Category Archives: Speculative Fiction

Science Fiction and Fantasy, past, present, and what might be written.

There! E-Books done.

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At least all the non-fiction I can find. Total: a few dozen over 2000. I’m allowing for finding and eliminating a few more duplicates in the database.

That does include a few fiction items, including those that are research. (Some just fell in accidentally, and in SKU you don’t worry about it.) A novel written about a war, while it’s going on, can tell you a good deal about attitudes, if not reality. A novel of a quiet period can give you a hundred details of everyday life, especially when you have several to compare. You need to figure out if someone’s behavior is kind of universally expected, or outrĂ©, or simply the author commenting on character. I always hark back to Bulwer-Lytton inadvertently preserving for us the fact that people used to feed their canaries lump sugar as a treat, or Jane Austen the list of Gothic novels not suitable for young ladies.

I am still facing organizing the e-books for Early Dreamers, and that looks like another 300 or so is all. (whimper)

But for now, there’s champagne chilling, corned beef and potatoes in the foodbot, and a Krispy Kreme cake to bake. Celebrate the little victories along the way, or you’ll never keep your hand in at popping corks if you only wait for big ones.

Time Travel Stories

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Time Travel can be a mechanism or a Template.

The sterling examples are the earliest uses of the mechanism, before the template was thought of. The British Barbarians uses a tourist/researcher from the future as a way to demonstrate how barbaric the preening, self-congratulatory Late Victorian English could look to a culture really advanced — in short, to remind them they still had a long way to go before they could consider the problems of the world and society solved. The Time Machine is on the Long Sleeper Template to visit a dystopia. The only reason to have a machine with a reverse gear is so the Traveller could return to his own time and tell his story to a friend in the frame, before disappearing again, never to be seen. Otherwise, the character “wakes up” (stops the machine) in a future age, has adventures, and the story could end right there. Wells tacks on some pointless vignette visits of the dying Earth after humanity has vanished.

The Time Travel Template, on the other hand, is wrapped up with the nature of time, fate, destiny, luck, free will, and alternate history. The time-traveller must use time travel to try to solve plot problems, which requires that the travel be controllable to some tiny extent. It’s up to the author to decide what they want or need: the “many worlds” of quantum theory or a monolineal timeline, rigid fate or conservation of history, or the easy fracturing into time branches that lets you kill your grandfather and still exist because you came from some other time branch where he didn’t die.

A story where the character simply stumbles through a hole in time at convenient (to the plot) moments is not on the Time Travel Template, but only using time travel as a mechanism.

Mechanism or template, the means of time travel are, by most realistic extrapolations of physics, all fantasy. You can mutter about Einstein and quantum-foam holding open wormholes, but those exorcisms won’t change that it’s highly unlikely to ever happen. So you can make it work almost any way you like to limit your traveller’s jumping around. Possible useful snags:

  • It has to recharge between uses, so when you land some place, you’re there for minutes, hours, or days.
  • It has finite energy, so you have to stop every so many centuries even in a high-speed run, and recharge. Picking rest points is an art.
  • You have to keep a log, because you can’t be in the same time twice. After a while, whole decades and eras are “used up” for you. If you try to go there, you wind up at the nearest “empty” point forward or back. Multiply this by the number of travellers in a group.
  • You can be in the same time twice, but if you run into yourself, the universe implodes, so stay out of that town.
  • It’s a big honking device like a small submarine so you have to find somewhere to leave it, and walk away from it to do your visiting. It has to have great burglar-proofing. You may have trouble getting back to it.
  • It’s tiny so you can carry it on your person, but that means it can be stolen, especially if it looks like a ring or other jewelry.
  • It’s embedded in your tour guide, who was just carried off by the bandits.

So you can always make the time travel part of the problem as well as part of the solution.

Village of the Dumbed

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As part of teaching the Keys, I have six stories for practice critiquing, each badly flawed in different ways. In some cases, it was a hard decision which I was going to use as a horrible example for dialogue or characterization or plotting, because some are horrible in several ways. Mind you, they were all once published by big houses, and some authors would be considered giants in the field of science fiction and fantasy. Everyone slips sometimes. I think that is an invaluable lesson in itself.

What I notice particularly now is the very common use of Villagers, non-human or semi-human creatures that greatly resemble us, can speak more or less like us, but that have the intelligence of a domestic turkey.

Of course, they are what they are for plot convenience.

That’s so wrong.

Characters of all levels, from protagonists to spear-carriers, need to act naturalisticly, like reasonable people would. Even like stupid people, at the very least.

Yes, the world is full of people who forget to put their brains in gear. I’ll never forget sending back a steak for being too well-done, and the chef sent back the same steak, cooked even more.

However, the constant stereotype of Villagers seems to me a sign of an unconscious, and all the more pervasive, prejudice in the college/academic/intellectual world of science fiction and fantasy, against rural people, farmers especially, as if they were no brighter than their cattle. As an attitude in a field dominated by urban white-collar technicians (engineers, scientists, &c) and “art school geeks,” this is understandable, if not condonable.

You should notice the lack of this in rural-raised writers, like Orson Scott Card, or S. A. Bolich from the horse-raising families out in Spokane, Washington, In her work, it’s as likely to be the citified intellectuals (like the preacher in In the Shadow of Heaven) who wind up the villains.

Certainly, Ursula K. Leguin has noted a distinct lack of blue-collar protagonists in science fiction, and that includes farmers.
Read the rest of this entry

Why Not Cookies, Coffee, and Maize?

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… or, Why exotic modern foods are out of place in most herofi or highfy.

The first reason to avoid artifacts of our post-renaissance worldwide culture is atmosphere. If you want your reader to immerse in your medievalesque world, don’t keep swatting them in the face with things that don’t feel medieval. If you want a feel of the Orient, don’t bring in New World stuff and if you want a Mesoamerican ambiance, keep European stuff out of the mix.

Particularly, I recall objecting to characters eating cinnamon cookies in a northern mountain culture, in a ms I critted for a workshop. The author’s attitude was that they were technologically possible, so why not? My objection was that “cookies” were unnecessarily shoving 21st century America into a world so alien it didn’t have dogs or horses. The cookies weren’t necessary to the plot. They were merely cosmetic, and in this case the wrong cosmetics. I mean, in the same village, you might as well serve tamales or have the children play basketball.

They’re just as atmospherically wrong, though technologically possible. They’re just not technologically plausible.

“Cookie” is a specifically American and modern (last couple of centuries) word. “Sweet biscuits” or “sugarcakes” could have served the same purpose without swatting the reader out of immersion.

But are they technologically possible? Read the rest of this entry

Journey to the Center of the Snowbank

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… or how failed railroad tech inspired scientific romance.

Railroads on a large scale only date back to the 1830s, but they ran into the problem of snow on the tracks the first winter. The earliest solution was the snow plow. Often called a Bucker (or bucker), it just relied on speed and plowing action to clear the tracks. If the snow got too deep, though, there was nothing to do but bring up crew cars with 200 men for several days of shoveling.

1884 brought a new high-tech solution: the Jull rotary snow plow, whose auger and blades chewed its way into the face of ten feet of snow and threw the result a hundred feet to either side, first going up thirty feet to clear the telegraph wires. Imagine a ten or eleven foot wheel spinning at 90 rpm, and you get an idea of the speed. (You can find way too many YouTube vids of North American rotaries in action. Really, the Europeans don’t seem to know how to really use them.)

Now, thanks to Mr. Orange Jull having secured good patent rights everywhere he could, and sold them to the Leslie brothers who built his first rotary (and knew a good thing when they saw it), nobody else could get in on the business.

(Fanfare, maestro!)

Enter the glorious failures, the screw-front snow plows.

Formally called augers, these ran into the basic problem that, however well they fed snow back to a blower, or cut into an iced bank, the horizontal pressures on the central shaft created insurmountable mechanical problems.

This “Cyclone Steam Snowplow” by E.P. Caldwell, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, was constructed in 1889. (This is just a patent drawing of the lubrication system.)

The Cyclone Steam Plow, progenitor of the Cyclotram.

The Cyclone Steam Plow, progenitor of the Cyclotram.

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Iron Elephants and Electric Bicycles

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ElecBikeSmMy Early Dreamers reading is getting past the easy stuff. In the category of Invasion Literature, I am not only getting out of English language works or translations to English, I’m getting down to the nasty stuff: racism and genocide. What else can you call it when Jack London heroically describes the annihilation by bio-warfare of the entire Chinese race, and the hunting down of the few survivors?

Elsewhere, we have “Capt. Danrit” with his “thousands of white pages soiled day after day by a national hero of France” (he was killed early in WW1, 21 February 1916), who cranked out more patriotic victory before the war than anyone else from 1888 to his death in battle. His novels are just huge, and he dumped them out like some Franco-military Barbara Cartland. Read the rest of this entry

That School of Holy Map-Making

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A boffer would have been handy the other day to hit myself in the head with. (Why do we punish ourselves for having just solved the problem?)

One of my big projects had been hanging fire because I had to make a continental-scale map to lay out the states and climate and the military campaigns.

Now, let me say that if your story is about a couple of wandering rogues, you can lay out a map in half an hour — I’ve done it on lined paper during a lecture class. As soon as you bring in military campaigns, you are looking at days of work because you have to either decide on the terrain and make the war fit it, or you have to work out the strategy in detail and make the map suit.

But, whoa, there — why are we laying out maps in any case?

Because someone told us we had to.

Because someone said that without one we will have the city north of the river in this story or chapter and south of it in another.

No, we won’t. Read the rest of this entry