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James Davis Nicoll

Five SFF Stories About Surviving the Dangers of Boarding School

J.K. Rowling has done much to revive the literary genre of boarding school stories, which achieved its greatest (pre-Potter) popularity in the period between Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857) and the mid-twentieth century. As a setting, boarding schools allow for the construction of thrilling narratives: concerned parents are replaced by teachers who may well prioritize student achievement over student welfare, e.g. maximizing points for Gryffindor over the survival of the students earning those points. Because the students cannot easily walk away from the school, they must deal with teachers and other students, some of whom may be vividly villainous (Miss Minchin, for example—the antagonist in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess).

Are there any SFF novels featuring boarding schools? Why yes! I am glad you asked—there are more than I can list in a single article. Here are just a few.

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Five Collections of Classic SF Ready for Rediscovery

Time erodes. Time erodes author reputations. When new books stop appearing, old readers forget a once favorite author and new readers may never encounter writers who were once well known.

It’s fortunate that we live in something of a golden age of reprints, whether physical books or ebooks. This is also the golden age of finding long-out-of-print books via online used book services. Now authors perhaps unjustly forgotten can reach new readers. I’ve been reminded of a few such authors; let me share a few of them with you.

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Gender and the Hugo Awards, by the Numbers

When I heard people were apparently upset about the gender balance of this year’s Hugo winners, I thought I could give the records a quick eyeball and fill the empty abyss of daily existence for a short time establish once and for all whether or not this year was particularly atypical. If there’s one thing known about human nature, it is that concrete numbers resolve all arguments.

Because I don’t want to offend any gods that are lurking about with the sin of excessive perfection, I only looked at the prose fiction categories. Still, even a quick perusal reveals an astounding trend.

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SFF Works Linked by One Canadian University

You might not immediately identify Ontario’s University of Waterloo as a hotbed of speculative fiction writing. The establishment is far better known for its STEM programs, baffled-looking first-year students, the horrifying things in the tunnels, and vast flocks of velociraptor-like geese. So you may be surprised to learn that the University has produced a number of science fiction and fantasy authors over the years. For example….

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SFF Works in Which Violence Is Not the Solution

If the science fiction I read is any guide, the solution to any problem is: violence! Whatever the context—first contact, zombie pandemic, meteor impact, or a stalled escalator—there’s nothing like clawing one’s way to survival over a heap of bodies.

Indeed, the violent solution is so expected that readers can be surprised by a plot that avoids it… Consider the venerable The Mote in God’s Eye. (So old that we don’t need to avoid spoilers, right?)

[Some spoilers below…]

Celebrating Poul Anderson with Five Favourite Works

Poul Anderson died on this day back in 2001. Anderson’s career spanned over sixty years, from the 1940s to the early 2000s. He wrote fiction and non-fiction. He published in many genres: fantasy, science fiction, historicals, and mysteries. He wrote dozens of novels and hundreds of shorter pieces, all of a level of quality that was never less than competent—and sometimes better. The often acerbic Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls Anderson “his generation’s most prolific sf writer of any consistent quality[…].” (He was the anti-Lionel Fanthorpe.)

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Science Fiction vs. Science: Bidding Farewell to Outdated Conceptions of the Solar System

Science fiction is often about discovering new things. Sometimes it is also about loss. Consider, for example, the SF authors of the early space probe era. On the plus side, after years of writing about Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and the other worlds of the Solar System, they would find out what those worlds were really like. On the minus side, all the infinite possibilities would be replaced by a single reality—one that probably wouldn’t be much like the Solar System of the old pulp magazines.

Not that science fiction’s consensus Old Solar System, featuring dying Mars and Martians, or swamp world Venus, was ever plausible. Even in the 1930s, educated speculations about the other planets were not optimistic about the odds that the other worlds were so friendly as to be merely dying. (Don’t believe me? Sample John W. Campbell’s articles from the mid-1930s.)

Science fiction authors simply ignored what science was telling them in pursuit of thrilling stories.

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How Science Fiction Imagined the First Moon Landing

Has it really only been just five short decades since humans landed on the Moon? From one viewpoint, it’s a marvelous achievement. From another viewpoint, a downer—hard-working SF writers can no longer write thrilling tales about being the first man to step onto the Moon.

Of course, we now know going to the Moon is a trivial matter of harnessing a respectable fraction of the wealthiest nation on the planet’s economy for a decade or so. Old-timey SF authors thought it might be difficult, which is why they often wrote tales in which the first human landed on the Moon long after 1969.

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Bad SF Ideas in Real Life: NASA’s Never-Realized Plans for Venus

Many readers may find the plots of some SF novels deeply implausible. “Who,” they ask, “would send astronauts off on an interstellar mission before verifying the Go Very Fast Now drive was faster than light and not merely as fast as light? Who would be silly enough to send colonists on a one-way mission to distant worlds on the basis of very limited data gathered by poorly programmed robots? Who would think threatening an alien race about whom little is known, save that they’ve been around for a million years, is a good idea?”

Some real people have bad ideas; we’re lucky that comparatively few of them become reality. Take, for example, a proposal to send humans to Venus. Not to land, but as a flyby.

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5 Ways Science Has Made Science Fiction More Interesting

It may sometimes seem as if science does nothing but harsh SF’s vibe: “No stealth in space,” “Mars is nigh-impossible to terraform with on-site resources,” “relativity and its speed of light limit has stood up to eleven plus decades of intense testing,” and “all getting bitten by a radioactive spider does is raise a small welt and give one a very slightly increased chance of cancer.” BUT…science gives as well as takes. Here are five examples of ways in which the Solar System as we currently understand it is way more awesome than the Solar System of my youth.

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Remembering the Moon Landing: Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire

There have been many accounts written about the American Apollo Program, which succeeded in placing men (Commander Neil Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin) on the moon for the first time July 20, 1969. My favourite account is Michael Collins’ 1974 Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys. Collins was the Command Module Pilot. While the Lunar Lander descended to the Moon’s surface, it was Collins’ task to remain with the Command Module in Lunar orbit. Collins is therefore a man who has been within a hundred miles of the Moon without ever touching down on the surface of that world.

Rather than making any attempt at a dispassionate, neutral history of the Apollo Program, Collins provides a very personal account, a Collins-eye view of the American path to the moon. It’s not a short process, which is why it takes 360 pages before Collins and his more well-known companions find themselves strapped into the largest, most powerful man-rated rocket to have been launched as of that date. Before that…

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Great Lost Civilizations of Science Fiction and Fantasy

As previously discussed, it’s possible to do such a thorough job of destroying a civilization that all knowledge of it is lost…at least until inexplicable relics start to turn up. One example: the real world Indus Valley Civilization, which might have flourished from 3300 to 1300 BC, across territory now found in western and northwestern India, Pakistan and northeastern Afghanistan. It was contemporaneous with the civilizations of Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China. History did a thorough enough job of erasing the Indus Valley Civilization from the records that when modern archaeology began to study it, it wasn’t at all clear whose ruins were being explored. It just goes to show that no matter how great a civilization might be, time is greater.

[Here are a few of my favourite SFF lost civilizations…]

Heinlein’s Juveniles vs. Andre Norton’s Young Adult Novels

About five years ago, I reviewed all of the Heinlein Scribner juveniles (plus the two associated novels). Immediately thereafter, I reviewed fifty Andre Norton novels. This was not a coincidence. It just so happens that back in the 1970s, Ace re-published most of the Heinlein juveniles. Those editions usually contained a full-page ad for Heinlein’s Ace books and right next to it, an ad for fifty Andre Norton novels. Clearly someone at Ace thought the market for Heinlein and Norton overlapped.

So, how do their YA books compare?

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