Does its Golden Age Overshadow the Rest of Science Fiction?

Science Fiction’s Golden Age cannot not be pinned to definitive publications for its start and end. But everyone agrees it happened somewhen between 1938 and the end of the 1950s. It saw an outpouring of ideas and enduring science fiction stories that grabbed the attention of the person in the street. Authors like Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, Ray Bradbury, James Blish and Robert Heinlein became household names. Stories like Nightfall, Childhood’s End, Starship Troopers, The Martian Chronicles were must reads. Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics became a byword.

According to one Science Fiction’s historians, Adam Roberts, “the phrase Golden Age valorises a particular sort of writing: ‘Hard SF‘, linear narratives, heroes solving problems or countering threats in a space-opera or technological-adventure idiom.” In other words the stories were straightforward and solved or at least identified technological problems with ‘new’ science or gizmos. This was all during the era of fast technological change. World War II started with armies relying heavily on horses and the 1950s ended with launch of satellites such as Sputnik into space. Science fiction and science were closely intertwined to make such progress happen.

Then the pulp market disappeared in favour of cheap mass produced novels. Straightforward stories were no longer the writers’ bread and butter. Stories became literary in style. They veered away from the techno-gizmos to the psychological impacts. Simultaneously the apparent progress of science slowed down.

There are still stories today that follow Adam Roberts’ Golden Age template, but finding them in among the New Wave, Cyberpunk, anything-punk and literary stories from authors outside the genre is a Herculean task. To get a gizmo tory published these days, the writer has to come up with something new that will make a significant difference. Even then, the chances of getting the story published are slim verging onto nothing.

And yet… there is that nostalgia for the Golden Age Science Fiction. In part it is brought on by the invented gizmos of that heyday still waiting to become reality today and in the future. We want the true humanoid looking AIs, the ability to visit and live elsewhere in the Solar System, the cure-alls for diseases and so much more. They are in-built to our global psyche that we no longer need to remind ourselves of what can lie ahead. We expect these things to happen because some of science fiction’s gizmos have already become a reality – like landing a man on the Moon.

And this is the issue. The person in the street is stuck in believing the future will be along the lines of the Golden Age’s inventions – the inventions of the middle of last century, over seventy years ago.

Science has changed a lot since the 1950s. Yes it continues to deliver on the promises of Science Fiction’s Golden Age. But science has opened up new possibilities that are hardly touched upon in modern science fiction. Where are the stories about the impact of graphene on our society? What will happen to international politics and power when we fully understand the mechanisms of climate change? How will finding new minerals formed in near-zero gravity change our industrial base?

These questions are only a very tiny sample of those we authors should be pulling from current science innovation. There is one exception to this – the information revolution with all its computers and chips. The Cyberpunk movement saw to that. But even here, the one opportunity to use data to help invent gizmos has been missed.

The long shadow of Golden Age Science Fiction built into our global psyche is preventing us as a species looking at what can now be done in the future, which is far more than we could have believed possible in the middle of the last century.

Women Science Fiction Readers – Where Are They?

I went into Foyles in Bristol here in the UK yesterday to pick a science fiction book I had ordered – Network Effect by Martha Wells. The shop assistant remarked that I was unusual in buying a science fiction novel. How so? Well it was unusual for any woman to buy a science fiction book.

Of course I was shocked. But here he was in a bookstore giving the benefit of his experience. What he was saying had to be true.

At this point my impishness came out to play and I informed him I wrote science fiction. We ended up having a good laugh about it.

As it turned out the shop assistant was on loan from another Bristol bookstore to help out with staff holidays. So not only was I getting the experience he had in Foyles, but also that of another major chain of bookstores.

But the lack of women buying and reading science fiction bothers me for all sorts of reasons. Think of the various biases that could be and are set up in the genre as a consequence. These biases are self-perpetuating – after all publishers want to publish what they believe will sell and they only have historical track records to go by. So unless a publisher is willing to go on a limb to publish unusual, then we will get more of the same. It will stifle the variety we could see in the genre. Need I say more?

BSFA’s Fission #1 – Etaerio

Yesterday’s publication of the British Science Fiction Association’s newsletter included epub and mobi files of their new annual magazine of short stories, Fission. It includes my short story, Etaerio.

I understand the pdf version will follow shortly. For now only BSFA members have access to the new magazine – as it should be!

What is the story about? Let’s just say it is not about a normal topic at all! As far as I’m aware, this topic has not been tackled in science fiction, or if it has the stories have long since been lost to obscurity. For those who can get access to it, enjoy!

News, Serendipity and SF

I know it’s been a while since I posted here… it’s called being busy doing ordinary things like digging up the potatoes, lifting the onions, picking the fruit and beans, and all sorts of science fiction things. Also August is one of my least favourite months, too hot, too muggy or too rainy, never ever just right.

I heard the other day that Fragmented Aurora-Like Emissions reproach paper that I made a very minor contribution to is to be formally published – in other words it has cleared its peer reviews and is thought newsworthy enough to be formally published. It’s currently going through the polish-editing stages and should be out within a couple of months.

BristolCon is ramping up preparations and from what I can gather on their Facebook page there seem to be quite a few coming – at least against their pandemic estimates. Fingers crossed that it will all turn out all right for the weekend. I’m certainly looking forward to it as they have proposed some promising panels and Andy Bigwood seems to working miracles as far as the Art Room is concerned.

There will certainly be ay least one more short story from me to be published before the year comes to an end. It was one of those that started as a throw away comment that I never thought would be taken up. Only it was and I must say I’m rather pleased with the result. I’ll let you good people know when it’s out.

Just like with the short story, I think a lot of us underestimate the power of throw away comments. They are there to be ignored, except they refuse to be. They stick in someone’s memory and the next thing anyone knows is there are consequences. It happens when the person taking up such a comment examines it closely and finds something new to say and that something is useful. It’s called serendipity.

I have yet to understand exactly why and when serendipity strikes. It can be forced to happen, but the results usually disappoint because the triggers used are usually the wrong ones. Now if we can pick the right ones, think what an effect that would have on the imagination of science fiction. Humungous doesn’t even begin to describe it!

Yes, I’m serious. I’ve seen the results of serendipity and what the impact of it is on my writing. Did I hear a snigger over in that corner? If a certain story is accepted and gets published, that snigger will change into gawping amazement. Yes, I thought the idea was crazy at first, but with a little bit of judicial tinkering it’s feasible once we have the right manufacturing processes, and they’ll be with us within a few decades.

This of course means that future is not what the science fiction writers expect it to be.

But let’s get back to the present. The situation in Afghanistan is heartbreaking for many people. I’m especially concerned about how women and girls will be treated under the new regime.When I look at the history of science and its development, we wouldn’t be where we are today without the input of brilliant women. The AstraZeneca vaccine is a case in point, where one of the lead scientists who developed it is a woman. In the UK women got the vote because during World War 1, they took over men’s jobs while they went to fight on the front line. Nobody could argue after that women didn’t contribute significantly to society. If the women and girls in Afghanistan are forced to live like they had to under the old Taliban regime, Afghanistan’s a country will be much poorer for it in so many ways. I hope it does not come to pass.

Whether Afghanistan or other countries that have their own difficulties join the progressive future of the planet only time will tell, but there is such a future in store if only we can let own imaginations, willpower and practicality grab it,

Best of British Science Fiction 2020 Book Launch

Tomorrow is the day when the Best of British Science Fiction 2020 is published. There will be a ‘book launch’ for those interested.

Donna Bond, the editor will be doing a Twitter launch using the hashtag #BOBSF20 from 7pm tomorrow, when she will be tweeting enthusiastically about the stories in the anthology. Hopefully you’ll be able to join in with some of the chat and retweets. As she says, she’ll be making a ‘cheese and wine’ evening of it and feel free to to bring an excellent real or imaginary pairing of your choice to the virtual buffet table. Enjoy!

On a personal note, it is the first time one of my stories has appeared in a hardcover book, which makes it a wonderful milestone for me. The copy I’ve got of course is taking pride of place on my bookshelf. You can get a copy of the hardcover anthology at Newcon Press – Link Here.

Classic Short Science Fiction Stories?

It is over ten years since my solo outing was published courtesy of TWB press, namely C.A.T. What amazes me is that it and the two follow-on stories continue to sell. It does make me wonder whether this will ever turn into one of those classic short stories that will be read decades hence. (If you haven’t read it the UK Amazon link is here.)

It got me wondering what stories become classics? They are the ones that you talk about to other people. And the reason we do is that they have a clear message about an interesting situation. The classic story everyone knows is Nightfall by Isaac Asimov. I don’t even need to describe it to most of you because you already know the story. Its premise is still as true today as when it was first published in 1941.

I’m sure you can go on to name many other stories. But how old does a story have to be before it can be considered a classic? I reckon it has to cover at least one generation if only to show the enduring quality and applicability between generations.

So C.A.T. has about another fifteen years to go before it can even begin to be considered a classic. But does it qualify with having an idea that people talk about? Well it is a very simple idea and there are consequents. In fact all three C.A.T. stories have big ideas in them. At least I think so, but then I’m biased, aren’t I? No, only the general readership can give that answer.

There are posts around the internet that give you lists of the best classic science fiction stories. A lot of choices will be right. Some will be dubious. A few will be downright wrong. These few will have slipped into the lists because they were hot topics of conversation at the time the lists were compiled and have since disappeared into the slurry of has-been stories. Which is another reason not to say a classic is a classic until it is at least 25 years old.

And when I look through my list of stories, wondering which will become classics in their due time, I can only say each one is a favourite! Though some shine out from others. One such is Rings Around Saturn, which will be published later this month in Best of British Science Fiction 2020. Below is a picture (O.K. I’m lousy at photography) of the courtesy copies I received in the post yesterday thanks to Donna Bond and Ian Whates.

One thing I’m sure of is that some of the stories in this anthology will be described as classics in years to come.

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.

Queen Science Fiction

I happened to be Exeter yesterday and with a little amount of time to spare I popped into the local Waterstones. of course the science fiction and fantasy section had to be in the basement. When I think of the other Waterstones that I visit, the science fiction is always tucked furthest away from main entrance in a corner where there is no passing trade.

Why should this be when science fiction is the Queen of genres? …it is the Queen because it is the genre that has the most imagination, the greatest number of ideas and largest scope for including all the other genres within its remit. It is the genre that can cover any who, where, what, why, when and how.

And yet it is tucked away at the back or bottom of the Waterstones’ branches.

In fact the themes of science fiction have been around since at least 2nd Century AD when Lucien of Samosata wrote A True Story that includes alien lifeforms, travel to outer space and interplanetary warfare. So the genre, even it has not been called science fiction has been around a very long time.

And still, it is tucked away in Waterstones as if it should be bought only secretively by people to be read furtively in private with no-one else around..

It isn’t as if science fiction is not relevant to our everyday lives either. Societal commentaries on our lives have been around since at least H G Wells published The Time Machine. The impact of potential scientific inventions have been shown ever since Mary Shelley published Frankenstein. Science Fiction brings both warnings and potential solutions. Things that we all ought to have interest in if not for our own sake, for the sake of our children and their descendants.

And despite this,, it is hidden away in the hinter-most parts of Waterstones, as if we as a society are to kept away from such dangerous reality and potential power.

The science fiction books that were sprinkled among the fantasy books were mainly the genre’s classics. New novels were rare in comparison. I suspect this might be the case in other genres, but it does point to a reliance on past glories. Yet the Queen of genres has accrued the aura of the new. This in a way is a contraction in terms. This is not condemning the classic science fiction to being fog-bound in the past, these novels are just as relevant today as when they were first published.

What is missing is the nuance our recent history imposes on science fiction, things like the lessons learnt from our recent mistakes, the diversion of our socio-economic and technological trends from what could be sensibly foreseen, and the unexpected changes in our environment such as the devastation caused by Dutch Elm disease on a single species of trees that resulted with the loss of a wood that was good when working with water systems.

Another thing that is missing from science fiction is a clear identification of what is as yet unknown. This is more to do with the difficulty in foreseeing how science discoveries that are not immediately tangible to the person in the street can be seen to affect their lives. How can for instance the discovery of various types of axions affect our everyday lives? Or maybe how better understanding of how dark matter was formed would would make our lives better? If a discovery does not affect a person, why write about it?

Identifying what we don’t know and where it touches the known is one important thing. Because science fiction can be about how we cross into the unknown, and more importantly a science fiction can do what they like with the unknown. All sorts of things can happen there, some good, some bad, some with an overall neutral effect. This is the type of area where science fiction produce interesting results.

The other important thing is to extrapolate science trends and see where they can interact in new ways. In a sense the unknown here is what the interaction is. The Wright Brothers flew because they could apply controls to steer their flight, not because they knew how to produce aerodynamic lift.

So what are the science areas of interest now that could lead to interesting new innovations of the future? Where do I start? The list is long, certainly far too long to put into a blog post. I’m sure you can think of your own.

In fact Queen Science Fiction waits on your attendance to identify and write about the 99-plus percent of the potential future worlds that have not yet been published.

Science Fiction Needs to Come Out of the Ghetto!

I had the pleasure of zooming on a few items and the combined BSFA and SFF virtual convention yesterday. Like any such variety of events, some were better than others. But two things stuck out for me.

The first was the seemingly unanimous condemnation of The Guardian’s article on Cli Fi that was published yesterday. (you can read it here) This is not a new wave of Cli Fi as the article claims. In fact there have been loads of comments pointing out loads of science fiction fictions on climate change that have been written since the middle of the last century. The list of such novels seems endless. The point being made here is that the author of the article chose to ignore all the science fiction that is cli fi.

The second thing that stuck out was one of the guests of honour made a point that science fiction is the poor relation of other genres. Tade Thompson has now been elected Vice President of the BSFA. When asked what he would be doing in his role, he indicated that he wants to bring science fiction out into the light to be alongside other genres. I wish him every success in his endeavour.

Both these things point to science fiction still being in the ghetto, the genre everyone does not want to admit to publicly reading. Well that’s not quite true. People will admit to reading science fiction if they don’t think their listeners or readers will laugh at them for reading such a genre. I’ve had quite a few people say they’re interested in reading it and wish there were more good novels out there.

Hm. I suspect they’re shy of being caught reading the novel unless it is a widely acknowledged masterpiece.

But I hear you say, if science fiction is a ghetto genre, how can it produce masterpieces? Or do I hear you say, if it doesn’t produce masterpieces, how can the genre get out of the ghetto? A truly vicious circle. In the meantime, the literary cli-fi novels coming from big names outside of the genre are making the profits. Science fiction is once again being starved of the income, both authors and publishers alike.

I personally haven’t really touched cli fi, except in a short story, Ripple Effect, published in Jupiter Issue 37, Pasithee in 2012. It’s more about the politics behind climate change rather than the impact and consequences of climate change.

And herein is the lesson – climate change will not be solved until there is a global political will to solve it. If only the politicians had listened to the science fiction authors sooner!

Solstice!

Happy Solstice… this morning’s picture of Stonehenge courtesy of a NASA photographer –

There is much mystery surrounding Stonehenge – where the stones came from, why did they build it, what connection if any does have with other stone circles around Britain and so on.

Indeed stone circles are not unique to Britain, but I find it interesting they are concentrated in northern Europe. There are certainly enough unanswered questions to write about Stonehenge in science fiction.And yet oddly enough it is difficult to find.

One notable exception is The Secret of Stonehenge by Harry Harrison first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 1968.It has since been reprinted many times and translated into several languages.

I must admit it is about time the science fiction canon had more stories… the itch to write within me is!