What SF is in the bookshops?

I was at the shopping mall earlier today. So out of curiosity I popped into Waterstones to see what was on their Science Fiction and Fantasy shelves. As my eyes moved along the titles it went something like this:

Fantasy, fantasy, fantasy, read that, read that too, fantasy, fantasy, fantasy, fantasy, pretend science fiction but really fantasy, fantasy, pretend science fiction, read that. read that, fantasy, fantasy, fantasy, fantasy, fantasy… all one great disappointment as I left the bookshop empty-handed!

It seems the between them, the publishing industry and bookshops can’t keep up with my appetite for science fiction. There’s not much one lone person can do about it, but I do what I can. For instance when voting for British Science Fiction Association’s awards I bias my votes to science fiction that looks and feels like real science fiction. It may not be much in the great scheme of things, but it is a small nudge and you never know when such a nudge becomes important.

I know I have four science fiction stories due for publication this year, but I’m hoping that a fifth will also be accepted. That one is really destined to set the cat among the pigeons. (No, not C.A.T., but an ordinary felix felix.) Let’s just say it will give space opera fans pause for thought and space opera writers a real headache. (No, I’m not going to spoil anyone’s enjoyment by giving the essence of the story away.) But an evil grim creeps onto my face every time I think about it – can’t help it!

This particular story has really brought it home to me just how much science fiction needs a kick into new universes. For too much of the time, we’re seeing variations on themes. It was why I found Fire of the Dark Triad by Asya Semenovich a refreshing change. (Yes I did vote for it to be shortlisted from the BSFA’s longlist before you ask.)

The Blurb:

Dark Triads, a malevolent group of humans born with DNA that makes them dangerous have wreaked havoc on Earth for centuries and nearly destroyed it. Its rulers tried to purify humans by removing these genes from future generations. But the civilization faltered without the creative fire of the Dark Triads. Earth recruited an elite group known as Headhunters to recruit Dark Triads from its intergalactic colonies back to Earth. Nick, the best of the Headhunters, on a routine mission, becomes entangled with a secret conspiracy that could change the human race forever. As fighting forces on two planets, he risks his life to prevent disaster and save the woman he loves.

Earth was in a crisis. Despite its highly advanced technology, the planet was dying from pollution, overpopulation, and constant wars. Its only hope was mass migration to the newly discovered system of replica planets known as Mirror Worlds. Hundreds of millions of settlers were dispatched to colonize these worlds under Earth’s global authority. Earth renewed itself but allowed the colonized planets to fall into neglect. They rebelled and sent a devasting pandemic virus back to Earth, destroying over one-third of the population. After finding a cure and defeating the terrorists, Earth realized that this problem was caused by Dark Triads. Despite the chaos they brought, civilization and technology stagnated without their creativity and innovation. In this unforgettable novel, Nick (the best Head) falls for Lita, a woman who rebels against the planetary rulers and becomes embroiled in an interplanetary plot that could jeopardize the future of humanity. Using his Dark Triad skills, he must fight against the conspiracy and save Lita.

Different from a lot of science fiction, isn’t it? (See my review here.)

But why did the author have to self-publish it? Yes, we’re back to what the publishing industry does with its science fiction.

And no, I don’t understand it what the publishers are doing either.

Turning Points

Today is the winter solstice in Earth’s northern hemisphere – basically it is the shortest day that corresponds to the longest night. It is the turning point in the way we experience our environment. Instead of the daylight hours becoming shorter each day, they will from here on in become longer.

This is a good metaphor to for when things turn the corner from becoming grimmer to becoming happier.

I was in Waterstones bookshop in Bristol earlier today. As is natural I like to view the speculative fiction shelves to see what’s new and interesting. The one thing that struct me in Waterstones’ new hardbacks section for speculative fiction was that once you had excluded reprints of famous science fiction novels, the near omission of true science fiction. It can’t get any worse for science fiction. So we must be at the turning point of some sort.

I got an advert through from Orbit announcing new releases. Of the 8 ‘new’ books mentioned 8 were definitely fantasy and 2 science fiction. Only one snag with one of the science fiction books – it’s a new edition of a novel I’ve read before. Definitely a very heavily biased fantasy selection. So we must be at a turning point of some sort.

As I’ve noted in previous blogs, the magazine market is quicker at adapting to new trends than novels. Judging by the flurry of acceptances I’ve had in the last few months, there seems to be an uptick in interest on science fiction stories. Well, it’s that or I’m writing better stories or I’m honing my story selling skills. But things like that don’t happen so quickly for me unless there are external forces at play. So I’ll opt for the uptick in science fiction stories.

Thiever by David M Allan

I am delighted that David M Allan has had the second novel in the Quaestor series, Thiever, e-published by Elsewhen. (UK Amazon link here.) I had the pleasure of beta reading parts of it. Though it is fantasy, it is quite something.

The Blurb:

After the events in Jotuk at the end of Quaestor, Anarya is no longer a Sponger but is now a Thiever – when she takes someone’s magic talent they lose it until she can no longer hold on to it. Worryingly, the power also brings a desperate hunger to take others’ talents, just as the false god did. As Anarya struggles to control the compulsion, Yisul is fraught with worry and seeks help for her lover. But Jotuk is in upheaval; the Twenty-Three families are in disarray, divided over how the city should be governed.

In Carregis, the king takes advantage of the deaths of the Three, the cabal who previously controlled him, and seeks to establish himself as an effective ruler. First, though, he must work out whom he can trust.
Meanwhile, the priestesses of Quarenna and the priests of Huler are having disturbing dreams…

Thiever is the much anticipated sequel to David M Allan’s Quaestor.

The Reality Behind Fantasy?

This year has seen weird happenings along the south coast. First came news of two large ships see floating in the air, obviously mirages, but the kind of event that can lead to the legends like the Flying Dutchman. Then we had a boat balanced on a rock in the Scilly Isles, a kind of mini Ark on Mount Ararat. Now we have a picture of waves crashing on a harbour wall to look like Neptune – there is even a hand to be seen further along the breakwater.

All these events involve natural phenomena, though I must admit the boat on the rock was to a large extent self-induced – by the way the people on board sensibly got into a dinghy and waited for high tide before they got back on board their boat to sail away,.

Of course we live in a era of comparatively rapid climate change. New types of weather are bound to throw up oddities by influencing the local weather and sea currents, which could lead to a whole load of strange events happening. This is kind of an inevitable consequence.

If these events had happened when we did not have the scientific knowledge to explain them, then they would have been thought of as magic, like the era after the Romans left and before the Saxon kingdoms stabilised.

Wait a minute. Weren’t there two catastrophic volcanic eruptions in 536 and 539/540 – the first from a high altitude volcano in either Alaska or Iceland and the second from Ilopango in modern day El Salvador? Between them they threw up so much sulphur and dust that the Earth cooled by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Crop failures in Northern Europe and their consequences were inevitable. And this is the time associated with King Arthur and the knights of the round table.

Now what if… yes the famous science fiction question… what if we went through history checking when there was a rise in ‘magical’ incidents to see if those were the times of severe changes in climate?

Let’s take this a step further… could all fantasy that is derived from magic be actually derived from mis-reported real events that had no explanation at the time? It would be interesting to see if there is a correlation.

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.

The Blues all the way to Science Fiction?

The recent BBC programme on the latest discovery about Stonehenge has had a lot of people talking. I haven’t had chance to watch it, but it is about the discovery of the site where blue stones were emplaced near their quarry for a few centuries before being transported from Wales to Stonehenge. It is a really extraordinary story of persistence and detective work.

In all the chatter I picked up a mass of facts. What my imagination latched onto was that the blue stones are ringing stones. When struck in the right place they sound wooden or metallic notes.

Next fact that got me going was that Stonehenge is a convergence of ley lines. Ley originally meant a woodland clearing and it does not take much of an imagination to go from clearing to pathway. The ley lines are straight lines that connect ancient sites in straight lines. The original discoverer of ley lines did not attribute any magical or mystical powers to ley lines – they were just marked with various monuments along those lines. He had assumed that these were convenient way-markers to guide people between centres of population or business.

Sound tends to travel in almost straight lines over short distances – there might be a slight bending due to changing to atmospheric conditions. Now those notes are purported to be able to be heard from over half a mile away. Nevertheless those notes sounded at Stonehenge could have been carrying messages for the ancients – a kind of telegraphic system if you take some of the way markers into account.

Sounds all very sensible so far, doesn’t it? There is no proof the stones were used for messaging, but it does rather sound practical, more like common sense. I am sure various writers can make some interesting stories out of this!

But let’s take things up another notch. My brain of useless (well maybe not so useless) facts, Homer in his Illiad (yes we are talking ancient manuscripts here) describes the sea as ‘wine-dark’. Not blue, cerulean or grey, but ‘wine-dark’. Furthermore, he does this five times in the Illiad. Was he colour-blind? We’ll never know for sure. But William Gladstone (yes we are talking about the famous British Statesman here) analysed the Illiad and discovered it lacked the word blue from beginning to end. Right – could be Homer did not know a word for blue. Only one very slight snag with that. Other ancient texts ranging from the Indian Vedas to the Icelandic Sagas have the same problem.

Yep, blue is a missing word from ancient times. Why should that be the case? They had words for other colours. What was wrong with blue? The short answer has to be the ancients could not distinguish blue as colour. This with other circumstantial evidence would suggest that human eyesight then was not as good as it is today.

I have no proof of this assertion, but as an explanation it does fit in with the facts rather nicely. But what doe this have to do with the ringing stones of Stonehenge?

It is generally accepted that people who have had poor eyesight since childhood have much better hearing. The argument is that eyesight uses a lot brain capacity, but if these people cannot see as well, then the spare capacity is used to decipher what they are hearing much better.

If the ancients’ hearing was much better than ours today, could they have heard the ringing stones of Stonehenge from much further away? It is not beyond the realms for realistic possibility.

What could all this mean for the ancient societies? Well your guess is as good as mine. But with the change from hearing to sight, could it not mean that some people would appear to have magical talents to others? (Note I use the word appear here!)

Um… err… could our tales of magic be based on the changing capabilities of ancients to see and hear things? Having got this far in the thinking, it still sounds plausible. And we have a whole genre (fantasy) that might be able to show its roots go back to the change in human beings.

What does it mean for science fiction? Where do I begin? If we take this sight-sound analysis further, it will give insights into how a society where people’s capabilities are significantly different can develop and what can happen in it. The prejudices, jealousies and rise of the powerful. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed is king and all that.

I suspect humans are still continuing to adapt to our environment. I’m not sure which way they are going though. Because such adaption is not obvious, it must be happening slowly at the moment. That doesn’t mean this slowness will continue. All it takes is one individual to develop an ability naturally that is within the laws of physics, chemistry and biology…

This is definitely an area that is ripe for exploration in science fiction. Go write.

Constructor Science Fiction!

A new, well new since 2014, theory has been gaining interest recently – Constructor Theory. See here for a implied explanation. Basically instead of as in the laws of physics that deal with the predicted, constructor theory deals with the laws of the possible.

Constructor Theory rose out of quantum physics thanks to Professor David Deutsch. Therefore you could say it is applying a view consistent with quantum physics process to the world we live in and understand. And like quantum physics, it can predict some properties of the future, not usually with as much precision as the laws of physics or general relativity.

Sadly I have yet to come across a quantum physics story that is not restricted to one or two its effects, one of the favourite seems to be quantum entanglement. I can only speculate about the reasons, but I suspect that quantum physics as a topic can be very hard to understand at the instinctive level.

Science fiction deals with what might be possible in the future. There is an obvious kinship between it and constructor theory. Of course science fiction has no easy way of identifying all that is possible in the future, but it does concentrate on what is considered the most relevant to use humans.

This leads me to believe there could be a useful synergy that would lead to a greater understanding of both Constructor Theory and the Science fiction genre.

I have over time through personal observation developed my theory on idea generation mechanisms – where the ideas generated would act as points of interest in the what is possible space. It comprises four basic mechanisms. The closest the Constructor Theory comes to is my Weltanschauung mechanism that is basically a technique used in systems engineering to understand the world and what the issues are with the world.

I believe techniques in the Weltanschauung method are heavily used by fantasy writers to build their worlds and from there develop their stories.

What all this means is there seems to be a take of similar methods in developing understanding across a wide range of areas.

I’ve seen this before in engineering development and the results have been extremely useful. Consequently I see this push for what for now I’m calling quantum-physics-theory-into-constructor-theory could have benefits in the science fiction genre. I’m not sure what, but it feels hopeful and exciting times could be ahead for science fiction.

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How many novels does an author need to write before they get a novel published?

In a recent article in the Guardian (see here) about an interview with fantasy author, Brandon Sanderson, I picked up on the fact that he had written thirteen novels before he got published. That is a scary amount of work and should be enough to frighten off all but the most enthusiastic would-be novelists.

He said: “No one wanted to read what I wanted to write. …” How that rings true with me. That changed with the rise of fantasy early on in this century.

He went on to say that when he tried to write what people wanted his writing got worse. Fortunately I have not needed to learn this particular lesson because I know my limitations. I can’t write crime stories because I would get bored with having to write to a planned out plot. I can’t write romance stories as they tend to be written to a formula. I hate horror because I’ve seen too much real horror in my life. Fantasy is nice, but it leaves me with the ‘So what?’ feeling of dissatisfaction. As for literary works, well I certainly can’t define what they are.

I write science fiction, because I have some points to make in an entertaining way. Of the stories published this year so far…

  1. Rings Around Saturn in Kzine Issue 26 posits a theory about how the spires on one of the ring’s edges are naturally formed (link here)
  2. The Martian Wind takes a particular system technology that could help terraforming on Mars and showing if used what its impact could be on the society there (link here)
  3. Slivers of Hope in Space Force Building the Legacy anthology looks at how another system technology can make a difference to local space flight (link here)

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Yes, they like most of my stories are based on science and technology, and how they could affect people. And with each story comes not the in-depth science and technology explanations, but the what they do and how they will affect people with, I hope, I liberal dose of a sense of wonder.

And like Brandon, having got this far in improving my science fiction writing, I’m not going to give up now because nobody wants to read this kind of story.

But having written all this, the cat is out of the bag about Femmes Fae-Tales. This is a follow-on anthology to Distaff, but fantasy. And yes I have a story proposed for it. But let’s say I have an interesting take on this. In the meantime, you can see what progress is being made at this link. We’re aiming for a publication of 1st February 2021!

 

Festival if Ideas – Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy Event

Yesterday evening I had the pleasure of attending a Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy panel hosted by Festival of Ideas at Foyles in Bristol. Panelists were:

They talked about among other things

  • the writers we can’t stop reading
  • the writers and artists you need to know about
  • the struggles of the women in sff who came before us
  • what we can all do to support the new generations of sff women

Festival of Ideas intend to make the recording of the event available in due course, so I will refrain from giving a blow-by-blow account of what was said. Instead I will concentrate on my impressions.

I felt there was a too much of looking back over the subject and too little of the dealing with women SFF writers in the here and now or the future. Yes, it is good to look at how women got to where they are now so the subject can be carried forward. But it seemed to me there was a lot of of hiding in the safety of historical facts.

The other thing that worried me was how often we had repeat mentions of the same women authors. Again, with someone like Mary Shelley or Ursula LeGuin you would expect that, but it was too often. It backs up my belief we have had and continue to suffer from lack of high profile women SFF writers.

What I found interesting was the high proportion of the mentioned women SFF writers who wrote about the subjects they had significant academic qualifications in. It was almost as if the SFF genre required women to be highly qualified before they were allowed to be published in the genre. When asked about women science fiction writers who had degrees in science, the panel named three, very few in number compared with previous lists they came up with. Could this be why there are so few hard-science based women science fiction writers compared to fantasy writers?

It was suggested that men read and write SFF for escapism from normal day to day worldly affairs. Women on the other hand tend to deal with raw issues that require future world realism.

The other issue that came up was the assumption many people make that if you are a woman SFF writer then you must be doing YA. That to put it politely is insulting because of the assumption that women SFF writers cannot write adult novels with the emotional nuance or complexity of people interaction required by adults.

As to what should be done to help future women SFF writers? Nobody seemed to know the answer to that. But Cheryl did point to the essay by Juliette McKenna in the Gender Identity and Sexuality in Fantasy and Science Fiction published by Luna Press in 2017. It does not make happy reading for women SFF writers who want to be published.

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Quaestor by David M Allen

Let’s get one thing straight, I’m not a fantasy enthusiast. This doesn’t stop occasionally reading a good fantasy book, but one rarely grabs my attention enough for me to say, ‘Hey, there’s something special about this.’

But one book has… Quaestor by David M Allen which is being launched at FantasyCon on Sunday 20th October in Dalhanna, Room 4 at 11:00am.

I had the privilege (and I mean privilege) of critiquing parts of an early draft. Even in that rough form it shone out as a gem. All the other authors in my writing circle thought so as well. And none of us were surprised when we heard David had landed a publishing deal with Elsewhen. I for one hope it will get shortlisted for next year’s fantasy awards. Yes, it is that noteworthy.

For those wondering, Quaestor comes from Roman history. At first it meant one of two subordinates of the consuls serving as public prosecutors in certain criminal cases, but later came to mean one of the public magistrates in charge of the state funds, as treasury officers or those attached to the consuls and provincial governors.

But there are no hints of Roman history in David’s novel. Oh indeed not. In fact, this novel bursts with ideas I’ve not read or heard about in fantasy… but you’ll have to read it to find out what.

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Amazon UK link here.