Inspired by an engaging time-filler meme on social media , my thoughts returned to that venerable roleplaying game Traveller, profiled on Tor.com earlier this year. Anyone who has played Traveller (or even just played with online character generation sites like this one) might have noticed that a surprising number of the characters one can generate are skilled with blades. This may see as an odd choice for a game like Traveller that is set in the 57th century CE, or indeed for any game in which swords and starships co-exist. Why do game authors make these choices?
It’s a tale as old as time, or at least as old as 1954: a small group of youths are cast away on an isolated island. With no adult supervision, they soon descend into violent chaos. By the time adults arrive to restore order, several of the young people have been murdered. Others are left permanently traumatized. This is, of course, William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. It’s one of the classics often forced on defenseless schoolkids, as it reinforces an important lesson: humans are beasts who require a boot firmly placed on their necks if they are to retain a patina of civility. Kids may not appreciate hearing this, but people who own and wield boots certainly want it heard.
Anyone who, as I do, deals with kids on a regular basis knows that kids will, if left to their own devices, flout convention with no regard for the feelings and expectations of their elders. Even as a keen-eyed guardian waits for a chance to correct egregious misbehavior, those confounded kids will pick up discarded trash, fix defective signage, assist in the sweeping-up of snowdrifts of theatrical confetti, even spontaneously practice four-part harmony while waiting for public transit. I can only speculate as to what dark motives cause this inconsiderate behaviour.
Employees! So pesky and demanding. “Please, may I spend Christmas Eve with my family?” “Please don’t choke me, I’m only the messenger.” “Please don’t choose me to be the test-subject for your latest ACME protagonist killer.” Small wonder that some bosses quietly eliminate the workers once they are no longer useful, preferably before they cash their paycheck. After all, what could possibly go wrong?
As happens from time to time, I recently noticed an author being subjected to complaints that their fiction has an “agenda,” that there are “political elements” in their story, that it touches on society, class, race, culture, gender, and history. As it happens, the calumniated author is one of those younger authors, someone who’s probably never owned a slide-rule or an IBM Selectric. Probably never had ink-well holes in their school desks. Undoubtedly, they may be missing context that I, a person of somewhat more advanced years, can provide.
Golden Age science fiction was, of course, a wonder of agenda-free writing: No political, racial, or gender concerns tainted their deadly deathless prose. Heck, a lot of old-timey SF never so much as hinted that visible minorities or women even existed! Modern authors might find these old-style works inspiring. Perhaps some examples are in order.
The Greeks had a word, hubris, that gets thrown about a lot. I have the impression that it means something like “self-confidence.” Right? Self-confidence is great stuff! Empowering! There are no challenges that human ingenuity cannot overcome: social conflicts, climate change, plagues and pandemics. We’ll just power through it all like a tank through soap bubbles.
I must admit that not every science fiction author adopts this buoyant stance. Some of them have taken a contrary point of view, in fact, positing that there are some circumstances that will defeat humans, no matter how smart and persevering they are. Circumstances like alien worlds that cannot be terraformed into human-friendly resort planets. Here are five worlds that steadfastly resist meddling…
The mediocrity principle suggests there’s probably nothing special about our Solar System. There are millions of planets in our galaxy; if we were to randomly pick one, it would be likely to be a common sort of planet, from the middle of a normal standard distribution. Sure, we have an outsized, heavy-element-rich sun, and the distribution of planets in our system appears unusual, but there must be aspects of our Solar System that could be found in other Milky Way systems.
Which brings me, conveniently enough, to the subject of planetary rings.
It’s been weeks since you last socialized (in the flesh) with anyone outside your household…or with anyone, if you live alone. Loneliness is tough. But things could be worse: you could be a rogue world, ejected from your home system billions of years ago. You could be a pitiful world formed far from any star. Such worlds are commonplace in our galaxy. They are not quite so common in science fiction. Still, a few of them feature in books that you may have read…
Science fiction is often about discovering new things. Sometimes it is also about loss. Consider, for example, the SF authors of the early space probe era. On the plus side, after years of writing about Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and the other worlds of the Solar System, they would find out what those worlds were really like. On the minus side, all the infinite possibilities would be replaced by a single reality—one that probably wouldn’t be much like the Solar System of the old pulp magazines.
Not that science fiction’s consensus Old Solar System, featuring dying Mars and Martians, or swamp world Venus, was ever plausible. Even in the 1930s, educated speculations about the other planets were not optimistic about the odds that the other worlds were so friendly as to be merely dying. (Don’t believe me? Sample John W. Campbell’s articles from the mid-1930s.)
Science fiction authors simply ignored what science was telling them in pursuit of thrilling stories.
Space, even the deep space between the stars, is not entirely empty. As far as we can tell at present, the matter scattered through interstellar space is lifeless. But…appearances can be deceiving. Even if they are not, there’s enough story in the idea of vast beings living in the interstellar depths to attract SF writers. Here are five books that took the idea and ran with it…
I’ve always been struck by one curious element in James E. Gunn’s 1972 SETI fix-up novel The Listeners: There’s an alien beacon orbiting the supernova remnant at the heart of the Crab Nebula. But…stars that end as supernovas are too short-lived for complex life to evolve on their planets, so whoever built the Crab beacon didn’t come from that system. What’s going on?
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.
Imagine, if you will, a dark age in which information was not at the tip of one’s fingertips, in which acquiring it required a trip to the library or the bookstore, in which tidbits of useful information might be limited to brief introductions and afterwords, in which there was no guarantee that the information would exist in an accessible form anywhere at all. Imagine further that one was a snoopy highly inquisitive young reader, curious about the authors whose works he was consuming and eager to know more about the works themselves. Imagine the frustration.
Imagine, then, the glee that resulted when The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: An Illustrated A to Z (or as it was known in the edition I had, The Science Fiction Encyclopedia) appeared in 1979.
One might expect that, in this globalized world, noteworthy books in one region would soon attract publishers elsewhere, especially in regions that happen to share a language. Not so. In the case of the United States and the United Kingdom, for example, some books are published only in the UK, others only in the US.
It can be frustrating to have heard of an interesting book, to want to read that book, and to find that it is available ONLY in an imported edition. Well, at least it’s available (failing a breakdown in global trade networks, and how likely is that)…but it may take longer to get the book and the book may be more expensive.
You may be wondering why I am vexed about this. Allow me to list a few books that I wanted to acquire and that were not available in North American editions, as far as I can tell.
Local bookstore and cultural icon Words Worth Books were in the midst of renovations when they were surprised to discover a door—a door no one had known was there! Now, the bookstore has been at 96 King Street South, Waterloo for more than thirty-five years, which makes one wonder when and how this door was constructed (or arrived).
As anyone who reads science fiction and fantasy can tell you, life is full of doors like that: appearing unexpectedly, leading to unexpected places. Other worlds, other times. Narnia. An alien planet. The Bronze Age.
Imagine finding the door into Sumer.
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