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James Davis Nicoll

Six Bulky Classics Delivered by the Science Fiction Book Club

One benefit of being a reader of a certain vintage—old enough to remember inkwells in school desks, say, if not old enough to have used a dip pen —is the giddy joy of encountering insert ads in mass market paperbacks. It wasn’t just that they weakened the spines of the books or that some of them were youth-inappropriate cigarette ads. A fair fraction of them were variations on this ad.

Founded in the early 1950s, the mail order Science Fiction Book Club was a godsend for isolated readers like myself . Not only did they automatically send out books until actively stopped (a wonderful way for chronic procrastinators to encounter new authors), but they offered wonderful collections, anthologies, and omnibuses of unusual size. These were tomes heavy enough to stun a moose. For SF addicts, these books were like being able to order our drug of choice by the 100kg sack.

[Here favourites from the Before Times]

Why Does No One in SFF Ever Read the Damn Manual?

Every so often, I find it entertaining to muse about and lament the ill effects of missing or erroneous documentation. Or the ill effects of failing to read the manual…or, having read it, ignoring its wise advice.

Unsurprisingly, SFF authors have arrived at a consensus as far as technical documentation is concerned: For the most part, they’re against it, at least as part of the setting of the story. There is nothing more encouraging to thrills and spills, exciting disasters and pulse-quickening cliffhangers, than protagonists doing ill-advised things…that is, things that would have been ill-advised if anyone had bothered to write down useful advice. Or if the protagonists had bothered to read such advice.

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More, Please! Authors We Wish Would Publish More Often

I hate the term “one hit wonder.” After all, one hit is one hit more than the vast majority of people will ever have. That said, there are in every field creators whose output has been lamentably small, people from whom one wishes more material had emerged. This is as true for science fiction and fantasy as any other field. Here are five authors on my “more, please” list.

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Four SFF Novels with Something Very Specific in Common

It’s only natural to sort books into sets, just as we all meticulously sort our M&Ms by color so that we can consume them in the correct order. Sometimes it’s obvious why one categorizes as one does. At other times, as with the following books, one has a nearly subconscious sense that somehow these works share something…without quite being able to articulate what that something is.

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Fun With Ancient, Squishy Complex Life Forms

SF writers frequently send their protagonists back in time. Quite often, they send their characters to a time when said characters might be stalked by a dinosaur. If sent to an even earlier time, characters might be menaced by a Gorgonopsid (though I am unaware of any such excursions; perhaps someone needs to write one). The earliest fauna that might endanger protagonists would have to be Cambrian. Perhaps a swarm of ferocious thirty-centimeter Peytoia nathorsti?

Ah, the Cambrian. 541 million years ago. Brings back memories. Not that I was there, mind you. Memories, rather, of the olden days when we believed that the Cambrian Explosion was the very fons et origo of complex life. Now we know that while the Cambrian Explosion was definitely a significant event, it doesn’t seem to have been the only time the planet dabbled with complex life vaguely analogous to modern forms.

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Move Over, Westeros: Six SFF Series That Would Rule the TV Landscape

For various reasons—mainly the use of sexual assault as plot parsley—I haven’t been following HBO’s Game of Thrones. That’s not, however, going to stop me from suggesting other SFF book series that might survive the transition to television. After all, everyone else is doing it…

The candidates should be series of at least three books or more—preferably complete. I mean, we wouldn’t want the TV writers to have to imagine their own ending. (Nor would we want the writers to re-imagine the ending. Just to make that clear.) Here are a few that more than fit the bill…

[Death cults, mutant sorceresses, and aeroplanes!]

There’s a Fine Line Between Theatre and Fantasy

As some readers might be aware, my other job involves the theatre. So believe me when I say that nothing provides unexpected drama quite like live theatre and its lesser cousins, galas and proms. Any event in which a collection of disparate egos come together to provide grand spectacle (in spite of participants who may be unfamiliar with the material, not to mention trifling differences over goals and ethics, as well as sporadic technical mishaps) has the potential to transform a mundane effort into something legendary…for better or worse.

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SF Stories That Cut the Vastness of Space Down to Size

As previously established, three-dimensional maps present increasingly intractable problems for two-dimensional media. SF authors who want to create a coherent map for their setting (even one they never plan to share with their readers) can make the task easier for themselves by using one simple strategy: instead of permitting travel between any two stars, they can restrict travel to a few systems. Authors need only keep track of the connections between systems, not the 3D relationships between the stars.

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Mapping the Stars for Fun and Profit

A recent discussion here on, one which mentioned C. J. Cherryh’s starmap, reminded me of a few remarkable roleplaying games (one of which was reviewed here ages ago). Remarkable because they were fun to play; notable in this context because each game wrestled with a then-intractable problem: user-friendly starmaps.

When you read a novel, short story, etc., you may be given hints as to star locations and the distances from star to star. Most of us just take those vague gestures at maps as given and focus on the exciting space battles, palace intrigues, and so on. Only a few nerdy readers (ahem!) try to work out star positions and distances from the text. And only a few authors (like Benford and McCarthy) provide maps in their novels. There are reasons why maps are generally left out, and who notices an absence?

[RPGs, on the other hand, have to give the players maps…]

Stay Frosty: 5 SF Narratives About Global Cooling

Soaring temperatures may bring rising seas, disrupted agriculture, vast migrations, and the inundation of coastal cities around the world—and there are a lot of coastal cities around the world. Still, I live three hundred metres above sea level in a region that may well benefit from global warming (the risks of invasion, famine, war, mass extinction, and the complete collapse of civilization aside). What would really throw wooden shoes into Canada’s proverbial gears is cooling. Only a mere 12,000 years ago, the place where I live was just emerging from an ice sheet a mile thick. You may think Canadians hate shovelling snow now… wait until there’s nearly two kilometres of the stuff. Straight up.

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5 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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Did We ALL Write a Book About Space Elevators? (And Other Coincidences 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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Saturn’s Rings are Doomed, so Enjoy Them While You Can!

Carpe diem—seize the day; everything passes quickly away.

We see Saturn’s rings as an abiding feature of the solar system. But if we are to believe “Observations of the chemical and thermal response of ‘ring rain’ on Saturn’s ionosphere,” the rings are transitory. In a mere three hundred million years, less time than has elapsed since the Permian Extinction, the rings may be reduced to wispy remnants of their former glory, like the frail rings we see around Jupiter, Neptune, and other outer planets.

[Nor are Saturn’s rings the only marvel slated to vanish in the near future…]

Classic SF Works Set on Thrilling Space Habitats

In 1974, Gerard K. O’Neill’s paper “The Colonization of Space” kicked off what ultimately proved to be a short-lived fad for imagining space habitats. None were ever built, but the imagined habitats are interesting as techno dreams that, like our ordinary dreams, express the anxieties of their time .

They were inspired by fears of resource shortages (as predicted by the Club of Rome), a population bomb, and the energy crisis of the early 1970s. They were thought to be practical because the American space program, and the space shuttle, would surely provide reliable, cheap access to space. O’Neill proposed that we could avert soaring gas prices, famines, and perhaps even widespread economic collapse by building cities in space. Other visionaries had proposed settling planets; O’Neill believed it would be easier to live in space habitats and exploit the resources of minor bodies like the Earth’s Moon and the asteroids.

Interest in O’Neill’s ideas waned when oil prices collapsed and the shuttle was revealed to have explosive flaws. However, the fad for habitats lasted long enough to inspire a fair number of novels featuring O’Neill-style habitats. Here are some of my favourites.

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