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? 🙂


How others see us (literary agent edition)

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2011

The aspiring writers in the audience may already be aware of QueryShark. If you’re not, you should be; few things teach more effectively in a creative field like writing (in my experience at least) than having a selection of negative examples to hold up against the positives, and QueryShark offers anonymous eviscerations of query letters that’ll show you how to do it properly. Or at least how not to do it properly, which is almost as useful.

But I mention QueryShark today for a different reason, namely one of the rarer successful queries. First, here’s the query sans critique:

Part warm body, part social chameleon, fourths have become an accepted part of the commuting landscape. Every highway in the newly-invigorated Detroit is restricted to four-passenger cars, Carpools that come up short must either take surface streets through dangerous neighborhoods or hire extra riders to fill their cars.

It’s an easy way to earn some extra cash–or to end up dead. Someone is killing fourths and the only one who seems to care is burnt-out homicide cop Francis LaCroix, who moonlights as a fourth himself.

LaCroix discovers the dead fourths are terrorists sabotaging the highways, causing horrific crashes. Worse, his own nephew may be involved in the plot. With both careers on the line, LaCroix needs a shot at redemption, but continuing the investigation paints a target on his family and leaves the terrorists free to strike again. Suddenly, he isn’t so sure bringing the killer to justice is the right thing to do.

Sounds interesting, right? Here’s how the writer capped it off:

TAKING THE HIGHWAY,a science fiction novel, is complete at 93,000 words.

And here the bit of the agent’s response I’m interested in:

This isn’t science fiction. And I’d STRONGLY urge you to not call it science fiction even if you think it is.  There’s a lot of room for cross-over into crime fiction here, and by calling it science fiction you might miss an agent who doesn’t handle SF but would read this.   Like…me.

OK – that book as laid out in that query is definitely science fiction, even if only by the old Damon Knight “what I point to when I say it” rule of thumb. It’s set in a speculative future, for goodness’ sake; it may be a harsh thing to say, but using a reinvigorated Detroit as your setting puts you firmly into alternate world territory.

What actually I’m interested in here is the chicken-and-egg problem that sf has with mainstream acceptance. There above is a solid query for an interesting science fictional novel… but there also is a warning that calling it such will make it harder to sell. It’s an acknowledgement of industry prejudices, in other words, and the action of an agent who wants to see a good book get bought.

But what I see here is something similar to the way in which female writers feel pressured to write under masculine pseudonyms or use their initials; it’s an invitation that says “OK, look, we think you’ve got the beans to play the game, but you can’t come in wearing that outfit; it’s not that we’ve got anything against it, but, y’know, people will look at you funny…” It’s an enablement of prejudice, in other words, though it’s being done with pure motives.

Just to be clear, this isn’t me getting out my tiny violin and serenading the poor oppressed genre; as mentioned before, I think that’s a counterproductive thing, an entrenchment in one’s own cult of ghettoised victimhood. Nor am I raging at an agent for not understanding what science fiction is, or rather what it can be. But the query response above highlights the very arbitrariness of the distinction between sf and ‘proper’ fiction: in fact, it’s a note for note replaying of the classic “it’s too good to be science fiction!” riff.

So why mention it at all? Because it makes plain that the problem is with the label, not the product. Look at the commenters saying “ooh, I don’t like sc-ifi, but I think I’d love this!” Well, y’know, maybe you would like sci-fi if you read some of it. But you’re not going to do that when it comes with a label that says “sci-fi”. Green eggs and ham, innit?

I’m increasingly starting to think that advocating for science fiction (or even genre in general) is a failed strategy. If you want to conquer that prejudice, you need to start doing it with one book at a time. If labelling your work science fiction will exclude it from a certain venue, then don’t label it; submit it without its convention badge and Beeblebear, and see what happens. Give them a chance to bounce or buy it on its own merits, rather than the connotations of a label that even we fans can’t agree on a definition for.

And then, once they’ve published it, tell all the journalists about how it’s actually a science fiction novel. You’ve got to get inside the building before you set the bomb off, you see… 😉


A new thesis of genre

Paul Raven @ 20-10-2010

Via Jim Van Pelt, here’s an essay from Daniel Abraham wherein he ponders the nature of fiction genres, those flexible, permeable and indistinct categories that we all recognise when we see them… even though we all see them in slightly (or sometimes not-so-slightly) different places. Abraham points out right at the start that his train of thought here is a work in progress, but don’t let that put you off following his reasoning through.

However, I’ll cut to the chase and quote his closing thesis, which chimes strongly with my own thoughts on the short-term fate of science fiction:

If genre fiction is the natural coalescence of similar literary projects in conversation and reaction to one another centered on issues of social anxiety and insecurity, science fiction will see an increasingly esoteric rigorous hard sf following the path of poetry and modern jazz music by appealing to a narrower and narrower audience who are sophisticated in its reading, a swan-song resurgence of nostalgic science fiction recapturing and commenting on the work of the 7os that will die out entirely within a generation, and continued growth in the (oh hell, let’s coin it) Bacigalupean dystopias addressing environmental and political issues.

Individual works will almost certainly buck the trend, but as genre isn’t an individual work but a relationship between them, the body of literature should trend that way.

I think we can already see this happening, to be honest. And while I lack the spare time to sit down and thrash it out into something coherent, I think there’s probably a complementary narrative one can build around the fantasy and horror genres, too: a briefly-booming-then-shrinking hard-core market for inherently nostalgic forms, and a growth market for the new evolutions which graft the traditional tropes onto contemporary issues.

Your thoughts?


Computerising the music critics

Paul Raven @ 15-06-2010

Keeping with today’s vague (and completely unplanned) theme of critical assessments of cultural product, here’s a piece at New Scientist that looks at attempts to create a kind of expert system for music criticism and taxonomy. Well, OK – they’re actually trying to build recommendation engines, but in The Future that’s all a meatbag music critic/curator will really be, AMIRITE*?

So, there’s the melody analysis approach:

Barrington is building software that can analyse a piece of music and distil information about it that may be useful for software trying to compile a playlist. With this information, the software can assign the music a genre or even give it descriptions which may appear more subjective, such as whether or not a track is “funky”, he says.

Before any software can recommend music in this way, it needs to be capable of understanding what distinguishes one genre of music from another. Early approaches to this problem used tricks employed in speech recognition technology. One of these is the so-called mel-frequency cepstral coefficients (MFCC) approach, which breaks down audio into short chunks, then uses an algorithm known as a fast Fourier transform to represent each chunk as a sum of sine waves of different frequency and amplitude.

And then the rhythm analysis approach (which, not entirely surprisingly, comes from a Brazilian university):

Unlike melody, rhythm is potentially a useful way for computers to find a song’s genre, da F. Costa says, because it is simple to extract and is independent of instruments or vocals. Previous efforts to analyse rhythm tended to focus on the duration of notes, such as quarter or eighth-notes (crotchets or quavers), and would look for groups and patterns that were characteristic of a given style. Da F. Costa reasoned that musical style might be better pinpointed by focusing on the probability of pairs of notes of given durations occurring together. For example, one style of music might favour a quarter note being followed by another quarter note, while another genre would favour a quarter note being succeeded by an eighth note.

But there’s a problem with this taxonomy-by-analysis approach:

Barrington, however, believes that assigning genres to entire tracks suffers from what he calls the Bohemian Rhapsody problem, after the 1975 song by Queen which progresses from mellow piano introduction to blistering guitar solo to cod operetta. “For some songs it just doesn’t make sense to say ‘this is a rock song’ or ‘this is a pop song’,” he says.

(Now, doesn’t that remind you of the endless debates over whether a book is science fiction or not? A piece of music can partake of ‘rockness’ and ‘popness’ at the same time, and in varying degrees; I’ve long argued that ‘science fiction’ is an aesthetic which can partaken of by a book, rather than a condition that a book either has or doesn’t have, but it’s not an argument that has made a great deal of impact.)

This analyses of music are a fascinating intellectual exercise, certainly, but I’m not sure that these methods are ever going to be any more successful at taxonomy and recommendation than user-contributed rating and tagging systems… and they’ll certainly never be as efficient in terms of resources expended. And they’ll never be able to assess that most nebulous and subjective of properties, quality

… or will they?

[ * Having just typed this rather flippantly, I am by no means certain that the future role of the critic/curator will be primarily one of recommendation. Will the open playing field offer more opportunity for in-depth criticism that people actually read and engage with for its own sake, or will it devolve into a Klausner-hive of “if you like (X), you’re gonna love (Y)”? ]


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. 🙂


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