Category Archives: Science Fiction

An Informal Survey of Analog Magazines

I may have mentioned that I inherited my cousin’s collection of Analog magazines a while back, and now have (as far as I can tell) a complete set spanning from October 1958 through July/August 2008. Those are the dates when he started subscribing and I stopped, he having given up on Analog sometime around 2000.

In early December, Carl and I got to talking about a particularly awful story that had appeared in Analog sometime late in that period, and was in hindsight one of the reasons I stopped reading it regularly and then stopped subscribing altogether. I couldn’t remember the title, so spent a couple hours looking at the tables of contents of every issue from July/August 2008 back to around January 1990 to find it, along with a number of the teaser blurbs that appear on the splash pages for individual items.

While I somehow did not find the story in question, I did inadvertently obtain an interesting “statistical” feel for the magazine’s common threads over that period. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to devote to a proper analysis, so I’ll just list a few of my observations:

  • The scientist-in-obscure-field as protagonist, used to the point of cliche; the most transparent offenders are writers who are scientists in obscure fields themselves (blatant author insertion);
  • Related, the chronic overuse of academic or institutional internal politics as a backdrop or plot device, as if every reader understands or cares about the inside baseball of tenure panels, thesis committees, research funding allocations, faculty lounges, etc.;
  • The (mis)use of the same small set of scientific concepts, over and over, as plot devices;
  • The cringe-inducing generation of “new” SF gimmicks by appending “quantum”, “nano”, “cyber”, “crypto”, “neo”, or other cheesy prefix to some threadbare old gimmick;
  • Overuse of the same underlying plot theme – in particular, every month seemed to have a story whose blurb centered on “adaptation”, and the related blurbs were reused nearly word-for-word in multiple issues;
  • I got confused a couple of times while searching by the similarity of the stories in one issue with an issue several months or years apart, thinking I’d mistakenly picked up an issue I’d already skimmed through;
  • There were far more non-SF stories disguised as SF than what I remembered reading at the time – romance stories, cozy mysteries, fantasy, spy-thrillers, whatever, with a thin veneer of Science! pasted onto them in a way that is lazy and immaterial to the story.
  • Stories aside, the art of this period (compared to that of the 1950s and 1960s) is unremittingly awful – amateurish mechanics with bad composition and lurid colors occasionally alternating with the latest awkwardly-angled view of the same meticulously smeared spaceship. And that’s just on the covers.

I should have written this up at the time, as I’m sure there are other observations I’ve since forgotten. But now I’m re-thinking my abandoned plan to read and review each issue in the set in chronological order – that’s still not a realistic plan (there are something like 600 issues involved), but given what I saw in the 1990-2008 part of the collection, a statistical sample of one randomly-chosen issue per year may be sufficient.

As for the story I couldn’t find, it had something to do with a colony world where long-departed aliens had left behind a handful of Gort-like robots. These robots would occasionally appear in the colony and kill anyone who failed to freeze into certain ritualized poses or seek shelter in a certain park. A grieving mother loses her mind and launches into an emotional tirade at one of them, which despite their having shown known ability to communicate with humans moves them to desist. It was noteworthy to me in part for being one of those stories where so much essential information is left out that you feel like you’re reading part of a series or a chapter yanked from a novel you haven’t read, and in part because of the maudlin emotional incontinence of the protagonist, and in part because despite the superficial SF context of the story, the resolution of the conflict centers on her teary outburst rather than logic or reason applied to the problem. Or so that’s how I remember the story – I really wanted to re-read it to see how accurate my recollection was.

The Trouble With Science Popularizers

More people are starting to notice the problems with Bill Nye:

The trouble with science popularizers in general is that by nature, the job entails talking about a wider range of technical topics than any individual can fully comprehend at the level necessary to discuss them competently. While an expert in one field can speak intelligently about closely-related fields, the further away from one’s own expertise one travels, the more difficult that task becomes. And it’s even worse if a man in that role is a textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, so assured of his superior intellect that he is incapable of recognizing that he is in fact a fool.

Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson inspired a character in another “Dispatches from Mars” story Carl and I are trying to finish up – a character who as a science popularizer and a man is the opposite of these two.

The big difference between the fictional Silas Hudson and these two is that he learned very early on, when he fell into a career as a public personality on the back of a book and related video series, that it’s easy for any expert to fall prey to the temptation to speak authoritatively about fields of which he has lesser, little, or even no knowledge. After publicly embarrassing himself, he redeemed his image by hiring a research staff to vet his scripts and books with true subject matter experts, and by conscientiously acknowledging the limits of what he personally understood. In other words, he started off as a young man with an enormous ego, humiliated himself as a result of that ego, and learned a bit of humility and ethics from the experience – humility that improved his ‘product’ greatly.

I’m actually disappointed that we have to kill him off. But when you’re writing a murder mystery, someone has to be the victim.

Ringworld on Amazon

This is interesting news – Amazon is adapting Ringworld:

“Ringworld,” a co-production with MGM, is based on Larry Niven’s sci-fi book series from the 70’s. It tells the story of Louis Gridley Wu, a bored man celebrating his 200th birthday in a technologically-advanced, future Earth. Upon being offered one of the open positions on a voyage, Louis joins a young woman and two aliens to explore Ringworld, the remote artificial ring beyond “Known Space.”

It’s nice to see SF adaptations being made from books I’ve actually read for a change. It’s anyone’s guess whether it will actually turn out well (I think it will be challenging, both to make the story work on the screen and to represent the setting both accurately and compellingly), or whether Amazon will look at the projected budget necessary to pull it off and back off instead. But given how good a job they’ve done with The Man in the High Castle, I’m willing to get my hopes up for this one.

What’s interesting, though, is that Ringworld is not a very long story. I could see it filling out ten episodes…but then what? Do they do all this work developing the backstory of Known Space and a couple of its recurring characters just for a single season, or do they continue on with the other Ringworld books, and perhaps branch out into the other stories and novels set in the Known Space universe?

That has some interesting potential, and is akin to my thoughts after re-reading The Mote in God’s Eye this summer. It struck me then that the Co-Dominium universe (and particularly the period in which the Mote novels and King David’s Spaceship are set) is ripe for adaptation as a series in the High Castle format. Only, instead of telling the Mote stories right away, build up through a combination of existing and new material over the first 10-12 episode season. These episodes could include KDS, along with the revolt and suppression of New Chicago, leading up to a cliffhanger involving the appearance of the Crazy Eddie Probe and setting the stage for a second season based entirely on TMIGE. The early episodes gradually introduce the technology, future history, and sociopolitical setting along the way, so that narrative dumps don’t bog down the main story later on.

We’ll have to wait a year and see how it turns out, if it makes it to the screen in the end.

Innovative Science Fiction

I may have to read this one – I have never seen these novel elements in science fiction before, let alone woven together in the same story. So original! I can’t even.

Now, after more than a century of exploring the stars, Keith Stoner returns to find that the world he has come back to does not match the one he left. The planet is suffering the consequences of disastrous greenhouse flooding. Most nations have been taken over by ultraconservative religion-based governments, such as the New Morality in the United States. With population ballooning and resources running out, Earth is heading for nuclear war. Stoner, the star voyager, wants to save Earth’s people. But first he must save himself from the frightened and ambitious zealots who want to destroy this stranger—and the terrifying message he brings from the stars.

Disappointing – it reads like a grab bag of threadbare 1970s SF cliches. I thought Bova was a little more creative than this. Or for that matter, creative. This is less imaginative than the mashup of lefty tropes in Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids.

AIAA Panel Discussion on Mars Settlement

Back in May, Carl and I sat on a panel at the AIAA Annual Technical Symposium in Houston. The panel was given a future scenario in advance, describing a number of technological and economic elements fifty years from now, just as Mars settlement is about to begin. During the luncheon, we were asked to consider a half-dozen questions relating to how Mars settlement might play out under the given scenario. In addition, there were 3-4 questions from the audience – regrettably, the camcorder battery ran out in the middle of my response to what I thought was the best question of the bunch.

It’s five clips, about an hour and a half in total.

Reminder: New Ares Project-Related Mars Stories on Kindle

At $0.99 apiece, they’re steals. Why would you not buy them both?

He Has Walled Me InHe Has Walled Me In

Recently recovered from a crippling illness, Leon Toa sets out on his first solo trip to Port Lowell. For any other Martian settler it would be a routine drive, but for Leon it’s a chance to rebuild his battered self-confidence and demonstrate his regained independence – both to his fellow settlers and to himself. When unseen forces interrupt his trip deep in an unpopulated and unexplored network of canyons, he must uncover the truth about his past before what’s left of his future runs out. An homage to H.P. Lovecraft’s “Within the Walls of Eryx”.

 

Dispatches from Mars – Anatomy of a Disaster: The Mars Environmental Works Catastrophe and the Death of Margaret Steadman

In this Dispatch, freelance journalist Calvin Lake explores the unlikely truth behind the worst industrial accident in Martian history: the destruction of Mars Environmental Works. Going beyond the bare facts and curiously self-interested evasions of the official Mars Development Authority inquest report, Lake’s account uses exclusive eyewitness and survivor interviews to paint a fuller picture of the catastrophe of April 1, 2050. A pun-ridden spoof of several science fiction tropes.

The next short story will be another of Calvin Lake’s Dispatches, this one concerning entrepreneur Jedediah Thoreson and his North Cap Water Pipeline project mentioned in Anatomy of a Disaster. Unlike that story, Pipeline will be a serious treatment of its topic. The Dispatches will be a series of essays on various aspects of life on Mars in the Ares Project fictional universe, written by fictional freelance journalist Calvin Lake (who will also play an important role in the upcoming Ghosts of Tharsis).

Half-Interesting Anthology

This collection put out by ASU’s Center for Science & the Imagination looks partly good: Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future

Judging by the blurbs, it’s a mix of hard SF by Benford and Stephenson, medium SF by Landis, Brin, and Doctorow, soft SF by some (to me) unknowns, and “pink” SF by io9.com SJWs Anders and Newitz. You know what you’re going to get from the five big-name authors, and that it likely will be worthwhile, but you also know what you’re going to get from the two SJWs, and that it likely won’t.

That leaves the unknowns. Ordinarily I would be intrigued enough by the big-name authors to give the others a try, but the presence of Anders and Newitz signals to me that the unknowns might turn out to be little more than half-competent leftist groupthink peddlers. I’d hate to shell out $10.99 for an e-book (!) only to end up feeling suckered into buying a bunch of preachy social justice/environmentalist propaganda.

(Aside: the site design there is terrible. If visitors have to apply conscious effort to sort out the structure and content from dog’s breakfast of distracting graphical overdesign, you’re doing it wrong.)

New Short Story: “He Has Walled Me In”

He Has Walled Me In - Cover ImageTired of waiting for the sequel? Wondering when or if we’ll ever be done with it? (We will, still working on it.) Well, here’s a little something to tide you over: “He Has Walled Me In”

Leon Toa sets out on what for any other Martian settler would be a routine drive to Port Lowell. When unseen forces interrupt his trip, he must uncover the truth about his past before what’s left of his future runs out.

To give a bit more detail, our protagonist’s trip is as much a business necessity as it is a personal one, meant to rebuild his self-confidence after he survives a disabling illness.  A static discharge damages his rover en route, and he is lured into a life-threatening mystery he must think his way out of.

The story takes place in the Ares Project universe at the time of In the Shadow of Ares, and was inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s “Within the Walls of Eryx” (no spoilers – the two are quite different). At 15,000 words it’s a fairly long short story, so you get your money’s worth at $1.50.

 

The Aliens are Coming! Again…

Fans of big budget, cheesy Sci-Fi will be glad to learn that the first trailer is out for Independence Day: Resurgence.  It’s due in theaters June 2016, and picks up 20 years after the initial attack.  My personal hope is for something more serious than the original.  Roland Emmerich returns to direct, although he and Dean Devlin only get a character credit.  The screenplay is by Carter Blanchard,  James A Woods and Nicholas Wright, all with paper-thin writing credits so it’s hard to know what to expect.

Anyway, the official site has some interesting backstory details that had me intrigued.  First is the alternate timeline.  Picking up in 1996, and anticipating an eventual return by the invaders, the surviving Earthlings have adopted the aliens’ technology and have been preparing.  Apparently we have a Moon base and also bases on Mars and Saturn’s moon Rhea.

Additionally, there is also a reference to the impact of alien technology on consumer gadgets.  That sounded particularly intriguing at first, until I read the details that mention “breakout consumer products that were inspired by alien weaponry – including the touchscreen smartphone, bladeless fans, drones, and airport security scanners”.  OK, that’s as stupid as it is disappointing.

Still, I’ll try to reserve judgment for the final product.  As much as I am hoping for more realistic science fiction like what we were recently treated to with The Martian, I don’t mind the occasional alien shoot-em-up.

This is Good News

This looks like a positive development: Syfy is Releasing a Film, De-Rebranding, and Becoming Super Interesting

Some 18 months later, what the mandate looks like is increasingly clear. The Expanse is the network’s showcase science fiction series, taking a series of popular recent SF novels and turning them into the sort of show that hasn’t really been seen on television before. It’s also aiming for a fantasy hit with The Magicians, a series based on Lev Grossman’s fantastic trilogy, a joyously dark post-modern remix of fantasy tropes (after Thrones, Harry Potter, and LOTR, it may have been one of the hottest fantasy licenses around).

Syfy’s miniseries plans are also indicative: Last year’s Ascension and this year’sChildhood’s End are both classic science fiction, the latter an adaptation one of the best-known SF novels of all time. Just yesterday, Syfy announced two seasons of a new anthology horror series: Channel Zero. With this, Syfy has rebuilt the third pillar of speculative fiction: horror, to go alongside science fiction and fantasy. (Superhero stories have arguably become a fourth pillar of SF, recently, and Syfy no doubt would be interested in getting in on that action if possible.)

In other words, Syfy is betting on quality.

Lost its soul, indeed. I never did understand why the network abandoned the niche that they had a lock on in favor of general-market prolefeed garbage like the wrestling and “reality” shows already saturating other channels. It made about as much sense to me as what Yahoo! did to Flickr a couple years ago. And by canceling shows like Universe and Caprica just as they were getting interesting and strangling Blood and Chrome in the crib*, in favor of schlock like Camelwhaledingopotamusquito II: Chimera Boogaloo , it wasn’t merely that they abandoned the genre, it’s that they appeared to be actively working to wreck it just when other channels were discovering it and making serious efforts at serious productions.

So it’s good to see this change, but it’s just a pity that it comes too late to save several promising properties. Not only the Stargate and BSG franchises, either – had they recommitted to serious SF when it counted, they might have been able to save Fox’s Sarah Connor Chronicles the way they did SG-1, and along with it possibly spared us from the most recent franchise movie as we’ve thus far been spared another Stargate movie from Devlin and Emmerich.

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* — Yes, you saw what I did there.