content by

James Davis Nicoll

Why Read Old Books?

One fifth of the books I review on my site were published between 1974 and 1981. Others are of a more recent but still venerable vintage. Why, in a world where each passing day sees another wave of new books, would anyone bother with older fiction? Given that staying current with any genre is a Red Queen’s Race, time devoted to older works means falling behind at keeping abreast of recent works… so why bother?

Here are—can you guess the number?—at least five sufficient reasons, even leaving aside “because I want to.”

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Architects! Threat or Menace?

Few at the University of Waterloo could name the architects responsible for Needles Hall. Yet many who have had to use the administrative services located in that building must have paused to admire the seemingly non-Euclidian geometries of the stairs leading up from the ground level. Perhaps some have misstepped during their assent and vanished into Narnia. Not to worry! Modern universities have automated tuition payment.

Architects and designers are as mortal as any other humans, but their works may provide a limited form of immortality.

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Five SF Stories About Facing Unforeseen Planetary Disasters

I recently read and enjoyed Cody J. Shakespeare and Jason H. Steffen’s effervescent “Day and Night: Habitability of Tidally Locked Planets with Sporadic Rotation.” They explain that potentially habitable planets orbiting red dwarf stars would need to be close enough to their suns that tide locking—explanation here—would be inevitable. Red dwarfs being the most common type of stars, it follows that tide-locked worlds could be the most common variety of potentially habitable worlds. The traditional view is that libration aside, a tide-locked world’s orientation with respect to its sun would be very stable over long periods. Thus the old notion that all the volatiles would inevitably solidify and precipitate onto the forever night side (not actually the case, as even a thin atmosphere can transfer heat surprisingly well).

Shakespeare and Steffen’s model suggests that under certain conditions, tide-locked worlds can “flip,” reorienting themselves so that what was once in night is now in day, and what was formerly illuminated is now in shadow. This would be accompanied by extraordinary climate change. Even more impressively, it would occur over what are short time scales, even by human standards.

While this is terrible news for anyone living on a world orbiting a red dwarf—particularly if they don’t want to adapt their agriculture from Saharan heat to Antarctic cold overnight—this sort of process is a godsend for SF authors. All one needs to do is plant a human community on such a world (perhaps because the humans no longer believe in due diligence, because they were defrauded, or because they had no choice), orchestrate a flip and watch plot ensue. It practically writes itself. Or it will, once news of the paper percolates through the SF community.

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Notable Works of Non-Fiction Written by SFF Authors

At first glance, it might appear that in an ideal world, comparative advantage would rule our every decision. Each person would spend their lives doing the one thing they are best at, allowing other people to focus on that which they are best at. The triumph of efficiency would ensure universal happiness! At least, it would if we lived in an Econ 101 world. Rather tragically for first-year econ majors, we do not.

In the world in which we are actually living, humans are often happier if they pursue a variety of activities. Thus, the subject of this piece: speculative fiction authors who also write non-fiction. The overlap is not that surprising, given that one of the most productive work-avoidance strategies for fiction writers is endless research. Turning research into a diverting non-fiction text is a perfectly valid way to avoid writing the next book your publisher expects from you! For that and other reasons, speculative fiction abounds with authors who have also written non-fiction.

Perhaps examples would be useful. Here are four classic examples and one very modern one.

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Five Surprisingly Devoted SFF Couples

Science fiction and fantasy (and various other genres) often feature couples whose affection for each other is unassailable, thanks to the unparalleled virtues possessed by both of the partners. However, there are also great romances that are notable because the people involved are NOT peerless paragons who are easy to love. Rather, these relationships are memorable because one partner’s deep flaws in no way inhibit the other’s sincere love.

Perhaps some examples would be appropriate. Here are five.

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Five Stories About the Unintended Consequences of Time Travel

The past is either mutable or it is fixed. If you are writing a story about time travel, whether you pick mutable or fixed, you’re going to have to deal with disquieting consequences.

If history is immutable, you cannot fix the horrors of the past, but it is also the case that you cannot make your now worse. The timeline from which you started will stay the same. If you can tweak history, perhaps calamities can be prevented: the Challenger could be saved, the Titanic diverted, any number of terrible calamities prevented by the most trifling intervention. But if you step on the wrong butterfly, the world from which you started could be erased…

Immutable? Mutable? The authors of the following five works explored both…

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Five Classic SF Stories About Letting A.I. Do All the Work

Who among us has not sat back from some fulfilling, entertaining activity and thought “If only a machine could spare me this enjoyable task so that I could focus on onerous duties, or simply perish from ennui?” What paradise it would be to have all that is pleasurable in life relegated to mindless, unfeeling machines!

Sadly, in the real world, most of us are still months—even years!—away from finding our jobs and hobbies automated away. In this, as with so many other modern tragedies, science fiction authors have our backs. Consider these five everyday activities, reimagined by classic SF authors as robot work.

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Five SF Stories of Science Unimpeded by Safety Concerns

Is it possible that our modern preoccupation with safety has stripped much of the fun from modern life? Children are no longer permitted to ride automobile running boards until they are flung off, home chemistry sets omit the more interesting lanthanides, and it’s a rare grade-schooler who gets to play with dynamite these days…

Worse yet, this collective embrace of a more sensible, risk-averse approach to life could even be impeding technological progress. It’s no surprise, therefore, that some visionary SF writers have had their protagonists give the one-fingered Mudra of Contempt to putting regulation before pursuing progress at any cost. Such ambition has inspired the following five works.

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The Doctor Is In: Five SFF Stories Featuring Therapists

As I’ve previously mentioned, many fictional characters are as reluctant to resort to therapy as Americans are to use the metric system. These characters instead resort to ad-hoc self-treatments that are about as dubious as measuring radiation in terms of bananas. But there are still a few fictional characters who embrace therapy. You might be interested in the following five works that feature psychological counseling.

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Five SF Novels About Going on Vacation

Even the most dedicated Stakhanovite must occasionally take time off to recharge their batteries. But one must admit that vacations can sometimes be less than relaxing—sometimes they feel more like ordeals to be endured. Fictional vacations can be even more fraught. If they’re to keep readers interested, authors are likely to ratchet up the drama and suspense…although one author below found an entirely different way to entice readers. For your consideration: five SF novels about vacations.

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Take a Minute to Celebrate the Forgotten Greats of Science Fiction

Time is nobody’s friend. Authors in particular can fall afoul of time—all it takes is a few years out of the limelight. Publishers will let their books fall out of print; readers will forget about them. Replace “years” with “decades” and authors can become very obscure indeed.

The Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award was founded in 2001 to draw attention to unjustly forgotten SF authors. It is a juried award; the founding judges were Gardner Dozois, Robert Silverberg, Scott Edelman, and John Clute. The current judges are Ann VanderMeer, Richard Horton, Steven H Silver, and Grant Thiessen. Since it’s been five years (and there have been four new recipients) since we last discussed the award in 2018, I’ve updated the discussion to include the newest honorees—including the most recent winner, announced this past weekend at Readercon.

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Five SFF Novels That Will Make You Long for a Breath of Fresh Air

Having spent some of my formative years in London during the latter days of its glorious smogs, Canadian air has often proved disappointing. What is the value of fresh, clean air one can breathe easily? Air that is eerily invisible to the eye? Air that doesn’t cover exposed surfaces with a layer of soot? Happily, decades of clear-eyed world environmental policy seem to be paying off in the form of choking, eye-watering smoke drifting to nations across the northern hemisphere.

For your consideration, here are some SF novels about air.

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Five Reasons To Finish a Book You Don’t Love

A recent online discussion of a particular book series attracted a comment that caught my eye. The commenter disliked the series in question. They had also read all the books in the series. This seems paradoxical. A moment’s reflection reveals that it is not. Here are five perfectly valid reasons (well, four valid reasons and a logical error) for persisting with a series that’s unsuited to personal tastes.

Usually, these essays have examples but I sense authors may not want their works cited as the literary equivalent of cod liver oil, so I’ll keep this discussion more general…

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Five Classic SF Stories About Invasive Species

“Invasive species” is such a judgmental term. After all, it’s the nature of life to spread when it can. Humans, originally found in Africa but now global, could be seen as invasive. Is it so terrible if other species follow our example—if zebra mussels find their way into the Great Lakes, if Argentine ants find extraordinary success in Europe, or if walking, carnivorous Triffids kill and eat unwary English people? The consensus appears to be “yes,” given how invasive species are treated in science fiction and fantasy.

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