content by

James Davis Nicoll

Imaginary Space Programs Are Always Better Than Reality (But Reality Is Pretty Amazing)

Yuri’s Night approaches. With it comes the inevitable cloud-shouting from persons my age about all the space habitats and Moon colonies we were promised and currently don’t have. Hold on, guys…some of this discontent might go away if we adopted a different perspective.

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SFF Books That Are Hard to Track Down in North America

One might expect that, in this globalized world, noteworthy books in one region would soon attract publishers elsewhere, especially in regions that happen to share a language. Not so. In the case of the United States and the United Kingdom, for example, some books are published only in the UK, others only in the US. 

It can be frustrating to have heard of an interesting book, to want to read that book, and to find that it is available ONLY in an imported edition. Well, at least it’s available (failing a breakdown in global trade networks, and how likely is that)…but it may take longer to get the book and the book may be more expensive.

You may be wondering why I am vexed about this. Allow me to list a few books that I wanted to acquire and that were not available in North American editions, as far as I can tell.

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Exploring the Four Types of Portal Narratives

Local bookstore and cultural icon Words Worth Books were in the midst of renovations when they were surprised to discover a door—a door no one had known was there! Now, the bookstore has been at 96 King Street South, Waterloo for more than thirty-five years, which makes one wonder when and how this door was constructed (or arrived).

As anyone who reads science fiction and fantasy can tell you, life is full of doors like that: appearing unexpectedly, leading to unexpected places. Other worlds, other times. Narnia. An alien planet. The Bronze Age.

Imagine finding the door into Sumer.

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Another One of Them New Worlds: Revisiting Forbidden Planet

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: A United Planets starship manned (we’ll get back to that) by an elite crew, on a multi-year mission at the borders of explored space, arrives at a seemingly desolate planet. They very quickly discover the planet is not quite as desolate as it seems; there’s something there that may endanger the ship.

Sounds like an episode of the week for Paramount’s beloved SF television franchise. Nope! It’s…

[Forbidden Planet!]

Classic SF Radio Dramas to Engage Your Imagination

You can have your Star Treks, your X-Files and your Expanses. I prefer my SF dramas on radio, partly because I was raised on CBC Radio, BBC World Service and CKMS, and partly because (as Stan Freberg pointed out) radio’s visual effects are so convincing. We live in a golden age of online archives; many of the classic anthology-style science fiction shows are online. That said, not all radio shows are created equal.

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Five Massive SFF Books to Read While You’re Social-Distancing

Imagine for the moment one had to spend some period—maybe fourteen days, to pick a random example—in isolation. How on Earth could one fill all that time? Yes, yes: cat videos. Of course. But let us pretend that we might want to crack open a book or two. Let us further imagine (just to make this more difficult) that we cannot go online and grab ebooks hither and yon. If we were stockpiling physical copies of books, what books might we stockpile that would keep us amused for a long, long time?

[Here are five suggestions, to start…]

Not Rocket Science: SF Stories Involving Alternatives to Space Rocketry

Suppose one is a science fiction writer; further suppose that one wishes to depict delivery of a payload from point A to a point B across the vast gulfs of space. The obvious solution is to put the payload into a rocket. That’s not the only solution, however, and often it’s not the most appropriate one. Here are five somewhat plausible alternatives that authors have used to sidestep the inherent limitations of rockets. (I have previously discussed convenient wormhole networks. Consider it done. Or possibly due for a revisit.)

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SF Stories Where Humanity Has Abandoned Earth

Space colonization stories are a subgenre of SF. Space colonization stories in which the Earth has become a backwater world, cut off from thriving colony planets, are a thriving sub-subgenre.

At first glance, this seems odd. Earth is rich in resources and offers humans a shirt-sleeve environment. Why wouldn’t it continue to be the leader of the pack?

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Five SFF Novels Set in the Much-Maligned City of Toronto

Canada is a vast and diverse nation. Different regions have different customs and habits, not to mention differences of opinion (political and otherwise) with other regions. But they share one sentiment: Canadians generally hate Toronto. It may seem odd that a country would dislike its largest, most diverse city, a city in which one in twelve Canadians resides, a community that is responsible for one-fifth of the national economy and much of our cultural wealth, and even odder that Ontarians join in, given that the Ontario economy would collapse like a rotted fruit without Toronto, but there it is: Toronto-phobia.

[But not every Canadian SFF writer suffers from this affliction…]

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Heist

Speaking of heists…

Once there was a goal-oriented criminal named Parker, a determined, friendless crook who let nothing and no one stop him. Parker was the sort of protagonist whom a hardworking author like Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake writing under a pen name) could feature in book after book.

The Hot Rock would have been the thirteenth book in the Parker series…but the plot didn’t work as a Parker novel. The plot wanted to be funny. The deadly serious Parker was a poor fit for a comedic novel. A different protagonist was needed.

[Thus was born one of the great characters of heist fiction…]

Crimes, Capers, and Gentleman Thieves: 5 Must-Read SFF Heist Novels

Heist stories always seem so straightforward at the beginning. All that stands between our protagonists and possession of whatever it is they covet or require is a team with the right skills, a plan so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a fox, and a bit of concerted effort. What could possibly go wrong? And yet, something always does.

It doesn’t matter if the heist takes place in a mundane world or a science fiction world or a fantasy world. There are always complications…because otherwise, where’s the fun?

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Five SF Stories About Teleportation Systems Gone Awry

Some hundred years ago, visionary hydroelectric pioneer Adam Beck proposed a grand scheme for electrically powered trains that would service the city of Berlin, now Kitchener, Ontario’s transit needs, as well as those of outlying communities. Such is the blinding speed at which modern society moves that scarcely a century later, something akin to a much-reduced version of Beck’s proposal became reality in the form of Waterloo Region’s Ion Light Rail System. For the most part the Ion is perfectly functional, some curiously patron-hostile stops aside, but an unexpected emergent property of the system very quickly became apparent: Kitchener-Waterloo drivers are terrible at noticing train-sized objects. You’d think a massive, whale-sized object bearing down on your car would draw attention … but apparently not. (As I type, the system celebrates its first twocollision day, within hours of each other and only blocks apart. Happily, no one involved in these car-vs-Ion accidents was seriously injured.)

Anyone who has read A. J. Deutsch’s 1950 short, “A Subway Named Möbius” could have predicted that something unexpected would happen.

[This is doubly true for teleportation-based transit systems.]

Five SF Precursors to Murderbot

One benefit of being a reviewer is that one receives an incoming tide of upcoming books. The only downside (and it’s minor) is the convention that one waits until publication looms before actually reviewing advanced reader copies. Which gets us to the gem pictured above, which is currently in my in-box: Network Effect, slated publication date: 05-05-2020. Truly, my self-control in not immediately reading this book is heroic.

While Murderbot is very much their own character, they are part of a long tradition in science fiction: artificial persons designed to make humanity’s life easier by doing all the hard and dangerous work for them. The expectation is that the created beings will be so grateful for having been created that they won’t mind slavery. Many artificial persons have indeed served with unquestioning loyalty. Others, however, have shared Murderbot’s frustration with being compelled to serve squishy, foolish humans. Here are five of a large number of possible examples:

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Classic SF Works Set on Futuristic Space Habitats

In 1974, Gerard K. O’Neill’s paper “The Colonization of Space” kicked off what ultimately proved to be a short-lived fad for imagining space habitats. None were ever built, but the imagined habitats are interesting as techno dreams that, like our ordinary dreams, express the anxieties of their time .

They were inspired by fears of resource shortages (as predicted by the Club of Rome), a population bomb, and the energy crisis of the early 1970s. They were thought to be practical because the American space program, and the space shuttle, would surely provide reliable, cheap access to space. O’Neill proposed that we could avert soaring gas prices, famines, and perhaps even widespread economic collapse by building cities in space. Other visionaries had proposed settling planets; O’Neill believed it would be easier to live in space habitats and exploit the resources of minor bodies like the Earth’s Moon and the asteroids.

Interest in O’Neill’s ideas waned when oil prices collapsed and the shuttle was revealed to have explosive flaws. However, the fad for habitats lasted long enough to inspire a fair number of novels featuring O’Neill-style habitats. Here are some of my favourites.

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