Recent Science Fiction Themes?

The latest edition of Interzone plopped through the letterbox – well actually more like crashed with an big bang against the wooden floor, but it doesn’t do to exaggerate does it? One of the things that caught my eye was the 1983 quote by Robert Silverberg:

‘But I wonder: are we heading for an era, a decade or two hence, when science fiction, our soaring and mind-expanding literature, is a musty and ritualised entertainment consumed only by elderly Baby Boomers, hearkening back nostalgically to the good old days of their twenties, while etc illiterate young ‘uni divert themselves with the electronic hardware that science fiction predicted?’

 So what has happened since then?

Well the immediate answer to Robert Silverberg came in 1984 with William Gibson’s Neuromancer. If the ‘young ‘uns’ were going to be playing on electronic gadgets, why not write interesting observations about the whole way of living? It would certainly get them interested in the written stories.

Then the 1990s saw Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993) and Blue Mars (1996) series burst onto the science fiction. It was a kind of back to the future, the possible real future that is, that caught the zeitgeist. Realisation had arrived back in science fiction. It was continued by Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space  series (Revelation Space 2000, Chasm City 2001, Redemption Ark 2002 and Absolution Gap 2003) and as a nod to space opera, (Leviathan Wakes 2011, Caliban’s War 2012, Abandon’s Gate 2013, Cibola Burn 2014, Nemesis Games 2015, Babylon’s Ashes 2016, Persepolis Rising, 2017 and Tiamat’s Wrath (to be published 2018)). The stream of realistic swear future science fiction in space seems here to stay.

Back on Earth, we have had the cli fi movement noughties welcomed cli fi as a science fiction sub-genre, in order to try to explore how to deal with the increasing danger of climate change. Although this as a sub-genre can trace its origins all the way back to Jules Verne, it seemed to have gained a new lease of life, mainly I suspect there were a lot of tech ideas coming out of the real science and technology labs.

So what of this century’s teens? What push in subject does it have? Artificial Intelligence from the viewpoint of that AI is the theme that is becoming stronger at the moment. People are looking for answers as to how to deal with the deluge of new technology, its vagaries, its nuances, its idiocies. No wonder it seems to have taken on a life of its own.

So what’s next for the twenties? Well, I’ve said elsewhere that the impact of new things done on the micro-scale that will change our lives will be an ‘in-thing’. It’s not easy to explain without going into a fictional story (and this is where I really do wish my C.A.T. novel had been published because I can point to the relevant section that describes very well what I’m getting at). The end results will be on the surface oxymoronic i.e. kind of self-contradictory. (I told you this was hard to explain.) For instance, there will be more individualism / uniqueness and uniformity at the same time. This theme lends itself to literary writing techniques, which is I suspect why we are having so many literary writers trying to enter science fiction at the moment. They are following their instincts without understanding really why they are doing what they are doing.

So to summarise the stand-out subject themes since 1983:

  • 1980s – Cyberpunk
  • 1990s – Near future realistic space opera
  • 2000s – Cli fi
  • 2010s – Artificial Intelligence point of view
  • 2020s – effects of micro-tech improvements

Obviously the last subject needs a clarifying explanation – it’s far more than mere quantum mechanics, for which there have been various failed science fiction attempts in the recent past – justifiably so because it’s been said before. (Having said that, I know there is an author for whom I’m beta-reading at the moment that is making a good go of innovative quantum mechanics, which actually uses the kind of new micro-tech theme I’m on about. It’s a step in the right direction. He has already got a publisher lined up! – I’ll let you know when the novel will be published, but in publishing terms, it’ll be sooner rather than later.)

But I’ll save that explanation for another blog… for those critics who read my blog – you know who you are – keep a look out and when the time comes read that novel I just mentioned. You won’t regret it!

In the meantime I need to rewrite a certain story – yes you’ve guessed it – I was without realising ahead of my time by about 12 years… note to self – must stop doing this!

I’ll leave you with a link to my C.A.T. short story…

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Experiences, experiences, experiences…

I have just finished drafting what should have been a short story, but turned into a novella. The idea behind it came from my holiday in Switzerland last June. So it has been some time in brewing before it finally got onto the screen.

But like most of my writing that I end up being happy with, it came with surprises during the writing. For want of a better description, the creative spirit was with me on this one.

Now I’m going to put in the filing system and let it brew a little longer. I realise I have got too close too the words, the paragraphs, the grammar, the sub-plots, the characterisation and the world-building (which is both familiar and because of the basic idea behind it, unfamiliar). I need to step away from it and look at it with fresh eyes later in the year.

What’s next?

Another short story beckons… let’s hope this one does not end up as a novella, unlike the previous short story.

And then it’s back to novel number three, which for various reasons has has taken a back seat for these last couple of months.

But in all this, I continue to be reminded that there is still an imbalance between the sexes when it comes to writing and publishing science fiction. I still, after all these years, do not know the answer, though I must admit the situation has become more balanced. There is still a lot of ground to make up, though. So no complacency.

One thing I have learned is that it pays to look round the internet for possible markets – it is no good relying solely on the big sites such as grinder. Yes, their intel on markets is good, but it is not complete, particularly for longer works.

One snippet of good news is Explorations Through the Wormhole anthology continues to be in the top 100 in categories on both Amazon UK and Amazon US 20 months after it was first published. I still can’t believe it and I’m sure it has been due to the hard work of the publishers, behind the scenes contributors and fellow authors.

But is the science fiction market changing.

One thing I have noticed is that there is an increase of stories written from an AI point of view. Now a lot of them are really human traits placed in a machine, but no less valid science fiction for it. But not all are in this vein – you only have to look at C.A.T. as an example (well, I had to say this, didn’t I?). I think this is going to be subject bubble for the next year or so before it come submerged in the spaghetti themes of science fiction. Which, to me, makes it more unlikely for my C.A.T. novel to be published. A great shame really because my beta readers continue to enjoy their bimonthly episodes from the novel and I know the general readership will miss out on what I call a multi-level reading novel – I mean it is both a darned good adventure while dealing with serious issues.

Apart from this bubble, what else is on the science fiction horizon? Well, there still seems to be a move to to the fantasy end of the speculative fiction market. More science fiction writers from the hard end of the speculative fiction spectrum are turning towards fantasy end. Such an emphasis will eventually get overpopulated with stories and people will start looking for something else. It’s a question on when, not if.

What will replace this fantasy bias and the mini AI bubble?

It’s crystal ball time… make mine a deep purple amethyst… I think we are going to look at the revolutions that are quietly coming through from science research and technology development on the tiny scales. It’s one of those amazing realms (if I can borrow a word from fantasy) to be as a writer at the moment. There’s lost and loads to be explored…

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the C.A.T. story… click on the image to get to Amazon to read the first part of the first C.A.T. short story… (come to think of it C.A.T. would make a good science fiction TV series, but please don’t tell him about it – he;s got a big enough head as it is…)

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Silence from the Agents

A long long time ago I sent a short story into a magazine. They held onto it, so I thought they must be seriously considering it. I waited. Life got in the way. I forgot about it. And three years later I got the rejection. The editor concerned is still in business, but after that I refuse point blank to have any dealings with him. Why? If I had got rejection in a timely manner, I would have passed it onto other magazines to see if they would accept it. Yes it did have a strong plot and was very topical for the day. By the time the rejection had come through, I had lost interest in the story and its style felt old and jaded. So it died in depths of my filing system, when it could have had a chance of being published.

As you good people know, I’m sending my C.A.T. novel to agents to see if they are interested. I have had replies from some saying they liked what they read, but it was not their kettle of fish and gave it a pass. There are some agents who say on their website that if you don’t hear from them within such and such a time limit assume, that they are not interested. These two categories I’m more than happy with because I know where I stand with them.

The agents who really annoy me are those who say that you should hear back within such and such a time and even if you give them reasonable leeway for life’s natural interruptions, you still don’t hear back from them. You are just left dangling there in the no-space of not knowing. Not only is it annoying, it’s downright rude!

Now I find fellow writers have been having the same problem. They’ve been thrown into the no-space of left dangling there.

I can’t remember things being as bad as this. It seems as if there is a plague of agent could-not-care-less-about-new-authors going on. And I’m not just talking about the agents starting up here. There are some well known agencies involved.

I refuse to do chase-up queries. I have spent time and effort in getting my submission into the form they want, and they can’t even be bothered to say a ‘no thank you, this does not work for me’ standard e-mail. Why should I waste more of my time on them? If they have been rude once, they’re very likely to be rude again.

I now have a blacklist of said agents (those that leave you wondering ones) whom I will not offer any future novels to. No ifs or buts. They’re on that list and that’ll be the end of my dealings with them.

I hope other authors who find themselves in a similar situation will follow suit. It’ll mean those agents-who-leave-you-dangling will have less chance of signing on a good novel from an author who is dedicated to writing.

To those agents who let you know on their website what the situation is, thank you. To those agents who make the effort to reply in a reasonable time, a special thank you.

Planet by planet through the Solar System!

It has been a long term ambition to publish an anthology that contains my stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies that has one story for each planet in our Solar System. Here’s the latest list:

  • Mercury – Displaced – ‘the new writer’, Volume 66, May/June 2004
  • Venus – Flex and Flux – Aphrodite Terra anthology, Whippleshield Books, December 2016
  • Earth – Cold Pressure – Jupiter 26, Isonoe, October 2009
  • Mars – A Fate of Dust – Full Frontal Lobe e-zine, Issue 2, October 2012
  • Jupiter – Agents of Repair – Jupiter 29, Thyone, July 2010
  • Saturn –
  • Uranus – Iceborne, Earth-born, Kraxon Magazine, April 2018
  • Neptune – Life Sentence – Jupiter 8, Phasiphae, Spring 2005

The observant among you may have noticed that there is one missing! The most visually interesting planet of them all – Saturn. The trouble is that in many ways it is too rich a place and many authors have been drawn to it like bees to a honey pot. And a lot of science fiction has been written about it. Yes, I did have a story about Saturn, centring on its moon, Hyperion, but I’ve now retired it from submitting it to publishers who might have been interested in it. Nor, for various reasons am I going to return to it to improve the story.

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But what am I going to of about Saturn, which another author has not already done?

Well, new discoveries keep crawling out the vacuum. Recent announcements include Venus being able to sustain bacterial life and confirming that Uranus smells of hydrogen sulphide – rotten eggs to you and me.

Now when I wrote my Venus story, I was fully aware that the planet’s upper atmosphere could sustain human life. It is but a small logical step from there to say the upper atmosphere could sustain bacteria. That was obvious and left me wondering what the fuss was about.

My reaction the Uranian rotten eggs is that such a fact would only be useful if you had a plane or spacesuited person flying through the atmosphere and the fuselage or spacesuit was breached. A good warning of something wrong. The left me with a ‘there’s not much I can about this fact’ situation.

But that doesn’t mean that some interesting fact about Saturn will not emerge that could be the basis of good science fiction story. After all, there’s all that Cassini probe data to analyse. But this means sitting around and waiting for something to be found and announced. Could be quite a while.

There is one aspect I have not yet seen anything written about – the hexagon cloud formation around the north pole’s vortex (which, by the way has changed colour from mostly blue in 2012 to a more golden yellow in 2016). But, like the Uranian rotten eggs smell, I don’t yet see how to develop a story where this hexagon is a catalyst for a human story.

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In the meantime, you know that short story I am writing that is supposed to be 10,000 to 12,000 words long. Looks like it’s heading for twice that size. How did that happen?

Dag nab it, Saturn will have to wait, while I finish this novella… a novella I say!

 

Wacky Ideas Inc? Or Are They?

Sometimes when talking among friends you get some very crazy ideas… the one that keeps going round my tiny beetle blain at the moment is a rocket made of chocolate and fuelled by sugar. We are not talking about chocolate treats here, but rockets that fly into space.

Of course any sane-minded person would say this is ridiculous and will never work. It’s obvious isn’t it?

And then that little nagging voice of doubt creeps into my mind…

First off, sugar-fuelled rockets have taken off to reach extraordinary heights. Just do a quick google search if you don’t believe me. And click here for an article where a sugar-fuelled rocket reached over twelve (yes, 12) kilometres in height.

Now let’s turn to the chocolate part of the design. We know a drone made of chocolate – if you don’t believe me see this you-tube video! This makes a good starting point! Yes I know the engines and batteries and wiring aren’t made of chocolate, but the frame is!

However the problem for a real rocket would be atmospheric heating i.e. when the rocket travels so fast, it heats up the air surrounding it, which in turn makes it melt. Um… how about using chocolate as a layer of ablative – a substance designed to deliberately melt away when the frame gets hot!

The question then becomes of how much ablative would a rocket need and in consequence, how much extra fuel it would need to lift the extra weight. There is also the question of which type of chocolate to use and whether there would be any pre-cooling prior to launch e.g. put into the freezer and only taken out immediately before launch. A further relevant question would the ablative be structured to have air-cooling vanes or holes within it, which would reduce the overall weight of ablative chocolate needed? It would be worth looking at the engine cooling technology Reaction Engines Limited are producing for their Skylon space plane project for ideas as to how to do this.

Here’s another issue. We will need electricity to control flight. So does chocolate conduct electricity? Milk chocolate being fatty does not. Dark chocolate? Well maybe enough to control the surfaces. So we can make cabling of dark chocolate surrounded by the insulating milk chocolate.

So what about the heat from burning the sugar fuel? Now this is going to get really weird… the fuel burning only happens inside the the hollow part of the solidified sugar fuel. Yes we can use the appropriate air-cooling techniques to reduce the heat transfer from the sugar to the chocolate.

Of course, there is a lot of engineering work to go into a chocolate rocket with its sugar fuel before we can say whether it’s feasible or not. But as you can see, the more you think about it, the more feasible it becomes!

Someone ought to write a science fiction short story about this!

P.S. – It’s a good job the BristolCon planning committee haven’t heard about this, or they’d be putting this on their workshop / panel programme in one form or another!

P.P.S. –  For those that are interested, there is a firm that makes and sells chocolate rockets as sweets li-la chocolates –  see here. 

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AI point of view in Science Fiction

As you good readers know, I have had the C.A.T. series of stories published. (Hint for those of you unfamiliar with this delightful character – he’s a robot-cat who, well, he has issues.) It made me wonder if there were any other novels or stories written from an AI point of view… well, there are, including:

  • All Systems Red – Martha Wells
  • Ancillary series – Anne Leckie
  • Sea of Rust – C. Robert Cargill
  • Diaspora – Greg Egan

Yes, there are many stories about robots, AI, human imitation uploads, but we don’t usually really get inside the ‘control functioning’ of the main character AI. The stories mentioned above do.

The danger in trying to write a novel from an AI viewpoint is that it is so darned easy to slip into how a human would react. One of the good aspects about writing about a robo-cat, is that even if I did slip away from the AI character, i went into cattish behaviour, which made it still feel unfamiliar. (You have to know how cats behave to do this, and believe me, all my cats have given me an interesting time – including the latest who turns out to be a good future weather vane! – How does he do that?)

But does writing from such an unorthodox point of view (and getting it right) put off the publishing industry?

Let me explain a little of the background to this question. My C.A.T. novel (as opposed to the published short stories) is currently doing the UK agent rounds. I have had one nice reply saying the novel has a lot going for it, but the agent concerned has said it is not the kind of science fiction he can put his heart into and given it a pass. As for the others I’ve sent it to (a limited list), silence.

This is despite the Writers of the Future contest awarding 8 Honourable Mentions for the first drafts of individual chapters when I entered them as short stories and getting very supportive (as well as helpful) comments from my beta readers (some of whom I hasten to add are published authors in their own right – so know the system and what they are talking about).

So I can only assume the answer to my question has to be ‘Yes’. And for me, the writer, it’s depressing.

This does however remind me of why I started writing science fiction in the first place. I felt that the science fiction of the day had gone into rut, writing variations on already well-documented themes. There was little in the way of what I called progressive science fiction – the type where new ideas that are coming through from science and technology, and their impact on humans, are explored. With a few exceptions, I still feel today’s published science fiction is in a rut.

And this really annoys me, because when I’m writing, I see so much potential technology (derived from current research programmes) that is hardly, if at all, explored in the science fiction genre. A few of these technologies can have such a large impact on the way our lives will change in the future. I can say this with confidence because my C.A.T. novel, which contains a lot of the conventionally extrapolated science of yesterday, also contains one new idea that really changes the course of the novel. I’m also writing a novelette (at least I think that will be the word-count bracket it will fall into), which incorporates that idea, but hiding it under a whole heap of, yes you’ve guessed it, conventionally extrapolated science of yesterday. Why? Because I want to see it published. This is clearly a ridiculous state to be in!

What to do about this? It feels like fighting a world tsunami of tradition. (I know, tsunami and rut are rather oxymoronic!)

Part of the problem is that a lot of published science fiction is by vested political interests. I have no issue with these interests joining in, except they are helping to suffocate the technology-forging-ahead science fiction. This is not to their benefit long term because if readers lose interest in science fiction (due to there being so little new to say), then they also will lose their readership.

Another part of the problem is that anything radically new does not have a track record of sales that the bean counters can point to to say this is a safe bet to publish. We’re now in a detrimental feedback loop of publishing the slight variation – readership losing interesting and so on.

A further part of the problem is that self-publishing is swamped by books so much that readers hardly have time to catch their breadth before a new novel comes out. So there is not really the ‘space’ for new entries to be acknowledged, let alone shine.

In short, the science fiction publishing industry seems to be well and truly quagmired in the past.

Which is why I found an e-mail in my inbox of interest. I’ll give you the relevant quote from it:

The holonovel can be seen as a new medium, to be considered not just by engineers and scientists but also by artists, designers and writers. 

The holonovel (we’re not just talking about the Star Trek holodeck here) is likely to follow a similar development arc to e-publishing and, being a new medium, will for a few years at least, breathe some life into flagging science fiction publishing industry. So here is a window of opportunity.

As a medium it will alter the descriptive emphasis in novels – there will be more 3-D all round the scene description for instance. But will it change the science fiction stories?

I have a hunch it will. Because the holonovel will have the multi-point-of-view ability, there will be an initial push to move away from the first-person-close point of view to a more panoramic viewpoint. Whether this will stick will be dependent on the technology deployed.

However, the beauty of writing from an AI viewpoint is that the AI can perceive (in its own way) things from far away through internet connections. It can have that more panoramic point of view, albeit it is restricted to what data can supply (i.e. there’s no sense of smell, touch, taste, balance, temperature at the moment).

In other words writing from the AI point of view will help readers edge to ‘reading’ in the new technology of holonovels.

As for my C.A.T. novel – well given my lack of success so far in finding a suitable agent so far, I’m going to have to assume the worst and that it may never get published. So all I can leave you with is a link to the C.A.T. story here

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Sciency New Science Fiction Novel Pick for May

My choice of new sciency science fiction novel that will be published in May is:

Artificial Condition

by Martha Wells

 

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The Blurb:

Artificial Condition is the follow-up to Martha Wells’s hugely popular science fiction action and adventure All Systems Red

It has a dark past—one in which a number of humans were killed. A past that caused it to christen itself “Murderbot”. But it has only vague memories of the massacre that spawned that title, and it wants to know more.

Teaming up with a Research Transport vessel named ART (you don’t want to know what the “A” stands for), Murderbot heads to the mining facility where it went rogue.

What it discovers will forever change the way it thinks…

The Reason:

Whilst it reminds me of my C.A.T. short stories, i.e. it is from an AI point of view and has the space opera feel to it, it is more conventional in world-building outlook than them and with apparently ‘bigger’ themes* to deal with in human terms. Nevertheless it is a step in the right direction towards the C.A.T.-type stories, so am very much looking forward to reading this.

UK Amazon link here.

US Amazon link here.

* This is for the short stories. If ever my C.A.T. novel gets published, you’ll see some very much bigger themes in there.