Imagining both utopian and dystopian climate futures is crucial – which is why cli-fi is so important



贝莉儿 NG/Unsplash, FAL

Bernadette McBride, University of Liverpool

We are headed towards a future that is hard to contemplate. At present, global emissions are reaching record levels, the past four years have been the four hottest on record, coral reefs are dying, sea levels are rising and winter temperatures in the Arctic have risen by 3°C since 1990. Climate change is the defining issue of our time and now is the moment to do something about it. But what?

Society often looks to culture to try and make some sense of the world’s problems. Climate change challenges us to look ahead, past our own lives, to consider how the future might look for generations to come – and our part in this. This responsibility requires imagination.

So, it is no surprise that a literary phenomenon has grown over the past decade or two which seeks to help us imagine the impacts of climate change in clear language. This literary trend – generally known by the name “cli-fi” – has now been established as a distinctive form of science fiction, with a host of works produced from authors such as Margaret Atwood and Paolo Bacigalupi to a series of Amazon shorts.


Faber & Faber

Often these stories deal with climate science and seek to engage the reader in a way that the statistics of scientists cannot. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour (2012), for example, creates emotional resonance with the reader through a novel about the effects of global warming on the monarch butterflies, set amid familiar family tensions. Lauren Groff’s short story collection Florida (2018) also brings climate change together with the personal set amid storms, snakes and sinkholes.

The end to come

Cli-fi is probably better known for those novels that are set in the future, depicting a world where advanced climate change has wreaked irreversible damage upon our planet. They conjure up terrible futures: drowned cities, uncontainable diseases, burning worlds – all scenarios scientists have long tried to warn us about. These imagined worlds tend to be dystopian, serving as a warning to readers: look at what might happen if we don’t act now.

Atwood’s dystopian trilogy of MaddAddam books, for example, imagines post-apocalyptic futurist scenarios where a toxic combination of narcissism and technology have led to our great undoing. In Oryx and Crake (2003), the protagonist is left contemplating a devastated world in which he struggles to survive as potentially the last human left on earth. Set in a world ravaged by sea level rise and tornadoes, Atwood revisits the character’s previous life to examine the greedy capitalist world fuelled by genetic modification that led to this apocalyptic moment.




Read more:
‘Cli-fi’ novels humanise the science of climate change – and leading authors are getting in on the act


Other dystopian cli-fi works include Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015), and the film The Day After Tomorrow (2004), both of which feature sudden global weather changes which plunge the planet into chaos.

Dystopian fiction certainly serves a purpose as a bleak reminder not to act lightly in the face of environmental disaster, often highlighting how climate change could in fact compound disparities across race and class further. Take Rita Indiana’s Tentacle (2015), a story of environmental disaster with a focus on gender and race relations – “illegal” Haitian refugees are bulldozed on the spot. A. Sayeeda Clarke’s short film White (2011), meanwhile, tells the story of one black man’s desperate search for money in a world where global warming has turned race into a commodity and circumstances lead him to donate his melanin.

The future reimagined

It is this primacy of the imagination that makes fictional dealings with climate change so valuable. Cli-fi author Nathaniel Rich, who wrote Odds Against Tomorrow (2013) – a novel in which a gifted mathematician is hired to predict worst-case environmental scenarios – has said:

I think we need a new type of novel to address a new type of reality, which is that we’re headed toward something terrifying and large and transformative. And it’s the novelist’s job to try to understand, what is that doing to us?

As the UN 2019 Climate Action Summit attempts to bring the 2015 Paris Agreement up to speed, we need fiction that not only offers us new ways to look forward, but which also renders the inequalities of climate change explicit. It is also key that culturally we at least try to imagine a fairer world for all, rather than only visions of doom.

When now is the time that we need to act, the rarer utopian form of cli-fi is perhaps more useful. These works imagine future worlds where humanity has responded to climate change in a more timely and resourceful manner. They conjure up futures where human and non-human lives have been adapted, where ways of living have been reimagined in the face of environmental disaster. Scientists, and policy makers – and indeed the public – can look to these works as a source of hope and inspiration.

Futures are built out of our collective imaginaries.
RomanYa/Shutterstock.com

Utopian novels implore us to use our human ingenuity to adapt to troubled times. Kim Stanley Robinson is a very good example of this type of thinking. His works were inspired by Ursula Le Guin, in particular her novel The Dispossessed (1974), which led the way for the utopian novel form. It depicts a planet with a vision of universal access to food, shelter and community as well as gender and racial equality, despite being set on a parched desert moon.

Robinson’s utopian Science in the Capital trilogy centres on transformative politics and imagines a shift in the behaviour of human society as a solution to the climate crisis. His later novel New York 2140 (2017), set in a partly submerged New York which has successfully adapted to climate change, imagines solutions to more recent climate change concerns. This is a future that is mapped out in painstaking detail, from reimagined subways to mortgages for submarines, and we are encouraged to see how new communities could rise against capitalism.

This is inspirational – and useful – but it is also is crucial that utopian cli-fi novels make it clear that for every utopian vision an alternative dystopia could be just around the corner. (It’s worth remembering that in Le Guin’s foundational utopian novel The Dispossessed, the moon’s society have escaped from a dystopian planet.) This is a key flaw in the case of Robinson’s vision, which fails to feature the wars, famines and disasters outside of his new “Super Venice”: the main focus of the book is on the advances of western technology and economics.

Forward-thinking cli-fi, then, needs to imagine sustainable futures while recognising the disparities of climate change and honouring the struggles of the most vulnerable human and non-humans. Imagining positive futures is key – but a race where no one is left behind should be at the centre of the story we aspire to.


This article is part of The Covering Climate Now series

This is a concerted effort among news organisations to put the climate crisis at the forefront of our coverage. This article is published under a Creative Commons license and can be reproduced for free – just hit the “Republish this article” button on the page to copy the full HTML coding. The Conversation also runs Imagine, a newsletter in which academics explore how the world can rise to the challenge of climate change. Sign up here.The Conversation


Bernadette McBride, PhD Candidate in Creative Writing, University of Liverpool

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Science fiction was around in medieval times – here’s what it looked like


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Comet in the sky, 1340. Wellcome Collection, CC BY-SA

Carl Kears, King’s College London and James Paz, University of Manchester

Science fiction may seem resolutely modern, but the genre could actually be considered hundreds of years old. There are the alien green “children of Woolpit”, who appeared in 12th-century Suffolk and were reported to have spoken a language no one could understand. There’s also the story of Eilmer the 11th-century monk, who constructed a pair of wings and flew from the top of Malmesbury Abbey. And there’s the Voynich Manuscript, a 15th-century book written in an unknowable script, full of illustrations of otherworldly plants and surreal landscapes.

These are just some of the science fictions to be discovered within the literatures and cultures of the Middle Ages. There are also tales to be found of robots entertaining royal courts, communities speculating about utopian or dystopian futures, and literary maps measuring and exploring the outer reaches of time and space.

The influence of the genre we call “fantasy”, which often looks back to the medieval past in order to escape a techno-scientific future, means that the Middle Ages have rarely been associated with science fiction. But, as we have found, peering into the complex history of the genre, while also examining the scientific achievements of the medieval period, reveals that things are not quite what they seem.

Origins

Amazing Stories, April 1926, Volume 1 Number 1.
Wikimedia Commons

Science fiction is particularly troublesome when it comes to matters of classification and origin. Indeed, there remains no agreed-upon definition of the genre. A variety of commentators have located the beginnings of SF in the early-20th-century explosion of pulp magazines, and in the work of Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967), who proposed the term “scientifiction” when editing and publishing the first issue of Amazing Stories, in 1926.

“By ‘scientifiction’,” Gernsback wrote, “I mean the Jules Verne, H G Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story – a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision … Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading – they are always instructive.”

But here Gernsback was already looking backwards in time to earlier writers to define SF. His “definition”, too, was one that could also be applied to literary creations from much further into the past.

Science and fiction

Another longstanding idea is that the “science” in science fiction is key: SF can only begin, many historians of the genre proclaim, following the birth of modern science.

Alongside histories of SF, histories of science have long avoided the medieval period (over a thousand years in which, presumably, nothing happened). Yet the Middle Ages was no dark, static, ignorant time of magic and superstition, nor was it an aberration in the neat progression from enlightened ancients to our modern age. It was actually a time of enormous advances in science and technology.

The compass and gunpowder were developed and improved upon, and spectacles, the mechanical clock and blast furnace were invented. The period also laid the foundations for modern science through founding universities, advanced the scientific learning of the classical world, and helped focus natural philosophy on the physics of creation. The medieval science of “computus”, for instance, was a complex measuring of time and space.

Use of medieval abacus and counting board.
Wellcome Collection, CC BY-SA

Scholars have started to reveal the convergence of science, technology and the imagination in medieval literary culture, demonstrating that this era could be characterised by inventiveness and a preoccupation with novelty and discovery. Take the medieval romances that feature Alexander the Great soaring heavenwards in a flying machine and exploring the depths of the ocean in his proto-submarine. Or that of the famous medieval traveller, Sir John Mandeville, who tells of marvellous, automated golden birds that beat their wings at the table of the Great Chan.

Like those of more modern science fictions, medieval writers tempered this sense of wonder with scepticism and rational inquiry. Geoffrey Chaucer describes the procedures and instruments of alchemy (an early form of chemistry) in such precise terms that it is tempting to think that the author must have had some experience of the practice. Yet his Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale also displays a lively distrust of fraudulent alchemists, sending up their pseudo-science while imagining and dramatising its harmful effects in the world.

Alexander in his ‘submarine’.
British Library, Royal MS 15 E. vi f. 20v, Author provided

The medieval future

Modern science fiction has dreamt up many worlds based on the Middle Ages, using it as a place to be revisited, as a space beyond earth, or as an alternate or future history. The representation of the medieval past is not always simplistic, nor always confined to “back then”.

William M Miller’s immensely detailed medieval future in A Canticle of Leibowitz (1959), for instance, dwells on the way the past consistently reemerges in the fragments, materials and conflicts of a distant future. Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book (1992), meanwhile, follows a time-travelling researcher of the near-future back to a medieval Oxford in the grip of the Black Death.

Although “medieval science fiction” may sound like an impossible fantasy, it’s a concept that can encourage us to ask new questions about an often-overlooked period of literary and scientific history. Who knows? The many wonders, cosmologies and technologies of the Middle Ages may have an important part to play in a future yet to come.The Conversation

Carl Kears, Lecturer in Old and Middle English before 1400, King’s College London and James Paz, Lecturer in Early Medieval Literature, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Worth reading: Future visions of women, war, time and space



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Former Globe and Mail newspaper reporter turned novelist Omar El Akkad contemplates his debut book American War in his publisher’s Toronto office in this 2017 file photo.
(THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

Bryan Gaensler, University of Toronto

Editor’s note: The Conversation Canada asked our academic authors to share some recommended reading. In this instalment, Bryan Gaensler, an astronomer who wrote about life in 2167, highlights a few of his recent picks.

My passion is science fiction. Here are my favourite sci-fi books that I’ve read this year:
 

The Power by Naomi Alderman.
Handout

The Power

by Naomi Alderman (Penguin)

Women around the globe spontaneously develop the ability to deliver electric shocks through their fingertips. As they begin to use this power to intimidate, control and kill, the world order is turned upside down.

A spectacular novel, and surely the favourite to sweep all the sci-fi book awards for 2017. People can be both cruel and good-intentioned, often at the same time. Introduce a new power imbalance, and society is abruptly transformed. Wonderful writing, and a whopper of a story twist. Turns The Handmaid’s Tale on its head.

American War by Omar El Akkad.
Handout

American War

by Omar El Akkad (McClelland & Stewart)

A hundred years from now, Florida has vanished under the seas, the Bouazizi Empire is the new world superpower, and the United States has begun its second civil war. In the South, a young woman ends up in a refugee camp and is slowly radicalized into terrorism.

An intense, moving portrait of a future America that maybe isn’t the future after all. The characters are complex and the story is all too real. A spectacular debut.

 

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai.
Handout

All Our Wrong Todays

by Elan Mastai (Doubleday Canada)

Tom Barren travels back in time, accidentally alters the course of history, and returns to a horrifically changed, dystopian present day. The catch? Tom grew up in a utopia of flying cars and moon bases, and the dystopia that he finds himself trapped in is our timeline, warts and all.

A gem of a story that provides several new twists on time travel. If you’ve screwed up the timeline, should you fix it? What if there were two different ways to travel through time, with different rules and different consequences? And under all of this is the classic sci-fi question writ on the scale of billions of lives: Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of a few? Hard to put down, with a lovable lead character.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster.
Handout

4 3 2 1

by Paul Auster (McClelland & Stewart)

The life story of Archibald Isaac Ferguson, born in 1947 in Newark, N.J. Except that this is the story of four identical Fergusons, each of whom take divergent paths as their lives play out.

A tour de force story of adolescence and the path not taken. It’s hard to believe a single author could possibly cram so many real-life details, emotions and characters into a single book. Extraordinarily memorable and engaging.

 

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi.
Handout

The Collapsing Empire

by John Scalzi (Tor)

Humans have spread throughout a galactic empire, our worlds interconnected by faster-than-light wormholes. But what happens to trade, the economy and civilisation itself when the wormholes start to break down?

The ConversationA fun and fast-spaced space opera, centred on some forthright women and some fresh ideas. In the spirit of Asimov’s Foundation, Scalzi explores the theme of the downfall of empire on a galaxy-spanning scale.

Bryan Gaensler, Director, Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of Toronto

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday essay: science fiction’s women problem


Bronwyn Lovell, Flinders University

Since 1953, the Hugo Awards have been one of science fiction’s most prestigious honours – past winners include Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clark and Ursula Le Guin. The 2016 results were recently announced, and women and diversity were the clear winners.

However, if you saw the list of titles in contention for the awards, you’d have noticed some oddities, such as Chuck Tingle’s Space Raptor Butt Invasion and My Little Pony’s The Cutie Map. That’s because the awards – nominated and voted on by science fiction writers and readers – have been targeted by two major voting blocs: the Sad Puppies, who started their campaign in 2013, and the Rabid Puppies, who appeared the year after and have been growing stronger ever since.

The Sad Puppies wanted more traditional, mainstream popular science fiction on the ballot. The more extreme Rabid Puppies, who have ties with the Gamergate movement, were about creating chaos. So their bloc included ridiculous-sounding works: both to mock the awards and stack the ballot to prevent more diverse books being nominated.

Both groups’ gripe is with contemporary trends in science fiction toward more literary works with progressive themes. Vox Day, leader of the Rabid Puppies, complains that “publishers have been trying to pass off romance in space and left-wing diversity lectures as science fiction”. Last year’s leader of the Sad Puppies, Brad R. Torgersen, likewise complains about “soft science majors (lit and humanities degrees) using SF/F as a tool to critically examine and vivisect 21st century Western society”. The Hugos, he says, are being used as an “affirmative action award”.

A significant number of those “soft science majors” writing “left-wing diversity lectures” are, of course, women. Female authors have dominated science fiction awards of late.

This year, women (and people of colour) did very well at the awards. Ironically, the Puppies’ activities have now galvanised more progressive members of the World Science Fiction Society to use their voting rights. The best novel was The Fifth Season, a tale of a planet experiencing apocalyptic climate change, written by NK Jemisin – a black, female writer. Best novella was Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. The best short story, Cat Pictures Please, was written by Naomi Kritzer and both best editor gongs went to women.

But the ongoing saga of the Puppies and their attempts to derail the Hugos exemplifies broader conflicts within the realm of science fiction – an enormously popular, lucrative and controversial genre that has major issues with women.

Hugo award winner Nnedi Okorafor at a reading of her work.
byronv2, CC BY-NC

A male dominated genre

In recent years, the bestselling female-authored Divergent and Hunger Games series have been made into multi-million dollar movie adaptations. But women’s contribution to science fiction has historically gone unnoticed – as a look at any compilation list of the “best” science fiction books will attest.

MIT Technology Review’s Top Ten Hard Science Fiction Books of All Time includes one woman. (“Hard sci fi” tends to stick to real scientific theories and physical laws. More on that later.)

Forbidden Planet’s list of 50 Science Fiction Books You Must Read includes three women, with Ursula K Le Guin appearing twice (making it 92% male). The Best Science Fiction Books website has four women in their list of 25 (84% male). And Goodreads’ Best Science Fiction list has ten women in the top 100 (making it 88% male), with Le Guin books chosen three times. (The books of Le Guin’s that appear in these lists – The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Dispossessed (1974), and The Lathe of Heaven (1971) – all have something very significant in common: male protagonists.)

This 2013 edition of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association of America provoked an outcry from its female members.
Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association of America

Seventy five per cent of science fiction writers are men. Consequently, there are not a great number of realistic or relatable female characters. No wonder fewer female than male readers have traditionally found it a rewarding genre. Indeed feminist science fiction writer and critic Joanna Russ has famously stated that there are “no real women” in science fiction, only images of them, since so many women characters are based purely on male fantasy.

Last year, science fiction and fantasy reader Liz Lutgendorff published an article in the New Statesman after reading the National Public Radio’s list of the Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books – voted on by 60,000 readers. Lutgendorff found the “continued and pervasive sexism” within these books to be “mysogynistic” and “shockingly offensive”.

Speculative fiction writer and critic Sarah Gailey, meanwhile, recently noticed that, of the 31 genre books featuring female protagonists she had recently read, two-thirds included scenes of sexual violence. Writing on the Tor website, she called for genre writers to “do better” when it comes to imagining alternative realities for women:

… we can’t suspend our disbelief enough to erase casual misogyny from the worlds we build. We can give a wizard access to a centuries-old volcano-powered spaceship, but we balk at the notion of a woman who has never been made to feel small and afraid.

Isaac Asimov in 1965.
Phillip Leonian

Gailey mentions this year’s Hugo-winning NK Jemisin as one of the rare writers whose “imaginations are strong enough to let their female characters have stories that don’t include sexual violence”.

Still, this objectification of women in science fiction sadly extends beyond the page. Hugo award-winning fan writer Jim C Hines reminds us that science fiction superstar Isaac Asimov was notorious for harassing women at conventions. Hines recently urged the science fiction, fantasy and comics community to stop “looking away” from the problem of sexual harassment in the industry.

Hard science in science fiction

An ongoing debate in the science fiction community is about the merits of “hard” vs “soft” science fiction. And the role of gender is significant here.

Robert A Heinlein – considered the “dean” of science fiction writers and counted alongside Asimov and Clarke as one of the three key figures of the genre – has defined science fiction as:

realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.

Hard science fiction tends to stick to or extrapolate from real scientific theories and physical laws as they are currently understood (think of Andy Weir’s The Martian (2011), Carl Sagan’s Contact (1985), or Arthur C Clarke’s own 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)).

Robert Heinlein’s Hugo-award-winning novel Glory Road (1963). This paperback version was published in 1976.
New English Library

Soft science fiction is not so concerned with exploring the finer details of technology and physics. Although its stories are generally set in the future, it is more interested in psychological and social aspects of the narrative (think of works such as Veronica Roth’s Divergent (2011), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948)).

Hard science fiction tends to be a boys’ club, while soft science fiction can be seen as more accommodating to female writers. There is a perceived hierarchy of merit operating in these classifications as well: “hard” sounds masculine and virile, while “soft” connotes a weaker, less potent, feminised form of the genre. This is why “hard” science fiction is more likely to be considered among the “best” science fiction, and why the “soft” science fiction that more women tend to write doesn’t often make the cut.

In 2013, the judges of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Britain’s most prestigious science fiction prize, disqualified a number of submitted books on the basis that they were not “technically” science fiction. They were deemed by the judges to be fantasy – a genre that does not require the realism of science – which has twice as many female authors compared to science fiction. As Damien Walters has observed, women’s writing is “dismissed as fantasy, while the fantasies of men are granted some higher status as science fiction”.

The Hugo Awards, like most major literary prizes, have also traditionally been dominated by books by and about men and boys.

In 2015, the Sad Puppies successfully placed dozens of books on the final ballot. They then released a tongue-in-cheek Terms of Surrender to their culture war with the Hugo Awards declaring:

… only those works embodying the highest principles of Robert A. Heinlein shall be permitted. Girls who read Twilight and books like it shall be expelled from the genre. We will recognize The Hunger Games as a proper SF novel, but the sequels are right out.

These jibes reveal sexist undertones, intolerance for diversity and disdain for the kind of speculative fiction that is written by women and read by girls.

The lessons of Frankenstein

This hierarchy of “hardness” in science fiction, as well as being a dubious way of judging merit, puts women at a distinct disadvantage, because there’s a serious shortage of women working in science. Only 28% of the world’s scientific researchers are women.

If women aren’t encouraged to pursue careers in scientific fields, it’s unlikely they’re going to have the confidence to write in a genre that uses science as a launch pad for fiction.

And yet, the first example of science fiction is often said to be Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s gothic horror Frankenstein: the tale of a man who, through scientific experimentation, discovers a way to imbue inanimate matter with life. The novel was first published anonymously in 1818.

Overall, it was popular and well received. But when critics discovered Anonymous was a young woman, the author’s gender caused such offence as to render the writing irrelevant. The British Critic famously concluded its scathing review thus:

The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.

Discrimination on the basis of sex isn’t surprising for the time, but what is surprising is how little has changed for women’s writing over these past two centuries.

Women may not be likely to publish anonymously these days, but they may still erase their female identities to appease male readership. Many women are encouraged to publish under their initials, to choose a gender neutral name, or even to take a male pseudonym.

Science fiction writer Alice Sheldon, winner of two Hugos and three Nebula Awards under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr, passed her writing off as male for around a decade between 1967–77 before she was exposed as a woman.

Alice Bradley Sheldon, who wrote under the pen name James Tiptree Jr.
via Wikimedia Commons

Not only did she enjoy more success as a male writer, she was also in a better position to advocate for female writers. She even found that her female pseudonym Raccoona Sheldon was more likely to be included in anthologies if her submission was accompanied by a letter of recommendation from Tiptree.

Unfortunately, once it was revealed that Tiptree was, as she so sadly described herself, “nothing but an old lady from Virginia”, she lost much of the authority and respect she had previously enjoyed in the male-dominated science fiction community.

Today, the fact remains that most female writers would still be better off using a male name. In 2015, emerging novelist Catherine Nicholls found that when she sent her manuscript out under the name of “George”, she was eight times as successful as when she sent it out as “Catherine”.

More than half of the human race is female, yet three-quarters of the voices heard in science fiction are male; and the rest are under consistent commercial pressure to sound male too. Of the 30 science fiction writers named the industry’s highest honour of “Grand Master”, only five are female (16%).

A study of the habits of readers in 2014 found that men “tend to gravitate to reading more male authors“. During the first year of publication, it found a female author’s audience will be around 80% female. A male author’s work will be read by a 50% split of men and women.

But trying to tackle this problem by using a pseudonym or an author’s initials perpetuates the invisibility of women on bookshelves, denying other women role models. It’s vitally important to have more women writing science fiction – using their real names, being reviewed, being read and winning awards.

By the numbers

Both the Puppies groups stand against affirmative action as a way of redressing the imbalance between the sexes in science fiction. However, there are many reasons why affirmative action by publishers and reviewers is needed in a genre suffering from entrenched sexism.

The latest SF Count – the speculative fiction community’s own mini version of the VIDA count of women in literary arts – was announced in May this year. The SF Count tracks the gender and race balance of both books reviewed and their reviewers.

It concludes that six out of every ten books reviewed were written by men. But that’s an average of results across all publications, and there is wide variation within the sample. The lowest percentage of reviews of books by women was 17% from Analog Science Fiction and Fact. The highest was 80% from Cascadia Subduction Zone, a publication that specifically aims to represent women writers.

The July/August 2016 issue of Analog magazine.
Analog

The story told by these figures changes significantly when you consider only the five publications that are purely science fiction focused – Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Asimov’s Science Fiction, New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation: the international review of science fiction and Science Fiction Studies. Of these, the average percentage of reviews of books by women is 22%, meaning more than three in four books reviewed in science fiction publications are written by men.

The gender balance of book reviewers averaged across these five titles is similarly low, with just 18% of them women. What’s particularly shocking is that arguably the two most famous and prestigious science fiction publications – Analog and Asimov’s – both averaged 0% female reviewers. The fact that the two most celebrated publications in science fiction asked next to no women to review books is clearly unacceptable.

And yes, reviewers can cry the impossibility of reviewing what isn’t published, just as publishers can claim the impossibility of publishing more women’s writing when it isn’t submitted, and judging panels can lament the impossibility of considering more women’s books for awards when so few are entered.

But it would be far better for the science fiction industry to recognise it has an ethical responsibility to work to correct the imbalance it has perpetuated for far too long, and get started.

It is, as publishing veteran Danielle Pafunda points out, an important part of the position of editor to actively seek out new work and to shape the direction of a publication or publishing house.

We need women to be able to participate fully and equally in science fiction’s conversations about humanity’s future – to shape how women are portrayed in those visions, to consider the roles women might play in those futures, and to imagine what a truly evolved and advanced society might look like for women.

Until gender equality is achieved, science fiction remains only a fraction of what it could be. Affirmative action for women in science fiction is not only warranted; it’s essential for the growth of the genre.

The Conversation

Bronwyn Lovell, PhD Candidate in Creative Writing, Flinders University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Scientists on their favourite science fiction


Michael J. I. Brown, Monash University; Alice Gorman, Flinders University; Bryan Gaensler, University of Toronto; Duncan Galloway, Monash University; Geraint Lewis, University of Sydney; Helen Maynard-Casely, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation; Matthew Browne, CQUniversity Australia, and Rob Brooks, UNSW Australia

Tales of strange alien worlds, fantastic future technologies and bowls of sentient petunias have long captivated audiences worldwide. But science fiction is more than just fantasy in space; it can educate, inspire and expand our imaginations to conceive of the universe as it might be.

We invited scientists to highlight their favourite science fiction novel or film and tell us what it was that captivated their imagination – and, for some, how it started their career.


Bryan Gaensler, astronomer, University of Toronto

Time for the Stars
– Robert A. Heinlein

Bringing relativity to life.

Long before the era of hard science fiction, Robert Heinlein took Einstein’s special theory of relativity and turned it into a masterpiece of young adult fiction.

In Time for the Stars, Earth explores the Galaxy via a fleet of “torch ships”, spacecraft that travel at a significant fraction of the speed of light. Communication with the fleet is handled by pairs of telepathic twins, one of whom stays on Earth while the other journeys forth. The supposed simultaneity of telepathy overcomes the massive time delays that would otherwise occur over the immense distances of space.

The catch is that at the tremendous speeds of these torch ships, time travels much slower than back on Earth. The story focuses on Tom, the space traveller, and his twin brother Pat, who remains behind. The years and decades sweep by for Pat, in a journey that takes mere months for Tom. Pat’s telepathic voice accelerates to a shrill accelerated squeal for Tom, as Einstein’s time dilation drives them apart, both metaphorically and physically.

This is ultimately a breezy kids’ adventure novel, but it had a massive influence on me. Modern physics wasn’t abstruse. It was measurable, and it had consequences. I was hooked. And I’ve never let go.


Michael Brown, astronomer, Monash University

2001: A Space Odyssey
– Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey encompasses human evolution, space, alien life and artificial intelligence. Despite being released the year before Apollo 11, the Academy Award winning special effects still make its vision of space inspiring. It can be spine tingling when seen at an old fashioned cinema with a wide screen and a 70mm print (such as Melbourne’s Astor).

2001 is also a product of its time. During the 1960s NASA consumed roughly 4% of the US federal budget, and if that had continued, then perhaps the International Space Station would be a giant rotating behemoth seen in 2001. Indeed 2001’s Pan Am spaceplane seems like a natural progression from early (ambitious) proposals for the Space Shuttle.

Technologies in the film are ahead and behind what we have today.
The most memorable (and arguably emotional) character of 2001 is HAL, an eerily intelligent computer that is far in advance of any computer in existence. And yet astronauts on the moon are using photographic film, rather than digital cameras.

Kubrick deliberately made some space travel seem routine, so his space travellers are frozen in 1960s norms. The astronauts are mostly white men, with women mostly relegated to roles such as flight attendants (an exception is a Soviet scientist). Fortunately, in this regard, the 21st century is more advanced than 2001’s imagined future.

2001: A Space Odyssey


Alice Gorman, space archaeologist, Flinders University

Out of the Silent Planet
– C. S. Lewis

The first book of the classic “Space Trilogy” was written 20 years before the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, the first “world-circling spaceship”. C. S. Lewis was no scientist – he was a professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature – but his deep knowledge of pre-modern cosmology gives his take on space travel a unique flavour. I find myself returning to Out of the Silent Planet and its sequel, Voyage to Venus, over and over again.

Voyaging through space powered by imagination.

In the story, Lewis’ hero, Ransom, becomes a reluctant astronaut when kidnapped by the uber-colonial “hard” scientist Weston for a journey to Mars. Confined in the spherical spaceship, he becomes aware of a constant faint tinkling noise. In the world before space junk, it is a fine rain of micrometeoroids striking the aluminium shell.

Ransom’s “dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds” fostered by modern science, is transformed by the experience of actually being in space.

His revelation is an intimately joyous recognition that space, far from being dead, is an “empyrean ocean of radiance”, whose “blazing and innumerable offspring” look down upon the Earth. He feels “life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean all the worlds and all their life had come?”

How, indeed, could we not long for space after such a vision as this?


Duncan Galloway, astrophysicist, Monash University

Ringworld
– Larry Niven

Not just life on another planet…

It was Larry Niven’s Ringworld that led, in part, to my career in astrophysics.

Ringworld describes the exploration of an alien megastructure of unknown origin, discovered around a distant star. The artificial world is literally in the shape of a ring, with a radius corresponding to the distance of the Earth to the sun; mountainous walls on each side hold in the atmosphere, and the surface is decorated with a wide variety of alien plants and animals.

The hero gets to the Ringworld via a mildly faster-than-light drive purchased at astronomical cost from an alien trading species, and makes use of teleportation disks and automated medical equipment.

The appeal of high-technology stories like this are obvious: many contemporary problems, like personal transportation, overpopulation, disease, and death have all been solved by advanced technology; while of course, new and interesting problems have arisen.

Grand in scope, and featuring some truly bold ideas, Ringworld (and Niven’s other books set in “Known Space”) are as keen now as when they were written, 40 years ago.


Helen Maynard-Casely, planetary scientist, ANSTO

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
– Douglas Adams

Whether you have heard the radio play, read the book or seen the film, this story of a hapless Englishman negotiating his way through the galaxy is an essential piece of nerd culture. I first heard the play as a teenager, and even now not many weeks go by without me delving into sections of this trilogy of five-parts.

As a scientist, my life can seem a little zany to an outsider. When your job does sometimes actually entail reversing the polarity of a neutron flow, you need to look to an even crazier fiction world for your escapism. And for me this book is it. A world where sperm whales and bowls of petunias can appear in space for no reason at all and staggering co-incidences happen every time you power up your spaceship.

Life among the stars is rather more ordinary than it might seem.
BBC

The genius (and I do not use that word lightly) of Douglas Adams’ writing is that the loopy concepts of the book are presented with a thin veneer of “scienceness”, enough to make the fantastical concepts that little more believable. Then he “normalises” it all. A packet of peanuts will help you survive a matter transference beam, for instance.

The heart of this book is its characters, a suite of people/aliens that are echoed in every workplace (certainly every laboratory) across the world. Walk into any science institute and there will be a two-headed power-hungry presidential leader railing upon post-docs, with brains the size of planets, who really wish you hadn’t talked to them about life.

I get the impression that Douglas Adams would not have wanted you to take anything away from this book. But, for me it gives continued inspiration that there is always another way to sidle up to a problem. Most of all though: don’t panic.


Matthew Browne, social scientist, CQUniversity

Consider Phlebas
– Iain M. Banks

What might a post-scarcity society look like?

I love a lot of science fiction, but Iain M. Banks’ classic space-opera Consider Phlebas is a special favourite.

Banks describes the “Culture”, a diverse, anarchic, utopian and galaxy-spanning post-scarcity society. The Culture is a hybrid of enhanced and altered humanoids and artificial intelligences, which range from rather dull to almost godlike in their capabilities.

Most people in the Culture lead a relaxed, hedonistic lifestyle, going to parties, doing art, taking drugs (which they can synthesise from bio-engineered glands) and generally having fun. The tedious business of actually running the whole show is mostly left up to the most powerful AIs, called Minds, who manifest themselves in the great star-ships and orbitals in which most citizens live.

Of course, it’s a big galaxy, and not everyone shares the Culture’s easy-going approach to galactic citizenship. Consider Phlebas is set against the backdrop of a growing conflict between the Culture and the Indirans, a speciesist, religious and hierarchical empire with expansion on its mind.

Perhaps the best thing about Consider Phlebas (apart from the wonderfully irreverent ship names the Minds give themselves) is the fact that a story from this conflict is told from the perspective of an Indiran agent, who despises the Culture and everything it stands for.

My own take on the book is as an ode to progressive technological humanism, and the astute reader will find many parallels to contemporary political and cultural issues.


Rob Brooks, evolutionary biologist, UNSW Australia

The Truman Show
– Peter Weir

Truman Burbank, played with a delectable balance of animation and pathos by Jim Carrey, lives a confected life as unwitting protagonist in a reality television show. Conceived on camera, adopted by a corporation and manipulated at every stage by the show’s sinister creative genius, Christof (Ed Harris), Truman nonetheless comes to realise that his world is a sham and that almost every interaction he ever had was a lie.

Against the backdrop of Seahaven’s dystopic perfection, Weir exposes prescient glimpses of reality television, surveillance culture and the stalkerish targeted advertising we now find in our social media streams.

It’s like a peppy 1984 but with corporate hegemony replacing the totalitarian state. But I was most gripped by the fresh take on ancient debates about rationalist nature and empiricist nurture.

As a student of behaviour, I’ve always rued the amputation of biology from the social sciences, particularly the wasted opportunity that saw sociobiology turned into a perjorative in the late 1970s, at least outside the study of insect sociality. The rejection of evolutionary thinking as “biological determinism”, and its positioning as opposite to progress and liberation, has always rankled me.

I recall watching the film alone, between conferences, at an ancient cinema in Santa Cruz. What excited me most, and kept me up much of the night scribbling notes that would eventually shape my research direction and lead me to popular writing, was Weir’s clever inversion of the relationships between nature/nurture and determinism/free will.

While Cristof’s nurture tramples Truman’s nature throughout the film, in the end something inherent to Truman sets him free, as he whispers: “You never had a camera in my head!”.

The climax of The Truman Show. “Good afternoon, good evening and goodnight!”


Geraint Lewis, astrophysicist, University of Sydney

The Time Machine
– H. G. Wells

In the decade before Albert Einstein told us that time and space were malleable, H. G. Wells gave us the adventures of the Time Traveller.

We never learn the name of this Victorian scientist, a man who explains “there is no difference between time and any of the three dimensions of space” and builds a machine to explore this new world. It was not from Einstein that I discovered the non-absolute nature of space and time, but from the Time Traveller, and his present-day incarnation, Doctor Who.

A view of the distant future from the recent past.

The Traveller doesn’t head to past, to be a voyeur at historical events, but into the unknown future. And the future of Wells is not glorious! The Traveller finds evolution has split humans in two, with delicate Eloi being little more than food for the subterranean Morlocks.

Escaping mayhem and heading even further into the future, the Traveller finds the life’s last gasp under a swollen, red sun, eventually seeing the Earth succumbs to final freezing, before he returns to the relative safety of Victorian London.

This scientific vision of the future struck me, and the nature of time has remained in my mind. At the end of the story the Traveller heads back to continue his exploration of the future; playing with the equations of relativity is likely to be the closest I will ever come to realising this dream.

The Conversation

Michael J. I. Brown, Associate professor, Monash University; Alice Gorman, Senior Lecturer in archaeology and space studies, Flinders University; Bryan Gaensler, Director, Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of Toronto; Duncan Galloway, PhD; Senior Lecturer in Astrophysics, Monash University; Geraint Lewis, Professor of Astrophysics, University of Sydney; Helen Maynard-Casely, Instrument Scientist, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation; Matthew Browne, Lecturer in Psychology, CQUniversity Australia, and Rob Brooks, Scientia Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The 10 Best Sci-Fi and Fantasy Novels of 2015 So Far


Flavorwire

Generation ships, sentient forests, exploding moons — there has been no shortage of action, speculation, and mystery in the year’s best sci-fi and fantasy novels. These books are remarkable, too, for the way they brazenly combine tropes from many different genres. In several of these novels, for example, mythological, intellectual, and literary history combine in unfamiliar and enlightening ways. In others, the uncanny reigns and the human is decentered — whether we’re talking about a disturbing imaginary friend or a weaponized cat. Here are the best sci-fi and fantasy novels of the year so far.

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Article: The Tor.com Store


The links below are to articles concerning the science fiction and fantasy book publisher Tor/Forge and the DRM-free ebook store they will soon be opening.

http://www.mediabistro.com/appnewser/torforge-unveils-drm-free-ebook-store_b23446
http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/06/torforge-books-announces-drm-free-e-book-store