purpose for the future. It is reliving past victories due to the lack of having any current ones. The fiction market reflects this with the various Soldiers in Spaaaace scenarios.

Regarding '...Canadian--unhealthily obsessed with the US.' It is because you are so damn scary and so damn near.

Be seeing you.

40:

WJW:Try going to an editor and saying, "I want to write an alternate world novel based on the notion that Titus Annius Milo failed to kill Publius Clodius Pulcher back in 52 BC."

BTW In the UK orion published last year a book - "Romanitas" - based on the notion that Pertinax failed to be overthrown in 192AD

I haven't read much alt-hist and from the looks of things I haven't missed much but one thing I do know about Flint's 1632 series is that the authors and fans spend an enormous amount of time getting things as historically accurate as possible. In part it is this historical accuracy that (IMO) makes the stories interesting.

I note that you don't mention the decline of short story fiction as a possible cause of a lack of near future SF. I think near future may turn out to be a lot easier to do in the short form because you can (actually you have to) skimp on the world building and just concentrate on the bits that are relevant to the story. A great example would be Greg Benford's Bow Shock in Baen's Universe, if the story were longer there would be problems because you'd have to date it as (e.g.) "2010" and then predict the US president etc. etc. but because it's a short you can skip those sorts of side story.

Baen has done at least two near future SF stories recently that I can think of: Travis Taylor's Warp Speed, and Ringo's In to the Looking Glass. Now I imagine that the liberal arts brigade hate both because they involve both the military and tricky things like quantum physics but they're there and they are precisely the sort of optimistic "Hero plus small gang saves universe" story that is a classic of US SF.

If the rest of the speculative fiction field is so poor I'll stick with Baen, a publisher who not only provides good tales but actually publishes them electronically at a reasonable price so those of us in distant climes can get them without being ripped off.

41:

I thought about this phenom a little while ago: When did Cyberpunk become current or historical fiction?

Bruce Sterling: Zenith Angle takes place in a today-like environmente, and the whole book is a joke where the punch line is "It's a spam filter."

Neal Stephenson: Even before the Baroque doorstop (don't get me wrong, I liked it, but I might have liked *less* of it *more*), Cryptonomicon is a modern-day thriller.

William Gibson: I really enjoyed Pattern Recognition, but it isn't SF (I was actually disappointed that the Curta "math grenades" are the real deal, then thrilled to realize I could own one)

On the Fantasy side, there's a breed you really didn't discuss, hardly new, but growing strong: modern-world with weird in in. Neil Gaiman, Charles de Lint, Jonathon Carroll and their like are revealing the world by showing a flip side of strangeness.

The other factor you probably didn't notice on your 2:1 ratio of F to SF sales is that *most* of it is graphic novels and adaptations of Japanese manga. I go through Ingram's new release list monthly trying to parse out what might be appropriate for our children's bookstore, and the number of collected comic books and Manga translations outweighs all the other SF&F.

42:

Well, since the Yanks are so bloody keen on Military SF, I'm trying to write at least one such novel. (Which is not easy when you come from Sweden, one of the most peaceful nations in the world... or some might call it "a nation of socialist wussies" -- just kidding! ;-P)

S.M. Stirling puts up a good defense for Alternate History -- and if he can direct the subgenre away from the "Hitler/The Confederacy Wins" territory, good for him.

As for writing about the near future... here's a free tip: near-future stories won't age so effing fast if you can resist the temptation to mention the exact year. (i.e. avoid mentioning "1984", "2001", "2050", etc.) Okay?

Remember, you can write whatever the hell you want. Even if no publisher will touch it, you can find a way of getting your stuff across to the readership.

43:

"Try going to an editor and saying, "I want to write an alternate world novel based on the notion that Titus Annius Milo failed to kill Publius Clodius Pulcher back in 52 BC." The editor might laugh at you, the editor might ask you if you've got any "Hitler Wins" scenarios, but the one thing the editor won't do is give you money for that idea."


-- Belisarius.

44:

Charlie, John Birmingham is the one (and I didn't want to post what might seem like promotional spam since I had a hand in helping him with the last installment). I wasn't sure if you were reading it. It seems to be the exception to the rule as you say and I figured that if you didn't mention it in your entry, you weren't reading it.

I stand corrected.

I look at John Biringham's work (and his trilogy is his first foray into sci-fi-alt-history-mil fic) and I think, "If you could roll John Ringo and Joe Haldeman together, JB would be the result."

Or another way to put it, John got the porridge just right. At least for me.

Finished reading his final installment today, btw.

I'm going to disagree with the glowing reviews of KS Robinson's latest stuff. To me they are not only recycled Mars trilogy material, but there are cardboard antagonists who behave according to his predisposed political view of the world. As a result, he has written the perfect example of what I was complaining about in my previous post.

A novel that preaches to the crowd, alienates anyone who doesn't agree with the author's view, and is really pretty boring to boot.

I don't think he has gotten anything right since Red Mars and his material certainly isn't the kind of thing your average grunt is going to buy at the local PX.

Respects,
S. F. Murphy

45:

First, I'm tempted to point out that Harry Turtledove, as King of Parahistory, went to Caltech, hotbed of Hard Science. So did Dave Brin, whom the faculty hoped would get a rare History degree there, although he decayed into Astrophysics. Point being that allohistory can be seen as a subgenre of novels about the Multiverse and other theories of spacetime's toplogy, and some people equipped to do Hard SF prefer What If. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, dude.

Second, of books I've read recently, Walter Jon Williams' "Dread Empire's Fall" trilogy is clever and exciting and fun on many levels. It's got military enounters and social maneuverings as expected in space navy / space opera, but with a decadence that Heinlein never tried. It applies Chaos Theory (at least by meaningful reference) in an appropriately plausible way. It gives us aliens that we never fully understand (why should immortals all commit suicide?) who understand us all too well. It gives us a female lead hustling into Society by all means necessary, who is not plucked from An American Tragedy, The Great Gatsby, nor Washington Square. It rediscovers what I had in a novel manuscript 15 years ago --aliens are obsessed by prime numbers. It was a revolution mutated from Eric Frank Russell's short novel "Wasp" but with a fierce concentration and gusto in how a resitance movement meets it top priorities of money, armaments, and recruitment. WJW was screwed by his publisher on this; I hope that he someday gives us a sequel. My point being, American SF is alive and well, with Space and Fun and Future. I also agree that Sturgeon's Rule has suffered coefficient creep well past 90%.

46:

SFM: You know John Brimingham is Australian, right? And you haven't run across any of his earlier novels (for example, "He died with a falafel in his hand")?

SMS: Yeah, but your angle in your new alt-hist is "cold war in spaaaaace", right?

That's certainly pushing publishing-industry buttons. Not necessarily in a bad way, but it's not like, say, postulating a minor difference in the development of limited liability company law in the seventeenth century in Holand and then following it through to the present day as seen from the perspective of a cooperative shoe-store clerk in New Amsterdam, is it?

47:

I have a hard time believing that fear of becoming outdated is putting SF writers off near-future stories. Sure, your timeline will look ridiculous in a decade - but who cares? Especially since it'll be very unlikely for the book to still be in print by then. If SF writers really are shying away from the near future it's because they don't see much potential for stories in it.

48:

Charlie,

Yes, I know where John is from.

Yes, I have read Felafel (and liked it). I have a copy and John sent a copy for my friend who is currently in Iraq (who liked it as well). In fact, I've been shuffling his book around to all of my friends. They've all liked it.

Your point?

Respects,
S. F. Murphy

49:

Regarding AH, one of the reasons we see so many AH books with their POD in major wars like WWII, the ACW, etc, is that those are the things that a large number of readers are familiar with. You don't have to explain as much if your change is "the Nazis win". And a great deal of enjoyment is gained from reading AH if you know a little about how real history went.

Perhaps as the genre continues to mature we'll see more daring and novel alterations. After all, there *is* a limit to how many alternate WWIIs can be written before people get tired of them.

Baxter's latest book "Emperor" is almost a sort of un-alternate history.

Another approach is to not really specify what the exact changes are, just giving some hints here and there. Create an alternate historical setting in the present, with the POD in the distant past -- as with the Merchant Princes series, or with Harlan's "Wasteland of Flint".

Also, I think there seems to be a fuzzy line between pure Alternate History like "Ruled Britainia", time-travel caused AH like "Island in the Sea of Time" or "Lest Darkness Fall", and mulitverse travel like "Paratime" and the Merchant Princes series. Each type of story has it's own requirements. In the first you have to either assume the reader knows enough to spot the changes, or to find a way to sneak a history lesson in. In the other two, you can have characters from our world educate the reader.

50:

Stross: SMS: Yeah, but your angle in your new alt-hist is "cold war in spaaaaace", right?

I've read the sample chapters for "The Sky People" and I'd say it's not so much a Cold War in Space as it is a Space Race on steroids.

It looks like in the alternate timeline about 90% of the money and effort that went to the miltaries of the USA and USSR from the early 60s on instead went to the Space Race.

So you get no Vietnam War, no huge Counter Culture in reaction, no Religious Right or Reganomics. Likewise, there's no Soviets in Afganistan or proxy wars in Africa.

The increased research into compact power sources, etc, results in a much decreased demand on oil -- the Middle East is a fairly poor backwater of little importance.

It's basically as if the pulp SciFi novels of the Golden Age turned out to be true, and all those boys and girls who read them dreaming of having adventures on Mars and Venus really get to.

51:

There are a lot of unexplored areas of World War II alone that could be explored. True, the usual Germany wins the war, or some other variant there of is overdone. But it was a World War after all and you can't tell me that all of the possibilities have been exhausted from a canvas that large.

I'm not going to give ideas because frankly, I've got two or three ideas of my own and I don't want folks stealing them. Hard enough trying to get out in front of folks like Charlie as it is. (grin)

A lot of AH out there doesn't hold up if you know the details involving the counterfactuals that created the alternate history in the first place. With Harry Harrison's series where Britain gets roped into the Civil War, the preponderance of the primary and secondary historical material on the top shows, clearly, that the British Government was concerned about the economic effect such a war would have the UK.

Their shipping was vulnerable to privateering.

Their Canadian border was woefully underdefended.

They were making more money by selling to both sides than by getting involved.

They were getting cotton from Egypt and India, thus negating the South's possible lever of a cotton embargo.

Most readers wouldn't notice stuff like that, but I did a paper on it in grad school. The novel's premise doesn't hold up against the historical facts.

And that, peers, is the danger in writing an alternate history based upon a weak counterfactual.

Respects,
S. F. Murphy

52:

I agree, Harrison's Alternate ACW series was awful. Total fantasy on so many levels.

A mid 19th century war between the US and UK could be interesting, but that was just a terrible series.

I think Harrison has something against the British. :)

53:

That's certainly pushing publishing-industry buttons. Not necessarily in a bad way, but it's not like, say, postulating a minor difference in the development of limited liability company law in the seventeenth century in Holand and then following it through to the present day as seen from the perspective of a cooperative shoe-store clerk in New Amsterdam, is it?

And thank ghod for that.

54:

So, we see a lot of Confederacy Victorious stories, and Hitler Victorious stories, but how about Soviets Victorious? Is the history too recent?

Mitch Wagner

55:

On horror decaying into religious fic: do we see a precursor to that in what Derleth did to Lovecraft's Mythos? An alien indifferent universe turned into a Manichaean struggle between Evil and Elder Gods, AIUI.

McKinley's _Sunshine_ could be called alt-hist *and* horror. And was really good.

Jay Lake's _Rocket Science_ captured an old feel pretty well I think, updated with the flying saucer being sentient and pacifist. Kingsbury's _Psychohistorical Crisis_ was awesome, though deep future not near.

I thought fantasy dominated SF even if you just go to the bookstore and count titles in the New SF/F shelves, without worrying about manga. Of the anime and manga I've seen SF and fantasy seem pretty even. Some of the SF is arguably fantasy in disguise but that's been true of written SF as well. A lot of the "life with robots" stuff I've seen recently has been manga or anime, though this doesn't challenge the original thesis of "American SF is sick".

Hmm. Much of the current SF I'm reading is comic. Y the Last Man in print (SF mentality in the huge "what if?"-ness, even if the culprit turns out to be mystical), and maybe Raven's Children (fantasy anthropological with an SF surprise at the end); and in webcomics Schlock Mercenary, Freefall, Finder (originally print) and Miracle of Science on the high end, Angels 2200 in the middle, and Brewster Rockit in the plain silly end. Schlock and Freefall are as good "crunchy" SF as anything else I've seen.

56:

Gosh, Jonathan. I mean, wow. Thanks.

And I thank the Collective for not chanting in unison, "Gaius Marius in Spaaaaaaace."

My AH history is relatively meager, but the first such story I wrote involved the American Civil War, in which despite the brilliant participation of Brigadier General E.A. Poe, CSA, the North won anyway.

Steve, your current AH series have pleasantly eccentric premises, but consider whether you could have sold them if you'd gone in cold, without the successful track record of your alternate World War II series behind you.

And they're still about war. "Dies the Fire" is about warlords bashing each other with long, heavy lengths of iron, not the day-to-day diary of some liberal arts major stuck out in the Willamette, trying to figure out how to plow a straight furrow while raising pigs and hauling water up from the river to flush his toilet.

Mind you, some folks are probably thankful for that.

(And actually, I'd like you to write the series where Britain gets involved in the ACW. You'd do it right, by jupiter.)

If brilliantly original alternate history ideas were the stuff of commerce, Howard Waldrop would be King. Instead of which, he is merely God.

57:

[nitpick]Not Chesterton, Belloc, and the first line is: "The accursed power which stands on Privilege"[/nitpick]

58:

"I'm not declaring SF dead, I'm just waxing indignant at it's dissipated habits."

LOL! Just remember, that's a timeless pastime.

If you look at the course of SF/F over the past century, I think it's crazy to say that it doesn't tend to reflect the tenor of it's times, and that's as true as it ever was. The retreat into fantasy is surely linked to the many anxieties of our times, but what else is new? Consider that the fundamental appeal of Mercedes Lackey's "Valdemar" books is this: Here is a world where the gods care about their people. Likewise, a lot of the supernatural stuff, especially the supernatural erotica, is basically about old-fashioned alienation, and supporting themes thereof. Meanwhile, a lot of harder SF authors have been exploring the social and moral implications of "omnipotent" technology, the stability of free societies, confrontations with overwhelming disaster.... That's when they aren't riffing off the latest article in Scientific American!

But there's another factor, which is that any particularly successful work inspires a "flock" of imitators. Of course, Sturgeon's Law applies to these, but a few may be good enough to stand on their own right. (Tolkien actually got two floods, for his original publication and the D&D-inspired revival.) For example, I'd trace a lot of the animal-protagonist stuff back to Tad Williams' spectacular debut, Tailchaser's Song. While Vernor Vinge did "cyberspace" first in True Names, it was Gibson who provided the 'tude and decor, so he got the imitators. Sometimes these may look like mini-genres, especially when they contain a long-running series or few. A free prediction: Look for the imitators of Saberhagen's latest, Ardneh's Sword. And if there wasn't an RPG for that world before, there will be, within a few years. Maybe even an MMORPG.

59:

Charlie, as a writer it isn't in your best interest to talk up MMORPGs... because as long as these games tend to be so time-consuming (spending hours with your guild to complete a quest), this steals time that could have been spent reading.

It's not the readers' money you're competing with computer-games for, it's their free hours.
But I digress... :)

Anonymous pointed out: "Consider that the fundamental appeal of Mercedes Lackey's 'Valdemar' books is this: Here is a world where the gods care about their people."

Question: So the persistent appeal of H.P.Lovecraft is a world where the gods are inhuman and utterly indifferent to people? Discuss.

By the way, if the God issues are so heavy in fantastic lit, how come nobody's been annoyed by the total absence of a god/gods (or references to a church/religious ritual) in THE LORD OF THE RINGS?
(That totally killed the suspension of disbelief for me -- a pagan society without religion? Come on!)

60:

And what is wrong with a novel or a story being about war, or any given war?

Respects,
S. F. Murphy

61:

well, as usual when somebody writes using sweeping generalizations, few examples, etc., the result is about three-fourths bullshit. still interesting, but nevertheless bullshit.

complaining that 90 percent of everything is crap...well, it has been done before.

not really trying to be argumentative except in the sense of...if you are going to put something like this out there, do not be quite so lazy in future.

jeff v

62:

A few quick thoughts (after a few beers, as well):

1) Not all modern fantasy is escapist. Let's hear it for China Mieville, anyone?

2) The best WWII AH novel of recent times surely is Christopher Priest's "The Separation" (recently re-released through Old Earth Books, luckily). It thought the unthinkable, namely the idea that Britain would make peace with Nazi Germany in 1941 (cue to Churchill's speech: "We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!" Speech about Dunkirk given in House of Commons June 4, 1940), and make it work. I can only agree with John Clute that it's one of the best four novels ever written about WW2 (check Excessive Candour on Scifi.com here: http://www.scifi.com/sfw/issue285/excess.html).

3) It's extremely difficult to write an optimistic near-future SF tale, and make it sound plausible. It's relatively easier to write a downbeat one, as it rings more true. It doesn't mean that writers shouldn't try to write more upbeat fiction, but that it's a lot harder. However, I thought writers like a challenge...;-)

4) I agree that horror is making a comeback, and even suspect that it might become the place where the current angst might find its best venue to be expressed. Not in the large publishing houses, but in the small presses.

5) There are some Americans that write near-future SF, such as David Louis Edelman ("Infoquake"), Paolo Bacigalupi at short story length -- "The Calorie Man", amongst others in F&SF (and he edited a supplement for High Country News about near future scenarios for the American West), and people like Jason Stoddard and Will McIntosh who we've published at Interzone. They're definitely there, but just not noted enough. Peter Watts and Vernor Vinge aren't the only ones swimming against the stream (and I thought Peter Watts was a Canadian, BTW).

Just my unco-ordinated two cents...

63:

I haven't read Lackey, but she and Lovecraft could be appealing to different people. Or to different moods. And yes, I'd say part of the appeal of Lovecraft, and the source of his attempt at horror, is graphically portraying the indifferent universe, the vastness of inhuman forces, the insignificance of humans.

"nobody's been annoyed", "that killed suspension of disbelief for me" -- you refute yourself. :) I've seen such complaints before, too. But I'd say the societies we see aren't meant to be pagan, and do have some religion. The elves know about the Creator and the Valar, and revere the latter without worshipping them; see all the references to Elbereth. Faramir has a moment of silence facing west before eating, toward both fallen Numenor and where the Valar used to live. Going beyond LotR, Numenor had a mountain sacred to the Creator, and quiet rituals surrounding it, while those subject to Sauron worship him.

And that's the thing; the societies are unfallen (Elvish) or pre-Christian and possibly pre-Jewish, but not generically pagan: the Elves and educated humans know of the Creator, who hasn't asked for worship yet, and of the Powers, whom they know to not be gods and thus shouldn't be worshipped. The dwarves have their own knowledge of Aule and secret religion. And the hobbits are just contentedly worldly.

64:

Speaking of new channellings of Heinlein, John Varley's last few novels are as clever New Heinleins as Jay Lake's wonderful Rocket Science. Doing New Heinlein well, with levels of irony appropriate to new audience and standards, is as valid as being The New Bob Dylan. Got to nail the melody and lyrics. As to nonescapist Fantasy, one can hardly beat Tim Powers, nor Charle's Stross' Family Trade novels. I mean, escapaist on one level, but with realistic politics, Venture Capital strategy, and angst. On American SF film, has there ever been a better-spent $7,000 than the time travel tour de force "Primer"? Can you folks in UK and Australia see it? Just asking. Oh, and JRRT didn't need to show worship; his Theology is well-enough explored in The Silmarillion. Without which one can't understand who the wizards are, nor Balrog. Gandalf is doing theological heavy lifting in defeating Sauron. Kind of a Taoist/Christian worship by kicking ass.

65:

So, we see a lot of Confederacy Victorious stories, and Hitler Victorious stories, but how about Soviets Victorious?

How about Amis' Russian Hide and Seek?

66:

"Theology is well-enough explored in The Silmarillion."

I haven't read That Book, but I have learned a few things about Pre-Christian religion and it ain't as pretty:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_sacrifice


67:

So, we see a lot of Confederacy Victorious stories, and Hitler Victorious stories, but how about Soviets Victorious? Is the history too recent?

The problem here is that the Soviet system had fundamental flaws which rendered it impossible to imagine it competing with a relatively open military-industrial corporate oligarchy like the US. Prior to 1950-60, the technology and logistics were insufficient for them to conquer the world, and past 1950-1960 or so, they were doomed to fall ever behind the West. I mean, hell, the Chinese have had to functionally recreate the West's system just to compete (using a communist rather than a democratic facade)

68:

NB: Am going to be scarce around these parts for a few days (flying from Oz back to Thatcherland tomorrow).

Jeff V: This is an idle hour's meditation on my vacation reading, not an ex cathedra thesis in Foundation. Note, for example, the lack of explicit references to authors and books I dislike (for the most part) -- don't have time/resources/energy to do it properly, don't want to risk pissing anyone off unfairly. You're getting your money's worth, which is a vaguely entertaining rant on my blog. If you want a refund, all you have to do is ask.

Soviets Victorious ... nope, that won't fly without a PoD prior to 1924, or maybe 1927 at the latest. But how about Technocrats Victorious, about the alt-hist victory of the other great modernist engineer-of-human-souls movement, the Technocrats? Surely at its peak in 1950 Arbitrator Huey Long's Technocracy, with its iron jack-boot on the throats of South America and Canada and access to the Indonesian oil fields and forward base in Japan could have made a plausible bid to overturn the Tsarist and British imperial dominance of east Asia. Although one shudders to imagine what the Department of Rationalization would have made with the Chinese peasantry -- "uneducatable camps" a hundredfold more ghastly than anything that happened in the Deep South or Mexico.

69:

I'd love to see a Technocracy alternate history, as long as it just wasn't moving the Soviet Union to North America and changing the names. Dystopia, fine, but make it a dystopia with it's own flavor.

The North & South American Technates vs. The Imperial British Commonwealth, and the Empire of Russia.

Finding a POD might be difficult. Perhaps if there as no Marx and Engles to develop the Communism that we know, leaving the niche for the Technocrats and a technology-oriented socialism. Maybe a slightly different 19th century to make a more united a peaceful Europe, with the UK and Russia on the outside?

Say, Europe and the Americas to the Socialists and Technocrats, and the British Empire/Commonwealth and Russia as the land of the free? I'm not sure if a Czarist Russia would be best though, maybe the White Russians win and Russia has a democratic government?

70:

Finding a POD might be difficult.

You wanna consider an interesting (if unrelated) Soviet POD - try something I tried in a recent Hearts Of Iron game. The Soviets split Poland with germany, fight the Winter War - and then immediately move their forces south and backstab the Germans while they're occupied with invading France...

WWII is over much, much faster, and the Reds come out far, far better.

71:

SMS: Yeah, but your angle in your new alt-hist is "cold war in spaaaaace", right?

-- no, it's more "Space Race in Spaaaaccee"...

I mean, you'd _expect_ discovering that Venus and Mars are habitable (and inhabited) to have some fairly drastic results, wouldn't you?

It's a way of playing with the effect of _ideas_ on history.

Neither Mars nor Venus can _directly_ affect much on-Earth history.

It isn't 1492. Both planets are, in terms of energy, expense and time, far away; there's no magical antigravity tech. Nobody's going to be shipping back cheap tobacco or sugar, tho' very potent drugs are perhaps the only goods that would bear the costs -- besides information, of course.

But just having them there, and the effort needed to get to them, profoundly changes the world, by redirecting people's _attention_.

72:

"I have a hard time believing that fear of becoming outdated is putting SF writers off near-future stories."

-- not so much the fear of becoming outdated, as the bone-deep knowledge that they can't possibly get it right.

Remember, the first half of the 20th century was the apogee of the period in which it was widely assumed that you _could_, with the proper theory/computer/whatever, predict or even plan the future.

This belief (a secularized version of Christian millenarianism) started to spread with the Enlightenment, cycled through the Victorian myth of progress, and then there was Marxism, of course.

And all its SFnal pinoffs like "psychohistory".

We now know that this is psedoreligious gobbledegook and that it just can't be done. We not only don't know and cannot control the future, but it's not even _potentially_ possible.

Since then there's been a profound collapse of faith in all such totalizing mythologies, tho' you still get echo effects -- belief in the Singularity, frex. (Actual belief, I mean, not just playing around with it as a trope.)

73:

WJW: Steve, your current AH series have pleasantly eccentric premises, but consider whether you could have sold them if you'd gone in cold, without the successful track record of your alternate World War II series behind you.

-- that wasn't an alternate WWII series: it had a POD right back in the 1770's, namely a difference of about a year in the entry of the Dutch into the War of American Independence.

74:

WJW: And they're still about war.

-- well, they're about conflict and politics. Humans are political animals, which ultimately means they're war-fighting animals, since war is the distilled essence of politics.

WJW: not the day-to-day diary of some liberal arts major stuck out in the Willamette, trying to figure out how to plow a straight furrow while raising pigs and hauling water up from the river to flush his toilet.

-- actually, a lot of them _are_ about people learning to plow straight furrows.

Remember how Melinda kept complaining about "bringing in the sheaves" scenes? 8-).

Personally I find farming interesting; more so than, say, computers.

OTOH I find liberal arts majors and their angst profoundly _un_interesting, despite having been one myself.

That just isn't the sort of person whose life I want to write about. I spent far too much of my youth around them, and with honorable exceptions they always struck me as a bunch of narcissistic prigs with a severely inflated view of their own importance in the general scheme of things.

I find farmers, soldiers, or blue-collar types or various scruffy weirdos or in fact almost any other social grouping you could name, including hip-hop musicians (which is saying something) much more entertaining.

75:

Andrew G: It's basically as if the pulp SciFi novels of the Golden Age turned out to be true, and all those boys and girls who read them dreaming of having adventures on Mars and Venus really get to.

- pretty much, except that only a very, very small select group actually get to _do_ it. It's too expensive for the rest.

But they're the rock stars of their age. The Golden Age fan obsessions become those of the culture at large. ERB and Kline turned out to be more-or-less right, after all, and suddently H. Rider Haggard is in tune with the zeitgeist again.

What I was trying to do (among other things) was a what-if; what would _really_ happen given more or less the environment that the pulpsters were writing about -- jungle Venus with neanderthals and cave princesses, decadent lost civilizations on Mars, and alien super-science lurking behind it all.

I mean, the heroes don't get to Mars or Venus by building spaceships in their backyards, or by finding an eccentric millionaire to back them, or by astral projection. They need huge bureaucracies spending a substantial share of GDP before they can fight sword-duels on the crystal bridges over the canals, or dodge blowgun darts and allosaurus attacks... 8-).

76:

S.M. Stirling wrote: I find farmers, soldiers, or blue-collar types or various scruffy weirdos or in fact almost any other social grouping you could name, including hip-hop musicians (which is saying something) much more entertaining.

And I say, "Hell, yeah."

Respects,
S. F. Murphy

77:

"So, we see a lot of Confederacy Victorious stories, and Hitler Victorious stories, but how about Soviets Victorious? Is the history too recent?"

-- as it happens, Harry Turtledove's next YA in his crosstime series is precisely that, set in a history that ended up with a World Soviet.

It's done with deft restraint, too. The heroine's life isn't 1984; it's just excruciatingly dull and conformist, as long as you don't make waves.

78:

Tony Q: WWII is over much, much faster, and the Reds come out far, far better.

-- I very much doubt it. The French campaign was over in about a month, and there's no way the Soviets could defeat Germany in that time frame. Or at all, really.

Attacking is harder than defending and the Soviets found _that_ hard enough. The Red Army just wasn't up to it in 1940-41; it didn't have the triple-C capacity or the tactical or operational _nous_. It was, to be blunt, an enormous but distinctly bad army.

The main reason the Germans didn't beat the Soviets was simply that the USSR was so big they couldn't fight them close enough to their base area, or finish them off before they learned by doing sufficiently to up their competence level from "abysmal" to "so-so".

The German army could whip anything within 250 miles of its railheads, and by straining every nerve could manage another 250 miles beyond that.

If you're fighting France, 250 miles takes you to the Atlantic. Fighting Russia, it takes you to Smolensk, with Moscow off there thataway.

If Stalin had been dumb enough to attack first, even more of his army would have been caught close to the German base area, and therefore swiftly chopped into dogmeat. The counterattack would then catch still more close to the frontier.

If the war was fought closer to Germany, there would be a very much greater chance for Germany to win it.

79:

-- I very much doubt it. The French campaign was over in about a month, and there's no way the Soviets could defeat Germany in that time frame. Or at all, really.

It's a quirk of the AI in the game he's playing. There are scripted events to get the war started, so Germany will still end up at war with France even if it has no allies and the Soviets have massed 500,000 troops on the border in 1939.

The game lets you start in 1936, so you can change things quite a bit before the war starts safe in the knowledge that it will start in a certain way.

There's an expansion for the game that looks interesting though -- it's basically an AH game that lets you fight WWIII following WII. Why stop at Berlin when there's a whole other half of Europe to take.

The company that makes the game is also doing an expansion for their Victorian-era game that will let you play the interwar years instead of the game ending in 1920 as it did before. They're adding a converter that lets you move your save games from Victoria to save games for Hearts of Iron, letting you play (in theory) from 1836 to 1954. There are some fun possibilities for making your own Alternate Histories and playing them out. :)

I've even seen player made mods that let you play as the Draka... :)

80:

"Tony Q: WWII is over much, much faster, and the Reds come out far, far better."

-- I very much doubt it.

I'm terribly sorry that this scenario doesn't involve quite as much of a mass slaughter of Communists, which I know you enjoy contemplating. But bear with me.

The French campaign was over in about a month, and there's no way the Soviets could defeat Germany in that time frame.

And where, Stirling, did I say it was? IIRC from the game (which, admittedly, may not be a completely accurate simulation but is fun and will do for this discussion), the war finished late 1943 or early 1944. The key points were:

- Stalin backstabbed Hitler, not the other way around.
- The campaign was fought over Poland and Germany, not the Ukraine and Russia.

Or at all, really.

Back here, in the real world, the Soviets defeated Germany. 80% of Germany's casualties were on the Eastern Front and the high tide of the German invasion was defeated *before* Lend Lease help arrived in Moscow. Is it your contention that they would actually do worse in this scenario?

81:

It's a quirk of the AI in the game he's playing. There are scripted events to get the war started, so Germany will still end up at war with France even if it has no allies

Germany ends up at war with France immediately it attacks Poland, most of the time. I don't know if the German AI would invade France after Poland falls if the Soviets were massed on the border - I put the troops a little behind.

and the Soviets have massed 500,000 troops on the border in 1939.

A more valid criticism, in that German intelligence probably kept better track of these things than a game could simulate. Then again, if Stalin could have been so blind to the upcoming treachery, it's plausible that Hitler might have a similar lapse.

82:

Let me echo Jonathan Vos Post: 'Walter Jon Williams' "Dread Empire's Fall" trilogy is clever and exciting and fun on many levels.' Go buy them all--after you've bought all the Stross novels. And I guess I should go buy the Birmingham too.

You do know that across the Internets Chad Orzel is coming after you with a cattle prod, writing things like "Charlie is a member of a set of Europeans who consistently manage to make sweeping statements about the US in a manner that really gets up my nose. I'm not entirely sure what it is, but something about the way they say things really gets my back up, and even makes me want to defend the Bush administration on some points. It's a remarkable reflex..."

83:

Attacking is harder than defending and the Soviets found _that_ hard enough. The Red Army just wasn't up to it in 1940-41; it didn't have the triple-C capacity or the tactical or operational _nous_. It was, to be blunt, an enormous but distinctly bad army.

You seem to be ignoring something.

Using the Wikipedia a bit:

When Germany invaded the USSR in June 1941, the Red Army had 166 divisions and 9 brigades (2.9 million troops) stationed in the western military districts. Their Axis opponents deployed on the Eastern Front 181 divisions and 18 brigades (5.5 million troops).

As best I can tell, Germany had around 60-70 divisions when it attacked France, and would have then had to split these between France and Poland under this scenario.

84:

Oh. And "Cornelius Sulla in Spaaaaaaace."

85:

Yngve, what is your *point*? That the LotR, with elves and dwarves and fallen angels and refugee Atlanteans and formerly flat world, isn't archaeologically accurate? Gee, who'd have thunk it? The peoples aren't meant to be generic pre-Christian religion, they're meant to be monotheists without rituals. Noachide, if anything. Archaeologically accurate? Of course not. Anthropologically ridiculous? No.

86:

So what if we "can't possibly get it right".
It's not prediction, it's speculation! There's a difference. Nitpicking is not what SF is about.

If the Comic-Book Guy from THE SIMPSONS came up to you and said, "Sir -- in your near-future novel, you failed to predict the now obvious decreasing use of Post-It notes in the 21st century..." ... how would you respond?

Would you:
A) Tell him to Get A Life
B) Punch him in the stomach
D) Say "By Jove, you're right! I have to call back the entire edition!" -- and really mean it.

Again: It's about speculation, not prediction.


87:

Regarding the Russians attacking Germany in 1940, I wouldn't fancy their chances. Remember, they were still reeling from the purges of the 30s - the shock of the Rodina being invaded was just about enough to pull the army together. Barely. In 1940 the T-34 wasn't in full production yet, and there was an ongoing border dispute with Japan in China. I don't think they were mobile enough to mount offensive operations on that kind of scale.

What the effect would have been had they attacked is interesting to speculate; off the top of my head I'd imagine another Tannenberg for the Soviets and probable collapse, and a stalemate in the West - maybe along the Meuse?

88:

An early attack by Soviet Russia against Germany in the 1940 timeframe would not have been likely to succeed for the following reasons,

a) The Soviets had purged their armies command structure vigorously in 1936-37 which left their forces ineffective well into Summer 1942.

b) Lend-lease from the Allies would have been less of a factor with the Soviets prosecuting an offensive war.

c) The Soviets had their heads handed to them in a bag by the Finns in the 1940 Winter War...a far less capable military power than Germany then.

d) The Germans managed to beat offensive Russian armies while also fighting in France at the start of WWI.

e) The Germans had the doctrinal surprise of Blitzkrieg warfare up their collective sleeves.

f) As previously mentioned the action taking place so much closer to Germany would be a real advantage to them.

-- Andrew



89:

For several years I've been bemoaning the lack of near future books. Everyone seemed to be producing stories set in 300 years time, not the exciting exploration of possibilities that we saw 40 years ago. Its nice to see Charlie agreeing with me.
On a related point, perhaps there are fewer near future stories because so many possibilities have been ruled out by the scientific advances of the past 50 years, leaving us with a definite restricted set of possibilities with a timetable. Like X years to working nanotech, AI by Y, etc. So from that point of view, things look boringly set in stone.

From another view, perhaps as an extension of the lack of optimism, there are various issues, such as peak oil, the rise of China, environmental degradation, global warming, etc etc, that aught to open up new areas of SF stories, but apparently are not.

90:

One could very well argue that near-future SF has been co-opted by the literary novelists. Witness: John Updike, T.C. Boyle, Paul Auster, Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth, Walter Mosley, Kurt Vonnegut, Jonathan Lethem, all authors of near-future SF in the past decade, all members of the Respectable School.

(Jetse: thanks for mentioning my book "Infoquake," but not sure it applies as near-future SF, given that it takes place close to a millennium from now.)

91:

Speaking of literary novelists co-opting near-future SF, this whole debate reminds me of Michael Chabon's essay "The Omega Glory," in which he says, "We lost our ability, or our will, to envision anything beyond the next hundred years or so, as if we lacked the fundamental faith that there will in fact be any future at all beyond that not-too-distant date. Or maybe we stopped talking about the Future around the time that, with its microchips and its twenty-four-hour news cycles, it arrived. Some days when you pick up the newspaper it seems to have been co-written by J. G. Ballard, Isaac Asimov, and Philip K. Dick... Meanwhile, the dwindling number of items remaining on that list ...have been represented and re-represented so many hundreds of times in films, novels and on television that they have come to seem, paradoxically, already attained, already known, lived with, and left behind. Past, in other words."

92:

And what is wrong with a novel or a story being about war, or any given war? Respects, S. F. Murphy

Nothing at all. Done it meself. I was responding to an earlier post that had to do with alternate history being so much about war or major conflict.

Nobody seems to have written the massive AH trilogy in which there is no World War II at all, for example. (LEAGUE OF NATIONS TRIUMPHANT) Keith Laumer in WORLDS OF IMPERIUM did the No Great War scenario pretty well.

I remember that John M Ford did a Technocracy Wins scenario in a novella, the title of which escapes me. The technocrats wore leather flying togs and had evolved into a kind of semi-benign fascism.

Howard Waldrop also did Technocracy Wins, in "You Could Go Home Again," the one with Thomas Wolfe and Jellyroll Morton and "Airman Shaw."

Steve>> it wasn't me complaining about the bringing of the sheaves. What I did notice, though, was that the idyllic pastoral scenes were setups for the attacks of the bad guys that followed.

94:

Huh. From Night Mail, published in 1909, emphasis added by me:

"But that semi-elected, semi-nominated body of a few score of persons of both sexes, controls this planet."

95:

My scientist/SF author wife and I agree that near-future SF, with geeks in space and on the web, is in some sense the hardest to write convincingly, but the most rewarding if successful.

My having had Feynman as a mentor at Caltech got me into Nanotechnology and Quantum Computing in the 1960s, before either field had those names. Ditto my PhD research on Nanotechnology, Chaos Theory, and Artificial Life, before nomenclature.

Mostly, my work therein gets published as refereed science papers, and then I find it very hard to turn the content into science fiction. First, when I submit early drafts, the editors don't know what I'm talking about. So I have to educate them by, for instance, having introduced Stanley Schmidt to Eric Drexler, get Omni magazine to write about nanotechnology, and deepen friendship with Greg Bear who was so far ahead of the curve in Blood Music. Later, once editors know or think they know the technology, I am inhibited by knowing too much, and looking over my shoulder as I write and grumbling about relativistic corrections in the Dirac equations, which get in the way of the characters. Next, I embed my near-future predictions in my web domain, as chronology without disclaimer, as in:
TIMELINE 2000-2010 and
TIMELINE 2010-2020.

Finally, I've established the precedent of running small science fiction conventions within international science conferences, and inviting cutting-edge near-future scientist/authors such as Dave Brin, Marvin Minsky, Geoff Landis, John Cramer, and Catharine Asaro to speak. Will do so bigger and better at 7th International Conference on Complex Systems, Boston, June 2007; and 8th International Conference on Complex Systems, probably in Europe or Australia, June 2008. I'd sure like Charles Stross there, and so would the sophisticated audience of recovering physicists and Nobel laureates.

96:

"I'm terribly sorry that this scenario doesn't involve quite as much of a mass slaughter of Communists, which I know you enjoy contemplating."

-- As the joke going the rounds in the English-speaking militaries in 1942 went(*):

Q: What is happiness?

A: Happiness is 3,000,000 German corpses floating down the Volga, each on a raft of 4 dead Reds.

Communists vs. Nazis is a war between Cthullu and Beelzebub; six of one, half a dozen of the other.

The best possible outcome of the German-Soviet war, from our p.o.v., was that both sides be horribly defeated. This didn't quite happen but it was close.

You can make a strong argument that the Soviet Union (or at least its Slavic nationalities) never really recovered from the Great Patriotic War. Mind you, Stalin managed to kill nearly as many of them as Hitler.

(*)according to my father, who was an artillery lieutenant in 1942.

"Is it your contention that they [the Soviets] would actually do worse in this scenario?"

-- well, yeah, of course. If the war was fought closer to Germany, it would play to Germany's strengths, reduce the impact of German weaknesses. And it would deprive the Soviets of their greatest strategic asset, the ability to trade space for time.

As it was, the decisive battles of the Eastern Front were fought around Moscow and on the Volga; if they'd been fought 500 miles westward, the Germans would be much more likely to win them. It would be the Russians who fought themselves out far from their base, and then couldn't handle the counterattack.

Neither hypothesis can be proved, so there's really no point in getting acerbic about it; plus, this isn't the proper venue.

97:

WJW: it wasn't me complaining about the bringing of the sheaves. What I did notice, though, was that the idyllic pastoral scenes were setups for the attacks of the bad guys that followed.

-- well, yeah, but that's just realism. War is the natural state, peace a hypothesis whose possibility we deduce from the fact that there are intervals between wars.

98:

Steve: Communists vs. Nazis is a war between Cthullu and Beelzebub; six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Possibly, as with comments about a match-up between the Vang and the Draka ("Who cares who wins?").

I was, however, referring to your repellant statement justifying mass murder of Communists should they look like gaining power through a democratic election. Pardon me if I despise people who vicariously wallow in other people's blood because they disagree with their political leanings.

Andrew:

a) The Soviets had purged their armies command structure vigorously in 1936-37 which left their forces ineffective well into Summer 1942.

True, although this can be avoided in HoI2 (at a cost).

b) Lend-lease from the Allies would have been less of a factor with the Soviets prosecuting an offensive war.

Ah, now here I did some research a while back. The Germans were beaten back at Moscow a week before Lend Lease aid actually reached the city. While the effect was significant for the remainder of the war, Lend Lease helped with the mopping up - to the extent that the war was won when the tide turned, the Russians beat the Germans without the aid.

e) The Germans had the doctrinal surprise of Blitzkrieg warfare up their collective sleeves.

Hasn't there been some recent stuff suggesting this wasn't as major a factor as originally thought?

f) As previously mentioned the action taking place so much closer to Germany would be a real advantage to them.

Enough to outweigh the disadvantage of having two war machines duking it out in your own territory?

However, it might also be an interesting PoD for a story with Germany winning the war (or at least winning a stalemate in the East)

99:

I'd be interested in seeing what sort of point of departure it took to get to a point where you had no World War I or II. Just sitting here reading the post, I find it difficult to see how the second one could have been avoided short of changing the history of the post WW-One peace talks. As for the first one, maybe I could buy that one, but I don't think the lid would have stayed on the pot of the Imperial Powers forever. They were, inspite of their interfamilia ties, too distrustful of each other.

What hasn't happened alternate historywise yet is that no one has written an alternate history where World War III actually took place with a full scale nuclear exchange. In fact, I'm surprised there isn't a flood of such books, considering how popular the men's adventure post nuclear survivalists books were in the eighties.

Respects,
S. F. Murphy

100:

I remember that John M Ford did a Technocracy Wins scenario in a novella, the title of which escapes me. The technocrats wore leather flying togs and had evolved into a kind of semi-benign fascism.

Great story, "Fugue State." Two versions:

(short version)
Under the Wheel: Alien Stars Volume III, ed. Mitchell (Baen 1987)

(long version) Opposite Gene Wolfe's "The Death of Dr. Island" (Tor Double #25, 1990)

101:

What hasn't happened alternate historywise yet is that no one has written an alternate history where World War III actually took place with a full scale nuclear exchange.

Hmmm?

102:

I've read RESSURRECTION DAY... it was so-so.

But why chew the Cold War cud all over again?

Here are some suggestions for different Alternate History scenarios I haven't seen yet:

1. WORLD WITHOUT OIL
Due to a freak meteorite impact in the Persian Gulf in 1908, the petroleum resources in Arabia are blocked and left untouched. The 20th-century world economy develops around another energy source (alcohol? Hydroelectric power? You decide...)

2. PLANET OF THE BONOBOS
The Bonobo develops human-level intelligence around 1500 AD. Bonobo chimps develop a spoken language partly borrowed from humans, are exploited by human slave-hunters, eventually gain control of advanced weapons and revolt against their hairless masters. Will the ape leader Spartacus turn the tables on mankind?

3. DON'T CROSS JESUS
In the year 33 AD, Jesus of Nazareth is rescued during his crucifixion. Recovering in secrecy, he plots his return.

103:

Yeah, I remember picking that up at the book store, reading the first chapter and going, "Ah, bullshit." It went back onto the shelf and I promptly forgot about it until just now.

Actually, Al Reynolds had an alternate Earth where the French actually got their shit together and stopped the German Invasion of France in 1940. That novel is entitled Century Rain and the premise sounds pretty solid, though I've not done a great deal of research into trying to pull it apart.

So, the War we knew was avoided and created a sort of backwards tech 1950s with benign fascism. Not so sure I'd want to live there. But it was a cracking good novel.

Respects,
S. F. Murphy

104:

Bemoaning the near present fiction: Yes, "cyberpunk" (aka near future tech noir) has left the building. Cryptonomicon crafted the pinebox and drove the coffin nails home - now we're left with light reading (alternate histories and fang-fucking - awesome term I've never heard before) or truly hard to read, hard to understand doctrines like Stross' own Accelerando.

Today's society is complex - ranging from emergent technology to "religious extremist" warfare - and it's getting more so. Neuromancer wouldn't fly after the Matrix.

So, authors either have to make the effort like Williams' Aristoi where humanity is questioned (men gestating birth in their thigh, multiple personality as processing daemon), Mitchell's Technogenesis (engineering our humanity away) or computer AI vs. panopticon singularity... we're finally boiling down science fiction to these big intertwining stories and you either tackle them and risk alienating readers or we... take a more profitable path. :-)

Your audience is the audience of early adapters, forcing you to adapt faster than they do. One could say you're post-modern deconstructionist meme reformers, but that's way too pop culture. :)

105:

Awesome post and thread. Thanks for the good readin's.

106:

To stop the Great War, all you need is a phone conversation between those genial cousins Wilhelm and Nicholas. Such a conversation was the nightmare of the militarists in the Chancellery, and they made sure in the summer of 1914 that Wilhelm was sent off to the Norwegian fjords for crude, boisterous fun on his steam yacht.

(Interesting seed for a story there: Can Michel Strogoff, the Tsar's courier, fight his way through German agents to deliver his master's personal message to the All-Highest?)

To stop World War II, you stop the Great War. Or the French move into the Rhineland in 1936, triggering the coup that Canaris and the General Staff had planned against Hitler.

107:

S. F. Murphy: "What hasn't happened alternate historywise yet is that no one has written an alternate history where World War III actually took place with a full scale nuclear exchange."

Sure, they have: Alas, Babylon and War Day to name two fine examples.

It's irrelevant that they were written before the collapse of the USSR--there's nothing that you could say in an alternate-history novel today that you couldn't have said in a disaster novel before the fall of the Berline Wall.

It's like first-landing-on-the-moon stories after July 20, 1969. Once you've already landed on the moon, there's very little to be said about the subject, fictionally.

Indeed, maybe one reason for the durability of Hitler-victorious and Confederacy-victorious stories is that nobody was writing those stories back when they were still actual, possible futures. Well, there were a couple of Hitler-victorious stories written during World War II, but there was still plenty of fertile ground left when the war was over.

And if you want to write a collapse-of-civilization, survivalist sf story today, you don't need to imagine an alternate universe to do it. Alas, there's plenty of ways that we can imagine civilization collapsing today. Some of them might not survive the rapier criticism of S.M. Stirling, but they'd be good enough to launch a story. All you need to do is imagine one international nuclear exchange--India and Pakistan are always good candidates for that--and then all the nuclear powers in the world decide to get in their licks while they have a chance. China invades Hong Kong, and Hong Kong fires its nukes at the mainland. Israel nukes Iran. Russia blows the dust off its Soviet arsenal (yeah, I know that in real life most of those missiles are nonworking or cannibalized for sale to terrorists, but this is a story we're talking about here) and nukes Chechnya. A couple of Iraqis who have been storing up pirated nukes for a special occasion, nuke the U.S. forces. The U.S. nukes the Iraqi terrorists and, for good measure, Kim Jong Il. Kim turns out to have some working missiles after all (who knew?) and takes out a couple of California, Oregon, and/or Washington cities. Etc.

108:

Mitch: For Hong Kong, should one read Taiwan?

Aside from that, pretty reasonable plan.

109:

Yeah, Taiwan. My ignorant fingers were leading a life of their own.

110:

_Century Rain_ was a cracking good novel...

But why were the villains so fixated on destroying the backup?

111:

"I was, however, referring to your repellant statement justifying mass murder of Communists should they look like gaining power through a democratic election."

-- Hitler _did_ gain power through a democratic election. If killing him to stop him would have been justified -- and it would -- why should a Stalinist be treated any differently?

As the saying goes, democracy is not a suicide pact.

112:

"Just sitting here reading the post, I find it difficult to see how the second one could have been avoided short of changing the history of the post WW-One peace talks."

-- I used to think so too, but the more I read about Germany in the 1930's, the more convinced I am that without Hitler, there would have been no WWII. _A_ war, possibly, but not _that_ war.

Pretty well everyone in Germany approved of a lot of Hitler's measures -- rearmament, breaking the Versailles treaty, etc. This generalized revisionist sentiment certainly made war a _risk_.

But nobody else wanted or was prepared to deliberately undertake another World War. Even among the Nazi inner circle, there was deep unhappiness and fear over Hitler's decision to push the Polish crisis, and the Army were deeply convinced that if they got into another general conflict, they'd lose.

Pretty well everyone but Hitler would have been happy to stop where things were as of January 1939, and rely on time, diplomacy and economic means to extend German influence into eastern and SE Europe.

I doubt anyone but Hitler or someone very like him could have forced the attack on Poland in 1939. If he'd vapor-locked in early 1939, I doubt very much there would have been a war anytime soon.

It's like the Holocaust -- Hitler didn't do it alone, but it took him to get it going.

113:

"Ressurection Day" bugged me. First, it's predicated on the Soviets suddenly not using all the nukes they had targeted on Europe and Japan, which means a total revision of their war plan _in the middle of a war_.

And on them getting a lot more through to the US than they probably could do in 1962. Also the long-term effects of nuclear weapons are exaggerated -- fallout particularly.

I certainly liked "Century Rain"... but I liked the backup-Earth bits much more than the nanobots-ate-our-planet framing story.

I genuinely think that life in 2050 will be a lot like 2000 -- about as different as 2000 is from 1950, and a lot _less_ different than the gap between 1900 and 1950. The Singularity stuff is about as credible, IMHO, as Heinlein's giant nuclear rockets.

And I simply don't share the longing for transcendence that makes it emotionally compelling to a lot of people.

Given that I don't either believe in it or find it interesting even as a trope(*), it would be sort of hard for me to write it convincingly. And too boring to waste limited lifespan on.

(*) I respect all Charlie's work but I only really enjoy the fantasy and horror. "Accelerando" just left me cold.

114:

And I simply don't share the longing for transcendence that makes it emotionally compelling to a lot of people.

Fans of Singularity stories don't necessarily find it compelling. It means, by definition, and end to humanity as we know it. Perhaps post-humanity will be better than our world (I'd like to think so), but it could be worse or simply non-human. I read Accelerando as a dystopia, to me the ending is basically a small group of refugees escaping the destruction of humanity.

Some of Ken MacLeod's work is similar -- the Jovian singularity of The Cassini Division and The Stone Canal comes to mind.

Vinge tends to take a utopian view of Singularities, but that's not the only way to look at them.

And you're right that there is a religious overtone to it. The way some talk about it, a Singularity seems like a human-created god. Which it may be, power-wise, but giving it human friendly attributes is wish fulfillment. A Technological God could be much more Lovecraftian than Sunday-school. :)

115:

-- I used to think so too, but the more I read about Germany in the 1930's, the more convinced I am that without Hitler, there would have been no WWII. _A_ war, possibly, but not _that_ war.

Maybe we could see a German-Soviet war over Eastern Europe in the 1950s or 60s, amd they could wipe each other out with a-bombs. :)

The big risk of a later war is that it could be more devistating. Eventually someone's going to come up with atomic bombs, probably Germany first. The Soviets would probably be the ones to suffer most, though it would be a pretty nasty war.

116:

Steve>> actually Hitler didn't take power democratically. In the elections of November 1932 the Nazis did less well than they had in the election of July that same year. The triumph of Hitler was made possible by two people: Hinderburg, who was persuaded to make him chancellor (and who tried to neuter him by surrounding him in the cabinet with conservative cabinet ministers); and Marinus van der Lubbe, who set fire to the Reichstag and made possible the Reichstag Fire Decree which enabled Hitler to rule as an autocrat.

Even so, the Nazis failed to win a majority in the next election.

What sealed Germany's fate was the death of Hindenburg, which allowed Hitler to proclaim himself President and have the military swear allegiance to him personally. By that point no one had the moral authority to point out that these actions were against the constitution.

So if you want to go back in time and shoot Hitler, by all means go ahead without fear of endangering democracy.

117:

S.M. Stirling: "Hitler _did_ gain power through a democratic election."

There have been a great many democratically elected dictators since the start of the 20th.

The rule of law in these places is: One person, one vote, one time.

"I genuinely think that life in 2050 will be a lot like 2000 -- about as different as 2000 is from 1950, and a lot _less_ different than the gap between 1900 and 1950."

So I read this story in an anthology of fantasy from "Unknown" magazine. It was about a man from the present who went back in time to 1900, and how he couldn't get by without the modern amenities. He was used to a bath a day, and having people around him who bathed every day. He was old and fat, and needed heart medication unavailable in 1900. He couldn't get up and down stairs, and there was very limited access to elevators back then. And so forth.

Here's the punch line to this anecdote: It was published in the 1940s. I read it in, IIRC, the late 1990s. At the time I read the story, the publication date was further in the past, for me, than 1900 was for the author.

118:

Mitch: So I read this story in an anthology of fantasy from "Unknown" magazine. It was about a man from the present who went back in time to 1900, and how he couldn't get by without the modern amenities.

-- yeah, I remember the story.

I think it illustrates my point. The gap between 1900 and 1950 _is_ greater than the gap between 1950 and 2000 (or 1956 and 2006) in terms of technology and how it affects ordinary lives, at least.

Life in a first-world city changed a lot more over the first fifty years of the 20th century than in the period since.

That's true in all sorts of ways -- look at the death-rates, for example. In 1900, people still died of infections at all ages and the decline in infant mortality was just staring.

In 1950, they already had more or less the pattern we do -- most people dying when they're old, of degenerative disease.

The biggest shocks for a person transported from the fifties to now, or vice versa, would be social rather than technological -- the fact that most women don't wear skirts anymore, or that people have stopped wearing hats, would be the thing noticed first.

I suspect that the same will be true of 2000 vs. 2050. People will still be driving cars and living in cities and flying in 600-mph aircraft. But there will have been changes in the way they think, believe and interact that we would find truly shocking.

119:

-- Hitler _did_ gain power through a democratic election. If killing him to stop him would have been justified -- and it would -- why should a Stalinist be treated any differently?

Allow me to introduce you to something called "time". We know the "past", we don't know the "future". Murdering people because of what you think they might do in the future is, what's the word I'm looking for - oh yes - evil.

Killing Hitler in 1932, when he gained a place in the German parliament through elections, would not have been morally justified, given what was known at the time. Slaughtering tens of thousands of PKI and alleged PKI members in Indonesia was not morally justified. PKI's worst crime was (*gasp*) arming peasants.

Attempting to justify mass murder by hindsight, and even worse attempting to justify mass murder by unsupported assertion of unspecified crimes to come is contemptable.

120:

I think the hypothetical time traveller from the 1950s would be most shocked by changes in attitudes toward sex and marriage.

He or she would be shocked by clothing, especially (I think) the revealing, tight-fitting clothes that young women routinely wear.

He or she would be shocked by how routine mixed-raced couples are.

He or she would shocked by how routine it is for men and women to live to gether without marriage.

He or she would be shocked by how routine premarital sex is. Especially attitudes toward oral sex, which is (as I understand it--I've been happily married and monogamous for well more than a decade now), now considered pretty routine, only a little more serious than a kiss on the cheek.

And he or she would be *really* shocked if he or she spent any time in a major American city, and encountered the large, openly gay population.

I expect he or she would be downright horrified by at least one or two of these changes.

I'm 45 years old now. If I live to be 95, I wonder what world changes I'll see that I'll be horrified by.

121:

Really fascinating discussion, guys! I've been lurking, and enjoying it, for days. (Also had a good time reading the comments on the Whatever.)

I thought I'd zoom in on the dismissal of fantasy as "telling us nothing about the world", which is the one thing I outright disagree with. George R R Martin may write fantasy, but he explores themes of ethics (oh boy, does he explore ethics), love, family, and so on; I don't see how that is any less worthy than sf's "what-if" game, especially since a lot of sf is not outright futurology. In particular, I found one of GRRM's ethical themes quite relevant to an issue that I've thought about in connection with law school, namely how one should weigh principle against cold, hard reality.

122:

WJW: actually Hitler didn't take power democratically.

-- well, through a standard and perfectly legal parliamentary manouver. The NSDAP didn't have a majority in the Reichstag, but neither did anyone else.

123:

Tony Q: Allow me to introduce you to something called "time". We know the "past", we don't know the "future". Murdering people because of what you think they might do in the future is, what's the word I'm looking for - oh yes - evil.

-- ah... no. That depends on how well we can predict what they will do. If you can predict with a high degree of probability that they will do great evil, then _not_ killing them (or otherwise frustrating their plans) is evil.

Communists (Marxist-Leninist types, not Social Democrats, of course) always, and without exception, acted in the same way when they got the chance, differing only in degree. They establish a tyranny and then they kill lots of people.

Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro... it's a 100% record. And they're as hard to get rid of as cockroaches.

Therefore yeah, killing them in advance of their taking power and setting up a gulag is entirely justified.

As for Adolf in 1932, Hitler had _announced_ what he'd do if he took power -- including never letting another democratic election take place.

So it would have been morally justified to kill him, too.

As I said, democracy is not a suicide pact. Democratic freedoms and tolerance only apply to those who themselves accept them, and as principles, not as a tactic.

124:

As for fantasy not telling us about life, that's bushwah, to put it politely.

LOTR, for example, is among other things an extended meditation on the nature of legitimate and illegitimate authority, and what makes the difference between the two.

Not to mention a deep examination of courage, what it is, the different types, and what the price of it is.

And of course it's also about war, politics, gender roles (see Eowyn and Aragon's comments on her in the House of Healing), and everything else under the sun including how to cook mushrooms.

I suspect that a lot of hostility to LOTR (Pullman's, frex) is not based on a supposed lack of things being said, but a dislike of _what_ is being said.

They would rather that those great affirmations didn't ring on so in the reader's heart.

"Heart must grow harder
Courage the greater
As our strength lessens!"

125:

Having lived in the US for 10 years, on thing about SF there has always struck me as odd.

Whereas in the rest of the world, The complete works of Ian Banks can be found in almost every decent bookstore, in the US, you will be lucky to find one or two of his books.

Obviously, Ian Banks isnt as popular in the US as in the rest of the world, and I find myself wondering why.

Banks is basically a socialist, and this is reflected in the post-scarcity societies he conjurs up. Fundamentally, though, he presents what is to me an optimistic vision of the future.

I think your point about the lack of idealism in the US is spot-on; all that is promised or imagined is more of the same. Most USians believe that this is the best of all possible times, and cannot imagine any other ways of living, and instinctively reject any ideas that might intrude on this comfortable conceit.

126:

DRM: Iain had bad luck with three US publishers in a row. They got into a death-spiral of diminishing sales by cocking up the marketing side of things, after which the distributors wouldn't take his stuff. (It was stupid, silly stuff: mis-marketing books, taking best-sellers and dribbling them out direct-to-paperback in short print runs, and so on.) Net result: I outsell him in the US, by a fair margin.

Luckily for Iain, he doesn't care -- he doesn't need to care, his UK sales put him squarely in the best seller list, such that any one of his recent novels gets a UK advance bigger than any ten of mine. Being a besteseller in the UK is not as good as being one in the US, but it still means gobs and gobs of money.

127:

If Americans were unwilling to be the audience for optimistic stories about a post-scarcity future, then Star Trek wouldn't be as popular as it is.

128:

Charlie: Aha - so it has nothing to do with Iain (is that pronounced "Eeen") being a socialist.

Mitch: Good point about Star Trek. Definately idealism there.

129:

"Most USians believe that this is the best of all possible times, and cannot imagine any other ways of living, and instinctively reject any ideas that might intrude on this comfortable conceit."

-- well, actually, given the historical record of those who've tried other ways...

130:

"I genuinely think that life in 2050 will be a lot like 2000 -- about as different as 2000 is from 1950, and a lot _less_ different than the gap between 1900 and 1950."

I suggest near-future SF is profoundly failing.

To get some idea what future tech will be available, one looks up the pipeline. Old hat, maturity, mass impact, mass release, custom/military release, D, R&D, R, fundamental R. Something like that. Various latencies, various leakage.

How far, and more importantly here, how broadly, does SF look? Even the best?

Flash Gordon westerns with ray guns and rockets. Maybe maturity plus noise plus extrapolations of one or two isolated items further up. Fine for thought experiments. But no resemblance to even an attempt at description.

At least Flash wasn't flying a fabric and dope biplane rocket. How much near SF manages to track even current tech trade journals? Let alone research demos.

How long is the pipeline? Shorter than 50 years. Some of the physical principles on which the mass impact tech of 2050 depend aren't even in fundamental R yet.

So caution seems indicated in hypothesizing the future will look basically like the present. However. Certainly lots of tech characteristics of current civilization have plateaus stretching back decades, centuries, forever. Maybe the present is a stable plateau, with the current bottlenecks all fundamental, or at least the key ones still robust.

Or not. A core change of 1900 to 1950 seems to have been non-human/animal energy hitting mass release. But we are still, for instance, massively bottlenecked on the need for warm bodies. For hands, feet, and eyes. Your car can't fetch groceries. It defines and shapes, cripples, our entire infrastructure and society. And baring disaster, there is no way it is surviving 50 years. Mass release takes time, so 25, one might quibble. But 50? For tech all R&D and down, apparently stuck on economics rather than hard problems?

And that isn't the only long-standing bottleneck which can't plausibly survive 50 years of progress. How profoundly will they alter the shape of civilization? There lie the great many questions near-future SF should be asking. And isn't.

131:

Anon: "How long is the pipeline? Shorter than 50 years. Some of the physical principles on which the mass impact tech of 2050 depend aren't even in fundamental R yet."

-- I doubt it. How many new physical principles hit mass impact between 1950 and 2000?

Just like people in 1950, we're driving IC engine cars, flying in jets, living in fear of nuclear weapons, watching movies and television, and dwelling in cities organized around roads and rails.

For that matter, we're still using railroads and steam/diesel ships to shlep our freight.

Any engineer from 1950 could walk into a car factory or a steel mill and be right at home -- they'd be impressed by the automation, but that was a trend already well under way in their time.

In fact if the engineer was an SF fan, they'd probably be sort of disappointed by the lack of more impressive changes.

All pretty much the same as in 1950, with some bells and whistles (like this cool Internet thing).

And 1 gets you 5 in 2050 we'll still be doing most of that.

Possibly using non-IC engines for the cars but I'll give any odds electricity will still be predominantly generated by a mixture of fission, coal and hydropower and that most freight will still be moving by train, truck and ship. Commercial airplanes will still be jets flying at around 600 mph.

We'll have some Cool New Stuff, particularly in the information and genetics fields, but it will be recognizably the _same world_ as 2000... and as 1950.

In a way that 1950 was _not_ the _same world_ as 1900. Someone from 1900 taken to 1950 would find much more in the way of change -- and only slightly less than he'd find if taken to 2000.

The pace of change is not accelerating. It's slowing down. The first century and a half of the Industrial Revolution saw the main breakthroughs.

132:

Anon: A core change of 1900 to 1950 seems to have been non-human/animal energy hitting mass release.

-- no, that was 1800-1850, when steam engines were generalized in the advanced countries. Also when electricity became the fastest way to transmit information, which meant going from the speed of a galloping horse to the speed of light.

The telegraph was a more fundamental breakthrough than the computer or the Web. From 35mph to 186,000 miles per second.

133:

Steve, I'm going to retract my earlier agreement with you.

We do live in a very different world than 1950. The hypothetical time-traveler from 1956 is going to have a tough time adjusting in 2006.

In America, he's going to see blacks, women, and other groups which were disenfranchised in his day, that are now very nearly equal to whites. He's going to see a black, woman Secretary of State who's taking a lead role in shaping foreign policy, who replaced a black, male former general, and who's sometimes discussed as a near-future presidential candidate. He's going to see routine, everyday acceptance of premarital sex, cohabitation without marriage, and interracial relationships. He's going to see homosexuality accepted on a routine basis in great swathes of the population (although other great swathes still cling to the old ways).

He'll get the hang of e-mail pretty quickly--but then he'll start getting porn spam, and see how sexualized pop culture has become.

However, there is one change that is technological: People in developed cultures stay healthier longer. The maximum human lifespan has stayed fixed within a decade or two, either way, of the century mark, but more and more people are staying active and alert for longer and longer. We expect to be able to play tennis and advance our careers until we're 75.

---

Which explains why science fiction, and hard sf in particular, is stagnating: Because changing science and technology isn't affecting our lives that much anymore. The changes are coming from social movements.

And that's assuming that sf is artistically stagnant, which I'm not sure of.

134:

The telegraph was a more fundamental breakthrough than the computer or the Web. From 35mph to 186,000 miles per second.

Up until the telegraph became commonplace, the fastest that information could travel was by vehicle--by train, ship, boat, shank's mare, carriage or horseback.

Gangs of pickpockets commonly worked at train stations. They picked pockets on the crowded platform, and then blended in the crowd and got on the train.

The thieves knew that the authorities on the first platform wouldn't discover their crimes and be able to send a signal to the second platform until after the train had gone. They'd send word immediately, on the next train--and, by the time it reached the second platform, the thieves would be gone.

A crowd turned out for one demo of the new telegraphy technology used to communicate between train stations. Seeing a crowd at a train platform, the pickpockets got to work, jumped on the train as usual--and were astonished to see the police at the next train station, all deployed and ready to arrest the thieves at the cops' convenience and leisure.

It made for an excellent demonstration for the company that ran the telegraph.

135:

Up until the telegraph became commonplace, the fastest that information could travel was by vehicle--by train, ship, boat, shank's mare, carriage or horseback.

Gangs of pickpockets commonly worked at train stations. They picked pockets on the crowded platform, and then blended in the crowd and got on the train.

The thieves knew that the authorities on the first platform wouldn't discover their crimes and be able to send a signal to the second platform until after the train had gone. They'd send word immediately, on the next train--and, by the time it reached the second platform, the thieves would be gone.

A crowd turned out for one demo of the new telegraphy technology used to communicate between train stations. Seeing a crowd at a train platform, the pickpockets got to work, jumped on the train as usual--and were astonished to see the police at the next train station, all deployed and ready to arrest the thieves at the cops' convenience and leisure.

It made for an excellent demonstration for the company that ran the telegraph.

I believe that modern communications are the main reason why imperialism has become so much more difficult around the middle of the twentieth century.

Before that time, the occupiers could massacre a group of rebels in one area and force submission. Afterwards, this was counterproductive as word got out causing the rest of the country to rise up in revolt. This left the occupiers in a hopeless position (unless they were a totalitarian dictatorship willing to resort to outright genocide).

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