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!

Best of British SF 2020 Anthology Coming Along

Wow! Ian Whates published photo of the dust cover of the Best of British Science Fiction 2020. Here it is…

Of course I feel both proud and humbled to see my name on the back! I Still can’t believe that Donna (the editor) has chosen to include my story.

I also feel happy that Geoff Nelder is in this anthology. I’ve known him as a fellow science fiction writer for well over a decade now and know how hard he has worked at his craft. I loved his story!

Best of British Science Fiction 2020 Anthology

Well this is a turn up for the books! I’m absolutely chuffed that my short story, Rings Around Saturn, has been included in the Best of British Science Fiction 2020. It was originally published in Kzine Issue 26 last January.

The first short story I got published was on Mercury, the second on Neptune. From there on it it was my aim to have a short story published for each of the planets in our Solar System. Rings Around Saturn completed that aim. Therefore this feels like a crowning moment of personal achievement.

Furthermore, this will be the first hardback anthology a story of mine will appear in! Wow, wow and WOW!

My deepest thanks go to Donna Bond for choosing my story and Ian Whates for publishing it. Orders can be place Newcon Press here.

Secondhand SF Books – Royalties and Selling

Authors have never earned royalties on second hand books. I mean how do you keep track of such books that are exchanged for money? There are a scattering of secondhand bookshops throughout the world and lets face it, tracking down authors to pay royalties to can be a time consuming job.

But it seems it can now be done, at least to a partial extent. William Pryer is the founder of Bookbarn International based in Somerset. I used to visit the main site, which was literally a large barn full of secondhand books. It was an Aladdin’s cave to a bookworm like me.

In 2015 he came up with the idea of paying authors royalties on secondhand books, but could not go it alone. Now in partnership with the The World of Books group, he has come up with AuthorSHARE. Authors will be paid each time one of their books is bought directly from the World of Books and Bookbarn International websites, up to a cap of £1,000 a year.

More details can be found here.

This initiative will certainly be welcome by many authors, especially the majority whose income do not meet their basic living costs and have to have what is called ‘a day job’ to make up the deficit.

But going back to the times I visited Bookbarn, one thing was very noticeable. The proportion of science fiction books for sale was not in line with the numbers for sale in bookshops. It was much lower. It seemed that science fiction readers held on to their books much longer than readers of other genres.

Similarly if I look along the book selection for sale in charity shops today, science fiction is noticeable by its absence. I really do mean absence.

I also remember a chap coming round my house when I was clearing things out for personal reasons. His eyes lit up on seeing my then paltry collection of science fiction novels (it has grown since then). Those he could sell, and I mean they would quickly find a home a relatively high prices.

All this circumstantial evidence points to a thirst for science fiction that is not being as satisfied compared with other genres.

I’m not sure why this is happening. I can speculate endlessly on its causes, but it would be just that, speculation.

Contributory factors may include: it takes longer to write a science fiction story because of the extensive world building involved; and science fiction has more scope for variety than in many other genres and therefore has more bandwidth for risk that publishers are adverse to.

Latest Review of Space Force: Building a Legacy

I was alerted to a review of Space Force: Building the Legacy this morning. It made my day with the following being about my story:

“Slivers of Hope” by  Rosie Oliver

Wow. Just wow. This is a story of human resilience. It is a story about human brilliance. It’s something I wish I had written, but didn’t. I’m not sure about the science here, but it makes sense from a layman’s point of view. Yeah. This one is going to haunt me.

And to think the genesis of Slivers of Hope was observing a con trail while driving home from work on a cold winter’s stare night. My immediate thought was it was a pity we could not use that con trail as a road to Low Earth Orbit. Some convoluted lateral thoughts later, I wrote Slivers of Hope.

Will there be a sequel to this story? There has to be. I can’t leave the ideas in this story alone. They are huge, world-bending in the sense it points to our species taking a different path from what is currently extrapolated and therefore expected, and most importantly innovative even by science fiction standards.

It just shows you how a small incident or observation can lead to greater things if you just let it grow.

From Science Fiction to Fact?

I’m looking forward to the new Revelation Space novel by Alastair Reynolds to be released by Gollancz in the summer. Of course I moseyed round to look at the cover on the publisher’s website.

My first reaction? That spacecraft looks awfully like the Skylon spaceplane, a spaceplane concept developed by the British firm, Reaction engines Limited (REL) – picture below:

Then the engineer in me took over. Couldn’t help it. It’s instinctive in me.

The main difference is that the novel’s cover shows the plane in space. It does not have to fly in atmospheres. The Skylon does. But let us assume for now that both planes have to fly through the air.

The major differences are the Inhibitor plane has wing tips on top of the engines (used to reduce drag in subsonic flight), has what appears to be intakes in the nose and the fuselage is sqarish with aerodynamic cornering. On the other hand the Skylon has canards (those controls at the nose) and a rudder..

The comparison leaves me wondering two main things. How does the Inhibitor plane control its flight through the air? (Skylon does this via the rudder and canards.) And why doesn’t the Inhibitor plane maximise its internal volume to skin ratio, which reduces the amount of skin heating in atmospheric flight to a minimum for the amount of cargo or number of people on board.

Let us deal with the latter question first. If the Inhibitor plane is small (we’ll have to see if that is the case once the novel is published), then it may have to fit around the shapes of specified objects such as human sitting in a cockpit. So we have what is called a constrained minimum of fuselage surface area.

But there may be another reason why the fuselage is squarish. The whole body could be acting as a rudder to control the horizontal turning in the air. O.K., let us take this idea a step further. The Inhibitor plane could be using its horizontal surfaces as the equivalent of a vertical rudder. That is all well and good, but how would both the horizontal and vertical rudder be controlled I hear you ask?

Remember those nose intakes? If there is a control to vary the amount of air taken on board through them, it will create a differential pressure, which means the space plane will turn. It’s a kind of short term instability like fly by wire, but this affects the engine fuel supply instead.

But I hear you say, there are only two nose intakes, so the atmospheric control can only be in one plane. That is true if the nose intakes only take in air. What about pushing out air in an aerodynamically controllable way, especially in the vertical direction? See those strange ridges on the back of the plane? They could be out-takes. Now we are talking.

Clearly up to now I’ve been talking about atmospheric flight. Spaceflight is another matter and would have to rely on directional vector controls within the engines. This could always act as a back-up in atmospheric flight. So now we have two systems in air – good safety feature here. Equally in space, the air ejection controls could help manoeuvre the space plane. Also a good safety feature here. I’m beginning to really like this design.

Of course there are a lot of features in common between the two plane designs – for the purposes of supersonic flight – black material for atmospheric heating control, long noses for sending the supersonic booms into ultrasonics so that people do not hear them and engines set close to the centre for good aerodynamic control.

Of there is a lot more engineering to this than I have discussed here. My next step would be to look at the centre gravity position relative to the centre of aerodynamic pressure – which incidentally can be controlled by moving the fuel around the plane. This was used successfully in Concorde – yes this particular technology goes all the way back to the 1960s. The real technological development would the internal engine, intake, out-take and fuel co-ordination, especially reducing the reaction times to commands and changes in the external environment. This is data heavy, but it can be done with the appropriate amount of development work.

See what I’ve done with the artist’s design of the Inhibitor plane? Identified what the good points are and how they might work in reality. And sometimes humanity needs the artists to come up with suggestions for the scientists and engineers to look at to see if they are feasible.

This is one of the reasons that science fiction exists and is popular in certain circles.

Science Misrepresented in Science Fiction

I was idly pawing through stuff over a nice cup of coffee when I came across this interesting article written in 2018 (link here) on the relationship between science and science fiction. The takeaway bite-size chunks are:

  • people from the artistic side are afraid of scientific things
  • the requirements of drama are very different from the requirements of science
  • the genius has become the kind of ideal scientist, but the reality is never like this
  • some science fiction is perhaps better called technology fiction

I know people that as soon as you say science, technology or word of similar ilk they turn away, switch off, refuse to even try to understand the simplest of science ideas and so on. They just refuse to engage. And lives are the poorer for it.

There are some people who want to know more about science but are genuinely incapable of understanding. Heck, I’ve known a brilliant physicist be actually maths-blind. It was as if his brain wiring for maths was just missing. I can see the same happening for science. But let me make one thing clear – this only applies to a very small percentage of people, and I mean very small. The rest who refuse to engage in science are just plain lazy.

What I found interesting is that there are artists who genuinely want to know more about science and technology. Some are too scared of being found to be wrong in the company of the techno-cognoscenti – um – how can I put this? – give a scientist or technologist or engineer any excuse to talk about their subject, and they’ll be away, chatting nine to the dozen.

It’s actually very lonely being a techno-geek. There are so few people who show interest in your subject. So come on artists – show the geeks some love and get them to talk about techno-stuff. You’ll be surprised how quickly they find your level of understanding of the subject and go to that level to talk. After all they had to learn their their subject from scratch too.

Science requires a lot of dedicated people to make progress. This is the reality. The super-geek does not exist. Even Sir Isaac Newton relied on the work of previous scientists to come up with the laws of motion and gravity. Similarly Einstein did with his great discoveries – his genius lay in asking the right questions about what he was reading up on. The super-geek is artistic license to allow the artist to condense the input of science into a few sentences or scenes. It’s a short-cut away from reality. Treat it as such. and be aware the truth if it were to occur would be far more fascinating – trust me, I’ve been in research and development.

Technology fiction ought to be defined as being a story that requires a gizmo is realisable from the laws of science, without which there would be no story. This is different from science fiction – which must include postulated laws of science that can sit alongside the known laws of science.

Now gizmos, or if you must, magic wands are used likes the techno-geek I mentioned earlier to take shortcuts in the narrative. And once again the author ends up missing a lot of the fun out of the story.

Publishers of course want to make their publications accessible to as wide an audience as possible. It gives them a chance to make more profits. Logic then dictates making science fiction as stripped out as possible of the science to attract the art audience.

In fact the publishers have in general been doing this so much for so long that they have lost sight of where the science is currently going. In other words a lot of science fiction is out of date the day it is published. This publishers are wimping it, and in the process doing their readership a grave disservice.

There is a whole heap of reasonably extrapolated and engineered science missing from science fiction.

It’s got to the stage where every time I draft a new science fiction story, techno-newness drops into my lap. That means there is a lot of reasonably extrapolated and engineered science that the readership needs to catch up on.

In fact so much so that I’m quite happy to predict that the world in 25 years time will be vastly different from the world we live in today. And the sad thing is that the readership will have no warning of what is coming down our timeline. They will have no time to anticipate or prepare. My brain hurts just thinking about it all.

The Martian Wind does give a smidgen of hints of what might be in store for humanity. (Amazon UK link here.)

Science Fiction – Shortage of New Books?

A science fiction reviewer I know rations himself on reviewing newly published science fiction books because not enough of them are being published for his voracious reading appetite.

Emma Newman is author of the Planetfall series of novels – After Atlas was shortlisted for the 2017 Arthur C Clarke award and the 3rd novel, Before Mars, shortlisted for a BSFA Best Novel. The overall series was shortlisted for the 2020 Best Series Hugo Award. And yet she says on her website, ‘I would dearly love to write another book in the Planetfall universe, but at present there are no publishing offers to support that.

There are plenty of upcoming science fiction books listed on Amazon that are being published over the next 90 days. You would think science fiction is a healthy genre.

Some will be new issues of previously published books (e.g. Neuromancer) and books associated with fandom such as Star Wars, Star Trek and Dr Who. More are issues in another format such as paperback when the novel has already been published in hardback. Some are the next instalments in long running space operas where the milieu is all too familiar and type of story will have a familiar ring to it. And herein lies the problem. A lot of books are one way or another a regurgitation of what has been published before. You can’t blame the publishers for this – they are businesses wanting to make sufficient profit to pay their workers.

So you have to sift through the lists to find out what is really new. As a general rule if a book is being published as a hardback it is either a classic or a new book. But there are many good books that are first published as paperbacks.

The only really sure way of finding out whether a book is newly published is to go to the publishers’ websites. Way back in the middle of 2019 I did put together a powerpoint of UK speculative fiction publishers in the UK, which is below. Please note some of the entries may unfortunately be out of date and not all of them may publish science fiction.

But yes, it can be tedious regularly checking up on all these websites. What about a central website that pulls together a list of new books? The one I know about does not seem to cover all these publishers. There are likely to be others, if you can find them. But the point remains, there is no one go-to site for a list of every science fiction book published by publishers.

The other issue I have is fantasy has been more and more lumped in with science fiction. The distinction between these genres is now blurred so much that even the sellers can’t cope. With about six fantasy books published for every science fiction book these days, it is not surprising that science fiction seems to be lost under a tonne of paper that had nothing to do with the genre. These days going to bookstore means reading all the titles and quickly (at least in my case) discarding the obvious fantasy ones – a bit of a time waster if you ask me.

Between these two issues it is not surprising it is difficult to find new science fiction. All I’m going to say is that when a new good science fiction does com out, it is likely to be noticed.