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James Davis Nicoll

Five SF Books Featuring Flights Into Exile

History is full of stories about folks who dislike (or fear) their governments, have no way to alter said governments, and must relocate (or flee): Huguenots fleeing persecution in France, Irish fleeing famines that English colonialists ignored, and the Pilgrims fleeing Dutch religious tolerance all come to mind.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that numerous science fiction authors have written about politically-motivated migration.  Consider the five following works, representing only a small sample from a well-populated category…

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Five Stories in Which Aliens Attempt to Reshape the Earth

The term “terraforming” was first used in Jack Williamson’s 1941 story “Collision Orbit.” As you know, Bob, terraforming is the process of transforming an environment hostile to Terrestrial life into a habitable environment. Humans have been doing this in a minor way for millennia, even before they started domesticating plants. But what we’re talking about here is going from “you die outside the dome” to “you can go outside, breathe the air, and plant a garden.”

Sapients from other worlds might also want to reshape other planets to suit their needs and tastes. Call it “xenoforming.” Perhaps they might want to xenoform our planet. There’s no guarantee that what suits us would suit them… and considerable dramatic potential if it does not, particularly if the aliens have better tech than we do. H.G. Wells was an early pioneer of this conceit in his The War of the Worlds—the Red Weed pushes aside terrestrial plants, at least for a time—but he is hardly the only author to use the idea. Consider these five works about hostile xenoforming.

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Five Characters Who Make the Most of Minor Superpowers

Superhero fiction is rich in characters who won the superpower lottery. They are simultaneously invulnerable, able to fly, equipped with super-strength, super-speed, invulnerability, flight, shapeshifting, invisibility, intangibility, psychic powers, and the ability to create ice-cream out of nothing. It’s always useful to have at least one of those guys around and in fact the Legion of Super-Heroes (in an uncharacteristic moment of clarity) had a loophole in their “no duplicate powers” rule that allowed them to add as many Superboy-knockoffs as they could get.

However, do-anything lads or lasses (and their all-powerful wizard cousins over in fantasy) present the author with the problem of presenting these overpowered characters with challenges not immediately solved with little effort using their vast arsenal of abilities. In many ways, characters limited to one or two minor knacks are more fun from an author’s perspective, because weaker characters have to be ingenious (or at least lucky), rather than just bulldozing through their problems.

This makes for amusing reading, as the five works below will show.

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Five Series Made Up of Standalone Novels

While reading Molly Templeton’s recent essay, Is Series Fatigue Real?, I noted an interesting phrase: “the loose series where the books are standalones but they also fit together.” I realized that I tend to divide series fiction into two sets:

A) series in which the books are clearly linked by setting and characters but which can provide readers with the complete plot experience in each volume;

B) series in which each volume is but a fragment of a greater whole.

[I strongly prefer the first sort.]

Five SF Works About Fighting Crime in Space

Canadians recently woke to discover that a golden age of deep space mayhem had come to an end, thanks to a clause in the 2022 federal budget. Canadian jurisdiction now extends to the stars. Thus, Canadian astronauts are no longer free to slaughter other nation’s space travellers before looting their still-warm bodies. Years of smuggling cutlasses into space have all been for naught.

Presumably some sort of jet-pack-wearing analog of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police will be along to enforce this. Its officers might well wonder “how would a space-based police force work? How does one even set fire to a barn in space?” Happily, while a space patrol may be new to Canada, SF authors have already explored how such an organization might operate, as these five vintage works prove.

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Five Stories About Perilous Plant Life and High-Risk Gardening

We’re well into spring, here in the northern hemisphere, and with it comes a painstaking consideration of the pros and cons of: (A) spending much money and effort on plants doomed to die or (B) paving over the garden.

Many authors, doubtless gonzo gardeners, take a more optimistic view of botanical possibilities. Consider these five works.

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Five SFF Stories That Are Much Funnier Than They Sound

Comedy is no doubt as old as humanity. Perhaps older! Perhaps Australopithecus snickered at the occasional rude gesture, comedic expression, or the sight of a saber-toothed tiger slipping on the ancient equivalent of a banana peel. Unsurprisingly, comedy has worked its way into science fiction and fantasy: Consider these five comedic works, each of which will likely bring a smile to one’s face.

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Five Books Featuring Uploaded Minds and Memories

Human bodies have their advantages, but in the end they are all too delicate. Age, ravenous carnivores, innocent mishaps involving a large cloud of gasoline vapour and a struck match: All of these can doom a body and the mind that inhabits it. But imagine… if a mind could be backed up , then all it would take to resurrect someone is a suitable body and a way to load the mind into it. This theme has been a very, very popular idea with science fiction authors over the decades, as these five examples show.

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Five Books Featuring Shocking Revelations and Forbidden Knowledge

Who among us would not casually thumb through the Necronomicon, were it to hand when no other reading material presented itself? (The alternative would be not reading!) However, a moment’s entertainment could come at the cost of a dreadful, unforgettable revelation—one from which madness would be no escape.

The world is filled with information that can only leave the learner less happy. Authors have long been aware how plot-friendly such dreadful revelations can be. Consider these five examples.

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Four Characters Who Prove There’s More to Life Than Being Super Smart

Given that many early SFF authors were what are generally known as “nerds,” it’s not terribly surprising that, by and large, intelligent characters are portrayed rather favourably in the genre. Sure, there’s the odd Malign Hypercognition sufferer who proves that not all supersmart folks are white hats, but as a general rule, in SFF smarter is usually seen as better.

There are a few exceptions to this rule (none of them black hats): appealing characters who aren’t necessarily brilliant by conventional standards, but who have other qualities and talents to recommend them. Here are four who star in works that might merit your consideration.

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5 Sympathetic Science Fiction Bureaucrats

Fictional bureaucrats often serve as convenient hate sinks, providing the author with characters whose occupation is generally considered fair game for scorn. Obstructive bureaucrats abound in fiction, perhaps because they are not infrequently encountered in real life. But not all writers settle for such easy targets. Indeed, some writers have gone so far as to make a bureaucrat or two into sympathetic figures.

Don’t believe me? Consider these five….

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Five SF Novels Featuring Different Kinds of Wormholes

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 SFF Stories About Lawyers and the Law

Conflict resolution in our distant past traditionally involved physical conflict and/or punishment. While such approaches are still used, in most communities this straightforward approach has been replaced by governments, formal rules, and adjudication by experts on said rules, i.e., lawyers. While a law-based approach may seem less compelling than the dangers of outright violence, writers can nevertheless extract much drama from legal disputes—hence the ubiquity of cop and lawyer shows on TV and legal thriller novels. SFF authors as well have explored this theme. Consider these five examples.

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