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Science & Technology, Working Together

... sticking screw drivers into things - turning them - AND ADJUSTING THEM![1]

I mentioned before that I wanted to be a scientist at one point.[2] Biology and genetics have long been interests of mine. The reason I didn't major in genetics is because I failed Human Anatomy and Physiology at the university level--not just once but twice.[3] I aced genetics class, however. To this day, I'm interested in stories about genetics. Say what you like about Michael Crichton's work, but Jurassic Park was a great book, and so was The Andromeda Strain. I also very much enjoyed C.J. Cherryh's Cyteen. It's just as well that I didn't go into the field as I suspect my politics would've caused me big problems. The patenting of life (and genes) is an issue that I find to be particularly worrisome. First, I strongly believe in biodiversity. Second, the ethics surrounding owning a life--especially a faceless corporation solely motivated by profit owning a life--make me extremely twitchy. I've recently written a short story one the subject--my second only real and official SF story.[4] (We'll see if it sees the light of day.) The concern regarding science versus ethics is as least as old as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Isn't it funny that we inevitably end up there? At the same time, science is pretty wonderful and has done so many amazing things. How can you not write about it? But the truth is, I find writing SF intimidating. Long term, I just don't let such things stop me. To quote Theodora Goss's note to herself: "Everything you want is on the other side of fear." If you let fear limit you as a writer, you might as will quit writing. And hey, if I can write about the IRA, I can certainly write SF. Plus, I met Julie Czerneda early in my career, and she's extremely inspiring.

Still, SF is daunting, and I'm hesitant to venture into it. It's not terribly welcoming. I suspect I'm not the only female writer who feels this way. Fantasy is comfortable--it's hard work, mind you, but it's comfortable, and surrealism (in the sense that fantasy has a dreamlike quality) is just... fun. I've always been drawn to surrealism--surrealist art in particular. That's why I prefer writing fantasy in realistic modern eras.[5] Of course, my obsession with music dovetails better with dark Urban Fantasy. Well... there's that. Come to think of it... that explains why I enjoyed Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash so much. It combined that punk-rock feel that I love with technology near perfectly. 

Anyway, I keep hearing readers wonder why there isn't as much new SF as there is new Fantasy these days. I think everything cycles--even literature has its fashion cycles. Look back, and you'll see the pattern.

What are your thoughts?

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[1] Okay. That was a MST3K reference for non-USians. It was also kind of obscure, I admit, but I can't think about technology and science without hearing Tom Servo's cheesy radio announcer voice. It's not a bad thing, really.

[2] Luckily as a pro SF/F writer, I get to be all of the things I wanted to be when I grew up.

[3] I'm very stubborn. To this day I don't understand why I didn't get through it. I'd memorized every human bone in the eighth grade, after all.

[4] The first was for Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's Last Drink Bird Head.

[5] Not that I intend to let that limit me either.

119 Comments

1:

The number difference is in the ranks of really bad stuff. At one time there was a huge market for really bad science fiction, which has largely gone away. But there's still a market for really bad fantasy.

You want advice on how to transition from writing just fantasy to also writing SF? Why not look at authors who have done that (and ask them, if they are available)? What was the first SF title like?

Wracking my brains here I'm not sure I know about any author's history or chronology to know specifically, but I'm guessing they often start with a shorter work. Cherryh, LeGuin, Norton, Vance, Zelazny?

Maybe you could do a fantasy in sci-fi trappings, like MZ Bradley. But we're talking urban fantasy type stuff here. How about putting some near future science fiction elements into another urban fantasy set in NI, sort of like as training wheels? Same setting as your other works, but 50 or 75 years later.
Can you write like Raymond Chandler? Do that but with ray guns.

2:

You're right about cycles of what is written and popular etc.
But I also think that too much chasing after blockbusters or following the herd means that you don't get the same variety of new SF being published, which is not necessarily the same as the variety of SF that is being written.

3:

You want advice on how to transition from writing just fantasy to also writing SF?

Not necessarily. Because I won't ever fully transition. I love Fantasy too much. I need to tip-toe in as I do most things. I'd like the freedom to write both. This post was more of a thinking out loud sort of post. But writers do write both. And I do want to be one of those.

4:

But I also think that too much chasing after blockbusters or following the herd means that you don't get the same variety of new SF being published, which is not necessarily the same as the variety of SF that is being written.

Yes. I don't believe in chasing after blockbusters. I believe in writing what moves me.

5:

The science fiction that has aged well (imho), is stuff by Sheckley or Dick or Silverberg. Heinlein or Niven . . . not so much.

Put that way, it seems that the problem is that there's a scientific plausibility ratchet that continually narrows the scope of what can be considered 'real' sf. Heed it at your own peril. Or disregard it, like Sheckley did, and enjoy a long shelf life. Of course, disregarding it gives you 'scientific fantasy', so maybe - if you're the kind of person who cares about such things - you're really just writing straight fantasy.

6:

i think that there will always be less "good" science fiction then "good" fantasy for the same reason that there are generally more English majors then physics majors. Writing good science fiction requires a degree of mastery of science and math, which is a less common and less natural configuration for the human brain to be in.

7:

Jurassic Park, well my copy anyway, was about chaos theory and not genetics. At least the book was about chaos theory; the film was an action flick with a couple of kids, a lot of dinosaurs, and a bunch of Silicon Graphics Unix workstations (yes really; in that scene where the girl says "I know this, this is Unix" she was operating a Silicon Graphics X-environment, and specifically their graphical file manager. Do I win any geek points for knowing that?

8:

Another good point. I have to say, I do tend to worry too much. It's kind of a hobby. Like guilt. Being an ex-Catholic, I simply can't avoid the guilt.

9:

Writing good hard sf requires a knowledge of science and maths; OTOH writing good Space Opera just requires you to break the laws of physics in an internally consistent manner.

10:

Jurassic Park, well my copy anyway, was about chaos theory and not genetics.

Yes. When I think back on it, you're right. However, it was my attraction to genetics that made me pick up the book. I much prefered the book to the movie. Although, since I'd had frequent T-Rex nightmares from the time I was four (don't ask) the film was its own experience. I didn't like the kids. I loved the dinosaurs--the T-Rex in particular. Holy crap, that frightened me. That was soooo cool.

There's something very wrong with me. I know. :)

11:

Ohhhh, I like that. It connects up with the science fantasy note rather well.

12:

well, no, not really. The constraint that you right within 'acceptable' scientific parameters is no more and no less a formal constraint than what's imposed on a sonnet.

In which case, I think we can all agree that all other things being equal, it's the better writer that wins the day. Don't believe me? Try this Lem classic, one of the many confrontations between those two icons, Trurl and Klapaucius:


Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed,
Silently scheming,
Sightlessly seeking
Some savage, spectacular suicide.


And yes, Lem is one of those classic guys with a long shelf life :-)

13:

It depends on the definition of "good" science fiction of course. Since that has never been defined, the whole discussion is specious. The me hard=good and everything else is fantasy of various flavors.

which gets into the whole "speculative fiction" discussion, what exactly is the difference anyway?

I am not sure what the difference between science fiction and fantasy is, but I know the difference between an author that understands science, technology and math, and uses them to tell a story. And they are pretty uncommon beasts.

14:

I used to have a thing for "airport novels"; having a "to be read bookcase" has pretty much cured that though. The computer science background made the fact that Crichton was actually writing about complex systems and chaos theory disguised as a book about a Zoo park featuring cloned dinosaurs fairly obvious.

Also, enjoying being scared by films is fairly normal, hence the enduring popularity of horror movies.

15:

I'd suggest that "speculative fiction" only exists so that "serious novelists" can write science fiction and pretend that they aren't.

16:

Yay, a topic very close to what's rattling around in my head.

Aside from Banks' and Czerneda's grand Space Operas, I like my SF/F closer to the dirty mad Earth I know.

Juxtapose bits of magic into the modern world and ordinary life gets a bit more exciting and hopeful.

Aaronovitch's "Rivers of London" series (modern police procedural with magic and beasties in) is delightful, while Lackey's "Chrome Borne" (mage in a Mustang) is ludicrous but fun.

I'm overdue for a re-read of Baker's "Company" novels. She had a fine sense of human incompetence and venality, as told from the perspective of immortal superbeings who've seen hundreds of generations of "kids these days."

Mind, I think Kage Baker got more notice in the Romance scene than the F/SF scene. What's up with that?

17:
Still, SF is daunting, and I'm hesitant to venture into it.

More daunting than spending N years researching a hideously complicated social/political/religious conflict in a different country and learning a new language to write a novel?

Coz that would daunt the heck out of me ;-)

18:
The number difference is in the ranks of really bad stuff. At one time there was a huge market for really bad science fiction, which has largely gone away. But there's still a market for really bad fantasy.

You must point my friends and relatives towards your bookshops since I still encounter a heck of a lot of bad SF - via presents that aren't via my Amazon wish list and authors furtively copied from my bookshelves.

I'm sure I'll get another batch this Christmas!

It's quite tricky for readers deep in a genre to spot how much bad/good fiction there is in that genre. We've developed a whole stack of cues that help us separate the wheat from the chaff almost without noticing that we're doing it.

I can go into a bookshop and go "good, bad, good, good, bad, bad, dunno, dunno, etc." as I go down the SF shelves. I look at the fantasy shelves it's basically "dunno, dunno, dunno, Tolkien, dunno, dunno, Oh that guys name sounds vaguely familiar, dunno, dunno".

Is there really more bad fantasy, or am I just really just lousy at spotting the good stuff?

19:

Why is SF currently ascendant over Fantasy? That's a PHD-thesis level topic.

I've a couple of theories and thoughts, but I am not sure which of them are even close to the mark.

Fantasy is older than SF. Fantasy abides. Emperor Caracalla was reading fantasy while relaxing in his baths.

SF, really, only dates to the Industrial Revolution, and with the possible Crapsack World future that we might all get, its a difficult row to hoe to want to write that, or figure out plausibly how humanity gets past it.

Some writers are giving it a go--Abraham and Franck, Robinson, Reynolds. Others. But they are getting thinner on the ground.

20:

Crichton was writing about chaos theory, but he was better at genetics than he thought - the analytic innovation in shotgun sequencing is basically the genome rebuilding method he described, with the pool of possible sequence segments to use restricted to those extracted from the sample, and with the caveat that the rebuilding happens on a computer rather than in DNA.

21:

No; common knowledge by now, isn't it? :-p
Even with that file browser, the coolest thing about the Indy was their startup sound.

22:

"Anyway, I keep hearing readers wonder why there isn't as much new SF as there is new Fantasy these days."

1) The near future is dark. Really, who wants to read the about the dire predictions of climate change and overpopulation coming true? Besides, John Brunner already did it. Fantasies where there are good kings and people have agency are much more fun.

2) There has been something like a collapse of a wave function in the technology near future. The space of possibilities, barring the rapture or the rapture of the nerds, has gotten smaller. At the same time, though, the range of political possibilities has expanded. So far, it seems to me that relatively few writers have explored these.

3) We are afraid of the transformed world that our children will be living in, if human culture survives. We are afraid of both a unified egalitarian world and a global empire. We are afraid of both old religions whose time is over and new religion whose time is coming. To some extent this is addressed in fantasy. And so on.

23:

Yeah, BS. Sorry. If you're interested in settling the stars, that's gotten a lot harder now that Star Trek is finally off the air. I do agree that so long as we had our "bright shiny" Hugo Gernsback future, or the cyberpunk dystopian take (or the lightweight Star Wars version), it was okay. Now that space travel really seems to be long, scary, and expensive, people are getting scared off. Then again, how much space age SF is a relic of the Space Race and therefore the Cold War? Could that type of SF simply be slumping because the shuttle got retired, just like it got a boost in the 80s when they started firing off shuttles?

Now, for an example of what is cool in science fiction right now, let's look at NPR's list of best SFF. The thing I think is fascinating is that a "what if" book by a bunch of professional paleontologists made the list of best SF. I'll bet that book never even sees the SF shelves in the local store, either. Science fiction doesn't get any harder than this.

As for the future, there's a lot of scientists concerned about the future. They're ecologists, environmental scientists, climate scientists, and similar. Sooner or later, SF publishers will either unbend enough to figure out how to sell these, or more likely, some unknown author will do a William Gibson and blow everyone's mind, thereby causing a "me-too" stampede of imitators. Hopefully that will happen soon.

24:

This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately. To me, space opera (and a lesser degree space fantasy) is less a way of exploring a possible future and more of a codified art form in much the same way as opera with specific tropes and conventions that must be followed.

Now, this doesn't mean space opera is an invalid method of storytelling, or in danger of dying out, but like many things its a product of its time. And it has adherents. Like the opera.

Anyway, just a few thoughts.

25:

I think SF has escaped from its text prison. There are good, very good and excellent SF films coming out each year, in numbers we have never seen before.

Yesterday I finally saw Hugo by Scorcese. It is a true, hard core SF film even if most of its viewers don't see it as such. No aliens, no dystopia, no cyberpunks but emotions and thinking about automatons, the impact on societies of new technologies (the cinema) and scores of other SF elements.

And then you have SF in computer games. It's a never ending wonder. I can't play games, they make me too violently enraged at the computer. I need physical action. But thanks to the Web I can track all games with SF elements in them. I can see the action on YouTube videos lovingly made by their fans. I can find out more about origins on Wikipedia and other sites. It never ceases.

26:

"We've developed a whole stack of cues that help us separate the wheat from the chaff."

When shopping in a book store my first cue is very simple. If the cover illustration includes a weapon of any sort I skip over the book. Characters with guns and swords are a sure sign the book will stink. Then, if the cover illustration is something else--anything else--I look at the back cover to see if the topic is intriguing and leaf to random pages within to see if the style is decent.

I had only read the first Laundry novel, for example. Pistol on the front of The Jennifer Morgue.
Decided to get the whole bunch just recently by ordering from A***** without looking.

In fact I always shop on A***** any more because my small city's main bookstore was a Borders and I want to limit credit card exposure to the fewest possible risks. So I let the preponderance of other readers decide for me what I might want to look at.

Then there's the huge collection I got from Usenet during my free one month "trial period." You know they had EVERYTHING. It's larger than the library of congress. Just back up your operating system.

27:

Visit your local hackerspace, I guarantee they are doing cool things.

28:

Stina @ 8
"Being an ex-Catholic, I simply can't avoid the guilt."

RUBBISH. Don't believe you.
All you have to remember is that the RC church (like all religions) operates on blackmail.
So, you escaped the blackmail, nothing to feel guilty about.
Before you ask, the evangelicals operate on the same basis ... & I have no "guilt" over it.
They are liars, all of them, dump the lot.

29:

When shopping in a book store my first cue is very simple. If the cover illustration includes a weapon of any sort I skip over the book. Characters with guns and swords are a sure sign the book will stink.

Congratulations! By applying that rule, you just missed my "Rule 34".

Yes, there's a tatooed young woman with an unfeasibly large gun on the cover.

If you read the book, you discover that the main protagonist is a middle aged suit-wearing female detective who at no point carries a gun.

Book covers lie. Systematically. They have very little to do with the contents and everything to do with marketing. (See also my "common misconceptions about publishing" essays, linked from the sidebar to the right of this page.)

30:

Greg, habits take longer to die than beliefs. (Ever wondered why I stuff my face with dead pig at every opportunity? It's FORBIDDEN! Om Nom Nom ...)

31:

Oh, is that a gun? I thought she was riding on a crowded futuristic bus. Actually a great illustration if it's that. Yeah, I'll have to send it back. Darn, it was one of the best books I've read lately.

32:

Well, biology, and by extension genetics, is the worst of my science and technology subjects (and I have a shaky grasp of some parts of maths, notably calculus which was last used about 29 years ago, before I switched to computing and business studies majors).

Next message from the unknown rodent - Oh yes, the use of SGI workstations is well-known now, but I saw the film and recognised the SGI file mangler during opening week in the cinemas over here.

33:

I see what you mean, and would have difficulty refuting it in full, but even Star Trek managed to commit full on Science Fiction sometimes (Eg Next Gen episode Darmok, which split my friends into 2 groups, the Trekkies who hated it and the SF buffs who loved it).

Weber's Honorverse, where "On Basilisk Station" starts with Napoleonic Wars ship tactics in space, and has progressed to circa WW2 in most respects, with radar, radio, and aircraft carrier analogues, and recently the Mesans having developed a submarine analogue. I think that proves my point about breaking the (known) laws of physics in an internally consistent manner?

34:

Greg, you can certainly choose to believe that there is no such thing as Catholic-guilt, and that it is almost impossible to be completely rid of it; but you would be wrong.

35:

For a dose of contemporary science and genetics in a well-written manner- do you follow Carl Zimmer?
Highly recommended, IMHO.

36:

The combination of genome patenting and SF invariably call for an invocation of John Scalzi's "Android's Dream".

37:

I've always considered the first Jurassic Park to be a good novel, and all the people who have only seen the films have ridiculed me for it! I knew I was on the right track there!

Quoting my Geographic teacher around the year 1998: "Dinosaurs are reptiles! Don't believe what a Hollywood action-movie tells you about them being birds."
Sadly, this was before Wikipedia.

38:

Another reason SF, esp hard SF, is difficult to write is that it is now colliding with the future. I get daily research summaries from physorg and very often the title of one of the topics would once have been seen only in SF

39:

Charlie @ 29
For misleading book covers see "Chris Foss" ... oh we discussed that one about a year back, didn't we?
.. & @ 30 ,,, yeah Wild Boar roast with mustard, onions, garlic & tomatoes + "Alecost/Bibleleaf/Costmary" leaves. Burp.
[ Three names for the same plant ]

Dave_the_proc @ 34
Oh, I understnd there is such a thing as "catholic guilt", I just regard it with contempt.

Back to the subject.
I think we're still missing a really good sicentist who also wrote excellent SF - felled by a brain tumor.
Chelws Sheffield.

40:

That illustrates a trap that teachers can fall into. Bakker's The Dinosaur Heresies was published a dozen years earlier, and was even then making the point that birds effectively are dinosaurs.

(No matter what someone may have written about felines being velociraptors, that only applies in terms of ecological niche)

Teachers learn stuff, and then they hand it on: that's part of their function. But what they learnt when they were students can become outdated. A good teacher keeps up to date, but a poorer one may have so much invested in the knowledge that they absorbed that they're unwilling to give it up.

41:

OTOH there's William Gibson, who started with Science Fiction and now writes current day (or nearest future) thrillers. In an interview he said that after Youtube he would have written "Pattern Recognition" differently.

42:

I see your point. But I tend to think mostly of books (habit of thought, sorry) and have peeled away from space opera.

As to Weber, from the bit I've read, I wondered how closely he would wind up paralleling WWII as things progressed. Sounds like he's moving along nicely. Not my thing though.

As to the trope of either WWII or Napoleonic (or other) combat emulation in space, it explains why one of my favorite scenes is where the New Republican fleet engages the Festival's bouncers. Ya gotta wonder what the heavy hitters are like.

Lastly, if someone has fun with it (like our fine host), or admits where they're stealing the source material (Drake's RCN series), it can be fun. The latter especially as I go back and pillage the source material.

As to the parody/fun, is that space operetta?

43:

Thank you for that; I now need to be excused for a few hours whilst I do my solo version of "(The) Pirates of Penzance"!

44:

Dave_the_proc @ 34
Oh, I understand there is such a thing as "catholic guilt", I just regard it with contempt.

If you think "catholic guilt" is something one can switch off just because one wants to, you don't understand it. Basically it's a trained fear triggered by non-conformity, comparable to a "PTSD light". When children are conditioned this way, it causes changes in their brains which stay into adulthood, especially if it is enforced by "loving" parents with physical punishment. The conditioning probably also works on adults, but children are more vulnerable since they don't have the experience and rationality to put it into perspective.

45:

Wouldn't that be "Spanked as a Child" guilt, not Catholic guilt?

46:

Catholic guilt leads to...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lSZ77SkAbI8

47:

Wouldn't that be "Spanked as a Child" guilt, not Catholic guilt?

No. Of course you can achieve similar effects with other ideologies than RC, but they really developed it to an art form.

First you make up lots of rules, so that noone can really follow them all the time (especially if you include these crude ideas about sexuality the RC church has). Second, breaking these rules isn't just bad, it makes you Evil. You will go to hell. You will be expelled from the community. The only way to escape that is to confess and promise to be better in the future. Since only priests can take confessions, any bad thing you do isn't a private matter between you and whoever you did wrong any more but a person of power witnesses, judges and determines amends for it. Third, if threatening with eternal hell doesn't suffice, use physical punishment and/or set some examples by murdering heretics or burning witches.

48:

Catholic guilt leads to... enforcing copyrights by blocking videos?

49:

I'm still haunted by Geoff Ryman's Air. Is 2005 still considered recent? What's the cutoff line for recent these days?

50:

For what value of "recent"? Elsewhere, we're discussing Irish politics, and specifically the issue of "Northern Ireland", where things that happened ~1_000 years ago may be considered as recent.

51:

Ah, "recent" as in "publication history". How far back can the work be published to be considered recent. 2010? 2000? Thanks!

52:

" Chelws Sheffield."
Charles Sheffield of Proteus? He should have had a biofeedback machine, then he could have just transformed himself into a form that lacked the tumor. Note, even though he was a scientist, he didn't go into details about how they worked. Example of how the science just has to be NOT WRONG.

53:

Despite ticking the 'keep me signed in' box and having no known computer issues except those associated with running windows XP, I have to keep logging in.

I am happy to see that other people are thinking the same things as me about why write near future SF because the future is looming big and scary, and also the way scientific advancements rule out certain older types of SF.

More political SF seems the way to go, science and technology as part of the revolution.
Only I think we did that in the 19th, early 20th, mid 20th and late 20th centuries. So can we do it again with a new generation? We've had steam engines, internal combustion engines and antibacterial agents, space flight and non-stick pans and finally computers and uploading. What else is left to do?

To come back to my earlier comment - how much does simple herd following affect what gets published by publishers? Is there any sort of bottleneck at their end which is slowing down the passage of new SF novels?

54:

I stole OGH's link to Nature's special offer subscription posted in these here parts over a year ago; my biology is a *lot* better these days. But I entirely sympathize, especially withs the maths.

I was 8 when "Jurassic Park" was in the cinema; I think you win that one. ",)

55:

On the other hand, William Gibson's next one is apparently based thoroughly in the future - farther out than anything he's done so far, IIRC.

56:

The computer science background made the fact that Crichton was actually writing about complex systems and chaos theory disguised as a book about a Zoo park featuring cloned dinosaurs fairly obvious.

Oh, I did see the Chaos Theory aspects, but for me it was another take on Mary Shelley and genetics--which it is on another level. I don't have much of a computer science background. I've taken Basic programming and Java programming* classes. That is, I've learned enough to know that that kind of thing hurts my head. A lot. Which is why when the Java teacher took me aside and said, "Most of the creative-types I get in this class are total wash-outs! You? You could actually be a programmer!" gave me the hives. I mean, I understood the compliment, but er... no thank you. It seriously hurts too much.

And then I got a degree in computer animation. Silly me.
-------------------------
* Note: programming not script. I know the difference.

57:

"Juxtapose bits of magic into the modern world and ordinary life gets a bit more exciting and hopeful."

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -- Arthur C. Clarke

I think that's why Fantasy and SF are always shelved together. Personally, I think that's a good thing. By the way, I'm glad of this discussion because it reinforces that thought for me, and makes SF less intimidating.

58:

"More daunting than spending N years researching a hideously complicated social/political/religious conflict in a different country and learning a new language to write a novel?

Coz that would daunt the heck out of me ;-)"

Yeah. And it's about this time that I totally understand how silly I've been. Thanks for that.

59:

"Is there really more bad fantasy, or am I just really just lousy at spotting the good stuff?"

I would say the second. I'm not very good at picking up good SF because I have spent so much time reading Fantasy, lately. I rely on my husband and recommendations from others whose opinions I respect.

You made a wonderful insight about the development of an unspoken code within our genre that most outsiders don't pick up on. It's a good thing to be aware of.

60:

Randolph, I think you just gave me my topic for today. ;)

61:

"Book covers lie. Systematically. They have very little to do with the contents and everything to do with marketing."

YES. THIS. Often the cover artist is only given a few out of context paragraphs (usually a scene the marketing department deems visually catchy) in order to use as reference material for the illustration. I was lucky. My cover artist read the entire first book before painting the art. That almost never happens.

62:

Absolutely! What Charlie said.

63:

"Greg, you can certainly choose to believe that there is no such thing as Catholic-guilt, and that it is almost impossible to be completely rid of it; but you would be wrong."

Ahhhh, Dave. Thanks for the back up. [knuckle tap]

64:

"For a dose of contemporary science and genetics in a well-written manner- do you follow Carl Zimmer?"

Ha! No. But this is exactly the kind of thing I was hoping for. Thank you so much!

66:

"I've always considered the first Jurassic Park to be a good novel, and all the people who have only seen the films have ridiculed me for it! I knew I was on the right track there!"

Well... I'm not sure I'd give my opinion quite that much weight, but I will say you aren't alone. :) I didn't like the films nearly as much.

67:

"Lastly, if someone has fun with it (like our fine host), or admits where they're stealing the source material (Drake's RCN series), it can be fun. The latter especially as I go back and pillage the source material."

It's a mark of good literature when an author sparks an interest in their source material.

68:

Well Mary Gentle ended up doing a Masters in war studies as part of writing Ash.

69:

My local library system files SF and F on the same shelves, with a big label of 'SF' on the spine, which is annoying when the book is a swords and sorcery type.

70:

That almost never happens.

The late great Josh Kirby did it. In the case of Terry Pratchett's first Discworld novel, he illustrated a scene from relatively late in the book. The only problem was that he took the description of Twoflower the tourist as being 'four-eyed' a little too literally, this being fantasy where really strange things can happen.

Twoflower was actually supposed to be wearing glasses.

72:

Para 1 - Having used IE8 under XP, and Chrome under W7, I feel reasonably sure that Charlie's cookies expire after 3 hours give or take. Any help?

73:

Andreas Vox @ 44
That makes me regard it with even more contempt …
Especially since the evangelicals do EXACTLY the same thing, as I should know.
Look up Jean Calvin & the society he dominated … euuuwwww.
So, it is (was) a “sin” so wtf? Make your own mind up….

@ 52
Sorry about the word-mangling (I normally use preview, because I know I do that…)
Yes, Chas Sheffield – met him, once, got a science book of his signed, as well, what a loss!

74:

Ahh, well that explains it then, to a certain low level of explanation.

75:

That makes me regard it with even more contempt …
So, it is (was) a “sin” so wtf? Make your own mind up….

For ex-catholics or for the RC church? As I said, it's not a question of making one's mind up if you've been conditioned as a child. You can channel it to something more productive, but you can't get rid of it.


Especially since the evangelicals do EXACTLY the same thing, as I should know.
Look up Jean Calvin & the society he dominated … euuuwwww.

That's why I like to say that all Christians will go to hell: catholics for having too much sex and protestants for not working enough! ;-)

(Thank god I'm an atheist)

76:

If your fantasy plots and devices are internally consistent, you are already pretty close to science fiction. Congratulations! In fact, you may in that case be closer to the ideal of good science fiction than much published science fiction (especially if you include Radium Age stuff).

From there, you can please several audiences (and you can pick whichever of the foci here you like and be sure to please at least one!).

You can take your fantasy and set it in outer space, or on a planet other than earth, and please people whose idea of science fiction was crystallized in the 1930s or is primarily influenced by Star Trek. There aren't as many of these as there used to be, and the initial rise of crap-cyberpunk replaced most of these people with people who prefer fantasy with computers anyhow.

You can limit the core differences between the story's world and the real world to a small number of things (and those things that follow directly from them), and then heavily invest in coming up with excuses for those things being that way. You will get slightly more discerning audiences.

You can limit the core differences to exactly one thing that you are pretty sure isn't impossible (and things that follow from it), then make sure that everything in the story has the right math. Charlie seems to do this, and hard SF fans will often avoid anybody who doesn't. Having aced a couple of physics classes helps here.

Given your love of surrealism, you can take the opposite tack (that of Jonathan Lethem) and present a psychologically consistent world that is not physically consistent. It helps if this takes place in a dream world, in virtual reality, or if the narrator is stoned out of his gourd. After all, psychology is a science too (and it's getting harder all the time). Robert Anton Wilson and J. G. Ballard took this tack. William Gibson, for all his lack of technical knowledge (and the ludicrous technical inconsistencies in Neuromancer), was Hard SF when it came to the social and cultural end, which is comparable.

You can also set your books so far in the future that you can just make shit up and claim it's justified, or set your books two years from now and change few things.

While these suggestions are tongue-in-cheek, people do these things. I suspect that what you're putting out will please a lot of people and displease a lot of people as-is, just like anything else does. I'm not sure if this exists in fantasy fandom, but science fiction fandom has a whole lot of internal schisms about what constitutes good SF (and I've parodied the various positions above), and science fiction fans will bash each other over whether or not something meets their standards.

But, things can be enjoyable without being good (nothing wrong with writing a couple mindless potboilers), and excessive hardness can turn people off (Charlie's funny enough that I can put up with it when he discusses the mechanics of what needs to be done to send a robot to Pluto on a nuclear powered spacecraft, and Stephenson remains amusing while discussing the mechanics of retinal-projection laser vector displays and the isolation of phosporus from urine using seventeenth century equipment, but I cannot handle the tedium of battle formations in Crest of the Stars).

If you want to get my book-buying dollar, I have a soft spot for urban fantasy with a noir angle (especially if you add in elements of cyberpunk). It just has to be better than Underworld. I am sure I am not representative of Charlie's readership, though, nor am I of yours.

77:

Are there any examples of recent science and technology development reduce the space of possibilities for SF ideas? I don't see it, I think the reverse is true, for example who in the 1960s would think warp drive could have some basis in General Relativity?

78:

@53:
how much does simple herd following affect what gets published by publishers?
---
I used to chat with a writer named G. Harry Stine. Mostly about 1960s muscle cars. Anyway, I got a message from him one evening. He had been writing for a living for forty years, mostly for the same publisher. The editor he'd dealt with for ages had retired, and he'd been assigned to some perky young English Lit new hire. She told him she couldn't possibly consider a story that advocated "polluting space" and told him she wasn't interested in the book, which was something about satellite technology, I think.

Anyway, poor Harry nearly blew out an artery. He found that there'd been a purge at the offices and the new staff were basically all identical.

Harry didn't have much luck finding another publisher, either for his science or SF books. He said that he could have made a couple of sales, but he wasn't going to write for nothing, and he was competing against a new generation of word-processor "writers" who would sell six months of their life for $500 and a box of author copies.

Somehow he hooked up with an editor at Pinnacle who wanted a bunch of SF-themed military stuff. I think he had a series about fighting robots and another about submarines; Harry said Pinnacle sold them almost exclusively in the wire racks at truck stops, and I've never seen one. But his contract called for a new book every two months, and he said he'd never made so much money in his life.

Anyway, the acquisitions editors are the gatekeepers to what gets printed. If you don't write the kind of stories they like, or think their customers will like, you're not going anywhere.

79:

I'm just curious Greg, do you mean that: 1) You regard the process of instilling the guilt with contempt? 2) You regard the guilt itself with contempt? 3) You regard the person who feels guilty with contempt?

If (1), I can underatand that, the priests and others who actively engage in this sort of brainwashing are certainly deserving of contempt.

If (2), I'm not certain that actually makes sense, unless you are saying that this is your own method of dismissing the guilt that someone attempted to instil in you. Regard it with contempt and it becomes something unimportant -- I can understand that. But regarding the guilt of someone else with contempt just seems a little odd.

If (3) ... Well I don't think I really need to explain that it's not quite right to blame the victim for the crime?

80:

"If your fantasy plots and devices are internally consistent, you are already pretty close to science fiction."

Thanks for the reassurance. :)

81:

"Are there any examples of recent science and technology development reduce the space of possibilities for SF ideas? I don't see it, I think the reverse is true--"

I would tend to agree with you.

82:

"Anyway, the acquisitions editors are the gatekeepers to what gets printed. If you don't write the kind of stories they like, or think their customers will like, you're not going anywhere."

I would like to add that the self-publishing crowd hasn't avoided the herd mentality either. It's part of the business. (not one i like, nor do i tend to follow. i write what i feel moved to write.)

83:

Anyway, the acquisitions editors are the gatekeepers to what gets printed. If you don't write the kind of stories they like, or think their customers will like, you're not going anywhere.

While I think Stine was over-egging the pudding a little, there is some truth to this: the acquisitions editors' jobs depend on turning a profit, which in turn depends on second-guessing market trends 2-3 years in advance (due to the depth of the publishing pipeline), and sometimes that Good Old-Fashioned Genre simply goes away -- look at the crash in Westerns after 1960, for example.

(Westerns still exist, but they've been subsumed into other genres -- mainstream, for example -- and you can't sell a simple horse opera as a genre western because those publishers' lists simply don't exist any more. At least in the mass market.)

The complexity of trying to sell to editors and write what you think the public will want to read is aggravated when you consider that the gatekeeper to becoming an editor is the HR department of their publishing house. (At least, at entry level.) In theory HR should listen to the existing editors who do the interviewing and judge whether the job applicant is up to scratch, and at successful publishers this actually happens -- but we've all got HR horror stories to recount. Right?

84:

I disagree.

Recent experience -- in the past 20 years -- with actually flying astronauts/cosmonauts on board space stations for months on end suggests that prolonged microgravity does horrible things to the human body. (And we're not just talking about radiation exposure or bone density loss.)

Similarly, our understanding of biology and ecosystems suggests that transplanting a terrestrial biosphere to an off-earth environment is, to put it charitably, going to be a hard problem -- at least as hard as going from low pressure steam engines (where we are now) to orbit-capable rockets (your biosphere, self-sustaining, on Mars or in a hollowed-out asteroid).

And the distance thing is just horrendous: we aren't built to understand the scale factors involved in interplanetary, much less interstellar, space.

And the whole program of procedural Artificial Intelligence, from 1950 onwards, looks like a busted flush. Statistical methods (google) and neurocomputing show lots of promise, but we aren't going to be building any Men of Metal any time soon.

85:

Westerns are baaaack! ...sort of.

They seem to be the hot new romance subgenre. There are shelves full of the stuff around here, crowding the vampire books to the bargain bin.

86:

>The reason I didn't major in genetics
>is because I failed Human Anatomy and
>Physiology at the university level--
>not just once but twice.

Many professors seem to think that their job is to make things as difficult as possible for their students. Poorly written "textbooks" that are simply question sets with no instructional material, little or no instruction in the classroom, etc. They seem to have the idea that their students should go out on their own and find the information the professor is being paid to teach.

Many of the classes I took, I would have been better served to have spent the time in the library reading a book on the subject, because the professors certainly weren't interested in teaching it.

My Calculus 201 instructor was actually bragging that he had a 90% drop-out or failure rate in his class, as if it were something to be proud of. His method of teaching was, "here are the problems, in this book. You'll have to figure out how to solve them on your own. After all, Newton and Leibnitz did it, so can you."

I don't think he actually knew any calculus; he probably had a degree in "Education", which bestows godlike polymath powers to its holder...

87:

"I disagree."

Only if you plan to write hard SF that follow the current science and technology very closely (Mundane SF?). I think most SF (even hard ones) would just take the promising part and go with it, since SF is more about "what if" than "how to".

88:

"I disagree."

And you're better informed than I, clearly. However, I've heard many times that this or that barrier exists and that we'll never overcome it--only to hear that we have years later. I recall being told as a kid that we'd never fully map the human genome because computer technology simply wasn't capable of it. [shrug] The point is, we don't really know about the future. We only know about what is possible now. Did you ever watch the show Connections? I loved it because it demonstrated how the strangest things tended to link up in odd ways to create progress, sometimes in unrelated fields.

I won't argue your point about it being increasingly complex to resolve certain issues because you're right. I don't think that progress is a given. Everything cycles. However, as was pointed out elsewhere when discussing history and culture... those cycles don't look exactly the same. There are other factors--other details that make them unique. Personally, I find a bit of comfort in that.

89:

"They seem to have the idea that their students should go out on their own and find the information the professor is being paid to teach."

Which reminds me of the barrier I hit in Calculus. I was good at math. I was particularly good at three dimensional thinking. (I tested off the scale.) However, I am one of those students that needs to understand the big picture in order to focus on the details. In math, I particularly need to understand where the caluculations are coming from, and what they're used for. When I asked my prof what Calculus was used for he said, "It's too complicated to explain to you."

I'm serious. I dropped out that day. Because what that said to me (outside of the condecending sexism) was that the professor didn't know. I wasn't going to learn from somone who didn't understand their own material well enough to explain something so basic.

Teaching is a very specific skill. Not everyone can do it.

90:

For undergrads having a good teacher is better than having a world class scientist lecturing. For postgrad the situation reverses.

91:

I thought westerns didn't go away - there's some in my local library, and they seemed quite popular in hospitals a few years ago.

92:

We only know what is possible now, but we have a decent idea of what the problems are; nowadays, the problems with colonizing space tend to have solutions of "discover new physics" (when we're really running out of places for new physics to hide*) or "somehow figure out how to fire North Korea or Cuba (as the most self-sufficient societies that spring to mind) into a transfer orbit to Mars" and/or "change people into Spherical Humans of Uniform Density and then apply $magic_solution."

The motivations for doing so are generally magical thinking, too; dragging back a solid platinum asteroid will not pay back the cost of the launch, it'll just crash the price of platinum so hard there'll be a hole in the floor underneath the graph. There's very little out there in the way of solid motivation to go**, and not much evidence we'd be able to go if there was. As has been pointed out, if we wanted to colonize space, we should currently be colonizing the Gobi Desert as a proof of concept.

(with aplogies to Charlie for condensing several hundred words of his solid analysis in this field. And stealing some of the best lines.)

*caveat: the last time people started talking like this, Alfred Einstein happened.

**excepting reasons of SCIENCE! I want to see the construction of Clarke's Lunar Observatory just as much as the next nerd, damnit.

93:

Dave @ 79
I do feel that even the "victims" of catholicism have to some extent, themselves to blame.
Like the idiots in Golders Green, who demanded a symbolic "eruv" (In their case a single wire, strung on poles around an area)... Like the RC-guilt-trippers, the prison is inside their own heads, and nowhere else.
Throw the box & key away, step off the road, & do without the external (wrong) directions.
Don't switch from Protestantism to the RC, or from the latter to communism ... just dump the whole shebang.
I may have experessed myself badly, but I hope you get my drift?

COnversation re space & AI ... agree re. microgravity, but IIRC, Stanley Kubrick & A C Clarke solved that one? (Ahem)
As for AI, I suspect it is going to happen a lot sooner than many think, but it isn't going to come from any "grand project". It will come from the agglomeration of several different threads intertwining.
The improvement in individual processor-computing-power for lower physical power inputs & parallel computing processes & mechatoronics & "simple rules, locally followed" (think rules for bird-flocking +) & some real project work like better understnding of human-brain processes. (etc)
To use my favourite analogy, I think we are at the equivalent of about 1812 in steam locomotive development. There, everything came together in 1829/30 [ Multi-tube boilers, separate smokebox, just-about good enough valve gear, feedback loop of blast drawing fire, better metallurgy & frame/boiler construction, better rails ] BINGO! - a singularity.

94:

Para #1 - Really, even given that most of said victims were primary school age, and being told (literally and environmentally) that this sort of thing is normal?

95:

paws4thot
Yes - then.
Now they are adults - time to grow up & think for yourself, & recognise that all religions are based on blackmail.
The deluded residents of Golders Green were all adults yet refused to recognoise that their prison of guilt [ "Mustn't leave the eruv - or BigSkyFairy will strike us down" ] was inside their own heads, and it was their own fault foir believeing this shite ....

Waht's the difference setween this, & realising that Santa Claus doesn't exist?

96:

I fully appreciate what you mean Greg, but I think that you're arguing from your specific case where you have managed to de-programme yourself (and I will admit that many others manage it too), but not everyone is able to do this. I know a lot of lapsed and "ex" Catholics, who fully understand what was done to them as kids (and for generations before that), but who can never completely silence that tiny voice at the back of their minds -- they can drown it out and ignore it, but it is always there. What I want to be clear on is that Catholic-guilt comes in many flavours: There are people who wallow in it, people who have learned to cope with it, and there *are* the lucky few who rid themselves of it (but this is a tiny tiny number).

97:

Personally, I think that you're badly underestimating the effectiveness that childhood programming can have, particularly when you're dealing with groups like the Jesuits, who have had a millennium or so to work on perfecting their techniques.

I don't know what you're talking about regarding Golders Green.

98:

I agree.
The opposite of (say) an indoctrinated Catholic is not a Satanist nor even an atheist. It's a "Don't Care".

99:

Golders Green eruv - google for it, or start ... HERE

An imaginary "wall" for imaginary safety because of imaginary BigSkyFairy.

To Dave - well, if I can de-programme myself, so can anyone else.
All it requires is rational thought, not physical exertions. I must admit, mu science/engineering training at looking at problems helped....

100:

"*caveat: the last time people started talking like this, Alfred Einstein happened."

Yep. That. [shrug] Whether or not it is probable is not what I'm arguing here--only that it is possible. Also, it is possible that we're ready to venture into a different frontier altogether. We'll eventually find a new boundary to break. It seems to be our hobby. What if that boundary was extra-dimensional (I'm thinking of the book "Flatland: by E.A. Abbot) and not outer space? Who knows?

101:

Yes, one little imperfection found in the linearity of Quantum Mechanics and it's Sliders time.

102:

Ok, Greg, thanks for the link.

I wasn't aware of the meaning of the word "eruv", and didn't try to chase it myself because of your inflamatory language. I was aware of the underlying Jewish religious laws.

What you appear to be ignoring is that these Jews are actively and willingly choosing to follow their own religious laws. I'm not saying that you have to agree with these laws, but if they choose to tie a group of lampposts together with a 10 mile long piece of fishing line, who is it going to hurt? It makes their lives better, but doesn't actually hurt anyone that I can see.

103:

Stena, were you aware that there is a sequel (not by the original author) called "Flatterland"?

104:

"Stena, were you aware that there is a sequel (not by the original author) called "Flatterland"?"

No. I hadn't heard.

105:

"To Dave - well, if I can de-programme myself, so can anyone else."

Sorry Greg, I don't mean to be rude, but that's utter bollocks. You're smart enough to know that everyone does not think the same way, therefore everyone cannot perform the same mental gymnastics required to completely deprogramme themselves. It's like saying anyone can pass a lie detector test, or anyone can resist torture -- people exist who can do this, but it does not follow that anyone can.

106:

I won't go into details, but it's the same sort of idea of multiple planes of existence possessing different numbers of physical dimensions, and if you enjoyed the one, you should enjoy the other. I actually discovered it whilst looking for a copy of Flatland in a bookseller's catalogue!

107:

@87
"Only if you plan to write hard SF that follow the current science and technology very closely"

I just had a thought sort of about that. Characters in good SF are products of the technologies that make the setting different from our own, so that the stories can be products of the characters.

Technology-->Setting-->Characters--> Story

Good Example: Lededge in Banks' "Surface Detail" is a product of a setting that includes intaglation and reventing. Her personality then contributes to driving the story.

Bad Example: Captain Kirk is in no special way a product of his starfleet world. He's Horatio Hornblower in space. Good stories, but not nearly as deeply science-fictional, at least not on the part of anything coming from Kirk.

Near future SF is slightly different in that the characters are partly products of practically our world. There's less room for them to be
science-fictionally (new adverb!) drawn. The technologies that painted her distinctiveness (the world made by the tools available to the police and those they were policing) were less advanced than the entity that created the Toymaker. Making her a science-fictional story driver must have been more difficult.

108:

@ 87.
Oops, the last paragraph should have been

...(new adverb!) drawn. FOR EXAMPLE LIZ CAVANAUGH IN RULE 34. The technologies that painted ...

109:

Charlie - take note; this is a compliment.

The only obvious way that Liz, circa Rule 34, is not a circa present day Edinburgh police officer is the force's apparent reliance on electric 2-wheeled transport for moving officers further and faster than they can run.

RDSouth - Like your comment about Kirk is any secret; Gere Roddenbury originally pitched Star Trek as "Wagon Train in Space". (Source being the original ST writers' manual from circa 1967)

110:

Stina @104 & paws4thot @106:

There are actually a few sequels--sort of:
Flatterland by Ian Stewart
Sphereland by Dionys Burger
The Planiverse by A.K. Dewdney, and
Spaceland by Rudy Rucker.

One of these days I'll get around to actually reading them.
pedantic-book-nerd hat off now.

111:

James, thank you most sincerely. Relevant post forwarded to my real identity from my mother's (which I'm using whilst on hols.)

Stina, Ian Stewart's Flatterland was the one I was aware of and have actually bought and read. Despite all my other science and technology qualified friends, my words can not express how great it is to actually know someone else who is both female and I know appreciates this sort of advanced mathematics stuff.

112:

I just had a thought sort of about that. Characters in good SF are products of the technologies that make the setting different from our own, so that the stories can be products of the characters.

Technology-->Setting-->Characters--> Story


I have to disagree with that, but am probably going to have trouble explaining why. Just my opinion, but...

A good story should come out of good characters (that is, if you have a good story idea, you need to have good characters to tell it). The technology they deal with ought to be nearly invisible--they use it everyday. There are exceptions--like if the story is about some new tech, and it may also depend on what narrative voice your using. If your characters are using some technology that is so out-of-left-field that a reader will have trouble figuring out what it is from context, then I guess it needs some explaining. An occasional info-dump is excusable, so long as it doesn't get in the way.*

Think of how it sometimes seems odd watching old movies, and no one has a cell phone. Does that get in the way of the story? It shouldn't, if it does that probably says more about the viewer.


*And having written that, I realize that I'm guilty of it**, and will have to do a little rewriting on some early bits of my novel. Still waiting to hear from my first readers.
**Actually already knew that, but was trying not to think about it.

113:

The English is a bit convoluted but tl;dr version is "Death by Powerpoint infodumps = bad writing"?

114:

Umm. not necessarily. I think I was going for the idea that technology/story comes from people/characters, rather than the other way around. I have nothing against HardSF, so long as the ideas it's trying to convey are presented well. But if it doesn't have a good story or characters I'm not likely to reread it.
Or something like that.

Fortunately for everyone, yesterday was Shabbes and I had to drive my mother to Shul. Or I might have gone on a bit about the practicality of an Eruv, in Shtetl days at least.

115:

I was applying the "telling us about the tech gets in the way" point, like a certain writer named Brewed (anag) has done in some his more recent works where the "ebil ones of record" have held meetings to tell themselves stuff they already know in place of him having an actual expositionary vehicle.

116:

I'm a little sleep deprived and migrainey at the moment, so whether I make sense or understand others properly is debatable at the moment.

I haven't read that person, and not likely to. Assuming I've rearranged the letters correctly--or even if I haven't. But I think I get your point. Maybe. Go ahead and explain, rather than forcing awkward dialogue on your characters. Think I've done that too. Nuts.

117:

Explain by all means yes, but in a way that doesn't mean stopping the action for 10 pages whilst you do an infodump and your readers' brains glaze over.

118:

Meant to reply earlier, but was sidetracked by the new post.
Just to say that I'll keep that in mind, and am so far not guilty of that.

119:

LSD went a long way to deprogramming me

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