Speculating

Coloured contour map of Mars (NASA image)

“But what would you do if the doctor gave you only six months to live?”
Asimov: “Type faster”

It’s a truism that fiction, but more particularly what’s called speculative fiction, tries to answer the question “What if?” A speculum is, after all, a mirror or reflective glass, and looking in one gives the viewer an image of reality — but it is not in itself reality, because what is seen is reversed, or distorted, or limited by the frame.

I recently did some notes for other participants on a Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction module run by Aberystwyth University for a creative writing course, and offer it here in the hopes this basic discussion, with links to my reviews and some external sites, may prove helpful for any others yet to sample the genre.

Note that it doesn’t claim to be comprehensive or exhaustive, or even authoritative; I have nevertheless slightly rejigged the original text to suit a different audience.

There is, as with all specialist areas, much disagreement, even controversy, as to what to call the genre, what to include in it, and so on. All I’ve done is to take the outline for the course and add a brief commentary.

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All we survey

Neptune (NASA image)

John Dickinson: We
David Fickling Books 2010

I found this an utterly gripping novel, especially after the slow and steady start signalled by its opening:

He had asked to be alone when he woke. After all, he had reasoned, from now on he would always be alone.

But are we really, truly alone? Will there be, though we may not be aware of the fact, someone else? Are we, like Cowper’s Alexander Selkirk, wrong in our assumptions that we are monarchs of all we survey, that we’re “out of humanity’s reach” and must finish our “journey alone” even at the edge of space?

This issue is at the heart of this novel, questions about Earth’s uniqueness as a cradle for life. And if there is life ‘out there’, what form will it take?

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Quick and quirky guide

Gibbous moon of Jupiter, Europa (NASA image)
Gibbous moon of Jupiter, Europa (NASA image)

Paul Wake, Steve Andrews and Ariel, editors
Waterstone’s Guide to
Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror

Series editor Nick Rennison
Waterstone’s Booksellers 1998

Although getting a bit outdated now (the Waterstones apostrophe, dropped to howls from purists early in 2012, is still there in its full glory) this is a ready reference giving a flavour of the range of authors and works in the three genres. It’s not exhaustive of course — no work could be, especially in these ever-popular genres — but I find it useful to dip into for a quick and often quirky summary of an author new to me. As such it fulfils the aim outlined in the introduction, to answer the question (and variants of it) that staff are frequently asked: “I’ve read Tolkien [or some other big name]. What should I try next?” While of necessity slewed to the UK market as it was in the late 20th century it tries to be as comprehensive as is practical in its 200-odd pages; and, while it’s a mystery why it hasn’t since been reissued in revised editions, I shall be keeping this copy on my shelves for a little while longer.

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Grendel’s galactic mother

Cetus, Perseus and Andromeda, from a Corinthian vase (Wikipedia Commons)
Cetus, Perseus and Andromeda, from a Corinthian vase (Wikipedia Commons)

Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes
The Legacy of Heorot
Sphere Books 1988 (1987)

A recent skim through this — I first read and reviewed it in 2001 — confirms what a rich novel this was, from its maps by Alexis Walser to the apt literary quotes as chapter headings, and from its scientific premises to its broader and occasionally more dubious environmental messages. As always there is so much one could say, but a short review will have to focus on a few points that particularly intrigued me.

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A novel of its time

Bussard Ramjet, NASA image: Wikipedia Commons
Bussard Ramjet, NASA image: Wikipedia Commons

Poul Anderson Tau Zero
Gollancz SF Masterworks 2006 (1970)

A few centuries hence fifty specialists, twenty five of either gender, set out on a journey to the star Beta Virginis to colonise a new planet. Their transport is the Leonora Christine, an interstellar spaceship powered by a Bussard ramjet, capable of accelerating to near light speed (tau zero). Just before their halfway point, while still accelerating, disaster strikes with damage to the propulsion, meaning that the craft will continue its acceleration and not only miss its target but potentially never stop. How do the crew cope, and do they survive?

James Blish is quoted as having judged this “the ultimate hard science fiction novel”, and though we now know that much of the technology, especially the ramjet propulsion, has been either discredited or outdated since the book version was published in 1970 (it was based on Anderson’s earlier short story called To Outlive Eternity), there is certainly a lot of science in it; not surprising as Anderson was a physics graduate before he turned to fiction. More recently, Continue reading “A novel of its time”