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James Davis Nicoll

Five SFF Stories Involving Secretly Supernatural Beings

Neighbours! Fine people, right up to the moment when they are overcome by xenophobia and assemble in a large mob (shouty), all too well supplied with torches (lit) and implements (agricultural). Of course, not all people are prone to hateful prejudice and fear against outsiders. Some might go the other way, lavishing unwanted adoration and attention on unusual people. It’s awkward either way, which is reason enough for some folks to carefully conceal their true nature.  Such as these five…

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Five More Massive Works of SFF to Add to Your Must-Read Pile

Are we having fun with the lockdown yet? Some of you may live, like me, in a region where our pal COVID-19 seems to be under control—or you may be trapped in some dire realm where it is not. Yet, for even those of us who are momentarily spared, respite may prove temporary—it’s always best to stay safe and plan for the possibility of continued isolation. That suggests that it would be prudent to add to your personal Mount Tsundoku, preferably with tomes weighty enough to keep one occupied through weeks of isolation and tedium.  Omnibuses could be the very thing!  Below are five examples…

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Rediscover These Five Collections of Classic SF

Time erodes. Time erodes author reputations. When new books stop appearing, old readers forget a once favorite author and new readers may never encounter writers who were once well known.

It’s fortunate that we live in something of a golden age of reprints, whether physical books or ebooks. This is also the golden age of finding long-out-of-print books via online used book services. Now authors perhaps unjustly forgotten can reach new readers. I’ve been reminded of a few such authors; let me share a few of them with you.

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Five Strategies for Hiding a “Lost” Civilization

Suppose for the moment that one is a science fiction or fantasy author, and further suppose that one wanted to posit a past great civilization whose existence comes as a complete surprise to modern folk. Let us also suppose that one wanted overlooking this lost civilization to be plausible… How might one go about this?

I’d tend to reject the “a secretive cabal always knew but kept it secret” explanation. People gossip. People love to show off their insider knowledge. People sometimes accidentally cut and paste entire sections of texts they’d really rather the world not know about into their tweets. Even valuable trade secrets tend to leak out given enough time. So where to hide a lost civilization? Here are five possibilities, to be used together or in concert.

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A Brief History of the Megastructure in Science Fiction

I was recently reminded of the golden age of megastructure stories. As this is not yet commonly accepted genre shorthand, perhaps a definition is in order.

Megastructures are not necessarily simple. In fact, most of them have rather sophisticated infrastructure working away off-stage preventing the story from being a Giant Agglomeration of Useless Scrap story. What they definitely are is large. To be a megastructure, the object needs to be world-sized, at least the volume of a moon and preferably much larger. Megastructures are also artificial. Some…well, one that I can think of but probably there are others…skirt the issue by being living artifacts but even there, they exist because some being took steps to bring them into existence.

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Five Doomed Armies in Science Fiction

As previously mentioned, July 1 is Canada Day. There being only 365 (sometimes 366) days in a year, date-space collisions are inevitable. On July 1, two major events in Canadian history collide, one happy, one sad. The sad: on July 1, 1916, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment took part in the Battle of the Somme. 780 men went into combat. 68 showed up for roll call the following day. Having one’s signature regiment annihilated to bring an unpleasant war to a swift end would be tragic enough, but in this particular case, the geniuses running the war on both Allied and Central Power sides managed to drag out the carnage for another two years. The loss of the cream of a generation had consequences for Newfoundland that echoed for decades, not least of which was their eventual merger into Canada. Which is to say, July 1 isn’t as jolly a day in Newfoundland as it is in other parts of Canada.

Armies sacrificed for no obvious purpose and meaningless wars are not entirely unknown in speculative fiction. Here are five examples from that golden age of such stories, the Vietnam War era, and its literary aftermath.

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Five SFF Books to Help You Celebrate Canada Day!

Today is Canada Day, which celebrates the creation on July 1st, 1867 of that single Dominion known as Canada, from the separate colonies of the Province of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. July 1st, 1867 is just one of a surprising number of occasions on which Canada became a sovereign nation, sorta-kinda, but it is the date that won the national holiday.

To commemorate the event, here are five Canadian novels for your reading pleasure.

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Intriguing SFF Works Awaiting English Translations

I am monolingual, which limits me to reading works in English. One of the joys of this modern, interconnected world in which we’re living is that any speculative fiction work written in another language could (in theory) be translated into English. One of my frustrations is that, generally speaking, they haven’t been. Here are five works about which I know enough to know that I’d read them if only they were translated.

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Five SFF Stories That Prove You Can Never Go Home Again

To quote Princess Leia, sometimes you cannot go home again. Why this might be varies from story to story… Perhaps home is unrecognizable, or has vanished entirely. Perhaps you yourself have been changed and can no longer fit in as you did in the past. Whatever the reason behind this particular experience of alienation, it is fodder for engaging stories. You might enjoy these five examples.

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Five SFF Works Inspired by RPGs

In the beginning was Tolkien…and wargaming and historical reenactment and other ingredients in the gallimaufry that made Dungeons & Dragons. D&D inspired other TTRPGs (tabletop role-playing games), which in turn inspired yet more novels, movies, comics, and other media. (Of course, others have written at length about D&D’s cultural influence—you may want to take a look here and here for further reading).

Herewith, some works with RPG DNA: works that you may not know and may like, featuring the now familiar teams of skilled adventurers—don’t call them murder hobos—using their diverse skill set to solve problems. Usually by stabbing them.

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Planets on the Move: SF Stories Featuring World-Ships

Recently, we discussed science fiction stories about naturally occurring rogue worlds; there is, of course, another sort of wandering planet. That would be the deliberately-impelled variety, featured in stories in which ambitious travellers take an entire world along with them. This approach has many obvious advantages, not the least of which is that it greatly simplifies pre-flight packing. This spectacular notion has appealed to SF writers for nearly a hundred years; perhaps the first instance is to be found in Edmund Hamilton’s 1934 “Thundering Worlds,” in which every planet in the system is propelled across the interstellar gulf to escape a dying Sun. (As usual, if you know of an earlier publication, let us all know in the comments.)

Here are some further examples of the wandering world in print and/or film.

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How to Recover From Reader’s Block

Towards the end of 2019, a well-regarded essayist expressed dissatisfaction with the current state of the SF novel. He went so far as to confidently assert, “I stopped reading novels last year. I think you did too.” Sweeping assertions are often wrong. This one is definitely wrong, at least where I am concerned.

What may have sparked his comment is burnout, of the form that might be called “reader’s block.” You want to read something, but can find nothing specific you want to read. I think most of us who read extensively have been there.

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Five SF Stories That Mix Swords and Starships

Inspired by an engaging time-filler meme on social media , my thoughts returned to that venerable roleplaying game Traveller, profiled on 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?

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