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James Davis Nicoll

Better Science Fiction Through Real Science

Science fiction purports to be based on science. I hate to tell you this, but a lot of SF is as close to science and math as Taco Bell is to authentic Mexican cuisine.

I revelled and still revel in mass ratios and scale heights, albedos and exhaust velocities, evolutionary biology and world history. (I’m not the only one. Big wave to my homies out there.) So…as much as I love SF, I’m constantly running head-on into settings that could just not work the way the author imagines. My SOD (suspension of disbelief) is motoring along merrily and suddenly, bang! Dead in its tracks. Perhaps you can understand now why so many of my reviews grumble about worldbuilding.

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Adventures in Retail! SFF Stories Set in Department Stores

What could be more romantic than a department store? Think of the riches on display! Around each corner something new and enchanting; here and there, hidden mysteries. Small wonder that stores like Eaton’s, Sears, and Woolworth’s have endured for years and seem likely to endure for many, many more. [Editor’s note: James, I have news for you …] Small wonder that more than a few authors have set their stories in department stores.

[Here are five examples.]

Science Fiction vs. Fantasy: The Choice Is Clear

Sooner or later, the old but apparently evergreen debate over the various merits of Science Fiction vs. Fantasy and the boundaries between the two resurfaces like some kind of grim Lovecraftian deity, accompanied by the usual chants and drum beats. For whatever reason, there will always be those that insist that the books they read many years ago as young people set an eternal, infallible, incontrovertible standard for what is right and proper in the field of speculative fiction, and then decry any perceived deviation from those rules vigorously and volubly, in the same way one might urge the inconsiderate young to vacate the grass in front of one’s domicile.

For those who stopped personally experiencing the passage of time sometime in the Reagan Era, it’s simply a matter of pointing back at the past and saying, “In my day, we could tell science fiction from fantasy.” Science fiction bore an atom sticker on its spine, whereas fantasy sported the far less respectable unicorn. This indicated quite clearly to the reader that science fiction stood for reason and science and all those good things, whereas fantasy was mere…fantasy.

Perhaps some examples are in order…

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So Tired of All These Gormenghast Costumes, Year After Year…

Another Halloween is behind us, which prompts this desperate plea for next year. Some of you may not want to hear this, but: do give the Tékumel and Gormenghast costumes a rest. You may think you’ve come up with an original twist but trust me, whatever it is, someone else did first and better. That goes double for anything involving cinnamon.

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Five Ways to Benefit If Planet 9 Turns out to Be a Black Hole

Jakub Scholtz of Durham University and James Unwin of the University of Illinois recently published a paper with a twist, a twist given away by the title: What if Planet 9 is a Primordial Black Hole? The authors propose that the hypothetical Planet 9, whose existence would explain some anomalous wobbles in the orbits of trans-Neptunian Objects, as well as some lensing events, might be…well, you probably guessed from the title.

Finding a five-Earth-mass, ten-centimetre-diameter, 0.004 Kelvin object somewhere in the outer boroughs of the Solar System should be easy—I’m sure that some grad student or professor angling for tenure is hard at work right now! But what would be the use to the rest of us of a five-Earth-mass, ten-centimetre-diameter, 0.004 Kelvin primordial black hole (PBH) orbiting somewhere in the outer boroughs of the Solar System?

OK, sure: if it’s there, it offers us the chance to do some wonderful science; we’d be able to run experiments in regions of intense gravity. But people in general don’t seem to care all that much about pure science. So, what applied applications are there?

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Exploring Venus’ Mysterious Past (and Hellish Present)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: a Venus covered in a vast ocean, dotted here and there with islands or even continents. A planet that’s a slightly smaller, somewhat warmer version of Earth. Right, you’ve probably read about this Venus in Golden Age SF. Understandably, it was a real bummer for SFF authors when—Science Marches On!—it was revealed that the Venusian atmosphere, close to the surface, is hot enough to melt lead.

But there has been some exciting science news! A recent paper, “A view to the possible habitability of ancient Venus over three billion years,” suggests that Venus might have been habitable as recently as 750 million years ago. Maybe the Venus envisioned by Golden Age SF did exist…just 750 million years too early to do us any good.

[There might have been life on Venus… once.]

SF Stories in Which Earth Is Liberated by an Alien Empire

Yet again the Solar System is being buzzed by what may well be a visitor from interstellar space. Everything known so far suggests that C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) is a natural object. Certainly, it appeared more or less where we would expect a random bit of detritus to arrive, along the galactic plane. The current consensus is that it is a comet. The surface composition is comet-like. It’s probably not a leaky derelict spaceship venting gas as it approaches the sun. Probably …

In fact, I find myself wondering if it isn’t suspicious that Borisov is so remarkably unremarkable. How likely is it that one of the objects spotted tumbling in from deepest space would be arriving more or less where we’d expect it, with more or less the composition we would expect of a natural object? Isn’t that exactly how some inquisitive galactic civilization would cloak a probe, so as not to attract undue attention from locals? Perhaps the reason we’re suddenly seeing what seem to be mere space-rocks, comets, whatever, is not thanks to tech improvements on our side, but is because something is carefully looking us over.

[But if that were to be the case, not all is lost…]

Four Speculative Novels Featuring Important Elections

My nation (which may not be yours) is in the midst of another election. On the one hand, it’s a glorious celebration of our right to choose who runs the nation for the next four years. On the other hand, many of us view with dismay the endless election—thirty-six full days of bloviation and punditry!—and the sinking feeling that it is all an exercise in deciding which of our colourful array of parties  is least objectionable. Still, even if it feels like one is being asked to choose between the Spanish Influenza and Yersinia pestis, it is important to remember one take-home lesson from Herman Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War: even undesirable outcomes can be ranked in order of preference. The Spanish flu is bad. The Black Death is worse.

All of which led me to consider how elections have figured in speculative fiction novels.

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5 Atomic War Films That Are Fun for the Whole Family

On the 26th of September in 1983, Soviet Air Defense Officer Stanislav Petrov decided that the Soviet Early Warning Systems had malfunctioned and that the US had not just launched a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Consequently, the Soviets did not launch a retaliatory attack on the West. As a result of that, billions of people did not die in late 1983.

Those of you with kids may find it hard to convey to them the delicious thrill of waking each morning during the Cold War without having been reduced to a shadow on the wall OR (much more likely) being slow broiled under burning debris OR waiting in an inadequate improvised shelter for the fallout to arrive, secure in the knowledge the architects of apocalypse made certain of their own safety. It’s up to you to teach the lessons of history to the young and impressionable. Here are five atomic war movies suitable for kiddos of all ages.

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The Care and Feeding of Supervillains

Suppose you’ve decided to become a superhero. You’ve acquired the necessary abilities, whether through training, technology, magic, genetics, or the everyday method of licking random meteors until something interesting happens. You’ve made or purchased an eye-catching costume, adopted a colourful moniker, and selected a patch of rooftops on which to lurk. Success! You’ve caught your first miscreant. What do you do now?

There would be a certain visceral pleasure in simply dropping the fellow off the top of a skyscraper. Before you do that, consider the feral cat model of miscreant management.

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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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