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James Davis Nicoll

Five Upbeat SF Classics Featuring Barely Any Doom!

[Warning: May contain sarcasm.]

Not to take a side in the struggle between Merril et al.’s New Wave and more traditional science fiction and fantasy, but…

One may admire the artistry of the stories in anthologies like England Swings SF, even if one eventually tires of the pessimistic tone taken by such young scamps as Ellison, Spinrad, and Ballard. Why can’t these authors be more like their venerable predecessors? Here are five instances of the sunnily optimistic science fiction that exemplified the genre in the days before the younger set decided to indulge in such gloomy literary prose.

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A Game of Stones: Five Novels Set in Asteroid Belts

A cursory glance at the genre makes it clear that Randall Garrett did not invent Belters, those stalwarts of the asteroid belt. Examples abound in older SF, in the works of Smith, Heinlein, and Leinster. But Randall Garrett’s Belter stories seem to have been the strongest influence on Larry Niven, who lifted the Belter culture wholesale for his Known Space series. After this, Niven’s Belters seem to have had the greatest influence on later authors.

But enough literary history! Let’s just note that the Belt and the riches it might hold are irresistible for authors looking for rugged frontiers in which to set their tales. Consider these five comparatively recent works.

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Five Books That Use Wormholes to Plug Plot Holes

Wormholes and other means of providing instant access between distant fixed points are narratively convenient. They make it possible to get characters from point A to point B without dying of old age en route. Wormholes (or their equivalent) constrain interstellar travel so that, for example, people cannot simply flee combat by going FTL, nor can they emerge above a planet before their photons arrive to carry out an unstoppable bombing run. From an authorial perspective, such constraints are very, very useful.

Once their attention had been drawn to wormholes some time in the 1980s, authors leapt on the chance to use them in fiction. See, for example, how frequently the phrase appears in American English.

Which isn’t to say that all authors have used the same kind of wormholes to fix plot holes. Consider these five examples:

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Five Stories Built Around the Threat of Nuclear Blackmail

When I look back on it, it was quite quite odd that so many of us, back in the benighted 20th century, accepted the threat of nuclear war (thousands of nuclear weapons perpetually poised for launch) as normal. Just part of the background noise for daily life. Anyone who expressed concern about living on the knife edge of catastrophe was probably either some sort of political extremist or some sort of unhinged commie sex pervert.

But…even if all-out nuclear war were impossible, nuclear blackmail wasn’t. Some nation, NGO, or highly motivated individual could build bombs and threaten to use them if they didn’t get what they wanted. (Nice planet you have here; shame if anything happened to it…) At one time there was a fair bit of worry that this would happen; then (at least as far I can tell using Google Ngram) people sank into numb acceptance that there was nothing they could do to avoid doom. (Am I wrong here? You oldbies can tell me about it in comments.)

[Five tales involving atomic threats, bluffs, bargaining, and blackmail…]

Five SF Stories That Embrace the Scientifically Improbable Reactionless Drive

Recently, physicists around the world were astounded to learn that painstaking testing of the visionary EmDrive revealed that the device produces no discernable thrust. By “astounded,” I mean “not astounded” and by “visionary,” I mean “almost certainly nonsensical from word one.” A cynical physicist might say the EmDrive produces thrust by violating conservation of momentum. This is unfair, because the EmDrive does not produce thrust at all.

One can understand the attraction of a reactionless drive. It comes down to the rocket equation, which presents steely-eyed rocket persons with a choice between annoyingly limited delta-v (and accordingly restricted choice of orbits), or exhaust streams energetic to a degree we don’t currently know how to manage.

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Five Stories in Which Great Power Is Not Always Used Responsibly

Imagine, if you will, that fate has imbued you with extraordinary power. Would you use that power responsibly? Would you even know what “responsibly” means? It’s easy to set out with the best of intentions, only to discover too late one has fallen into profound error. Consider these five novels.

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In Search of the Classic Hollywood-Style Asteroid Belt

If you’re anything like me, you might have enhanced your friends’ enjoyment of space adventure films by pointing out at great length and in fascinating detail just why the crowded asteroid belts backgrounds that appear in so many of these films are implausible and inaccurate! Our solar system asteroids are far from crowded. If you were to find yourself on the surface of a typical asteroid, you probably wouldn’t be able to see your closest rocky neighbour with a naked eye.

Are there situations in which these visuals wouldn’t be misleading? Can we imagine places where we could expect what appears to be an impending Kessler Syndrome on a solar scale?

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Five SFF Works That Put Bards Center Stage

If there is one lesson Tolkien intended us to take from The Lord of the Rings, it is that NPC (non-player-character) bards are extraordinarily dangerous beings. Not because they might kill you (although some might) but because by their nature, they are adept at upstaging other characters. It’s probably only due to the merciful brevity of his appearance on stage that Tom Bombadil didn’t manage to transform LOTR into Tom Bombadil Saves Middle-Earth with the Power of Verse (also there were some hobbits).

One solution is to give in to the inevitable. Give the bard centre stage and see what happens. Take these five classic novels about bards, musical mages, and others of their ilk.

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Five Thrilling SFF Works About Meticulously Planned Infrastructure

Sure, there’s a lot of entertainment value in grand set piece battles, personal duels, or even two wizards engaging in a magical combat to the death. But there are those of us who enjoy a more arcane pleasure: edge of the seat thrills as protagonists struggle to build vast infrastructure projects. I would argue that providing London with a functional sewer system was more exciting than defeating the French at Trafalgar. Why read Riders of the Purple Sage when the same author wrote what is, to my mind at least, a much more engaging book: Boulder Dam, a thrilling historical account of the building of the dam!

A few other SFF authors have embraced the romance of large-scale engineering projects. Here are five inspirational examples.

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Unforgettable SFF Books Involving Amnesia

Well-informed protagonists with excellent memories can be inconvenient. They can reveal all to readers at inopportune moments. If they already know what they need to know, they’re not going to search hither and yon for missing clues and information (and the author is going to have find some other way to bulk up the novel). That’s why so many authors choose a handy cure-all: amnesia. There’s nothing like amnesia to drive a plot and fill up a book.

Here are five rather memorable examples.

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Five Collections of Tales From the Science Fiction Barroom

I’m always looking for new works to review for Because My Tears Are Delicious To You, an ongoing series on my own website. There I revisit some of the books I loved as a teen. Recently I put out a request on social media for readers to suggest authors and works now obscure that deserve mention. To my surprise, someone suggested Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart.

…How on Earth could Tales from the White Hart be considered obscure? Well…for one thing, the author has been dead for over a decade. The collection is an astounding ten twenty thirty forty fifty sixty-three years old, which is to say it’s as ancient to a new SF reader in 2020 as H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine was for the new SF reader in 1957, when Tales first came out.

Tales from the White Hart is also an example of a genre once popular that seems to have fallen into comparative obscurity: the barroom tale. The genre assumes a beloved old bar filled with regulars, one or more of whom is a talented raconteur. It’s a form made to order for SF magazines, the publications that once ruled the SF world. It’s also a form easily anthologized, as it was in Tales. As it also was for several other series of bar stories. Settle down, my friends, and nurse your beers or non-alcoholic beverages as I tell you of bar tale collections of the past…

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Classic SF About Extremely Long Naps

Sleep! How precious, how precarious! Many of us struggle with insomnia. Perhaps we have apnea. Perhaps we own a cat who believes motionless humans are food. Perhaps we are simply aware that up to forty thousand redback spiders can fit into the volume of the average pillow. But sleep can be overdone. Imagine waking to discover that decades or centuries have passed…

This is a convenient way for an author to arrange for a protagonist not unlike the reader to tour an alien setting. Unsurprisingly, a lot of authors have taken advantage of the plot possibilities of the long sleep.

Consider these five classic science fiction examples.

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Five SF Stories in Which Kindness Prevails

There are many people in the world who seem to agree that the correct reaction to impediments, setbacks, and personal affronts is a firm, unambiguous response. After all, how are people to understand that “its” and “it’s” are two different words if their homeworld is not immediately reduced to a lifeless cinder? But there are enough of us who prefer kinder, gentler responses that we form an audience for writers who give us protagonists who are kind… and still manage to prosper. Could the power of niceness possibly prevail in the real world? Perhaps not, but niceness makes for comforting reading.

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100 Speculative Fiction Titles to Add to Your To-Be-Read Pile

Last year, I was so inspired by the various Best Of, Must Read, Smashing Science Fiction and Fantasy lists I encountered around the net that I decided to make my own book list, books chosen entirely on the basis of merit and significance to the field . People enjoyed the first list so much that I perpetrated sequels. I posted a number of lists, each twenty books long, each selected entirely on the basis of merit and significance to the field (ahem). Here, at last, the quintessence of Nicoll lists, comprising the books I would most heartily recommend. Each entry is annotated with a short description that I hope will explain why I picked it.

I am not implying that these are the only one hundred you should consider reading .

You may not know all of these. Congratulations! You are one of today’s lucky ten thousand. I will never again be able to read any of these for the first time… but you can!

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