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!

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

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

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Book Trailer: All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park


 
All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park

In All Those Vanished Engines, Paul Park returns to science fiction after a decade spent on the impressive four-volume A Princess of Roumania fantasy, with an extraordinary, intense, compressed SF novel in three parts, each set in its own alternate-history universe. The sections are all rooted in Virginia and the Battle of the Crater, and are also grounded in the real history of the Park family, from differing points of view. They are all gorgeously imaginative and carefully constructed, and reverberate richly with one another.

The first section is set in the aftermath of the Civil War, in a world in which the Queen of the North has negotiated a two-nation settlement. The second, taking place in northwestern Massachusetts, investigates a secret project during World War II, in a time somewhat like the present. The third is set in the near-future United States, with aliens from history.

The cumulative effect is awesome. There hasn’t been a three part novel this ambitious in science fiction since Gene Wolfe’s classic The Fifth Head of Cerberus.

All Those Vanished Engines, by Paul Park, will publish on July 1st.

On Building a Pillar to the Sky

Pillar to the Sky by William Forstchen

Written by William Forstchen

The idea of a space “elevator,” or “pillar,” originated in the early 20th century, when the pioneering Russian theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky laid out the math for chemical rockets to achieve orbit. Even then, Tsiolkovsky saw the fundamental flaw: the amount of energy, to achieve orbital velocity and the ratio of weight of fuel to functional payload, was absurd, and if ever achieved would be incredibly expensive. Right now it runs close to ten thousand dollars for each pound of payload lofted to low orbit, compared to less than two bucks per pound to get you across the Atlantic or Pacific. Also, at the time Tsiolkovsky figured out the math, no such rockets existed and there was doubt one could even be built.

He therefore turned his genius imagination to an alternative. Why not use the energy of the earth’s rotation to impart velocity? All that is needed is a tower, built at the equator and approximately 23,000 miles tall, reaching what is now known as geosynchrous orbit. At that altitude, the centrifugal force of the earth’s rotation would actually keep the tower rigid. A payload could be lifted into space by an elevator system that uses electricity from a ground based station. Once it reaches geosynch, just push off from the top of the tower and “voila,” you are in orbit, or with a bit of an additional boost, on a trans-lunar or trans-Mars trajectory.

There’s just one problem: Building the tower.

It sounds fantastic even in our realm of science fiction…building a tower 23,000 miles into space. Of course, structural engineering 101 will teach such dreamers a cold, hard, basic lesson, that the higher the structure, the heavier the base needed to support the weight. The base for such a tower, built of steel, would be an absurd hundreds of miles across and take a millennium to build by conventional methods like stacking one beam atop another, in the manner of a NYC skyscraper such as the Flatiron building of my publisher.

Tsiolkovsky worked out the math for space pillar at the start of the 20th century and left us with challenge of figuring out what to build it with. Nearly eighty years, later the legendary Arthur C. Clarke turned his talent to the idea with the classic novel on the subject, The Fountains of Paradise. He did prophesize what was needed, a carbon fiber engineered at the molecular level, vastly stronger than any diamond, but even he, genius dreamer that he was, stated it’d be another two hundred years before such technology was at hand.

I was in my twenties when I read Clarke’s work and the idea captivated my imagination and stayed with me. While working on my Ph.D. and writing my first novels, the idea of a space elevator lingered. With the advent of the internet, I kept an eye out for research reports on the subject, eventually seeing the emergence of serious scholarly conferences on the subject, and most importantly, that the legendary NASA team had put some seed money into the concept, with several feasibility studies and publications about ten years or so back.

The emerging consensus, from those who turn dreams into hard reality with technology that works, is that the time is at hand. It seems farfetched, but when John Kennedy challenged America to reach for the moon by the end of a decade, our total manned flight time in space was just over fifteen minutes, atop a rocket with not much more than 1/50th the lifting power needed to get to the moon. We reached Kennedy’s goal in eight years and two months.

Thus, out of dreams going back to my childhood days of Apollo, coupled with the idea of my publisher and editor to put authors and NASA personnel together to share dreams and realities, I felt I had to write this novel about the building of the world’s first “space elevator,” what I call the Pillar to the Sky. One of the joys for me is that this is not some dream I hope is one day achieved a century or more hence…the reality is that it can be built now, within my lifetime.

I grew up believing that space exploration is our future. I hope that in some way this novel might push that dream forward. In closing, I will confess to a selfish reason for writing the book. I want to be one of those blessed with the chance to finally reach space, climbing upward on a Pillar to the Sky.

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From the Tor/Forge February 3rd newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.

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The Week in Review

Welcome to the week in review! Every Friday, we comb through the links and images we found and shared this week, and pull the very best for this post. Consider it concentrated genre goodness from all around the web.


 

  • Introducing The Anderson Project on Tor.com. Very different stories, all based on the same work of art.

 
And, just to make Friday that much sweeter, here’s a list of sweepstakes and sales we have going on!

Goodreads Sweepstakes: Lockstep by Karl Schroeder

Lockstep by Karl Schroeder

About Lockstep: When seventeen-year-old Toby McGonigal finds himself lost in space, separated from his family, he expects his next drift into cold sleep to be his last. After all, the planet he’s orbiting is frozen and sunless, and the cities are dead. But when Toby wakes again, he’s surprised to discover a thriving planet, a strange and prosperous galaxy, and something stranger still—that he’s been asleep for 14,000 years.

Welcome to the Lockstep Empire, where civilization is kept alive by careful hibernation. Here cold sleeps can last decades and waking moments mere weeks. Its citizens survive for millennia, traveling asleep on long voyages between worlds. Not only is Lockstep the new center of the galaxy, but Toby is shocked to learn that the Empire is still ruled by its founding family: his own.

Toby’s brother Peter has become a terrible tyrant. Suspicious of the return of his long-lost brother, whose rightful inheritance also controls the lockstep hibernation cycles, Peter sees Toby as a threat to his regime. Now, with the help of a lockstep girl named Corva, Toby must survive the forces of this new Empire, outwit his siblings, and save human civilization.
Karl Schroeder’s Lockstep is a grand innovation in hard SF space opera.

Enter for a chance to win here!

(Ends February 25)

Also, don’t forget to check out our other sweepstakes!

Goodreads Sweepstakes: The Burning Dark by Adam Christopher

The Burning Dark by Adam Christopher

About The Burning Dark: Adam Christopher’s dazzling first novel, Empire State, was named the Best Book of 2012 by SciFi Now magazine. Now he explores new dimensions of time and space in The Burning Dark.

Back in the day, Captain Abraham Idaho Cleveland had led the Fleet into battle against an implacable machine intelligence capable of devouring entire worlds. But after saving a planet, and getting a bum robot knee in the process, he finds himself relegated to one of the most remote backwaters in Fleetspace to oversee the decommissioning of a semi-deserted space station well past its use-by date.

But all is not well aboard the U-Star Coast City. The station’s reclusive Commandant is nowhere to be seen, leaving Cleveland to deal with a hostile crew on his own. Persistent malfunctions plague the station’s systems while interference from a toxic purple star makes even ordinary communications problematic. Alien shadows and whispers seem to haunt the lonely corridors and airlocks, fraying the nerves of everyone aboard.

Isolated and friendless, Cleveland reaches out to the universe via an old-fashioned space radio, only to tune in to a strange, enigmatic signal: a woman’s voice that seems to echo across a thousand light-years of space. But is the transmission just a random bit of static from the past—or a warning of an undying menace beyond mortal comprehension?

Enter for a chance to win here!

(Ends February 24)

Also, don’t forget to check out our other sweepstakes!

Goodreads Sweepstakes: The Time Traveler’s Almanac

The Time Traveler's Almanac edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer

About The Time Traveler’s Almanac: The Time Traveler’s Almanac is the largest and most definitive collection of time travel stories ever assembled. Gathered into one volume by intrepid chrononauts and world-renowned anthologists Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, this book compiles more than a century’s worth of literary travels into the past and the future that will serve to reacquaint readers with beloved classics of the time travel genre and introduce them to thrilling contemporary innovations.

This marvelous volume includes nearly seventy journeys through time from authors such as Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, William Gibson, Ursula K. Le Guin, George R. R. Martin, Michael Moorcock, H. G. Wells, and Connie Willis, as well as helpful non-fiction articles original to this volume (such as Charles Yu’s “Top Ten Tips For Time Travelers”).

In fact, this book is like a time machine of its very own, covering millions of years of Earth’s history from the age of the dinosaurs through to strange and fascinating futures, spanning the ages from the beginning of time to its very end. The Time Traveler’s Almanac is the ultimate anthology for the time traveler in your life.

Enter for a chance to win here!

(Ends February 17)

Also, don’t forget to check out our other sweepstakes!

Goodreads Sweepstakes: Mentats of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

Mentats of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

About Mentats of Dune: In Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson’s Mentats of Dune, the thinking machines have been defeated but the struggle for humanity’s future continues.

Gilbertus Albans has founded the Mentat School, a place where humans can learn the efficient techniques of thinking machines. But Gilbertus walks an uneasy line between his own convictions and compromises in order to survive the Butlerian fanatics, led by the madman Manford Torondo and his Swordmaster Anari Idaho. Mother Superior Raquella attempts to rebuild her Sisterhood School on Wallach IX, with her most talented and ambitious student, Valya Harkonnen, who also has another goal—to exact revenge on Vorian Atreides, the legendary hero of the Jihad, whom she blames for her family’s downfall.

Meanwhile, Josef Venport conducts his own war against the Butlerians. VenHold Spacing Fleet controls nearly all commerce thanks to the superior mutated Navigators that Venport has created, and he places a ruthless embargo on any planet that accepts Manford Torondo’s anti-technology pledge, hoping to starve them into submission. But fanatics rarely surrender easily…

The Mentats, the Navigators, and the Sisterhood all strive to improve the human race, but each group knows that as Butlerian fanaticism grows stronger, the battle will be to choose the path of humanity’s future—whether to embrace civilization, or to plunge into an endless dark age.

Enter for a chance to win here!

(Ends February 13)

Also, don’t forget to check out our other sweepstakes!