content by

James Davis Nicoll

Classic SF in Which Humans Come From “Beyond the Stars”

Could humanity be a recent visitor to this world? Are our true origins on some distant exoplanet?


The fossil record documents our purely terrestrial linage going back hundreds of millions of years. Humans are merely a recent flourish on the tetrapod body plan and suggestions to the contrary are manifestly nonsensical.

Still, no author in possession of a cool story idea ever hesitated merely because it constituted an egregious contradiction of firmly established science. Here are five examples of stories in which humans came from somewhere beyond the sky.

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Five Thrilling SF Stories About Patrolling Space

After a painstaking process that apparently consisted of determining from which movie/comic books they wanted to lift a name, members of the US Space Force have officially been dubbed “Guardians.” Whether this is in reference to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy or the interfering blue dome-heads from Green Lantern is unclear. Either way, please enjoy five exciting stories about space patrols patrolling… SPACE!

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Five Books Featuring Space Travel Powered by Atomic Bombs

Nuclear explosives can be used to address many urgent issues: a shortage of mildly radioactive harbours, for example, or the problem of having too many wealthy, industrialized nations not populated by survivors who envy the dead. The most pressing issue—the need for a fast, affordable space drive—wasn’t solved until the late 1950s. Theodore B. Taylor and others proposed that the Bomb could be used to facilitate rapid space travel across the Solar System. Thus, Project Orion was born.

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Five of the Best Books I Never Meant to Read

While but a callow youth, I subscribed to the Science Fiction Book Club. The club, wise in the ways of procrastination, would send each month’s selection of books to subscribers UNLESS the subscribers had sent the club a card informing the SFBC that one did not want the books in question. All too often I planned to send the card off, only to realize (once again), when a box of books arrived, that intent is not at all the same thing as action.

Thus, I received books that I would not have chosen but, once in possession, I read and enjoyed them. All praise to the SFBC and the power of procrastination! Here are five of my favorite unintended reading experiences…

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SF Books That Did Not Belong in the Childrens’ Section of the Library

Back when I was young, SF was a comparatively obscure genre. Many librarians assumed that it was all kid stuff, and filed it as such. Consequence: I was allowed to check out and read books that would otherwise have been considered totally inappropriate for young kids.  Which is not to say I didn’t benefit from reading some of those books, but I am pretty sure that if my librarians and teachers   had had any idea what those books were, they would have been aghast. (Possibly two ghasts!)

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Canadians in SF as Written by Non-Canadians

Canada! Perhaps best known to fans of British soap operas, for whom it serves as that mysterious land to the west to which characters vanish after their purpose on the show has been served. Of course, all that is needed to learn far more about Canada than you would ever need or want to know is to get trapped in a conversation with a Canadian, uninvited exposition concerning their homeland being as natural to the average Canadian as it is any given inhabitant of a fictional utopia confronted by a woken sleeper from the pre-utopian past.

One might reasonably expect that most SF touching on Canada was written by Canadians and the Canadian-adjacent. Perhaps it is. Quite a lot of it is not. Here are five examples of Canada and Canadians in science fiction, as seen by foreign eyes.

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Five SFF Authors Discovered by Ben Bova

Amongst the items on the late Ben Bova’s impressive CV is his turn as editor of Analog Magazine. It was a challenging job, in that he was taking over as editor following a colourful figure who had held the position for decades. I did not fully appreciate this fact at the time, since the first issue of Analog I purchased was the one pictured above, well after Bova’s inaugural issue.

By the time the April 1977 issue came out, Bova had been Analog’s editor for six years. For me, the Bova version of Analog was the Analog by which I judged all other Analogs. When I had a magazine collection, prior to the Insufficiently-Secured-Roof-Tarp Flood Event, my Analogs were most of them Bova editions.

One measure by which one can judge editors is their skill at finding new authors. Sure, one can just keep publishing the folks the previous editor published without seeking out new voices…but that’s an easy path to creative stagnation. In any case, Bova did seek out many new authors. Here are five examples of authors who got their start in his magazine.

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More Planets, More Problems: The Pessimist’s Guide to Galactic Expansion

Suppose for the sake of argument the Kepler data is correct when it suggests there are as many as three hundred million (300,000,000!) potentially life-bearing worlds orbiting sunlike stars in our Milky Way. Suppose we win the jackpot and they are all Earthlike enough for us to occupy. Suppose further some grand unified polity spans the whole of the Milky Way, in the manner of Asimov’s Galactic Empire. Among the many implications is the fact that the Ministry of Oh Crap What Now would have to deal with rare natural events relatively frequently. No doubt stressful for our overworked functionaries, but a godsend for SF authors with an appetite for thrilling peril.

What sort of rare events, you ask?

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Five Novels About the World After the End of the World

While nostalgia has had a place in tabletop roleplaying games ever since the field was old enough to have second editions—remember when tabletop roleplaying game nostalgia was new?—the recent Twilight 2000 Kickstarter is remarkable for the speed at which the project hit its funding goals: just seven minutes, a bit longer than it would take missiles launched from the Soviet Union to reach Britain.

First published in 1984, Twilight 2000 took as its background a mid-1990s Soviet-Chinese conflict that spiraled into a global war when East and West Germany tried to use Soviet distraction to reunify. By 2000 all sides are too exhausted to continue. Most campaigns begin as the war stumbles to a chaotic, exhausted halt.

[Here are five works about the world after the end of the world…]

Science Fiction’s Four Basic Types of Lost Worlds

Good news! Kepler data suggests there could be three hundred million or more potentially life-bearing worlds orbiting sunlike stars in our Milky Way. Sure, some small-minded people might point out the gap between “potentially life-bearing” and “actually life-bearing”—see Mars and Venus—and that just because a world has native life, it does not follow that it will support our sort of life—see deep-sea hot vents—but pshaw to that! Those of us raised on a heavy diet of SF novels know that superluminal travel is merely only one diagram-defaced napkin and a single busy weekend away, and that any vaguely Earthlike world can be settled with sufficient force of will.

Three hundred million is kind of a big number. To put it in universal terms, it is about as many Lego pieces as would be in a tightly-packed cube ten meters on a side. It’s more than enough worlds for one or two to slip through the cracks. Which brings us to that ever-popular trope, the lost colony.

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Five Space-Based Murder Mysteries

Humans: So prone to homicide! No murders have as yet occurred in any of our space facilities—that we know of, anyway—but given enough time and an expanding pool of potential perpetrators, it stands to reason that murder victims would start turning up sooner or later. As will the poor saps stuck with the unrewarding job of working out who did what to who, why, and what, if anything, can be done about it.

For your delectation, here are five space-based murder mysteries.

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Five Stories Driven by a Disregard for Basic Safety

Nothing delivers unrequested adventures quite like normalization of deviance. It works like this:

Suppose one has a safety protocol. Suppose one decides that this protocol is onerous for some reason: it consumes extra time, it requires extra effort, or worst of all, it costs money. So, one shaves a step here and a precaution there. And nothing happens! Clearly, the whole shebang was not necessary in the first place. Clearly the thing to do here is to keep skipping steps until circumstances line up wrong and you’re looking at a trip to the emergency room or a burning pile of expensive rubble.

The end results of normalization of deviance are undesirable in reality. But…the process is oh-so-irresistible for authors looking for ways to drop their characters neck-deep in a pig lagoon. Take these five examples:

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Five Hippie-ish SF Novels Inspired by Sixties Counterculture

From time to time, humanity’s powers of kidding itself have produced short-lived crops of deluded optimists. Half a century ago, for example, young people not yet reconciled to grim reality pushed back at society’s constraints… Free love! Communes! Bold hairstyle choices suitable for those who have not yet experienced male pattern baldness!

Unsurprisingly, hippiedom and the counterculture leaked into science fiction, with various degrees of optimism. Here are five examples.

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