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.

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