Science Fiction Blog

Thoughts on the science-fiction and fantasy genres, which emphasis more on books than on films or TV.

Poseidon’s Children

poseidons-children

Alastair Reynolds writes hard-SF space opera constrained by current understandings of physics. That means than in his worlds, there is no magical faster-then-light travel, so spacecraft must take many years to cross the gap between stars. This in turn makes interstellar travel a one-way trip, which has a big impact on the sorts of stories you can tell. I haven’t get read his most recent “Revenger”, but here are some thoughts on his recent Poseidon’s Children trilogy, comprising “Blue Remembered Earth”, “On The Steel Breeze” and “Poseidon’s Wake”.

The three novels cover a time span of hundreds of years, with the point-of-view characters from different generations of an extended wealthy Kenyan family, the matriarch Eunice Akinya playing a central role across the whole saga despite being dead at the beginning of the first book.

With each volume, Reynolds turns up the scale. The first book, “Blue Remembered Earth” is part mystery, part family drama, taking place on Earth and all over the solar system. It’s the 2160s, Earth has been through some turbulent times and come out of the other side with nations like Kenya and India as major powers, and the Kenyan Akinya family has grown rich out of space exploration.

By the time of “On The Steel Breeze”, a fleet of generation ships made from hollowed-out asteroids is en-route to a planet orbiting a nearby star, where telescopes in the solar system have detected the presence of enigmatic alien structures. The action shifts between the generation ships and the solar system, as it slowly becomes apparent that things are not what they seem, and somebody or something wants the mission to fail.

In the final volume, “Poseidon’s Wake” a successful colony has been established on that distant planet, and an inscrutable alien machine intelligence has entered the picture. After early events on the colony world, on Mars and on Earth, the focus shifts to a third star system which might provide the key to the mysteries of those enigmatic ancient structures. Multiple factions, not all of them human, struggle over how or whether to interact with them.

Some themes recur from his earlier “Revelation Space” saga; in particular the Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter, machine intelligences, generic engineering, and uplifted sentient animals. But where that earlier series was dark and gothic, the mood here is far brighter and more optimistic. Dealing with ancient and very alien machine intelligences is still highly dangerous, but the backdrop of Lovecraftian doom of that earlier saga is absent.

The believable future politics is another strong point. The politically-motivated minor villains aren’t the thinly-disguised caricatures of Tories, Communists, Republicans or Democrats typical of lesser authors. Instead they’re the result of far-future political faultlines in a world as far away from ours as we are from the high middle ages.

With this trilogy in particular, Reynolds is successful in combining an old-school Campbellian sense of wonder with well-realised three-dimensional characters. While it’s a long way from swashbuckling pulp there are some gripping action sequences and more than one supporting character dies in a seemingly futile and avoidable way. The result is something that’s old-fashioned in one respect and modern in another.

At a time when the world of SF seems divided into two warring camps, one championing socially aware work with ambitions towards literature, the other rooting for entertaining action adventure, Reynolds stands with a foot in both camps. It’s precisely the sort of thing that ought to be nominated more often for major SF awards.

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Some thoughts on Gene Wolfe

There’s a thread on Mad Genius Club about the worst books you’ve read. I’ve suggested God-Emperor of Dune, probably the dullest book I’ve slogged though to the end, referred to as “God-Awful of Dune” for a reason.

A couple of other commenters suggested Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the Long Sun”.

You’ve gut a malfunctioning generation ship ruled by AI personalities that have set themselves up as gods, war, rebellion, sentient robots, mutants with psionic powers and the ability to possess people, an invading society of Amazons that come off like a female Taliban, and vampiric shapeshifters who want the humans in the ship to escape to their planet rather than a safe planet so that the humans can be preyed upon. How can all that possibly be boring???

But it is.

A bit harsh But…

I find Wolfe can be infuriatingly frustrating at times; when he’s good his books are so immersive and compelling than it’s worth persevering when another of his books seems heavy going. Wolfe always takes “show, don’t tell” to extremes, and always shows you his worlds through the eyes of his characters, and if they don’t understand what’s going on, neither should you. There were parts of Book of the Long Sun that seemed exceptionally slow-moving on the first reading, such as the interminable section in the tunnels beneath the city where very little seemed to happen. But this was a book that made more sense on a second reading.

Even then, it does lack the accessibility and magic of the earlier “Book of the New Sun” and the direct sequel “Book of the Short Sun”, even though both of those are as every bit as complex and enigmatic. Is the central character, Patera Silk less compelling that Severain of Book of the New Sun or Horn of Book of the Short Sun? Or is it something else?

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The Literary Origins of RPGs

Interesting post on Jeffro’s Space Gaming Blog on how the first generation of roleplaying games from the late 1970s weren’t influenced by the ackowleged greats of the golden age of science fiction such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein or Arthur C Clarke, but by a host of less well-know authors, many of which are long out of print.

If you take some time to read what the early rpg designers had read, you will see that they almost compulsively lifted material from pulp and new wave writers. The most surprising thing about this is the extent to which they passed over the grand masters of Campbellian science fiction. The authors that are synonymous with the field seemed to hold not one iota of attraction or influence to them. Mike Mearls thinks almost entirely in terms of television and movies. These things had a negligible impact on the first wave of rpg designers. For them it was short stories and novellas and short novels from dozens of authors that were primary. There was no “big three” for them: they read everything they could get their hands on.

He makes the valid point that Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke wrote serious stories about big ideas, which don’t translate well into roleplaying settings or scenarios. Meanwhile it was the lowbrow pulpy action-adventures that inspired Gary Gygaz and Marc Miller to create D&D and Traveller. In particular he cites Jack Vance as a huge influence on both.

Where, I wonder, does H. P. Lovecraft fit in? He was surely a pulp writer, and his work inspired what has to be the most successful licenced RPG of all time. How much has the Call of Cthulhu game contributed towards Lovecraft’s status as a cult author? I can’t be the only person who came to his fiction through the game.

Today’s generation of RPG designers get their ideas more from film and television than from books, with some games designed around the tropes and beats of a typical television episode, and combat systems designed to reproduce the fight scenes from action movies. As D&D line editor Mike Mearls says to Polygon.

“If you look at science fiction follows, I think an arc that fantasy is following now. In the 50’s, science fiction was very iconic, and at least in movies, very much templated. You had the flying saucer, or the rocket ship, you had either the aliens who were clearly monsters — like the guy in the deep sea diving helmet wearing the gorilla coming to eat people or whatever. Or they were people in funny outfits who were very inscrutable and so much more advanced that we were, and that was your pantheon.”

Later, as science fiction entered the ‘60s and the ‘70s, it began to be entrusted with more serious themes and dealt with issues of change in modern culture as a whole.

“So you have this new wave of science fiction coming through and science fiction grows up,” Mearls said. “It became Alien — a horror movie in outer space. It becomes Soylent Green, which is kind of like this social commentary on science fiction. It’s Rollerball, right? This entire thing about what’s it really mean to have free will, and can there really be freedom in a technological society? But it’s still science fiction.”

Barely a mention of books at all. Is this because the current generation of gamers read fewer books and watch more telly? Or is it because literary SF and fantasy have moved away from the sort of pulpy action-adventure that makes a good RPG in favour of more weighty topics, and the action-adventure genre in turn has switched to other media?

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The Dragon Awards

Dragon Award So the inaugural Dragon Awards have seen wins for Larry Correia, John C Wright and Sir Terry Pratchett, amongst others.

Even though “The Shepherd’s Crown” wasn’t quite up to the standard of the works that made his reputation, it’s hard to begrudge that win. Since Sir Terry is no longer with us, his posthumous final book was the one and only time he’s ever going to be eligible for a Dragon. He’s one of the true giants of fantasy, perhaps second only to J R R Tolkien in public name recognition, and an award that’s as much for lifetime achievement is still deserved.

The awards as a whole do celebrate the populist commercial end of SFF at the expense of the literary, and is skewed heavily towards American authors whose work isn’t easy to get hold of on this side of the Atlantic. So I’m not convinced the Dragon Awards represent the state of the art in science-fiction any more than the Hugo Awards do. If anything, the two awards are almost mirror images of each other, each seemingly over representing the favourites of one tribe at the expense of rival tribes.

There is a very big overlap between Vox Day’s stated personal choices and the eventual winners, so much so that accusations of ballot-stuffing have surfaced. And that has to be a bit of a red flag. But it’s also true that the Sad Puppy leaders past and present have been promoting the Dragons very heavily, and their fans and supporters may have participated in disproportionate numbers. We shall have to see how the award develops over the coming years.

Anyway, congratulations to all the winners, even those who don’t share my political world-view. And to those who dismiss the award’s legitimacy because the wrong people won, remember that some people said exactly the same about The Hugos.

Over to you. What do you think of the results? Do they represent a radical alternative to The Hugos, or do they represent too narrow a tribe?

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Some thoughts on The Hugos

The results of the Hugo Awards were entirely predictable.

As a fan of Alastair Reynolds it’s disappointing that his novella “Slow Bullets” didn’t win, but at least it didn’t get no-awarded for the crime of having been nominated by the wrong people, something I feared might happen. But much as I’m a huge fan of his writing, it’s difficult to imagine the sort of story he writes ever winning a Hugo; it’s like expecting The Guardian to name a prog-metal record as its critics’ album of the year.

It’s also disappointing that Noah Ward beat Chuck Tingle, his “clown car crashing a sombre chapel” is a good antidote too much po-faced seriousness. And it’s a real shame that they chose to vote for No Award over Larry Elmore as Best Professional Artist for what seemed like purely political reasons.

The reactions are exactly as expected too. The left-leaning media are hailing it as a victory in sending the puppies packing, while Sad Puppy organisers past and present complain that Worldcon are circling the wagons to shut out anyone not of their tribe, and predict the Hugos will now slowly decline into irrelevance, with the newer and more broadly-based Dragons taking their place.

The fact that there was a sharp decline in voting this year, down by almost half from last year and actually less than the number of votes in the nomination round is quite significant. After the mass no-awarding of last year many of the people who wanted wider participation seem to have concluded there was no point throwing good money after bad, and didn’t buy supporting memberships for this year.

I have concluded two things about the Sad Puppies this year. First, by running recommended reading lists rather than explicit slates, none of which had five and only five nominations, Amanda Green and Kate Paulk are not guilty of serious wrongdoing. Second, by combination of lack of numbers and not voting in lockstep they had relatively little influence. It was Vox Day and his Rabid Puppies whose blatantly political list swept entire categories. This was just as true last year, though it suited agendas on both sides to pretend otherwise. But this year anyone who still conflates the Sad and Rabid Puppies has an agenda, and isn’t to be trusted. Damien Walter, I’m looking at you…

The Worldcon business committee have rightly ratified EPH, but unfortunately have passed a second proposal for Three Stage Voting (3SV), which sends out all the wrong signals. EPH, while promoted as defence against slates, is a politically-neutral proportional voting system. 3SV is explicitly about preserving the purity of the awards by gatekeeping out Bad People. It institutionalises tyranny of the majority, and almost guaranteed to be misused in the next fandom war which will be about something completely different.

As I’ve said before, Worldcon needs to make up its mind what what the Hugos are supposed to represent. Vox Day’s campaigns have given them two choices; either they open up the nominations to a wider audience and dilute his influence, or they circle the wagons to shut out outsiders. They appear to have chosen the latter. Will the Hugos now become the SFF equivalent of the CRS awards?

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James Worrad on Chuck Tingle: SF’s Lord Of Misrule

James Worrad has a really good piece on Chuck Tingle and this year’s Hugo Awards. (I have left the Anglo-Saxon words in)

Within SFF, I see this Apollo/Dionysos spectrum as the vertical Y axis to the horizontal X of the political left/right. And what we have right now, in this godforsaken year of our lord 2016, is a left/right spectrum pulling at either end with the side effect of warping the vertical axis violently upward into the Apollonian (I hope you can picture that, I’m not sure WordPress comes with a chart making option). The result: lean times for Dionysos.

Currently, what unites the gun-waving right wing SF pundit and his Tumblr-wielding lefty opposite is a half-conscious desire for the genre to be about something rather than just be. In that respect they are both the priests of Apollo, with an insatiable need to place laws and structure and context upon a genre that, at it’s core, is a wide hot mess of contradiction and nebulousness. It’s an understandable urge, this need to tame. We’re in an era that’s impossible to comprehend or predict. It’s frightening. And a sense–perhaps even illusion–of control can alleviate that fear.

But the Dionysian is what makes science fiction, fantasy and horror truly shine. It’s its ‘killer app’, if you will. And, beneath all the absurdity, sodomy and raptors, I think that’s what Chuck Tingle represents. That’s why everyone is talking about him (Well, that and the dino-fucking). He stirs the near-lost sense of senselessness in us fans, the primal chaos that’s the deadly serious part of fun.

Read the whole thing: I love the image of the clown car crashing into the sombre chapel.

The last couple of years have seen the Hugo Awards devolve into a bitter turf war between two rival cliques of writers and fans, neither of whom are as representative as SF as a whole as they like to think they are. And that turf war has ifself bogged down in a bitter stalemate in which SF as a whole is the loser.

So I hope Chuck Tingle takes home a rocket. And in future years the Hugos revert to celebrating SF’s sense of wonder instead of backward-looking turf wars.

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Gerry Anderson tech moves from Russia to China

There ought to be a prize for rediculously “out there” engineering ideas. This one’s described as as a ‘straddling bus’ design to beat traffic jams though since it runs on rails it’s technically a tram rather than a bus.

All it needs is for International Rescue to save the day when something goes horribly wrong.

Click in the link to watch the video on the Guardian site.

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Lovecraft and the Fear of Ick

Thought-provoking post by Zak Smith on Lovecraft, Nerds And The Uses of Ick. H. P. Lovecraft is one of the most controversial figures in SF and gaming cultures. His massive misogyny and racism cannot be denied, yet the visceral power of his horrors mean he’s still one of the most influential writers of the genre. But both his bigotry and the power of his writing stem from the same fear of the Other.

Lovecraftian disgust is visceral, the kind that goes ick. The feeling of having a gun to your head isn’t ick. Ick is a fear of life–someone else’s icky life. Fear of mollusks, for instance–which are totally harmless–is Lovecraftian.

He then turns to the RPG world’s rather messy culture wars,  drawing parallels between Lovecraft’s fears and hangups with those of the faction who wish to sanitise and bowdlerise the RPG hobby.

When there is ick, there is fear, where there’s fear there is ignorance, where there’s ignorance there’s disgust, and where there’s disgust, prejudice.

I’m not enirely convinced that calling out some game designers by name is productive, but the points he makes are still valid.

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Booky McBookface, by Noah Ward

So Vox Day has managed to crap all over the Hugo Awards for the second year running, flooding some categories completely and getting stories with titles “If You Were An Award, My Love” and “Space Raptor Butt Invasion” on the ballot.

What muddies the waters is that Day has also taken some reputable authors who deserved to get nominated anyway and covered them with his stink, I feel for Alastair Reynolds, who’s novella “Slow Bullets” has made the nominations and now risks becoming a political football.

This year it’s important to note that The Sad Puppies, run this year by Kate Paulk and Amanda Green, did not run slates as such, with recommendation lists that ranged from two or three entries in some categories to as many as ten in each of the fiction categories. At no point did they recommend five and only five nominations for any category.

The heavy overlap between Vox Day’s and Brad Torgersen’s Rabid and Sad Puppies slates last year obscured the fact that it was Vox Day who really did the damage. Wherever the two slates differed, it was Vox Day’s choices that made the ballot. This year there is no room for any doubt who the villain is, and I’m going to assume anyone who continues to blur the difference between the Sad Puppies and the Rabid ones is either ignorant or has an agenda.

I’m not a Worldcon member, but that’s not going to stop me giving unsolicited advice. So here’s my off-the-top-of-my-head recommendations.

First, ratify E Pluribus Hugo. This is ought to be such a no-brainer than anyone that attempts to argue otherwise is not to be trusted. It won’t fix everything, but it will make it harder for any well-organised minority to swamp the ballot.

Second, think very hard about the wisdom of repeating last year’s block no-awarding everything tainted, throwing good people under the bus in an attempt to preserve the purity of the awards. That stank when they did it to people like Toni Weisskopf last year. The garbage from VD’s cronies you can no award to oblivion if it’s as awful as it sounds from the titles. But remember that burning down The Hugos is VD’s goal, and no-awarding deserving nominees like Toni Weisskopf or Alastair Reynolds gives him what he wants.

Third, recognise that the Sad Puppies and the Rabid ones are very different things, and try to build bridges with the some of the first of those groups, or at least avoid rhetoric or behaviour that further deepens the divide with anyone who’s not an actual acolyte of Vox Day. The mass no-awarding of last year did not help in that regard.

One problem with the Hugo Awards in recent years seems to be the lack of any consensus about what they’re supposed to represent. Do they represent the very best of science fiction and fantasy as a whole, or do they represent the favourites of a far narrower subset of fandom? Are they really publicly-voted awards, or closer to juried awards with an unusually large jury? And above all how much are they American rather than international?

At the moment they’ve neither quite one thing or the other, and that’s one root of the problem.

You could argue that the world of SF/F is now too broad and too diverse for a single set of awards to serve as a Gold Standard, there need to be alternative awards created for different crowds, and new awards like The Dragons are a step in that direction. So complaining that “Heroic Engineer” stories never get Hugo nominations is like complaining about the lack of rock and metal in the Mercury Music Prize when the Kerrang awards exist.

Only once Worldcon decide exactly what the Hugos are and who they are supposed to be for can they treat Vox Day as damage and route around him. At the moment he is still outmanoeuvring them, rendering last years Hugo Ceremony a pyrrhic victory.

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The Dragon Awards

The Dragon Awards

The long-established SF convention DragonCon has announced a new set of science fiction & fantasy awards, The Dragons.

Welcome to the first annual Dragon Awards! As a part of our 30th Anniversary as the nation’s largest fan-run convention, we are introducing a new way to recognize excellence in all things Science Fiction and Fantasy. These awards will be by the fans, for the fans, and are your chance to reward those who have made real contributions to SF, books, games, comics, and shows. Not only can you nominate and vote, the Dragon Awards lets you share your support with others!

As well as awards for comics, games, TV and Films, there are seven different “Best Novel” categories covering different sub-genres; Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Paranormal, Military, Alternate World, Post-Apocalyptic and Horror. There are notably no awards for less than novel length fiction.

Votes both for the nominations and the final ballot are open to anyone without the need to register for the convention itself or pay to be a supporting member, and you get one and only one nomination vote in each category.

It’s early days yet, and I’m sure there are plenty of bugs that will need to be worked out over the first couple of years. Certainly the focus on sub-genres could end up rewarding work that’s faithful to genre tropes at the expense of perhaps more imaginative works that defy easy pigeon-holing. There’s nothing I’ve seen that implies you can’t nominate something the crosses genre boundaries more than once in different categories, but genre-straddling works still risk getting their votes split.

Given the increasingly bitter wars over the Hugo Awards a rival high-profile award organised in a radically-different way does seem like the best way do go. In recent years the Hugos have come to represent one subset of science fiction & fantasy at the expense of others, which has left some readers feeling disenfranchised, one cause of the bitter fighting over the nominations last year. Far better to give the Hugos some serious competition in the shape of a rival high-profile award, and for those disenfranchised fans to put their energies into that.

Seen in the light it’s even possible that some of The Dragons’ apparent flaws are deliberate design features, in that the awards are intended to showcase the sorts of novels that have been passed over by The Hugos in recent years.

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