Sciency Science Fiction New Novel Pick for March

March seems to be a good month for new sciency science fiction novels coming out. We have Ian McDonald’s third in his Luna trilogy (Luna: Moon Rising) and James S. A. Corey’s eighth book in his Expanse series (Tiamet’s Wrath) among others. But the novel that has caught my eye is:

Ruin’s Wake

by Patrick Edwards

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The Blurb:

A moving and powerful science fiction novel with themes of love, revenge and identity on a totalitarian world.

A story about humanity, and the universal search to find salvation in the face of insurmountable odds.

An old soldier in exile embarks on a desperate journey to find his dying son.
A young woman trapped in an abusive marriage with a government official finds hope in an illicit love. A female scientist uncovers a mysterious technology that reveals that her world is more fragile than she believed.

Ruin’s Wake imagines a world ruled by a totalitarian government, where history has been erased and individual identity is replaced by the machinations of the state. As the characters try to save what they hold most dear – in one case a dying son, in the other secret love – their fates converge to a shared destiny.

The Reason:

This debut (yes I did write DEBUT) novel is in the grand tradition of putting a magnifying lens on certain types of politics by putting them in a science fiction setting. Add to mix very powerful personal human stories and you have both a macro and micro view of the issues at stake.

On a personal note, Patrick obtained his MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University – it’s nice to see such success stories coming out of the course, which I also attended (but in another year).

Link to Amazon UK here.

Link to Amazon US here.

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Enough Oomph for a Novel?

It’s always exciting when you’re exploring an idea to find it has enough oomph to turn into a novel. Now what do I mean by oomph?

Here it means that enough detail, natural conflict, tension and unusual world-building can be developed to run the length of a novel.

Why detail? The author has to keep the reader interested enough to keep them turning the pages. Details matter because new details can give a freshness to each page while not interfering with the story arc, yet giving depth to the characters in the novel.

Natural conflict (as opposed to conflict forced on the characters) means it develops out of the characters or the characters are matched to the conflict. Yes yo can have natural conflict occurring at any point in the story, but if it’s fleeting or quickly resolved, then readers would quickly move on in more senses than one. Natural conflict is one that produces twists and turns in the story arc in line with what the reader can reasonably expect the characters would do. This does not mean that characters will not alter during the course of the story, but more that characters will change in natural way in reaction to what is going on around them.

Tension is needed. It does not always have to be the tension of conflict. It could be the tension of expectation in all its guises e.g. how the blazes is she going to get out of this mess? Tension keeps the adrenalin and excitement running and curiosity alive. in the reader.

World-building… having developed two novels in very limited scenes, I know how important it is the understand the underlying infrastructure of the world being written about, because that infrastructure throws up surprises naturally to help give insight to the characters and push the story along. In a kind of way, I’m saying the world has to be layered in some way. The author should write about what the protagonists experience in the world first and foremost. From there the author can choose:

  • to take the reader on a journey with the protagonists to different places or dealing with different items in the world;
  • explain how the world works in greater depth through a protagonist discovering the patterns or underlying rules that govern the world or explaining through a protagonist’s speech or conscious thought how the world works; or
  • split the novel into intertwining threads where one thread is some kind of encyclopaedic reference that explains certain relevant items in the other thread or threads.

(Note to self – maybe I ought to write a booklet about world-building and how to do it!)

Each one of these items (details, natural conflict, tension and world-building) needs to develop its own head of steam to keep a novel moving. But how do you judge when you have enough steam in each before you start drafting your novel?

Certainly experience helps. You get ‘a feel’ for these things.

With detail, can you anticipate enough change in the story arc to allow you to add new details?

With natural conflict do you have at least two main protagonists, who would naturally rub each other up the wrong way, no matter how they interact, except possibly at the end of the novel?

With tension, can you keep the plot and sub-plots moving at a fast enough pace to give you new situations that are tension-building?

With world-building, can you keep the protagonists ‘seeing’ different things about the world for the length of a novel?

If you can answer yes to all these questions, then you have a potential novel on your hands.

Brexit Impact on Science Fiction?

There has been a lot of twists and turns in the Brexit / No Brexit saga recently. So much so that it is sometimes difficult to navigate through the arguments being put forward. It now looks like Britain is heading for a Hard Brexit i.e. one with no deal with the EU on the 29th March this year. I know there is some talk of extending EU membership until 1st July to get the legislation through, but, given the government recess in February is now very likely to be cancelled, I am not holding my breath.

So how will Brexit affect science fiction in Britain. The first ‘casualty’ is all those science fiction websites ending with .eu for those based In Britain. They will automatically be switched off once Brexit occurs. There is a work-around – obtaining e-Residency in Estonia, but that involves paying out money, a whole load of paperwork and going to get the e-Residency pack from an Estonian embassy near you, which means London.

One of the reasons cited for wanting a .eu website is that the security is of a high standard. Agreed. But the question has to be is the .uk security of a higher standard? Remember the internet was invented in the UK, so we have people who know the technology, maybe more so than the EU. But that is something the subject gurus would know more about than me.

Then there’s selling your science fiction novels, anthologies and magazines. The big publishers have ways round that, either they have printing presses already in the EU or they can use the likes of Amazon, which is a global enterprise. Magazines can be put into kindle form for easy export – and various taxes will automatically be put into the sale price by Amazon. So continued access to science fiction literature from abroad including the EU is not that much of a problem.

What about attending science fiction conventions in the EU? Hm… there is a case in point with WorldCon being in Dublin in August. I had no intention of attending, partly because of the price (ticket fee, hotels, air travel, food etc) and partly because I may have to work that weekend. Also there will be the extra paperwork as a non-EU subject and maybe the extra wait at the border controls wherever they be. But that in practical terms should be it as far as inconvenience is concerned. And in theory if it’s a Hard Brexit you can go into gift shops to buy your goods with the VAT taken off.

But there is one side effect of Brexit – the value of the pound is not as high as it would have been had Britain stayed in the EU. So going abroad to any country will be more expensive. But it’ll make it cheaper here for tourists and if we ever set up a WorldCon in Britain again…

So as far as Brexit is concerned to the every day science fiction fan, it’s situation normal with a few extra chores maybe added in.

As how Brexit could affect sales volumes in the EU… well it’s to be remembered that once Britain leaves the EU, English will only be spoken in Ireland and Malta. How that will impact the buying of science fiction stories written in English in the long term, I don’t know.

 

Types of Democratic Governments in Science Fiction?

Yes, Minister and its follow-on of Yes, Prime Minister was a British sitcom about how the politicians and civil service interacted. A lot of the material is based on what happened in real British politics. (No, I’m not joking!) If you get the relevant books, you’ll find the references to the real incidents.

As the world knows, Britain is slated to leave the European Union on March 29th this year. There has been a lot negotiation to work out ‘the divorce deal’. The deal was brought before House of Commons and defeated by a majority of 230 (432 to 202). If no deal is made, then Britain will leave the European Union and have to revert to trading with them via the World Trading Organisation rules, and collaboration will officially cease on a whole load of other areas where the two currently work together. Also, as things currently stand, it will mean a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

The other day I had what I call a ‘Yes, Minister’ moment when someone mentioned having a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland would break the Good Friday Agreement, which is a legally binding treaty.

Huh? If so, it means the Government cannot pursue a no deal with the European Union. In which case, when the deal with the European Union was voted down, the only legal alternative was for the government to rescind Article 50, which is the mechanism for leaving the European Union i.e. that means staying in the European Union. So, along with those who wanted closer ties with european Union, all those Brexiteers (those who want to leave the European Union) who voted against the deal were actually voting to stay in the European Union.

I ended up imaging that on March 28th, if we’re still heading for a no deal with the European Union (otherwise known as Hard Brexit), a legal beagle would rush into the Prime Minister’s office to say that what she was doing was illegal and that she immediately had to rescind Article 50.

Now I’m not a comedy writer (though comedic moments due occur in my writing more by accident than anything else), but I can well image a whole episode of Yes Prime Minister could be written based on this premise. In the hands of an expert comedy writer the script would be hilarious.

So what has this to do with science fiction?

This is an ideal mechanism for being able to write an alternate history short story / novella / novel / trilogy / etc. And if handled correctly, it would at least start out being quite a hoot!

[Obviously, with tempers currently running high, it would be better to wait at least a couple of years before publishing such a story / novella / novel / etc.]

There is a more serious aspect to this… you only get this kind of situation in governments where there can be a sudden change – what I call a flip-flop governing mechanism – something where there is the government and the opposition. This is less likely to happen where the governments have to comprise coalitions of several smaller parties such as you get in Germany or Sweden say. So yes, we could get this kind of thing more likely to happen in the USA.

This flip-flop government mechanism is more amenable to high drama and therefore to being developed into a darned good story… and is therefore more likely to be written about and published.

I’m not sure how much influence novels have on real life, certainly some. So I would ask does the need to produce high drama in science fiction novels make a difference to way we are being governed? And if so, how?

I don’t know the answers, but it is certainly spaceship engines fun for thought.

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Possible Marking Scheme for Science Fiction Story Competitions?

For the first time since the end of November I’ve sat down to some serious writing – to the extent that in two days I have written more than a thousand words of reasonable quality writing – by reasonable I mean easily followable plot-line and easily understandable characters. Things like Christmas, a hefty amount of editing and other sundries just ate into my time.

While doing all this editing and talking to people who wrote the stories in question, a crazy idea dropped into my noggin!

For my sins, I qualified as a National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) Handicraft Judge in October. We are taught to mark exhibits against a scheme that has been tried and tested down the years by other judges:

  • Design and Use of Colour – 5 points
  • Suitability of Materials – 3 points
  • Techniques and Workmanship – 9 points
  • Finish and Presentation – 3 points

which makes a total of 20 points. The idea was that this might read across into science fiction short story writing. So let’s see what I can match up…

Techniques and Workmanship is the easy one – it’s word-craftsmanship or putting it another way, word-smithing, pure and simple. Basically it looks at how you use words to build your story and what techniques you use. It should be noted that when it comes to handicraft judging, that you have to judge how difficult the techniques used are. In word-smithing this would boil down the appropriate use of alliteration, the simplicity of language in expressing a complex idea, the emotiveness that the words bring out, etc.

Another easy one to read across is Finish and Presentation. I would call this Submission Quality – does the format of the story make it readable? – does the format of the story comply with the standard submission guidelines?

So that leaves Design and Use of Colour, and Suitability of Materials to read across into short story marking.

Design and Use of Colour… well that is plot, its compatibility with the characters involved in the plot and with the kind of world you put your characters in. Let’s call Plot, Character and World-building Cohesion.

Here comes Suitability of Materials. It’s the way you write it for your chosen market. There’s no point in writing a story in a literary style if your market is a young child’s magazine. So let’s call this Market Suitability.

So in writing terms, the scheme becomes:

  • Plot, Character and World-building Cohesion – 5 points
  • Market Suitability – 3 points
  • Word-smithing – 9 points
  • Submission Quality – 3 points

Notice, I’ve put point scheme as per the NFWI Handicraft scheme. Does this scheme make sense?

Certainly placing the biggest number of points against word-smithing is right, because if you can’t get the message of your story across, then the rest of the story would fail be default. Just under half, given the other aspects under consideration seems fair to me.

Submission quality I think is rather high, given that this really is the layer of polish on submitting the story, and to be honest is a rather simple process. I would drop its number of points to 2.

This spare point should in my opinion for science fiction stories go to the Plot, Character and World-building cohesion. Why? Because unlike many other genres, a large amount of effort goes into what can become a very complex entity in its right.

I think Market Suitability is about right – it covers is the story in the right genre as well as being aimed at the appropriate market in the genre.

So our final scheme becomes:

  • Plot, Character and World-building Cohesion – 6 points
  • Market Suitability – 3 points
  • Word-smithing – 9 points
  • Submission Quality – 2 points

Hey! Maybe the BSFA ought to develop / amend this scheme further and put that forward as the recommended marking scheme for science fiction short story competitions.

Where are the Women SF Writers?

Not for the first time have I ended up on a long list of people (in this case 64) and been the only female on it! Nor do I suspect it will be the last time I will be in such prestigious position.

[I’m not going to say what the list is about, because neither the organisation compiling the list nor the people on the list had any real choice in the matter – it’s not their fault I’m the lone female on there, so they don’t deserve any opprobrium!]

Fortunately in science fiction that ratio of women to men authors is far more favourable. It ranges from 1 in 5 to 1 in 3, depending on what sub-genre of science fiction the writer specialises in. This is roughly in line with ratios for submissions at a lot of publishers. So again the biased ratio against women is not really in the publishers fault or those who are being published.

But the question remains, why are there so few women science fiction authors?

When there is a huge bias and no obvious reasons. quite rightly questions are asked. This was the case for an anthology that had 13 short science fiction stories in it, all written by men. When the publisher was asked why, his response was that he had not had a single story from a female writer. Fortunately for him, he had others, not directly involved in the anthology, who could back up his version of events.

Given this kind of history, publishers are wary of any backlash that can affect not only the sales of their current anthology, but also potential future sales.

So what is stopping more women from becoming science fiction authors?

Joanna Russ gives us a hint, when she wrote in 1983, ‘She didn’t write it. She wrote it but she shouldn’t have. She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. She wrote it, but she only wrote one of it. She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist and it isn’t really art. She wrote it, but she had help. She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. She wrote it BUT…’

In short, in 1983, when I was working as an aerodynamics engineer, women’s writing was being marginalised with excuses, reasons, explanations, anything but genuine praise for a good story.

Even at the start of this century, when I was working as a systems engineer, there was a row about the heavy bias against women winning high profile science fiction awards. In other words the problem still has not been sorted. I should note that since the facts were put to the general public, more women have been winning these awards. But why in this day and age did it have to take such publicity to get a fair chance of winning such awards?

Whenever I examine the science fiction titles for sale in a bookshop, I feel appalled at the low proportion written by women. Some of this is inevitably historical. But even if you restrict yourself to modern offerings, the bias is still so noticeable it kind of screams injustice. Where that injustice lies, whose fault it is, I don’t know.

All I know is that the struggle for getting current women science fictions authors their due proportion of acclaim is not over, nor is the fight to get more women authors into the genre.

Which is why I was especially pleased to see the high quality of eight short science fiction stories that I have recently helped to edit. In fact some of the stories were excellent. They not only had the good writing, but also the ideas, world-building that was out of this world and characters that were coherent and subtly nuanced, as any darned good character should be.

For those that say the women tend to write more toward the soft end or fantasy end of the spectrum, the stories I edited were firmly and squarely in the sciency end of science fiction.

This indicates there are the good quality women science fiction writers out there; they are just not getting the recognition even now.

But hopefully the anthology I’m involved in will get published in the not too distant future, which will be one small step to rebalancing the situation to what it ought to be. And you never know, it may turn out to be one giant leap for women science fiction authors as a group.

The Bigger Science Fiction Picture?

Well 2019 got off to a great start space-wise with the first picture of Ultima Thule courtesy of the New Horizons probe and China landing on the dark side of the Moon. For those of you who need a space fix – here’s a picture of Ultima (the larger blob) and Thule (the smaller blob).

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As New Horizons sends more data back over the next 20 months, this picture will become more detailed and there will be more deductions made about what comprises it and how it evolved. But they have already come to a couple of conclusions:

  • Ultima and Thule would have come together at slow speed c. 2 or 3 m/s
  • its reddish colour is likely to be due to the irradiation of exotic ices (I’m not sure what they mean by exotic in this context) – basically its surface has been burnt over the eons by the high-energy cosmic rays and X-rays that flood space

What intrigues me is that the brighter and therefore less red patches all seem to be in craters except for where the two blobs join (there you would expect some ice melting as the crashed before it refroze to join them together). The question is why?

It’ll be interesting to see what answers the scientists come up with. Very interesting indeed the more I think about it. But whatever they do come up with, they won’t want to break the laws of physics. They’ll go for all sorts of convoluted and complex reasons to remain within those laws first.

My response to that is that at one time everyone thought all swans were white – until they discovered Australia and its black swans. And now that we know more about genetics, it would not surprise me if we ended up with swans being genetically modified to have blue feathers.

Okay – I’m exaggerating here to make a point. The laws of physics are sacrosanct until we observe something that breaks them.

Of course you can divide science fiction into two categories – those stories that stay within the bounds of the laws of physics and those that break them.

The classic examples of not allowed phenomena are faster than light travel, travelling back in time and letting anti-gravity exist, all things that are regularly written about or assumed in the background world building in science fiction.

Now what if – Okay this is the classic question in most of not all science fiction – what if we looked at the laws of physics from a different viewpoint? That means not from deriving the laws of physics from what we observe, but deriving those laws of physics that could be possible to observe.

For instance, if gravity was so huge compared to what we experience in our universe, it would crush the universe into a single black hole very quickly. That crushing could happen so quickly that we would not have a chance to observe it. So by my supposition we would limit how great a gravity the universe could sensibly experience. [Yes, I know this is an extreme example, but it illustrates the point.]

Now in a three-dimensional universe, i.e. one like we live in now, any force acting on a body has to be proportional to one over the distance away from object squared. This force is in equilibrium with the three dimensions – too big it would disappear into the equivalent of a black hole – too small it would spread around the universe until it became so weak as to be unobservable. Of course you can have the force slightly varying from this equilibrium and the universe effectively very slowly going to one of its nihilistic fates. We would have time to observe it.

See what I have done here… I have taken the known situation in the laws of physics and seen what could be possible with a little variation in it. And from that you can come up with ideas for science fiction stories…

Of course these variations are strictly speaking not viable for the universe as we know it… or are they and we haven’t just been able to measure it yet?

And this is where science fiction can lend a hand with helping to derive the real laws of physics… by pointing out the potential consequences.

Happy mind-boggling new year!