Rocket Science: redefining hard science fiction

Paul Raven @ 12-04-2011

If there’s one thing that unites almost all science fiction fans, it’s the enthusiasm with which we challenge, debate and redefine its boundaries, and those of its fecund subspecies. So I expect there’ll be a fair few of you interested to see that Ian Sales has attempted to redefine that most contentious and ill-defined subgenre, “hard” science fiction… and a few more (or perhaps the same few) who’ll be interested to know he’s putting his money (or at least a lot of effort) where his mouth is, and editing an anthology to demonstrate that definition.

Take it away, Mister Sales:

There’s an interesting article here on the Cosmos Magazine website about humanity’s future in space – or rather, lack of a future. Much of the author’s discussion revolves around the limitations placed on rocketry by chemistry. Rocket engines have not substantially changed for almost a century, and that’s because there’s very little that can be done to improve what is, at its most basic, a chemical reaction. The laws of chemistry dictate how much energy that reaction can generate, and those laws are not something that can be changed. This seems counter-intuitive because in so many other areas of science and technology progress is rapid and effective – computing, for example. But, as the author of the piece writes, “In the case of electronics and information systems, we are dealing with soft rules, related to the limits of human ingenuity. In the case of space flight, we are dealing with hard rules, related to the limits of physics and chemistry.”

Science fiction often has to sidestep such “hard rules” in order to tell a story. The aforementioned faster-than-light travel is a good example. The laws of physics are quite clear that the speed of light cannot be exceeded. There are theoretical ways around this, but most are either impossible or unlikely – Alcubierre’s drive, for example, would require more energy than is available in the entire universe.

So perhaps we should consider sf which stays within the boundaries of these hard limits as hard science fiction. Any fiction which requires authorial invention to circumvent these limits would thus be “soft” sf – or whatever other sub-genre its characteristics identify it as, such as space opera.

It’s a fairly simple definition, and – unusually – offers a fairly simple either/or litmus test as opposed to the Damon Knight-esque “you know it when you see it” cop-out. (That said, I’d be disappointed if someone doesn’t manage to come up with an anomalous boundary condition or two!)

And as for the anthology, Rocket Science, you can find the details here on Sales’ blog; he’s looking for non-fiction as well as fiction, too, so lots of opportunity there. Submissions don’t open until August, so dust off the old thinking cap, wot? 🙂


Recommend exemplary cyberpunk fiction for a new anthology

Paul Raven @ 04-03-2010

Cover art for Korean edition of Mirrorshades anthologyWe love our (post?)cyberpunk here at Futurismic, and we’re guessing you probably do, too. So here’s a chance to show off your knowledge of the genre, and aid antipodean anthologist extaordinaire Jonathan Strahan in constructing a new retrospective volume that reassesses cyberpunk’s impact on sf and the world at large – a reflection of the reflections in Chairman Bruce’s Mirrorshades, if you will. [cover of Korean edition of Mirrorshades courtesy Wikipedia]

Everyone who makes a recommendation gets a shout-out in the acknowledgements, too. Take it away, Mr Strahan:

What I am doing now, though, is asking you to recommend your favourite cyberpunk story using my Cyberpunk Fiction Database. I am looking for recommendations for short stories, novels, and anthologies, and am considering any cyberpunk story, no matter when it was published.  I am especially interested in / looking for recommendations for work by women, people of colour and others.  Cyberpunk was mostly a white male phenomenon, but I’m eager to present as full a picture of this important movement as possible. Anyone recommending a story will be acknowledged in the final book. I’ve put some recommendations in myself, just to get things started.  You can see what’s already in the database here.

It would be excellent to see some web-published fiction appear in the final list… and I’d be even more impressed to see something published here at Futurismic make the cut! Someone has already recommended Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s recent offering “Biting The Snake’s Tail”, and I’ll be entering a few more examples myself… but please don’t let that stop you from recommending any other tales – from here or anywhere else – that you feel exemplify this complex and occasionally ill-defined genre. It’ll take a few minutes, and you’ll make some fiction writer somewhere very happy indeed. 🙂

Speaking of cyberpunk, here’s something that drifted serendipitously through my Twitter feed this morning courtesy of BlueTyson: a re-pub of an old essay by Chairman Bruce himself, looking back on cyberpunk from the vantage point of the early nineties. I’m not sure exactly when or where it was originally published (so feel free to let me know in the comments so I can attribute it correctly), but it’s interesting to see how much of what Sterling says still rings true today – try exchanging the word ‘cyberpunk’ for ‘Mundane’, perhaps, or maybe ‘Optimist’:

Human thought itself, in its unprecedented guise as computer software, is becoming something to be crystallized, replicated, made a commodity. Even the insides of our brains aren’t sacred; on the contrary, the human brain is a primary target of increasingly successful research, ontological and spiritual questions be damned. The idea that, under these circumstances, Human Nature is somehow destined to prevail against the Great Machine, is simply silly; it seems weirdly beside the point. It’s as if a rodent philosopher in a lab-cage, about to have his brain bored and wired for the edification of Big Science, were to piously declare that in the end Rodent Nature must triumph.

Anything that can be done to a rat can be done to a human being. And we can do most anything to rats. This is a hard thing to think about, but it’s the truth. It won’t go away because we cover our eyes.

This is cyberpunk.

[…]

Cyberpunk was a voice of Bohemia – Bohemia in the 1980’s. The technosocial changes loose in contemporary society were bound to affect its counterculture. Cyberpunk was the literary incarnation of this phenomenon. And the phenomenon is still growing. Communication technologies in particular are becoming much less respectable, much more volatile, and increasingly in the hands of people you might not introduce to your grandma.

[…]

This generation will have to watch a century of manic waste and carelessness hit home, and we know it. We will be lucky not to suffer greatly from ecological blunders already committed; we will be extremely lucky not to see tens of millions of fellow human beings dying horribly on television as we Westerners sit in our living rooms munching our cheeseburgers. And this is not some wacky Bohemian jeremiad; this is an objective statement about the condition of the world, easily confirmed by anyone with the courage to look at the facts.

These prospects must and should effect our thoughts and expressions and, yes, our actions; and if writers close their eyes to this, they may be entertainers, but they are not fit to call themselves science fiction writers. And cyberpunks are science fiction writers – not a “subgenre” or a “cult,” but the thing itself. We deserve this title and we should not be deprived of it.

And just in case you’re snorting in derision at the uselessness of genre taxonomy, bear in mind that the same thing happens music all the time in. But there’s a reason that genre definitions, as loose and fluid and contentious as they may be, survive: because they’re useful.

Clearly none of this really matters, especially if you’re like me and you prefer to take bands on a case-by-case basis. I can’t say definitively I like post-punk music, because there are bands I love who might meet the specifications, and there are also bands I don’t.

Where labeling music comes in handy is in drawing comparisons, especially in the digital age when it’s far simpler to discover whether you’re really going to enjoy something before actually spending your money on it. Artists frequently stream entire albums in advance of their official drop date, and even after it’s out, one can always sample bits and pieces on file-sharing services like iTunes. And, let’s face it, there’s a whole lot of grey area stuff happening out there, too. Music leaks like the bathroom sink in two consecutive Manhattan apartments a friend of mine has lived in.

Oh, don’t mind me – I’ve been waffling on about the similarities between sf and rock music culture for years, now. 🙂


The fragmentation of science fiction

Paul Raven @ 20-02-2009

Miscellaneous sf novelsio9 picked out an interesting quote the other day; here’s Jacob Wiseman of genre small press Tachyon Books talking to The Rumpus about the fragmentary market for science fiction publishing:

You’ve got all these smaller groups in the field that are no longer able to really talk to each other, so there’s less of a central conversation… You can’t just stick a rocketship on the cover of a book and expect it to sell. That’ll work for the Hard SF readership, but that’s not going to sell thousands of copies. In the 1960s there were only 150 or so books published each year, so it was really possible for a dedicated fan to read 50 to 100 of them. Now, Locus lists something like 2,500 books published in the genre annually. No one can read that much.

Futurismic is quite obviously ‘part of the problem’ here, if you care to see it as a problem (and if you concede that the ‘smaller groups can’t talk to each other’)… and I must confess that I don’t. Indeed, I’ve compared the fragmentation and expansion of sf to the proliferation of rock music subgenres many times before; it may not make things easy for publishers to make money (which is not a good thing) but it produces a panoply of diverse iterations from a basic cultural idea… which is great for the end user because it means that there’s more likely to be something that really flicks your switches (though it may be more difficult to discover than the latest big-name thriller).

If you read Futurismic, I presume you have an interest in what might be described as ‘non-classic’ sf – but do you think the proliferation of subgenres have weakened the core appeal of the genre, or have they just distributed it more widely through multiple cultural structures? [image by yours truly]


Rudy Rucker defines UFO science fiction

Paul Raven @ 02-01-2009

lenticular cloudMaverick mathematician Rudy Rucker is thinking about topics for his next novel, and it looks like UFOs might get a look-in. Partly in response to a recent Loving the Alien column by our very own Mac Tonnies, Rucker is at pains to define the subgenre carefully:

I think we should distinguish between, on the one hand, SF UFO novels and, on the other hand, alien invasion novels along the lines of, say, Greg Bear or Larry Niven. I think, for instance, Neal Stephenson’s recent Anathem, is more of an alien invasion novel, although it’s close to being an SF UFO novel as well.

So, with that distinction made, what should an SF UFO novel contain?

I’d say the essence of an SF UFO novel is point (a) below. Points (b) through (f) all follow from (a).

(a) The novel includes flying saucer alien encounters similar to those described in lowbrow tabloid newspapers, but is neither ignorantly credulous nor mockingly parodistic.
(b) The aliens use a fuzzy technology that might amount to psychic powers. The saucers, in other words, aren’t machines.
(c) The aliens are surreptitiously observing or infiltrating Earth rather than overtly invading—at least for now.
(d) We have some creepy human/alien sex acts.
(e) The aliens aren’t necessarily evil, they may be bringing enlightenment and transcendence.
(f) The aliens might be from somewhere other than a distant planet, that is, they might come from small size scales, from a parallel world, or might be made of some impalpable substance like dark matter.

Part of the game in writing an SF UFO novel is making up scientific reasons why the tabloid-level UFO phenomenon could in fact relate to something real…

As Mac’s essay pointed out, there is a distinct paucity of novels that deal with the UFO phenomenon – maybe 2009 could be the year for a UFO renaissance? [image by sabertasche2]

Hell knows it would make a refreshing change from sexy vampires.


A Bit of a Generation Gap

James Boone Dryden @ 14-11-2008

It’s NaNo time ago, and I’m almost half-way through. I’m on pace with my word count, and things are looking positive.

While on the forums, I came across a particularly interesting thread regarding steampunk – which is coincidental considering Paul’s most recent post. I came to realize that there is a significant difference in my particular mindset on the way in which genre works and the mindset of those who are writing what they deem to be genre. I don’t think it’s necessarily a difference of one’s definition of genre, but a difference in the generation gap that lies between us. To me, such things as steampunk, cyberpunk, and even space opera are things born out of ideology: there was a reactionary, responsive feel to the works that originated these particularly specific sub-genres of speculative fiction. All of that seems to be lost, and there are other who agree (read Jeff and Ann Vandermeer’s anthology Steampunk, which has a foreword by Jess Nevins).

Once you’ve been in the industry as a writer or editor for any length of time, you begin to understand that the industry is both fickle and evolving. Some of it is to preserve the species, and some of it is to appease the public. What I notice in the change of ideology, however, is that it isn’t so much about either of these things as it is a matter of how the writers themselves, begin to become removed of the ideology and more interested in the trappings and the appearance.

What, then, is the ideology of today? What is the theme, the motif, that runs through speculative fiction that very well could produce a new sub-genre in the vein of these greats? Is it New Weird in the style of China Meiville? Is it Mundane SF after Geoff Ryman’s vision? Or is there some beast yet to rise that we haven’t quite caught a glimpse of?


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