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James Davis Nicoll

Halfway to Nowhere: On Enjoying the Narrative Journey

Like so many other readers, I am frustrated by interminable series that never end. I complain. Loudly. Publicly. In print (well, HTML). I do this because it’s the right thing to do. I may have a twinkling of a hope that some authors will wake up and conclude their series. But that hope is as long-lived as a firefly. Alas.

I do make an exception for works in which the destination is never the point, in which the goal is simply to enjoy the journey.

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Fighting Erasure: Women SF Writers of the 1970s, Part IV

Another few weeks, another foray into the world of women authors of the 1970s. This time, my subject is women SF writers whose names begin with I or J and who debuted in the 1970s¹. There also three previous instalments in this series, covering women writers with last names beginning with A through F, those beginning with G, and those beginning with H.

This week’s instalment is short due to a peculiarity of (primarily) Anglophone surnames that I notice every time I look at my bookshelves. For some reason, there aren’t many authors whose surnames begin with I or J. When one filters by debut date, the resulting set is downright tiny. I once suggested to a publisher that they rename some of their authors so the distribution of surnames by initial was more equitable, but I fear this was greeted with the same lack of enthusiasm as my suggestion that all editors be ear-tagged to make voting on the Best Editor Hugo more convenient for me. Progress is hard.

Still, “not many” is not “none.”

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Why the Hell Are These Books Out of Print?

About two years ago, I reviewed Raphael Carter’s The Fortunate Fall. I could not add a link that would allow readers to purchase the book because as far as I could tell, The Fortunate Fall has been out of print for more than twenty years. I was astounded because I had the impression that the book was warmly regarded. The evidence suggests it was warmly regarded by a small number of very vocal fans1.

I tend to expect that many others will love the same books that I do. I have been proved wrong again and again. Books that I love are not reprinted. Even in this era of ebooks, all but a few lucky books come forth like flowers and wither: they slip away like shadows and do not endure. Ah, the sorrows of the reader!

Not to mention the author….

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Talkin’ ‘Bout My G-G-Generation (Ships)

When it comes to crossing the vast gulfs between the solar system and other stellar systems, SF writers turn to two main solutions: small and fast1 or big and slow. Perhaps the best known example of big and slow is the generation ship, large enough to qualify as a large town or even a small nation, slow enough that entire lives will be consumed getting to its destination.

Generation ships live in that delightful overlap between seemingly practical and nearly certain to inflict lives of deprivation and misery on their inhabitants. You might wonder what sort of person imagines the immiseration of many many others. SF authors do. Misery is drama. Generation ships offer so very much drama.

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Climbing Mount Tsundoku: On Acquiring More Books Than It’s Possible to Read

One of my little projects last year was something I modestly called “Twenty Core [Subgenre] Speculative Fiction Works Every True SF Fan Should Have On Their Shelves.” Reading is a huge part of my life. Thanks to my freakish cognitive architecture, I read quickly, and thanks to the fact I am as gregarious as a stylite, I have the time to read prodigiously. Putting together the core lists was an amusing application of my resources and yet in amongst all the lists, readers found Twenty Core Speculative Fiction Works It May Surprise You To Learn I Have Not Yet Read Every True SF Fan Should Have On Their Shelves.

It’s worse than that list may at first appear. Not only have I not read any of the books on the list, despite the fact that I’ve owned copies of a number of the books in question since their first publication, but that list is only the tip of the iceberg—only the first twenty examples that came to mind. I am not engaging in a highly inefficient attempt to better insulate my library. I always intend to read books when I buy them. At the same time, I do have a faint, primordial consciousness that time is finite and that I am limited to about 180,000 words of fiction a day[1] and sufficient rudimentary math skills to work out that if I acquire more than 180,000 words of prose a day, then some of those words won’t get read that day. They might not ever get read. Poor sad, unread words…

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Fighting Erasure: Women SF Writers of the 1970s, Part II

Once more into the past, this time armed with a more comprehensive list of women who debuted in the 1970s¹. In fact, my list has become long enough that I am going have to tackle the authors letter by letter, moving forward. In this case, I am looking at women authors who debuted between 1970 and 1979 and whose surnames begin with G.

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Almost-Classics: SF Concepts and Settings That Deserve Better Execution

In a previous essay, I said:

Something I was reminded of while watching the third, most famous movie version of The Maltese Falcon: the works to remake in one’s own image aren’t the classics but the almost-classics, the works whose central conceit was much better than the final product. Singular, perfect works are hard to improve on but there are lots of books and films sabotaged by their creator’s shortcomings and the commercial realities of the day. If anyone wants an essay on “books I wish someone would use as a springboard for executions that are actually good,” just ask.

People did ask, so here we are.

[Ideas that deserve better, more interesting stories built around them.]

Fighting Erasure: Women SF Writers of the 1970s, A Through F

You may have been annoyed by recurrent comments from a certain surprisingly flammable Waterloo-region reviewer. He complains about the erasure from SF memory of women writing SF back in the 1970s—but has that reviewer ever bother to name names? Suggest books? I think not. It is time to confront the erasure directly. Forward! Excelsior!

In an attempt to keep this list to a manageable length, I will focus on women authors who first published in the 1970s. That means skipping some significant authors who were already active at the time. I also reserve the right to cheat a bit by including a few works published after the 1970s. I am also going to break this list into several installments, beginning with A through F. Which should tell you just how many women have been erased. Whole binders full of women.

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The Rare and Wonderful Standalone Sequel: Joan D. Vinge’s World’s End

If there is one thing I’ve learned from science fiction, it is “never go camping.” In real life, the worst I’ve had happen to me while camping is minor stuff:

  • whomped by a falling tree;
  • close encounters with moose1;
  • crushed two fingers playing cards;
  • that whole thing with the two dead popes.

In SF, camping trips generally foreshadow near-total party kills or worse. Which brings me to Joan D. Vinge’s World’s End, the second volume in her Snow Queen sequence, newly reissued by Tor this month.

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Classic SF Radio Dramas to Stretch the Imagination

You can have your Star Treks, your X-Files and your Expanses. I prefer my SF dramas on radio, partly because I was raised on CBC Radio, BBC World Service and CKMS1, and partly because (as Stan Freberg pointed out) radio’s visual effects are so convincing. We live in a golden age of online archives; many of the classic anthology-style science fiction shows are online. That said, not all radio shows are created equal.

[Some not-to-be-missed classic SF radio shows…]

Did We ALL Write a Book About Space Elevators? Why Unfortunate Coincidences Happen in Science Fiction

An author has an epiphany, spots a story idea nobody ever had before, writes it in the white heat of inspiration, sends it off and gets a cheque in the mail. All is as it should be. At least, that is, until they discover someone else had the exact same idea at exactly the same time. Or worse—the other person’s version saw print first.

One of the more remarkable examples of this type of unfortunate concurrence occurred in 1979. Working on opposite sides of the planet in an era long before everyone had email, Charles Sheffield and Arthur C. Clarke wrote novels about…well, let me just quote Mr. Clarke’s open letter, which was reprinted at the end of Sheffield’s book…

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It’s Raining Men: Seeking Out Women Writers, By the Numbers

Once upon a time, there was a reviewer confident that his reading habits were egalitarian, at least as far as books by men or women went[1]. After all, he knew the relevant stats for one of the three companies he freelanced for: 45% books by women, close enough to 50% for folk music.

To his surprise, the story was different at another company he freelanced for. Very different.

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Six Series That Should Be Role-Playing Games

Ever finish a book and think “This would make a great role-playing game!”? Me too! My shelves are filled with role-playing games based on various books¹. Some were successful adaptations. Others, not so much. Having spent seventeen years selling RPGs, I have some ideas about what sort of stories adapt well to games and which don’t.

The most important element might be narrative space—room for characters other than the protagonists of the books in question. Worlds designed so that only a single or a small handful of characters are able to take meaningful action are too constrained to let players do their thing. Either the player characters will find they cannot accomplish anything or they will simply recapitulate the source material². I think Foundation, for example, would be too limited by the need to stick to Asimov’s Psychohistory to be playable, but the earlier Empire novels could provide an open-enough setting for a role-playing game³.

Here are six series, some new and some old classic, that I think would make interesting settings for RPGs.

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