content by

James Davis Nicoll

World States and Mega Empires in SF

Many SF novels feature a World State encompassing the entire Earth. Such imagined states can have various origins. This is not surprising, since advocacy for World States (from persons on the Left, Right, and entirely outside that framework) goes back centuries and more.

Sometimes, as in Star Trek, it is “a dream that became a reality and spread throughout the stars.” Sometimes it is formed out of desperation: in Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero, humanity united under Sweden on the grounds that Sweden was

big and modern enough to make peace-keeping a major industry; but not big enough to conquer anyone else or force its will on anyone without the support of a majority of nations; and reasonably well thought of by everyone.

…And because the first general nuclear war left the impression that the next nuclear war could be the last one ever. Handing a single authority the keys to all the nukes seemed the best solution.

And sometimes, as in Vernor Vinge’s The Peace War, it’s a naked power grab: a small group of people setting themselves up as the world’s supreme power.

[But how stable would a World State be, in practice?]

Get Out of My Head: SFF Stories About Sharing Brain-Space With Somebody Else

I have a modest dream. I hope one day to live in an isolated skull-shaped mountain guarded by carnivorous birds. My lair would be surrounded by a fearsome fence, adorned with the heads of uninvited guests. I like my privacy. It should not surprise anyone, then, that I would emphatically NOT like to have a second person sharing my head.

Mental timeshares are a rich source of plot for science fiction and fantasy authors. I was reminded of this trope when I was reading, or re-reading, a few novellas in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric series.

[What other head-sharing SFF have I read of late?]

Recent Interstellar Asteroid May Have Been Alien Artifact, Speculates New Paper

Arthur C. Clarke’s 1973 Rendezvous with Rama is a classic example of how First Contact is supposed to go. In the 2130s, astronomers make a chance discovery: an interstellar object traversing the Solar System. In this future, spacecraft of various kinds swarm through the Solar System. It’s possible to divert two spacecraft (one a robot, one crewed) towards the object. The robot probe reveals that Rama is an artifact. The crew of the other vehicle get to explore Rama.

Clarke’s optimistic predictions are driven by narrative need—it wouldn’t have been much of an SF tale otherwise. “We saw something really weird but didn’t get a close look at it” is only satisfying in ghost stories, not in First Contact tales.

In the real world, First Contact may have played out very differently.

[Meet the first ever verified interstellar object traversing our solar system…]

13 Stories About Surviving a Nuclear War — At Least Briefly

Most people now living are too young to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was a fun time when the Americans and the Russians (who at that time were not good buddies but rivals), toyed with seeing just how close they could come to World War Three without pressing the (metaphorical) button. For various reasons, not least of which was that the balance of power of power greatly favoured the United States and the Soviets apparently didn’t fancy atomic suicide for some reason, the stand-off stopped short of nuclear war.

For me, living as I did in Herne Hill, well within the buildings fall, people burn like shrieking candles zone of London, England, that was probably for the best. But that experience (wondering if I would die soon) was life-changing. I was forced to imagine the horrors of a nuclear apocalypse . Even though governments (which have invested trillions in possible apocalypse) would rather we just go about our business, blissfully unaware.

Writers are in the business of imagination. It should be no surprise that they have ventured into the apocalypse zone, in print and other media. Hundreds of novels have explored the exciting worlds possible before, during, and after the nuclear apocalypse.

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How to Destroy Civilization and Not Be Boring

So you’ve decided to destroy your fictional civilization and for reasons of verisimilitude, you want to draw on a historical model. Your first thought may be to rotoscope the collapse of the Western Roman Empire … and why not? It worked so well for Isaac Asimov. The problem is it worked for a lot of other authors, too—the Fall of Rome is well-chewed gristle at this juncture. Perhaps other models would make a nice change?

Granted, other models may not be as well known as the Roman one, at least to Western readers. Generations of Westerners learned Latin and read Roman history; generations read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.

Plus, other collapses were, no doubt, so thorough that we have no inkling they even happened.

Still, there are some collapses and calamities about which we have some knowledge. I have a few suggestions.

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(Semi-)Plausible Strategies for Moving a Whole Damn Planet

Has this ever happened to you? You’re living on a perfectly good planet in orbit around a perfectly acceptable star—and then suddenly, the neighbourhood goes to crap and you have to move. For a lot of people, this means marching onto space arks.

Recapitulating Noah on a cosmic scale is such a pain, though. All that packing. All that choosing who to take and who to leave behind. And no matter how carefully you plan things, it always seems to come down to a race between launch day and doomsday.

Why not, therefore, just take the whole darned planet with you?

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The Best Arthurian Novels for Fans of Actual History

I suspect a lot of people’s minds ran in the same direction mine did at the news that a girl named Saga had pulled a fifteen hundred-year-old sword from a lake. Not all swords are Excalibur, of course, and the lake in question was in Sweden, but Britain could do worse than seeing if Saga has any interest in becoming Prime Minister.

All of which reminded me of Arthuriana, and my first and favorite Arthur novel, Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers (1959). The novel takes its title from a statement by Eugenus the Physician:

“We are the lantern bearers, my friend; for us to keep something burning, to carry what light we can forward into the darkness and the wind.”

Arthur (or Artos, as he is called in this book) plays only a supporting role, but it’s enough of a role for this to be the ur-Arthur story for me.

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Five Books That Improve Upon Heinlein’s Juveniles

Nothing fills me with dread quite like a middle-aged male writer announcing that he plans to write a YA novel just like the ones Robert Heinlein used to write . I could explain why this is such a harbinger of disappointment…but Charles Stross has already beat me to it. Instead, allow me to offer some non-Heinlein novels that succeed in scratching some of the same itches that the RAH juvies once scratched. For me, that requires the intended audience to include teens, that the genre be science fiction in the narrow sense, that the protagonist be a young adult, and that they get to do something that actually matters in the course of the book .

For the most part, I think RAH juv-a-likes work better when they are not series, but since I am not sure why that would be, I won’t insist on it.

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Sorry to Crush Your Dreams, But We’re Not Colonizing Space Anytime Soon

Mae and Ira Freeman’s 1959 children’s picture book You Will Go To the Moon promised a glorious near future of crewed spaceflight, as did later books like G. Harry Stine’s The Third Industrial Revolution and Gerard K. O’Neill’s The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space. Alas, almost sixty years later, it seems as if the Freeman book would have been more accurately titled You Will Die On the Earth, of Old Age If You Are Lucky, But Perhaps Of Violence Or An Easily Preventable Disease. Also, All Of Your Pets Will Die. Which would not have been half as heartening, but might have earned it a Newbery.

Why didn’t we colonize space?

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Women Who Save Themselves (and Everyone Else)

Prince-based rescue strategies suffer from a number of intrinsic flaws: princes are in short supply; they are vulnerable to spontaneous batrachification; and many are the products of centuries of ill-considered inbreeding. A prince is as likely to be a Gilles de Rais as a Prince Charming.

Look elsewhere for salvation. Consider, for example, relying on a woman of action. Or better yet, being one.

Of course, history is filled with examples, from the Trưng Sisters to Julie d’Aubigny, from Olga of Kiev to Tomoe Gozen. It’s not surprising that fiction offers some fine examples as well.

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Five Characters of Mixed Magical / Science Fictional Heritage

Mutual attraction! Not everyone experiences it, but enough humans are up for it to have shaped history and our species. Just how inclusive this can be was shown by a recent archaeological find, of the 90,000-year-old remains of “Denny.” Denny’s mother was a Neanderthal, while her father was a Denisovan. Genetic research suggests this cross-species pairing wasn’t a singular event; some of us have a little Neanderthal ancestry, some a little Denisovan. There are hints that other, as yet unidentified, hominins have contributed to our genome as well.

As anyone whose parents come from different backgrounds can attest, one of the benefits of such arrangements is that the in-laws will almost certainly have opinions they will be anxious to share (as will the neighbors). No need to worry about a lack of conversational material when there are species, class, linguistic, cultural, and religious differences to discuss. How plot friendly! Presumably this is even more true in settings in which the range of potential partners is much broader than that offered by our present-day world.

Still, love will find a way, which means that as long as pairing (and other arrangements) are possible , they will happen. And whenever it is possible (and sometimes when it is not), children will result. Not surprisingly, this is as true within science fiction and fantasy as it is in real life.

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Six Stories That Find the Drama in Utopian Settings

Imagine a nightmarish future in which the essentials of life are ruthlessly supplied to all—one where each citizen is brutally denied the cliffhanging entertainment of recurrent life-and-death crises, and where there is not even a single genetically engineered hyper-intelligent carnivorous flightless parrot roaming daycare facilities. Benevolent providence has so far protected us from such hellishly stable futures, but it cannot prevent authors from imagining them. But once such utopias are imagined, how is the poor author to squeeze an interesting story out of a world lacking everything that makes life precious (as well as precarious)?

I recently reviewed a series in which this challenge was successfully met and found myself wondering how other authors have handled the problem. Here are a few such works—doubtless there are more, which readers may feel free to suggest in comments.

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Five Ways Science Has Made the Solar System a More Interesting Place

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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