content by

James Davis Nicoll

How SciFi Can Solve the Problem of Red Dwarf Stars

Certain facts about M-class red dwarf stars are vexing for authors and readers of SF. Not to mention reviewers. I am vexed.

First fact: they’re economical. Because they are low mass, you can make a lot more of them from a given amount of matter than you can make of mid-K to mid-F class stars1). Also, they last a long long time, even by galactic standards. Someone or something must have been frugal, because the vast majority of stars are red dwarfs. This proportion will only increase once the stelliferous era draws to an end in the near future (by galactic standards).

What’s so bad about most of the galaxy being composed of long-lived stars? Well, I am happy you asked…

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Fighting Erasure: Women SF Writers of the 1970s, Part VIII

In this foray into the past, I cover women fantasy and science fiction authors who debuted between 1970 and 1979. In stark contrast to the previous instalment, this essay covers a sparsely populated range of the alphabet. Accordingly, it will include authors whose surnames begin with N, those whose surname begins with O, and those who begin with P. Even so, it’s not as long as the M entry.

Previous instalments in this series cover women writers with last names beginning with A through F, those beginning with G, those beginning with H, those beginning with I & J, those beginning with Kthose beginning with L, and those beginning with M.

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Why Are There So Few SFF Books About the Very Real Issue of Population Decline?

I discovered last week that if one wants hundreds of likes and retweets on Twitter, one can do worse than to tweet this:

“Inexplicable drop in birthrates for generation systematically denied healthcare, affordable education and even the smallest prospect of economic security.”

…in response to this.

Of course, I was joking. Well, half-joking. What’s going on here isn’t merely an expression of the hopelessness of the current generation. It’s part of a longer trend, one oddly absent from Western SF: the demographic transition.

As the article notes, “The rate has generally been below replacement since 1971.” This isn’t unique to the United States. It’s part of a general process that demographer Warren Thompson noted as far back as 1929, in which economic transformation is accompanied by a demographic change. Nations go from high birth and death rates to low death and birth rates1. When birth rates fall far enough, populations decline.

[Which is what seems to be happening across the planet…]

Why Editors Matter: David Hartwell’s Extraordinary Timescape Books

Avid SF readers may know the late David G. Hartwell (10 July 1941–20 January 2016) as one of Tor Books’ senior editors. Or perhaps he may be familiar as the editor and co-editor (with Kathryn Cramer) of Year’s Best SF and Years Best Fantasy, not to mention many other themed anthologies. They might be aware of his role with the New York Review of Science Fiction. Con-goers might well remember his striking fashion sense. His technicolor shirts, waistcoats, and jackets were of eye-searing brilliance and contrast.

Thanks to Asimov’s repeated admonitions that editors matter, I began at an early age to pay attention to the humans responsible for the books I consumed en masse. When I knew which editors were behind the works I liked, I would follow them from company to company. Thus I first became aware of Hartwell as the person behind Pocket Books’ remarkable Timescape imprint1.

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Fighting Erasure: Women SF Writers of the 1970s, Part VII

At this stage of James’ Tour of Disco-Era Women SF Authors, we have reached M. Certain letters are deficient in authors whose surnames begin with that particular letter. Not so M. There is an abundance of authors whose surnames begin with M. Perhaps an excess. In fact, there are more authors named Murphy than the authors I listed whose names begin with I. Efforts to address this, by providing authors with exciting new initials, perhaps involving the exclamation mark or ampersand, have thus far been greeted with something less than enthusiasm by the powers-that-be.

For readers who have just joined the tour: there are several previous instalments in this series, covering women writers published in the 1970s with last names beginning with A through F, those beginning with G, those beginning with H, those beginning with I & J, those beginning with K, and those beginning with L.

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Tugging on Superman’s Cape: Simple Suggestions for Avoiding World-Destroying Disaster. Or Not.

There are, I think, a few basic safety rules which, if consistently ignored, will almost always provide would-be adventurers with sufficient diversion to create an exciting plot.

Rule number one: do not engage in archaeology. Do not fund archaeology. Above all, do not free that which has been carefully entombed. In most SF and fantasy settings, there were good reasons for entombment…and they still hold.

Indiana Jones did not manage to keep the Nazis from grabbing the Ark of the Covenant. No, the Ark protected itself. As you can see…

[Let’s consider *not* unearthing unspeakable cosmic evil, this time…]

Fighting Erasure: Women SF Writers of the 1970s, Part VI

Once more we venture into the 1970s, this time to celebrate women who debuted between 1970 and 1979 and whose surnames begin with the letter L.

The five previous instalments of the series cover women writers with last names beginning with A through F, those beginning with Gthose beginning with H, those beginning with I & J, and those beginning with K.

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Halfway to Nowhere: On Enjoying the Narrative Journey

Like so many other readers, I am frustrated by interminable series that never end. I complain. Loudly. Publicly. In print (well, HTML). I do this because it’s the right thing to do. I may have a twinkling of a hope that some authors will wake up and conclude their series. But that hope is as long-lived as a firefly. Alas.

I do make an exception for works in which the destination is never the point, in which the goal is simply to enjoy the journey.

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Fighting Erasure: Women SF Writers of the 1970s, Part IV

Another few weeks, another foray into the world of women authors of the 1970s. This time, my subject is women SF writers whose names begin with I or J and who debuted in the 1970s¹. There also three previous instalments in this series, covering women writers with last names beginning with A through F, those beginning with G, and those beginning with H.

This week’s instalment is short due to a peculiarity of (primarily) Anglophone surnames that I notice every time I look at my bookshelves. For some reason, there aren’t many authors whose surnames begin with I or J. When one filters by debut date, the resulting set is downright tiny. I once suggested to a publisher that they rename some of their authors so the distribution of surnames by initial was more equitable, but I fear this was greeted with the same lack of enthusiasm as my suggestion that all editors be ear-tagged to make voting on the Best Editor Hugo more convenient for me. Progress is hard.

Still, “not many” is not “none.”

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Why the Hell Are These Books Out of Print?

About two years ago, I reviewed Raphael Carter’s The Fortunate Fall. I could not add a link that would allow readers to purchase the book because as far as I could tell, The Fortunate Fall has been out of print for more than twenty years. I was astounded because I had the impression that the book was warmly regarded. The evidence suggests it was warmly regarded by a small number of very vocal fans1.

I tend to expect that many others will love the same books that I do. I have been proved wrong again and again. Books that I love are not reprinted. Even in this era of ebooks, all but a few lucky books come forth like flowers and wither: they slip away like shadows and do not endure. Ah, the sorrows of the reader!

Not to mention the author….

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Talkin’ ‘Bout My G-G-Generation (Ships)

When it comes to crossing the vast gulfs between the solar system and other stellar systems, SF writers turn to two main solutions: small and fast1 or big and slow. Perhaps the best known example of big and slow is the generation ship, large enough to qualify as a large town or even a small nation, slow enough that entire lives will be consumed getting to its destination.

Generation ships live in that delightful overlap between seemingly practical and nearly certain to inflict lives of deprivation and misery on their inhabitants. You might wonder what sort of person imagines the immiseration of many many others. SF authors do. Misery is drama. Generation ships offer so very much drama.

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Climbing Mount Tsundoku: On Acquiring More Books Than It’s Possible to Read

One of my little projects last year was something I modestly called “Twenty Core [Subgenre] Speculative Fiction Works Every True SF Fan Should Have On Their Shelves.” Reading is a huge part of my life. Thanks to my freakish cognitive architecture, I read quickly, and thanks to the fact I am as gregarious as a stylite, I have the time to read prodigiously. Putting together the core lists was an amusing application of my resources and yet in amongst all the lists, readers found Twenty Core Speculative Fiction Works It May Surprise You To Learn I Have Not Yet Read Every True SF Fan Should Have On Their Shelves.

It’s worse than that list may at first appear. Not only have I not read any of the books on the list, despite the fact that I’ve owned copies of a number of the books in question since their first publication, but that list is only the tip of the iceberg—only the first twenty examples that came to mind. I am not engaging in a highly inefficient attempt to better insulate my library. I always intend to read books when I buy them. At the same time, I do have a faint, primordial consciousness that time is finite and that I am limited to about 180,000 words of fiction a day[1] and sufficient rudimentary math skills to work out that if I acquire more than 180,000 words of prose a day, then some of those words won’t get read that day. They might not ever get read. Poor sad, unread words…

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