Friday, November 16, 2012

English Stained Glass, The Cloisters, New York

Space dragon holds up a chalice so that his astronaut pal, armed with a power scroll, can chastise the devil alien trapped inside it.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


On their own, single cells of cellular slime moulds are closely similar to amoebae, naked blobs of protoplasm enclosed in a cytoplasmic membrane, wandering through the water films around soil particles and leaf litter.  But when they get together, they start to express a variety of complex behaviours and structures.  They aggregate into networks of threads or into big slug-like blobs that act as a single organism, and during sexual reproduction differentiate into complex sporangia.  And they also secrete mucous trails that act as a kind of exomemory, helping them navigate through their environment and locate food.  They lack a nervous system, but display a kind of intelligence.  Like ants (which create scent-based forage trails), like human beings, they are able to create a form of external notation about their history.  A kind of writing.  Maps.  Diaries.  Epic slime-mould odysseys.

For the past two years I've been laying down my own trail, a sequence of about 130,000 words in the form of a novel, Evening's Empires, and travelling over it again and again, altering and refining it, draft upon draft.  I've now just about finished the final stage of editing (I'm taking a break from hunting down adverbs, querying their usefulness, and eliminating them if they don't pass muster).  Next week, the manuscript goes back to my editor, who'll pass it on to the copy editor for a close reading that will query every word.  When I've responded to that, the novel will be set in type and pass through the proofreading stage, a last chance to comb out errors, and then it will go into production.  And at last join that part of the human exomemory, vast and very nearly measureless, located in bookshops, libraries, and book-like electronic devices.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Let's Put The Future Behind Us*

I was going to write about realism and space fiction, and at some point I will, but something I discovered via SF Signal (which does a nice job of aggregating all kinds of links to science fiction and fantasy stuff) got under my skin this morning, and it's an itch I can't resist scratching.

Over on the web site of the Science Fiction Writers of America, author and astronomy professor Michael Brotherton published a list of ten hard science fiction novels that have stood the test of time.  I don't want to pick an argument with Michael Brotherton, specifically.  The ten books he's chosen are all solid, often award-winning novels from science fiction's rich and storied history, and he gives good and interesting reasons for selecting them.  He knows his science fiction, and he knows his science.  The problem isn't that there's anything wrong with the list he's generated using his criteria, apart from one obvious thing I'll get to in a minute, but that it exemplifies the way science fiction is all too often backward looking.  The problem is with the criteria.  Specifically with that cute little phrase 'stood the test of time.'

The oldest novel on the list is Hal Clement's A Mission of Gravity, serialised in 1953; the most recent is Carl Sagan's Contact, from 1985.  It's true that everything on the list has stood the test of time, but science has moved on.  A lot.  Three of the novels deal with problems in Newtonian physics; two with using radio astronomy to contact aliens; two more with relativistic dilation effects.  Given their vintage, none deal with or could be expected to deal with anything approaching the current bleeding edge of science - the new cosmology, brane theory, string theory, dark matter, nanotechnology, quantum computing, most modern biotechnological techniques, and on and on.   The list isn't a bad list (except for the obvious problem), but like too many lists of its kind - and science fiction fans and writers love to produce lists - it was produced by looking backwards, not forward, by framing the selective criteria to include a bunch of the usual suspects and to exclude anything even remotely recent.

It also, and now I'm getting to the obvious problem, does not include any hard sf novels by women, or by writers of colour.  At all.  Michael Brotherton does acknowledge this, and names some writers he might have included if he wasn't looking backwards.  He also mentions some writers whose careers began after 1985, and notes, again quite rightly, that 'a field this rich can’t be captured in a top ten list.'  Absolutely.  But it doesn't stop people making lists, all too often generated by criteria that exclude much of science fiction's current variety.  So here's an idea.  Why not frame your lists to exclude the obvious suspects?  Why not make lists of ten great hard sf novels by women, or by non-Western writers?  Or how about twenty mindblowing hard sf novels of the twenty-first century?  Here are a few to get you going on the latter: Greg Egan's Schild's Ladder, Justina Robson's Natural History, M. John Harrison's Light, Tricia Sullivan's Maul. Any others?

*title filched from Jack Womack's fine satirical novel about post-Soviet Russia
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