content by

James Davis Nicoll

Six Stories That Find the Drama in Utopian Settings

Imagine a nightmarish future in which the essentials of life are ruthlessly supplied to all—one where each citizen is brutally denied the cliffhanging entertainment of recurrent life-and-death crises, and where there is not even a single genetically engineered hyper-intelligent carnivorous flightless parrot roaming daycare facilities. Benevolent providence has so far protected us from such hellishly stable futures, but it cannot prevent authors from imagining them. But once such utopias are imagined, how is the poor author to squeeze an interesting story out of a world lacking everything that makes life precious (as well as precarious)?

I recently reviewed a series in which this challenge was successfully met and found myself wondering how other authors have handled the problem. Here are a few such works—doubtless there are more, which readers may feel free to suggest in comments.

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Five Ways Science Has Made the Solar System a More Interesting Place

It may sometimes seem as if science does nothing but harsh SF’s vibe: “No stealth in space,” “Mars is nigh-impossible to terraform with on-site resources,” “relativity and its speed of light limit has stood up to eleven plus decades of intense testing,” and “all getting bitten by a radioactive spider does is raise a small welt and give one a very slightly increased chance of cancer.” BUT…science gives as well as takes. Here are five examples of ways in which the Solar System as we currently understand it is way more awesome than the Solar System of my youth.

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John Varley’s Returns to Eight Worlds: Irontown Blues

John Varley’s Irontown Blues is the third volume in a loosely connected trilogy set in one version of his Eight Worlds . The first two books of the series are 1992’s Steel Beach and 1998’s The Golden Globe. In the years since The Golden Globe saw print, Varley has published one full quartet of novels, plus two standalone novels and at least three short stories . There was, however, no appearance of the promised Irontown Blues, which led a few readers to mutter darkly . In the meantime, one author was inspired to try his hand at an Eight Worlds-style story; have fun guessing who.

Now, the long wait is over.

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How to Make a Near-Utopia Interesting: John Varley’s Eight World Stories

Between 1974 and 1980, John Varley wrote thirteen stories and one novel in the classic Eight Worlds setting. These worlds do not include Earth, which has been seized by aliens. Humans on the Moon and Mars survived and prospered. Humans have spread across the Solar System (with the exception of alien-owned Jupiter and Earth). The human past has been marked by a calamitous discontinuity (the Invasion and the struggle to survive the aftermath), but their present is, for the most part, technologically sophisticated, peaceful, stable, and prosperous.

Peace and prosperity sound like they’re good things, but perhaps not for authors. What kind of plots can be imagined if the standard plot drivers are off the table? How does one tell stories in a setting that, while not a utopia, can see utopia at a distance ? The premise seems unpromising, but thirteen stories and a novel argue that one can write absorbing narratives in just such a setting. So how did Varley square this particular circle?

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Doing the Math: Aliens and Advanced Tech in Science Fiction

Everyone loves them some aliens. But …if the encounter is to work out to the satisfaction of all concerned, it is best if the aliens not be too advanced (because they could brush us aside like ants) or too primitive (we might brush them aside like ants). No, there’s a Goldilocks zone for aliens, in which they are close to the same tech level as humans … and can interact peaceably with us.

Which leads me to wonder: just how likely is it that two unconnected civilizations could reach the same technological level (roughly) at the same time?

Time for some large, round numbers.

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Who Are the Forgotten Greats of Science Fiction?

Time is nobody’s friend. Authors in particular can fall afoul of time—all it takes is a few years out of the limelight. Publishers will let their books fall out of print; readers will forget about them. Replace “years” with “decades” and authors can become very obscure indeed.

The Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award was founded in 2001 to draw attention to unjustly forgotten SF authors. It is a juried award; the founding judges were Gardner Dozois, Robert Silverberg, Scott Edelman, and John Clute. The current judges are Elizabeth Hand, Barry N. Malzberg, Mike Resnick, and Robert J. Sawyer1.

I wish the award were more widely known, that it had, perhaps, its own anthology. If it did, it might look a bit like this. Who are the winners? Why should you care about them? I am so happy I pretended you asked. In order of victory, from 2001 to 2018:

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Science Fiction’s Trouble with Terraforming

My foray through Lois McMaster Bujold’s backlist on my site—a foray nowhere near as detailed as Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer’s ongoing reread—reached Komarr recently. One of the elements of the setting impressed me: Bujold’s handling of the centuries-long effort to terraform the planet.

Terraforming is, of course, the hypothesized art of converting an uninhabitable rock into a habitable world. Jack Williamson coined the term in his Seetee-related short story, “Collision Orbit”, published under the pen name Will Stewart in the July, 1942 issue of Astounding Magazine. While Williamson invokes non-existent super-science in order to make the task seem doable, he probably felt confident that terraforming would someday make sense. In the short run, we have seen humans shaping the Earth. In the long run—well, Earth was once an anoxic wasteland. Eons of life shaped it into a habitable planet. Williamson suspected that humans could imitate that process elsewhere…and make it happen in centuries rather than eons. Perhaps in even less time!

Other SF authors picked up the notion and ran with it. It had become clear that Mars and Venus were hellworlds, not the near-Earths of earlier planetary romances. Perhaps the planetary romance could be recuperated if Mars and Venus could be terraformed? And if we made it out of the solar system and found a bunch of new inhospitable planets… well, we could fix those, too.

Back in the 1970s, SF fans could read reassuring articles like Jerry Pournelle’s “The Big Rain,” which proposed terraforming Venus. Invest a hundred billion dollars (half a trillion in modern dollars) and wait a couple of decades. Voila! A habitable planet. We’d be stupid not to do it!

[Of course, it’s never as easy in real life as it is in the SF magazines]

SF Books That Did Not Belong in the Kids’ Section of the Library

Back when I was young, SF was a comparatively obscure genre. Many librarians assumed that it was all kid stuff, and filed it as such. Consequence: I was allowed to check out and read books that would otherwise have been considered totally inappropriate for young kids1. Which is not to say I didn’t benefit from reading some of those books, but I am pretty sure that if my librarians and teachers2 had had any idea what those books were, they would have been aghast. (Possibly two ghasts!)

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Six Characters With Whom You Should Never, Ever Go Camping

Perseids Watch is an annual foray out to the unmapped wilds of New Dundee, Ontario, there to observe the Perseid meteor show. This year’s Watch has just passed for another year, and without any more mysterious disappearances in the course of the event.

The chances that you or someone close to you will vanish into the wilderness are even greater if you are a fictional character. Particularly a secondary character (known in the SF field as a redshirt). If you are, you should definitely read the following essay, which discusses the protagonists with whom you should never, under any circumstances, go camping. They will survive. You probably won’t.

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When Will SF Learn to Love the Tachyon Rocket?

Readers of a certain age may remember the excitement stirred up when various physicists proposed to add a third category of matter to:

  • A. matter with zero rest mass (which always travels at the speed of light), and
  • B. matter with rest mass (which always travels slower than light).

Now there’s C: matter whose rest mass is imaginary. For these hypothetical particles—tachyons—the speed of light may be a speed minimum, not a speed limit.

Tachyons may offer a way around that pesky light-speed barrier, and SF authors quickly noticed the narrative possibilities. If one could somehow transform matter into tachyons, then faster-than-light travel might be possible.

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Not On Your Life: Six Means of SF Transportation I Would Not Use

I was lucky enough to grow up in an age when people weren’t as worried about safety. Especially transportation safety. That’s why:

  • I remember the brief glorious moment of flight when jumping an old beater car over a railway crossing, followed by the thud when the engine falls out on touchdown;
  • I know the exact sound of a windscreen and face collision after an abrupt stop;
  • I know how fast a VW Beetle has to take a corner before the kid riding the running board flies off;
  • I can boast of walking four miles through a blizzard after breaking four ribs in a mid-winter car wreck.

It was a glorious time to be alive.

Science fiction offers even more exotic transportation choices—choices that even I would avoid. Here are six of them.

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A Survey of Some of the Best Science Fiction Ever Published (Thanks to Judy-Lynn Del Rey)

The 2010s and the 1970s are similar in many ways: questionable fashion choices1, U.S. presidents under investigation, Canadian prime ministers named Trudeau, the possibility that nuclear tensions might flare up at any moment. The two decades share something else, as well: during both of these decades, it became easier to discover classic SF. In the modern era, we are seeing ebook reprints mining the output of the past. In the 1970s, we had paper reprints, such as the variously titled Ballantine (or Del Rey) Classic Library of Science Fiction.

As with Timescape Books, the Classic series was largely due to the astute market sense of one editor. In this case, the editor was Judy-Lynn del Rey (she may have had an occasional assist from husband Lester2). Under her guidance, Ballantine and later the imprint that bore her name became a signifier of quality; readers like me turned to her books whenever we had the cash3. The Classic Library of Science Fiction helped to firmly establish the Del Rey publishing house.

Each volume collected the best short stories of a well-known SF or fantasy author. I’m discussing a slew of authors in this essay—alphabetized, because trying to list them in chronological order proved unexpectedly complicated.

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Fighting Erasure: Women SF Writers of the 1980s, Part I

The number of women active in SF continued to grow in the 1980s, despite pushback that ranged from angry tirades to attempts to erase women from SF history. One can get a sense of the trend by comparing the master lists of woman authors that I have compiled: Women authors who debuted in the 1970s: five pages. Women authors who debuted in the 1980s: sixteen pages.

There was a time when it was possible for a single person to read everything in the field. That changed in the late 1970s and 1980s; more publishers, more titles published. The upside: readers with particular genre tastes were more likely to find something they liked. The downside: it became easier for authors to suffer the mid-list death spiral and vanish.

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

Welcome to the final instalment of Women SF Writers of the 1970s! In this piece, we look at women who debuted in the 1970s whose surnames begin with T, U, V, W, X, Y and Z (which I pronounce Zed.) Also, there are no women who debuted in the 1970s whose surnames began with U or Z (of whom I am aware).

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 K, those beginning with L, those beginning with M, those beginning with N, O, and P and those beginning with R and S.

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