Posts Tagged ‘Science fiction’


We hit 100,000 views a few days ago, and to celebrate (if that’s the right word) we’re listing the best posts we’ve published, divided by category. Here’s the first installment.

Addictions

Anarchism

Atheism

Baseball

Capitalism

This is the first of several “best of” posts we’ll be running over the next week or two. The following installment will cover several categories: Economics (much more on capitalism there), Gardening, Interviews, and Journalism. We’ll also be putting up multiple installments devoted purely to humor, because humor posts comprise by far the largest category on this blog — over 500 total, out of the roughly 1,500 we’ve put up so far.

 


Free Radicals front coverby Zeke Teflon, author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia.

First the sci-fi: Subterranean Press has put up Ted Chang’s wonderful novella about the emergence and evolution of artificial intelligence, The Lifecycle of Software Objects.  Free and highly recommended. (And if you’re wondering why they’d do this giveaway, consider the free publicity they’re getting on this and other blogs, and also consider that  many of those reading the free novella [including yours truly] will go on to purchase at least one of Chang’s novels.)

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One of the most obnoxious features of many sites is their use of slideshows. Why would anyone do something so calculated to piss off readers? Pay per click. If you have a list with 20 entries, put it up properly (scroll down), and you’ll get paid for a single click. Put it up as a slideshow, you’ll get paid for 20 clicks.

Sleazy, yes. But there is a way around it: deslide turns slide shows into decent, normal web pages. It seems to work on most pages, so check it out. (A special kudos here to sites that could routinely use slideshows but don’t; the most outstanding example that comes immediately to mind is io9.com, the sci-fi site.  In contrast, sfgate.com, the site of the SF Chronicle, almost exclusively uses slideshows for transparent, commercial reasons.)  Deslide will help you get by such sucky, time-wasting click-shows. It seems to work about 75% of the time. Try it. You’ll like it.

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And “Louis CK learns about the Catholic Church” is absolutely hilarious. There is nowhere to go after this.  You can’t possibly be more brutal. (The Catholic League–which seems to consist in toto of a web site run by  corn-cob-up-the-ass  right-winger William Donohue–has apparently taken down a denunciation of CK’s brilliant video–please guys, put it back up.)


“AMERICA … the world’s best-defended Third World country …”

–Norman Spinrad, Russian Spring


 

cover of On the Steel Breeze, by Alastair Reynolds(On the Steel Breeze, by Alastair Reynolds. Tor, 2014, 483 pp., $26.95)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Alastair Reynolds has a great imagination, as witness the setting in this sequel to Blue Remembered Earth. In Steel Breeze, you’ll find masterful descriptions of triplicate clones identical down to neural structure, uplifted elephants (“Tantors”), “holoships” (usually referred to as “generation ships” or “arks”) traveling at sublight speed, excavation of an early space age artifact (Venera 9) on Venus, an artist colony in the interior of the Saturnian satellite Hyperion (structurally, probably the weirdest moon in the solar system), mysterious BIO’s (Big Intelligent Objects) orbiting a nearby habitable planet, life extension to centuries, suspended animation, aquatic humans colonizing the seas, and antagonistic, near-all-controlling AI’s (“artilects”).

In other words, this is space opera on a grand scale. And its technological projections are plausible. Reynolds gets the science right.

The problems with this adventure novel have to do with the characters, plot, and its lack of political, social, economic, cultural, psychological, and ethical interest. It simply doesn’t explore any of these matters. The closest it comes is implying the obvious: that species extinction is an atrocity and that burning fossil fuels is a very bad idea.

The plot problem is that the plot pivots on supposedly smart people doing something very stupid: those in charge of generation ships en route to a nearby star’s habitable planet burning most of their fuel during acceleration, in order to shave a few decades off travel time, with no obvious reason for doing so, and with no plan for slowing down enough to go into orbit around the planet rather than shoot past it. (It requires as much energy to decelerate as it does to accelerate.) This is staggeringly stupid.

And the characters are simply uninteresting. The central characters are two of the three Chiku Akinya clones, with virtually the entire novel narrated from their points of view; and at the end of nearly 500 pages you feel as if you have no idea who they are. You never get inside their heads. Not because they’re mysterious, but because they’re one dimensional. They apparently have no insecurities, sexual desires, jealousies, self-insight, sense of humor, or indeed any of the other traits that make characters individual and memorable.

This novel is essentially a giant pinball machine filled with flashing lights, parts moving in all directions–and nothing more.

Not recommended.

(Reynolds has written both very good and very bad novels–mostly good. Those I’d most recommend are Revelation Space, Chasm City, Century Rain, and The Prefect [preferably to be read in that order]. Those I’d recommend avoiding are Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap, Diamond Dogs, Terminal World, and Blue Remembered Earth.)

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on the sequel.

Free Radicals front cover


 

Australian science fiction writer George Turner

by Zeke Teflon

George Turner (1916-1997) was already in his 60s, a well established, award-winning Australian novelist, when he wrote his first science fiction novel, Beloved Son (1978). He wrote seven other science fiction novels prior to his death. All deal with ecological (especially climate-change) disasters, ill-advised attempts to deal with them, and the results of both the disasters and the attempts to cope. Most of the novels are set in Melbourne and its surrounding area. Almost all of them have deeply flawed protagonists (“heroes,” would be overstating it) who are often members of the police or military. And all the novels are decidedly downbeat, leavened by very occasional, always mordant humor.

George Turner’s Science Fiction Novels

Turner’s first three science fiction novels, Beloved Son (1978), Vaneglory (1981), and Yesterday’s Men (1983), are all set in the same “universe,” but are a trilogy only in the loose sense of the word. The background for all of them is “The Collapse of 2012,” which “The Background” section of Yesterday’s Men describes as being caused by “genetic tampering with staple crops, followed by a wave of mutated-disease epidemics and the Five Days of hysterical, random nuclear bombing. [This] left the world reduced by starvation and disease to a tenth of its former population.”

Beloved Son-1The first book set in this “universe,” Beloved Son, describes the social breakdown that follows the catastrophes, the rebuilding over the next four decades under the guidance of the World Council, “a super-UN, but with teeth,” and the rise of cult religions.

The second book, Vaneglory, revolves around the discovery of “mutant humans … with lifespans of thousands of years,” the secret attempts to discover their genetic secrets, and the corrupting influence on the power structure of the lure of immortality. One noteworthy aspect of Vaneglory is that it first reveals Turner’s terror of, and absolute rejection of, the scientific pursuit of immortality, which he considered a road to disaster.

The third book, Yesterday’s Men, has to do with socially rigid, caste-based orbital colonies and the tension between them and the decaying “Ethical Culture” that produced the “super-UN” World Council. The book is primarily notable for its extensive, gut-wrenching passages describing combat in the jungles of New Guinea, where Turner served during World War II.

These first three novels are all fairly short and are worth reading for their entertainment value alone. They’re also noteworthy for introducing several recurring features in Turner’s later novels: preoccupation with ecological catastrophe and its consequences; horror at the prospect of immortality; policemen or military men as protagonists or strong secondary characters; clear portrayal of the corrupting influence of power and secrecy, and clear portrayals of corrupted officials; and lack of constructive, practical solutions for any of the problems Turner so vividly outlines
Drowning Towers by George Turner, cover

Turner’s fourth science fiction novel, Drowning Towers (1987–published outside the U.S. as The Sea and Summer), is his most famous. It’s the first, or at least the first major, novel to deal head on with climate change. Previous sci-fi novels, notably John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up (1972), had tackled ecological catastrophe, but none had dealt with climate change as the primary ecological problem. Drowning Towers also introduced three of Turner’s other preoccupations: massive unemployment resulting from automation; overpopulation; and a possible “cull” of excess population.

Drowning Towers is remarkable for its complex structure. It’s a story within a story, with the “frame” set approximately a thousand years in the future. (Joseph Conrad provided what are probably the most familiar examples of this device in his “Marlow” stories, such as Heart of Darkness.) The “frame” is written in a mix of close third-person and first-person points of view alternating between two p.o.v. characters, while the story that constitutes the body of the book is a first-person narrative by five secondary characters–but not the primary character!–with the various narratives divided into chapters. Structurally, Drowning Towers is a tour de force.

The main story is set in the Melbourne of the 2040s-2060s, already severely afflicted by climate-change-caused flooding, with the social backdrop of massive unemployment and a class system divided into the “sweet” (the rich and the small middle class who have jobs) and the “swill” (the uneducated, unemployed masses living in nightmare, overcrowded public-housing skyscrapers holding 70,000 people each–hence the title of the novel).

The story’s primary character is a “tower boss,” Billy Kovacs, and the story revolves around the conflicting desires and efforts to survive (not “get ahead”) of Kovacs and five major secondary characters (two of them policemen) in the brutal world Turner describes. It’s a mark of Turner’s writing skill that only one of the very well drawn secondary characters (Nick, one of the policemen) is especially admirable, but they’re all sympathetic–struggling against almost hopeless odds.

Perhaps because he realized the bleakness of Drowning Towers, at its end (right before the closing of the frame) Turner tried to introduce a ray of hope through what is essentially an epilogue describing a few mild reformist measures that would surely have been tried–and would have failed–well before their place in Drowning Towers‘ chronology. This is the most obvious flaw in the book, though it’s minor. There are other more serious flaws, but they have to do with Turner’s underlying political, social, and economic assumptions (more on that tomorrow in Part II).

Brain Child by George Turner, coverTurner’s next novel, Brain Child (1991), is a very tightly plotted thriller. It’s structurally simpler than Drowning Towers, but it’s nearly flawless. The closest it comes to having a real flaw is that it’s written from a first-person p.o.v., with the bulk of the narration provided by David Chance, the protagonist, with the rest supplied by the primary secondary character, Jonesy, a high-ranking police official. What makes this a flaw is that Jonesy’s narrative comprises only two of the book’s thirteen chapters. There’s no structural reason for this; Turner did it simply because it was convenient. In less skilled hands, this could have been a major problem. But here, it’s almost unnoticeable.

Brain Child is set in 2047 in an impoverished and severely overpopulated world, with the novel’s events taking place in and around Melbourne. It’s primarily concerned with the results of genetic experiments which produced three distinct groups of superior children, one reclusive, coldly logical and analytical (A group), one artistically gifted and supremely arrogant (B group), and one ultra intelligent and unfathomable–and hence very frightening–(C group), who committed collective suicide 25 years prior to the events of the narrative.

The novel’s protagonist, 25-year-old, naive, and rather full-of-himself David, grew up in an orphanage. At the beginning of the book, much to his surprise, he’s contacted by his father, Arthur Hazard, a member of A group, who quickly recruits him to uncover “Young Feller’s legacy,” “Young Feller” being a member of the mysterious, super-intelligent C group. It soon develops that David’s task is much more dangerous than he imagined, and he quickly finds himself playing a double game with a powerful politician, Samuel (“Piggy”) Armstrong, who is desperate to find the “legacy.”

Armstrong is one of the most loathsome characters ever portrayed in science fiction, and one of the best portrayals of a bullying, selfish, power-grubbing politician in, probably, all of fiction. The other standout characters are David’s father, Arthur, the ultimate cold fish who still comes off as sympathetic because of his faithfulness to his own, strange moral code, and David himself, who throughout the novel is on a voyage of very unpleasant self-discovery. (With Turner, there’s no other kind.)

The Destiny Makers, by George Turner, coverTurner’s next sci-fi novel, The Destiny Makers (1993), is a thriller that’s set in the same universe as the two novels which follow it, Genetic Soldier (1994) and Turner’s final novel, Down There in Darkness (1999). It’s concerned almost entirely with the problem of overpopulation, and a possible draconian solution to it. The plot revolves around the question of a “cull” by the anglophone nations, and the resistance against it by Australia’s weak but relatively moral premier, Beltane.

As is Brain Child, The Destiny Makers is written from a first-person point of view, and there’s one primary narrator (Harry Ostrov, a policeman); there are also three chapters (out of twelve) narrated in first person by secondary characters. Again, there’s no structural reason for this; Turner did it only because it was convenient. Here, however, the seams show because the plot is less gripping and the characters less compelling than those in Brain Child. (This is not to say that The Destiny Makers is a bad book. It isn’t. It’s a good one. But Brain Child is a masterpiece, and The Destiny Makers isn’t.)

The Destiny Makers sets up Turner’s next book, Genetic Soldier, by having two sub-light-speed interstellar survey/colonization ships leave Earth during the book’s course. At the beginning of Genetic Soldier, one of these ships returns to Earth to find a primitive planet depopulated because of a religious cult’s cull/hare-brained genetic experiment seven centuries earlier. The book centers on the determination of the returnees to remain on Earth, and the determination of the primitives to drive them off it.

In Genetic Soldier, Turner returns for the most part to close third-person narration (as in Yesterday’s Men) with occasional snatches of first-person narration thrown in. It works–it’s almost unnoticeable.

The strength of Genetic Soldier is in its characters, Thomas, the duty-bound primitive “genetic solider,” and two women from the starship, middle-aged Nugan and her 18-year-old daughter, Anne. It’s a testament to Turner’s characterization abilities that all three are equally plausible.

Unfortunately, Genetic Soldier is as much fantasy as it is science fiction. The reason is that the central underlying “scientific” conjecture, Rupert Sheldrake’s “morphogenetic fields,” is pseudo-science, and that “theory” was already busted when Turner wrote Genetic Soldier (more on this tomorrow in Part II). It’s one thing to base science fiction on scientific conjecture, no matter how speculative. It’s entirely another to base it on already debunked pseudo-science. Turner is well over this line in this book, and it robs Genetic Soldier of much of its enjoyment for readers who want even remotely plausible science in their science fiction.

Another problem is that Genetic Soldier‘s plot is as straight as Highway 95 through Nevada. Once Turner hammers home, about a quarter of the way in, that the book’s central underlying concept  is “morphogenetic fields” (which he shortens to “morphic fields”), it’s all too easy  to guess, if you understand that “theory,”  how the book will unfold. (When Turner telegraphed that fact, my  reaction was, “Oh no! You’re not going there?!”–and sure enough he did.) That predictability robs the reader of much enjoyment, for it’s much more pleasurable to be surprised occasionally, to sometimes not know what’s coming next, than to see a book unfold in almost exactly the way you’d guessed it would. In other words, Genetic Soldier‘s predictability robs it of drama.

Turner’s final book, Down There in Darkness, which was published posthumously, is a sequel to The Destiny Makers.  Its two primary characters are from that book, and it fills in some of the gaps between The Destiny Makers and Genetic Soldier. Unfortunately, Down There In Darkness simply doesn’t satisfy. It’s disjointed, the central characters have no real goals in the latter half of the book, and as a result there’s almost no dramatic tension.  (While plowing through it, my reaction at one point was, “Oh lord! Not another hundred pages before this thing ends!”)

All this leads one to suspect that Turner’s publisher, Tor, took an unfinished manuscript badly in need of revision, edited it to the point where they thought it could pass, and published it–either that or they slapped the book together from fragments. It’s quality is so inferior to that of Turner’s other novels that one or the other of these possibilities seems quite likely. Turner’s publisher did neither him nor his readers a favor by publishing this shoddy piece of work.

But the best of Turner’s novels, Drowning Towers and Brain Child, are enough to establish him as one of the great science fiction writers of the twentieth century, and three others are lesser books but still much better than average sci-fi novels: Beloved Son, Yesterday’s Men, and The Destiny Makers.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of  Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on the sequel.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

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Work Done

(Work Done for Hire, by Joe Haldeman. Ace, 2014, 278 pp., $25.95)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Joe Haldeman’s most recent novel, Work Done for Hire, is a mixed bag.While it’s set in the near future, it’s few sci-fi elements are entirely incidental to the story, which is a straight-up thriller that could just as well have been set in the present.

The phrase “work done for hire” is taken directly from the U.S. government’s copyright form, and refers to writing done on a contract basis for money. In this case, the writer is the protagonist, Jack Daley, a struggling novelist and PTSD-plagued combat-vet sniper who at the beginning of Work Done for Hire takes on a novelization project, fleshing out the story for a horror movie.

This leads the reader to suspect a story-within-a-story novel, and indeed the first several chapters strictly alternate between Daley’s story and the horror tale. Then, strange and frightening things begin happening to Daley and his girlfriend, Kit, causing them to go on the run, and Haldeman almost entirely drops the horror tale; it makes up perhaps 10% of the remaining three-quarters of the book, and focuses entirely on the brutal actions of the story’s monster. This is unfortunate, because the protagonist in the horror tale is interesting, the monster isn’t, and Haldeman simply drops the protagonist and his story, stunting the horror tale. It’s disappointing.

The remainder of the book consists almost entirely (but for a few short, brutal horror-tale chapters) of Daley and Kit’s adventures while on the run, and while having no clue as to who’s tormenting them or why. Unfortunately, the reader doesn’t, either, because Haldeman provides no clues. Five pages from the end of the book, I still had no idea how Haldeman was going to wrap it up. No idea who was tormenting Daley and Kit, or why. Ultimately, Haldeman explains the plot in the book’s epilogue, and that’s not a good thing. Half the fun in reading mysteries and thrillers is trying to figure out what’s going on, and that requires clues, of which there are virtually none in this book.

There are  redeeming features, though, in Work Done for Hire. The protagonist, Jack Daley, is a strong, complex character. The writing is as tight as you’d expect in a Haldeman novel. There’s some humor, all provided by Daley’s mordant comments about life and, especially, himself. The book is a page-turner. And Haldeman once again displays his masterful knowledge of firearms and the military.

Recommended only for Haldeman fans.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on the sequel.

Free Radicals front cover

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Ender poster(Ender’s Game, 2013, directed by Gavin Hood, starring Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon, author of Free Radicals

Let’s just look at the movie as a movie–let’s not compare it to Orson Scott Card‘s 1985 novel of the same name.

The film opens with a quote to the effect that to understand one’s enemy is to love him. That line sounds very much like it was written by someone who has taken one too many acting classes, and actually believes the dictum that in order to play a character you have to love the character. Wrong.

Marlon Brando gave one of the all-time great performances as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Did he love Kowalski? Hardly. Brando despised him, and said as much. He said that all that’s necessary to playing a character is to understand the character, which is not the same as loving the character. Brando’s performance is powerful evidence that he was right.

Going beyond the opening quote, Ender’s Game‘s stated premise is that to combat a race of aggressive ant-like beings, the Formics (as in formic acid), it’s necessary to turn over tactical control of Earth’s combat forces to the most talented of Earth’s children, who have been immersed in video games since birth. That premise was serviceable (barely) three decades ago when Card wrote his novel. Today, after thirty year’s of Moore’s Law increase in computer processing power–with computers expected to surpass the processing power of the human brain within the next two to three decades–it’s not. It’s dated and outright embarrassing.

Other, worse, absurdities abound. Ants the size of elephants? Physiologically impossible. (There are reasons why elephants have massive legs and insects never exceed a few inches in size.) Prolonged interstellar war? No. Accelerate even a very small asteroid to just one percent the speed of light, slam it into a planet, and it’s Game Over. And … But why go on?

Even ignoring its absurdities, Ender’s Game is still a lousy movie. The dialogue is serviceable. The acting is serviceable. The characters cardboard. And the pacing is terrible. The first hour of Ender’s Game consists of little more than standard boot-camp scenes (featuring a blustering d.i.), unusual only in that the “soldiers” are barely pubescent, interspersed with what for all intents and purposes are zero-g paintball sequences. The first hour or so is both slow and boring (the two aren’t synonymous–see Tarkovsky’s Solaris), and then the film proceeds at breakneck speed.

Another problem involves the training regimen depicted in the film’s first hour. It’s ultracompetitive, and those in charge of it tacitly encourage bullying behavior–it’s a regimen designed to produce “leaders” who in all but name are sociopaths. Yet very few of the kids act like sociopaths, including Ender, who shows surprising concern after accidentally injuring a bully who’s been tormenting him. Very few people would show such concern–let alone a young teenager conditioned to be  sociopathic.

One final aspect of the film that adds much to its dreariness is its muted, low-saturation color palette, especially in the first hour. The apparent purpose of this is to provide contrast with the flashy space-battle sequences toward the end of the film–which is evidence that the director knew that the sequences themselves weren’t enough of a payoff.

Ender’s Game is even worse than Oblivion, which in a few spots is so bad it’s good. Ender’s Game is simply bad.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia.

Free Radicals front cover

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Free Radicals front coverby Zeke Teflon, author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia

 

In Part I of this post, we considered outlining, research, background detail, “getting the science right” (in sci-fi), and generating a plot. In separate posts, we’ve looked at mechanical problems such as misuse of punctuation and use of passive voice. Here, we’ll consider two additional matters unique to fiction: writing dialogue and inserting exposition into narrative sections.

Let’s look at dialogue first. There is no secret to writing good dialogue, but there are guidelines. Probably the most important is that conflict drives good dialogue; there should be some tension resulting from emotion (e.g., jealousy, irritation, anger), attitude (contempt, pity, amusement), or desire (to amuse, to impress, to seduce, to put down, etc.). Take those things away, and you have either mere exchange of information or, worse, chit chat.

It’s also important to understand that dialogue is not the same as normal speech. Everyday speech, even when driven by emotion, attitude, or desire, wanders from topic to topic, is often poorly worded, is almost always unnecessarily wordy, and often trails off rather than concludes. Dialogue, in contrast, should be concise yet should retain normal speech rhythms. To put this another way, dialogue is boiled-down, better-organized, emotion-driven everyday speech.

One thing that helps helps tremendously when writing dialogue is having a good ear. Some people seem to have one naturally, though almost anyone can develop one. How? Listen to the people around you, both those you speak with and, especially, those you overhear. Listen to what they’re saying and, more importantly, how they’re saying it. Listen for both common rhythms, expressions, and patterns, and for peculiarities. And pay attention to who’s speaking. Note the ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, economic class, occupations, places of origin, social status, etc., of those you’re listening to. Also pay attention to who’s speaking to whom. Women’s speech, for instance, will be different when they speak to each other than when they speak to men, and vice versa.

Another common concern is how to insert exposition into narrative sections. (The dictum that exposition is “telling” and narrative is “showing” is basically correct.) This is a special problem in science fiction, because there the author must construct an internally consistent world with which the reader is not familiar to at least some degree–often a great degree. So, a sci-fi writer must give the reader a fair, sometimes considerable, amount of background information so that the reader can understand the story. (Literary and historical fiction, and other types of genre fiction, do not present this problem; there, the reader is already familiar with the world in which the story takes place.)

One common means of dealing with this problem is the “info dump,” in which the writer simply plops down large amounts of exposition in the middle of the story. This can be done through outright exposition sections (sometimes in the form of entire chapters) dumped between narrative sections, or through thinly disguised exposition in the form of extended monologue or dialogue. It’s best to avoid both of these methods. Why? Info dumps call attention to themselves, and they stop the flow of the narrative. In other words, they take the reader out of the story.

How should a writer deal with this problem, inserting essential data without creating the infamous “info dump”? Here’s the gist of what I recently told a friend who’s writing his first novel:

“You need to weave the information in the info dumps into the narrative sections. One thing that’ll make it easier to do that is to go through all of the exposition sections and figure out what you absolutely have to include. You’ll probably be surprised at how little of the information in those sections is essential to the story. Separate that out, and then figure out how and where to insert it in the narrative sections.

“One way to do it is through interior monologue. At the end of your first chapter, the professor says, ‘This should be good for a scholarship to New Submission.’ You then start a new chapter with an info dump about New Submission University. Instead, you could continue the narrative in the previous chapter using inner monologue. For instance, you could add a new paragraph or two, starting with:

“”I was surprised and a bit apprehensive. New Sub had been founded by…,’ then go on to explain what New Sub is, and then slip back into the narrative, probably in a new paragraph, with something like, ‘A month later, still wondering what I’d let myself in for, I locked the front door, walked to the car, and headed for my new life at New Sub.'”

Another way to weave exposition into narrative is to insert short (or not so short) sections of it into the narrative, using a narrative sentence as a pivot. For example:

“Ernie said, ‘I’m the singer. Play some guitar, too.’ He pointed to a battered acoustic leaning against the wall next to a small, crappy looking drum set–crummy plywood drums with a funky looking red finish, shaky too-thin stands, tarnished no-name cymbals, and a three-legged wooden stool rather than a throne behind it all. The crowning touch was a filthy pillow lying inside the bass drum, which didn’t even have a front head. The bass amp was just as bad…”

Then jump back into the narrative whenever it suits you. No preparation is necessary.

A third way of dealing with the info-dump problem is to simply do an info dump, but put it at the beginning of a novel and label it as a “prologue.” (This is essentially the same device as the extended voice-over introduction to bad sci-fi movies.) Prologues have been out of fashion in sci-fi for  decades — they’re essentially an admission of defeat by an author, an admission s/he doesn’t know how to gracefully work in the information in the prologue into the narrative — but they still are useful, in fact close to indispensable, in two related types of sci-fi novels: sequels and books in series. In such books, it’s virtually impossible to work in a summary of the previous novel(s) in any other manner, and the omission of a prologue will very often leave the reader at sea. But other than in those special circumstances, it’s best to avoid prologues.

(In Part III, we’ll deal with creating believable characters and deciding on a point of view.)

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512XAamP04L._AA160_

(Gary K. Wolfe editor, Library of America, 2012)

reviewed by Chris Edwards

What novel best captures the ethos of the 1950s? Someone fresh from an American Lit survey course would likely reply, On the Road. But did Kerouac write anything which is still relevant to the structure of society today, anything that is now of more than literary interest? This is not to deride Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and the other Beat writers, but it is worth asking why they still tower over the 1950s in academia and literary circles.

To find a book which captures the spirit and environment of the ’50s, and is still relevant today, one can look to (or, in literary circles, look down on) The Space Merchants by Frederic Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, arguably the best science fiction novel of the 1950s. This is the first novel in the Library of America’s two-volume anthology, . Michael Dirda expounds on the book at the anthology’s web site, but his comments are off the mark.

The web site proclaims the book to be “Mad Men meets Phillip K. Dick,” which is not quite right. In regard to Dick, The Space Merchants is much lighter and much funnier than anything Dick ever wrote, and it deals with an external social reality (advertising and its influence) rather than the largely internal questions that obsessed Dick, such as the nature of self and the nature of perceived reality. In regard to Mad Men, The Space Merchants is about advertising, to be sure, but unlike Mad Men it doesn’t celebrate the 1950s as a lost paradise for white men. Instead, the novel freeze frames a crucial period in America where one’s identity came to be defined by what one consumes, and where people consumed garbage. The protagonist, Mitchell Courtenay, stands atop a powerful advertising agency, whose “creative types” and clients consider themselves to be both the pinnacle of evolutionary capitalism and the heirs to the poets of the Renaissance. (The old Marxist line about people associating wealth with intelligence or talent applies well here.)

The hierarchy is clear, and the advertisers pitch garbage to the lower classes. As the plot unfolds, Courtenay finds himself stripped of his identity and forced to maneuver amongst the slobs he spent his life manipulating. His subsequent rise, based purely on his talent, could have been penned by Ayn Rand if the authors did not slice so deftly at capitalism, and if they didn’t laud the “Consies,” an underground group of conservationists/communists organized in line with anarchist principles.

On the anthology’s web site, Dirda indicates that a major character, the astronaut and “little person” Jack O’Shea, becomes a sex symbol through the power of advertising. Not quite. This is science fiction and we should expect some science. The book has Jack O’Shea becoming famous because of physics; following the book’s premises, only someone a third of the size of a normal human could get to Venus on the small amount of resources allocated. Jack O’Shea is a clever construct, designed to solve a rather complicated problem the book posits about space travel. He just happens to get laid a lot because that’s how things are when a man gets famous, no matter how unattractive he is. (See Simmons, Gene.)

Unlike On the Road, The Space Merchants is still relevant. America is now largely populated by people who define themselves through their consumption. Grown men in leather chaps who ride Harleys, techies wearing and clutching gadgets, and Prius drivers who drink $4-a-cup free-trade coffee and chai tea all fit into the all-enveloping culture of consumerism. Kerouac missed it, but Pohl and Kornbluth got it. The futuristic world they created both reflected the 1950’s and foreshadowed the present.

The Space Merchants should stand as a major novel, not just a major science fiction novel.

(More on the other novels in American Science Fiction, Four Classic Novels: 1953-1956 in a future post.)

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Chris Edwards is the author of Spiritual Snake Oil. He is currently working on a science fiction novel concerning Holocaust denial.

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watcherPublishers Weekly reviewed our new science fiction novel, The Watcher, by Nicholas P. Oakley, in their latest issue (11/15/13). Here’s the complete review:

The Watcher
Nicholas P. Oakley. See Sharp (IPG, dist.), $12.95 trade paper (230p) ISBN 978-1-937276-45-4

Tian’s people are hunter-gatherer nomads determined to preserve their consensus-driven, nonhierarchical society at all costs; by their lights, they are a free people. They are also abjectly poor, brutally conformist, willfully ignorant, and incapable of mustering a useful response to the predatory Qah raiders. Exiled because of her nonconformity, Tian encounters 578-MORI-AO142, one of the enigmatic Watchers; from “Mori,” Tian learns much about the greater universe that her people have rejected, a universe whose brutal conflicts are about to transform her world and Tian herself. Oakley’s ambitions are greater than his current skill-the frequent flashbacks are particularly obtrusive-but he provides a degree of complexity in what could very easily have been a one-sided didactic novel. This ambivalent examination of an idealist society and its less than ideal behavior offers the hope that Oakley will grow into a significant SF novelist. (Jan.)
Reviewed on 11/15/2013 | Details & Permalink<http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-937276-45-4>

The Watcher is now available via the standard retail outlets and via the See Sharp Press web site.


 

leadBy Kathy De Grave

(Kathy De Grave is the author of The Hour of Lead: A Novel of Kansas and Other Alternate Realities)

Talking houses, vast fields of ice and snow, and a box that lets humanoids communicate across galaxies, giant insects that mate with their human slaves—what could be more intriguing? Science fiction by its nature is likely to have an audience, because it is human nature to be curious and to want to read about the bizarre. But is strangeness enough? Doesn’t surprise after surprise cloy after a while? What makes us read Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, Olivia Butler again and again?

The question can be put another way: what is the difference between good science fiction and literary fiction? The answer, on one level, is that there isn’t one. Literary fiction centers on richly complex characters struggling in a fully developed, fully imagined world. Such fiction shines on the page in language that is crisp or lush, simple or elaborate—but always nuanced and precisely right. No stereotypes. No clichés. Good science fiction writing is the same. Bradbury knew this. He claims as his influences Alexander Pope, John Donne, Walt Whitman, and Eudora Welty. He understood that a good story has to make its readers feel—sci-fi or not.

On the other hand, writing science fiction is tremendously different from writing literary fiction: the author has to create his own world. Fiction is hard enough to write when the world in question is our own. Of course the sky is blue and only one sun shines. In sci-fi, however, everything—including green and purple skies—is possible.

That is, until a first choice is made. Just as a free-verse poem creates its own rules, a science fiction story creates its own limitations. In addition to having the sentence-level artistry and character development demanded by any strong literary fiction, a good sci-fi story has to have inner consistency. The writer has to know the physics of her purely imagined world (this is where the science comes in), and she has to know how the people dress, how they speak, what the rules of social interaction are. Jokes there will not be the same as jokes here. Using idioms from our present culture would be out of place in a society that is so vastly different from our own.

That’s why Ursula Le Guin spends years constructing her worlds, getting to know them inside and out: not only their physical shape, but also their cultural and psychological make-up. If a sci-fi writer wants to keep the reader securely in what John Gardner (The Art of Fiction and Grendel) calls “the continuous dream,” the world can’t have slippage. Readers are smart; they’ll notice. And once a reader begins to distrust the implied author of this unique and mysterious world, the project is lost.

There’s another big difference between realist fiction and science fiction: a point. Realist literary fiction works because it has no agenda. Its purpose is simply to render human complexity—an overwhelming job in itself. Readers of science fiction, on the other hand, expect metaphor. They presume that the effort to understand the workings of the fully imagined world of the sci-fi writer will have real-world applications. We will learn to understand pollution, nuclear war, fascist states, fanatic religion. Science fiction writers are not just “imagineers.” They are teachers, and their readers want to understand their lessons.

A caveat here: sci-fi writers might be teachers, but they are not philosophers. They do not create new ideas. They bring to life ideas already in the air—ideas that perhaps sound fine on the surface but that can have tragic results if carried out.

Many young writers think science fiction is easy to write. That’s because they are copying some other writer’s world, and everything they put on the page—no matter how “shocking”—is expected. To write original sci-fi is not easy in the least. Try it if you dare!


 

51mYjG9xB1L._AA160_(Solaris Rising 2: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ian Whates; Solaris, 2013, $7.99)

Reviewed by Zeke Teflon

First, a relatively minor matter: It’s unfortunate, but if you read many science fiction short story collections, you’ll often find the same stories reprinted in anthologies for the same year issued by different publishers. That holds here. While the cover doesn’t mention any particular year, the copyright page lists all of the stories as copyright 2013. So, I was a bit disappointed when I discovered that I’d already read two of the first three stories in other anthologies. (If you can remember short story titles, your memory is better than mine.)

Having said that, the stories tend toward hard sci-fi and social sci-fi; there’s a welcome absence of military sci-fi and impressionistic, word-salad tales in this collection.

The stories, overall, are as well written as you’d expect in an anthology featuring work by Nancy Kress, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and Norman Spinrad. I only stopped reading a single story part way through while muttering, “Jesus Christ, dude. Enough with the passive voice already!”

The stories I thought the best were Nancy Kress’s “More,” Robert Reed’s “Bonds,” and Nick Harkaway‘s “The Time Gun.”

Kress’s chilling tale follows Caitlin, a terrorist just released from prison, set against a backdrop of class stratification, grinding repression, and violent resistance to it. Kress’s portrayal of Caitlin rings true–she’s reminiscent of members of marxist-leninist terrorist groups, such as Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (“Carlos”), virtually the entire Japanese United Red Army, and some members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Like most of them, Caitlin is from an upper middle class background (her dad being the inventor of the ultimate gated-community technology), and she sees people as objects to be used and discarded in pursuit of her “revolutionary” goals. This story is all too plausible.

Reed’s “Bonds” is an amusing send-up of New Age b.s. As Reed makes abundantly clear, New Age charlatans who babble about quantum physics are often flawed human beings, and have no more understanding of quantum physics than a dog does of calculus.

Harkaway’s “The Time Gun” is a clever, high energy time travel tale, which will leave you guessing right up till the end, which has a great twist.

There’s even a straight throwback to apolitical 1950s hard sci-fi, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s well written “Feast and Famine.”

This is one of the best sci-fi short story collections of recent years, especially at the price. Recommended.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia.

Free Radicals front cover

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by Nicholas P. Oakley, author of The Watcher

1. Ben Beck’s Anarchism and Science Fiction Reading List
Perhaps the best of the bunch. Comprehensive and regularly updated. Definitely worth a look.

2. io9′s 10 Greatest Libertarian Science Fiction Stories  Even with the L-word in the title, still a strong list all the same. Recommended for beginners to the genre, and includes all the names you’d expect.

3. Mythmakers & Lawbreakers Anarchist Fiction Writers  From Margaret Killjoy’s excellent book, published by AK Press, a 26 page appendix listing a bunch of anarchist fiction writers (including bibliographies). Also listed are works of fiction that feature anarchist history, anarchist societies, anarchist characters, and even anarchist villains. Definitely worth downloading or bookmarking for those that have read most of the better known anarchist SF works and want to delve a little deeper.

4. Dan Clore’s Essential Science Fiction and Fantasy for Libertarians  I hesitate to put this one up, as it isn’t an “anarchist” list, but a libertarian one. That said, most of these picks are not controversial however you paint your own particular brand of anarchism, and Clore does a good job of highlighting a few neglected classics.

5. Left-wing SFF Listopia on Goodreads  Good, simple list of lefty and some anarchist SF. Perhaps the easiest to browse and check out some of the unfamiliar titles. Another one for the newcomer.

6. Anarchist Studies Network SFF Reading List  A pretty limited list, but does include Moorcock and MacLeod, as well as having some other bibliographical data too.

Originally posted at http://quercusrubra.co.uk

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(New Earth, by Ben Bova. Tor, 2013, $24.99, 384 pp.)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

“Novel, n. A short story padded . . .” –Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Among the most annoying things in fiction are smart characters saying and doing dumb things, and failing to reach obvious conclusions. The only reason Ben Bova’s recent novel, New Earth, reaches nearly 400 pages is precisely because of these things.

The tale revolves around a small expedition sent to investigate an Earth-like planet orbiting Sirius–yes, Sirius. Current estimates place the age of Sirius at only 300 to 400 million years. It’s a bright, massive, spectral class A star emitting strongly in the ultraviolet, and it has a white dwarf companion orbiting it in a highly elliptical orbit; at periastron (the point at which an orbiting body is nearest to a star), the dwarf is only about eight astronomical units from Sirius (less than the distance of Saturn from the sun). This makes the existence of a planet in Sirius’ “Goldilocks zone” an impossibility.

Then, there’s the matter of life arising on such a planet, let alone a full-blown, Earth-like ecosphere. On Earth, it took the better part of a billion years for the simplest one-celled organisms to arise, and the first plants and animals didn’t appear for nearly four billion years. One would think this would arouse strong suspicions on the part of the novel’s scientific establishment on Earth, and of the scientists sent to explore the new planet. That suspicion is there in the story, but it’s very muted.

Once at New Earth, the expedition discovers that the planet not only has a fully developed Earth-like ecosphere, but is inhabited by friendly humans, genetically indistinguishable from Earth humans, who tell them the carefully worded exact truth in reply to questions. This is the point at which New Earth becomes really irritating, because the expedition scientists fail to realize they’re receiving incomplete information, and fail (for months!) to ask even the most obvious follow-up questions. Then, more than halfway through the narrative, they are shocked, shocked to discover that the planet is artificial.

Beyond that, the characters, dialogue, and the story itself are all flat. The characters, including the primary character, Jordan, are ciphers; none of them have any complexity or passion. And most of the expedition members are little more than names attached to functions.

The dialogue is equally insipid. Conflict drives good dialogue, and there’s very little conflict in New Earth.

As for the story itself, the entire book revolves around the question of why New Earth is there. And it takes a remarkably long time to answer that question. The reason for the book’s length is that the supposedly smart expedition members act very stupidly for an agonizing number of pages.

To put this another way, New Earth isn’t a conflict-driven drama. Rather, it’s a puzzle piece. And while puzzles can work well as short stories, they rarely if ever work well as novels.

New Earth isn’t a terrible book. It’s just not much of a book. It’s a prime example of the bloated puzzles sci-fi publishers all too often palm off as novels.

* * *

Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (free pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel.

Free Radicals front cover


 

512XAamP04L._AA160_

(Gary K. Wolfe editor, The Library of America, 2012)

reviewed by Chris Edwards

The first volume of this two-volume set includes novels from 1953 to 1956, and the second includes novels from 1956-1958. This book is worth owning. The Library of America always publishes great looking volumes that can become collectors items, and the look and feel of its books enhance the reading experience. Gary K. Wolfe, or someone else at the publishing house, made the wise decision to leave the collection uncluttered by original covers and commentary, and instead outsourced this to http://www.loa.org/sciencefiction. The site features the original covers and commentary on the books from some of SF’s modern stars, such as Connie Willis and Neil Gaiman.

At this point; I’ve only read Volume II (because I’m the kind of guy who reads a two-volume science fiction anthology out of order with a pack of smokes rolled up in the sleeve of my white T-shirt). The volume includes Double Star, by Robert Heinlein, The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester, A Case of Conscience, by James Blish, Who, by Algis Budrys, and The Big Time, by Fritz Leiber.

Modern sci-fi fans will note a few major differences between these novels and more modern sci-fi novels. The first is how tight and concise the books are in comparison with the sprawling, seemingly unedited novels typical of most modern writers. Second, we all know that nobody but JFK got laid in the 1950s, so sex features not at all in any of this volume’s 803 pages. Compared to the sexual gymnastics one often finds in modern SF, this is quite a difference. Third, and most enjoyably, the early writers represented in this collection seemed to be free of the need to work esoteric physics into their stories. These works from the fifties tilt toward telling a good story rather than explicating science. (Since this is a general overview, I’ll say more about the novels themselves in future posts.)

Sci-fi fans rarely worry about whether or not the navel-gazing literary establishment takes science fiction seriously. Still, it’s nice to see the literary history of the genre receive serious treatment. The important thing about the Library of America’s anthology, and the complementary website’s solid treatment of the books, may be that at least some academics may finally be treating science fiction with the gravity it deserves.

* * *

snakeoilcover (Chris Edwards is the author of Spiritual Snake Oil