content by

James Davis Nicoll

When Authors Collide: Five SFF Works of Collaborative Fiction

The writing of prose is often depicted as a solitary activity, an occupation suited to hermits sealed into poorly lit garrets, sliding their manuscripts out under their front door, receiving flat food under the same door. Now this can be a perfectly functional approach to writing…but it is not the only one. Many authors not only appear in public, but they also write with others. If these writing partners have complementary strengths, the pair can produce marvelous works neither could have written alone…

I hasten to add that some collaborations have produced utter dreck. I’m going to tell you about five that worked well… at least for me.

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Five Superpowers That Just Aren’t As Fun as They Sound

Who among us has not dreamed of having superpowers? We are urged thereto by the avalanche of comics, movies, novels, and roleplaying games featuring abilities beyond mortal ken. Yet not all superpowers are created equal. Some superpowers require secondary superpowers to survive.  Other abilities have disquieting consequences for their possessors.

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I Sing the Body Electric: 5 SF Works About Sex and Technology

Unsurprisingly for a species that once dispatched to the stars at great expense a nude selfie with directions to its home, addressed “To Whom It May Concern”, a large fraction of humans (although not all) has an intense, abiding interest in sex. Consequently, any technology that can assist in the quest for or enhancement of sex enjoys a tremendous advantage over technologies lacking such applications. Thus, the internet, which is for porn, spread across the planet like kudzu. Interplanetary travel, which offers absolutely no hope of hooking up with open-minded Martians unless one brings one’s own Martians, languishes.

Science fiction authors have not overlooked the obvious application of technology to humanity’s quest for sex (and in some cases, love, or control). Take these five examples.

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Five Doomed Attempts at Planetary Colonization

Recently, there has been on Twitter a discussion of a cryptocurrency-driven seasteading effort so visionary, so unconcerned by petty questions of practicality, legality, and due diligence as to rival Scotland’s Darien scheme. A cynic might focus on the entirely predictable outcome—abject failure—but where would humanity be without people willing to commit themselves to bold colonization schemes unburdened by any chance of success? Considerably less amused.

Science fiction, of course, is not restricted to the Earth. It can, when its authors so choose, provide readers with delightful tales of ill-considered and/or unlucky attempts to settle worlds that prove to be much more challenging than anything Earth might offer. Take these five classic examples.

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Winchell Chung’s Atomic Rockets: An Invaluable SF Resource

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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Five Extremely Unscientific Methods for Picking Your Next Book

Anyone can apply logic, taste, and methodical research to the problem of selecting which limited subset of the vast number of books available one is to read. Conversely, one can half-ass one’s way through Mt. Tsundoku using methods of dubious reliability. Don’t believe me? Here are five methods I have used, each more ludicrous than the one before.

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Classic Science Fiction About Extremely Long Naps

Sleep! How precious, how precarious! Many of us struggle with insomnia. Perhaps we have apnea. Perhaps we own a cat who believes motionless humans are food. Perhaps we are simply aware that up to forty thousand redback spiders can fit into the volume of the average pillow. But sleep can be overdone. Imagine waking to discover that decades or centuries have passed…

This is a convenient way for an author to arrange for a protagonist not unlike the reader to tour an alien setting. Unsurprisingly, a lot of authors have taken advantage of the plot possibilities of the long sleep.

Consider these five classic science fiction examples.

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Five Chilly SF Stories to Help Beat 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 Works About Preserving or Destroying Books

Recently, news went out that the Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association is determined to reallocate the room currently occupied by the Clubs Library. Among the collections housed there: WatSFiC’s extensive science fiction and fantasy library, portions of which date back to the 1970s. One hopes that the library will find another home, or that other accommodations can be made before the collection is broken up or lost.

Science fiction and fantasy fans and writers have been generally supportive of libraries and especially of SFF collections. Book lovers are often “keep everything” proponents and have a hard time admitting that deaccessioning is sometimes necessary. One might expect that libraries, and library disputes, would feature in SFF novels… as they have. Here are five works about books and libraries, their friends, and their bitter enemies.

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Five Ludicrous Reasons for Not Reading a Perfectly Good Book

There are perfectly legitimate reasons not to have read works widely regarded as science fiction and fantasy classics. Perhaps the most compelling is that the field is far too large for any one person to have read all of it, even if they were to limit themselves to works other readers enthusiastically recommend. However, there are other reasons, some quite silly, to have left promising books unread. Here are five of my stupidest reasons for not having read a widely-praised book cover to cover.

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Classic SF Featuring Planets With Very Long or Very Short Days

Earth is blessed with a day neither of extraordinary length nor of extreme brevity. Currently it is about twenty-four hours long. A quick glance at planets like Mercury and Venus shows us that worlds can have days much longer than Earth’s; bodies like Haumea suggest that days could be much shorter.

SF authors have notice this and written books about planets/planetesimals with different day lengths. Consider these five vintage works.

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Steve Perrin’s Worlds of Wonder Changed the Game for RPGs

Emmet Asher-Perrin’s worthy obit for Steve Perrin mentions such Perrin-related projects as Stormbringer, Call of Cthulhu, Thieves’ World, Elfquest, Robot Warriors, and (of course!) Superworld. One fascinating Perrin work that often goes unmentioned, probably due to the fact that it has become a comparatively obscure work, is 1982’s groundbreaking Worlds of Wonder. You may not have encountered it, but odds are that you’ve seen and played later games that it inspired or influenced.

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Five Fictional Space Colonies From the Post-Disco Era

 As previously discussed, Gerard K. O’Neill’s vision of space colonies was particularly comforting to 1970s anxieties.  Soaring population? The asteroid belt has enough material to build habitats promising many times the surface area of Earth! Energy crisis? Have said habitats pay for themselves by building solar power arrays IN SPAAACE!  Indigenous populations weirdly ungrateful for genocidal displacement by Europeans? Colonization do-over in space where there are no natives to displace or complain!

Various factors—primarily that the essential concept was as sound as the Darien Scheme and the technological barriers proved insurmountable—ensured the proposal would come to naught.

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Five Fully Completed SFF Series

I stand second to none in my habit of relentless optimism. Still, I am beginning to suspect that Mr. Dickens is never going to deliver a definitive ending to his otherwise promising The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Admittedly, when one purchases a book all one can legitimately expect is the book in hand. Anticipation of further instalments, no matter how heartfelt, does not constitute a legal contract that binds the author to deliver further instalments.

That said, there are some series whose authors have managed to publish—and finish!—entire series. Here are five recent examples that I would recommend.

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Five Sympathetic Science Fiction Bureaucrats

Fictional bureaucrats often serve as convenient hate sinks, providing the author with characters whose occupation is generally considered fair game for scorn. Obstructive bureaucrats abound in fiction, perhaps because they are not infrequently encountered in real life. But not all writers settle for such easy targets. Indeed, some writers have gone so far as to make a bureaucrat or two into sympathetic figures.

Don’t believe me? Consider these five….

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