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James Davis Nicoll

Five SF Works Involving Epic Space Journeys

Some readers may be familiar with the mission of the Down Under Fan Fund; for those who are not, allow me to quote from the official site:

DUFF, the Down Under Fan Fund, was created by John Foyster in 1970 as a means of increasing the face-to-face communication between science fiction fans in Australia and New Zealand, and North America. It was based on an earlier fan fund called TAFF which did the same for fans in Europe and North America. Other fan funds have spun off from these two, all in the name of promoting a better understanding of worldwide fandom.

As it happens, this year I am one of four candidates for DUFF. More details can be found via previous DUFF winner Paul Weimer’s tweet.

Of course, the tradition of sending people very far away for various laudable reasons is an old one. Unsurprisingly, this is reflected through the lens of science fiction. Various SF protagonists have been sent quite astonishing distances; sometimes they are even permitted to return home. Here are five examples.

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Posthumously Published Works by Late, Great Authors of SFF

As evidenced by our previous discussion, it’s easy to ask “more please” when the author in question is still alive. The desire for new books and stories becomes far more frustrating when author existence failure is the primary obstacle.

Stephen Robinett, for example, first published under the regrettable pen name Tak Hallus. Over the course of about a decade he published enough short pieces to fill a collection (Projections,1979) as well as three science fiction novels: Mindwipe (1976), published as Steve Hahn, Stargate (1976), and The Man Responsible (1978). Robinett later published two mystery novels: Final Option (1990) and Unfinished Business (1990). After that, silence. Over the years, I wondered on and off what ever became of him. An obituary cleared up the mystery: sadly, he’d died in 2004. Ah well. I’ve not read Mindwipe (because it was from Laser Books; do I need to explain that? Editor: yes you do ) but his short work was top-shelf and his novels were always engaging.

Still, even an author’s demise doesn’t always rule out the possibility of new works, or at least new editions of works previously overlooked or rescued from obscurity. As the following authors show, death is not, necessarily, the end of the story…

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5 Thrilling Tales of Deadly Nuclear Reactors

Recently Ontarians woke up to this reassuring Amber Alert.

The alert was sent in error—there was no nuclear incident at Pickering, lethal fallout is not even now creeping across the Province, and anyone who went full-bore Panic in the Year Zero is no doubt even now writing apology notes to their surviving neighbours—but it did serve one useful purpose, which was to remind me of that long-ago golden age of nuclear reactor mishap stories.

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Five Sword-Wielding Women in SFF

Recently I noticed an angry person on the internet expressing outrage at the very idea of women, any women, being able to use a sword. Frankly, it’s an objection that’s too stupid for words. While one could certainly respond by mentioning, for example, the Trưng sisters, Madame de Saint-Baslemont, and of course the flamboyantly bisexual and dangerous Julie d’Aubigny, let’s do what we do best, here, and talk about some of the excellent books featuring swordswomen.

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Five SF Works to Read If You’ve Ever Played Traveller

One of the sad facts of life for fans of roleplaying games is that the number of campaigns one can fit into one’s life is smaller than the number of campaigns one might want to fit into one’s life. One can cope by seeking out novels that scratch much the same itch as one’s preferred RPG. Take for example, the venerable roleplaying game Traveller (discussed in this older essay and also in this recent piece). Even if one cannot find a game, it’s not hard to find SF books that are Traveller-esque.

The essential elements of a Traveller-like novel are: a vast setting, some reason to travel incessantly, and a diverse cast. What recent books qualify?

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Five Planetary Catastrophes We’ll Probably Never Get to Enjoy

No doubt many of you are already worrying about tax season. How wonderful it would be, some of you might think, if only some dramatic event were to scour all life from this planet, and in so doing spare you the need to look for misplaced receipts.

Science fiction is full of such planet-scouring events. Lamentably, the odds of actually experiencing such a tax-avoiding major catastrophe are minuscule. But if you must dream, here are five possible (but not likely) escape hatches…

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Why Don’t SFF Characters Ever Read the 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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Five Eye-Catching ’70s SF Covers That Actually Represent the Story

When it comes to book covers, sales departments have often had more clout than the poor beleaguered author. Covers are designed to catch the eye and spur sales; any resemblance to what is actually in the book may be coincidental. I think the publishing world (well, the reputable publishing world) has been getting somewhat better at producing covers that are handsome rather than garish and that do justice to the contents of the book. But in decades past… publishers plastered some really, really deceptive covers on their output. They had a notion of what would attract a stereotypical SF reader and that’s what they told the artist to paint. If old-time covers are any guide, SF fans were perceived as liking space ships, grim-faced men with guns, and naked women (as documented in the song “There’s a Bimbo on the Cover of My Book,” sung to the tune of “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain”). With the exception of the readers of Berkley SF, who, judging by all the Richard Powers covers, were seen as attracted mainly by blobs and lava lamps.

It would be easy (like shooting fish in a barrel) to offer examples of hilariously inappropriate cover art from the days of my youth. I could eke a compelling essay out of the covers that forced me to explain (yet again) to my teachers that no, I had not brought pornography to school.

I’ve decided to take the high road: Here are five covers that delivered exactly what they promised (even if that might seem unlikely…).

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More, Please! Five 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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Exploring Lost Civilizations in Science Fiction and Fantasy

As previously discussed, it’s possible to do such a thorough job of destroying a civilization that all knowledge of it is lost…at least until inexplicable relics start to turn up. One example: the real world Indus Valley Civilization, which might have flourished from 3300 to 1300 BC, across territory now found in western and northwestern India, Pakistan and northeastern Afghanistan. It was contemporaneous with the civilizations of Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China. History did a thorough enough job of erasing the Indus Valley Civilization from the records that when modern archaeology began to study it, it wasn’t at all clear whose ruins were being explored. It just goes to show that no matter how great a civilization might be, time is greater.

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Adventures in Retail! 5 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.

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SFF Needs More Incompetent Autocrats

One of SFF’s grand traditions is carefully filing the serial numbers off historical events (the American Revolutionary War, perhaps, or the Napoleonic Wars), or famous and classic works (Lord of the Rings, the Hornblower series, Zulu), and re-purposing the result as SFF. This is usually known as “research” (See Tom Lehrer on this point). Examples abound—my disinclination to deal with crowds of irate authors protesting at my door precludes naming them here.

SFF is also quite fond of plots featuring all-powerful autocrats. Some of these autocrats (Patricians, Empresses of the Twenty Universes, whatever) are…well, pleasant may not be the right word, but “dedicated” may do. Dedicated to a greater good, that is, not personal enrichment or aggrandizement. Others are black-clad villains who would certainly twirl their moustaches, had they moustaches to twirl. But good or bad, most SFFnal autocrats tend to be quite competent.

[Lamentably, actual real-life autocrats are not always competent.]

Creating Gods Through Science and Magic

To (mis)quote Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, “I looked and looked but I didn’t see God.” Humans are cunning little monkeys, though, so even if at present we assume there are no gods as such, it’s within the realm of possibility that we might someday build something (or somethings) functionally equivalent to gods.

We could even turn ourselves into gods (via tech assist or magic). Would this be an unmixed blessing? Um, not really. We already know that humans can be monumental dicks; deified humans could be just as nasty.

[Some examples…]

How to Recover From Reader’s Block

Recently a well-regarded essayist expressed dissatisfaction with the current state of the SF novel. He went so far as to confidently assert, “I stopped reading novels last year. I think you did too.” Sweeping assertions are often wrong. This one is definitely wrong, at least where I am concerned.

Book sales remain high enough that I’m sure he’s wrong when he generalizes to all readers. (Although I must grant that my enormous Mount Tsundoku is proof that that “books sold” and “books read” are at best overlapping sets.)

What may have sparked his comment is burnout, of the form that might be called “reader’s block.” You want to read something, but can find nothing specific you want to read. I think most of us who read extensively have been there.

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