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.

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…

A Worrying Guardian Column on Science Fiction

I always look forward to reading the monthly Guardian column, best recent science fiction and fantasy releases. But this time I was absolutely horrified. The columnist wrote of The Echo Wife, ‘The plot is even more full of holes: Evelyn is a genius, yet her husband (a mere academic) not only runs with her idea, he manages to secretly produce her clone in his spare time. ‘

Full of plot holes? How did this novel slip out of the author’s hand through the editing in this state?

Every writer is taught, cajoled and persuaded to ‘edit, edit. edit. And yet this novel, published by Hodder, a BIG publisher in science fiction, is full of plot holes.

This is even more heart breaking when I see so many novels in a better state not getting the chance of being published. Their authors try to get agents, asking one after another if they would take on their novel, only to gather a mountain of rejections. The authors submit to publishers, one after another, only to get another mountain of rejections. And yet this novel, full of plot holes, got accepted and published.

Another novel described in the same column, Birds of Paradise, earns the comment, ‘- but I couldn’t help feeling it would make more sense as a graphic novel: fantastic and colourful, but lacking depth.’ In other words it should have not have been published as a straightforward science fiction novel. This was published by Titan, another respected publisher.

This time it’s about presenting a novel to the wrong market – it should’ve gone to the graphic novels section. This is an error of judgement in the author and the sales team.

And the same point applies about this novel taking up a place that should have gone to a more deserving book and its author.

That’s two out of the five novels presented in the column. There was a complaint about a third novel, which boils down that being a second novel in the series, it should’ve made reference to the important parts of the first novel that the reader needed to know. In the worst case, if it’s impossible to incorporate such necessary information within the novel itself, then a summary at the beginning of the book would’ve helped. But none was available.

If the column is reflective of the state of science fiction publishing, then science fiction publishing is in a mess. No ifs or buts. So you can understand why I was horrified at reading it. I’m off to have a good meta-cry about it!

Link to Guardian Column here.

BSFA’s Fission #1 – Etaerio

I’m absolutely fizzing about my short science fiction story, Etaerio, being accepted for the first issue of the British Science Fiction Association’s annual anthology, Fission. It is an absolute honour to be included in the inaugural issue.

BSFA are producing Fission in collaboration with Celsius to make the work of Spanish Science Fiction and Fantasy writers more available to Anglophone readers. A story written in Spanish for Celsius will be translated into English and included in Fission – for issue 1, it is Jon Bilbao’s The Lego Calf. In a reciprocal arrangement, one story will be chosen from Fission, translated into Spanish and published in Celsius. This will be Lyonesses by So Mayer.

The contents for Fission, issue 1 , in no particular order, are

The Aminals Marched in Two By Two by Syeda Fatima Muhammad
A Pall of Moondust by Nick Wood
Lyonesses by So Mayer
The Lego Calf
 by Jon Bilbao
The Witch and the Elderman
 by Peter Haynes
The Trip by Michael Crouch
Etaerio by Rosie Oliver 
The First and Last Safe Place by C. John Arthur
 by Gene Rowe
The Blood Between Us by Katherine Franklin
 by Eugen Bacon & E. Don Harp
Time Keep by Elad Haber
Power of Attorney by Louis Evans
I Love Google Maps/Death to Google Part 1 by Paul Beacon

Congratulations to all who have been included and thank you to all those involved in producing Fission. I’m looking forward to reading the other stories.

I am not sure when Fission will be actually published, but I will give you details as and when I know.

And yes, etaerio is real word that can be found in more comprehensive english dictionaries…

Ten Years of C.A.T.!

It is 10 years to the day since C.A.T was published. Happy Birthday, C.A.T.

And what a journey it has been since then! Two further stories published – Neptune’s Angel and Guard Cat. An as yet unpublished follow-on novel written that has led to Eight Honourable Mentions in the Writers of the Future contest. (It has always amused me that the one that did not get an award is entitled ‘Belonging to Nowhere’.)

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.

SF Magazines?

The British Science Fiction Awards shortlists have been announced. In the novels category we have:

Best Novel

  • Tiffani Angus, Threading the Labyrinth, Unsung Stories.
  • Susanna Clarke, Piranesi, Bloomsbury.
  • M. John Harrison, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, Gollancz.
  • N.K. Jemisin, The City We Became, Orbit.
  • Gareth L. Powell, Light of Impossible Stars, Titan Books.
  • Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future, Orbit.
  • Nikhil Singh, Club Ded, Luna Press.
  • Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Doors of Eden, Tor.
  • Liz Williams, Comet Weather, Newcon Press.
  • Nick Wood, Water Must Fall, Newcon Press.

There is a good mix of publishers, some of long standing and a few newer ones. Just what would be expected of a relatively healthy market.

The short stories category shortlist reads:

Best Short Fiction (under 40,000 words)

  • Eugen M. Bacon, Ivory’s Story, Newcon Press.
  • Anne Charnock, ‘All I Asked For’, Fictions, Healthcare and Care Re-Imagined. Edited by Keith Brookes, at Future Care Capital.
  • Dilman Dila, ‘Red_Bati’, Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction From Africa and the African Diaspora, AURELIA LEO. Edited by Zelda Knight and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki.
  • Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, ‘Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon’, Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction From Africa and the African Diaspora, AURELIA LEO. Edited by Zelda Knight and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki.
  • Ida Keogh, ‘Infinite Tea in the Demara Cafe’, Londoncentric, Newcon Press. Edited by Ian Whates.
  • Tobi Ogundiran, ‘Isn’t Your Daughter Such a Doll’, Shoreline of Infinity.

Noticeable by its absence is Interzone. Less surprising, but surprising nevertheless, is the absence of the big three magazines, Analog, Asimov’s, and Fantasy and Science Fiction as they are published in the USA – they have less access to the UK shops compared with their home market.

For reference British magazines include:

  • Interzone
  • Shoreline of Infinity
  • Kzine
  • The Future Fire
  • Kraxon
  • Compelling Science Fiction
  • Aphelion
  • Write Ahead / The Future Looms (well this is half British – the other half being Swiss)

Yet only one magazine story got shortlisted – the others being from standalone publications or anthologies.

The natural question to be asked – is the day of the science fiction magazine over?

If it is, is it being replaced by standalone stories and anthologies? Your guess is as good as mine.