What is Science Fiction?

What is science fiction? I suspect there are more definitions than authors writing the genre. But one that caught my eye was a definition that Adam Roberts came up with in his History of Science Fiction:

Science Fiction is: stories of travel through space (to other worlds, planets and stars); stories of travel through time (into the past and into the future); and stories of imaginary technology (machinery, robots, computers, cyborgs and cyber-culture).

The examples stated for each is, in my view, limited. Space is what we have seen and in most cases measured. Surrounding our seeable universe is a ‘soup’ of big-bangness stuff – I’m not sure you could call it material – that as far as I’m aware has never been explored (as opposed to mentioned in the background) in science fiction. Time could involve parallel universes – like the what ifs of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle or Keith Roberts’ Pavanne. Imaginary technology extends beyond the implementation of machinery and use of data to understanding of the impact we can have on the real world such as how we as a race cause climate change (which involves none of the list cited).

Roberts then goes on to indicate that, although he doesn’t add it to his science fiction groups, utopias. He argues they are used as a mirror to reflect what is going wrong in our society. As they can take any method, it is not surprising that they use science fiction themes to produce their satire.

So when did these three streams of the genre start?

Space travel can find its roots in the ancient world stories such as Jason and the Argonauts. Francis Godwin is credited with publishing the earliest story of travelling to the Moon in his The Man in the Moone: Or A Discourse of a Voyage Thither by Domingo Gonsales, the Speedy Messenger (1638). It was more about a Utopia than anything else, which is why people consider it proto-science fiction. The first serious attempt at realistic space flight was made by Jules Verne in From the Earth to the Moon (in French 1865, in English 1869). Science fiction space flight really took off in the era of Hugo Gernsback pulps, more because of the realisation of so many possibilities, rather than specific breakthrough story. 

Time travel was first significantly employed in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published in 1843.  However, I would argue that time travel has its roots in a real event in Falun, Sweden. In 1719, miners in Falun’s copper mine found an intact dead body in a water-filled, long-unused tunnel. When they brought the body to the surface, it was identified by his former fiancée, Margaret Olsdotter, as Fet-Mats Israelsson, who had disappeared 42 years earlier. However, the first novel to use a device to travel in time was, of course, H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, published in 1895. 

The third category, imaginary technology, does have a definitive point of origin, namely Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818. This story was based on the newly discovered property of galvanism, where a frog’s leg could be made to twitch by passing an electric current through it.

The interesting thing in listing those novels I mentioned above are is that apart from Verne and Gernsback, all the initial science fiction forerunners were English authors. Of course being British, I may have a natural bias towards this, but I think there is something else at play here. Not sure what though.

Turning now to the modern day, and bearing in mind that I view today’s e-publishing as yesterday’s pulp fiction.

It is not surprising given the increase in worldwide population that there are more science fiction authors being published today. Science fiction has, like other aspects of society, splintered in factions or sub-genres. For instance, can you see the Alastair Reynolds’s or Peter Hamiltons writing about climate change? This splintering, along with the volume of new stories in each sub-genre, leads to pigeon-holing, by and for both writers and readers.

Which has led to the rise of crossovers between science fiction sub-genres. But that’s what they are limited to, cross-overs between two, and occasionally three of them. But to be fair to the authors, anything more is a humungous task… or is it?

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Free to Enter Science Fiction Short Story Competitions

Below is my (kind of, but never works out) six-monthly list of free to enter science fiction short story competitions:

  • Futurescape, up to 8000 words, end date October 13th 2017, theme – ‘Blue Sky Cities’
  • James White Award, between 1000 and 6000 words, closing date for 2018 to be announced, but usually early in the new year
  • Jim Baen Memorial Award, up to 8000 words, usually 1st February each year, theme space in the next 50 to 60 years

There seems to be preponderance of near future stories being asked for in these competitions. Why? Well, some of the big businesses have cottoned on to the fact that such science fiction helps show up potential useful future innovations which they can then go and invest in. I would expect to see more near future science fiction stories coming out shortly, and i’m not just talking about my two little pet projects here either – more about those at a later date.

June’s Pick for a Sciency Science Fiction Novel

I’m starting a series of once a month posts to promote a science fiction that will be coming out in the following month. These novels will be of the hard-ish science fiction variety because I feel not enough is being done to promote such novels.

Why am I doing this? Well I know darned well there are tsunamis of technology heading into our big wide world which we have never seen the like of before. Science fiction can and in some instances does give warning of these. I hope that these novels would help us into the future by showing us what can happen, so we are better prepared for it.

My first pick, for June 2017 is Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee Vengeance. I particularly like this is it will be about an engineer!

The Blurb:

Half a million years in the future, on a dead, war-ravaged world at the centre of the Galaxy, there is a mile-high statue of Michael Poole.

Poole, born on Earth in the fourth millennium, was one of mankind’s most influential heroes. He was not a warrior, not an emperor. He was an engineer, a builder of wormhole transit systems. But Poole’s work would ultimately lead to a vast and destructive conflict, a million-year war between humanity and the enigmatic, powerful aliens known as the Xeelee.

The Xeelee won, but at a huge cost. And, defeated in a greater war, the Xeelee eventually fled the universe. Most of them.

A handful were left behind, equipped with time travel capabilities, their task to tidy up: to reorder history more to the Xeelee’s liking. That million-year war with humankind was one blemish. It had to be erased. And in order to do that, a lone Xeelee was sent back in time to remove Michael Poole from history . . .

Background:

Baxter conceived of the Xeelee while hobby writing a short story in the summer of 1986, incorporating powerful off-stage aliens to explain the story’s titular artifact (published in Interzone in 1987 as “The Xeelee Flower” in 1987). He went on to expand on the back story that had as its main premise: a universe full of intelligent species that live in the shadow of the incomprehensible and god-like Xeelee.

He has since published a whole series of Xeelee stories. As of September 2015 the series is composed of 7 novels and 52 short stories.

You can pre-order it from Amazon UK here.

Introduction to Rocket Science Day!

BIS-Logo-Arthurs

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the British Interplanetary Society’s An Introduction to Rocket Science day at the Royal Institution’s Faraday Theatre (yes, the same as where the BBC’s Christmas Lectures are broadcast from). Below are the lectures with the blurb from the invite and a comment or two from me.

nigel Why can’t we simply fly to space in a plane?

Dr Nigel Bannister of the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Leicester will explain all this with the help of isopropyl alcohol!

This lecture was how we get to space with chemical rockets and why they are so limited. Bottom line was with the know materials we got, rockets have to have stages. The demonstration of how to produce thrust using an empty water dispensing bottle was spectacular!  

kenyon How to build a spacecraft
Building satellites, propulsion and power – a “Haynes manual”. Shaun Kenyon, Chief Engineer at Sen Corporation will explain all.

This lecture explained what propulsion options were currently available – chemical and nuclear fission. He also explained the need for many different science, engineering and project management specialists to get spacecraft doing what they need to do. 

stuttard So what have satellites done for us?
Satnav, satcom, weather forecasts and whales in the cloud. Matthew Stuttard, the Head of Advanced Space Projects at Airbus, Stevenage takes the helm.

A good example was monitoring the health of crops of space by measuring chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b (the chemical used to turn sunlight into plant energy through photosynthesis).

647 Open Innovation – disrupting the space industry
Dr Olesya Myakonkaya, Senior Innovation Scientist will talk about how citizen science and start ups change the way we innovate.

The emphasis seemed to be on biological technology innovation at the moment. One example was of a new method to prevent the destruction of DNA from radiation. A second method was to prevent effectively what was biological slime build up – which came from an observation of how coral reefs prevented slime build up! 

cawthorne  Observing our planet from above
EO, LEO, GEO. There are lots of acronyms to do with space. Earth Observation – EO; the first of these acronyms – enables us to monitor global warming, see land use changes such as urbanisation and more. Andrew Cawthorne, Head of Earth Observation at Surrey Satellite Technology Limited will explain EO (LEO and GEO too!)

The before and after examples what was going on in say the Amazon Rain Forest were spectacular.

welch Beyond Earth orbit
Designing better rockets and using new technology help us explore new worlds. Professor Chris Welch, Head of Astronautics and Space Engineering at the International Space University, Strasbourg will look further into the Solar System.

Given the politics at the moment – the speaker made a note to say that the Brexit vote does not affect the UK membership of ESA (European Space Agency). He should know!

We currently have chemical and nuclear fission spacecraft. He described electro-propulsion methods that are being used and developed further. It was interesting to note that the last were responsible for the slow to get there spacecraft because they could only produce limited power, which in turn means that they are likely to be robotic spacecraft!

He also described the new small spacecraft that are able to do cheaper missions and the like.  

hutty How to go to Mars
Abbie Hutty, Spacecraft Structures Engineer on the ExoMars Rover Vehicle Team at Airbus, Stevenage will talk about building a rover to explore the Red Planet.

A good demonstration of the problem of distance of getting to Mars!

pollacco  E.T. Phone Home!
Hello? Hello? Is there anybody out there? The Drake equation, life, methane, alien mega-structures and the Goldilocks zone are explained by Dr Don Pollacco of the Department of Physics, University of Warwick.

A good talk about the Drake equation and the impact of finding exo-planets on its values.

714  What’s it like living in space?
NASA astronaut Cady Coleman will give an illustrated talk about her life aboard the International Space Station.

A good talk about life on the space station, in terms of both work and pleasure. Interesting point is that the most precious resource up there is the astronaut’s time. Sounds to me as if we could do with another space station up there, but I hope with the advancement of technology since the original was built, costing less money.

zarnecki Space exploration
A guide on where we’ve got to so far and where we are going next. Dr John Zarnecki, President of the Royal Astronomical Society will take us on a tour of the galaxy.

A good whizz through of space exploration. Concentrated on the Cassini-Huygens probe in which he had a lot of involvement.

bridges What’s next?
Nearly fifty years ago now, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the Moon. Are we on our way to Mars now or even further? Or will robotic missions take us further to other solar systems? Dr Chris Bridges, Lecturer in On-Board Data Handling at the University of Surrey takes us on a tour.

This concentrated on getting data from space telescopes and what the problems of getting ever bigger telescopes up there was. It was especially interesting to see the way the telescopic mirrors were being built up – piece by piece. The latest telescope will be able to adjust mirrors automatically rather than have astronauts needing to go up there and do the adjustments as they had to do on the Hubble telescope. 

tate We’re doomed! Or are we?
At any moment, Earth could be hit by an asteroid or comet which would wipe us out as happened to the dinosaurs. But Jay Tate, Director of The Spaceguard Centre is here to tell us if we might be safe after all.

A good walk through of the problems and issues of possible asteroid impact on Earth. 

***

My thanks to all those who helped made this day a success. It not only gave a good introduction to space technology and exploration to those newly interested in the subject, but also gave a good overview of what the state of play in the UK space industry was today – something every science fiction writer writing about near future space needs.

Science fiction wise I came away with an idea for a new story  ( 🙂 ) .

I was also saddened by a fact that came out during one talk (I won’t say which). I had come across something by pure accident in my science fiction writing that would have added further enlightenment to that talk. Despite my best efforts, I could not get that story published and having exhausted all the reasonable ways of getting it into print, it will now never be published. This is just one case where the science will be the poorer for the lack of science fiction. I suspect there are quite a few more such examples.

Science fiction deals with future possibilities. The publishing industry does not have the capacity or the will to publish all the new possibilities that the genre writers are presenting. It has now got to the stage where the scientific bodies are setting up competitions for short stories to get those ideas. (For example, there is a current competition call from the Machine Intelligence Research Institute – see here.) That such institutes are willing to go to the effort of doing their homework and setting up such competitions means only one thing to me. The publishing industry has failed the science community.

The most interesting oddball fact of the day was that Isaac Newton invented the cat flap! I’ve got a funny feeling C.A.T. may have something to say about that! (It’s like George Stephenson inventing the cucumber straightener!)

Now back to that crazy idea I had…

“I may be some while”

Someone was cheeky enough to call a general election in the UK yesterday. Which means that at least in this country most people’s attention will on persuading others and being persuaded which way to vote. Why? This is very much a crossroads election i.e. whichever way the vote goes, it will have a significant impact on the future of the country.

I count myself amongst those people, in my case trying work my way through the ramifications and ifs, ans and buts. So I suspect I will be doing very little blogging over the next few weeks.

Add to this the fact that my blog appearance doesn’t show how to get to my publications, unless you click on the bars in the upper right corner, I thought I would at least leave you easier access to my short stories. Just click on the cover.

Before you ask, they’re all my favourites – each one is special in its own way.

 

 

 



BSFA Awards 2016

The 2016 BSFA awards have been announced. They are:

Best Novel

  • Dave Hutchinson – Europe in Winter (Solaris)

Best Short Fiction

  • Jaine Fenn – Liberty Bird (Now We Are Ten, NewCon Press)

Best Non-Fiction

Best Artwork

The interesting thing is that it’s not big names in publishing that are included here (e.g. no Gollancz or Interzone), but what I call the top of intermediate publishers (some may disagree with my definition).

Dave Hutchinson had been tipped for a win ever since the first of his series Europe in Autumn came out. It’s nice to see he’s finally achieved it.

The interesting thing is that after last year’s winners the awards seem to have swung towards the more science end of science fiction. Whether this is just coincidence or part of a trend remains to be seen.