Throwback Thursdays: Why the Future Never Gets the SF Right

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

In the January 2012 Tor Newsletter, author Michael Flynn examined the problem of science and technology in far-future sci-fi. He decided, in his own words, “to put a banana in the tailpipe of the engine of progress,” in order to make the world he created more recognizable to those of us here in the present. He explains how the world of his Spiral Arm series works in this blast from the past. Be sure to check back in every other week for more!

In the Lion's Mouth by Michael FlynnBy Michael Flynn

The problem with near-future science fiction is that the fiction is over-taken by events. My novel Firestar, recently re-issued by Tor, concerns the near “future” of 1999-2010 and the hot scoop is that things didn’t work out that way. Some of it, sure, including, alas, the predicted recession. But Serbia is no longer the Bad Boy of the Balkans (nor are the Balkans the Place to Keep an Eye On) and we don’t have regularly-scheduled ballistic transport or single-stage to orbit or… However, anyone who thinks the main basic function of SF is to commit journalism on the future will be perennially disappointed.

The problem with far-future science fiction, like the Spiral Arm series (In the Lion’s Mouth, Jan 2012) is different. We can no more imagine the world of seven thousand years to come than Sumerian peasants could imagine Manhattan. But we need to keep it intelligible. What we imagine of the far future is no more likely to be accurate than Sumerian tales of crossing the sky in flaming chariots. Rockets, maybe; but not flaming chariots.

Yet “the accelerating pace of change” is such a cliché that we might ask, “What if it isn’t? After all, for most of human history, change has been minimal. Our Sumerian peasant would find life among the today’s Marsh Arabs full of wonders—iron tools!—but not incomprehensible.

So to keep the Spiral Arm intelligible to modern “Sumerians,” I decided to put a banana in the tailpipe of the engine of progress. There is precedent.

Science and technology need not go hand in hand. China achieved a high technology without developing natural science. And scattered individuals in ancient Hellas and medieval Islam pursued a personal interest in natural philosophy without applying it to “base mechanics.” Only in the Latin West did a passion for technological innovation develop alongside an institutionalized interest in investigating Nature.

The Scientific Revolution combined them. No more was Nature to be studied simply to grasp and appreciate its Beauty. Its purpose would henceforth be to invent Useful Stuff and extend man’s Dominion over Nature. Science, in short, changed from Art Appreciation to Engineering.

Nothing like this happened in China, thought Joseph Needham, because the Chinese lacked a concept of the universe as a created artifact, and therefore had no expectation of a rational order waiting to be discovered. Other historians have linked the stillbirths of science to a persistent belief in the Great Year and “eternal returns.” The ancients—Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Aztecs, Mayans, Hindus, et al.—extrapolated from the cycles of the sun, the seasons, the heavens to an endlessly repeating universe, destroyed and reborn whenever the planets returned to some “original” configuration.

But this belief proved fatal to science. If an eternal and uncreated universe repeats itself endlessly, then whatever can happen has happened, again and again, and the natural laws we discover are only transient configurations of particles eternally in motion. Wait a while. They’ll change.

This is the outlook I superimposed on Spiral Arm society. Scientific progress stopped long ago. Techs apply “the Wisdom of the Ancients” by rote, recite the prayers (formulas) to be followed, but have lost all sense that these things are ordered by deeper principles.

Can it happen? The endless universe has been making a comeback courtesy of Hegel and his disciples: Schelling, Engels, Nietzsche, et al. Even scientists imagine multiverses and endlessly repeated Big Bangs. And—OMG!!!—the Mayan Long Count is ending!!!!

This article is originally from the January 2012 Tor newsletter. Sign up for the Tor newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox every month!

Throwback Thursdays: A Look Back at My Weird, Cool Life

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

In December of 2011, Rudy Rucker’s autobiography Nested Scrolls was published. In it, Rucker revealed his true-life adventures as a mathematician, transrealist author, punk rocker, and computer hacker. In this essay, from the Tor Newsletter, Rucker shared some important moments from his past, and explained how he decided to structure his autobiography. We hope you enjoy this blast from the past, and be sure to check back in every other week for more!

Nested Scrolls by Rudy Rucker

By Rudy Rucker

The thing I like about a novel is that it’s not a list of dates and events. Not like an encyclopedia entry. A novel is all about characterization and description and conversation, about action and vignettes. I decided to structure my autobiography, Nested Scrolls, like that.

This is a picture of me in my senior year at college. At that time I had the idea that Army-issue-style transparent glasses frames were cool. My roommate and I were writing things on the walls.

Plot? Well, a real life doesn’t have a plot that’s as clear as a novel’s.  But, as a writer, I can think about my life’s structure, about the story arc. And I’d like to know what it was all about. In writing my autobiography, I came up with a few ideas.

The picture below shows me with a “magic door” in Big Sur, California in 2008. I depict this a portal to a parallel world in my novel, Mathematicians in Love.

You might say that I searched for ultimate reality, and I found contentment in creativity. I tried to scale the heights of science, and I found my calling in mathematics and in science fiction. You don’t have to break the bank of the Absolute. Learning your craft can be enough.

This picture shows me as the singer of the Dead Pigs punk rock band in Lynchburg, Virginia, 1982. This was a time when I was still drinking and smoking pot. But eventually I found a way to stop. Once you’re in your forties, Jack Kerouac and Edgar Allen Poe aren’t good role models. They died in their forties.

Here I am with my daughter Georgia in 1973. In some ways I like children better than grown-ups. Their minds are more open, less encumbered. As a youth, I was a loner. But then I found love and became a family man. I’ve spent a lot of time with my wife and our three children over the years. And now we have grandchildren. New saplings coming up as the old trees tumble down.

Here I am selling prints at the Westercon in Pasadena, 2010. I’ve taken up painting as a hobby. It’s a lot harder, at least for me, to sell a print or a painting than a story or a book! I’ve had a number of careers. Initially I was a math professor—math always came easy for me. Nothing to memorize! Then I took up writing, really that’s my core career. But, even with thirty-odd books out, writing doesn’t pay very much.

So I spent the last twenty years working as a computer science professor in Silicon Valley. Riding the wave. It was a blast. And eventually I even got good at teaching, mutating from a rebel to a somewhat helpful professor.

Whatever I did, I never stopped seeing the world in my own special way, and I never stopped looking for new ways to share my thoughts.

This article is originally from the December 2011 Tor newsletter. Sign up for the Tor newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox every month!

The Cool Idea

The Ultra Thin Man by Patrick Swenson

Written by Patrick Swenson

I’m supposed to avoid “how I got my idea” topics for this post, but I’m still going to mention ideas. I’m mentioning ideas because the heart of science fiction is the idea. Science fiction is the genre of cool ideas. It’s all about the awe and sense of wonder.

That’s what brought me into science fiction. As a young boy, it was Victor Appleton’s Tom Swift and His [Insert Cool Idea Here], and it was Star Trek and Twilight Zone. In junior high, it was Frank Herbert’s Dune. In high school it was Ursula K. LeGuin, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein. It was Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In college, it was Philip K. Dick and Joan Vinge, and a hundred other writers. I read all the Hugo Winners collections, and I was awed, and I wondered…

The Ultra Thin Man is my first published novel, but I’ve been writing a long time. By the time I read Dune, my love of SF had me believing I couldn’t write anything else. When I read SF, I explored the writers of the Golden Age, the inward journeys of the New Wave, and I was taken in. You know the phrase the willing suspension of disbelief? Yeah. I was totally willing.

I found out that the willing suspension of disbelief meant that as a writer of SF I was allowed a few “gimmees.” You know what I mean: Warp speed and faster-than-light travel. Blasters and diabolical galaxy-shattering weapons. Indeed, The Ultra Thin Man has some gimmees. My main character carries a blaster that’s never described. Humans and aliens alike get from one colony world to another via the “jump slot,” and I don’t describe it in any great detail, other than one instance from a pilot’s point of view, prepping a shuttle for departure. The Ultra Thin Man pays homage to the days of the pulp novel. When people ask me what kind of book The Ultra Thin Man is, I tell them it’s an SF noir mystery thriller Golden Age space opera. Well, kinda.

When I started the book, I was in the dark. I had a title. I had characters unraveling mysteries for a living. I put gigantic obstacles in their way. I introduced a galaxy-shattering threat, with very few leads, and I told them, “You’re the detectives. You figure it out.” When I wrote the book, I experienced the same awe and sense of wonder I felt when I read SF, because I was along for the ride, enjoying the plot twists and nodding in appreciation at the cool ideas. Eventually I discovered the truths these characters were searching for amidst the backdrop of the Union of Worlds.

Some science fiction is magic, really, and that’s okay, because I like story. I don’t need to analyze it. I want to find out what characters will do when antagonists bar their way. I want to learn something worth knowing. I want to explore the interrelationships between humans and technology. I’m not much of a science geek, but some of what I read about new or future science makes my head spin (in a good way). SF opens new horizons for my thinking. Suggests possibilities. I become better acquainted with my own world and culture.

But. I also read for pure entertainment and escapism. Story is king, characters are in charge, but sometimes, I just want to be wowed by cool ideas.

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Pacing Doesn’t Just Mean Wearing a Groove in the Floor

Lock In by John Scalzi

Written by John Scalzi

I write novels. And with just about every novel I write, I try to do something new or different that I haven’t done before, in order to challenge myself as a writer, and to keep developing my skills. In The Android’s Dream, of example, I wrote in the third person for the first time; in Zoe’s Tale, I had a main character—a sixteen year old girl—whose life experience was substantially different from my own; with The Human Division, I wrote a novel comprised of thirteen stand-alone “episodes.”

And now? With Lock In? What new thing have I done to stretch myself as a writer and teller of tales? Well, I’ll tell you; it’s something I’m really proud of, actually:

I’ve written a novel entirely free of semicolons.

And at the moment, I’m sure at least some of you are all, like, yeah, okay, so what? But you don’t understand. I don’t just like semicolons; I love them like kids love cake. And I don’t just use semicolons; I slather them all over my writing. I will write sentences with not just one, not just two but three and even four semicolons in them, pausing only for an instant after I’ve written them to change them into two or three sentences, if only to keep whatever poor copyeditor who is assigned to my writing from spinning up into a totally justified rage and traveling to my house to murder me in my sleep (I also occasionally write run-on sentences). I am a semicolon abuser; God help me, I adore them so.

Which is a problem; you see, people write with semicolons, but people rarely speak with them. I started noticing that semicolons were beginning to creep into my dialogue; that was not a good thing. If they were creeping into my dialogue, it suggested that I was overusing them even when, technically, they would actually be useful and desirable. It meant that semicolons were becoming a stylistic tic; a crutch, if you will, that I was allowing to dictate how my writing was getting done, rather than being just another tool in the toolbox.

There’s another thing; semicolons create a certain sense of pace in one’s writing. There are few sentences with semicolons that could be described as “punchy”; indeed the presence of semicolon suggests rather the opposite. Sentences with semicolons are languid, or unhurried, or even draggy; they take their time to get to their point. Often that is the point; a writer who knows his or her craft knows there are times when a point will be better made by going a circuitous route. But when every sentence starts taking the long way home, even without you intending it, that’s a problem.

Lock In is, among other things, a murder mystery. It’s fast. It’s blunt. It’s abrupt in places. It’s not a novel for semicolons.

So I cut them out. I intentionally wrote sentences that didn’t need them. And when I got lazy and wrote semicolonized sentences, I tossed them and rewrote, right there, right then. It was difficult for the first couple of chapters. Then I caught the rhythm and it was off to the races. Now the only place you’ll find semicolons in Lock In are in the acknowledgements.

And yes. It seems a little silly, when you look at it in isolation. But again, the point was for me, as a writer, to break myself of a habit that shaped my prose; to make myself aware of what I was doing with my writing, and how. I still use semicolons; I still love them. But now I’m using them because I intend to, and don’t use them when I don’t.

It’s a small thing. It makes a difference.

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Throwback Thursdays: Ian C. Esslemont on Collaboration

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

The world of the Malazan Empire is beloved by many, many fans—for good reason. The world, co-created by Ian C. Esslemont and Steven Erikson, has been well developed over the course of many books and multiple series. Now, with the publication of Assail, a new Malazan novel, we thought we’d dive into our archives and share a piece that Esslemont wrote in May of 2011. In it, he explains how his long-time collaboration with Erikson works. We hope you enjoy this blast from the past, and be sure to check back every other Thursday for more!

In a recent interview I commented that Steven Erikson and I have often been approached by people expressing surprise, even disbelief, at our long-standing collaboration in a co-created world (The Malazan Empire). These comments always come as a surprise to us because in retrospect the process seemed an entirely natural one. It simply unfolded organically—we worked the world out together, bouncing ideas off each other and laughing an awful lot in the process.

In many ways writing is actually a profoundly lonely and isolating undertaking. For me it was a privilege and a pleasure to have someone to share the material with. And I benefited enormously. I hope Steve did so, too. And I’m sure the product, the stories themselves, benefited as well. The give and take, the topping of ideas and undermining of each other’s characters’ goals, all added an extra layer of complexity and—dare I say realism—to so many threads. So many times one of us picked up what the other had added only to turn it completely inside out, or reverse it entirely, all to the surprise and enjoyment of both. I remember one particular immortal exchange between us (one that has yet to see print) wherein I explained that the paranoid Kellanved, then owner of a bar named Smiley’s, was spying and listening in on his employees by drilling holes in the floor of his office over the bar. Later, Steve had Dancer come upstairs, see Kellanved with his ear pressed to a hole and his bum in the air, and promptly kick him across the room. We threw that scene at each other across a table in Victoria, B.C.

After those early years the material lay fallow for quite a while. Yet the dream of writing never went entirely away for either of us. In the end it was Steve’s stubborn determination (and extraordinary talent!) that dragged it through to its eventual realization. Then, even though time had intervened, it was the natural thing to simply pick up the material once again knowing full well what had to be done. And since then, for me, it has all been a matter of attempting to do justice to what we begun. All I hope to do is give fullest depth and emotional truth to what we created.

This article is originally from the May 2011 Tor/Forge Newsletter. Sign up for the Tor/Forge newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox every month!

Throwback Thursdays: The Bar Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

Back in June of 2009, the first book in author Alex Bledsoe’s Eddie LaCrosse series, The Sword-Edged Blonde, published. To celebrate the start of this fun and exciting series, Alex explained in the July Newsletter that his priorities, in writing a fantasy novel, are a little…flipped from most authors’. We hope you enjoy this blast from the past, and be sure to check back every other Thursday for more!

By Alex Bledsoe

A man walks into a bar.

If this happens in a science fiction or fantasy novel, the author has his job cut out for him. Not only does he have to describe the bar physically, but also its patrons. They might include aliens, ogres, trolls or elves, all of which can have any number of permutations. Then the drinks have to be laid out, and the money system enumerated. When all that’s done, the author might have enough imagination left to finally describe the man who walked in.

I’m unusual as a fantasy or science fiction reader, in that the details of made-up societies, worlds and cultures hold far less interest for me than the people (I include non-humans in that term) who inhabit them. I remember listening in wonder to another well-regarded fantasy author describe the elaborate monetary system he’d designed, and for which so far he’d had no use. It’s something I could never do.

When I wrote The Sword-Edged Blonde, I wanted to pare it down to the things I, as a reader, cared most about: namely, the people. Anything that distracted from them, and from the reader’s emotional commitment to them, I either left out or minimized. For example, many fantasy characters have names that, if not literally unpronounceable, at least challenge the tongue; I named my hero Eddie LaCrosse. Eddie’s office is, in fact, above a bar, one that is no different in feel and atmosphere from any you might walk into today. Eddie uses swords that, like modern guns, have make and model names, and the people speak in rhythms, patterns and tones that don’t try to sound “otherworldly.” There’s no time spent digressing into societal details that don’t apply to the immediate situation; this is not to belittle authors who do that sort of thing well, it’s just something I neither crave as a reader or excel at as a writer.

I did invent one term. Eddie is essentially a private investigator functioning in an Iron Age world. In our world, PI’s are known by various, vaguely derogatory terms: shamus, dick, peeper, etc. I decided that Eddie’s reality needed a similar term, and came up with “sword jockey.” To me it rings with the same thinly-veiled contempt as “gumshoe” or “snooper.”

The Sword-Edged Blonde (and its upcoming sequel, Burn Me Deadly) have been called high-fantasy stories written as if they were Forties pulp detective novels. That’s exactly my intent, but it’s not just an ironic stylistic choice; rather, it’s a sincere attempt to let readers connect with the characters by letting as few things as possible get in the way.

So the man (or woman) who walks into a bar in Eddie’s world could, hopefully, be you. And you’d be right at home there.

This article is originally from the July 2009 Tor/Forge Newsletter. Sign up for the Tor/Forge newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox every month!

Sneak Peek: Ringworld, The Graphic Novel, Part One

Ringworld: The Graphic Novel, Part OneA modern science fiction classic, Larry Niven’s Ringworld won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novel in 1970. Now this SF classic is adapted into a thrilling manga adventure. We wanted to share with you a sneak peek at some of the pages of the upcoming first volume of the series, publishing on July 8, 2014. From editor Diana Pho:

Seven Seas’ takes readers beyond the borders of known space in this manga adaptation of Larry Niven’s SF classic Ringworld! In this excerpt from Part One, we meet Louis Wu, a two-hundred-year-old human who has done it all and is getting pretty bored with life. That is, until he meets a two-headed alien named Nessus, who offers him a chance in a lifetime: to join him, a catlike warrior alien named Speaker-to-Animals, and the infinitely lucky human Teela Brown to explore an alien artifact known as Ringworld.

Click through to read the excerpt:

Ringworld: The Graphic Novel, Part One

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From the July Tor/Forge newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.

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Getting All Meta

All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park

Written by Paul Park

Vladimir Nabokov’s story, Signs and Symbols, is about a young man in the middle of a psychotic break. He has become convinced that even the trivial details of the world around him are full of coded language. His distraught parents can do nothing to help him, and eventually he kills himself.

But the man, paranoid and delusional, is also correct. Because he is a character in a story, he lives in a world constructed out of language, which does not contain a single word that is irrelevant to him. It is no wonder he destroys himself; the wonder is that any character in any book remains alive at the end.

The story is an example of meta-fiction—a narrative that is self-aware. In this case the realization is gradual, and in other cases there is a wrenching sudden moment, when you realize the story that you think you’re reading is a subterfuge, and that the real story is hidden underneath. In both cases, for the writer, the problem is the same: once we puncture the illusion that we are reading about the real problems of real people, how do we maintain our emotional investment and interest? In Nabokov’s case, though we no longer care about the suicide, we can still feel the young man’s predicament as a symbol of our own, living in a world that is minutely crafted out of our own minds, and simultaneously oblivious.

Here’s another example: I taught a course called Imitations and Parodies at Williams College. I got in the habit of introducing every third class with a minute’s description of an invented dream, which I pretended to have just woken from—the class was early in the morning. Some were foolish, but during the first month I inserted more and more symbols of psychic distress—then I stopped. Two-thirds of the way in, we spent a week writing imitations of H.P. Lovecraft stories in which the narrator succumbs to violent insanity. The next week I introduced the concept of meta-fiction, and asked them to read for Thursday’s class a story by an unknown author. This was a story I had written myself: a professor, tormented by distorted dreams, finally, resolves to murder his entire class after grading a particularly horrifying assignment. And here I included some excerpts from their Lovecraft imitations, including one section about a man deliberately blinding himself with a knife, which I had read aloud during the previous class. I aimed for this to be the meta-fictional moment where the students would realize that the description of the professor corresponded to me, that the described classroom was their own, and that various students from earlier in the story corresponded to their various colleagues. I was curious to see if any of them would skip Thursday’s session, but there they all were, uncharacteristically nervous and subdued. We spent the class discussing another assigned text—Signs and Symbols, as it happened. As the minutes ticked on, the discussion grew more animated and desperate. Five minutes to go, I announced that we wouldn’t have time for the anonymous story; I started talking about future assignments as a way of wrapping up. I rearranged my papers, and at the crucial moment, just before the hour struck, I allowed a butcher’s knife to fall out of my satchel.

The problem remains in meta-fiction: how to make the reader’s experience an emotional one, rather than a bloodless appreciation for a rhetorical trick. In the novel I’ve just published, All Those Vanished Engines, I have tried to combine a number of different strategies. Some are formal: in once section the story is made of intertwining strands, each narrated by a character in the other. In another, a description of an installation of steam engines turns into an implied description of the structure of the story itself. But some strategies are more basic than form: though the novel combines science-fiction and alternate history, it consists of the manipulation of actual true stories—things that really happened, people who really lived. My hope is that this will give the meta-fictional moments, where the narrative exposes their unreality, an added poignancy.

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From the Tor/Forge July newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.

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More from the July Tor/Forge newsletter:

  • Sneak Peek: Ringworld Graphic Novel
  • Little Green Book of Chairman Rahma book trailer

Throwback Thursdays: “Magic Calls to Magic”

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

Back in November of 2010, author A.M. Dellamonica explained the rules of magic in the world she created for her story “Nevada” and novel Indigo Springs. She brings the same skills to the world-building in her latest novel, Child of a Hidden Sea. We hope you enjoy her advice in this blast from the past, and be sure to check back every other Thursday for more!

By Alyx Dellamonica

The above line, from my story “Nevada,” formed one of the first rules I set out for the universe where Indigo Springs takes place. I had decided I was going to write about my grandparents’ home in Yerington, Nevada, an ordinary ranch house centered in a fenced-in patch of desert just outside town. The place has always been special to me. We moved a lot when I was young, but Yerington was always there. Going to Nevada meant being spoiled by my grandmother, of course, but their home also had a lot of physical objects that I was fond of–a cookie tin full of sun-melted crayons, my mother’s old stuffed bunny, Grandma’s polished rocks, and the possibility of finding a painstakingly hand-chipped arrowhead under every tumbleweed. I made all these childhood treasures explicitly magical when I turned them into the chantments that do so much good and harm in Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.

Indigo Springs picks up on the groundwork laid in “Nevada” and the chantment stories that followed.  As I wrote these first stories, something that was immediately obvious was that if such objects of power were real, there would be people whose primary desire would be to own or control them. This conclusion led me to create the century-old chantment thief in “Nevada,” the corrupt music teacher in “The Riverboy”. . .  and when it came to writing Indigo Springs, it gave rise to the beautiful, fickle, and manipulative Sahara Knax.

I also had to figure out who was making the mystical objects. Sahara’s opposite number is her best friend, Astrid Lethewood. Astrid not only owns a number of chantments but in time discovers she has the ability to make new ones. She is less interested in having or wielding power–she’s responsible for the magic, and it’s a terrible load. She wants to do the right thing but is afraid of having her life consumed in the process. Having inherited the magic and being overwhelmed by it, she is vulnerable to this charming friend who’s offering to take care of everything. In her weakest moments, Astrid is that little piece of all of us who hopes someone else will combat climate change, speak out against poverty or oppression–who gives in to those moments of weakness when we don’t want to look beyond our day to day concerns and try to own the world a little.

Indigo Springs is a love triangle and the third person in the mix is Jacks Glade, who tries to mediate between Sahara and Astrid. Jacks is an active, take-charge guy–he rescues people from burning buildings, tells people the truth instead of guessing what they want to hear. . .  and he’s madly in love with Astrid. It’s these three people who come to be caretakers of the mystical well.

The thing about magic in Indigo Springs is that it is an immensely powerful force–one capable of creating amazingly beautiful things and doing great good, but only when wielded with good intentions. In a sense, the magic has an agenda of its own.

This article is originally from the November 2010 Tor/Forge Newsletter. Sign up for the Tor/Forge newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox every month!

Throwback Thursdays: Space Cadets and Starship Troopers: The Eagle Has Landed

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

In 2010, we published the first of a two volume biography of one of the giants of science fiction: Robert A. Heinlein. At that time, we had an idea: why not ask our authors about their favorite Heinlein novels? Tor editor Stacy Hill was our shepherd for this series, and updates us on our journey. Now that Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume 2 has come out, we’re revisiting that series. We hope you enjoy this blast from the past, and be sure to check back in every other week for more!

Robert A. Heinlein, Vol. 1 by William H. Patterson

From Tor editor Stacy Hill: Regular readers of Tor’s newsletter and our blog know that Tor has recently published an all-new biography of Robert A. Heinlein. Written with the blessing of Heinlein’s late widow, Virginia, the work was many years in the making and contains a wealth of interesting information, including never-before-published excerpts from Heinlein’s correspondence. Even if you thought you knew everything there was to know about the man, I can promise you there are surprises to be found within these pages.

So, in celebration of the man and his works, we asked a number of sf writers to tell us which Heinlein novel is their favorite, and why. We were lucky enough to get a host of great authors, including:

David Brin
David Drake
David G. Hartwell
L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
Rudy Rucker
Joan Slonczewski
Charles Stross
Michael Swanwick
Vernor Vinge

What’s Your Favorite Robert A. Heinlein Novel, Joan Slonczewski?

Have Space Suit—Will Travel was one of the more important books I read as a child. It starts with a bright teenager obsessed with getting to the moon, like I was. To get there, the teen has to win a space suit and get kidnapped by aliens, and escape with the help of two females—a child genius and an advanced alien—both clearly brighter than he is. Back then, bright females were scarce in any fiction.

In Have Space Suit, Heinlein’s ability to hook the reader draws us through a remarkable introduction in which an entire space suit is described at length. We keep turning pages through the teen’s course selection for senior year, as he takes up Spanish, Latin, calculus, and biochemistry—all of which later help him escape the aliens and worse. The book feels deceptively simple; its opening line consists of seven words of one syllable. Yet Heinlein weaves in concepts of mindboggling depth, from gas exchange in a space suit to linguistic development in the Roman Empire. Through it all, the humor is fresh and obvious to any reader. The Roman soldier even cracks a queer joke—imagine getting that past the juvenile censors in 1958.

From the protagonist’s teenage viewpoint, Earth-bound adults appear distant and preoccupied. The only ones who seem to be having fun are scientists. That, too, seemed familiar to me as the child of a physicist who worked on a Hal-like IBM 360. In the sixties, science was the stagecoach, the mule train heading toward the future’s ever-receding frontier. Have Space Suit was the kind of book that did that, a fictional journey driven by science.

Heinlein’s aliens are completely fantastic, yet somehow as real as a neighbor next door. Even the most advanced creatures are fallible, making mistakes that might doom an entire race. Yet the story begins and ends in small-town Ohio, near the home of the Wright brothers, and near where we raised our two sons. Today, this area still feels about the same. Any day now I expect to see those two alien space ships racing in.

This article is originally from the October 2010 Tor/Forge newsletter. Sign up for the Tor/Forge newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox every month!