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KEV67

What makes sci-fi interesting?

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I recently finished Tau Zero by Poul Anderson. It had a great premise for a sci-fi book: spaceship gets closer and closer to light speed, while time slows down on board accordingly. It was described as a hard science sci-fi book. I was really disappointed with it. I can't say how good the science was for the time; it was written (approx 1970), but it is definitely out of date now. I think it was a bit cobblers then. What I really didn't like was the inter-personal stuff. The characters were either flat, or I did not like them. The attitudes were a bit out of date. The science in science fiction is nearly always wrong. Some sci-fi books are just plain fantasy. Some use a bit of science, e.g. nuclear war, space travel to another planet, just to get to another world, which either resembles a fantasy world or an historic world. Some use a bit of science to set up a plot and make it sound plausible, but don't really pretend that the science is perfect. Occasionally, you get a sci-fi book that tries to be as scientific as possible. The Martian is a decent example of that, but Andy Weir a) had to use a scientifically impossible device to strand his hero on Mars, and b) made the odd mistake, despite all his online readers pointing out his errors. Sci-fi books are books of ideas. I think H.G. Well's sci-fi books are interesting because they say something about the fears of the time. For instance, The Time Machine commented on the social divides in late Victorian Britain, Darwinian ideas, and there must have been something in the air about space-time, although Einstein had not got there yet. I remember The Day of the Triffids had a real Cold War feel about it. Unless a sci-fi book alludes to the concerns of society at the time it was written, it's probably a bit pointless.

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Science fiction is a very broad canvas, and can be very different things depending on the author and the story they are trying to tell.  Wells, for example, had a lot of social comment in his stories, and as you say an interest in the scientific thinking of the day, but under the same banner you also have books like Stainless Steel Rat, that are just a bit of a romp.

 

Poul Anderson falls into what I would term hard science fiction, which is often a high concept idea, with rather cold and flat characterization (Asimov and Clarke are quite often the same).

 

If you want something with a little more life, but something that is still big on Sci-fi ideas, try some Iain M. Banks (I'd recommend The Player of Games, personally).

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6 hours ago, Raven said:

Science fiction is a very broad canvas, and can be very different things depending on the author and the story they are trying to tell.  Wells, for example, had a lot of social comment in his stories, and as you say an interest in the scientific thinking of the day, but under the same banner you also have books like Stainless Steel Rat, that are just a bit of a romp.

 

Poul Anderson falls into what I would term hard science fiction, which is often a high concept idea, with rather cold and flat characterization (Asimov and Clarke are quite often the same).

 

If you want something with a little more life, but something that is still big on Sci-fi ideas, try some Iain M. Banks (I'd recommend The Player of Games, personally).

 

I read three of Iain Banks' books, two of which were science fiction. I can't remember what they were called. In one, the hero flits around the galaxy, offing people and trying not to get offed. The other takes place on Planet Medievalland. There's a king who has counsellor, or possibly a doctor, who is obviously from off-world. The neighbouring kingdom was usurped by a Oliver Cromwell type. He has a bodyguard who is in love with one of his harem. I thought it was a pretty good book, but there was not much science fiction in it.

 

I have read one Arthur C Clarke book, The City and the Stars. I did not think it was that good. I hear Rendevous with Rama is better, but not to bother with the sequels. I read one Issac Asimov book: The Gods Themselves. I did like that, and it had some pretty hard science. Aliens from a parallel universe were tinkering with the strong atomic force.

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Sounds like the Banks books you have read are Use of Weapons and Inversions (in which case I have read the former, but not the latter).

 

I've read Rendezvous with Rama, and thought it was pretty good, but I've not gone further with that series.

 

You seem to have an idea of what makes a good science fiction novel, can you describe what that is? (Is it accurate science, per chance?)

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I think a decent stab at the science is important; otherwise it is just fantasy. SF books are often books of ideas, but if they break known scientific limits, such as travelling faster than lightspeed with no plausible explanation of how they do it, then to me they are fantasy or adventure books. Technology shapes society. A lot of SF books imagine what that society will be like, which pointless if the technology is unrealistic. Many SF books are projections of the fears of the time of writing, particularly dystopias.  I am trying to think of some of my favourite SF books:

 

  • The Mote in God's Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournell - A first contact book. Basically it was a book about over-population.
  • Ringworld, by Larry Niven - not sure if it fits my thesis about SF being a projection of modern fears, but it is an interesting idea, which sounded plausible when I read it. Larry Niven often wrote about criminal who killed people for their organs, but I can't remember if he was in the book.
  • Dune by Fank Herbert - eugenics, a planet of inscrutable machine makers reminiscent of Japan, the control of spice needed throughout the galaxy reminiscent of oil.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness , by Ursula Le Guin - quite a bit about gender, quite political. An envoy tries to persuade an isolated civilisation to join the community of planets. The science was pretty good.
  • The Martian, by Andy Weir - not really a projection of modern society or fears at all, but the science was strong. Makes Mars colonisation seem plausible (although difficult).
  • The Gods Themselves - the Earth has found a cheap and abundant source of energy, unfortunately it is damaging the environment in a big way.

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I always think of science fiction which involves science fiction concepts (like time travel, or faster than light travel) without explanation as regular sci-fi, and the stuff with proper science behind it as 'hard sci-fi'. I think there's too big a distinction between a fantasy book with magic set in a technology-free world, and a sci-fi book with unexplained or makey-uppy science to say they're both fantasy.

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I would like to like science fiction more. 1984 and Brave New World can both be classified as science fiction and they are both superb. They are both classic dystopias too. If the function of SF is to extrapolate current sociological fears then perhaps it does not matter if the science is credible. After all, if you need a PhD in quantum gravity from the Max Planck Institute to assess the plausibility of the science, that makes for a small readership, and maybe it's missing the point anyway.

 

Another good SF book I read was Flowers for Algernon. It was about this educationally subnormal man who given some treatment to improve his intelligence. It was a bit  pedagogical, but a good book.

 

I have read some of Kurt Vonnegut's books. I found them political. In Cat's Cradle a scientist discovers another state of water, i.e. not ice, water, water vapour, but something else. It ends badly. Slaughterhouse Five was even more political. Despite the aliens and the time travel, it was not really scientific at all.

 

I have read all four of H.G. Wells's Victorian science fiction books. The Time Machine was an extrapolation of contemporary scientific thinking and social fears. The War of the Worlds was about invasion. War with Germany was in the air. The Island of Doctor Moreau was about playing God and the division between humans and animals, if there was one. I don't know where that came from. The Invisible Man was about a mad scientist whose experiments got out of control. Think Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Think Frankenstein.

 

I have been watching Nerd Cookies on YouTube and her analyses of Dune are incredible. Frank Herbert's world building is amazing, but it is not really scientific. I have watched other YouTube analyses of Lord of the Rings, and they are equally amazing analyses of the world building, but LotR does not pretend to be scientific.

 

So over all it is a genre I don't know what to make of.

 

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Why don't you try China Miéville? He's very difficult to categorise but he's a great read. I started with The City and The City then went on to read Perdido Street Station, first of a trilogy. You won't be able to relate either of those to existing stories, imho.

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12 hours ago, lunababymoonchild said:

Why don't you try China Miéville? He's very difficult to categorise but he's a great read. I started with The City and The City then went on to read Perdido Street Station, first of a trilogy. You won't be able to relate either of those to existing stories, imho.

Alright, because you say so, I'll give him a go.

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More thoughts on this tomorrow (as it's film time now!) but...

 

13 hours ago, lunababymoonchild said:

 

Why don't you try China Miéville? He's very difficult to categorise but he's a great read. I started with The City and The City then went on to read Perdido Street Station, first of a trilogy. You won't be able to relate either of those to existing stories, imho.

 

 

I just wanted to ask, have you read Kraken

 

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9 hours ago, Raven said:

More thoughts on this tomorrow (as it's film time now!) but...

 

 

I just wanted to ask, have you read Kraken

 


Not yet but I will

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4 hours ago, lunababymoonchild said:


Not yet but I will

 

 

Pity, I was wondering how it compares to The City and The City or Perdido Street Station (I think I have one of the two on my Kindle).

 

Kraken is an urban fantasy, rather than science fiction, and although I enjoyed it for the most part one annoying habit Miéville had was to come up with a good idea, run with it for a bit, get bored of it and move on to the next good idea, with the previous one being discarded.  Whilst there were some good ideas, it made the book feel a bit disjointed.

 

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On 24/05/2021 at 12:42 PM, Raven said:

 

Pity, I was wondering how it compares to The City and The City or Perdido Street Station (I think I have one of the two on my Kindle).

 

Kraken is an urban fantasy, rather than science fiction, and although I enjoyed it for the most part one annoying habit Miéville had was to come up with a good idea, run with it for a bit, get bored of it and move on to the next good idea, with the previous one being discarded.  Whilst there were some good ideas, it made the book feel a bit disjointed.

 


I just bought Kraken so I'll be able to tell you at some point. I have read a lot of Miéville and nothing compares to Perdido Street Station, imho.

Edited by lunababymoonchild

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On 7/21/2017 at 5:49 PM, KEV67 said:

 

I think a decent stab at the science is important; otherwise it is just fantasy. SF books are often books of ideas, but if they break known scientific limits, such as travelling faster than lightspeed with no plausible explanation of how they do it, then to me they are fantasy or adventure books. Technology shapes society. A lot of SF books imagine what that society will be like, which pointless if the technology is unrealistic. Many SF books are projections of the fears of the time of writing, particularly dystopias.  I am trying to think of some of my favourite SF books:

 

  • The Mote in God's Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournell - A first contact book. Basically it was a book about over-population.
  • Ringworld, by Larry Niven - not sure if it fits my thesis about SF being a projection of modern fears, but it is an interesting idea, which sounded plausible when I read it. Larry Niven often wrote about criminal who killed people for their organs, but I can't remember if he was in the book.
  • Dune by Fank Herbert - eugenics, a planet of inscrutable machine makers reminiscent of Japan, the control of spice needed throughout the galaxy reminiscent of oil.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness , by Ursula Le Guin - quite a bit about gender, quite political. An envoy tries to persuade an isolated civilisation to join the community of planets. The science was pretty good.
  • The Martian, by Andy Weir - not really a projection of modern society or fears at all, but the science was strong. Makes Mars colonisation seem plausible (although difficult).
  • The Gods Themselves - the Earth has found a cheap and abundant source of energy, unfortunately it is damaging the environment in a big way.

 

 

Not sure how I missed this at the time, but thanks for taking the time to reply to my question.

 

On 7/26/2017 at 1:53 PM, Nollaig said:

 

I always think of science fiction which involves science fiction concepts (like time travel, or faster than light travel) without explanation as regular sci-fi, and the stuff with proper science behind it as 'hard sci-fi'.

 

 

That's pretty much the way I've thought of science fiction over the years, but earlier this year we had a discussion about what constitutes space opera (as a genre) and that blurs the lines further.

 

(If anyone is interested, that discussion followed on from a review I wrote of To Be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers

here: http://www.bookclubforum.co.uk/community/index.php?/topic/3119-ravens-reads/&do=findComment&comment=507248 - if you are still looking for a story with plausible science in it, this might be one for you, Kev).

 

On 7/26/2017 at 1:53 PM, Nollaig said:

 

I think there's too big a distinction between a fantasy book with magic set in a technology-free world, and a sci-fi book with unexplained or makey-uppy science to say they're both fantasy.

 

 

Before the space opera  discussion I would have said the same as well.  Swords and sorcery = fantasy, anything with technology = science fiction, but the lines aren't quite that distinct.  Star Wars has both technology and magic, so where does that fall?  

 

On 5/22/2021 at 10:50 PM, KEV67 said:

 

I would like to like science fiction more. 1984 and Brave New World can both be classified as science fiction and they are both superb. They are both classic dystopias too. If the function of SF is to extrapolate current sociological fears then perhaps it does not matter if the science is credible. After all, if you need a PhD in quantum gravity from the Max Planck Institute to assess the plausibility of the science, that makes for a small readership, and maybe it's missing the point anyway.

 

Another good SF book I read was Flowers for Algernon. It was about this educationally subnormal man who given some treatment to improve his intelligence. It was a bit  pedagogical, but a good book.

 

I have read some of Kurt Vonnegut's books. I found them political. In Cat's Cradle a scientist discovers another state of water, i.e. not ice, water, water vapour, but something else. It ends badly. Slaughterhouse Five was even more political. Despite the aliens and the time travel, it was not really scientific at all.

 

I have read all four of H.G. Wells's Victorian science fiction books. The Time Machine was an extrapolation of contemporary scientific thinking and social fears. The War of the Worlds was about invasion. War with Germany was in the air. The Island of Doctor Moreau was about playing God and the division between humans and animals, if there was one. I don't know where that came from. The Invisible Man was about a mad scientist whose experiments got out of control. Think Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Think Frankenstein.

 

I have been watching Nerd Cookies on YouTube and her analyses of Dune are incredible. Frank Herbert's world building is amazing, but it is not really scientific. I have watched other YouTube analyses of Lord of the Rings, and they are equally amazing analyses of the world building, but LotR does not pretend to be scientific.

 

So over all it is a genre I don't know what to make of.

 

 

Would I be right in saying that you have pulled back from your previous view, above, that science fiction needs to contain hard/plausible science? 

 

At its heart, science fiction is usually the exploration of an idea or a concept through a well developed story with good characterisation (you can probably get by with one of the latter two - a lot of famous science fiction is notoriously thin on characterisation, for example - but if you want a really good science fiction tale I think these days you really need to have all three). 

 

I also agree that science fiction stories are nearly always a reflection of the time, views and morals of the day when they were written, but I don't think their outlook always needs to be dystopian for a tale to work (though the majority do seem to be!)

 

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I would put Lord of the Rings into fantasy rather than sci fi.

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On 24/05/2021 at 5:22 PM, Raven said:

 

Would I be right in saying that you have pulled back from your previous view, above, that science fiction needs to contain hard/plausible science? 

 

I suppose I have a bit but not much. Thinking of Dune, that is science fiction because it has space travel, cultures devoted to industry, carefully designed desert suits, and alien lifeforms. OTOH, the giant worms could be dragons, the Bene Genesset sisterhood could be witches instead of experts in body control, and so on. It is difficult to call it fantasy, but it is not exactly science.

 

I have not read it, but Never Let Me Go by Kasuo Ishiguro is often described as science fiction, because of the clones. However, it is not what you think of as science fiction. I wondered whether Ian McEwan's book Solar could be described as science fiction because its science is quite strong.

 

When watching Star Trek and its various iterations and series like it, I remember that Gene Roddenberry was supposed to have sold the concept to the TV channel as like Horatio Hornblower in space. I have read some Hornblower books, and it struck me that Hornblower's captaining of his ship was much better described than anything a captain of a starship might do. How a sailing ship reacts to different weather and geography is well understood. The technology is understood. In space that all has to be invented and laws of physics distorted so as to make it dramatic. Space travel would probably be very boring. What form would space combat take? For example, in on Hornblower book, Hornblower's ship was being chased by a larger French ship which was making up distance because it was less effected by rough seas. Just as the French ship was about to overtake, Hornblower feinted to tack to starboard, but then doubled back to port, which was made quicker by moving all the cannons to one side of the ship. Writing something like that set in space would just seem very contrived.

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On 5/27/2021 at 8:36 PM, KEV67 said:

 

I suppose I have a bit but not much. Thinking of Dune, that is science fiction because it has space travel, cultures devoted to industry, carefully designed desert suits, and alien lifeforms. OTOH, the giant worms could be dragons, the Bene Genesset sisterhood could be witches instead of experts in body control, and so on. It is difficult to call it fantasy, but it is not exactly science.

 

 

I've not read the book - yet - but I have seen the David Lynch film and I would consider Dune to be Space Opera, something in a similar vein to Iain M. Banks Culture novels. 

 

On 5/27/2021 at 8:36 PM, KEV67 said:

 

I have not read it, but Never Let Me Go by Kasuo Ishiguro is often described as science fiction, because of the clones. However, it is not what you think of as science fiction. I wondered whether Ian McEwan's book Solar could be described as science fiction because its science is quite strong.

 

 

A book that gains wider literary merit is never classified as science fiction; critics and publishers shy away from the term as if it is somehow unworthy, but The Handmaids Tale, The Drowned World, Station Eleven etc. all have strong science fiction concepts, even if you'll never find them in the science fiction section in Waterstone's.

 

Oddly, Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five seems to straddle the boundary in that regard; as I have seen it often in both the science fiction section and general literature (Fahrenheit 451 is probably another, but I'm struggling to think of many other books that cross the divide).  

 

On 5/27/2021 at 8:36 PM, KEV67 said:

 

When watching Star Trek and its various iterations and series like it, I remember that Gene Roddenberry was supposed to have sold the concept to the TV channel as like Horatio Hornblower in space. I have read some Hornblower books, and it struck me that Hornblower's captaining of his ship was much better described than anything a captain of a starship might do. How a sailing ship reacts to different weather and geography is well understood. The technology is understood. In space that all has to be invented and laws of physics distorted so as to make it dramatic. Space travel would probably be very boring. What form would space combat take? For example, in on Hornblower book, Hornblower's ship was being chased by a larger French ship which was making up distance because it was less effected by rough seas. Just as the French ship was about to overtake, Hornblower feinted to tack to starboard, but then doubled back to port, which was made quicker by moving all the cannons to one side of the ship. Writing something like that set in space would just seem very contrived.

 

 

I take it you've not seen The Wrath of Khan, then! 

 

Star Trek has a very loose military structure, which is leaned on when it serves a story line, but is quite often ignored when it comes to putting together a "saving the day" ending.  The Wrath of Khan was probably as close as the franchise came to depicting a sea battle in space, with the exception of the original series story Balance of Terror.

 

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I have been watching some science videos on YouTube. Some of them are completely mind bending; others are a bit more comprehensible. I watched one this morning that suggested terra-forming Mars using a gas called Sulphur Hexafluoride, which is a heavy, non-toxic, green-house gas. Imagine reading a sci-fi book with that as a backdrop. The thing is you still need some human drama. You can't just have a story about a bunch of people getting on peaceably on Mars while trying to terraform the planet. There has to be some sort of drama, and if it's the same sort of drama that could happen here and now on planet Earth, what's the point in setting it on Mars?

 

 

 

 

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I have been watching some fantastic science channels on YouTube recently. In particular Anton Petrov's and Sabine Hossenfelder's. What was I watching today? A vid by Anton Petrov about a pair of galaxies that don't seem to have any dark matter. Yesterday it was about how the Milky Way's rotations were slowing down. Sabine Hossenfelder's vids are more along the lines of why the universe is not a computer simulation, or the granularity of the universe. It's an incredible subject, but I don't think most science fiction writers are very up to speed with science.

 

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