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James Davis Nicoll

Five SFF Works About the Aftermath of an Apocalypse

Being an inveterate optimist, I have a natural tendency to look on the bright side of even the biggest disasters and feel compelled to inspire similar hope and optimism in the world (or at least, the Twitterverse). We all know that everyone loves an optimist, but for some reason, not everyone seems to find my point of view convincing. Take, for example, a recent discussion of possible outcomes of the various crises currently facing the human species in which I made the following points about our ability to endure…

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Following the Drake Equation: Five Stories About Searching for Intelligent Life in the Universe

Noted astronomer Frank Drake passed away earlier this month. Among his many, many accomplishments was a venerable equation with which many SF fans are familiar:

N = R*ƒpneƒ1ƒiƒcL

N is the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible. Depending on the values one plugs into the defining factors, N might be anywhere from very large to very small. Very conveniently for science fiction authors, every possible value of N from very small to very high is filled with story potential. Here are five stories reflecting some of those possible solutions…

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A Crash Course Through the Worlds of John Brunner: 10 Essential Books

John Brunner was born eighty-eight years ago, on September 24, 1934. He died just short of his sixty-first birthday, on 25 August 1995, while attending Intersection Worldcon in Glasgow. Between the years 1951  and 1995, Brunner wrote dozens of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery works, many of them award-winning.

While I expect that many of my readers will have read and liked Brunner novels, I would not be surprised if other readers, perhaps a majority, have not had firsthand experience with his work. Therefore, with the melancholy anniversary of Brunner’s death just past and with his birthday coming up, this seems a suitable time to suggest some Brunner works to the tsundoku of those unfamiliar with this author. Here are ten; the last four are award-winning works generally agreed to be among his best.

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Five SF Works That Imagine Societies Without Poverty

To quote noted English philosophers Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, “(there) will be poor always, pathetically struggling.” History seems to support this thesis. Indeed, the poor serve essential roles: Without poor people, to whom would the rich feel superior? Whose bodies would be used to test the sharpness of one’s new sword? Who would volunteer to be hunted in the spring revels so that their families might be fed for another week? It seems impossible for many people to imagine society without poverty and privation.

Still, science fiction often embraces the impossible. A genre that sees nothing wrong with discarding General and Special Relativity could well craft stories envisioning a perfect Gini coefficient of zero (or as close as it’s possible to get). In fact, it has: Consider these five settings.

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Five SFF Stories Featuring Spies, Secrets, and Intrigue

September 5 marked the 77th anniversary of the beginning of the Gouzenko spy scandal, which is so well known I won’t insult readers by explaining further. At least directly.  

Among the targets of the spy ring were atomic secrets; control of the atom bomb was seen even then as potentially crucial to geopolitical ambitions. One side trying to steal the other side’s breakthroughs is nothing new—no doubt one tribe of cavemen tried to steal another tribe’s closely held secret of fire-hardened-pointed-sticks—but nuclear secrets have a particularly SFnal flavor…

Of course, in the decades since Gouzenko skulked from the Russian Embassy, damning documents metaphorically tucked under one arm, infallible safeguards have been introduced to ensure that no miscreant, no matter how highly placed, absconds with nuclear secrets. Nevertheless, writers are not constrained by such real-world considerations. Esoteric technical and scientific espionage is a vital source of plot for science fiction writers. The following five works show some of what can be done with esoteric spy stories.

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Five SFF Stories Featuring Mutant Protagonists

Mutation is an omnipresent biological fact. Every living being with genes is vulnerable to mutations—including us humans. Too bad that we’re so bad at biological replication-error correction. The only bright side to this is that most mutations have very minor effects and most of those don’t hurt us at all.

But of course, that’s not the sort of thing that SF authors need to gin up a really good plot. Authors want drama, and dramatic mutations.

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Five SFF Books That Celebrate Classic Rock

If there’s one thing history teaches us, it is that art forms that appeal to one generation will surely appeal to generations that follow. There should be no need for me to explain to my younger colleagues just who Copperpenny, Helix, and Major Hoople’s Boarding House were. No doubt all are as well known today as they were fifty years ago. (Although I’ll provide the links anyway, because I am just that considerate.)

SF authors of a certain vintage embraced this exuberant confidence in the long-term viability of their favourite musical genres. Take these five works, for example.

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Five of the Best SFF Anthologies Featuring Reprinted Stories

Recently there has been some discussion as to whether reprint anthologies should have the same standing as fiction anthologies made up of entirely original stories. The argument seems to hinge on the notion that only the original acquisition requires editorial insight. However, consider this: reprint anthologies can and have served to document the rise of genres heretofore unnoticed. They can provide a historical perspective that editors in the present moment may not recognize or appreciate. Seeing worth in specific works is a valuable skill, but so is recognizing their value in a larger historical context.

Perhaps some examples are in order.

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Five SFF Stories About Hermits, Recluses, and Loners

I recently reread a classic Canadian thriller and the second thing that struck me about it was the fact that the protagonist’s coping mechanism for escaping disaster—complete isolation—failed so abjectly.

This is far from the only piece of fiction to explore isolation. Consider these five works from the previous millennium.

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Characters Out of Time: The Steve Rogers Support Group

Authors wishing to highlight noteworthy details of their cunningly crafted settings may encounter one vexing issue: for people raised in those milieus, there is nothing remarkable about them. The characters won’t comment on or explain things that puzzle us readers. Or at least they should not.

Introducing an outsider, especially one from an earlier point in history, provides useful perspective on the ways in which this new world differs from the past. It is not surprising, therefore, that SF authors have embraced a variety of ways to drop olden-time observers into futuristic worlds.

Here are five tried-and-true olden-time-observer insertion methods…

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Five SF Works About Nuclear Families

I often spend hours reading the first few words in other people’s tweets. Occasionally, someone will drop in a mention of the “nuclear family.” Well, this just happens to be the focus of many works that I have read or watched over the years. Why this topic would attract SF authors is obvious: the struggle to survive a thermonuclear exchange is made much more thrilling if the protagonists have to worry about or care for other family members endangered by flash, blast, fall-out—not to mention the long-term consequences of a nuclear holocaust.

Here are five examples of the subgenre.

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Five Chilly SF Stories to Escape the Summer Heat

There’s nothing quite like walking a kilometer and a half in 30° C—80° F—heat (almost 40°—104° F, allowing for humidity) while carrying a large sack of potatoes to make one think of winter. Which, don’t get me wrong, will be bitterly resented when it arrives—but at least it will be cooler than it was today.

Which set me to thinking about delightful stories set on cooler worlds.

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Five Stone-Cold SFF Bummers That Might Make You Feel Better About Your Own Life

As mentioned in a footnote for a previous article,

“There’s a special class of comfort fictions whose appeal is that as badly as my day might be going, at least it’s not as bad as the protagonists’ day. Threads, for example.”

This might seem counterintuitive (or perhaps not: a lot of people enjoyed Garbage’s “Only Happy When It Rains” and perhaps you are one of them). I assure you that this coping mechanism definitely works. Not only that, but speculative fiction authors have your back in the matter of stories that start off bleak before rapidly becoming bleaker.

Consider these five tales.

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Five Feel-Good Comfort Reads

Unlike the news, fiction is not limited to a seemingly unending cavalcade of disaster, calamity, and egregiously poor choices, a cavalcade as comforting as glancing up a mountainside to see an avalanche swiftly bearing down on one.  So, if doomscrolling is getting you down, consider stepping away from the newsfeeds to enjoy a comfort read or two…

Of course, what exactly constitutes a comfort read will vary from person to person but here are five that reliably make me smile. Perhaps you will smile as well.

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