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James Davis Nicoll

Not-So-Splendid Isolation: Five SF Works About Being Alone

I myself have no problem with lengthy periods of enforced isolation. There are so many things to do: alphabetizing the house spiders, teaching cats to dance, talking with my knives… Still, not everyone deals with isolation well. If that’s you, you might derive some consolation from reading (or watching, or listening to) stories of folks who are even worse off than you are.

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Five SF Tales About Dead or Dying Worlds

Life on Earth is most likely doomed…in a billion years or so. The Sun’s slowly increasing luminosity will trigger a runaway greenhouse effect like that seen on Venus. Later stages in stellar evolution will further sear the Earth into an airless husk (unless the red giant sun simply gobbles up the planet like a piece of candy). Oh woe is us!

The following five tales of dying worlds might be of some interest during this interesting time. Remember: when the prospect of yet another Zoom meeting provokes anxiety and loathing, we can always tell ourselves that it could be worse…

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Five SFF Books Driven by Terrible Choices and Appalling Judgment

Many people can assemble the available evidence, weigh it carefully in the light of past experience, and make a rational, sensible decision. Many more of us are sensible…most of the time. Then there are those who cannot turn down a dare, cannot gauge risks rationally, cannot listen to useful advice. Bad for them, but sometimes amusing for observers, and often just what an author needs to generate plot, suspense, and excitement.

Here are five SFF novels that involve appalling judgment.

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Five SFF Books Built Around Dead People (Or Mostly Dead People)

Usually, plots are populated by the alive or alive-adjacent. (I was going to say “alive and breathing,” but then I remembered that some vampire characters don’t breathe.) Nothing facilitates plot like living people. Most corpses are poor conversationalists and don’t do much besides just lie there. Hence most authors choose to populate their books with the living.

As always, there are exceptions. A few fictional corpses are very interesting. Take, for example, these five dead people…

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Tales From the Science Fiction Barroom

I’m always looking for new works to review for Because My Tears Are Delicious To You, an ongoing series on my own website. There I revisit some of the books I loved as a teen. Recently I put out a request on social media for readers to suggest authors and works now obscure that deserve mention. To my surprise, someone suggested Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart.

…How on Earth could Tales from the White Hart be considered obscure? Well…for one thing, the author has been dead for over a decade. The collection is an astounding ten twenty thirty forty fifty sixty-three years old, which is to say it’s as ancient to a new SF reader in 2020 as H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine was for the new SF reader in 1957, when Tales first came out.

Tales from the White Hart is also an example of a genre once popular that seems to have fallen into comparative obscurity: the barroom tale.  The genre assumes a beloved old bar filled with regulars, one or more of whom is a talented raconteur. It’s a form made to order for SF magazines, the publications that once ruled the SF world. It’s also a form easily anthologized, as it was in Tales. As it also was for several other series of bar stories. Settle down, my friends, and nurse your beers or non-alcoholic beverages as I tell you of bar tale collections of the past…

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Five SF Books Featuring Relativistic Relics and Timey-Wimey Problems

As discussed in this 2018 piece, relativistic starflight can put the entire universe within one’s reach (assuming that one has access to mind-boggling amounts of energy and commands utterly implausible technology). But as that essay points out, relativistic starflight is also  a form of time travel, which often works out badly for all involved.

For example…

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Five Fantasy Novels Starring Self-Taught Protagonists

Formal educations are a fine thing if you have access to one. But if the field is new and no training exists, or if you are barred from training (for being the wrong gender, wrong class, having no money, etc.), then there is nothing for it but to teach oneself: scavenging for texts (if they exist) and learning by trial and error. Time to heal from mistakes may need to be factored into the curriculum.  Here are five examples.

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On Reading Book Series in the Wrong Order

We live in a glorious age when books are a click away. It may now seem incomprehensible that one might be forced to read a series of books out of order. Yet, in a dark age not so long ago, when we (and by we, I mean me) were dependent on the vagaries of book store and library orders, it was very easy to find oneself in a place where the choice was (a) read an intermediate book or (b) read nothing new.

By way of example, here are five F&SF series I began in what most people would say is the wrong place.

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Five Unforgettable Books Involving Amnesia

Well-informed protagonists with excellent memories can be inconvenient. They can reveal all to readers at inopportune moments.  If they already know what they need to know, they’re not going to search hither and yon for missing clues and information (and the author is going to have find some other way to bulk up the novel). That’s why so many authors choose a handy cure-all: amnesia. There’s nothing like amnesia to drive a plot and fill up a book.

Here are five rather memorable examples.

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A Late-Summer SFF Reading List

What have I read recently? I am so happy to have imagined someone asking me that conveniently leading question.

I should note that I have embraced the concept of comparative advantage by focusing on activities at which I am acceptably competent (reading, reviewing, encountering wild animals), freeing people who are not me up for other activities at which they are superior (anything social). The end result is more productivity all round! Plus, it turns out that, at the moment, a simple handshake can be akin to French-kissing Death herself, so all in all, this anti-social, work-focused lifestyle is working out pretty well! For me, anyway. Without further ado, here’s a survey of what I’ve been reading over the last month…

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Five Science Fiction Books Featuring Floating Habitats

Venus is so inconsiderate. It presents itself as a sister world, one that would seem at first glance to be very Earth-like, but… on closer examination it’s utterly hostile to life as we know it. Surface conditions would be extremely challenging for terrestrial life, what with the toxic atmosphere, crushing pressures, and blast-furnace-like temperatures.

That’s at the surface, however. Just fifty kilometers above the surface, there is a region with terrestrial pressures and temperatures, a veritable garden of Eden where an unprotected human would not be almost immediately incinerated but instead would expire painfully (in just a few minutes) due to the lack of free oxygen and the prevalence of toxic gases.

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The Amazing Adventures of Space Cat!

Ruthven Todd (June 14, 1914–October 11, 1978) was better known for his poetry, scholarly work on William Blake studies, and (as R. T. Campbell) mysteries. He also wrote children’s books, some of which were science fiction. In particular, he wrote the Space Cat series.

Flyball is a cat. Who—and this is the complicated part—lives in space. His career is documented in four illustrated volumes: Space Cat (1952), Space Cat Visits Venus (1955), Space Cat Meets Mars (1957), Space Cat and the Kittens (1958). All four are illustrated by Paul Galdone (June 2, 1907–November 7, 1986).

I have not read these since 1969. How did they stand up? I am glad you asked.

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Five SFF Stories Featuring Truly Terrible Parents

Parents! Pesky narrative roadblocks when writing books centred on young people. Common, garden-variety parents want to make sure their offspring are healthy and happy, which is a problem for writers who want to send young protagonists off into danger. Authors can, of course, dispatch parents to a location too distant for them to interfere or simply kill them off—both very popular choices—but there is another alternative: Simply have the parents themselves (or their equivalent) be part of the problem.

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Five Stories About Generation Ships That Don’t End in Disaster

We’ve all read about it: after decades of construction, a shiny new generation ship is loaded with a crew of bright-eyed optimists. Once the sun is just another bright star in the sky, mutiny and civil war reduce the crew to ignorant peasants…unless something worse happens. This is a narrative pattern set as early as Murray Leinster’s 1935 “Proxima Centauri,” solidified by Heinlein’s 1941 “Universe,” and embraced by authors ever since: human foibles in the confined space of a generation ship ensure calamity. Ideally not of the sort that leave everyone too dead to be interesting.

But it does not have to go that way! Here are five examples of generation ships that managed to avoid mutiny, civil war, barbarism, and mass cannibalism.

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SFF Works That Avoid Violent Solutions

If the science fiction I read is any guide, the solution to any problem is: violence! Whatever the context—first contact, zombie outbreak, meteor impact, or a stalled escalator—there’s nothing like clawing one’s way to survival over a heap of bodies.

Indeed, the violent solution is so expected that readers can be surprised by a plot that avoids it…

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