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James Davis Nicoll

Remembering the Moon Landing: Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire

There have been many accounts written about the American Apollo Program, which succeeded in placing men (Commander Neil Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin) on the moon for the first time July 20, 1969. My favourite account is Michael Collins’ 1974 Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys. Collins was the Command Module Pilot. While the Lunar Lander descended to the Moon’s surface, it was Collins’ task to remain with the Command Module in Lunar orbit. Collins is therefore a man who has been within a hundred miles of the Moon without ever touching down on the surface of that world.

Rather than making any attempt at a dispassionate, neutral history of the Apollo Program, Collins provides a very personal account, a Collins-eye view of the American path to the moon. It’s not a short process, which is why it takes 360 pages before Collins and his more well-known companions find themselves strapped into the largest, most powerful man-rated rocket to have been launched as of that date. Before that…

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Great Lost Civilizations of 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.

[Here are a few of my favourite SFF lost civilizations…]

Heinlein’s Juveniles vs. Andre Norton’s Young Adult Novels

About five years ago, I reviewed all of the Heinlein Scribner juveniles (plus the two associated novels). Immediately thereafter, I reviewed fifty Andre Norton novels. This was not a coincidence. It just so happens that back in the 1970s, Ace re-published most of the Heinlein juveniles. Those editions usually contained a full-page ad for Heinlein’s Ace books and right next to it, an ad for fifty Andre Norton novels. Clearly someone at Ace thought the market for Heinlein and Norton overlapped.

So, how do their YA books compare?

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Slide Rules and Nuclear Apocalypse

People often fear (or dislike, or get stressed out about) change—in culture, in fandom, in fiction, in science… and they like to make their displeasure known. For the record, I find complaining that the inexorable passage of time has transformed fandom or other realities as ludicrous as assessing people by their preferences in slide rules… but I suppose shouting at clouds fills the empty hours.

Still, it must be said: slide rules are pretty cool and way important to the history of science fiction, as evidenced by the ray gun and slide rule toting space pirate on the cover of Astounding Science Fiction.

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4 SF Works Featuring a Far-Future U.S.A.

From the perspective of a foreigner, there’s a baffling lacuna in American science fiction.

The U.S. has moats on three sides, an arctic desert to the north and a somewhat warmer desert to the South. It outnumbers its immediate neighbours; those times it has actually lost wars have been erased from memory; and yet…in SF, it’s a nation doomed to splinter, to be crushed by enemy troops, scorched off the face of the Earth, or absorbed into a bland world state. It’s been supine under the unstoppable might of Grand Fenwick, streamlined thanks to rapacious Canadian imperialists benefactors, or covered in ineradicable crab-grass.

Isn’t it possible that the U.S. might turn out to be as durable as Rome, China, or Ancient Egypt? That something continuous with the United States could be puttering around in the 45th century? I have wracked my fannish brain for examples of such a U.S., but so far have dredged up only the following books:

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The Expert’s Guide to Writing Book Recommendation Lists

It is as inevitable as the green sky above us, the annual migration of the giant oak trees, and the monthly return of the triple moons: sooner or later, well-read fans will be inspired to assemble a list of recommended books for younger people or other fen.

I’m a list veteran, having compiled my first list in grade thirteen at a teacher’s request. Surely my lifetime of reading and listing qualifies me to offer timely advice to others contemplating their first lists—lists that I am sure will end up being every bit as apropos as the ones that populate so many discussions of this sort.

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Single Star System Space Opera; or, Those Pesky Belters, Revisited

Paul Weimer recently asked:

“I saw JJ’s comment above about Space Opera and wonder just how much space is required to make a Space Opera a Space Opera, as opposed to being something more akin to Planetary Romance.”

It’s an interesting question that prompted responses on File 770, Cora Buhlert’s blog, and no doubt elsewhere. There probably is no hard line between Space Opera and Planetary Romance; that does not mean we cannot argue incessantly discuss passionately where the line should be drawn. Here’s my two cents (rounded up to a nickel because Canada phased pennies out in 2013)…

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Light Sails in Science and Fiction

The classical rocket equation—M/m = e^(delta-v/exhaust velocity)—is a harsh mistress. If you want increased velocity, you have to increase fuel. For every increase in delta-v, you increase the ratio between the dry mass of a spacecraft and the fully fuelled mass. The ship gets heavier, needs more fuel, yadda yadda.

This is a pain for the sort of SF author who aims at a patina of verisimilitude: chemical rockets, for example, are limited to comparatively small delta-vs (which is why, for example, so few probes have been sent to Mercury). There are a number of ways to sidestep the limitations imposed by the rocket equation, the most straight forward of which is to somehow obtain the necessary thrust from some external source…which brings us to light sails.

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Better Science Fiction Through Actual Science

Science fiction purports to be based on science. I hate to tell you this, but a lot of SF is as close to science and math as Taco Bell is to authentic Mexican cuisine.

I revelled and still revel in mass ratios and scale heights, albedos and exhaust velocities, evolutionary biology and world history. (I’m not the only one. Big wave to my homies out there.) So…as much as I love SF, I’m constantly running head-on into settings that could just not work the way the author imagines. My SOD (suspension of disbelief) is motoring along merrily and suddenly, bang! Dead in its tracks. Perhaps you can understand now why so many of my reviews grumble about worldbuilding.

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Hope Springs Eternal: Five Unfinished Series That Remain a Joy to Read

Readers seem to spend a fair amount of time complaining about ongoing, unfinished series—perhaps they’ve always done so, but when they do it online, we all hear the kvetching. Grumbling about books seems an odd way to spend one’s spring (if one is in the northern hemisphere of Earth), but no doubt winter is coming. Allow me to offer these words of comfort: if you read widely, eventually you will discover yourself midway through a series as yet unfinished, with no clear idea when or if the next book will come out. (Unless you are one of those stalwarts who absolutely refuse to start reading a series unless it is finished. Poor souls.) Here are some of my favourite unfinished series…

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The Sad But Inevitable Trend Toward Forgotten SF

I ran my “Young People Read Old SF” review series for about three years. Although it’s currently on hiatus, and while the sample size is of course small, I think it’s large enough that some conclusions can be drawn. The comments sections around the net are similarly a small sample, but again large enough that I can conclude that a lot of you are not going to like what I have to say, which is:

Love your beloved classics now—because even now, few people read them, for the most part, and fewer still love them. In a century, they’ll probably be forgotten by all but a few eccentrics.

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The Luddites Were Right: SF Works That Show the Downside to New Technology

It’s a given: new technology is always better than old technology. And even if it were not, it’s our duty to the economy to purchase the new shiny.

Only a reactionary would object to ticket scanners merely because they are much slower than the bespectacled eye. Or object to mandatory software upgrades on the specious ground that everything they do, they do less well than the previous release.

Sure, sometimes the new thing is a bit disruptive—but isn’t a little disruption good for us all? At least that’s what the people who stand to profit from disruption tell us….

Let’s examine the contrarian position: newer isn’t always best. And let’s take our examples from science fiction, which is dedicated to exploring the new…and, sometimes inadvertently, showing that the newest thing may not work as intended.

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