Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Scientific-Ridiculous

Previously, I discussed Asimov’s three kinds of science fiction: gadget, adventure, and social. And while this trio better describes the wild and wooly mess of science fiction than the binary set of hard and soft science fiction, new sub-genres have cropped up that don’t quite match the categories Asimov created. Now, Asimov’s categories are descriptions based on function, so many hybrids exist. But there still remains one category outside this spectrum.

Most speculative fiction attempts to peer into the Great Unknown in the hopes of better understanding who were are and where we are going, as in Maurice Renard’s definition of the scientific-marvelous. But some speculative fiction dives into stranger alleys. What if Star Trek and its expendable redshirts were real? What if, after Sauron was defeated, he was forced to work at a McDonalds? What if a girl was reincarnated into the villain of her favorite visual novel? What if the Soviet Union sent AK-47s back in time to the Confederate South?

Welcome to gimmick fiction. Here, science is a worldbuilding conceit to be explored for all its consequences, no matter how mundane, glorious, or humorous the result may be. And while many of these stories are adventures in absurdity, all are unflinching in answering the question of “what if?” Like Asimov’s science fictions, this category hybridizes as well, most often with adventure, but much of alternate and counterfactual history blends into social science fiction.

The key to detecting gimmick fiction is determining if the story’s central conceit be reduced to a single question. Granted, this can be easier to see with light novel titles that shout out their gimmicks such as Reborn as a Vending Machine, I Now Wander the Dungeon, I’ve Been Killing Slimes for 300 Years and Maxed Out My Level, and The Devil is a Part-Timer!, but much of hard alternate and counterfactual history follows the same course. What if Sam Houston was not wounded at a key battle in his youth? What if the South won Gettysburg? And so on. But the consequences have to arise from this question. A simple reskinning of historical events into space opera, a David Drake and others are prone to do, lacks the wild exploration of consequences needed for gimmick fiction.

Gimmick fiction is a bending-inwards of speculation from the unknown to how the known changes if one assumption is changed. While it lends itself to humor and light adventure, it also lends itself to counterfactuals. If Asimov's Three Kinds of Science Fiction can be boiled down to:

Gadget sci-fi: Man invents car, holds lecture on how it works.
Adventure sci-fi: Man invents car, gets into a car chase with a villain.
Social sci fi: Man invents car, gets stuck in traffic in the suburbs.

then gimmick fiction is:

Man invents car two thousand years early, chaos ensues.

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Grand Alliance and War of the Spheres

Jay Allan's Blood on the Stars series, of which The Grand Alliance is the eleventh book, is the heir to David Weber's epic Honor Harrington series.

High praise, to be sure, and a statement that sets high expectations for readers. This feat is even more impressive as Allan is not writing Hornblower in Space, yet still conveys the heart of the naval tale: wooden ships and iron men. Denied the escalating technological arms race of Honor Harrington, Allan's Tyler Barron must rely on leadership, motivation, diplomacy, and his damage control crews to outfight the numerically superior Union and the technologically superior Hegemony. In earlier books, Allan conveys the tension of a damage control race between opposing ships vying to bring their guns back online first without resorting to Star Trek physics-defying wizardry or Honor Harrington's occasional forays into the accountant's view of war.

In The Grand Alliance, now-Admiral Barron is gathering forces to retake the Confederation's capital after the brutal battle that stopped the Hegemony's invasion. He needs time to rebuild his fleet, time that will only make the Hegemony invaders increasingly stronger than his forces can ever become. While the rump of the Confederation's government seeks to negotiate with the invaders assimilating their citizens, Barron decides to risk it all in one last drive to the Capital. But first he must draw away enough Hegemony ships to give his strike a chance.

The resulting campaign, from first raid to the final and decisive throw of the dice, forces the fleet to endure hardship, attrition, and even setback. Allan humanizes these costs without grinding the reader down or diving into anti-war cliche. It is right, good, and necessary to fight for one's homeland, but scars are unavoidable. This human focus means that when it comes time to determine if Barron's gamble leads to victory or disaster, the action is riveting as Confederation fighters lash out at Hegemony escorts and the lines of battleships duel, uninterrupted by clinical descriptions of ordnance and volume. The result reads like a "good parts" abridgment of a Honor Harrington novel while still maintaining its own identity.

War of the Spheres, by B. V. Larson and James D. Millington, begins as a security operative staggers out of suspended animation. Plagued with gaps in his memory, Chief Gray is assigned to protect a military research and development program plagued by strange disappearances. But when Chief Gray finds the lead scientist gutted by a shadowy alien assassin, he learns the truth about the program. It is an attempt to create a new propulsion system to breach the force sphere around the solar system that imprisons humanity. Now Chef Gray must fight against alien spies, an entrenched military bureaucracy, the vices of supervisors and scientists, and even his own replacement to make sure this moonshot project succeeds.

Larson has sold over three million books by sticking to a simple formula. A military-minded man gets swept up into secretive events driven by contact with a previously unknown group of aliens, and only succeeds in finding the best course of action for Earth because he is unencumbered by the vices of lesser men--including many of the vices celebrated by more traditional science fiction writers. Larson's heroes especially are plagued by arrogant and uncooperative scientists who are worthless in social settings, but must be endured for their occasional utility. The technology and nature of the threat change from series to series, keeping the formula fresh.

Here, the conflict is spy versus spy as Chief Gray tries to keep the new star drive out of the hands/claws/manipulators of an insectoid alien crew trying to steal it through commando raids. Compared to the galaxy-spanning conflicts in earlier Larson series, the smaller scope keeps Chief Gray's involvement small--nowhere near the imperial heights that previous protagonists climbed. Gray's other strength is his social skills. He might not be deferential, or polite, or even agreeable, but his approach is direct and convincing:
"You left Logan out there," Whitman said bluntly.
"That's better than having that thing in here with us, isn't it?"
"You shoved him out."
I looked Whitman in the eye. "Yes, I did."
He thought about that, and he nodded his head. "You played it right. Logan was always impossible. He knew it all--you couldn't tell him anything."
For once, we get science fiction that refuses to glorify the secret king, choosing instead to stuff him in a locker at every chance. This isn't out of cruelty, since the vices of lesser men, cowardice, gluttony, pride, jealousy, etc., actively threaten Chief Gray's mission and get a space station of bystanders killed. But while countless warnings of what not to be abound in the Chief's path, no aspirational examples exist. Chief Gray is the sole man of virtu in the world of vice, and I hope sequels will show how fellow men like the Chief interact and support each other's missions. In the meantime, following the Chief as he stalks alien commandos across the solar system is an unabashed pleasure.

Monday, February 18, 2019

What is Science Fiction?

During a discussion of science fiction by C. S. Lewis, Kingsley Amis, and Brian Aldiss, published as "Unreal Estate", attempts to define the genre:
LEWIS: That can’t be science fiction.  
AMIS: I would dissent from that. It starts off with a characteristic bit of science fiction situation: that World War III has begun, bombs dropped and all that....  
LEWIS: Ah, well, you’re now taking the German view that any romance about the future is science fiction. I’m not sure that this is a useful classification.  
AMIS: ‘Science fiction’ is such a hopelessly vague label.  
LEWIS: And of course a great deal of it isn’t science fiction. Really it’s only a negative criterion: anything which is not naturalistic, which is not about what we call the real world.  
ALDISS: I think we oughtn’t to try to define it, because it’s a self-defining thing in a way.
While I lean towards the German view of science fiction, that of any adventure of the future, I have to admit the Lewis has a point. There is something to the English and American traditions that demands something more, despite how popular futurist adventures can be. However, I'm not as quick to write out whole sub-genres of science fiction from the genre in the way Lewis, Lundwall, and others who prefer their science fiction in the vein of Wells have.

Star Wars is science fiction, after all.

But English language is caught in a tension between the romance of the future as a milieu and the wild investigation of the unknown. Perhaps the best way to ponder the question is if science fiction can exist without a speculative element. Continental science fiction, that of Germany, France, and even Japan, certainly tends toward the milieu. That's not to say the continental nations don't have speculative traditions, just that the speculative element folds nicely into the futurist settings when it is present.

However, the history of science fiction in America shows that the speculative element is not enough to claim the name science fiction. Even in the 1960s, Harlan Ellison was pointing out that an increasing subset of speculative fiction had nothing of the futurist milieu, and was no longer proper science fiction.

At the moment, that leaves us with Aldiss's "self-defining thing" or "I know it when I see it." Which is even less satisfying than science fiction as a setting.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Lewis, Lundwall, and Campbell

Curious in reading Lundwall and Lewis, it is the post-Campbellian magazines of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Galaxy that appealed to European critics more than the drab technical work of Gernsback and Campbell.

I have previously noted that the Campbelline Revolution never thrives where and when Campbell is not present, and that attempts to graft cuttings from the Campbelline tree onto French and Japanese science fiction inevitably wilted.

Further, with the pulps, that the pulps died because editors like Babette Rosmund thought them passe and tried to correct the tastes of their writers and readers. The result: the readership left years before Street & Smith killed their pulp lines.

"When the Vernian monopoly of American science fiction--and through that, of a large part of post-war science fiction from other countries--finally ended (thanks to such editors and authors as Ilya Varshavskiy, Robert Sheckley and Donald A. Wollheim)"--Lundwall (h/t JD Cowan)

Read that as "When Campbell's influence ended." As Malzberg said in Breakfast in the Ruins, Campbell's influence ended because he listened to fans tired of depressing stories and put his foot down. Galaxy and F&SF gave writers an outlet for all the depressing stories writers could write.

Let's be honest, until 2010, it was editors who defined trends in science fiction, not the readers. Part of the upheaval in the 2010s is that there is now more than just an escape valve from the Nielsen-Haydens' vision of science fiction.

This, and science fiction as scripture, are the reasons why the genre has to eternally relearn Ellison's complaint: "Before you can educate, you first must entertain."

It is ironic that an entire generation of editors who blindly copied Ellison never managed to learn this lesson from their hero.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Combat Frame XSeed: Coalition Year 40 Fundraiser has begun

They made him necessary. He’ll make them pay.

Earth groans under the yoke of the Systems Overterrestrial Coalition. Socs enjoy privileged status while grounders languish as second-class citizens.
Student Thomas Arthur Dormio leads the Brussels Service Academy’s history club, a front for a dissident grounder cell. The Human Liberation Organization conducts a campaign of blackmail, sabotage, and terrorism to free Earth from the Socs.
En route to make contact with the HLO, Second Lieutenant Theodore Red arrives in orbit over Western Europe. But before he starts the next phase of the resistance on Earth, Red has a man to kill.
Will the HLO avenge themselves on the Coalition? Or will personal grudges and conflicting purposes tear them apart? Find out in the pages of Combat Frame XSeed: Coalition Year 40!
Brian Niemeier is a best selling science fiction author and a John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist. His second book, Souldancer, won the first ever Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel., and its sequel, The Secret Kings, became a 2017 Dragon Award finalist for Best Science Fiction Novel.
Brian's passion for mecha anime and Western science fiction revitalized military sci-fi in the hit martial thriller Combat Frame XSeed. But that was just the beginning! Now, he invites you to help continue the renewal of science fiction!
What readers said about Combat Frame XSeed:
Strongly recommended for fans of adventure, science fiction, and far future thrillers, Combat Frame XSeed captures the spirit of the real robot genre without resorting to the thin reskinnings that plague many Western copies of Eastern genres. Better yet, its knights and thrillers approach breathes new life into military science fiction adventure.
-Castalia House Blog
It’s a triumph of mecha action. Taking cues from Gundam, Macross and other famous anime mecha shows, Brian Niemeier weaves a fast paced and violent plot filled with fleshed out characters and awesome ideas that never fail to entertain the reader. It is a masterclass in tight plotting and mecha action. All the pieces come together from chapter climax to book climax in a never ending, glorious climb.
-Superversive SF
Super fun. Brian delivered what he promised.
-Jon Del Arroz, author of For Steam and Country

Friday, February 8, 2019

On "Fandom: An Illustrative History, Part One"

Author JD Cowan examines Science Fiction: An Illustrated History, by Sam J. Lundwall in the first of many parts. Written in 1975, during the tumultuous years just after John Campbell's death, Lundwall's account offers an examination of science fiction history unclouded by the revisionism that accompanied the latest editorial handover in the mid-2000s. Lundwall, a Swedish member of SFWA and other SF organizations, set out to "prove that science fiction is a worldwide phenomenon that hadn't blossomed in English speaking countries until post-World War I."

While a European perspective is welcome, as it counteracts American science fiction's continued provincial myopia concerning World science fiction, Lundwall does a disservice to Poe, Wells, and Burroughs in his claim. Furthermore, English language science fiction was thrust in the limelight after World War I because France, Germany, and other nations involved in both science fiction and World War I lost the spark of hope for the future needed to write science fiction and abandoned the field. American and English science fictions were the loudest voices in a much-diminished choir.

Lundwall and Cowan's conversation on science fiction sparks many points of discussion, such as the earliest works in the form, how science fiction's secularization killed its spirit of wonder, and more. Lundwall offers science fiction as the mythology of progress, while Cowan is quick to point out where the mythology diminishes itself:
Mr. Lundwell continues to pry a genre definition from half-formed ideas and made-up terms in order to put to paper what science fiction is. The fact is that it doesn't have one, and that might be because it is not much in the way of a standalone genre. 
Unlike, say, mystery which is about mystery, or romance which is about romance, or adventure which is about adventure, if your genre requires mental gymnastics to explain to a child then you should go back to the drawing board. One sentence should be enough. Genres aren't aesthetics or themes. Genres are defined by what emotion and sense they are meant to invoke in the reader. This is why the average reader picks up a book. They choose one based on the experience it will give them. 
What they are fumbling around to define in the above definitions is Wonder. Wonder is a trait from adventure fiction and its subgenres fantasy and horror. It is the adventure of exploring new lands, peoples, and possibilities. Pair that with the origins of those listed in the paragraph above and you will see where I am going with this, and why the battle for an original definition has been fruitless for well over a century. It's never going to have one, and that is a point that should be discussed more than it is.
That science fiction might be closer to chinoiserie than mystery or horror is a point to ponder. But it is the following exchange which highlight Lundwall's claim of science fiction as a global phenomenon--and gores a sacred cow of science fiction in the 2010s:
And to quash another canard, the author continues:
"When some critics argue that the English author Mary Shelley invented modern science fiction with the novel Frankenstein (1818), they forget that she was drawing upon more than fifty years of Marchen literature, most of it infinitely better and more modern than Frankenstein was."
No, that wasn't written by Jeffro Johnson. In fact you will soon see that the author is no friend of the pulps or the old stories at all. There is a larger point here. This is a man who stood at fandom's heart, and here he is admitting what no one currently in that position will. If you accept Mary Shelley as science fiction (and horror, when it's convenient to the argument) you have to accept many other works that came before hers. You do not get to pick and choose. 
You have to accept fantasy and horror as a whole connect to science fiction, and she did not create either of those. She merely continued on in a tradition that started long before she was born and continued long after she was dead. Despite fandom's best efforts to rewrite the past, she did not create the genre. She was a participant in a unending conversation called art and had her piece. This should be enough. 
Those using Shelley as a bludgeon for political reasons are doing her work and those who came before a disservice and are actively whitewashing history--a history, I might add that was crystal clear from all the way back in 1977. Even fandom understood this.
Let's turn again to Lundwall for an explanation of Marchen literature:
"Modern science fiction in a sense appeared with the German romanticists of the late eighteenth century--Clemens Brentano, Achim von Armin, Adalbert von Chamisso, E. T. A. Hoffman and others. These romantic Marchen writers wrote what in effect were fairy tales for adults, including all the various paraphernalia common in modern sf, such as robots, monsters, strange machines etc, set against a curious background. They demanded an almost boundless credulity from their readers, for they described life, not as a reality, but as a dream of sorts--not what it is, but as it might be."
We see once again the influence of Romantic literature, with this branch in fairy tales, joining English Gothic tales and Poe's mysteries as the venerable roots of science fiction. Cowan and Lundwall will disagree yet again over the merits of the Gothic tale, this time, over the appeal of materialism:
But here is where we get the writer's real opinion of adventure fiction. What follows is his description of The Castle of Otranto, the single most important and popular Gothic novel.
"It had form and no substance, it horrors all lay on the surface as it were . . . the seminal The Castle of Otranto succeeded only in building up baroque facades without much content. In many ways this was the forerunner to the Penny Dreadfuls and the pulp magazines--lots of form, no content."
I will translate this from arrogant fandomese for the paupers in the audience. "Form and no substance" means the horrors are spiritual, implied, and obvious to those reading, and not explicit.
Cowan describes further the importance of the Gothic:
The Gothic is the beating bloody heart in any good traditional romance story and is what gives it the universal core so needed in fiction. White against black. Dark against Light. Hero against Villain. Eternal Life against Endless Death. Temptation against Virtue. It goes beyond the surface into weighty themes of the Ultimate, God, and True Justice. The knowledge of a battle between forces beyond both parties at play that haunt the scenery and the overall world behind the story. It underpins every action and decision, and the thought that salvation or damnation is a stone throw away is the most nail-biting experience of them all. Now those are stakes, and they were an integral part of all fiction until the second half of the 20th century where the worst thing that can happen to you is that a monster might kill you in the dark where you can't see it.

Really makes you think.
Indeed, it does, with this discussion of the first chapters leaving readers much to ponder over. I look forward to the rest of this series, and towards chiming in with my own commentary soon enough.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Emperor Ponders: Armor

 The Emperor ponders armor, and why it never seems to work in fantasy fiction:
Every prospective writer goes through that investigative phase when he attempts to cram as much “real” data about the subject he is going to write as he can. For people in the adventure/fantasy genre, that usually means weapons, fencing, that sort of stuff. “The story must have realistic sword fightings!” and all that. Well, I’m here to tell you that you probably shouldn’t bother. Both in books as well as visual mediums, there’s a tool way more abused than weapons: armor. 
Even in the unlikely event that whoever is reading this is the director or writer behind a big-budget movie, weapons may not be the thing you want to focus the most if you want to be “realistic.” Besides, that’s why you have your choreographers and historical consultants (to ignore them because what they deem realistic is also boring.) And while realistic swordsmanship can be ignored as long as nobody dies anything so stupid it puts their lives in danger, there is something that cannot be ignored, and that’s material sciences.

I don’t care if your characters are funky ninjas flying through the air; I expect armor to behave like it should, for the same reason I expect wood or stone walls to behave like they do in real life. Fantasy is fantasy because characters can punch through walls thanks to magic, not because walls cease to work like they should. So the same happens with armor.
It’s honestly a waste of time for a writer to spend hundreds of hours reading manuals of historical fencing, trying to get the movements right (something that isn’t even possible to convey in words) just to get someone die of a sword cut… through chain mail or plate armor, which is both impossible and absurd. So, without any attempt at being exhaustive, here are a few things you might want to keep in mind if you are into writing stories in a pre-modern setting with lots of people hitting each other. 
He tackles the rogue's leather armor, archery, blood geysers, and more...

Friday, February 1, 2019

Combat Frame XSeed

The future is over.

Civilization on Earth has collapsed. Oligarchs have established a new order in manmade space colonies at the Earth-Moon LaGrange points.

A group of powerful colonies form the Systems Overterrestrial Coalition to re-civilize the earth, but grounders view the colonists as hostile meddlers. The Coalition counters the rising violence with giant manned robots called combat frames.

The independent L3 colonies denounce the war on Earth. In response, Coalition Security Director Sanzen takes L3 leader Josef Friedlander’s wife and daughter hostage. Amid the tense standoff, Friedlander’s son Sieg launches an unsanctioned rescue mission to L1’s Byzantium colony.

Brian Niemeier brings the same otherworldly imagination from his award-winning Soul Cycle to the mecha genre, creating an homage to Gundam and Tom Clancy. At a time where military science fiction has ossified into space marine wars of attrition and Horatio Hornblower battles in space, Combat Frame XSeed offers instead an espionage thriller where raids and revelations change the histories of entire nations. Sieg Friedlander's failed rescue of his sister sparks a conflagration of intrigue and war that engulfs the solar system many times over as he seeks revenge against Director Sanzen for killing his sister. Along the way, Sieg finds allies in Tod Ritter, a noble fighting to free Neue Deutschland from Coalition control, and Zane Dellister, a Coalition deserter who is obsessed with the advanced combat frame prototype he's stolen. But the Coalition is not a united front, and as Director Sanzen tightens his control over Earth, factions in his government seek their own purposes at his expense. The result is a whirling mix of shifting alliances, betrayals, and revelations as secret histories are hinted at and revealed.