Sunday 29 March 2020

Cold Comparisons

By Michael Hoskin, friend of the blog
Science fiction has long been a genre that is rife with references to previous works. As Jo Walton has noted, the genre is often in conversation with itself.

The new ideas of the genre are often ones that are built upon decades of previous works. As I’ve previously written, to a great extent the genre depends on it; if Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. were the only created work on robots, we would have been denied the works of Asimov, Star Wars, and more.

Some works make no attempt to camouflage the works which inspired them – look at any number of
L. Sprague de Camp at Boskone 9
(Image via NESFA)
the pastiche works in the genre, from Manly Wade Wellman’s Sherlock Holmes’s War of the Worlds to L. Sprague De Camp’s Conan of the Isles.

It is interesting to note however, that some works are written even more directly as a commentary on another piece of speculative fiction. There is value in examining how these works offer direct counterpoints to the works they interrogate. 

Tom Godwin’s 1954 story ‘The Cold Equations’ is among the most heavily criticized works in the genre because so many people are unsatisfied by the very premise of the story. It tells of an astronaut who finds a stowaway aboard his ship; due to the precise fuel calculations of his vessel, he cannot afford to bring the stowaway to his destination – therefore, the stowaway must die.

The dilemma of the story is that the astronaut has no other option but to let the stowaway die. There is no clever solution to the dilemma, no deus ex machina to thwart the dilemma – and so, it has been a subject of great debate over the decades.

In 1991, Don Sakers published his short story ‘The Cold Solution’ as a direct response to ‘The Cold Equations.’ This newer story exists in a universe which explicitly references Godwin’s story as an existing piece of fiction. Once again, an astronaut faces a similar dilemma – but not an identical one – and a solution is found (because of the difference in the nature of the stowaway between stories). Sakers wrote the story because he felt “Just as SF once needed to hear that there were times when the girl had to go out of the airlock, in 1991 SF needed to hear that the girl didn't always have to go out the airlock.” It won the Analog award for Best Short Story of 1991.

L. Sprague De Camp was even more prone to criticizing previous works through his fiction. His best-known novel (Lest Darkness Fall, 1941) and best-known short story (‘A Gun for Dinosaur’, 1956) were each written in response to existing works of speculative fiction that De Camp disagreed with, much like Sakers did to Godwin’s story.

Lest Darkness Fall was written in answer to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). Twain’s comedic novel concerns a 19th century man who finds himself in Medieval England and uses his knowledge of the future to alter the past, introducing 19th century inventions hundreds of years in advance. Twain intended to satirize tales of romantic chivalry, but De Camp, at least, was not amused. In De Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall, a 20th century archaeologist time travels to 6th century Rome and uses his foreknowledge to prevent the Roman Empire from collapse.
The Cold Equations by
Tom Goodwin may be
one of the most debated
SF stories of all time.
(Image via Goodreads)

The difference between the two is that De Camp earnestly believed in the romance of the fallen Roman Empire and in the ability of a red-blooded intelligent American to alter history for the better.

Similarly, ‘A Gun for Dinosaur’ was written as a response to Ray Bradbury’s ‘A Sound of Thunder’ (1952), both tales being concerned with time traveling safaris where men hunt dinosaurs using advanced technology. The difference between the two lies in their approach to time paradoxes – Bradbury’s tale is very clear on the rules of time travel and depicts how even a slight inadvertent change to history has unforeseen consequences.

Again, De Camp rejects this; in his version, time paradoxes are impossible, but in a fuzzy sort of way… the forces of time itself prevent one of the hunters from being assassinated via time travel. Yet at the same time, we’re assured that going to the past, massacring dinosaurs and hauling their trophies back to the future does not create any paradoxes. That in itself feels… paradoxical.

Unlike ‘The Cold Solution,’ it is very possible for a reader who has neither read nor even heard of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to read and enjoy Lest Darkness Fall without being aware of any connective tissue between the two. Likewise for ‘A Gun for Dinosaur’ and ‘A Sound of Thunder’. The story of ‘The Cold Solution’ is not, I think, of any interest to people who are unfamiliar with ‘The Cold Equations’.

Beyond Sakers’ meta-references to Godwin’s story within his text, the dilemma of his tale and its seemingly-simple solution is not liable to be interesting to anyone unless they recognize it as a critical response to Godwin. Lest Darkness Fall and ‘A Gun for Dinosaur’ are proper stories; ‘The Cold Solution’ is a letter to the editor in disguise.

What these examples hold in common proves Walton's thesis on science fiction's conversation with itself. Science fiction is richer for the interplay between different authors' works, like what a jam session between rival jazz artists or a rap response are to music. The art of science fiction is richer for having a sense of one-upmanship.

Saturday 14 March 2020

Open Discussion — What's worth considering for the ballot in 2021?

The following list will be updated over the next few months as we read, watch, and listen to Hugo-eligible works for 2021. These are not necessarily what we plan to nominate, but rather works that at least one member of the Edmonton Hugo Book Club has enjoyed and believes to be worth consideration. We appreciate any additional suggestions in the comments.

Updated on January 12, 2021

Items marked with a "*" are ones for which there was significant disagreement within the book club. 


Beneath The Rising — Premee Mohamed
Bridge 108 — Anne Charnock
Black Sun — Rebecca Roanhorse
Repo Virtual* — Corey J. White
The House of Styx — Derek Künsken
The Vanished Birds — Simon Jimenez
The Doors Of Eden* — Adrian Tchaikovsky
Piranesi* — Susanna Clarke
The City We Became — N.K. Jemisin

Finna — Nino Cipri
Prosper's Demon — K.J. Parker
The Factory Witches of Lowell — C.S. Malerich

The Immolation of Kev Magee — LX Beckett
Save, Salve, Shelter — Essa Hansen (in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) 

Short Story
Manuscript Tradition — Harry Turtledove
On The Changing Role Of Dockworkers — Marie Vibbert (In Analog SF) 
Retention — Alec Nevala-Lee (In Analog SF) 
The Cold Crowdfunding Campaign — Cora Buhlert

Astounding Award For Best New Writer
Gautam Bhatia
Jenn Lyons

Embers Of War (2020 entry "Light Of Impossible Stars") — Gareth Powell
Bobiverse (2020 "Heaven's River") — Dennis E. Taylor
Noumenon (2020 entry "Noumenon Ultra") — Marina J. Lostetler
Little Brother (2020 entry "Attack Surface") — Cory Doctorow
Laundry Files* (2020 entry "Dead Lies Dreaming") — Charles Stross

Best Professional Artist

Best Related Work
Jack Kirby:The Epic Life of the King of Comics! — Tom Scioli
ConZealand Fringe — Claire Rousseau, Adri Joy, Alasdair Stuart and Marguerite Kenner, Cheryl Morgan and Cassie Hart
Dramatic Presentation - Long Form
Underwater — directed by William Eubank, written by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad
Dark (All Three Seasons Together)* — written and directed by Baran bo Odar
Tenet — written and directed by Christopher Nolan
Palm Springs —  directed by Max Barbakow and written by Andy Siara

Dramatic Presentation - Short Form
Westworld S3 E03 — "The Absence of Field"
Tales From The Loop S1 E08 — "Home"
Lovecraft Country S1 E01 — "Sundown"

Fan Writer
Adri Joy
James Wallace Harris
Kris Vyas-Myall
Gideon Marcus
James Davis Nicoll
Alasdair Stuart
Paul Weimer

Best Graphic Story
Grendel: Devil's Odyssey — written and drawn by Matt Wagner
The Magnificent Ms. Marvel — Saladin Ahmed
Black Stars Above — written by Lonnie Nadler, art by Jenna Cha
Wasted Space Vol. 3 — Michael Moreci
Invisible Kingdom Vol. 2 — written by G. Willow Wilson, art by Christian Ward

On Spec

Tuesday 10 March 2020

Ruin Of Kings

Ambitious and compelling, Jenn Lyons’ debut novel Ruin of Kings plays with modes of narration and
Image via
structure in ways that enrich what might otherwise have been a standard fantasy adventure. The ambition and quality of the book makes a compelling case that Jenn Lyons should be on the short list for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer.

Ruin of Kings introduces readers to Kihrin, a lower-class child from Quur’s slums who is raised up to the highest echelons of a medievalist fantasy kingdom.

In Quur, noble families have lost the right to rule but retain the direct power they lost by becoming merchant princes, each noble family owning the rights to some sector of the economy. The emperor — an immortal mage who fights demons — has also lost the right to direct authority. It is in fact a council that does the day-to-day business of government.

Anyone can be voted into the ruling council, but councilors almost always are the unacknowledged offspring of the merchant families (another way the merchant families skirt the law about not ruling). All of this information comes out naturally and shapes motivations and behaviours throughout the story.

Of particular interest is how Lyons frames the narrative through Kihrin’s recollections first to his jailer, and then to a magic rock that records his words. Because of this framing, the story is told in alternating chapters that flip back and forth between past-tense third person, and present-tense first person.

The fact that these two narrating voices — younger Kihrin and older Kihrin — are in different tenses serves to highlight the mutability of selfhood. He is not the same person he once was, and he therefore thinks about himself differently.

Those of us who had read the dust jacket felt that this marketing copy had spoiled major revelations
We look forward to reading further
works from Jenn Lyons.
(Image via Twitter)  
of how these two time frames relate to each other, and this did unfortunately take away from the enjoyment of puzzling it out.

Despite having a whole new world to describe, at no point does the world building feel extraneous to the plot. Instead, the mechanisms of the political structure do a lot to move the plot forward while introducing a strange yet believable political structure.

A well-developed and unique portrayal of religion is integral to the story — gods are not omnipotent or omniscient and they are not limited to the odd deus ex machina. The gods are immersed in the story as characters, powerful and flawed with their own motivations.

Ruin of Kings is at times confusing. Especially when starting off the book, readers may be perplexed by the switching narrative voices and the jumping back and forth to different points in the story. Several members of the book club failed to finish the novel, giving up in the first 100 pages.

Although it is the first in a five-part series, Ruin of Kings stands on its own. In fact, given its length, and the depth to which Lyons explores the setting, we wondered whether there was any need for subsequent volumes.

We’d be quite keen to discover how Lyons’ approaches some other settings, and what else she might imagine. But with her schedule filled with writing 2,500 more pages set in Quur, it unfortunately seems unlikely we’ll get to see this for several years.

Excessive marketing hype and exuberant comparisons to classics of the genre gave us some trepidation when approaching The Ruin Of Kings. It is nonetheless an intriguing book that has ended up on some of our Hugo nominating ballots, and earned Lyons a spot on all of our Astounding Award nominating ballots.