State of Science Fiction Today

17 05 2015

I have been saying for some time now that publishers are publishing what they know has sold well in the past and therefore likely to sell well in the future. Damien Walter has taken this analysis a step further. See here. Basically what he is saying that in the fantasy sector the multi-volume series has dominated the market place to the detriment of single standalone novels. He’s calling them mega novels, a good description me thinks. The consequence? Well we get the same universe and main characters. We always hear about people writing trilogies, some of which extend into a longer series. There are less new ideas coming to market. It’s worse than the reader having less choice. The reader will not see the fantasy genre progress in interesting ways. There is a spillover into science fiction. Ann Leckie’s novels, for instance, are part of a trilogy. Alastair Reynolds has just written a trilogy. And so it goes on. But science fiction is the genre of ideas, isn’t it? Alastair Reynolds has recently written an essay about space travel being limited to below the speed of light. See here. What he says is science-wise spot-on for the current thinking. Only my mind goes but, But, BUT… We know that Scholz’s star passed through our Solar System 70,000 years ago (and this was only discovered in the last year or so). At the other extreme of size, the Andromeda galaxy is due to collide with our own galaxy in 4 billion years time.


So why can’t we hop from Solar System to another that is passing close by? Admittedly this requires a certain amount of luck to have something glide by that has a suitable planet or moon to live on. We could start doing the calculations now to find those passers by and concentrate our efforts on those in terms of finding the new planets. And this is only a start for an interesting line of stories, which could see humans eventually populate the stars. See what I’ve done here? I’ve taken the current wisdom, applied to a problem and looked for a situation where that problem could be overcome without relying on the the science. I’m sure other science fiction writers have thought of the same scenario. But are there any stories or novels featuring this? Not that I know of. This is an example of a theme of what could have been published, were it not for the pressure on publishers to make profits. There are other examples – it would become a long and, for many readers, tedious post if I listed them and their backgrounds. So I’ll leave this interesting exercise to the reader. This does point to the need for a shake up in the science fiction industry if it is to be a vibrant genre. I’m not sure how it can be done. All I know is the science fiction industry cannot continue as it is – leaning towards fantasy, taking on other styles such as literary or going all nostalgic. P.S. Just hours after I published, io9 comes up with an interesting article about recent discoveries concerning the collision between our galaxy and the Andromeda galaxy. See here.

Exciting Debut Novel – Ashamet Desert Born – 30th May 2015

9 05 2015

Being excited about this book is the understatement of the year! I had the privilege of reading some of the draft excerpts some time ago and you just knew this was Terry’s special novel… Ashamet Desert Born is going to be more than just a darned good read. Its publication date is 30th May. Put it in your diaries. You can pre-order from Amazon here. Ashamet-Cover

Rather than give any spoilers, I’ll just give you what the blurb says (heck, I don’t want to marr your enjoyment)…

A desert world. A warrior nation that worships its emperor as a god. But for Ashamet, its prince, a future filled with danger… Ashamet is confident his swordsmanship, and his arranged marriage, will be enough to maintain the empire’s peace. But when a divine symbol magically appears on his arm, closely followed by an attempt on his life, he no longer knows who to trust. Worse, the strange attraction he feels toward a foreign slave could be another trap. As events unravel, too fast, Ashamet must find out if this innocent young male is a tool for his enemies–or the magic key to his survival.

Good Science Fiction?

6 05 2015

What makes good science fiction these days?

Indeed, what made good science fiction in the past and what lessons can we learn from that?

Let’s list some of the accepted classics that are read and reread even today:

  • Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
  • 20,000 Leagues under the Sea – Jules Verne
  • The Time Machine – H G Wells
  • The Invisible Man – H G Wells
  • The Island of Doctor Moreau – H G Wells
  • The War of the Worlds – H G Wells
  • The Last and First Men – Olaf Stapledon
  • The Star Maker – Olaf Stapledon
  • The Caves of Steel – Isaac Asimov
  • Foundation – Isaac Asimov
  • Childhood’s End – Arthur C Clarke
  • Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C Clarke

…and of course I could go on. But I notice that all these novels have one attribute in common – a fundamental cosmos-shattering idea at the time of writing.

Have we seen anything similar in recent years?

Well, I think Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep and Iain M Banks’ Culture Series have deep significant aspects to them. So I would say yes to the question.

Could there be more?

This is where I really do hesitate. There are ideas out there of similar imagination and significance. It’s just I do not believe the publishing industry has nerve to go for something that big. After all, their main aim is to make a big enough profit to stay in business, and in a culture of recession and austerity that we are seeing at the moment, even more so.

But there is another common aspect to the classic novels I’ve mentioned above. Each and every one of them was influenced by knowledge and factors of circumstance outside of science fiction. A good example is that Frankenstein would never have come into being if it were not for a bet. Another good example is the Isaac Asimov robot series came about as a result of John Campbell pushing for the laws of robotics. So if there is one of those outside influences lurking in the background, there may be hope yet.

But as to what makes good science fiction these days? To me, it’s usually a mix and match of the great ideas in novel ways. After all, did not Asimov himself combine his Robot series with his Foundation series? Yes, they are interesting in themselves, but they do not have the draw of the classics. Nevertheless, this is what is considered good science fiction these days.

So in comparison to the past science fiction, we are falling behind the real hopes of the readership, which is why, I suspect, some people say science fiction is dying.

I suspect this has been recognised by Tor, which is why I suspect they are wanting to push the novella. They have a call out for unsolicited submissions here. They are hoping to boost the science fiction side of things by using the natural advantages of the novella length. To quote Robert Silverberg:

it allows for more extended development of theme and character than does the short story, without making the elaborate structural demands of the full-length book. Thus it provides an intense, detailed exploration of its subject, providing to some degree both the concentrated focus of the short story and the broad scope of the novel.

It will be interesting to see how the Tor novella initiative pans out.

A Void Dance in Far Horizons

18 04 2015

Congratulations to Far Horizons who are now a year old! It takes courage and determination to keep a magazine like this going. I take my hat off to you all!

The first chapter of my novel A Void Dance has been published by Far Horizons. Now you good people and computers and robots and aliens can see what my second, far more serious strand of science fiction is. I also like the literary interpretation of the picture they’ve picked. Wow! The editors got the essence in spades. Thank you to all at Far Horizons.

And even more science for science fiction to play with…

17 04 2015

We’ve all heard the hypothesis that a Mercury sized planet hit Earth to create the moon billions of years ago. Now here’s the proof that it really happened.

There are implications from this. The collision made the Earth’s core more radioactive, which  generated heat and a roiling iron core, which in turn created a magnetosphere, which in its own turn protected us from the Solar radiation, which in turn meant we could develop into a human society. Or putting it another way, without this collision, human civilisation as we know it would never have happened.

But there’s even more implications. It means that it is very much less likely that like, as we know, it will have developed elsewhere in the Universe. We could, as an intelligent species, really be alone. But even if that was not the case, the chances are that alien civilisation is far more sparse than we previously thought, therefore likely to be far more far apart distance-wise. That would make contact with aliens more difficult.

Science fiction has over the decades run the gamut of what and where we come into contact with intelligent alien species. But this piece of science has in effect indicated that a lot of the previously published science fiction is unrealistic.

Nothing wrong with that. We’ve been here before with faster than light travel, Mars having some atmosphere and life on the surface, and that the dark side of Mercury was the coldest place in the Solar System. These are all themes that are still accepted as science fiction if they were published before the discovery was made that they were wrong. Where stories that have the wrong science are published after the discovery was made, then people, quite rightly treat them more as fantasy.

So the scope of ‘real’ science fiction is continually narrowing.

Or is it?

Discoveries continue to be made. But a lot of these discoveries, like the one at the link, involve details when compared to the basic science discoveries in the previous centuries. What becomes headline news these days is if that detail proves something rather basic or fundamental.

But how does a science fiction pick out a detail like that and more it onto big implications in a story?

I was reviewing my stories this afternoon wondering what I should work on next. This ranged anything form just one-line ideas to a heavy editing session with mature-ish texts. This is when I noticed that all the basic premises for my stories were the detail leading to something big. You could say this is the butterfly effect of science fiction – the butterfly effect is based on the flap of butterfly’s wings in Brazil leading to a Hurricane in Caribbean saying.

But how do you identify such a starter as the flap of the butterfly’s wings?

In my case, it has often been by accident rather than deliberate planning. It’s more a case of keeping my eyes open for the opportunity and making a mental note of it when something passes by.

But sometimes I did go looking for it. Usually this involves having a large database to pull on and searching through. This is where the googles of this world has made things easier. They can do the searching for you. It would have taken me ages upon ages to find exactly the same fact in the old-fashioned libraries.

So I would say that the advent of the internet has changed what science fiction themes I write about in a very fundamental way.

Is this true of other science fiction writers?

Well, I can’t say I have seen any evidence to that effect. We are still following the old themes, even if they are mixed and matched more these days. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy the stories, but where are the new science fiction ideas?

Meanwhile, I’d better go and get some supper before I start hitting the keyboard again…

Discoveries continue being made….

14 04 2015

It’s been a few weeks of exciting discoveries…

  1. They’ve found evidence of liquid water on Mars
  2. A star being born
  3. Chemistry says Pluto is likely yo be red

OK… the importance of water on Mars is twofold – it makes it more promising that microbial life could still exist on the planet. Also it will help humans settle there. It still does not solve the radiation problem for us. The best place to settle is still Callisto where Jupiter’s magnetosphere protects the moon’s surface from solar radiation… unless you can design a permanent flying home for the upper atmosphere of Venus.

The pictures of the star being born will help astrophysicists understand how stars are made, live and die better. This in turn helps us predict what our Sun is doing, which of course affects in many different ways.

And as for Pluto… why am I seeing red.

Any of these three discoveries could lead to a decent science fiction story… so go, write…

But I’m rather excited about an idea I’ve had for a story… it’s a real super-duper humdinger… now if only I can the words down….

Science Fiction in the Market Place

11 04 2015

As far as I am concerned, the behaviour of certain people has brought the Hugo Awards into disrepute, which to translate this from Britishness into plain words, the Hugo is no longer an award to aspire to. It’s dead, deceased, defunct. Which means one of the mainstays of Worldcons is gone. Whether the Worldcons can survive such a blow is a matter to be seen.

I was also disappointed by the BSFA awards. I’ve read Anne Leckie’s Ancilliary Sword. I found it enjoyable and a good read, but, and this is the important point for me, it did not have the ‘Wow factor’, the kind that makes my eyes pop out and want to read more. It did not have that extra special ‘je ne sais quoi‘. In fact the Arthur C Clarke award shortlist backs me up on this as Ancilliary Sword did not reach the shortlist.

To me the voted awards are in total disarray, driven by cliques rather than quality of the imagination. And that means all is not well with the science fiction community.

This is all the more disappointing because there is a whole heap of discoveries on its way (think New Horizons probe to Pluto and the restarting of the Hadron Collider), inventions being developed (think Skylon space plane and continuing development of robotics), and technology continues to be introduced into society (think Apple Watch and automatic vacuum cleaners, let alone the massive advances in medicine because of genetics). Yet, despite all this influx of science, science fiction does not seem to interest the ordinary person in the street. You would think it is only natural that people would be asking ‘what could be next for us?’

The world in ten, twenty years time will be a very different place from what it is today. Think back to 2005. Clunky heavy laptops, cars built like heavy tanks to save people’s lives should accidents occur, lighter and more fuel efficient aircraft, and the list could go on. Think twenty years ago… the internet was only just starting and available to a specialised few, mobile phones were heavy bricks and digital photography was in infancy.

Admittedly there have been attempts to look at what’s coming around the corner technology-wise and how it would impact people. Nature Futures is one such place. The Hieroglyph Project another. But they have not attracted the interest that I would have expected. People just do not seem to want to know.

Part of the problem is the dystopian of ‘the world will end’ emphasis we have seen in science fiction lately. It’s the kind of modern dungeons and dragons gaming of the late 1970s and early 1980s or the chess playing leagues around in the mid-1970s or the wargaming with model soldiers that used to exist earlier last century. Dystopias don’t look at modern technology, don’t want to either. Science fiction dystopias were initially warnings of what could go wrong in the future, but have since morphed into gaming, a sort of trap to snare the unwary science fiction writers.

Another part of the problem is that there is too much technology entering society. How do you combine improvements in medicine with improvements in data processing with improvements in transport with improvements in materials with improvements in miniaturisation with ad nauseum? It’s a nightmare for the writer to get right. Consequently the track record of predicting aspects of the future has got worse. Result has been that the readership are losing interest. in fact we are really left with the far future space operas that are so remote from today that the feel more like fantasy that science fiction. I would even include Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 in this space opera category.

Another part is the belief by some people that all the likely near future science technology development has been covered in science fiction. That is an assumption that is so wrong that I find it incredible. I find no shortage of ideas and developments to write about. In fact there have been times when I’ve been writing about one idea when another idea comes into the story. But what I can understand is that writers new to craft of developing science fiction stories tend to examine and explore the old ideas first. It’s called learning the craft and understanding what is already out there. It does boil down to having to take longer to develop one’s capability. But honestly, there is so much possible new technology, let alone natural phenomena to explore, that there is no shortage of material to draw on.

I can understand why Andy Weir’s The Martian has attracted such interest. It is a possible near future book that could take hold of the near term imagination and hope. But Andy had to effectively self-publish it before it got noticed by the publishing industry.

Which to me points to the publishing industry strangling off this valuable resource. Yes I call writing about near future a valuable resource for society because it helps the scientists and technologists to develop new things by showing the way and warning of problems that need solving. The industry has got itself into what I call the pure entertainment ghetto, and ghetto is the right word. It’s difficult to escape from and it’s limited to the current population of the readership. Or putting it another way, the science fiction industry has become so risk adverse to new stuff that it frightened of publishing anything that is untried and untested in the market, which means nothing really new.

It’s at this point I’d like to say that there is a thirst in the international science fiction market for identifying new technology. And yet the publishing industry has dismissed this market opening altogether.

This has been going on for so long that it is now going to take a major new initiative and financial backing to break the logjam to get near future realistic science fiction back into the readership’s focus. Is this going to happen?

Of course not… It’s going to take more successes like that of Andy Weir’s before publishers will sit up and take notice. And that will take time. Which is why the professional ‘hard’ science fiction writers have to give up in order to earn their wages from elsewhere.

But do you remember what I said earlier in this post about the development and introduction of technology?

Yes… this is going to catch the publishing industry out and those writers brave enough to continue writing this type of science fiction will one day wake up to realise they are in demand.


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