Political versus Tech-led Science Fiction

The Guardian’s roundup of the best recent science fiction and fantasy novels has been published today. (See here.) I’m pleased to see 3 out of the 5 novels are science fiction. Yay!

What I found interesting was the SF novels look like they act as a commentary on current political issues. Sorrowland is about racial inequality, Dark Lullaby about women’s rights and responsibilities, and We are the Satellites about the imbalance created by personal enhancements, in this case the implants that improve brain power. Thus makes these novels very relevant to the here and now.

Science Fiction has a long history of political narratives that goes at least as far back as H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, published in 1895. Some have acted as warnings about the future by exaggerating what might happen to bring the message home. Others have been making the world simpler so we can see the issue more clearly that is going on today. What I also find interesting is that The Guardian’s choices have avoided the two biggest problems of today, the pandemic and climate change.

Both are current global work in progress, where the situation is changing comparatively rapidly. Certainly the pandemic has shown us that the reality was not quite as science fiction predicted it might be, even if UK’s Health Minister, Matt Hancock, did take on board lessons portrayed by a science fiction film on the subject. Could it be these rapid updates in reality have stopped novels being published on these subjects?

I know from experience how quickly technology can catch up or overturn near future science fiction. It was not how the technology extrapolated into the future that went wrong, but its timing and how technologies come together to form a new technology its own right.

What really worries me is how many new technologies from combing existing ones we science fiction writers are missing. A good example is the air system I invented for the Martian Chasms that I wrote about The Martian Wind

A variation of it can be found in Slivers of Hope in Space Force, Building the Legacy. Of course there is much more I can do with this combined technology, but haven’t got round to writing about yet.

It only takes one rich combo to upturn the world building big time. And I’m sure there are quick a few such combos I haven’t yet stumbled on.

It is therefore not surprising that review columns like those in The Guardian tend to steer away from technology-led science fiction novels. They fear those novels will become out of date very quickly and therefore lose the interest of the readership.

There is a BIG BUT! There is a tsunami of new combo tech on its way. We’ve already seen a similar revolution with the Internet of Things, and look how that drastically changed our lives.

If the science fiction publishing industry cannot start to comment on them… do I need today more?

Bat Crazy on Kraxon

Nature versus near future technology is the theme of my new science fiction short story, Bat Crazy.

The wonderful people over at Kraxon magazine have chosen it as this month’s story. How the editor can find such an appropriate and wonderful picture to go with it is beyond my understanding(not the bat picture here) . But he did! Read Bat Crazy here.

The story was inspired by a visit to the Universeum in Gothenburg, Sweden. It has a bat cave you can walk through (as well as a small rain forest). Let’s just say the experience was remarkable. The Universeum is well worth a visit.

8 Planets – Achieved and Published in an Anthology

One of my aims since the early days of writing science fiction is to have a short science fiction story published for each of the planets in our Solar System. The final story, about Saturn, was kindly published in Kzine magazine January 2020. To mark this achievement I have now self-published a paperback anthology of those eight stories.

The Blurb: 8 planets in our Solar System – 8 near future science fiction stories, one each for Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Each story explores an unusual aspect, from the double sunrise of Mercury’s dawn to experiencing normal Earth gravity in Neptune’s upper atmosphere. What impact can they have on ordinary people? On humanity as a whole?

Amazon Link – Click Here.

Foreword:

One of my aims was to have a short story published for each of the planets in our Solar System. Call it a stepping stone goal in my science fiction writing, one that made me explore the different planets and find out some wonderfully intriguing facts. It pushed me to visualise these places, imagine how the local gravity felt and understand how data comes to replace what we would use our other senses on Earth for.

It took me 15 years to get there. There were many frustrations along the way. Some stemmed from my own ineptitude as a writer learning her craft, others due to the downs in the publication market. So the sense of achievement when it finally came, was all the sweeter.

Meanwhile some publications went out of print or offline. That special-to-every-author first published story, Displaced, is one of those casualties. It is far from being the only one.

The advent of online self-publishing gave me the chance to not only to resurrect some stories, but also to collect the 8 stories in one volume. This book is the result.My thanks go to all, too many to name here, who helped me improve these short stories and gave them column space in the big wide multiverse.

The Missing Question for Science Fiction.

Everyone has heard Reward Kipling’s saying: I keep six honest serving-men, (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When , And How and Where and Who. These are the six questions every journalist should ask when pursuing a source of news.

These are the question s every author should ask when they are putting together their story. But I would go further and add a seventh question: Measurement? Annoyingly there isn’t a single question word that describes, which is why I have had to resort to a noun with a question mark.

The science and technology development is based on the ability to measure things like distance, time, quantity of an object or fluid, temperature, any property you can think of that has a variation of some sort. And yet, this is not what J. Bloggs naturally thinks of as a query when investigating something.

But it is what a science fiction writer has to think of when they are pulling together their story, because they have science somewhere in that story. This is the only genre that is forced to use measurement. Other genres like fantasy and horror can have it there, but they don’t need science or technology of whatever. (Crime thrillers strictly speaking don’t need measurement. Yes, it makes their plot easier to have a specific measurement, but it is not necessary. If the crime is committed in a modern setting, it is far more natural to use a handy measuring stick of some sort, which is why there is so much technology in crime fiction.)

So a good litmus test of whether a speculative fiction novel is true science fiction is whether the story is dependent on measurement of some sort, and I mean dependent in the sense there is no way that story could be written without that measurement. If the answer is no, then it is not science fiction in the true sense. It is probably horror or fantasy veering towards science fiction.

As you will surmise, a lot of faster that light space opera does not meet the measurement litmus test. Star Wars for instance has long since been recognised as fantasy, enjoyable though it is.

Measurement as far as I can tell does not appear in any definition of science fiction. That is because the essential measurement property to the plot may in what I call the hidden layer of assumptions in the world building. Which of course can lead to endless arguments among the fans.

For now it is simpler to say the science fiction must have some element of science that is essential to the story. This by default includes the measurement criterion. But if you do identify the measurement criterion of a story, then you know you have science fiction, or the real kind.


And on into Research…

Well this is a turn up for the books and I still can’t believe it. I’m now cited as a co-author of a research paper Fine Scale Dynamics of Fragmented Aurora-Like Emissions. See Link to the Paper Here.

I only played a very minor role in this by making observations about what I was seeing in the Aurora Zoo on Zooniverse. It must have helped trigger putting this paper together. My thanks to all the other authors, in particular Dan Whiter of Southampton University.

In commenting on the mini-videos of the aurora, I find I have ended up being rather descriptive – phrases like ‘a set of boomerangs dancing round each other’. (Yes, this video does really exist!) Seeing these new things is certainly stretching my imagination and improving my writing craft, if only in the descriptive arts.

Black Aurora

Black aurora – there can’t be such a thing surely? There is certainly nothing about it on the standard internet encyclopaedias such as wiki (at least not at the time of writing).

For relaxation over a cup of coffee – especially when I’m trying to wake up in the mornings – I help out with the Zooniverse classifications. (The ulterior motive is that it’s good background stuff for my science fiction writing.) One of my favourite haunts on the Zooniverse is the Aurora Zoo, where the volunteer is asked to categorise types of aurora, which will then be statistically processed. Of course us volunteers chat about interesting pictures or appears to be the very unusual.

One member commented on a video from which I copied the still below. See that blackish band towards the top of it? You will notice that the stars in are dimmer than than those behind the green aurora elsewhere in the picture. That’s the black aurora shading them.

One of the Aurora Zoo’s organisers, Dan Whiter from Southampton University, looked up when this happened and shared this lovely picture below for which credit must go to University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), Norway. It was taken by a camera looking straight up fitted with a fish-eye lens, so the circle around the edge is the horizon and the field of view is 180 degrees.

The instrument that produced the first picture is looking just south of (below) the centre of the all-sky image with a much smaller field of view (3 degrees in this case). While he needs to check it out, his guess is the dim-ish diffuse aurora just above and to the left of the bright aurora in the middle of the image or just inside the edge of the bright stuff is where the black aurora is.

Research work needs to be done to fully understand the black aurora phenomenon, or indeed phenomena as there might be more than one explanation.

When you compare the two pictures you can appreciate looking for black aurora is like looking for a needle in a haystack. It is probably why the encyclopaedias have not written up about this phenomenon.

Finding such an obscure natural phenomenon that is not mentioned in the general open references is a gift for the science fiction writer. They can use it to amaze and entertain the readers and it has the advantage that fellow science fiction authors are extremely unlikely to write about it – because they don’t know about it.

In other words, it pays for a science fiction author to be knowledgeable about the leading edge research in one or more areas of science. I have seen too many authors start out as scientists, researchers, development engineers turn into full time authors, only to lose touch with the technology subjects that made their science fiction notable in the first place. I’m not going name the authors concerned as they are recognisable from their output arc. In a sense I find it rather sad.

If a science fiction writer wants their stories to have a fresh feel of new ideas behind them, they have to keep up with the research in interesting fields. One of mine happens to the the aurora, and the black aurora is certainly an interesting natural phenomenon that now has ideas buzzing round in my head.

The Numbers Game

Naturally I got the the Gollancz Festival at Home ebook 2021 that celebrated the publisher’s 60th birthday. It contained excerpts from novels it is publishing from the end of 2020 to mid-2021. One, Gallowglass by S J Morden I had already read. Yum! It’s a darned good science fiction novel and I would recommend it. I am also looking forward to its sequel Aphrodite that is due to be published later this year..

The contents list showed an interesting issue:

  • Fantasy – 13
  • Science Fiction – 7
  • Horror – 1
  • Crime – 1

In other words Gollancz is publishing almost twice as many fantasy novels as science fiction novels at the moment.

I looked through EasterCon’s 2021 programme. EasterCon covers both science fiction and fantasy. It does not annotate which items are fantasy, but it list 12 items being science fiction. Looking through the titles of the programme, i was left with the impression that there is far more fantasy than science fiction.

To be utterly fair to both organisations (Gollancz and EasterCon), they have both kept going as best they are allowed to in this pandemic and it is a tribute to all concerned in the organisations that they have produced their products. They are to be congratulated on such an achievement in tough times.

But I come back to the point that at the moment fantasy out-produces science fiction as far as the readership is concerned. I would put the ratio as two fantasy for every science fiction.

And yet I recently heard of one science fiction and fantasy short story publisher is swamped by science fiction stories and has a shortage of fantasy stories. I have seen science fiction authors switch to fantasy, though I have now noticed a couple of fantasy writers go the other way.

Of course I have added my own contribution for science fictioneers to the offerings – the Etaerio SF with short stories by John A Frochio and Sarah Hovorka.

Historically speaking, the end of the last century saw roughly the same number of new science fiction novels published as fantasy ones. The popularity of fantasy rose from about 2000 onwards. Science fiction carried on producing at roughly the same rate for the first decade of this century while fantasy forged ahead. It is only from about 2010 onwards more science fiction novels were published, but the genre has been in playing catch-up ever since.

The real question therefore has to be why did science fiction output stagnate in terms of quantity in the noughties when fantasy became more popular?

One of the things science fiction does is be a commentary on scientific discoveries and technological inventions. Science fiction takes them and goes through the what-can-go-wrong, how-can-it-be-fixed and how-it-ends-up-embedded-in-society cycle. The 90s saw the peace dividend of the ending of the Cold War, and with that came a reduction in research and development. It was left to the commercial players to make money out of what had become available, and the only noticeable changes to the person in the street was the internet. It was almost inevitable that with people wanting to spend their money on something, that anyone who came up with an internet product would end up making money, even become super rich. In a way science fiction lacked the discoveries and innovations to comment on in the first decade of this century, and that hampered its growth.

Things have only really changed within the last five years, when the internet billionaires started seeing results on their investment in big technological products. We have recently seen a whole tranche of novels of science fiction in Solar System space because of the successful flights of new rockets and spaceships. Gallowglass is one such novel.

As to the future science and technological input into science fiction… I’ve been on the lookout for commentary on the Covid-19 vaccines. Even before the pandemic hit, I knew about the research at Oxford University into corona viruses that caused the cold, and more importantly, that progress albeit slow was being made. Well Covid certainly speeded up that research to produce a result – the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. Now I’m hearing about that same research has developed insights into how other diseases might be cured. So expect a science fiction reaction cycle to kick in when notable results happen and are announced. It will help to keep the number of new publications up.

The other thing science fiction is good at is doing world-building to amplify or focus better on a political message such as Rose Macaulay’s What Not, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and H G Wells’ The Time Machine. The pandemic has certainly highlighted the difference between the politics of various countries, enough to write commentaries on. But has politics developed or changed enough to push for a big wave of political novels? We’re not out of the pandemic yet, so the answer is not available. There will certainly be some novels on this theme in the offing.

So yes the future for science fiction looks bright as it has material it can work on made recently available and coming up. But will it come from being in the shadow of its sister genre, fantasy? Only time will tell.

Gollancz Fest at Home – Thoughts on the Science Fiction Panel

Wow, it’s been sixty years since Gollancz have started publishing science fiction novels. Who would have believed it has been that long. To celebrate they have today been holding a Gollancz Fest at Home. Their schedule is below. Don’t worry, you haven;t missed it. You can see the recording on YouTube. Link to Part 1 here. And Link to Part 2 here.

I f you’re like me, you would have found some items more interesting than others. Of course I made a geodesic beeline for the science fiction panel at 14:30 with Adam Roberts, Elizabeth May, Alastair Reynolds, Laura Lam and Stephen Baxter, with Gillian Redfearn as chair.

I’m not going to summarise what was discussed – you can watch the video for that. More this is about my reaction to some of the points they made.

The first was that the panel as a whole pointed to science fiction being more about the impact of technology on people than science on people. The difference between science and technology these days is that science is done in the lab, or on specialised machines that the person in the street has very little access to, or is too far away to handle while technology is hands on gadgets or infrastructure bringing goods or services in through the front door.

I do sometimes wonder whether we should have a genre, Tech Fiction. It would mean distant space opera could remain as science fiction because it isn’t going to impinge on our lifestyles any time soon. Within Solar System near future space opera would become Tech Fiction – think The Expanse here. The readership will naturally fall into one or the other: those seeking escapism will naturally veer towards Science Fiction, while those who want to debate and understand what the near future might be like will turn towards Tech Fiction. The differentiation between the two is basically serving different readership needs and so is a natural marketing strategy.

One comment I picked up was that one of the effects of the pandemic has been for people to make life decisions that they weren’t going make for a few years now. It rings true with me because I have heard such stories from local people e.g. a local gardener deciding to take retirement now instead of waiting a few more years.

But it is not just individual life decisions that have changed their timing. The pandemic has resulted in a massive push in medical research to get the vaccines we need and find medication to mitigate the worst effects of suffering from Covid-19. Some of the research would have normally taken five years to complete, instead of months it did. The success has been nothing short of spectacular.

And the medical researchers are not going stop there. In the process of doing the research and gaining their newfound knowledge, they have identified possibilities of curing other diseases, like some forms of cancer. This is only at the theoretical stage. But given the success of dealing with the pandemic, the researchers are more likely to attract the investment to test the hypotheses they have come up with. But it is not just doing the reproach that will be accelerated. The process for approving medication has been streamlined so as to avoid wasting time. Note I did not say any corners were cut in ensuring patient safety, just the time-wasting was stopped. You can bet these processes will be adapted in the future.

Of course we are also see societal changes. Home working has become more acceptable. Firms are now looking at moving people out of offices into home-working. Obviously, you cannot do without the meeting places in offices, but the actual part where you sit down at a desk to do whatever work is needed that does not need interaction with colleagues, has been shown to be a real possible way of working in the future. It has the added benefits of less commuting and less work-induced stress, which bring all sorts of other benefits with it.

Then there’s the hike in shopping online. This trend was already present before the pandemic hit, but the wretched diseases has accelerated its implementation. There will be more zoom conferences, allowing us to listen to people round the world. For instance the Herschel Society that normally meets in Bath has recently had two speakers on zoom from America without anyone having to travel or pay the expenses of travelling. There is now talk of combining in-person conventions with internationalising tech. Goodness knows what the impact of this will be in the longer term.

Yes, we are going through a major societal upheaval. Just like we as a society went through a major upheaval at the end of Second World War. During the war there were major technology advances. It always horrifies me that the UK’s Army relied heavily on horses when the war started, but by the end it was quite happily tanks and other vehicles. Changes were happening everywhere during World War II and they are too many to list in this piece, but change did not stop when the war ended. It went on for two decades afterwards.

I expect the changes that this pandemic kicked into action will also continue for a couple of decades. Where those changes might end up is a Tech Fiction or Science Fiction writer’s job to portray.

Blog postscript: By the way the article in Etaerio SF Issue 1 on AI identifies some not so obvious near future trends for AI.

For Science Fictioneers – New Pamphlet, Etaerio SF, Issue 1 is Out

Drum roll… Fireworks… Jubilations… There is a new quarterly science fiction pamphlet out today – Etaerio SF.

Etaerio SF is for science fictioneers of the near future…Issue 1 has two short stories by John A. Frochio and Sarah Hovorka. Articles for writers on how to generate ideas and new science fiction words. A discussion forum on how technology is likely to develop – this issue covers artificial intelligence (AI).

Etaerio SF is available in both paperback and print formats from Amazon.

Amazon UK Link Here.

Amazon US Link Here.

A website has been set up for Etaerio SF, that will keep you updated of new issues and plans. Etaerio SF website Link Here. And yes, there are plans. This is only the start…

Etaerio SF – Issue 1 Coming Soon.

Yes I know I’ve been very quiet. But there has been a good reason… in fact one that all science fictioneers will want to hear about.

I’m publishing a new science fiction pamphlet, which I hope to publish on a regular basis. The first issue will be out shortly. And yes I will announce it on this blog.

So be on the lookout for:

Etaerio SF

I have set up a blog for this pamphlet – etaeriosf.wordpress.com , though I’m still in the process of building it!

This pamphlet is not to be confused with the short story Etaerio that BSFA have kindly said they would publish in their first issue of Fission. I have a thing about the word, etaerio, and this was just a coincidence of timing.