Saturday, September 15, 2007

Seriously Weird

Among the science-fictional paradigms named in the mundane SF crowd’s fatwah are time-travel and parallel universes. David Toomey’s The New Time Travellers: A Journey to the Frontiers of Physics is a superb examination of ideas that are gaining serious scientific attention, including the possibility that time travel and the multiple worlds theory are two sides of the same coin. The kind of stuff, in fact, that helped me put in some solid foundations to the multiverse of Cowboy Angels.

Friday, September 14, 2007


For some reason, my local library, in the 1970s, had all of Brautigan's novels. And I read them all. So when I read this, I found the secondhand copy of Trout Fishing In America I bought in Vancouver, and read:

I thought to myself what a lovely nib trout fishing in America would make with a stroke of cool green trees along the river's shore, wild flowers and dark fins pressed against the paper.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


The images from Cassini's flyby of Iapetus that I was very much looking forward to closely analysing (trans: ripping off) has been delayed by a galactic cosmic ray hit that tripped a solid state power switch and sent the spacecraft into safe mode. What could be more science-fictional?

Borderline Anxiety (2)

Whenever mainstream or literary fiction dares to trespass on territory that science fiction considers its own, reaction from within the field ranges from the kind of hooting animosity displayed by apemen contesting ownership of a waterhole in the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, through serene indifference, to the craven capitulation of The Simpsons' news anchor, Kent Brockman: ‘I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords . . .’

Paul Kincaid’s recent column in Bookslut is, unfortunately, a pretty good example of Brockmanism. After discussing use of a medical procedure as a plot device in Graham Swift’s novel Tomorrow, Kincaid, previously the administrator of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, goes on to imply that literary fiction may be doing a better job of portraying real science and real scientists than science fiction. While science was once ‘one of the things that cut science fiction off from the rest of literature,’ he says, now it’s ‘ordinary and about something.’ Further, now that ‘the transcendence, the wonder that were handy terms when talking about big concept sf have been taken seriously and science fiction has become almost an ecstatic experience . . . perhaps it’s a good thing that the mainstream has discovered the scientist -- because science fiction seems to have lost him.’

The insect overlords have taken up SF’s most treasured theme! Surrender at once! Round up the usual suspects and set them to work in the underground sugar caves of our new masters!

Well, it’s certainly true that literary fiction is paying more attention to science these days. And the idea that, as science becomes normalised and incorporated into the tropes of literary fiction, so SF has retreated into a kind of mystic ecstasy, is an interesting one. Unfortunately, it’s completely false. And Kincaid’s attempts to justify it don’t hold water for a second.

In discussing literary novels that feature scientists, Kincaid ranges over the past sixty-fifty years (it should be noted that he mistakenly attributes authorship of his earliest example, The Small Back Room (1942), to Nevil Shute; in fact, it was written by Nigel Balchin, and Balchin’s scientist hero was no boffin or administrator, remote from ordinary human experience, but a genuinely tortured soul). Yet after claiming that ‘we seem to be seeing fewer and fewer scientists in science fiction’, and telling us that SF is disappearing up its own transcendental fundament, Kincaid gives only one supposed example of this trend, M. Rickert’s Map of Dreams (2006). I confess that I haven’t yet read it. But I have Googled it. It’s a fantasy novella. It’s clearly labelled as a fantasy novella, and is published in a small press collection of fantasy stories. Its time-travel may well be achieved through what Kincaid describes as ‘a mixture of amateurism and mysticism’, but it can’t typify his claim that SF is retreating from realism for the simple reason that it isn’t SF.

And even if Rickert’s novella was SF, it doesn’t take much thought to come up with a hefty list of SF novels from the past decade, much less the past sixty-five years, that have dealt with science and scientists in a serious, realistic, and sympathetic manner. Here are a few, more or less off the top of my head: Stephen Baxter’s Moonseed; Greg Bear’s Vitals; Gregory Benford’s Cosm, Eater, and The Martian Race; Greg Egan’s Teranesia and Schild’s Ladder; Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica, and his climate change trilogy; Bruce Sterling’s Distraction. As I have no shame, I’ll also mention my own The Secret Of Life and White Devils. I’m sure that you can think of many more, but I hope this little list is enough to convince you that SF has neither ‘lost’ the scientist, nor its interest in rigorous, serious, and thrillingly speculative explorations of the outer reaches of science and technology. Of course, some SF does have a problem with keeping abreast of science’s rapidly advancing cutting edge, but I think I’ll reserve that topic for another time.
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