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July 14, 2009

Our apples are far superior to your oranges, because oranges are green on the outside, red on the inside, and over a foot long
Posted by Patrick at 12:43 PM * 98 comments

John Scalzi whales away a bit at the Guardian’s Stuart Jeffries, who wrote this as a preface to an overview of some modern British SF writers:

This is a golden age for British science fiction, chiefly thanks to a wave of writers who are tackling an area their American rivals tend to leave well alone—far-future set, space-operatic, hard sci-fi. Americans tend to set their sci-fi in soft (ie, scientifically unsupported) near futures.
Scalzi makes some good points, specifically that there’s no shortage of far-future SF in modern American SF, but what he fails to note is that Jeffries’ lead literally doesn’t make any sense. So much so that one wonders if it wasn’t mangled by a subeditor. Leaving aside the suggestion that one group of writers are “rivals” to another (as if literature were a team sport), and the whole tiresome distinction between allegedly “hard” and “soft” SF (yes, your SF is rigid and heroic, and that other SF is flaccid and irresolute; nope, no issues here, none whatsoever), since when was near-future science fiction more “scientifically unsupported” than SF set thousands of years hence? In fact, to the contrary, a story set in the next few decades, in order to be believable, tends to need to be more plausibly grounded in known science and technology, for the simple reason that its world is visibly connected to the one we inhabit and already know about. Conversely, if your story is set in 5,271,009 AD, you can pretty much make up your technical details on the fly.

As it happens I think most of the British writers Jeffries singles out are worthwhile indeed, and some of them even do a good job of establishing the plausibility of their far-future tech. (Others neutralize readerly skepticism with artful handwaving, which is just as valid a technique. SF is not futurology.) But Jeffries’ evident belief that SF set in “near futures” is “soft (ie, scientifically unsupported)” is simply daft—as if a review of Unforgiven were to begin by dismissing those classic John Ford films because they were all set in Czechoslovakia and starred the Marx Brothers. Unforgiven is still a good movie, but one might plausibly wonder whether the reviewer had actually seen any other westerns.

Comments on Our apples are far superior to your oranges, because oranges are green on the outside, red on the inside, and over a foot long:
#1 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 01:32 PM:

May I be forgiven for sometimes referring to the "artful handwaving" type of science fiction as "Tumescent SF"? (The science is half-cocked.)

#2 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 01:43 PM:

What a dick this Jeffries is! And not a PK Dick either.

#3 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 01:46 PM:

The Marx Brothers in Unforgiven, what a concept.

#4 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 01:49 PM:

Bruce, #1: I like that! And it's more universally applicable than just calling it "Trek science," which has been my preferred term up to now.

#5 ::: Madeline Ashby ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 02:00 PM:

Wouldn't near-future SF actually be more sturdily supported by science, because the science depicted is what's currently being worked on? Maybe I haven't been keeping up with my SciAm, PhysOrg, and NewScientist feeds, but I haven't really seen a lot of studies done on the spacefold. Am I missing something?

#6 ::: Tim Keating ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 02:07 PM:

And thank you, Patrick, for spelling "whales" right. Personal pet peeve.

Although, it's you, so I would have expected no less :-)

#7 ::: D. Potter ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 02:14 PM:

Ooooh, westerns set in Czechoslovakia starring the Marx Brothers! In Czech, I hope?

What?

#8 ::: Phiala ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 02:18 PM:

Why yes. I just finished reading Scalzi's piece and commentary before coming here, and wondered the same thing. Scientifically supported? Er, what?

I like space opera, but my experience is that science has never been that important. Plausible-sounding explanations, but it's awfully difficult to make a scientifically-justifiable world much unlike ours. Next year, or next decade? Sure. For the science anyway, maybe not so much the culture. There might be a major breakthrough of some sort that will change things radically in the near-term, but that by itself is good story fodder, and the consequences would logically follow (at least in fiction). Over longer periods, there are more likely to be multiple major changes, with cumulative effects, and the science gets much harder to predict.

#9 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 02:26 PM:

D Potter @ 7... Groucho as a saloon owner...

"You're willing to pay him a thousand dollars a night just for singing? Why, you can get a phonograph record of Minnie the Moocher for 75 cents. And for a buck and a quarter, you can get Minnie."

#10 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 02:43 PM:

So, it's a yin-yang thing -- if Brits are writing more space opera, the Yanks must be writing less.

Does that apply to other areas? If their food gets better, than ours gets worse? (oops, might be a bad example)

#11 ::: Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 02:45 PM:

Good thing Gregory Benford is British, otherwise I'd say this guy is stealing pretty much his whole argument from those dirty savages in the American Colonies.

#12 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 02:49 PM:

(Gregory Benford is of course British in the same world in which John Calvin invented the positronic robot.)

#13 ::: Eoin ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 02:52 PM:

At the risk of starting a fight (and with the proviso that the quoted line is indeed both mangled and factually inaccurate), it does ever so slightly seem as though the subtext to Scalzi's post is more: "How dare those Guardianistas suggest that US SF authors are less financially successful and well-regarded as UK writers. We're actually doing very well indeed, thank you very much."

If there is a flaw in this argument, perhaps, it's that a lot of the authors Scalzi namechecks (with the possible exception of Elizabeth Moon) don't shift the same number of copies, so are less well-known. With that in mind, and given that the Guardian is ostensibly a UK paper, the angle of the piece is not all that surprising, or dare I say it, unfair.

Please don't hit me...

#14 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 02:57 PM:

Does Sean Williams count as British even though he's Australian? Maybe we're supposed to switch 'British' for 'Commonwealth', but where does that put Canadians?

#15 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 03:13 PM:

I would much rather have SF reviewers attack the hideous scourge of Genre Denial Syndrome than each other.

#16 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 03:19 PM:

Also, a fair bit the gadgets we're building seems to follow the pattern of "somebody wanted it, so we figured out how to do it". Even more of it represents creative exploration of a new low-level technology. (Laser guns? Hah!)

#17 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 03:34 PM:

Everyone here seems to be reading Jeffries as saying 'near futures (which are scientifically unsupported, of course)'. It's not clear to me that he is saying this. Can't he just mean that American SF tends to be both near-future and scientifically unsupported?

#18 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 03:45 PM:

Me #16: Ouch, grammar fail.
s/the gadgets/of the technology/

#19 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 03:54 PM:

"Can't he just mean that American SF tends to be both near-future and scientifically unsupported?"

If so, he's being remarkably unclear about it.

Also, while I could live a long and happy life without ever hearing again about "hard" versus "soft" SF, to the extent that the terms are useful at all, they don't mean "SF with plausible science" versus "SF with implausible science." "Soft" SF has tended to mean "SF that isn't rooted in the technical plausibility of its worldbuilding." Of course, that has led to a lot of stupidity, not least the fact that, at the end of the day, we tend to call stories "hard SF" when they contain lots of people standing around and (in Teresa's words) "talking tough about engineering," even if their actual futures are built on utterly implausible premises. While stories built on biology or economics get tossed into the "soft SF" bin, particularly when their bylines are identifiably female. I didn't actually like Ursula K. Le Guin's Always Coming Home*, but why do we habitually refer to series about future space navies as "hard SF" but not that particular novel with its exhaustive detail based in real anthropology? Answer, because for the purposes of thinking about "science" fiction and "hard" science fiction, some sciences are more scientifically sciency than others.

--
* I like lots of le Guin, just not that one so much.

#20 ::: Ariella ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 04:16 PM:

Tim @#6

I thought the correct spelling was wales, as in the Middle English word walen, to raise wheals.

#21 ::: Simon W ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 04:21 PM:

I'm not defending the actual paragraph, but I think it was intended as a fairly throwaway intro to a bunch of Brit SF authors, which was itself part of a larger piece, a quite nice and in-depth interview with Alastair Reynolds.

On the whole, I like Stuart Jeffries as a writer, he's one of the Guardian's feature writers, and writes in the informal style that characterises the section of the newspaper he writes in.

#22 ::: Ken Brown ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 04:41 PM:

As someone said on John Scalzi's blog the Grauniadn article isn't really chest-beating at Americans, its trying to grab the attention of the people (they still exist) who think that fiction cannot be Literature unless it is about a very bored middle-aged Oxbridge-educated man in Hampstead or Islington who is upset because nobody understands him and who has lots of bored middle-aged Oxbridge-educated accquantainces who strangely resemble mildly famous middle-aged Oxbridge-educated people we recognise from politics/TV/academia [choose one]

He should have mentioned Alan Moore though :-)

#23 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 04:47 PM:

Lee @ 4: "Trek science" may be tumescent. "Artful" it is not, at least not usually. "Reverse the polarization of the dekyon flux through the main deflector dish!"

#24 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 05:32 PM:

A western starring the Marx Brothers and set in Czechoslovakia?

Now that's a John M. Ford Western.

#25 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 06:36 PM:

"John Scalzi whales away a bit..."

"I thought the correct spelling was wales, as in the Middle English word walen, to raise wheals."

My first reaction when I saw that clause was, Um, that can't be right. It's got to be wales away, right? So, I looked it up in my handy Oxford Abridged. "whale: verb [trans.] informal / beat, hit : ... ORIGIN late 18th cent.: variant of wale ." Dammit.

Once again, I'm reminded that the goddamn 18th century has somehow established a colony in my mind, and it persists despite my aggressive efforts at extirpation. I don't have any idea how they got there. I just want them gone.

Die, you bastards, die die die!

#26 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 06:42 PM:

PNH as usual says what I hoped to say better than I: when used in that manner "Hard" means "Masculine" and "Soft" means "Feminine" (I use those terms, of course, purely as constructed). Physics and math are manly, true sciences, anthropology, sociology, and language are womanly, only-true-for-a-certain-value-of-true sciences (in that they admit values of truth other than 1/0). Economics gets a bye to manliness because Men Make Money (which is how the most prolific GB SF author (I think) of recent years can be fit at all into this narrative without one's eyes springing out of one's head ala a Tex Avery cartoon).

#27 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 07:56 PM:

j h woodyatt @25 said: Once again, I'm reminded that the goddamn 18th century has somehow established a colony in my mind, and it persists despite my aggressive efforts at extirpation. I don't have any idea how they got there. I just want them gone.

Die, you bastards, die die die!

There's your problem, right there. It HAS been dying this whole time, but of consumption ... and as any opera-goer knows, that can take long enough to bury your adult grandchildren.

Try cholera next time. :->

#28 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 08:59 PM:

Patrick @19:

And maybe also because the plausibly extrapolated artificial intelligence in Always Coming Home is not a threat, nor a villain, nor going to save the world, or at least the protagonist and her friends. Many people's models of sf (and/or of computers) don't have room for an AI that is clearly more intelligent than humans, and the dominant lifeform in the solar system, and not all that interested in us, but willing to serve as a combination library and telephone system. Spacecraft and nuclear plants, and none of it for (or against) humans.

#29 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 09:37 PM:

Wow. Vicki, I will have to reread Always Coming Home. I tidn't notice the AI, the spacecraft, or the nuclear plants.

#30 ::: Craig Ranapia ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 09:45 PM:

A more general irritation is that The Guardian has the best reviews and literary coverage of the British broadsheets -- which may be read as damnation with faint praise, but that's a whole other rant. With all due respect to Simon W@21 (and taking his point) I rather doubt they'd be quite so "throwaway" about quote unquote serious literary fiction.

If genre fiction is worth covering at all, do it properly or don't bother.

#31 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 12:11 AM:

Could be worse. Could be Itzk*ff.

#32 ::: Matthew Austern ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 12:23 AM:

The AI and spacecraft are mentioned pretty explicitly. The nuclear plants -- I think Vicki is extrapolating, but it's a pretty plausible extrapolation. They're probably offworld. Look for the sections that mention the City of Mind.

The reason you missed those things is that the book is mostly about people. The Kesh don't find the City of Mind all that important. (And perhaps vice versa.)

#33 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 02:02 AM:

Andrew M @#17: I read the quote your way--that American SF tends to be soft, and also to be set in the near future, not that near-future SF is ipso facto soft. So I found Patrick's rant puzzling, but the John Ford bit was so damned entertaining I decided I didn't care.

#34 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 04:51 AM:

Not mentioning Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross as British authors when they are up for the Hugo best novel seems myopic in the extreme...

Baxter's Manifold Time was strikingly hard SF on Moh's scale (warning, entering tvtropes.org is almost as time-consumingly engaging as Making Light comment threads) as it gave two independent ways of surviving the heat death of the universe that are compatible with current Physics knowledge.

PNH's analogy reminds me irresistibly of "A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine" - the parody musical that had a weird copyright suit from the Marx's heirs about using their personas

#35 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 04:55 AM:

Leaving aside the suggestion that one group of writers are “rivals” to another (as if literature were a team sport

This irrestistibly reminds me of the German Philosophers v. Greek Philosophers Football Match in "Monty Python".

#36 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 06:57 AM:

Obligatory Rutherford quote in response to 'hard' vs. 'soft': "All science is either physics or stamp collecting."

Though I also have a tendency to muddle it with compsci terminology: hard(ware) being stuff you can kick vs. soft(ware) which you can't, my personal distinction is that 'hard' SF is where the extrapolation is plausible* given current knowledge, and so can include the so-called soft sciences like anthropology.

*Plausibility is a separate discussion.

#37 ::: Michael I ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 07:38 AM:

Lee@4

Trek science

Would that make Jeffries totally tubular?

#38 ::: dave ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 08:16 AM:

Or as one might say, Hard SF is where the author forgot the Sociology [or Anthropology, or Psychology...]; Soft SF is where they forgot the Physics [Chemistry, Biology...] Good SF is where they didn't. Like Always Coming Home ...

#39 ::: Steve Roby ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 08:39 AM:

"Not mentioning Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross as British authors when they are up for the Hugo best novel seems myopic in the extreme..."

Why's Cory Doctorow in that sentence?

#40 ::: Kevin Reid ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 08:41 AM:

Michael I #37: Thank you.

#41 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 09:04 AM:

Steve @ #39

Maybe it's because he's a Londoner...


#42 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 10:04 AM:

Patrick@19

If so, he's being remarkably unclear about it

Well, yes, but if he means it the other way, he's being unclear about it as well. I still don't think 'scientifically unsupported near futures' needs to mean that all near futures are scientifically unsupported, any more than 'pink elephants' means that all elephants are pink.

#43 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 11:10 AM:

Xopher @ #29, they're in there; they're just a mostly-invisible part of the infrastructure that are irrelevant to the concerns of the main protagonist. (Hint: the Exchange.)

(I personally love Always Coming Home, but not as much as I love The Telling.)

ETA: Oh, Matthew beat me to it. Still, it can count as another anecdata point.

#44 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 11:24 AM:

This is a bit of an aside, but when I recently saw a TV reshowing of Bladerunner I was surprised to realize that the date is now quite near-future, maybe 10 years off. That made the space colonies, flying police cars, etc. all the more ironic -- and the clunky computers, characters smoking like their Forties Noir counterparts, total absence of all our current hand-held devices, lousy office security, and so on all the more blatant.

Still a very watchable movie.

#45 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 12:30 PM:

#19 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Also, while I could live a long and happy life without ever hearing again about "hard" versus "soft" SF, to the extent that the terms are useful at all, they don't mean "SF with plausible science" versus "SF with implausible science."

#26 ::: BSD
when used in that manner "Hard" means "Masculine" and "Soft" means "Feminine"

#38 ::: dave
Or as one might say, Hard SF is where the author forgot the Sociology [or Anthropology, or Psychology...]; Soft SF is where they forgot the Physics [Chemistry, Biology...]

With a tip of the hat to PNH's side light "Modern Business-talk, Accurately Explained" I think we should swap out definitions. All of these "hard" vs "soft" definitions are acurate, but they're unfortunate. I prefer their synonyms as defined in a panel discussion I heard a few years back. "Crunchy" vs. "Squishy".

In Crunchy SF, things blow up. In Squishy SF, people blow up. In Good SF the science is as accurate as the story is entertaining.

As for the "Hard" and "Soft" of it all, I think it goes back to academia. The hard sciences are things requiring tools and/or things that go (or can be made to go) "ka-BOOM". The soft sciences are the study of why people want to make (or have made) things go "ka-BOOM." How the individuals of either gender align with the "ka-BOOM" factor is an exercise for the imagination (and Title IX in a smallish part of the world).


#46 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 12:42 PM:

Victoria @ 45...

Garibaldi: No boom?
Sinclair: No boom.
Susan Ivanova: No boom today. Boom tomorrow. There's always a boom tomorrow. What? Look, somebody's gotta have some damn perspective around here! Boom. Sooner or later…boom!

#47 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 01:03 PM:

((first reaction)) So does that mean that Vernor Vinge is British and Ken MacLeod is American, or that they don't exist?

#48 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 01:41 PM:

Victoria #45: I will endeavour to make people go kaboom by means of the d'Hondt system.

#49 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 02:20 PM:

Serge @ 46.
Absofragginlutely. I love that scene.

Fragano Ledgister @ 48.
Excellent! I look forward to the ka-BOOMage. I read about a dinner party where d'Hondt teamed up with Murphy and his Laws -- Bujold's A Civil Campaign.

#50 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 02:30 PM:

Victoria @ 49... I just asked myself if someone might have posted that scene on YouTube. Someone did.

#51 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 02:40 PM:

It's boom yesterday and boom tomorrow, but never boom today.

#52 ::: Keith K ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 03:16 PM:

Near-future SF tends to get softer as the date in which it was set approaches (see Faren Miller@44 about Bladerunner above). there are a lot of reasons for this, namely the author's purely human inability to forecast the future. But, that's not the point of the story. Few writers set out purely to lay out crystal ball proclamations about the future (even the ones that overtly do, like Robida and later Verne, include other themes for simple reason that a single thesis novel is damn boring to write and even more tedious to read). The technology and/or social commentary in near-future stories isn't meant to be about the future, so much as a commentary on the time period in which the author wrote. semi-accurate depictions of the near future are just icing when they happen and stylistic choices when they don't.

As for far-future SF, those usually have a nice soft caramel fantasy center with a chocolaty technology shell. They're only hard SF in the sense that someday, maybe by sheer coincidence, we might have a society and/or technology that resembles the incidental details but again, that's not the point.

#53 ::: Darth Paradox ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 03:41 PM:

My definitions of "hard" versus "soft" sci-fi really have little to do with the relative "hardness" of the underlying sciences.

I consider Star Trek to be pure soft sci-fi - the "Treknobabble" is nothing more than a bit of flavoring over a pile of technology that doesn't make the slightest attempt at justifying itself. Compare this to what I consider to be the best hard sci-fi story I've ever read - Kim Stanley Robinson's "Mars" trilogy. The "science" that really makes it "hard sci-fi" is not just physics and engineering, but also biology, and geology, and social sciences, and economics, and so many of the little things that have to go into making a world livable. The scientific leaps are optimistic at times, to put it mildly, but it never veers in the direction of the fantastic the way Star Trek's technology does.

For the record, I consider Star Wars to be sci-fi-flavored fantasy. The spaceships and blasters are window-dressing on a swords-and-sorcery tale. The best example of this is how badly things went when Lucas attempted an explanation of how the magic system worked. The setting just doesn't support that level of inspection, and he would have been far better off continuing to shroud the Force in mystery and superstition than trying to justify it.

#54 ::: Paul Lalonde ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 06:47 PM:

I always considered that "hard" science fiction was about exploring the effects of relaxing a law of nature. For example, the author could postulate that FTL travel is possible via a particular space warping technology after which the author would be free to explore what that means through their story, but without any further "magic".

"Soft" SF, to me, isn't the opposite of hard SF, but rather an indication of a character oriented focus rather than world-oriented.

#55 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 08:51 PM:

I think of science fiction as being magic for people who are in denial that they believe in magic. If so, perhaps "hardness" of science fiction denotes level of attunement to the denial filter.

#56 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 11:18 PM:

#54

Interestingly, that makes John Wyndham's work both hard and soft - there's usually only one otherworldly element (triffids, lichens that slow the aging process); but then the story is all about how a society reacts to it.

#57 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 11:54 PM:

I'm a bit croggled by Jeffries' inclusion of Iain M. Banks on his hard-sf list, with the implication that the Culture's miracletech is "scientifically supported" - particularly since Banks is at some pains to point out in "A Few Notes on the Culture" that his universe runs on limitless handwavium. (Which is one reason I'm in mild disagreement with Victoria at 45, and the assertion that "In Good SF the science is as accurate as the story is entertaining" - I don't think scientific accuracy is especially relevant to quality. But I suppose it depends on the kind of story you care about telling.)

#58 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2009, 12:39 AM:

Serge (#49, 51), Victoria (#49) Xopher (#51), Fluorosphericals: Hello, my name is Mez and I am an addict (struggling). At the risk of feeding others', J. Michael Straczynski has a place called The Joe Store at CafePress for Babylon 5 books (e.g. Quotations) and other related goodies.

#59 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2009, 12:51 AM:

Erratum: Serge (#46, 50), Victoria (#49) Xopher (#51),

All that time fixing up coding errors and I forget to check numbers. Sigh. Maybe I should have just given number range or names.

#60 ::: Matthew Austern ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2009, 12:55 AM:

Dan@57: that's sort of Patrick's point. The author treats "hard sf", "far-future", and "space opera" as if they're synonyms, which is bizarre. Those terms mean very different things; rather than being synonyms, they barely overlap.

I think everyone would agree that Banks's Culture books are space opera. They aren't what most people would call hard sf (to the extent that that term has any useful meaning), and they are very explicitly not far future unless your idea of the far future is somewhere between AD 1267 and AD 1985.

#61 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2009, 01:05 AM:

Meanwhile, I'm wondering if that should be 'Errata'. Originally I saw one wrong reference, then checking saw all were wrong. Both of these probably mean I should go elsewhere, check my email and *step away from the computer*.

#62 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2009, 01:09 AM:

Mez... Errata, shmerrata, don't worry about it although I wonder how one can check one's email AND step away from the computer.

#63 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2009, 01:16 AM:

Dan Layman-Kennedy @ 57... Banks is at some pains to point out in "A Few Notes on the Culture" that his universe runs on limitless handwavium

Last year, local author Ian Tregellis read an excerpt from his novel about British warlocks vs Nazi supermen. Tregellis works at Sandia Lab, if I remember correctly, and such credentials had someone (who probably thought that physicist types never make things up) what that mysterious element was that he used to justify some of the superpowers. He revealed that it was composed of... gasp... Pure Plot.

(As far the novel's title, he didn't have one by then. Patrick might know since he edited the novel.)

#64 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2009, 10:31 AM:

"In Good SF the science is as accurate as the story is entertaining"

So I could write Good SF with startling inaccurate science as long as I made it really really boring*? Or would it just mean that no one would read it long enough to notice my scientific errors?

* This is probably within my literary and scientific abilities.

#65 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2009, 10:42 AM:

Neil Willcox @ 64... I made it really really boring (...) This is probably within my literary and scientific abilities

And then the Universe ended.
Nobody noticed because they had all dozed off.

#66 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2009, 11:16 AM:

Matthew @60: That was always my assumption - that "space opera" and "hard sf" were in fact points on a continuum with some distance between them - but my actual knowledge of the current state of the genre is limited to Stuff I Like, so what the hell do I know?

(And of course you're right about the "far-future" aspect as well; one of the things I like about Banks is that "human" means something different to the Culture than it does to us.)

Serge, I love that answer from Tregellis. Plausibility is all well and good, but Pure Plot will keep the story engine going when everything else has run out.

#67 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2009, 01:41 PM:

Dan Layman-Kennedy @ 66... Pure Plot will keep the story engine going when everything else has run out

"Captain! The plotonium reactor cannae take it anymore!"
"Scotty, I need that prose now!"

#68 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2009, 02:25 PM:

"What do you mean, 'out of fuel'? It's a Plot Device; it'll run on anything we damn well put into it!"

#69 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2009, 01:37 AM:

Ian Tregillis's novel is called Bitter Seeds and if you don't all buy it in early 2010 you are uterly wet and a weed.

#70 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2009, 07:00 AM:

Leaving aside the "hard sf/soft sf vs near-future/space opera" confusion -- I'd argue that they are largely orthogonal issues -- Jeffries' preface seems like a confused reference to some arguments that were floating around a few years back, to the effect that British SF writers were now optimistic and willing to write about the future (near or far), but American writers had become pessimistic and were avoiding it (e.g., writing fantasy or alternate history instead).

This blog post by Charlie Stross (or this one a year later) is an example -- although he was in fact suggesting that American SF writers were avoiding the future in general, including near-future SF!

The curious thing about John Scalzi's reply is that, as far as I can tell, all of the writers he cites really are predominantly military SF writers, while none of the writers that Jeffries mentions seem to be. Now, I can certainly see "military SF" as being a kind of subset of space opera, but the question would then be: are there many prominent/successful American SF writers who are currently writing non-military far-future SF?

#71 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2009, 07:56 AM:

are there many prominent/successful American SF writers who are currently writing non-military far-future SF?

Vernor Vinge, Lois McMaster Bujold, Greg Bear, John Barnes, Larry Niven? (Or, wait, isn't Greg Bear Australian?)

#72 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2009, 08:44 AM:

Patrick @ 69... Early 2010. Duly noted. And it's Tregillis, NOT Tregellis. Duly noted too.

#73 ::: Paul Duncanson ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2009, 08:48 AM:

Ajay: No, Greg Bear is American. You're probably thinking of Greg Egan.

#74 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2009, 08:52 AM:

73: SF has clearly been overrun from right to left by a Wave of Gregs, starting (correctly) at Thanet.

#75 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2009, 10:43 AM:

ajay @74: Are they, perchance, all employed at Yoyodyne?

#76 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2009, 11:04 AM:

Or some sort of Australian Philosophers Sketch.

--Gentlemen, I'd like to introduce a guy from Limeyland who'll be joining us this year at the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society. Stephen Baxter, this is Greg; Stephen Baxter, this is Greg; Stephen Baxter, this is Greg.
-- Is your name not Greg then?
--No, it's Stephen, actually.
--That's going to cause a little confusion.
--Mind if we call you Greg to keep things simple?

#77 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2009, 03:50 PM:

ajay @ 71:
With the exception of Vinge (whose last far-future novel was in 1999) and maybe Bujold (last SF novel in 2002, I think), that looks like a reasonable list. I would have discounted Greg Bear on the basis that he's mostly been writing near-future/thriller books recently, but then I noticed I'd missed seeing City at the End of Time, which must now go on my list of Things to Buy Sometime Soon...

(I would maybe add C.J. Cherryh, Wil McCarthy, and Tobias Buckell...)

#78 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2009, 04:44 PM:

About Tregillis's Bitter Seeds... If I remember correctly what he said last year, the German scientist who creates the story's Nazi Supermen, is based on a real peron. The gent was apparently so crazy that even the Nazis wanted nothing to do with him.

#79 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2009, 05:43 PM:

is based on a real peron.

Juan or Eva?

#81 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2009, 05:54 PM:

Don't cry for Serge, crazy Nazi.

#82 ::: Bill ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2009, 06:06 PM:

Steve@#39, Dave@#41 - Cory's a Canadian, though he sometimes lives in London or in his hot-air balloon up in the Blogosphere. Charlie's a UK author, but Scottish so technically not a British author, though he has sometimes lived in/near London.

It's obvious why you'd exclude Charlie from such a list - his work includes things like Halting State (set in the near future with only-lightly-fuzzy technology) and the Merchant Princes (set in contemporary time with indistinguishable-from-magic science), and therefore it's Seriously Off Message for Jeffries, as well as Accelerando and Singularity Sky (farther future.)

#83 ::: distraxi ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2009, 07:06 PM:

Bill@82: When did Scotland secede?

Unless you were referring to Little Britain rather than Great Britain

#84 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2009, 07:16 PM:

Xopher #79: Why do you ignore the possibility of Isabelita?

#85 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2009, 08:06 PM:

Honestly, Fragano, isn't it obvious? How could a Nazi scientist be based on HER?

I have to spell EVERYTHING out.

#86 ::: Chris Eagle ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2009, 10:04 PM:

@83: And when did Charlie become Scottish?

#87 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: July 18, 2009, 02:03 AM:

#83 Scotland seceded in Halting State, but in this timelineit is still part of Britain.

#39 I don't think Cory has British citizenship yet, but he does live in London and grok the culture, especially with Alice's influence; I'm technically British but have been in California 11 years now and feel like London has diverged from my timeline.

#52 I loved Charlie Stross's recent post where he complains about the bankers out-innovating his predictions of future scams.

#88 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: July 18, 2009, 02:47 AM:

Peter Erwin @ 77

City at the End of Time, which must now go on my list of Things to Buy Sometime Soon..

I finished reading it yesterday, and recommend you put it near the top of the list if you like Bear's more futuristic work.

Reading it just after finishing Stross' "Palimpsest", I started thinking there ought to be something called "metaphysical fiction", whose main element is not one or more of the sciences, but some concept of metaphysics or about the meanings behind the universe. The classic examples would be:

The Amber books - I call this metaphysical fantasy because it's whole cloth; no cosmologists were harmed in its creation.

"Star Maker" - metaphysical sf: Stapleton tried to include as much of contemporary physics and cosmology as he could.

"The Library of Babel" and lots of other stories by Borges. I call these metaphysical speculative fiction, for want of a better name. Often when I read Borges I have the feeling I'm reading well-accepted scientific papers from a very alternate world.

#89 ::: David DeLaney ::: (view all by) ::: July 18, 2009, 04:46 AM:

Diverging just a hair, I'm nearly finished with John C. Wright's recent cross-author sequel, Null-A Continuum... and while it's most definitely space opera, I can't decide whether it Ought To Be Filed Under hard or soft. Or, for that matter, crunchy or squishy. It does have a good bit of far-future in it... but Mr. Wright does appear to be quite American.

(I liked it, by the way. Yes, it's pulp, but I think it's fairly GOOD pulp.)

--Dave

#90 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: July 18, 2009, 08:30 AM:

Bruce Cohen @ 88:

Thanks for the recommendation! (I was not very impressed by Darwin's Radio, and the fact that Bear had mainly seemed to be writing one or another kind of contemporary technothriller from then on made me lose interest in him for a while.)

Re "metaphysical fiction" -- yes, that's an interesting category. I had a rather similar reaction when I first started reading Borges -- that it was something akin to science fiction, but using philosophy rather than science as the speculative starting point.

I might add some of Greg Egan's stuff to your list, particularly Permutation City. And John M. Ford's brilliant novella "Fugue State" comes to mind as well.

Would Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series (particularly The Urth of the New Sun) qualify?

#91 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: July 18, 2009, 04:21 PM:

As I recall, Charlie Stross is a Yorkshireman by birth. So far as I know, he has not yet applied for Scottish citizenship.

#92 ::: Chris Eagle ::: (view all by) ::: July 18, 2009, 04:58 PM:

@91: Yes, Stross was born in Leeds. And I don't think there's such a thing as Scottish citizenship.

#93 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: July 18, 2009, 06:38 PM:

That would be why he hasn't applied for it. ;p

#94 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: July 18, 2009, 07:50 PM:

I have just discovered that "How Much for Just the Planet?", "The Hand of Kahless", and "The Final Reflection" are all available as Kindle ebooks from Amazon. They're not likely to go out of print unless or until Amazon runs out of disk or the Kindle format (currently works on Kindles and iPhone/iPod Touch) ceases to be supported.

#95 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: July 18, 2009, 08:02 PM:

Peter Erwin @ 90

I agree, I like Bear's far-future work a lot better than the thrillers he's been writing lately. It was "Songs of Earth and Power" (metaphysical fantasy) that hooked me on him, and then "Eon", "Eternity", and "Legacy" (the first two are metaphysical sf with considerable handwavium) kept me going. The only recent book I liked a lot was "Dead Line", which isn't a thriller, it's a horror story.

Several of Egan's novels fit the metaphysical sf label pretty well, "Schild's Ladder" as well as "Permutation City". Also a large part of what Rudy Rucker writes is either metaphysical sf or something even weirder still.

#96 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2009, 01:05 PM:

Bruce Cohen @ #94: "The Hand of Kahless", and "The Final Reflection"

It is my understanding that "The Hand of Kahless" is also "The Final Reflection", bundled with another Klingon-related novel by a different author, with no new material.

(If anybody here knows differently, I would appreciate an opportunity to improve my understanding.)

#97 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2009, 10:12 PM:

Bruce @94, possibly good, except for problems such as seen @ Open thread 127: 291, et seq, referring to these reports, aka "KindleFail" or "AmazonFail, Act II"

#98 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2009, 08:44 PM:

Bill @ #82, thank you for mentioning "The Merchant Princes." I was unaware of those, and have now had the great fun of reading the first one and diving into the second.

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