Friday, October 29, 2010

Things I like in SF #2: alien aliens

I'm not sure if this is a reaction to Star Trek, or a reaction to Tolkienesque fantasy, or something else entirely, but I like it when the aliens in my SF actually feel alien. I'm not just talking about them looking alien (although obviously that helps). I'm talking about alien psychology. It seems to me that so much of the way we think is influenced by our environment that I find it hard to believe that we'd have no trouble understanding a species evolved somewhere completely different.

Also, I'm not a fan of universal translators. At least, universal translators that work flawlessly. Everyone has played with Babelfish or some other online translator; you all know how bad they are, and that's on a single planet, amongst a single species. I don't know much about linguistics, but I do know that language is heavily influenced by culture, psychology, environment, and probably a dozen other things I haven't thought about. How the heck would you go about automatically translating something where none of those baselines were shared?

I suppose there are stories that this kind of thinking closes off for me. Assuming that alien-aliens is a hard and fast rule, of course (and I make no promises there!). No galactic clubs, where groups of aliens hang out and share knowledge and generally pal around. No Babylon 5. And maybe that's a pity.

Of course, it does provide opportunities. They can be excellent things for your characters to throw themselves against. How would we, as a species, respond to an alien race that we couldn't possibly communicate with? How would you respond to it? Unfathomable aliens can also make space feel really sinister -- they're out there, but what are they thinking? And would we like it if we knew?

Let me see if I can provide you with some examples where I've really enjoyed the aliens. There's "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang, which is all about alien psychology. "From Babel's Fallen Glory We Fled" has a good automatic translator in it. The aliens in Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space books are pretty darned alien. I suppose there's classics like Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, too.

Aaaaand that's probably enough reading for now!

Edit: it occurs to me on re-reading this post that it is basically just a long-winded way of saying that I like hard SF. Who knew?!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The postman is my friend

This arrived in the post a few days ago:

No idea yet if it is likely to be of any use. Normally I'd shy away from Complete Idiot's Guides to anything, but this one was written by Cory Doctorow (who seems like a pretty smart guy) and Karl Schroeder (whose work on Sun of Suns and Metatropolis blew my mind). 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Maybe you know that November is NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. The NaNoWriMo goal is to write a 50,000 word novel, from scratch, in a month. The idea, as I understand it, is to encourage people to write without worrying about what they're writing. It's for all those people who don't finish things because they spend too long tweaking, or too much time worrying that their writing is crap. The only way that 50,000 words in a month is even remotely possible, I gather, is if you don't stop to think about it.

I'm not going to take part in NaNoWriMo. I don't want to write a novel at the moment, and I think that 50,000 words in a month is an impossible target for me. But I like the idea; I've lost count of the number of times I've started to write something, and ended up stopping because I'm afraid I'm writing rubbish. I'm sick of doing that. I want to finish something. It will be rubbish, but hopefully I'll gain some insight into why.

So, I give you SSWriMo: Short Story Writing Month. My goal is to write 20,000 words worth of short stories in the month of November. That's probably something like four stories, at a very satisfying rate of 666 words a day. 

Now 20,000 words is probably just as unreachable as 50,000. It's job season for astronomers, so I've got about a million job applications to write. They're obviously going to take priority. But I'm going to give it a shot. I'll try to keep you updated on my progress here, although there's a good chance it'll devolve into posts about word count and not much else. Every word written for this blog is a word that isn't going into a short story, after all!

Some ideas that are currently percolating in my brain: the first close-up look at a neutron star, a dangerous criminal loose aboard the World Train, and a dream I had that co-starred William Shatner.

Seriously, William Shatner. Awesome.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Paul McAuley update: "The Thought War"

Alright, I've read Paul McAuley's "The Thought War", in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Three, edited by the consistently excellent Jonathan Strahan. I promised I'd tell you what I thought.

I liked it. A lot.

Here are some reasons why I think maybe I liked this one where I'm less excited about McAuley's novels:

  • It's told in the first person, and I think maybe I sometimes have difficulty with the way McAuley writes in third person limited (at least, I think he's writing in third person limited...).
  • It's about not one but two (and possibly three) physics ideas, all handled well.
  • It's an idea story (or, really, ideas story), and so characterisation is less of a big deal.
  • It's a good zombie story, and considering how irregularly those three words run up against each other like that, it must be doing something special.
  • It's got unfathomable aliens, and that's how I like my aliens.
  • It's really punchy, with a killer last line.

Lessons from this one: short is very, very good. A well delivered sting in the tail is totally awesome. Never ever write zombie stories unless your zombies are really, really, really different.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Things I may have learnt from Paul McAuley

I've read four of Paul McAuley's novels -- Fairyland, The Quiet War, its sequel Gardens of the Sun, and I just finished Four Hundred Billion Stars (McAuley's first novel). I keep coming back to him because I think I like space opera and he's supposed to be good at it. I also think I like hard science fiction, and as a former botanist McAuley is well positioned to write it.

Thing is, I've never really loved what I've been reading. I didn't hate it either; it just hasn't grabbed me.

I'm not really sure why this is, but I've got a few ideas that I'm going to try laying out here. It comes down, I think, to McAuley's science and McAuley's characters. When I'm reading hard space operas those are the two things that are likely to drive me through the book -- how cool are the science-fictional ideas, and how interesting are the characters.

I mentioned that McAuley was a botanist. I'm a physicist, and so when I talk about whether a story is hard SF, I'm usually thinking about the author's treatment of the physics. McAuley, however, spends a lot of his hard SF time on botany. Details on ecosystems and genetically engineered gardens and things like that. I'm sure it's all clever, well thought-out stuff, but it just isn't a branch of science I'm interested in. Consequently, those bits don't really grab my attention. (Incidentally, I wonder if this is what it feels like when people who aren't particularly keen on science read any hard SF?)

So, if the science fictional ideas aren't really grabbing me, that leaves the characters. And again, I have trouble engaging. Partly I think it's the types of characters he tends to write (often cold, often outsiders who don't want to participate in events, often slaves to circumstance), and partly it's the way he writes them. What it comes down to is this: I don't really feel like I understand them. 

I'm going to stop here rather than try to dig deeper into McAuley's characters. Basically, I don't think I can speak intelligently about what I feel just yet. Maybe I'll come back to it in subsequent posts. For now, though, I think I have my take-home message: even if science is a prominent part of your story, you better make sure the other bits are enough to carry a reader through, because not everyone is going to be interested in the sciencey stuff.

(It may or may not interest you to know that I've got a Paul McAuley short story coming up next in the anthology I'm reading. It's called "The Thought War", in Jonathan Strahan's The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Three. I'll let you know what I think.)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Things I like in SF #1: vast distances and deep time

I felt a bit guilty about starting with a negative post, so Paul McAuley is going to have to wait. Instead, I give you the first in a possibly-continuing series: things I like in science fiction. 

Space is big (a phrase totally, deliciously ruined by Douglas Adams). I really like it when space operas can convey this vastness. There are billions of stars in our galaxy, but even if every one housed life the galaxy would still be mostly empty. You can hide just about anything out there, and it wouldn't even require much effort. There's something about that emptiness that really grabs my imagination. We're totally insignificant when pitted against it. It's menacing. And depending entirely on your perspective, it's completely quiet, or alive with the noise of the galaxy.

Predictably, I'm not very fond of faster than light travel. For one, it sets my physics-brain on edge (FTL automatically gives you time travel, and so if you've got one I want to know about the consequences of the other!). But mostly it slices out all that distance, all that lovely inky void.

If you've got huge distances and no FTL, then going anywhere is going to take a ridiculously long time. Even exchanging a digital handshake with someone living at our nearest stellar neighbour would take almost a decade. I love reading about what these massive time periods do to people. What's it like knowing you won't have an answer for seven hundred years? What's it like if every time you take a trip somewhere, hundreds or thousands of years pass before you're back in civilisation? How much do you forget? How do you keep some sense of continuity? Deep freezes, time dilation, cultural dislocation, altered perceptions of time, maintaining networks across impossible distances, the reality of staggeringly long life-spans; I love all that stuff.

Now I've got some reading for you. Here are some examples of stories that I think do vast distances and/or deep time well. A short story: Galactic North, by Alastair Reynolds. A novelette: The Island, by Peter Watts (this won the Hugo this year). A novella: The Days of Solomon Gursky, by Ian McDonald. And a novel: Saturn Returns (the first of the Astropolis books), by Sean Williams.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

I've got to start somewhere

Hey-yo. First posts are awkward, so I'm just going to dive straight in. I like to read genre fiction. Mostly science fiction, with a smattering of fantasy and other stuff on the side. I've decided it's time for me to get a bit more systematic about it -- I'd like to refine my ideas about what I like, and what I don't like. I'd like to understand why I like those things. And I'd like to collect in one place my observations about writing, and other little snippets that get me thinking.

I figure if I try to write these things down, then I'll be forced to think about them more critically than I usually do. That's why I'm starting this blog. There's another purpose behind all this, but if it's cool with you I don't really want to talk about it too much at this stage. Mostly for fear of jinxing myself. You can probably guess what it is, though.

So why should you read this? Let's be honest: at this stage, you probably shouldn't bother. There are a gabillion people nattering away on the internet, and many of them will be a lot more insightful and interesting than me. If you do decide to stick around, though, I'd really appreciate your help. I'd love it if you'd call me on it when I'm talking crap. And maybe point out when I've said something that makes sense (if that ever happens). Hopefully you can help me refine my ideas a bit. In return, maybe I'll be able to introduce you to some new stories or authors.

I'm going to try very, very hard to get at least one post up every week. Most of them will be about science fiction and/or writing, but I can't guarantee that I won't occasionally be driven to talk about other stuff. Up first, later this week, my thoughts on why I never quite get Paul McAuley's books.