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Posts tagged ‘science fiction’

Science Fiction Techniques in Spy Novels: James Bond and George Smiley


One of the upsides of spending two weeks traveling on business in Eastern Europe is that it really adds some perspective to spy fiction. For years I’ve meant to read more of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and to pick up John Le Carré’s George Smiley trilogy. So I worked my way through them and came to an interesting conclusion: both Fleming and Le Carré are science fiction authors. I don’t just mean that in the sense that they use fantastical conceits or gadgets. Instead, I mean that they establish cognitive estrangement for the same reasons and using the exact same narrative devices and prose techniques as speculative fiction authors.

Cognitive Estrangement and the Novum as a Defining Characteristic of Spy Fiction

Reading Fleming and Le Carré brought to mind Darko Suvin’s concepts of cognitive estrangement and novum. Suvin uses cognitive estrangement to describe the method by which science fiction establishes itself as operating in a made-up world where the rules of our humdrum reality need not apply. That estrangement contributes to both our sense-of-wonder and to the genre’s escapist label: it gives us a world that we can inhabit where the impossible becomes possible, and thus opens our horizons to as-yet unimagined concepts.

All fiction relies on cognitive estrangement to some extent: even when we read a contemporary mainstream novel, we accept its fictional premises. How many people do you know who live or speak like fictional characters? None. Effective dialog and effective characterization both rely on carefully considered pruning of reality. Writers are like Mister Miyagi, carefully sculpting his bonsai tree. The natural tree may still be interesting and beautiful, but Miyagi shapes it to underline that beauty. Fiction works the same way. But the difference between speculative fiction and realistic fiction is the degree of cognitive estrangement demanded of the reader. And here is where Suvin’s second concept of novum comes into play.

Suvin claimed that science fiction relied on incorporating something new, something different, something outside of the experience of the real world as a device to achieve a cognitive estrangement. It might be time travel, or aliens, some fancy whiz-bang technology – doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it is a marker that tells the reader “Here there be dragons” and thus puts the reader into the frame of mind for receiving a fantastical story. Reading the Bond novels and the George Smiley novels, I’ve come to the conclusion that spy fiction works in the exact same way.

In order for us to enjoy a spy novel, we need to inhabit a world that most of us don’t ever see: the world of espionage, and assassination, and skullduggery. Does this world exist in actuality? It’s naive to suggest otherwise. But as I’ve never been a spy, it is as foreign to me as Middle Earth or the planet Arrakis. Are there some authors who portray this world more realistically than others? I’m sure there are (I’ve heard rumors that actual spies tend to prefer Le Carré’s novels to Fleming’s, for example). But who cares? In each case, as long as it is fiction, all that matters is the ride that the story takes us on, and whether it is compelling. Just like with science fiction, this ride’s effectiveness is dependent on the story’s ability to establish cognitive estrangement: on its ability to take me into that fictional world alongside our own.

World-building and Character as Tools of Cognitive Estrangement

I’d argue that the techniques Fleming employs are very similar to those used by urban fantasy writers (particularly those who write episodic urban fantasy, like Jim Butcher or Charlaine Harris).

Much urban fantasy posits a “hidden world” alongside ours. We might go our whole lives without ever touching on the affairs of the supernatural that Butcher’s Harry Dresden deals with every day. The same holds true for the cloak-and-dagger world that James Bond inhabits. In both cases, the authors need to establish a degree of trust that we will buy into their reality. And they generally do so in similar fashions.

Like Harry Dresden, James Bond is an initiate. When we first meet him in Casino Royale (or in any of the Bond novels), he already knows the score. He may have more or less experience, he may be more or less jaded, but it is through his already-experienced eyes that we perceive his world. This is a classic device in episodic fiction (see my earlier post on episodic heroes), and it is one that works just as well in spy fiction as in urban fantasy or science fiction.

Secondly, Ian Fleming gives us a setting that while ostensibly realistic, is entirely outside most readers’ experience. Bond doesn’t go to work in a small town in northern New Jersey. If he did, I’d have difficulty buying into the story. Bond travels to exotic locales, places where I’ve never been or places where I’ve only been as a tourist. The result is that Bond’s environment is a priori new to me. I’ve never been to Jamaica, and so the setting Bond moves through is as new to me as Tolkien’s Shire.

Fleming uses classic fantastical devices to make this world real for the reader: he employs the tried-and-true science fictional method of salting his story with very small details that ground his setting and earn my inherent trust in his skills as a storyteller. He goes into painstaking detail about the planes, trains, and automobiles that Bond interacts with. He uses precise language to describe the settings where the action takes place. He doesn’t infodump that information: he just uses it like a dash of spice in his prose, and even though I know that at times it’s absolutely inaccurate, I accept it because it contributes to the story’s flow and the establishment of his environment. I see no difference between this approach and the way George Alec Effinger establishes the Budayeen in When Gravity Fails or how William Gibson assembles his cyberpunk reality in the Bridge trilogy.

It’s easy to see Fleming’s gadgets or his larger-than-life villains as being the primary novum that establish cognitive estrangement, but I actually think it is his world-building that really does it. If we had not already bought into Fleming’s fantastic slice of our world, then we would never believe in Bond’s gadgets or in his monologuing villains.

Neologism as Novum: John Le Carré and the Language of Tradecraft

In many ways John Le Carré’s George Smiley trilogy (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People) are like the anti-James Bond spy novels. Bond is crystal clear in that he is on the “right” (British) side. Even in those books where Bond wrestles with doubts, it is a superficial wrestling and not one that really drives to the heart of the story. The heart of Bond is adventure. The heart of George Smiley is ambiguity (or as Kingsley Amis put it in The James Bond Dossier, anguished cynicism).

The Smiley trilogy is set in a world that more clearly borders on our own. Smiley’s adventures take place in London, Berlin, Hong Kong, Prague. These aren’t tourist wonderlands like Caribbean or the French Riviera. I can’t speak for every reader, but these are often places where I’ve spent a fair amount of time. Unlike Fleming, Le Carré doesn’t spend a lot of time with detailed descriptions of his settings or of the ingredients that make up those settings. His focus is on his characters. The setting, and the world that his characters occupy comes across, but it is always filtered through the film of his characters’ perceptions.

But even if he doesn’t salt his prose with telling details to make the setting seem real for us, Le Carré does use a different science fictional technique to establish cognitive estrangement: neologism. Like James Bond, George Smiley is an initiate: he understands the world of spies and secret service. And that comes through in the language that he uses, in particular in his reliance on the jargon of the trade. His fluency with terms like “tradecraft” and “lamplighters” and “mole” (a term which Le Carré actually popularized, based on a translation of the KGB term for a long-term deep cover agent).

These neologisms are employed to the same end as other science fictional neologisms (grok, hyperspace, warp, cyberspace, ansible, etc.). They establish a sense of cognitive estrangement without distracting from the story. Those of us who aren’t spies don’t use words like “tradecraft” or “lamplighters” in our everyday speech. But whatever our profession, I’m sure we’ve all encountered jargon before. It’s a very real and unavoidable part of life. Because Le Carré uses these terms so fluently, so sparingly, their use buys our belief in Smiley’s world and his perceptions of it.

Of the two techniques, I think Le Carré’s is the harder sell. It is a very fine line to walk between successfully establishing cognitive estrangement, and confusing the reader. But I think he pulls it off, and the fact that words he introduced (mole, tradecraft, etc.) can now be found on most any television show is a testament to his success at pulling it off.

Science Fiction Tropes in Spy Fiction?

If spy fiction relies on science fiction techniques, do the tropes of science fiction get play in spy fiction? Here, I think the answer is less clear. The two genres definitely share some common ancestors. Most spy fiction (in particular the James Bond novels) probably trace their lineage to the noir mysteries of the pulp era. The George Smiley books can probably be traced back to G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare or Conrad’s The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale. The same books often show up in science fictional lineages, but I’m not sure if the two genres share more than a reliance on the same techniques. It’s something I’m going to be thinking some more about, but I’d love to know what everyone else thinks. How are spy fiction and speculative fiction similar? How are they different? What methods and devices work in one but fail in the other?

Leaping the Chasm of Imagination: Verisimilitude, Historical Fiction, and Speculative Fiction


The borders of genre are famously porous. Devices that start in one genre will get adopted, subsumed, and then modified in another. Then the cycle starts again, with the “new” device trickling back to its original progenitor. This tendency is why asking whether realistic or speculative fiction developed first is meaningless: anthropologists and fans can probably debate this ’til the heat death of the universe, and even then the answer won’t matter. But I’m curious as to how and why certain narrative techniques make this leap and others don’t.

Verisimilitude is the Heart of Storytelling

Every single genre – regardless of how speculative it is – relies on some degree of verisimilitude to enable comprehension. Sure, it’s theoretically possible to write a science fiction novel entirely in a made-up alien language with concepts for which there is no human analog…but who on this planet would actually read it? At the most basic level of language, we rely on mutually comprehensible words to communicate. This is the point where I call shenanigans on the pseudo-linguistic (read: intellectually irresponsible) school of critical theory that argues that text/words/language are inherently meaningless. If that were true, then we would not only never have fiction, we would also lose all written correspondence and spoken conversation. Community relies on communication: note their similar roots.

The sentence “John opened the door.” could appear in a hard science fiction story, an immersive secondary world fantasy, or in mimetic chick lit. Sure, we might need to replace the character’s name, and call John “Blaghosan” or something to maintain the illusion, but the act of opening a door can apply in any of these fictional modes. The richness of our lexicon and its corresponding flexibility enables us to assemble more complex, interesting, and layered sentences. But fiction (and any communication) relies on a shared ontological foundation.

At Viable Paradise (which I attended a couple of weeks ago), the amazing Teresa Nielsen Hayden said something utterly profound: “The subject verbed the object, and it was good.” The particulars might vary, but at the sentence level that basic principle underlies all communication, regardless of its realism. The fancy stuff (metaphors, similes, neologisms) that speculative fiction authors love is really a set of clothes hung on this incredibly flexible frame.

The Basic Devices of Fiction: Simile, Metaphor, and Neologism as Genre Markers

All writers use a certain basic arsenal in an infinite variety of combinations to communicate and manipulate their audiences. The most basic tools are such an indelible part of language, communication, and thought as to be near inseparable. But how we use them can actually be one of the markers of speculative fiction.

When we employ a simile (“John scuttled like an ant”) we are establishing a sense of apparency. The use of “like” indicates that John is not in actuality an ant. He merely acts with characteristics more commonly associated with one. Such a use of apparency can take place in any genre and is likely as old as language. Metaphor (“John was an ant scuttling across the floor.”) and neologism (“John the antyman scuttled”), however, are a little more complicated.

If we’re reading a work that is by definition realistic, then we recognize metaphor as a stronger way of evoking apparency. If we’re reading an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, we know that John hasn’t actually become an arthropod. But if we’re reading something speculative than lacking other markers in the text, our hero John may have suddenly literally transmogrified into an insect (hey, it worked for Kafka, right?).

When we come across a neologism (“antyman”) we now have to decode the new word and incorporate it into our lexicon. Its semantic meaning may be unclear, and needs to be gleaned from context. In speculative fiction, that context may support fantastic concepts (antyman – the hybrid of a human and an ant) or merely extend our realistic lexicon (like Shakespeare coining terms like “assassination”).

This decoding process is part of what we love about science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Decoding where a given work’s fantastic borders are is an intellectual puzzle that gives us no small degree of satisfaction (whether escapist or otherwise). Traditionally, literal metaphor has been the plaything of speculative fiction writers. Realistic writers might have dallied in it a bit, but it is only with the relatively recent rise of magical realism and literary fiction’s “discovery” of science fictional devices that this technique has been fully appropriated. A similar process has happened over the centuries with narrative structures.

The Many Structures of the Novel

While many hardcore genre fans might disagree, I would argue that most innovative novel structures first appeared in “realistic” fiction. Whether it is the epistolary novel, the framed narrative, stream of consciousness, or non-linearity it probably appeared first in the realm of realistic mimetic fiction. There’s a good reason for that: like speculative fiction, innovative structures require effort on the part of the reader to decode and process them. To expect the reader to decode an innovative structure and process the speculative elements is likely expecting too much.

Consider the history of the epistolary novel. When it first grew to prominence in the seventeenth century (check out Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister), we had to learn how to consume realistic epistolary novels before fantastical interpretations could flourish. As far as I know, it was not until 1818 that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus successfully introduced early science fictional elements into the epistolary structure, and not until 1897 that Bram Stoker’s Dracula did the same for the nascent genre of horror. I suspect these novels owe much of their continued longevity and relevance to being early examples of speculative stories that made the imaginative leap and successfully appropriated a mimetic/realistic structure.

The pattern is quite similar for other innovative narrative structures. Could Delaney’s Dhalgren have appeared without the innovations of Kerouac? Or would Effinger’s When Gravity Fails have the same resonance without Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett? As readers, we don’t need to have read the realistic taproot texts to experience and enjoy their speculative descendents. Because their structures are successful, they spawn a multiplicity of children: they become part of the cultural zeitgeist that soaks into our awareness.

This pattern actually holds even for the most basic taproot texts of literature. At the start of this post, I asked whether realistic or speculative fiction came first. And the answer is that they both appeared at the same time in the form of historical fiction. Wikipedia dates the first piece of historical fiction back to the 20th century BC. In those ancient days, there was little distinction between what today we characterize as “myth” and what they called “history”.

Even the earliest historical fiction had the same world-building challenges as speculative fiction. History is a foreign country we can never visit, and ancient Greece or Regency Britain are as foreign to our twenty-first century sensibilities as Middle-Earth or the Sagittarius Arm. The world-building techniques for the two genres are identical. Look at how Patrick O’Brian pulls us into his Napoleonic-era nautical understanding in his Aubrey and Maturin books. Then compare his methods to how Arthur C. Clarke introduces us to space-age technology in Rendezvous With Rama. The challenge is the same, and the craft to address it is the same as well.

Does the Pendulum Swing Both Ways?

With the rise of the modernists in the early twentieth century, we saw the fantastic get relegated to a pulp ghetto that we still struggle to escape. Yet even then, there were some “mainstream” authors who looked to fantastic fiction as a source of inspiration (Kingsley Amis and Shirley Jackson both come to mind). The last several decades have seen fantastical techniques gain acceptability within the realistic fiction community (provided they’re labeled “magical realism”). With post-apocalyptic texts like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or blatantly science fictional novels like Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe: A Novel being published as “mainstream literary fiction” we may be living through the pendulum’s reversal as we speak.

Which are the fantastical devices that will now hop back over that imaginative chasm? What are – and what will – contemporary “realistic” writers learn from their speculative peers? That the cycle will keep going I have no doubt, but I’m curious what lessons realistic authors are learning from those of us who like to mess about with elves and space ships and zombies. Regardless of the genre, my own predilections suggest that writers who want to innovate structurally should read widely and extensively across genres to internalize others’ innovations wherever we come across them. T.S. Eliot nailed it when he said “Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal.”

What should we be stealing nowadays?

Why do we love science fiction, fantasy, or horror?


Over on the Absolute Write Forums, GreenEpic posted a fairly thought provoking question:

Does anyone have a theory as to why science fiction and fantasy are so popular?

While the thread there has a bunch of really good answers, most of them tend towards the anecdotal. And as this is the Internet, and I have a generalized opinion, I figured I’d share it for public consumption. Here’s what I think:

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are all marketing categories. They loosely describe a set of fictional conventions that can be expected within a given work. Does a story have robots? Odds are it is science fiction. Does it have magic? Most likely fantasy. Does it have undead monsters out to eat your flesh? I’d guess horror. Of course, this is a gross over-simplification. As a lot of my earlier posts on genre observations suggest, the reality is a heck of a lot more complicated. But your typical reader or movie-goer isn’t terribly concerned with the minutiae of genre theory (which I think is unfortunate, but I’m both nerdy and pedantic). Why do so many respond – in one fashion or another – to speculative storytelling?

Psychological, Physiological, and Neurological Levels of Storytelling

Rational, Emotional, Physiological, and Neurological Responses to Storytelling

Levels of Response to Story

Experiencing a story affects us on both psychological and physiological levels. Have you read stories that put you on the edge of your seat? They tugged on your subconscious emotions to increase tension. That sensation of your palms sweating or your heart beating faster? The story, and the tension it engendered, elicited a physiological response. Or have you ever fallen into a story so lovely that the world around you and the passage of time faded into mere background noise? The story produced a neurological trance-state, not unlike meditation or hypnosis. Have you ever read a book and realized you might be wrong about something? The story’s rhetoric affected your rational thoughts and values.

There’s a connection between our brains and our bodies that good storytelling can powerfully manipulate. It is simultaneously a positive and negative feedback system, where if a story affects one aspect of our beings it has ripple effects that impinge on every other aspect. When a creator manipulates this system skillfully, the effect is transparent and immensely powerful. And here’s why this is important: a story’s marketing category has no bearing on the audience’s response.

That’s right. Whether we’re reading mainstream literary fiction, watching Blade Runner, or flipping through a comic book, our brains and bodies will still respond to the underlying story. When we participate in ludic reading (reading for pleasure), we are looking for a certain configuration of those four responses. Of course, we can’t possibly articulate what that configuration might be (I can’t imagine anyone looking for a story that produces a 40% emotional, 30% physiological, 20% neurological, and 10% rational responses). And the components of those configurations are likely to have fairly fuzzy borders, because they are greatly affected by our state of mind/body at the time of the experience. But when we experience a satisfying story, when a story has elicited a satisfactory configuration of responses, we know it. We say “That was a good story” or “That was fun” without trying to really take it apart and understand why. And a story’s marketing category does not affect how it manipulates our responses. Instead, it describes the conventions appropriate to correctly interpreting its plot.

Basic Modes of Storytelling

Put away your Northrup Frye. I’m talking about something much more essential than mimesis or myth. If we just focus on a story’s plot and how that plot is constructed, we find several different modes of storytelling. Each of these modes relies on a certain configuration of those responses I mentioned above.

For example, an adventure story is going to produce a certain kind of physiological response. Our heart rate might increase, our breath might grow short, we might be eagerly looking to see how the hero will get out of a particular jam. But a mimetic (for the sake of simplicity, let’s call it a representative or slice-of-life) story is unlikely to produce that kind of response. Instead, it is more likely to be quieter, slower.

Basic Modes of Storytelling, with Realistic & Fantastical Examples

Basic Modes of Storytelling, with Realistic & Fantastical Examples

These responses have nothing whatsoever to do with whether a story has fantastical elements or not. Consider two adventures: Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and Steven Brust’s The Phoenix Guards. They make for an interesting comparison, in that the latter is explicitly modeled on the former. But while Dumas’ most famous work has no fantastical elements to speak of, Brust’s novel is replete with them. Yet both stories produce similar responses in the reader, particularly if we are familiar with both works.

So if a story’s fantastical elements (or the lack thereof) has no bearing on the mode a story is told in, then why do some folks prefer speculative fiction over realistic fiction?

Gateway Drugs, Sense-of-Wonder, and the Multitudinous Genre

I believe that fantastical storytelling has an inherent advantage over realistic storytelling. There are no boundaries on what we can do with it. If a concretized metaphor (*cough* the one ring *cough*) adds value to our story, then why not run with it? Just because it isn’t realistic does not mean such images or metaphors are valueless.

Realistic storytelling is actually a subset of fantastical storytelling: by design, it chooses to limit its images and narrative devices to those which can be found in real life. If we love good storytelling, then it’s perfectly natural that we would love the speculative genres. Like Whitman, they contain multitudes. Every single realistic story, from Shakespeare to Joyce, can be presented using fantastical imagery. That a particular execution of a story remains realistic is merely the consequence of an authorial decision as to its ideal presentation.

Yet despite the fact that good stories do not need fantastical devices to remain good stories, plenty of folks out there read exclusively in the fantastic genres. Why? If they can find equally enjoyable stories among the “realistic” shelves, why stick with SF/F/H? I suspect it is because of a positive feedback loop imprinted on our brains early on. When we first consciously encounter storytelling, we look for patterns. It’s a consequence of our highly-developed simian brains. So if in those formative years, we learn that science fiction, or fantasy, or horror is statistically more likely to produce a particular configuration of responses that satisfies us, we treat it like a drug. We learn to love it, and to equate that particular marketing category with the pleasure it produces. And then sometimes, we never stray beyond that gateway.

This gate swings both ways, of course. The same holds true for many readers of realistic fiction, or for many movie-goers who never pick up a book. It’s all about the positive feedback loop that gets imprinted on our neurons at a formative age. I suspect (on the basis of absolutely zero neurological knowledge) that this imprinting can be changed as our experiences change us, but it remains a powerful driver of our experiences.

I suspect the tough-to-pin-down “sense of wonder” is actually a consequence of this gateway drug. If we are adequately self-aware, we learn to recognize (through a meta-cognitive experience), the response we are seeking. That recognition produces that scintillating sense-of-wonder fans of SF/F/H use to justify our genre habit. Speaking for myself, I can elicit that same sense-of-wonder reading outside of genre (Patrick O’Brian’s books come to mind, as do Yasunari Kawabata’s). I don’t believe wonder is genre-specific, although the experience is statistically more common among the fantastic shelves.

And this brings us to the core reason why the speculative genres are so popular: they are a marketing category that encompasses all of the basic modes of storytelling found in realistic fiction. You’ll notice there is no such marketing category as “realistic fiction”. If we want to balance “SF/F/H” we would need an equally broad “realistic fiction” category. But instead, the “realistic fiction” section is fragmented into literary fiction, thrillers, romance, mystery, historical fiction, etc. If you want to find a realistic story told in the romantic mode, well your odds are pretty small looking under literary fiction. If you want a piece of mimetic fiction that deepens your understanding of the human condition, you should probably avoid the thriller shelves.

Yet all of these storytelling modes can be found side-by-side in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror section. Fans of genre fiction need never wander outside of those shelves to find stories that satisfy their every need. And that’s why, as a marketing category, it is so popular. It contains multitudes. And those increase the odds that a story from that marketing category will produce a satisfying response. Of course, much as I love fantastical fiction, I still think folks should read outside of their beloved genres every now and again. But if they don’t, well that’s fine, too: speculative fiction’s got a lot to love.

What do you think? Why does speculative fiction push a lot of our buttons and keep our attention the way it does? Why does it produce such fervent loyalty on the part of readers and viewers?

O Canada! Travels in Canadian Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror


As I mentioned last week, I’m off on my honeymoon at the moment. What I don’t think I mentioned is the fact that I’m honeymooning in the United States’ neighbor to the north. When the Professor and I mentioned honeymooning in Canada to most people, their reaction was usually one of considerate bewilderment: why not go someplace with warm, sandy beaches and fizzy drinks with little umbrellas? Well, both of us like rocky coastlines, lighthouses, cabins in the middle of nowhere, and tons of wonderful used bookstores. All this makes Nova Scotia pretty ideal.

And with a couple of days spent wandering through the stacks of some great used bookstores in Halifax, I thought I might give a shout-out to some of the Canadian genre creators who I’ve enjoyed:

Author Comments Good Titles to Start On
Margaret Atwood Putting aside Atwood’s semantic quibbles as to the definition of science fiction versus speculative fiction, her novels tend to be solid sociological treatises reminiscent of the 1970’s New Wave in science fiction. Her writing often reminds me Ursula K. Le Guin’s, although with a more starkly dystopic sensibility.

William Gibson Gibson’s name is synonymous with the cyberpunk sub-genre, and he is often hailed as one of the luminaries of early steampunk. His cyberpunk novels combine noir storytelling techniques with an often-prophetic depiction of near-future technologies, with his more recent works relying more heavily on prescient sociology sensitivity.

Guy Gavriel Kay Kay is an excellent fantasist who models his secondary worlds on real-world historical settings. Whether it is medieval Spain, Italy, Byzantium, or 8th century China, Kay’s depictions of settings and character paint a vibrant picture of times and cultures that most of us only know from history books.

Claude Lalumière Lalumière tends to produce dark fantasy short fiction notable for eliciting a quiet sense of unease. Language and characters are put to deft – though dark – use. His most recent novella (The Door to Lost Pages) stands out as particularly compelling.

Robert J. Sawyer Sawyer is a prolific science fiction author whose novels utilize hard science to probe more humanist concerns. His work tends to deal with the relationship between science and religion, as well as focusing on issues of self-identity. His books are fun, fast-paced reads whose seriousness sneaks up on you (at least they did on me when I first discovered his work some fifteen odd years ago).

Karl Schroeder A hard science fiction author who – for whatever reason – is grouped in my mind with Robert J. Sawyer and Robert Charles Wilson, Schroeder writes action-packed, fast-paced novels which rely on hard scientific conjecture for their settings and underlying premises.

Peter Watts Watts is a hard-SF author whose particular passion seems to be the biological sciences. If “genepunk” were a subgenre (and I think it damn well should be), then I would argue Watts for its doyen. His novels tend to be fairly dark and hard-hitting, and while they are not light on the science, they still manage to play effectively with the tropes of related genres (horror in particular).

Robert Charles Wilson Most of Wilson’s work is hard SF, though his earlier works veer towards the softer side of hard. My particular favorites are some of his earlier novels which play delightfully with concepts of time travel and most importantly reader expectations.

So without having the benefit of browsing through my bookshelves, that’s a list of fun Canadian genre authors I thought I’d share with all of you. Anyone have any others they’d like to recommend? Since I’m in Canada at the moment, I’d love to hear of any Canadian authors whose work has yet to appear in the United States. Does anyone have any suggestions?

REVIEW: The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan


Title: The Clockwork Rocket
Author: Greg Egan
Pub Date: June 21, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An extremely detailed exercise in scientific world-building, though skimpy on character engagement.

Before I get into reviewing Greg Egan’s new book The Clockwork Rocket, I feel I must offer a disclaimer: I am neither a physicist nor a mathematician. The fact that I need to preface a discussion of the book with such a disclaimer should already tell you a lot about it. The Clockwork Rocket is hard science fiction, an impressive exercise in rationalist world-building that posits a universe whose physics differs significantly from our own. And while the book wins my applause for its science and world-building, I’m afraid the characters left a little to be desired.

The Clockwork Rocket follows the character of Yalda, a non-human female who lives on a planet quite unlike the Earth we know. She comes from a rural farming backwater, where few people are literate (despite the fact that her species can naturally manipulate their bodies’ shape and structure with enough precision to form symbols on their skin).

From the start of the book, Yalda is set apart from her neighbors. Unlike most of her siblings and cousins, she is introduced as a child who is discriminated against due to her lack of a predetermined mate and her large size. Using a child perspective character to gradually introduce the reader to some pretty complicated world-building is an old trick, but Egan pulls it off reasonably well. As Yalda learns about the physics of her world, we learn alongside her. When she becomes a teacher, we learn along with her students. The book is structured such that each chapter represents a particular event in her life, with jumps of indeterminate time between them – sometimes spanning days, other times entire years. We get to follow Yalda as she leaves the family farm, and begins to get a proper university education…still subject to her society’s discrimination and social expectation that females should be content to die giving birth to their children.

By the end of the first several pages, we are absolutely certain that we are not in Kansas anymore. If the structure introduces a problem, it is that there is a colossal amount of world-building to communicate. How much world-building would that be? Well, over on his web site Egan has posted over 80,000 words (that is not a typo) of notes on the physics and math alone. They are a thing of beauty. He’s even got cool tutorial videos! However, the strategy employed and the density of the world-building both lead the first half of the book to consist of little other than one scientist explaining something to another scientist (with copious diagrams and some explanation of formula). While the explanations are intellectually interesting, the lack of emotional tension and density of the scientific material may be off-putting to some readers.

From a plotting standpoint, two basic tensions are introduced. First, Yalda’s species has an interesting reproductive cycle. Females die giving birth, and if they delay reproduction for too long they risk involuntary parthenogenesis. This creates an interesting dynamic between the genders of her species, and leads to some thematic tension. Because she lacks a mate, Yalda is under particular pressure by the establishment of her society. As an independent thinker who aggressively seeks education and rejects the standard female role in her society, she challenges that establishment, and of course that establishment pushes back. It was refreshing to see that throughout the book, Yalda at no point needs to be rescued by a man. I can respect a hard SF story that puts a female scientist in jeopardy and doesn’t have her rely on an alpha male to save her.

The second tension is an impending apocalypse caused by two universes (with different rules of physics) colliding. As they collide, Yalda’s world is in danger of being destroyed. As a theoretical physicist and the discoverer of her universe’s flavor of relativity, Yalda is at the heart of her species’ efforts to save themselves. Their solution – to build a rocket ship that can be taken out of time, filled with top scientists, and then re-inserted into their timeline when the scientists’ descendents have figured out a solution – is ingenious. It is really cool that Egan’s alternative rules of physics make this plausible.

World-building vs Emotional Engagement in The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan

The Clockwork Rocket: Intensity of Reading Experience

One would think that both the societal pressure and the risk of apocalypse would lend Yalda’s story a degree of emotional tension, but unfortunately whatever tension is produced gets subsumed by the sheer volume of diagrams and scientific explanations. The physics are fascinating – but I found that I didn’t quite care about the character as much as I would have liked to. This is especially a problem for the first half of the book, where the reader’s learning curve is very high. Once we’re grounded in the physics, the character and her problems become more engaging. But two hundred pages of world-building is a lot to plow through before we can really start investing in our perspective character. The Clockwork Rocket is not unique in this issue: much hard SF shares this problem (Kim Stanley Robinson’s classic Red Mars comes to mind). While readers used to hard SF who enjoy the intellectual challenge may enjoy this, it is not for everyone.

Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket is particularly interesting when compared to Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Like Egan, Yu posits a universe with rules of physics entirely different from our own. But Yu’s book focuses on the internal and emotional experience of his everyman character. It is through his character that we understand Yu’s world-building. Egan’s strategy is to focus on the world-building first, and then have the character follow. These two different approaches yield very different reading experiences.

Ultimately, I found The Clockwork Rocket reasonably satisfying. But that satisfaction was very cerebral: the book resonated intellectually with me in the same way that a particularly neat thought experiment might. Fans of hard SF will love the complexity, rigor, and comprehensiveness of Egan’s world building. However, now that Egan’s universe is introduced and his characters are left in a fairly interesting situation, I hope the next book focuses more on the characters and less on the physics. The physics are great – but alone they can’t really carry the story.

REVIEW: Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley


Title: Cowboy Angels
Author: Paul McAuley
Pub Date: January 11th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
High-concept, hard SF alternate history with a spy-thriller edge.

I first came across Paul McAuley’s work sometime in the mid-to-late ’90s with his genetic cyberpunk (genepunk? I’ve always thought this should be a term) masterpiece Fairyland. Since then, I’ve always kept my eyes open for new McAuley novels and have found far more hits than misses among them. While his books span a variety of sub-genres (space opera, alternate history, genepunk, etc.), they share that high-concept imagination that underpins the best in science fiction. It was that same high-concept approach to alternate history which attracted me to his new novel, Cowboy Angels.

Books employing the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics are a dime-a-dozen, and so that on its own isn’t really enough to grab me. However, in Cowboy Angels, McAuley asks a question: what if the United States had found a way to travel between alternate versions of Earth at the height of the Cold War? In our real history, the Cold War was characterized by the domino theory, containment, détente, and proxy wars fought all over the world (Central America, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, South Asia, etc.). A downright fascinating time period in history, with the all-too-real primacy of the CIA, KGB, Mossad and other espionage agencies. McAuley’s brilliant concept is to introduce parallel worlds as a new front in this Cold War, which to my history-loving mind made me sit up and say: “Right on, this is going to be awesome!”

Cowboy Angels follows one Adam Stone, a retired special operations agent for the CIG (Central Intelligence Group). He has made his career as a spy working to spread US-style democracy across alternate versions of America. We first meet Adam Stone at the end of an era: American policy is changing with the election of the “peacenik” President Carter, and the nature of the Company’s missions is evolving. Adam Stone is comfortable with this change, having grown disillusioned by the manifest destiny ideology that had put him in moral quandaries in alternate Americas. But not all of his fellow agents are as comfortable with their country’s shifting values, and the book’s plot explores the lengths some people will go to in service of their ideology.

The novel’s plot is structured like a spy thriller, with Stone being called out of retirement to track down his friend and former partner, Tom Waverly. Waverly has gone on a killing spree across multiple alternate realities – killing the exact same woman over and over again. Neither the local authorities in those realities nor the Company know why. And so Stone gets reactivated to try and bring his friend in. What follows is a spy-thriller, but rather than have us jet off to exotic locales, McAuley takes us to exotic versions of the United States. Stone’s hunt for Waverly takes us to a kleptocratic New York decimated by nuclear war, to a United States that had been leveled in an apocalyptic World War III, and to a version of history very much like our own.

This is not a James Bond-style spy caper, where our hero gets to enjoy the good life in sunny Macao, Monaco, or other fancy places that begin with the letter “M”. While some of the alternate realities our hero visits seem bucolic, even pastoral “untouched” realities have their gritty undersides. And McAuley artfully exposes us to that, using blood and sinew to temper the novel’s escapism.

In terms of general concept, Cowboy Angels gets ten out of ten points for me. The idea of Kennedy-era expansionist/messianical foreign policy applying across alternate worlds practically begs to be written. Once again, McAuley’s ability to identify and execute on a particular concept is compelling.

However, for me, the book relied too heavily on this (admittedly awesome) concept to carry it. There were three weaknesses that detracted from my enjoyment of the book. Successful execution of both the novel’s concept as well as its spy-thriller plot structure requires distinctive settings, and the concept enables for some fascinating alternate versions of our world. While we get tantalizing glances into some fascinating settings (Nuclear Winter America, an American government-in-exile in Cuba, etc.), the majority of the book takes place in settings only slightly different from what we know. The settings we explore are different enough to remain distinct, but I think there was a wasted opportunity to explore some really interesting alternate versions of America. With so much of the book’s backstory dealing with the Cold War and the fight against Communism, it struck me as particularly odd that at no time did our hero venture into a Communist version of the USA.

The second, less significant, issue I found lay in some aspects of McAuley’s characterization. In particular, Stone’s romantic interest (which serves as a significant motivator through much of the book) struck me as particularly under-developed. Overall, I bought the character: I felt Stone was believable, and engaging. But I was unable to shake that arms-length disconnect and engage enough with the character enough to lose myself in his world(s). It was close – almost nailed just right – but I found that I just didn’t feel enough of Stone’s motivation. The solid plotting and awesome concept were enough to carry me over this weakness, but I wasn’t close enough to the character for McAuley’s gears and cogs at work to disappear.

The third, and least significant, problem I came across lay in the book’s pacing. Please don’t get me wrong, this is a fast-paced book, and it reads very quickly. However, the pacing is relatively unvaried throughout the text. This is an issue I often find in spy-thrillers: too often, I suspect their authors and editors believe readers equate escalating, no-respite events with being a page-turner. This leads to a go-go-go pacing which can be tiring if not offset and balanced against the emotional arc of the story. Just yesterday, Ursula K. Le Guin posted a great essay on this very subject. By giving his character – and the reader – room to catch one’s breath, McAuley could have deepened my emotional connection to the character and the story. By slowing down the story in a couple of places, the overall result would have been more emotionally powerful.

Cowboy Angels Cover by Sparth

Cowboy Angels Cover by Sparth

Visually, the novel is attractive and stands out nicely. The cover was designed by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke and features an illustration by Sparth (aka nicolas bouvier). The cover really communicates the novel’s feel, contrasting futuristic Turing Gates against the decidedly-less-futuristic trains emerging from them.

Much as I enjoyed Stone’s adventure, my own personal tastes would likely have preferred to see the book’s backstory moved to the front. The transition from “manifest destiny” to “peace and reconciliation” and how that transition unfolds amongst the Company’s agents would be a really fascinating story, and one particularly relevant in today’s geopolitical environment. McAuley has set up a fascinating universe with infinite potential for clever, high-concept, and emotionally powerful stories. I would love to see a prequel set in this same universe exploring the Church Committee’s investigations into the Company’s clandestine operations.

Cowboy Angels is a very enjoyable book. The underlying concept is strong enough to overcome the minor weaknesses in setting, characterization, and pacing. That concept was enough to get my imagination firing, and often that’s exactly what I look for in SF. If you enjoy a good spy thriller, or get a kick out of playing with alternate histories, this book is definitely worth your time.

Why bother with science fiction, fantasy, or horror?


Article first published as Why Bother with Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror? on Blogcritics.

“That stuff’s for kids.”

“Elves and trolls and aliens are silly.”

“None of it’s real, anyway.”

“It’s all escapism.”

“Those are boy books.”

Many people wouldn’t be caught dead holding onto The Hobbit, or Stranger in a Strange Land, or The Haunting of Hill House. Of course, everyone’s entitled to their own opinions. Not everyone is going to enjoy SF, some people won’t get a kick out of fantasy, and others may shudder at the very thought of horror. That’s a question of taste, and really who am I to argue with individual’s tastes? But saying that a particular genre isn’t to your taste is very different from blithely discounting the entire oeuvre. The latter is like a toddler insisting that they don’t like a dish they’ve never tasted before.

Many grown-ups wave genre fiction away by saying that it’s for kids. I get it: it’s an easy argument, really. Society’s perception already pigeon-holes it, so playing to that misconception is an easy out. And history – genre’s roots in the pulps, the Victorian fairy tales for children, etc. – all lend it credence. But on closer examination, this argument falls apart on several levels:

On the one hand, it is factually inaccurate. No one can seriously argue that Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, Frank Herbert’s Dune, or John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War are books for children. Thoughtful kids might get some enjoyment out of the adventure, but the themes these books wrestle with are definitely of concern to adults. This applies across the genres, where at least since the 1950’s the majority has been written with an adult audience in mind.

On the other hand, this argument forgets that kids are much more discerning readers than adults. Consider how easily kids see through weak plots, how quickly they stop caring about milquetoast characters, how they lose interest when the pace sags. When was the last time you saw a ten-year old enjoy a Saul Bellow book? If the purpose of literature is to entertain, and to broaden our understanding of the human condition, then I think we’d be hard-pressed to find books that execute better than middle-grade and YA fiction. Consider Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, or A.A. Milne’s Pooh books, or J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. They’ve sure got some fantastical elements to them (teleportation to alien planets, talking animals, and Never Never Land respectively), don’t they? But they employ fantasy as entertainment and to highlight themes that speak to our hearts. Kids books – and all genre books, whether targeted to kids or not – use fantastical elements as tools to highlight their themes. Bear in mind that kids see right through pretension, and have no patience for it.

One can argue that elves and ray-guns and monsters are silly, unrealistic, and as a result offer no value. They might be entertaining, but who cares about entertainment? All of us, I’d wager. We read books, watch TV, listen to music to be entertained. Sure, we also want to have our horizons broadened but first and foremost we want to be distracted from the concerns of daily life. One can sneer at such escapism, but escapism relaxes us and makes us more productive. How is that a bad thing?

I’ve seen folks denounce genre fiction to a room full of fans as “mindless entertainment” – strangely enough, I’ve never seen anyone say the same about watching football at a sports bar. Entertainment in and of itself has value, and genre fiction simply employs a bigger toolkit than “mainstream” fiction. Using monsters to provide a concrete visualization of humanity’s dark side is a time-honored storytelling tradition that dates back to the first fireside ghost stories. If we reject genre for employing such tools, then so too must we reject classic myths, legends, and folk tales.

Sure, it’s not real. And there are plenty of people out there who don’t like fiction. Fine: if you only like reading non-fiction, more power to you. But if we accept that fiction of any kind has inherent value, then so too must all flavors of fiction. Why would realistic fiction have value and fantastic fiction not? Do George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, H.G. Wells have nothing to add to our understanding of humanity? All three wrote plenty of realistic fiction as well as speculative fiction. What are they remembered for?

The last argument I find most pernicious, since it continues to consistently crop up in circles where it shouldn’t. Just several days ago, Ginia Bellafante published a review of HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ in the New York Times. Putting aside her comments on the actual show, she patronizingly fobbed off George R.R. Martin’s bestselling Song of Ice and Fire series (and all of fantasy) as “boy fiction”. I guess twelve year old boys have much greater buying power than I thought. After all, the latest installment (A Feast for Crows) debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list. Such misogynistic disdain for genre fiction is equivalent to saying that only women enjoy romantic comedies. I’m a red-blooded, steak-eating, bacon-enjoying American male, and like many others I enjoy a good rom com with the best of ’em!

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror is enjoyed by people of all ages, all genders, all religions, all backgrounds. Yes, it is entertaining. But like Whitman, it contains multitudes. There’s something for everyone’s tastes on the genre shelves: Looking for Jane Austen-esque comedy of manners? Check out Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, or Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey. Looking for beautiful magical realism? Check out Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths or Italo Calvino. In the mood for fast-paced quasi-corporate thrillers? Take a look at William Gibson’s cyberpunk (Neuromancer, Idoru). Want some light-hearted parody? Pick up some Terry Pratchett (any of the Discworld novels) or Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Want blistering social satire? Pick up James Morrow’s City of Truth or Walter Tevis’ Mockingbird. Want political intrigue? Pick up George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. In the mood for some thoughtful, soul-searching philosophical musings? Read some Samuel Delany, or Ursula K. Le Guin.

The science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres do as much as the mainstream literary genre. Yes, mainstream literary is a genre. In many ways, its reliance realism as a storytelling tool is one of its defining characteristics. Mainstream literary fiction and speculative fiction have the same job: to entertain and to elucidate. Rejecting the fantastical genres just because they have a greater variety of screwdrivers and hammers in their narrative toolbox is silly.

Would you do the same when hiring a plumber?

A Brief Post on Dystopia


I’m really sorry for the brevity of this post, but I’m traveling in Europe on business this week and my insane and constantly-changing travel schedule has forced me to do a much shorter post today than I normally do. I’ll try and make it up to everyone with another more in-depth post later this week. In the meantime, here’s some brief thoughts on dystopias:

The folks at Tor.com are celebrating a week of dystopia (I detect some irony in this, considering it’s the week when taxes are due in the US). As a result, they’ve got a lot of great bloggers and authors writing about dystopia as sub-genre of SF, or about particular examples of dystopian media. It’s early days yet, but already there have been two really interesting posts that I’d like to call attention to:

The first is an essay by Jo Walton where she asks Where does dystopia fit as a genre? She contends that the “classic” dystopian novels like Brave New World, We, 1984, etc. are not really science fiction. She readily admits that they have science fictional elements, but in both the essay and comment thread she makes the case that Huxley, Orwell, and Zamyatin were not writing science fiction because they weren’t readers of science fiction, the majority of their other (non-dystopian) writing was outside the realm of science fiction, they weren’t writing in their contemporary science fiction tradition, and they were relying on techniques more commonly found in mainstream literary writing than in genre.

She has a valid point that these progenitors of dystopian tradition are clearly different from their contemporary SF peers. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, science fiction (or “scientifiction” as some contemporaries preferred) was primarily confined to the pulp magazines, which were filled with stories by authors like E.E. “Doc” Smith, Theodore Sturgeon, John Wyndham, Clark Ashton Smith, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H.P. Lovecraft. Primarily under the influence of legendary editors Hugo Gernsback and later John W. Campbell the pulps had a significant focus on technology and predictive extrapolation, and with a predominantly young, male audience they tended towards more commercial adventure than satire.

The dystopias, however, are all first and foremost books of thought. Whatever “adventure” they contain takes a back seat to their themes. In that sense, it is perfectly fair to say that the early dystopians diverged from contemporary SF tradition. But does the fact that they diverge mean that they’re not SF? Or that they should be lumped with their “mainstream” contemporaries like Sinclair Lewis? I don’t think so. I think the early dystopias enriched science fiction by showing that technological extrapolation and world-building can be applied to philosophical and sociological themes. Fun as the pulps might be, most 1920’s and 1930’s SF wasn’t particularly meaningful.

I don’t believe one needs to read science fiction in order to write it. Huxley, Orwell, and Zamyatin all wrote amazing works of science fiction, set on certain technological precepts and then extrapolated them to their logical conclusions. That act is what makes their work science fiction. So what if there isn’t a single raygun or spaceship in any of the books? That fact shouldn’t matter. So what if they never wrote another piece of science fiction? That in no way diminishes the science fictional work that they did.

Okay, that’s enough of a rant out of me for now. I promised this would be a short post, and so I’m not going to go on at length on this. I’d love to hear everyone else’s thoughts though: are those dystopias science fiction? What about contemporary dystopias like Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, or Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-up Girl? Walton seems to suggest that dystopia is more of a mainstream tradition than a genre one, but is that the case?

The second essay that I’d like to draw your attention to is one that’s a lot more fun: are you aware that the Jetsons is a dystopian cartoon? I certainly wasn’t, until I read this fun essay from Clay and Susan Griffith. What I found really interesting is how they argue that the 1980’s saw a significant shift in the United States’ perception of the future: from the up-beat mechanistic futurism of the 1960’s, to the down-trodden perils of technology in the ’80s.

This struck a particular chord with me because the day I read this essay, I had just finished reading Walter Tevis’ Mockingbird, a Nebula-nominated dystopian novel first published in 1980. The book is amazing, simply amazing: I might put up a more complete review of it later this week if I can find some free time. But it perfectly captures that transitional moment from Jetsonian push-buttan robotics to the bleak, soulless dehumanization that came to dominate in the ’80s (especially in movies like Blade Runner, The Terminator, 2001, etc.).

Since I’ve got to dash to another meeting, let me leave you with a question: what do you think about the 1980’s changing perception of the future? Was the perception changing? Has it changed since?

Techniques in Writing Alternate History


For the past several months, I’ve been having a lot of fun reading recent alternate histories and historical fantasies (I’ve reviewed a couple in earlier posts). As a result, I’ve been thinking about how alternate history works, and what techniques apply to the sub-genre.

Divergence as the Elephant in the Room

At some point, all of us wonder about the road not taken. In our private lives, we wonder how life would have turned out if we’d gone to college B rather than college A, if we’d gotten (or kept) a particular job, etc. The same “what if” question gives rise to alternate history, where we try to imagine our world as made different. Whether the portrayal is fairly realistic (as in Harry Turtledove’s Timeline 191) or completely fantastical (e.g. Jonathon Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy), alternate history gives us the chance to consider what our world would be like in entirely different circumstances. And that’s fun, because it can give us insight into our own world, culture, and history today.

Because alternate history is so centrally concerned with what sets the imagined reality apart from our current reality, how the timeline diverges must be established very early on. Thinking about it, I’ve spotted a kind of spectrum of divergence in alternate history:

Spectrum of Divergence Techniques in Alternate History

Spectrum of Divergence Techniques in Alternate History

On the one hand, we have what I call fulcrum divergences. This method is most commonly found in “realistic” alternate histories, which lack magic, monsters, or really anything that could not exist in the real world. Some event is identified as a fulcrum on which history swings, and when creating the story we have things work out differently.

The best example I can think of for this type of alternate history has to be Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain. In our real history, a Confederate messenger lost General Lee’s plans for the invasion of the North. The Union found the plans, and General McLellan was able to turn the Confederates back at the Battle of Antietam. Turtledove asks “what if the message never fell into Union hands?” and proceeds to create an excellent series of realistic novels that paint a Confederate victory and map out the consequences through World War II. Such “little differences” need not be so minor, however: Philip K. Dick posited a world where the Axis Powers won WWII in his classic The Man in the High Castle, nor need the resulting world be particularly realistic (consider Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series, where Darwin discovers DNA). Even fairly fantastical stories like Clay and Susan Griffith’s Vampire Empire series still rely on that one point where history changed. Universal within these stories is that the world’s history follows the familiar path we should all know up to that one key fulcrum moment when it skews Doc Brown-like into an alternate timeline.

The other end of the spectrum are foundational divergences. Typically used in more fantastical alternate histories, foundational divergence occurs so far back in the story’s timeline that its effects percolate through all aspects of the world. The place names, some of the personalities involved may be familiar to us, but they are already skewed relative to our timeline based on events that happened significantly prior to the events of the story.

In Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy, Patricia C. Wrede’s Frontier Magic series, or Michael A. Stackpole’s At the Queen’s Command magic has been known and applied within the world for centuries. There is no “point of divergence” with our known history, because instead the impacts of magic diffuse throughout all aspects of society, history, and cultural development. The key difference between such alternate histories and those relying on fulcrum divergence is that all recorded history has to be different from what is known. In these books, the foundational difference (e.g. the presence of magic) occurred or was discovered so far in antiquity that its consequences have percolated throughout the world. As a result, such books can often be enjoyed as secondary-world fantasies.

Between these two poles lie a variety of techniques that authors can use to establish that divergence. Often, authors use a time traveler from our timeline to introduce the divergence. Once in the past, the time traveler proceeds to change (or – sometimes not) the past as we know it.

Excellent examples of this kind of alternate history include books like Eric Flint’s 1632, Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man and Mary Gentle’s First History sequence. In many respects, these books are similar to those that use a fulcrum divergence: in this case, the time traveler becomes the fulcrum. However, they differ significantly in that typically the protagonist (the time traveler) is aware of the divergence or its possibility. This changes the dynamic of the story and significantly alters the reader’s relationship with the hero.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, one can have an “alternate history” that completely recasts our known reality, which does not take place in any kind of recognizable version of our history. Here, the events of the book are modeled on actual events in our history, but they are depicted in a completely secondary world.

Turtledove’s World at War series employs this technique, depicting the events of WWII in a completely secondary world. Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World (see my earlier review) similarly (though less historically) models aspects of his world on the American frontier.

Maintaining Suspension of Disbelief in Alternate Histories

The key to constructing an effective alternate history is to keep the reader locked in what Gardner calls the “dream” of the novel. This task is particularly challenging in alternate histories, where the reader knows they are reading something inimical to their pre-existing knowledge of the world. As a result, readers are likely to quickly pounce on perceived flaws, places where the author’s research or techniques fell short. There are several tools that can be used to maintain the reader’s acceptance of the alternate history.

The perspective that the book is written from, and the narrative voice that is employed, are both essential tools to maintain the reader’s disbelief. This is doubly-so if the book is written in first-person, but even when written in third the speech patterns, word choices, and value systems that our narrator employs contribute to the milieu of the era we are depicting. Recently, I read two alternate histories that execute on this aspect perfectly: Cherie Priest’s Dreadnought and Michael A. Stackpole’s At the Queen’s Command (see my earlier reviews here and here, respectively).

In both books, the narrative voice and the dialog employed by the characters rings (at least to my ear) true to the period when the books are set. The words key characters employ, the value systems inherent in their views, the differences in how different characters speak, in both books the quality of voice and dialog help to lock the reader into the alternate history. In At the Queen’s Command, the dialog is strongly reminiscent of other accounts of the late 18th century. As a result, I am able to believe that while there may be magic, I am still reading a story set in the 18th century I am familiar with. The same applies to Dreadnought, which follows a southern Confederate nurse across the frontier.

Nailing the voice like this is partly a question of the writer’s natural ear, but it is also heavily influenced by research. Reading books written in and written about the time period can help provide the “feel” of that time period. And solid research on word use and etymology can help make sure that the dialog is period-appropriate (as Mary Robinette Kowal pointed out recently, people swore differently even one hundred years ago). Research and extensive reading are the keys to nailing this aspect of an alternate history.

But there is a flip side to this coin: When we write alternate histories (or even historical fantasies) there is an understandable temptation to shoe-horn massive amounts of research into the text. After all, not everyone is as familiar with the time period as the author. But this natural tendency has to be handled very delicately because people who enjoy alternate histories are likely those who enjoy history. As a result, they are likely to already have substantial knowledge about history, and thus overloading them with historical information may weaken their engagement with the story.

In historical fantasy, this is a danger that I recently observed in Jasper Kent’s otherwise excellent Twelve. Kent clearly knows the history of 19th century Russia, however in many places he assumes that his readers do not. For some readers, this is likely not a problem. But for those of us who are familiar with that time period, the extensive expository background that Kent provides detracts from the rising action of the story. Striking a balance between that need for background and the forward motion of the story is key to writing any story based in history. When I think about the authors who do this well, they apply the rule of “less is more” and leave the reader to infer whatever background they do not already know. If we have to pick between momentum and background, I say always go for momentum.

Imagining a Different Today

If futuristic science fiction is about imagining a possible tomorrow, then alternate histories are about imagining a possible present. This at once constrains our world-building (to a greater or lesser degree, we have to conform to known history) while providing the opportunity for very focused imagination. When I read excellent alternate histories, I often think that it is much harder to paint a maserpiece by coloring within the lines. But the best authors of alternate history manage to do exactly that.

If you’re looking for fun alternate histories, below is a list of the authors and books that I’ve mentioned in this post. I strongly recommend you pick up a copy, from your local bookstore or your library and enjoy:

Where are America’s science fiction, fantasy, and horror specialist retailers?


I spent last week in London on business. I love London, even in chilly, misty, drizzly January. One of the reasons why is because it is home to Forbidden Planet, the world’s largest and (to the best of my knowledge) only chain (though technically a pair of chains – see update below) retailer specializing in science fiction, fantasy, and horror products. The London megastore sits on two floors, stocked to the gills with action figures, comic books, graphic novels, trade and mass-market books, and DVDs: if it is genre, odds are you can find it there. Split between two somewhat-related separate companies (Forbidden Planet and Forbidden Planet International), the Forbidden Planet brand name offers twenty-five different locations in the United Kingdom. If the United Kingdom – home to sixty two million souls – can support twenty five chain outlets, why can’t the US – with five times the population – do the same?

UPDATE: Just a word of clarification since the above might not be clear: Forbidden Planet and Forbidden Planet International are in fact two separate companies. The former has nine stores in the UK, while the latter has thirteen branded outlets in the UK, one in Ireland, one in New York, and two other associated (though not branded) stores in the UK. While the two were related in the past (per Wikipedia), they are now operated as two completely independent companies. However, this fact does nothing to detract from the main point of this post: where are our genre chains in the United States?

Both countries have their share of general media retailers: the United States is home to Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Best Buy. The United Kingdom is home to W.H. Smith and Waterstone’s. Despite the ever-present moans of indie media outlets (whether booksellers or comic book shops), both have reasonably vibrant indie communities. I find it unlikely that the UK has a larger number of genre fans as a percentage of the population than the United States. If that were the case, then the UK would host a far greater number of genre publications (pro, small-press, and amateur) than it does.

Forbidden Planet (at least the London megastore, which admittedly may not be a representative sample) knows the genre business far better than its more general counterparts. The store is clearly divided by product type. Action figures, novelty items, and gaming are in one area. Anime, graphic novels, comic books, and regular books are in another. The book section is impressively stocked and organized along broad genre lines. Each section is consistently sub-divided, with its own “New Releases”, a “Chart” section where top-sellers are shown face-out with shelf talkers, and a general stock alphabetically arranged by author. This structure makes navigating the shelves a downright pleasure. Identifying what is new, and spotting what is performing well within a given category is very easy – whether you’re familiar with the genre or not.

This type of organizational scheme would be unimaginable at a general retailer. However, it is not a product of the stocking teams’ deep knowledge of the genre. Instead, it is the product of solid operational management. While visiting the store on a Tuesday mid-afternoon, I got to watch shelves being re-stocked. The stocking teams used netbook computers with bar code scanners to control inventory and shelf placement. This makes it possible for even new employees without genre familiarity to stock shelves properly. Forbidden Planet earns a gold star in shelf management in my book, especially when compared to recent experiences at (the admittedly beleaguered) Borders.

Several weeks ago, I was looking for a copy of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. I went online, and the Borders web site told me that it was “likely in store” at my local retailer. I drove on over, and proceeded to check the in-store computer. It told me to check in the graphic novel section, where I was patently unable to identify any organizational method. Seeking help from an employee, I was told that it was in fact in stock, and that it would be in the criticism section. Of course, it was not. I checked with a different employee, and was told it would be in with the art books. And of course, it was not. Contrast this ordeal with the simple process of stopping by Forbidden Planet, wandering through the graphic novel section, and finding it precisely in the “M” section of independent graphic novels. I would expect to find this title in both stores, but the operational management of Forbidden Planet left me a satisfied customer while Borders failed me.

The United States has its share of specialist booksellers. Whether it is Borderlands Books in San Francisco, or Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, Massachusetts, many offer a fine selection and deep understanding of genre style and history. However, as a general rule these bookstores are independent one-location operations. This is not a criticism, merely an observation. With so many genre fans in the US, perhaps we, too, could support a chain of specialist media stores like Forbidden Planet? Economies of scale would help with profitability (the interminable lament of the indie bookseller), while technology would make operations and quality-control easier across a network of locations. On an early Tuesday afternoon, the London store was reasonably full of shoppers and needed two cashiers to service the line of customers waiting to buy. Why doesn’t America have something comparable?

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