The link below is to an article that looks at John W. Campbell, considered the father of modern science fiction.
I count myself lucky. Weird, I know, in this day and age when all around us the natural and political world is going to hell in a handbasket. But that, in fact, may be part of it.
Back when I started writing, realism had such a stranglehold on publishing that there was little room for speculative writers and readers. (I didn’t know that’s what I was until I read it in a reader’s report for my first novel. And even then I didn’t know what it was, until I realised that it was what I read, and had always been reading; what I wrote, and wanted to write.) Outside of the convention rooms, that is, which were packed with less-literary-leaning science-fiction and fantasy producers and consumers.
Realism was the rule, even for those writing non-realist stories, such as popular crime and commercial romance. Perhaps this dominance was because of a culture heavily influenced by an Anglo-Saxon heritage. Richard Lea has written in The Guardian of “non-fiction” as a construct of English literature, arguing other cultures do not distinguish so obsessively between stories on the basis of whether or not they are “real”.
Regardless of the reason, this conception of literary fiction has been widely accepted – leading self-described “weird fiction” novelist China Miéville to identify the Booker as a genre prize for specifically realist literary fiction; a category he calls “litfic”. The best writers Australia is famous for producing aren’t only a product of this environment, but also role models who perpetuate it: Tim Winton and Helen Garner write similarly realistically, albeit generally fiction for one and non-fiction for the other.
Today, realism remains the most popular literary mode. Our education system trains us to appreciate literatures of verisimilitude; or, rather, literature we identify as “real”, charting interior landscapes and emotional journeys that generally represent a quite particular version of middle-class life. It’s one that may not have much in common these days with many people’s experiences – middle-class, Anglo or otherwise – or even our exterior world(s).
Like other kinds of biases, realism has been normalised, but there is now a growing recognition – a re-evaluation – of different kinds of “un-real” storytelling: “speculative” fiction, so-called for its obviously invented and inventive aspects.
Feminist science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin has described this diversification as:
a much larger collective conviction about who’s entitled to tell stories, what stories are worth telling, and who among the storytellers gets taken seriously … not only in terms of race and gender, but in terms of what has long been labelled “genre” fiction.
Closer to home, author Jane Rawson – who has written short stories and novels and co-authored a non-fiction handbook on “surviving” climate change – has described the stranglehold realistic writing has on Australian stories in an article for Overland, yet her own work evidences a new appreciation for alternative, novel modes.
Rawson’s latest book, From the Wreck, intertwines the story of her ancestor George Hills, who was shipwrecked off the coast of South Australia and survived eight days at sea, with the tale of a shape-shifting alien seeking refuge on Earth. In an Australian first, it was long-listed for the Miles Franklin, our most prestigious literary award, after having won the niche Aurealis Award for Speculative Fiction.
The Aurealis awards were established in 1995 by the publishers of Australia’s longest-running, small-press science-fiction and fantasy magazine of the same name. As well as recognising the achievements of Australian science-fiction, fantasy and horror writers, they were designed to distinguish between those speculative subgenres.
Last year, five of the six finalists for the Aurealis awards were published, promoted and shelved as literary fiction.
A broad church
Perhaps what counts as speculative fiction is also changing. The term is certainly not new; it was first used in an 1889 review, but came into more common usage after genre author Robert Heinlein’s 1947 essay On the Writing of Speculative Fiction.
Whereas science fiction generally engages with technological developments and their potential consequences, speculative fiction is a far broader, vaguer term. It can be seen as an offshoot of the popular science-fiction genre, or a more neutral umbrella category that simply describes all non-realist forms, including fantasy and fairytales – from the epic of Gilgamesh through to The Handmaid’s Tale.
Guide to the classics: the Epic of Gilgamesh
While critic James Wood argues that “everything flows from the real … it is realism that allows surrealism, magic realism, fantasy, dream and so on”, others, such as author Doris Lessing, believe that everything flows from the fantastic; that all fiction has always been speculative. I am not as interested in which came first (or which has more cultural, or commercial, value) as I am in the fact that speculative fiction – “spec-fic” – seems to be gaining literary respectability.
(Next step, surely, mainstream popularity! After all, millions of moviegoers and television viewers have binge-watched the rise of fantastic forms, and audiences are well versed in unreal onscreen worlds.)
One reason for this new interest in an old but evolving form has been well articulated by author and critic James Bradley: climate change. Writers, and publishers, are embracing speculative fiction as an apt form to interrogate what it means to be human, to be humane, in the current climate – and to engage with ideas of posthumanism too.
These are the sorts of existential questions that have historically driven realist literature.
According to the World Wildlife Fund’s 2018 Living Planet Report, 60% of the world’s wildlife disappeared between 1970 and 2012. The year 2016 was declared the hottest on record, echoing the previous year and the one before that. People under 30 have never experienced a month in which average temperatures are below the long-term mean. Hurricanes register on the Richter scale and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has added a colour to temperature maps as the heat keeps on climbing.
Science fiction? Science fact.
What are we to do about this? Well, according to writer and geographer Samuel Miller-McDonald, “If you’re a writer, then you have to write about this.”
There is an infographic doing the rounds on Facebook that shows sister countries with comparable climates to (warming) regions of Australia. But it doesn’t reflect the real issue. Associate Professor Michael Kearney, Research Fellow in Biosciences at the University of Melbourne, points out that no-one anywhere in the world has any experience of our current CO2 levels. The changed environment is, he says – using a word that is particularly appropriate for my argument – a “novel” situation.
Elsewhere, biologists are gathering evidence of algae that carbon dioxide has made carbohydrate-rich but less nutritious. So the plankton that rely on them to survive might eat more and more and yet still starve.
Fiction focused on the inner lives of a limited cross-section of people no longer seems the best literary form to reflect, or reflect on, our brave new outer world – if, indeed, it ever was.
Whether it’s a creative response to catastrophic climate change, or an empathic, philosophical attempt to express cultural, economic, neurological – or even species – diversification, the recognition works such as Rawson’s are receiving surely shows we have left Modernism behind and entered the era of Anthropocene literature.
And her book is not alone. Other wild titles achieving similar success include Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace, shortlisted for the Aurealis, the Stella prize and the Norma K. Hemming award – given to mark excellence in the exploration of themes of race, gender, sexuality, class or disability in a speculative fiction work.
Kneen’s book connects five stories spanning a century, navigating themes of sexuality – including erotic explorations of transgression and transmutation – against the backdrop of a changing ocean.
Earlier, more realist but still speculative titles (from 2015) include Mireille Juchau’s The World Without Us and Bradley’s Clade. These novels fit better with Miéville’s description of “litfic”, employing realistic literary techniques that would not be out of place in Winton’s books, but they have been called “cli-fi” for the way they put climate change squarely at the forefront of their stories (though their authors tend to resist such generic categorisation).
Both novels, told across time and from multiple points of view, are concerned with radically changed and catastrophically changing environments, and how the negative consequences of our one-world experiment might well – or, rather, ill – play out.
Catherine McKinnnon’s Storyland is a more recent example that similarly has a fantastic aspect. The author describes her different chapters set in different times, culminating – Cloud Atlas–like, in one futuristic episode – as “timeslips” or “time shifts” rather than time travel. Yet it has been received as speculative – and not in a pejorative way, despite how some “high-art” literary authors may feel about “low-brow” genre associations.
Kazuo Ishiguro, for instance, told The New York Times when The Buried Giant was released in 2015 that he was fearful readers would not “follow him” into Arthurian Britain. Le Guin was quick to call him out on his obvious attempt to distance himself from the fantasy category. Michel Faber, around the same time, told a Wheeler Centre audience that his Book of Strange New Things, where a missionary is sent to convert an alien race, was “not about aliens” but alienation. Of course it is the latter, but it is also about the other.
All these more-and-less-speculative fictions – these not-traditionally-realist literatures – analyse the world in a way that it is not usually analysed, to echo Tim Parks’s criterion for the best novels. Interestingly, this sounds suspiciously like science-fiction critic Darko Suvin’s famous conception of the genre as a literature of “cognitive estrangement”, which inspires readers to re-view their own world, think in new ways, and – most importantly – take appropriate action.
A new party
Perhaps better case studies of what local spec-fic is or does – when considering questions of diversity – are Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and Claire Coleman’s Terra Nullius.
The first is a distinctly Aussie Handmaid’s Tale for our times, where “girls” guilty by association with some unspecified sexual scenario are drugged, abducted and held captive in a remote outback location.
The latter is another idea whose time has come: an apocalyptic act of colonisation. Not such an imagined scenario for Noongar woman Coleman. It’s a tricky plot to tell without giving away spoilers – the book opens on an alternative history, or is it a futuristic Australia? Again, the story is told through different points of view, which prioritises collective storytelling over the authority of a single voice.
“The entire purpose of writing Terra Nullius,” Coleman has said, “was to provoke empathy in people who had none.”
This connection of reading with empathy is a case Neil Gaiman made in a 2013 lecture when he told of how China’s first party-approved science-fiction and fantasy convention had come about five years earlier.
The Chinese had sent delegates to Apple and Google etc to try to work out why America was inventing the future, he said. And they had discovered that all the programmers, all the entrepreneurs, had read science fiction when they were children.
“Fiction can show you a different world,” said Gaiman. “It can take you somewhere you’ve never been.”
And when you come back, you see things differently. And you might decide to do something about that: you might change the future.
Perhaps the key to why speculative fiction is on the rise is the ways in which it is not “hard” science fiction. Rather than focusing on technology and world-building to the point of potential fetishism, as our “real” world seems to be doing, what we are reading today is a sophisticated literature engaging with contemporary cultural, social and political matters – through the lens of an “un-real” idea, which may be little more than a metaphor or errant speculation.
On January 17 1803, a young man named George Forster was hanged for murder at Newgate prison in London. After his execution, as often happened, his body was carried ceremoniously across the city to the Royal College of Surgeons, where it would be publicly dissected. What actually happened was rather more shocking than simple dissection though. Forster was going to be electrified.
The experiments were to be carried out by the Italian natural philosopher Giovanni Aldini, the nephew of Luigi Galvani, who discovered “animal electricity” in 1780, and for whom the field of galvanism is named. With Forster on the slab before him, Aldini and his assistants started to experiment. The Times newspaper reported:
On the first application of the process to the face, the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process, the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.
It looked to some spectators “as if the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life.”
By the time Aldini was experimenting on Forster the idea that there was some peculiarly intimate relationship between electricity and the processes of life was at least a century old. Isaac Newton speculated along such lines in the early 1700s. In 1730, the English astronomer and dyer Stephen Gray demonstrated the principle of electrical conductivity. Gray suspended an orphan boy on silk cords in mid air, and placed a positively charged tube near the boy’s feet, creating a negative charge in them. Due to his electrical isolation, this created a positive charge in the child’s other extremities, causing a nearby dish of gold leaf to be attracted to his fingers.
In France in 1746 Jean Antoine Nollet entertained the court at Versailles by causing a company of 180 royal guardsmen to jump simultaneously when the charge from a Leyden jar (an electrical storage device) passed through their bodies.
It was to defend his uncle’s theories against the attacks of opponents such as Alessandro Volta that Aldini carried out his experiments on Forster. Volta claimed that “animal” electricity was produced by the contact of metals rather than being a property of living tissue, but there were several other natural philosophers who took up Galvani’s ideas with enthusiasm. Alexander von Humboldt experimented with batteries made entirely from animal tissue. Johannes Ritter even carried out electrical experiments on himself to explore how electricity affected the sensations.
The idea that electricity really was the stuff of life and that it might be used to bring back the dead was certainly a familiar one in the kinds of circles in which the young Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley – the author of Frankenstein – moved. The English poet, and family friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was fascinated by the connections between electricity and life. Writing to his friend the chemist Humphry Davy after hearing that he was giving lectures at the Royal Institution in London, he told him how his “motive muscles tingled and contracted at the news, as if you had bared them and were zincifying the life-mocking fibres”. Percy Bysshe Shelley himself – who would become Wollstonecraft’s husband in 1816 – was another enthusiast for galvanic experimentation.
Aldini’s experiments with the dead attracted considerable attention. Some commentators poked fun at the idea that electricity could restore life, laughing at the thought that Aldini could “make dead people cut droll capers”. Others took the idea very seriously. Lecturer Charles Wilkinson, who assisted Aldini in his experiments, argued that galvanism was “an energising principle, which forms the line of distinction between matter and spirit, constituting in the great chain of the creation, the intervening link between corporeal substance and the essence of vitality”.
In 1814 the English surgeon John Abernethy made much the same sort of claim in the annual Hunterian lecture at the Royal College of Surgeons. His lecture sparked a violent debate with fellow surgeon William Lawrence. Abernethy claimed that electricity was (or was like) the vital force while Lawrence denied that there was any need to invoke a vital force at all to explain the processes of life. Both Mary and Percy Shelley certainly knew about this debate – Lawrence was their doctor.
By the time Frankenstein was published in 1818, its readers would have been familiar with the notion that life could be created or restored with electricity. Just a few months after the book appeared, the Scottish chemist Andrew Ure carried out his own electrical experiments on the body of Matthew Clydesdale, who had been executed for murder. When the dead man was electrified, Ure wrote, “every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action; rage, horror, despair, anguish, and ghastly smiles, united their hideous expression in the murderer’s face”.
Ure reported that the experiments were so gruesome that “several of the spectators were forced to leave the apartment, and one gentleman fainted”. It is tempting to speculate about the degree to which Ure had Mary Shelley’s recent novel in mind as he carried out his experiments. His own account of them was certainly quite deliberately written to highlight their more lurid elements.
Frankenstein might look like fantasy to modern eyes, but to its author and original readers there was nothing fantastic about it. Just as everyone knows about artificial intelligence now, so Shelley’s readers knew about the possibilities of electrical life. And just as artificial intelligence (AI) invokes a range of responses and arguments now, so did the prospect of electrical life – and Shelley’s novel – then.
The science behind Frankenstein reminds us that current debates have a long history – and that in many ways the terms of our debates now are determined by it. It was during the 19th century that people started thinking about the future as a different country, made out of science and technology. Novels such as Frankenstein, in which authors made their future out of the ingredients of their present, were an important element in that new way of thinking about tomorrow.
Thinking about the science that made Frankenstein seem so real in 1818 might help us consider more carefully the ways we think now about the possibilities – and the dangers – of our present futures.
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.
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.
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.
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 links below are to articles reporting on the 2018 Hugo Awards for science fiction and fantasy.
The link below is to an article reporting on the nominees for the 2018 Hugo Awards for the best Sci-Fi/Fantasy fiction.
For more visit:
Author Ursula Kroeber Le Guin has been the subject of critical debate, analysis and discussion for generations. She died this week at the age of 88.
Le Guin published her first paid work April in Paris in the September 1962 issue of the magazine Fantastic Stories of the Imagination – and I am the proud owner of an original copy. I am a lifelong Le Guin fan, but also an academic exploring how science fiction is a cultural artefact that acts as a lens on changing attitudes and specific issues of its time. For me, Le Guin hit the sweet spots of her time powerfully and frequently.
Le Guin explored what it is to be human, faults and all, and the impact and influence of her work is undeniable in the world of fantasy and science fiction.
A fantasy writer for all ages
I first encountered Le Guin as a child through the Earthsea Cycle, and it set the bar high for what I considered ever after to be good fantasy literature, leaving me disappointed by many otherwise quite respectable authors.
A Wizard of Earthsea, published in 1968, was the first of three books exploring the life of Ged, a young wizard. Spoiler alert: Ged grows and matures into an adult, starting with his attendance at a secretive wizarding school, where he is scarred on the face by a dark power (which he discovered is inextricably linked to him) and that he later defeats.
If this sounds familiar, you’re not the first to note it. Regarding the story of Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea, Le Guin didn’t say that J.K. Rowling “ripped me off” in her Harry Potter series, but felt that Rowling should have been “more gracious about her predecessors”.
In the Earthsea series, we are introduced to the complex responsibilities of becoming an adult, and asked to consider the values of life and the nature of death. It’s heavy, but significant and humanly realistic reading for a teenager.
Professionalism and style
Le Guin was fiercely protective and supportive of other authors. In 1973, she made a humorous critique of the problems faced by writers trying to make their worlds fantastical and strange in From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, encouraging and emphasising the importance of appropriate style.
Style is something Le Guin seemed to be able to master effortlessly and consistently. I consider her short story Semley’s Necklace – first published in 1964 and later included in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters – to be the finest of its kind in fantasy writing, its crystalline prose equal to Semley’s tragic fate.
Le Guin maintained an interest in encouraging writers and sharing her art. I have an original and much-thumbed copy of the elegantly titled (and naturally masterfully written) Steering the Craft: a 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, published in 1998: it didn’t make me a better writer, but it made me respect and appreciate the craft of writing.
On human nature, science, ethics and duty
For me, Le Guin has been such a powerful influence in science fiction and fantasy literature that I can’t imagine how it might have developed without her.
The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969, inspired and informed a generation of gender writing in fantasy and science fiction. Yet, in her 1976 introduction to this novel, Le Guin maintained that androgyny was not what she considered the theme of the book – it was more to do with essential human feelings about fidelity and betrayal. Her employment of what were to become tropes of science fiction and fantasy was in service of the story, not the other way around, and this was a characteristic of her work.
More than many other author, she employed language, culture and concept in service of writing significant stories about the condition of being human.
Where writer Philip K Dick might be considered the expert of the “what if” scenario in science fiction, for me Le Guin is the expert at “what is?” She asked questions about our nature, aims and desires. She was consistently writing at the coalface of cultural change, or anticipating it.
Her short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, written in 1973 is a devastating, slow-burn exposition of the implications of taking the utilitarian route in our exploitative relationships with other people.
The power of this writing has only increased with time, as we become more aware of “ethical outsourcing” and labour inequalities. These are portrayed in the film The Last Train Home, where the lives of those in the “developed world” become more comfortable, but at the expense of people we don’t know and can’t see.
The Dispossessed, published in 1974, was my introduction to a reader-friendly explanation of comparative ideologies – I suspect it was the same for many people.
But it was also a story about scientists, and the duty they have to be responsible, ethical and honest. It is another very human story in which Le Guin skillfully portrays the difficulties of presenting complex concepts to an unwelcoming world – something that is still pertinent in an age of climate change denial, anti-vaccination lobbying and fake news.
Le Guin was not a universal fan of scientific progress, but always took a human perspective. She was horrified by the “deal with the devil” of the Google book digitisation project, which although a great technological innovation, she recognised as a potential assault on the rights of authors.
Le Guin was a prolific novelist, and I only realise how small a proportion of her work my collection includes when I look look her up on the Internet Science Fiction Database.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Le Guin consistently wrote thoughtful and artful science fiction and fantasy throughout her life, without becoming fixed in any particular style.
Like Ged in Earthsea, she matured gracefully and elegantly with age, and continued to be powerful force and influence in the world of science fiction and fantasy writing.
The world has lost a great and influential writer and humanist. When I heard the news of her death I was heartbroken.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
A 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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)).
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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
– Larry Niven
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.
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
– Iain M. Banks
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!”.
Geraint Lewis, astrophysicist, University of Sydney
The Time Machine
– H. G. Wells
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.
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.
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