Some people make fun of stories about generation ships because they often follow in the mould of Heinlein’s Universe (1941): if there is a story about a generation ship, it will suffer a disaster while the crew inside descend into barbarism and self-destruction. Sometimes monsters devour the crew, sometimes a plague kills all the adults, and sometimes radiation turns the voyagers into monstrosities. Geneticists would call that a founder effect: the first story (or the first few members of a species to reproduce in an environment) has a disproportionate influence on everything after. Is there a wider context the critics are overlooking?Read more
Alec Nevala-Lee, Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (Dey Street, 2018)
πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει.
The world is full of wonders / terrors, and the most wonderful / terrible is mankindChoral speech on the wonders of technology, Sophokles, Antigone, line 334 (Perseus Project)
Astounding is a feminist prosopography of John W. Campbell Jr‘s circle from the Second World War. It is a prosopography because it is a group biography which focuses on the connections between people, what they did at different life stages, and how their careers resemble the careers of other people with similar backgrounds. And it is feminist because he says out loud that many writing and editing teams of the time were a family business, with the husband out front speaking to fans and the wife revising, suggesting plots, and administering the business in the background. E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith split his cheque for The Skylark of Space with a Mrs. Garby because they had started to write the novel together (Goulart’s Informal History of the Pulp Magazines p. 163). The role of women was acknowledged at the time but tended to get forgotten as marriages ended and fandom grew.Read more
There is now a Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction (https://sfdictionary.com/) which got started with help from the Oxford English Dictionary. When I encounter a new historical dictionary or encyclopedia, the first thing I do is check some entries to see if they exist and how good they are.
H. Beam Piper’s Terro-Human Future History features two weapons, planet-busters and hellburners. Planet-busters are some especially powerful kind of atomic weapon, like a hydrogen bomb but even more destructive, while hellburners are atomic weapons which create some kind of self-sustaining incendiary reaction (Piper alluded to Hans Bethe’s solar phoenix reaction). Planet-busters go back to a popular article on the hydrogen bomb from 1950 and appear in many writers’ stories, but hellburners are rare outside Piper’s works. In a chat with Jesse Sheidlower, I realized where the name ‘hellburner’ may come from.Read more
In fall 2021, Winchell ‘Nyrath’ Chung [Patreon] – [hellbirdsite] was diagnosed with terminal cancer. As of April 2022 it is in remission. His site Project Rho is one of the great Internet preservation projects: it collects material in various essays, books, and Internet posts and organizes it so it can be turned into something more digestable one day. In his case, that material is calculations and speculations about how high-powered spacecraft would work, especially in combat. This week I will talk about some of the things I learned from worldbuilding geeks which I did not learn from science fiction stories.Read more
S.M. Stirling, Against the Tide of Years (Roc Science Fiction: New York, 1999) links to buy it on the author’s website
S.M. Stirling’s Nantucket trilogy is a Late Bronze Age alternate history which does not involve Akhenaten or the Exodus (it does involve the Trojan War). That makes it a novel for me. It even quotes some Stan Rogers lyrics! So in 2021 I re-read my copy of the second volume in Canada. After being cast back to the Late Bronze Age, the Nantucketers have been divided into a majority based on their island and a renegade faction lead by William Walker (not the filibuster). Both factions are rushing to industrialize and expand like unto a game of Civilization.Read more
Elizabeth Moon, Hunting Party (Baen Books: Riversdale, NY, 1993). Later released in an omnibus as Heris Seranno.
Calgary is a hard town for the poor and pedestrian, but when I lived there I discovered some authors in the few hardy used bookstores which held out like poplars in draws along the rivers. One of those was Elizabeth Moon. I had read a few of the Kylara Vatta novels and not felt inspired to finish the series, but when I read some of her earlier novels and short stories I was very impressed.Read more