Found in Translation

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

By Liz Gorinsky, Editor

Until fairly recently, most English-speaking science fiction fans knew very little about the Chinese science fiction publishing scene. This is not because that scene doesn’t exist—there is a thriving SF market in China, perhaps best exemplified by the magazine Science Fiction World (科幻世界), which has been publishing monthly for more than forty years. With a peak circulation of 300,000 copies, it’s the world’s most popular SF periodical by a long shot. Since most Anglophones can’t read Chinese, however, China’s science fiction has never been a large part of the cultural conversation on Western shores. In the past few years, some short fiction has begun to make it over, largely thanks to (often volunteer) translation efforts by renowned American SF&F writers such as John Chu and Ken Liu, but this barely scratches the surface of what’s out there.

When the manuscript for The Three-Body Problem, also translated by Ken Liu, landed on my desk, it was my first chance to read a novel-length narrative from China (and a massively successful one, with over two million copies of the trilogy sold there). It broke my brain open in all the best ways. I would have been happy to publish this simply because such great science fiction doesn’t cross an editor’s desk all that often, and this book had it all: Big Ideas, sweeping adventure, an inventive and strange alien society that the reader is left hungry to learn more about. It also has a truly epic scope: the first book covers approximately fifty years of recent history, while the latter two swing out to horizons upwards of five hundred years in the future and well past the far reaches of the galaxy. Finally, Three-Body’s unusual-to-me combination of great SF and insight into the Cultural Revolution and other aspects of Chinese society are sadly almost non-existent in popular culture in America.

While Chinese writers have been reading English SF in translation for the last century and beyond, they’ve also been writing their own, and the works I’ve seen have all had distinct flavors quite unlike what we’re seeing in America today. Sometimes it is particularly poetic prose or the kinds of cultural reference or societal structures in the text. The Three-Body Problem in particular struck me for its willingness to go into great depth about the scientific concepts it relies upon. In the English tradition, this would qualify it as hard SF, in the same camp as great latter-twentieth century writers such as Hal Clement and Arthur C. Clarke. In fact, Three-Body is hard enough that it inspired cosmologist and string theorist Li Mao to write a book about it called The Physics of Three-Body.

While Cixin Liu manages to convey these complex concepts with a great deal of clarity (even to this reader, who hasn’t studied physics since high school), it is a book that demands time and attention to understand both the scientific and social aspects of the story. I had moments of wondering if the “average American” would be up for the challenge. This is still an open question, but it has been heartening that all the reviews we’ve seen so far have been extremely positive. They’ve also recognized and appreciated the fact that there is something about the perspective and the narrative turns in The Three-Body Problem that is utterly unlike what Western readers have come to expect.

Finally, as much as I love this book and series for their inherent charms, Three-Body also gives us access to horizons of another sort that I am thrilled to have more opportunity to explore, particularly the fact that the author and the vast majority of the characters are Chinese. This seems so natural in our diversifying world (and will only become more so as we look into the future), yet it’s a refreshing change of pace from so many SFnal visions that fail to recognize this diversity. And this has been a the rare opportunity to publish a non-Anglophone writer, traditionally difficult terrain given the costs and barriers associated with translation, but something I hope we’ll see much more of in future (especially thanks to initiatives such as Clarkesworld’s great work in the short fiction world). I hope that a great many SF readers will choose to follow us into this bright, bold future and pave the way for more storytelling that is as unique and inspiring as Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem.

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A Hero Raised on Star Trek

Willful Child by Steven Erikson

By Steven Erikson

I adore Star Trek, always have. I am a massive fan of Capt. Kirk (still the best captain of the lot in my opinion) and a huge fan of William Shatner (proud Canadian that I am). I play Star Trek Online, and I own a fair amount of Star Trek memorabilia. It is safe to say that I am a Trekker. So it should come as no surprise that I always wanted to write a Star Trek story.

One of the things that has consistently struck me as strange is that in all these SF future worlds, contemporary culture never seems to have existed. No matter the future world, Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, even Buck Rogers, never seem to have happened. Starbuck doesn’t remember Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers doesn’t remember Kirk, and Kirk doesn’t know what a lightsaber is. The obvious reason is probably to do with copyright issues, but when you are designing a future universe based on ours, it seems so strange to leave out the big SF shows that have formed our opinion of space travel. And if copyright is the reason, well, that’s just ridiculous. Isn’t SF supposed to incorporate all that we were and are, into what we will become?

So you could say that when I wrote my new novel, Willful Child, I took for my premise the simple idea that a guy in the future grew up watching the adventures of the U.S.S. Enterprise and her formidable Captain Kirk, and decided that this was who he was going to be. A child raised by TV, and one show in particular, who is then given a spaceship and sent off to find new worlds to conquer. What would someone be like if Captain Kirk was their sole role model? Someone who leaps into battle sure in the knowledge that they will be back on next week? Someone who is apparently irresistible to every alien female he meets? Someone who believes the chain of command applies to other people and not him? A captain of the future living with 1960s cultural aesthetics?

Anyway, this was a chance to write something as over-the-top as I could manage. To extend the logic of Star Trek to absurd conclusions and play with the tropes of the show. This is what ultimately led to the adventures of Captain Hadrian Sawback of the A.S.F. Willful Child. A man-child who has modelled himself on Kirk without the benefit of a more realistic role-model, set in a future universe in which humanity has become aggressively, obnoxiously complacent, and written using an episodic approach that allowed me to parody the show. A rollicking space adventure that would make people laugh. A spoof of the gross-out cringe-comedy kind, with something offensive to someone on virtually every page.

Hadrian is my take on a James Bond, a Flashman, a Slippery Jim DiGriz. Not dark enough to be an anti-hero, not heroic enough to be a traditional hero, and certainly not evil enough to be a villain. But he’s no clean-cut paragon of virtue. He has blind-spots and feet of clay. He craves adventure and wants to bring his universe toward the ideals of the show he grew up watching, seemingly unaware that the real world doesn’t work according to the narrative strictures of a TV show.

While Willful Child works as a stand-alone book, I envisage this as a series that will allow me to develop the characters in much the same way that they slowly developed over the course of the show (only, in a more insane fashion). This is the pilot, if you will, for the continuing adventures of Capt. Hadrian. If after reading Willful Child, you want more, then get on my case. That is, if you really want to read The Wrath of Betty and The Search for Spark. I buckle under that kind of pressure, every time. And to be honest, I can’t wait.

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Throwback Thursdays: Steven Brust on Animals, People, and Vlad Taltos

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.

Vlad Taltos is back in Steven Brust’s Hawk! In the November 2007 Tor Newsletter, author Steven Brust talked about the characters—and the animals they’re similar to—he’s created over the years. Be sure to check back in every other week for more!

Hawk by Steven BrustBy Steven Brust

Why is it that I put animals in my books, or, more particularly, put in people with some sort of symbolic relationship to an animal? Is it because, in human history and pre-history so many people identified themselves with animals? No, that’s the justification, not the reason.

Is it so I can explore the animal nature within us all? Yeah, right, whatever.

Is it that it makes it easier to explore what it really means to be human? No, but if the New York Review of Books ever interviews me, that’s what I’ll say.

No, it’s so I can make fun of my friends without them knowing about it.

In the world in which the Vlad Taltos novel is set, the population is divided into what are called Great Houses, each named for an animal. Some of these animals are familiar to us all, some are made up, and some are familiar but altered. In truth, all human beings are a delightful mix of personality traits, some of which can appear dominant at various times depending on circumstances. In fiction, particularly fantasy, I get to exaggerate characteristics and make animal comparisons, and when I need to, make up the animal—all for the pleasure of laughing at my friends. I love this business.

Like, that guy who cares just a bit too much about money? Orca. The one with the temper? Dragon. The manipulative bastard? Yendi. The guy with ethics but no principles? Jhereg. The one who would cut off an arm rather than be rude? Issola. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had hours of fun figuring out which House all of my friends belong in.

My latest Vlad Taltos novel—out in paperback this month—is called Dzur. A dzur is your typical big, nasty cat. The people who identify with it are of the House of Heroes.

What, exactly, do I mean by “hero?” I’m not talking about real heroes, because real heroes only happen where character meets circumstance. Nor am I talking about people who constantly look for situations where they can show off their courage—they aren’t heroes, they’re adrenaline junkies. By “hero,” in this context, I mean someone who always goes in with the odds against him—in fact, who only goes in when the odds are against him. Sounds good, right?

You know them. At a party, he’s the one who won’t venture an opinion unless he’s pretty sure everyone in the room is on the other side. On the highway, he’s the ones zipping down the empty lane that’s about to vanish for construction, expecting you to let him in. On the internet—Oh, lord. Don’t get me started. Yeah, these are the guys who have raised being unpopular to an art form. One of my dearest friends is a Dzur. He sometimes refers to himself as Captain Social Suicide. Need I say more?

So, yeah, anyway. Those guys. They’re annoying as hell, but in stories they’re kinda fun.

This article is originally from the November 2007 Tor newsletter. Sign up for the Tor newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox every month!

Six-Guns and Serial Killers

Shotgun Arcana by R. S. Belcher

By R. S. Belcher

Like the song goes, “My heroes have always been cowboys.” But another archetypal American figure plays a pretty big role in my new novel, The Shotgun Arcana: the serial killer. In the novel, I had the perverse pleasure of getting to play around with a literal army of psycho-killers—a cult of murders and cannibals, called the Teeth of Cain.

I looked into some bloody back alleys of America’s history to see what kind of real-world serial killers I could use for inspiration. As usual, history didn’t disappoint.

There’s the “Servant Girl Annihilator”, or the Austin Axe murderer, if you prefer. He was active in Austin Texas from 1884 to 1885, three years prior to the Jack the Ripper Murders in London. He was never caught and there are some serial killer experts (yes, there are such folk) who make a case that the Annihilator may also be the Whitechapel Ripper, traveling the world perfecting his bloody craft.

There are the Harpe Brothers, 18th century mountain men who killed for pleasure, or at the slightest provocation, even murdering a baby for crying too much. Many historians consider the “bloody Harpes” America’s first serial killers. The brutal pair were the inspiration for characters in Lois McMaster Bujold’s novel, The Sharing Knife: Passages and are featured in Manly Wade Wellman’s novel, The Voice of the Mountain.

Queho, a member of the Paiute tribe, who is considered Nevada’s first serial killer, eluded authorities for decades. Queho had Native American and Caucasion victims and took trophies from some of his kills, wearing the badge, number 896, that he took from the chest of a deputy he killed. The badge was found pinned to Queho’s mummified corpse when miners discovered his body in a cave in 1940, bringing the 30-years manhunt for him to a close.

John Johnston, better known as “Liver-eatin’ Johnston” was a mountain man who pursued a vendetta for over 25 years against the Crow Nation for the murder of his wife and child. Johnston lived up to his nickname, eating the livers of his victims—a grave insult to the Crow, who believe that the liver is necessary for the transition to the afterlife. The Crow hunted him for years and sent war parties to kill Johnston, calling him, Dapiek Absaroka (“Killer of Crows”). The folklore around Johnston claims he murdered and scalped over 300 Crow warriors. The number is considered by many historians to be inflated.

The Bender Family is another example of American history and mythology blurring. The Benders were German immigrant saloon-keepers in Kansas who routinely murdered their patrons and buried them in the garden behind the establishment. A guest for the night would be wined, dined, and entertained…and then usually dispatched by the eldest son with a sledge hammer. If that proved ineffective, the stunned victim was pulled through a hidden trap door in the saloon floor and their throat slit by the Benders’ daughter, Kate—a self-described psychic. The whole clan vanished before they could be caught—becoming part of western folklore, maybe even shaping urban legend.

Some of these historic killers appear in The Shotgun Arcana to make trouble for my dysfunctional little family of anti-heroes. They have different names and back stories, but they are based on real people, well, real legends, anyway. There are quite a few more salty dogs I didn’t even have a chance to elaborate on. I leave it to the diligent reader, and scholar of disturbing history, to sort the bettermost from the balderdash. Have fun.

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Making The Accidental Highwayman Videos

The Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp

Reprinted with permission by Ben Tripp

This is what happens when a writer gets his hands on after effects.

In Los Angeles, everybody knows somebody who makes movies or television. Ben Tripp worked in the movie business for a long time, and his wife Corinne Marrinan Tripp makes documentary films and television. So he knows people. Talented, versatile people who make the magic happen. You might imagine that when Tor Teen approached him about making a book trailer for The Accidental Highwayman, Ben’s first instinct would be to turn to this tremendous pool of talent.

You would imagine wrong, of course. Instead, Ben set about making the trailer single-handedly. Then he got carried away and made three more. Along the way the scale of the task got completely out of hand, and the great Buz Carter was enlisted to assist in the shooting. Then it was back to the desk to begin compositing, titles, and building the sound. Here are a few interesting aspects of these miniature productions.

ben-study-vid-green-screen-original

All live action shots were performed in front of a green screen, at different times of day so that the lighting would match the backgrounds. In Los Angeles everyone has a green screen in their garage somewhere. This one was pinned to the ceiling or tacked to the back of Ben’s house. Here we see an interior shot of the ukulero performing.

ben-tripp-study

The backgrounds were composed in Photoshop; this study is what Ben wishes his office looked like. In fact he does not own a hippo skull or a bust of Voltaire and there is no stolen Vermeer over his mantelpiece. His real office doesn’t even have a mantelpiece in it. But the black-and-white portrait of his wife (next to the window) does in fact hang near his desk.


Below is a screen capture of what a home movie studio looks like these days: a whole lot of layers on a computer screen.

after-effects-compositing-ben-in-study

Not everything could be achieved digitally, of course. Stock footage of sheep and a large papier-mâché giant’s head were involved, too. Ben’s love of all crafts shows here in sculpture; he also sewed the rest of the giant costume.

Originally his French Bulldog Roscoe, who is the model for Demon in the book, was to appear in the videos. But he had recently had back surgery, was underweight and partially shaved, and looked like an uncooked Thanksgiving turkey. So he did not appear in the videos.

Read more about The Accidental Highwayman and Ben Tripp at his website, kitbristol.com.

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From the Archives: Unexpected Dangers

Dangerous Women edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

Written by Brandon Sanderson

What makes a woman dangerous? Well, what makes a person dangerous?

To me, the best kind of danger—which is, in a way, also the worst kind—is unexpected. It’s that twisted kind of dangerous that takes something familiar and safe and reveals it as something deadly. Wolves are frightening. To me, a loyal pet going mad and killing a child is ten times more terrifying.

For the Dangerous Women anthology, I wanted to find a way to express this unexpected sort of danger. I didn’t want a lean, professional assassin or a warrior in her prime, dangerous though those characters might be. I wanted something closer to home, a blend of the expected and unexpected. That is where I found Silence Montane.

The first name is one I ran across while reading puritan names. It was the second piece of the puzzle, as it raised questions. Who names their daughter Silence, and what does it imply? What is it like to grow up with this name? The answers built into the concept of a stout pioneer woman who ran an inn on the frontier, drawing the seediest criminals the land had to offer. She’d then track them after they left her inn and murder them for their bounties.

Familiar, yet unexpected. Kindly, yet deadly. The story turned out better than I could have hoped, and I’m thrilled to have had the chance—and the prompting—to write it.

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My Friend, Jay Lake

Ken Scholes Copyright Liz Ness
By Ken Scholes

This issue of Talebones runs both a little longer and a little shorter on quality than the last.

Those were the first of Jay Lake’s words I ever read. My third publication had just come out and I’d succumbed to the writerly pull toward Googling one’s self. I paused here. “A little shorter on quality than the last.” That made me a bit nervous but then I kept reading….

One story, Ken Scholes’ “Edward Bear and the Very Long Walk,” brought me a sense of finality so strong I had to lay down the magazine and wipe my eyes.

What followed was my first ever rave review and I was so moved by it that once I wiped my eyes I tracked down that reviewer and sent him a thank you note. He responded with prompt cheer and more high praise for the story.

Not long after, I learned that Jay lived in the Northwest and was going to be at Norwescon. So while I was there, standing in line at a restaurant, I mentioned to Patrick Swenson (the editor of Talebones at the time) that Jay Lake was supposedly at the con and I really wanted to meet him. Patrick laughed and pointed to a crazily dressed, somewhat loud fellow behind us in line. “That’s him there.”

It was a match made in heaven. Or maybe a match lit in hell. It was one of those rare “just add imagination” instant friendships. Our muses got on well. So did our senses of humor. And as we got to know each other—and as I settled into the Portland area—we started hanging out more and more. For most of a decade, we ate lunch together weekly at the Barley Mill on Hawthorne. I do not know how many tons of Cajunized tatertots we ate, chased with an ocean of iced tea, over the years. He inspired—or dared, or cajoled, or solicited for anthologies—at least a third of my short story inventory. He dared me to take two of those short stories and bend them into Lamentation and the rest of the Psalms of Isaak. My checkered past as a former boy preacher fascinated him and he frequently referred to me as his spiritual director though we shared a very similar worldview as secular humanists. Though to be honest, most of his spiritual direction involved me offering advice and a listening ear around his love life. Still, I liked the title and was happy to be there for him.

He was one my closest friends.

Jay died two months ago after a long, hard, losing battle with cancer. Before he went, the internet exploded with testimonies of love and pictures of Jay out in the world being himself. It was an outpouring from our tribe the likes of which I’ve never been so close to before in my life. But I get why.

Jay loved people and spent himself for them. He helped a lot of writers find their way, find their voice, find markets and he entertained the masses with his words and with his playful way in the world. And he lived transparently, letting the world see him at his best and his worst. He even made his cancer an open book, inviting others to experience it through him and find something they needed—a connection to him, encouragement in their own illness or the illnesses of their loved ones, a sense of perspective. He cared and he did what he could do to help others along the way. And he told amazing stories. Turned loose with a blank page, Jay would fill it up out of the depths of who he was and, as his mojo increased with practice, he’d find a home for his words out in the world.

I’m still coming up out of the fog of this loss. It hit me differently—harder even—than some of the others I’ve faced over the last several years. The idea that he’s gone is unfathomable to me and my memories of him live everywhere. His books are in my den. Photos he took of my daughters hang on my hallway walls. And then of course, there’s the more direct contact. More than memory, something like time travel. Jay, in 2008, when he was first diagnosed…wrote me a letter.

It arrived last week.

I guess I checked out, the letter begins. Sorry, buddy. I love you.

There was more…logistics around writing stuff and funeral arrangements, things already nailed down in conversations over his six year fight with cancer. And then he closed asking me to keep an eye on his daughter and to love my wife and all my kids, both literary and human.

They surely won’t be the last words I read of Jay’s, but they are his last words to me and after I wiped my eyes from that sense of finality, I put the letter into my treasure box, high on the treasure shelf in the Den of Ken. It lives there now with my letters from Ray Bradbury and James Stewart and the other mementos I’ve picked up along the way.

There will never be another Jay Lake.

Oh, I miss my friend.

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Missing Jay Lake

JA Pitts copyright Janna Silverstein
By J. A. Pitts

I lost one of my very best friends recently and the hole it has left in my life has yet to close. It will take a while, I’m sure, due to the nature of the friendship and the powerful connection we had.

I’m a writer. I’ve been one nearly all my life. I remember falling in love with story from my very first memories. Jay Lake was a consummate story teller, whether on his blog, his short stories, his novels, or just over the phone. That was the first thing that clicked between us: craft and story. We shared a language, a secret mission, a vocation, and an obsession. We wanted to change the world with our words. And Jay was further along that highway than I, but there were plenty of times that we stopped and shared directions—where he would ensure I knew of the speed traps and the rough roads ahead. That was his gift, a willingness to share his life in all its raging glory, with anyone who needed a boost or a guide.

I’ve always had an image in my head of an open field with snow covered mountains in the distance. With this as a backdrop, I imagine my two best friends—Ken Scholes and Jay Lake—and me, with giant feathered Icarus wings straining upward in an achingly blue sky, wings beating toward the sun. Jay is in the far lead, his arms outstretched and his long hair flowing behind him as he dares to breach the heavens. Next is Ken, leaded boots falling away from him as his wings dip in a strong pull to thrust him skyward… and me, on the ground, struggling with the bootstraps, my wings poised and ready once I understand how to lose the artificial weights that kept me pinned to the earth.

This was a metaphor for our writing careers. Jay had already learned to stretch his wings and soar above the clouds by the time I’d met him. He knew what he wanted and despite the demons we all battle, had found his voice and was pushing as hard as his wings could go to get above the rim of the world and into the stars.

I always admired that about him. Now, don’t get me wrong, he struggled like the rest of us, but it was his clear vision, his dedication, and his driving passion that allowed me to love him.

Jay had given up much in his life to further his writing—everything from television to board games—expending every available moment on his blog, his relationships, and most of all, his stories. He was a man who did what he had to to provide for his family and yet found ample time to pursue his dreams.

And what dreams they were—clowns and spaceships, lost children and clockwork men. He had an imagination unfettered by social fear or societal expectations. If you’ve never heard him read one of his own works, you have missed a visceral experience. Whether it was barbecue in the old west with Satan himself, or the creepy and terrifying Goat Cutter, Jay had a way of pulling the strings of our fears and our loves and showing them back to us, like a still beating heart in the tight fist of his storytelling.

Everything he did shone with the light of his passion. He was a prolific writer, blogging and writing millions upon millions of words in his lifetime. I never understood how he had the time or even the brain space to put that many words down on the written page in a given time. His example pushed me to hone my skills, dedicate precious time to learning craft, practicing the hard things and generally reaching into the heart of the void to bring forth characters and stories that have altered lives.

And isn’t that the most glorious aspect of it all? Hell, I miss him and can’t say that I’ll never stop being surprised to find him gone from my life, but I also know he touched a lot of people. His words and his love have changed lives across the world, and that is exactly the dream he sought to fulfill.

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Jay Lake In Memoriam

Locus Magazine
Written by Liza Groen Trombi, Editor-in-Chief of Locus Magazine

Jay Lake was something of a wonder in the genre community. He was an incredibly prolific writer, with a wild imagination and a versatile talent that allowed him to range freely in his fiction. He was also one of the most vibrant and generous people I’ve ever known.

His conversations were like his fiction, full of sundry, rich, and engrossing details about life. He told stories about his past adventures, his work, his daughter, of whom he was so proud and for whom he worked so hard. He would talk late into the night and had no inhibitions about telling the private and entertaining details of his life. He was passionate about the things he believed in, but he also tried to find wisdom in the world around him and that made him a kind friend and counsel. He befriended people easily and made clear efforts to “pay it forward” to the science fiction community.

As to his writing… In the short time from his first publication in 2001 till his death in 2014, he published ten novels, five collections, and over 300 short stories, with his first novel, Rocket Science, coming out in 2005. I remember Jay telling me once that while writing he always held the whole story inside his head—beginning to end. He described building that capacity to contain story from when he was first starting to write, working up from short stories to novelettes and novellas, and when he finally could hold a whole novel in his head, he seemed unstoppable. Even after being diagnosed with cancer in 2008, he kept up a mighty pace. The first year he had chemotherapy, he wrote about a quarter-million words, despite painful and disconcerting disruptions to his ability to write. His final work, which, unfinished, will undoubtedly never see print, was a massive space opera trilogy, the Sunspin series, planned at over 600,000 words with 11 points of view and 25 significant characters, broken into three books each in three parts. In 2011, he told me, “Essentially I’m writing nine 60- to 80,000-word novels… What I’m really doing is giving cancer the bird.”

He left us a legacy of intimate details of his fight against the cancer that finally killed him, blogging about his experiences with cancer treatment and writing stories about grief and sickness. He and friends crowdfunded to have his entire genome sequenced, and then he made the data available to the public, the first time that has ever been done, in hopes that the information might help future cancer research. He openly described online the rollercoaster his life turned into once his mortality was brought close, to bring understanding to people who had never experienced cancer. An entire generation of the SF community watched his struggle with cancer on his blog and were brought closer together because of it.

Our friendship’s native habitat was at conventions; as a result it has not fully sunk in for me that I won’t have any more long, late-night conversations with him, or run into him at a party, or be swept into a crowd of laughing people in a hallway with him at the center. We’ve all seen a huge outpouring of affection and remembrance for Jay since his death, but his work as a SF writer, as an anthologist, an essayist, his contributions to the field, and the impact he had on the community will not go away. His works will live on and be read, and we will remember this exemplary writer and friend who lived his life fully and left us a legacy of story. Vale, Jay.

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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!