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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Grist for the Mill » 10 best Sci-Fi novels ever (Page 1)

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Author Topic: 10 best Sci-Fi novels ever
snapper
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This a list I found in my stumble upon.

I've read three of them. Surprised that the lone Heinlein wasn't Stranger in a Strange Land. I would have liked to see Niven's Ringworld on that list but think H G Wells War of the Worlds deserved to be on it. That novel was the first true Science Fiction work. I remember being glued to it in my teens. Surprising well written even by todays standards.


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Robert Nowall
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Well, I've read all but one, though in another I've only read the short version. (Ender's Game, oddly enough, given the nature and origin of this site---didn't like it.) However, the long version of Flowers for Algernon can't hold a candle to the short version...

Here's a recent list, from NPR, of the top 100 SF / Fantasy books. (Wish I could figure out how to put the link on as neatly as "list," but, right now, I can't.)

http://www.npr.org/2011/08/11/139085843/your-picks-top-100-science-fiction-fantasy-books


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Robert Nowall
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By the way, my hit-miss read-not-read record is much worse on this list...mostly the newer books...
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pdblake
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I've not read any of them, though I do have Ender's Game sat on a bookshelf, so I promise to read that when I finish what I'm reading now
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Crystal Stevens
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Glad to see "Childhood's End" made the list. It's been a favorite of mine from my younger years. Too bad it's been too long for me to remember any of it. I know I have it around here somewhere. Maybe I ought to dig it out and read it again.

The only other one I've read was "Ender's Game", which I liked... of course .


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snapper
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The Ender's Game Novella in Analog is so much different than the novel. In fact, in OSC's interview at the end of the audio version of the novel he said only one line remained. Ironically, both versions won Hugo's.
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snapper
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quote:
(Wish I could figure out how to put the link on as neatly as "list," but, right now, I can't.)

It took me two years to figure out how to do that. Let me share.

The same way you italicise, write in bold, or set it as a quote but with one small difference.

You use the [] but with url=(link) the word (or phrase) and a /url at the other end.

[This message has been edited by snapper (edited September 07, 2011).]


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EVOC
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I have only read two on that list. And one of those I couldn't get past Chapter 1. However, I have been meaning to read a few of these.
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Robert Nowall
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link
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Robert Nowall
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Hmm...it worked! Same link as above...
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Corky
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Never heard of WE, but if it inspired 1984 and BRAVE NEW WORLD, I'll pass. I've had enough of dystopian fiction for now, thank you very much.

Couldn't get into CANTICLE FOR LEBOWITZ (or however it's spelled, sorry).

Read all the rest of them, and am okay with them being on that list, I guess.


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mythique890
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I've only read Ender's Game, as well. I guess I tend more towards fantasy than sci fi. I've read quite a few of the ones on the link Robert posted.
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posulliv
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Read all but WE. Those I've read are truly novels that stick. Anyone who continues to read in our genre is likely to have a different list. If we were supposed to stop counting at ten why do we have toes (and spreadsheets)?

I like Robert's list of 100.


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Robert Nowall
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With a careful going-over of the NPR list, I find I haven't read a staggering forty-two of them...it might've been higher than that if I hadn't counted reading one or two volumes of a listed series. Like I said, the ones I hadn't read were the newer ones.

On snapper's list, the one I hadn't read was A Fire Upon the Deep, though I'm pretty sure I've got a copy. I've bought several of the ones I haven't read, but who knows when I'll get around to them?

One exclusion from the NPR list, probably deliberately, struck me as odd nonetheless...


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MattLeo
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The Top X of anything is always a somewhat bogus exercise.

But the SciFiNow list is amazingly good. I mean, it's got Bester's *The Stars My Destination* in first place. If you have to have a first place, it's pointless to say *which* story goes there, but you could certainly argue whether something ought to be a candidate. I would not argue with that choice. That said, I'm guessing the person who compiled this is fifty years old, or older. That's not bad, I'm just saying.

The NPR list is a mixed bag of stuff that doesn't belong together. The Princess Bride is literary satire and Hitchhiker's Guide is social satire like Gulliver's Travels.

I yield to nobody in admiration for Neil Gaiman, but *American Gods* hardly deserves to be in the top 100, much less the top 10. It is brilliant of course because Gaiman's brilliant, but his command of the novel form is shaky. *American Gods* is a sprawling, rambling, mess of wonderful ideas so tightly packed together they have no room to breathe. But put his much smaller and elegant *The Graveyard Book* in the top ten and you wouldn't get any argument from me.

Speaking of sprawling and brilliant, it's interesting to see that *Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell* made the list. I actually think this is a better novel than *American Gods* - certainly a more *interesting* novel structurally. Susanna Clarke does a really interesting thing, giving us a kind of stylishly literary ending to her main plot while sneaking a pure fairytale subplot right under our noses. In a novel this size, there is no "subplot" as far as the characters most involved in them are concerned.

And of all the Terry Pratchett books to go on the list, why *Small Gods*? Is that really better than *Wyrd Sisters*? And *Going Postal* is wonderful, but the speculative fiction elements in it are really almost negligible; it could easily be written as a historical caper.



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aspirit
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Holy...I didn't even know a novel-length version of "Flowers for Algernon" existed, and I'm now wondering why it would. The short story's brevity emphasizes the differences between the intellectual stages and allows for a lingering sympathetic response. Why mess with that?

I've read Ender's Game more times than I would admit to even if I had counted, and I believe it's one of the greatest tools I've had in my life. So happy I am whenever it's on other people's Best Of lists.

A Canticle for Liebowitz was amazing. I read it for the first time last month and was surprised that (quick, superfluous fact) an allusion to it appeared in the latest Dresden novel, Ghost Story. While reading Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, even more recently, I felt like I was reading Canticle's less philosophical prequel. It will likely influence my perception of religious and apocalyptic science fiction from now on. Note, though, for other new readers: Canticle consists of three sub-plots that are broken apart by huge time gaps. Even when you're expecting it, the end of the first sub-plot can be distressing. For good reasons, but, still.

The only other story in that list that I've read is the first novel of the Foundation Trilogy, and that felt incomplete on its own. Forever War is on my reading list for this month. The other five look interesting, too.

Thanks for posting the link, snapper.


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Robert Nowall
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Why not Terry Pratchett's work as a series? There were other series on the list.

I thought the most surprising entry was a series of Star Wars novels by Timothy Zahn...


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LDWriter2
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I've seen and looked at most of those on the top ten list. I don't recall "We" though. I've rad only one maybe two though. But I can see why some of those made the list; like Asimov's Foundation.


"A Canticle for Liebowitz" is one that pops up on a lot of such lists. I know I have seen it but I can't recall what it is about at the moment.


I'm not sure which ones I would put on a list of my top ten. I've read so many good ones, it's hard to remember them. And I would probably go over ten.

[This message has been edited by LDWriter2 (edited September 10, 2011).]


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Brendan
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I've read six of them, and want to read a couple more. I would put The Peace War as Vernor Vinge's contribution, but then he would have had to explain why he put that one ahead of William Gibson's Neuromancer, given that Gibson's story beat it in the Hugo award.

This list got me thinking. The latest book on the list was 1992. I looked through the last 10 years worth of Hugo nominations, and am sad to say I have only read two of them (Brin's Kiln People and one of Stross's books). So, what ones would you put in a list from the last 10, no lets make it 20 years?

Two I'd put up for that list.

John Barnes' A Million Open Doors
David Brin's Brightness Reef


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wetwilly
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I'm surprised there isn't anything by Philip K. Dick on the list. I expected Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to be on there. It's not my favorite of his, but it's the one I would expect to see there. No writer has ever blown my mind quite like him.
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Robert Nowall
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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?---#21 on the NPR list...

I had to read We for a high school class---as well as The Inheritors, Brave New World, and 1984---as well as Childhood's End, the only one I'd read beforehand.


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wetwilly
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Robert, your post makes me jealous. I teach high school English, and I'm not allowed to teach any of the cool stuff that I want to teach.

But I also run our drama department, and I get to do what I want with that, so we're doing 1984 for our Fall play.


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snapper
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This is so cool that this thread has generated this amount of interest.

Robert's NPR list differs from the top 10 because it includes fantasy and horror. The top ten is exclusive to sci-fi only. That being said...

It would be hard to argue another novel deserved to surplant Tolkien's Lord of the Rings in the number one spot (one of my personal favorites) but in no way does The Silmarillion deserve to be 46, or 10046 in my opinion. If you were unclear what an info-dump was, read that novel; a poor imitation of ancient greek mythology. The Hobbit would have been a better choice.

Another stretch for the list is Sagan's Contact. The book sold because the author was a famous scientist, not because it was original and innovative (like most of the works on the list).

The thing I found curious is who, and not so much what, was missing on the list. No Resnick, Poul, Saberhagen, Turtledove, Dickerson, Piper...so many outstanding works of wonder overlooked.


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History
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I read all but WE.

Obvious omissions:
DUNE by Frank Herbert. I'd place this as number 1.
HYPERION by Dan Simmons
FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury (even though I'm more partial to THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES)
2001 by Arthur C. Clarke
NEUROMANCER by William Gibson
THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS by Ursual K. LeGuin
STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND by Robert Heinlein (though I'm very partial to TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE)
SLAUGHTERHOUSE 5 by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

My list can go on:
EMPHYRIO by Jack Vance
THE SHADOW OF THE TORTURER by Gene Wolfe
THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY by Douglas Adams
BATTLEFIELD EARTH by L.Ron Hubbard
CYTEEN by C.J. Cherryh
THE HERITAGE OF HASTUR by Marion Zimmer Bradley
TO YOUR SCATTERED BODIES GO by Philip Jose Farmer

And on... but I'll stop here for now.

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob


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MattLeo
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snapper -- I love Lord of the Rings; it's one of those books that I enjoy to read over and over again, but it's also a book that's important to me. The only book that comes close for me would be Dante's Purgatorio, which I read in Dorothy Sayers' (yes *that* Dorothy Sayers) translation.

But I could argue it out of the top ten list -- not that I would. That's the product of rereading it every year or two for the last thirty years. I know its faults. Many of its faults are craft faults, particularly in Fellowship of the Ring, which is a mix of the sublime and the confused until Tolkien sits his characters down for a committee meeting that goes on for over thirty pages.

The greatest and most enduring attraction of the book for me is Tolkien's voice, which even in Fellowship can be hauntingly beautiful. Tolkien also displays surprising and interesting insight into human nature, a quality not much noticed by his contemporaries because his views aren't necessarily in step with theirs. But the sheer, sprawling mass of the book -- it's too much!

By sheer mule-headed genius Tolkien wrestles his mountain of material into an unquestionably brilliant pattern of elaborately parallel character studies, but the staggering scale of the thing makes it difficult to grasp until you've read it a few times. It's taken me decades of re-reading the thing to see that it's actually quite an obscure book. A simpler, more austere story would have made Tolkien's points about morality more accessible. Even sophisticated readers come away from their first reading with the mistaken impression that Tolkien's universe is a simplistic Manichean one. That it's populated with entirely good creatures and entirely bad ones, the difference pretty much amounting to a brand preference.

And that kind of simplistic thinking is precisely the problem with these "Top 10" lists. You can't wrestle the entire universe of books out there onto a single, unambiguous, cosmic scale of value and expect it to mean anything, as if you can measure greatness like you can word count. If you take a serious look at any pair of great books you can find reasonable justifications to rank either over the other.

[This message has been edited by MattLeo (edited September 10, 2011).]


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Robert Nowall
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I didn't think of putting up my own choices...I'm not sure I could confine it to a Top Ten, or even a Top Hundred...but, on snapper's list, there are maybe three that might make my top ten, if not crowded out by other works, often by the same writers...on the NPR list, well, maybe thirty.
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Wordcaster
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The more I see these top lists, the more I realize I haven't read. Then the more I realize I am not qualified to comment on the list.

I do like that these lists are put together, though. It gives me things to read when I am trying to catch up on old fiction.


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History
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Matt, I don't consider LOTR as science fiction.

It would be at the top of my ten best fantasy novels, however.

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob


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MattLeo
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Well, Dr. Bob, there's a disqualification right there.

I personally think the differences between science fiction and fantasy -- at least as marketing categories -- are superficial. It's all about world-building furniture.

I think you could attempt a kind of ideal separation of fantasy and sci-fi based on story mechanics, but really many fantasy authors write in a sci-fi mode these days, and many sci-fi authors have hidden but important fantasy elements in their stories (e.g. destiny). Very few fantasy writers write the kind of fantasy that Tolkien, Lewis, or Charles Williams did.


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History
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You would do well among the Talmudists, Matt.

The potential validity of the philosophical argument to lump together all speculative fiction rather than splitting it into the two broad categories of "science fiction" and "fantasy" or even further subdivisions (e.g. epic fantasy, urban fantasy, sword and sorcery, space opera, hard sf, new wave sf, steampunk, etc.) is weakened by both the expectations of the readers and of the market publishers themselves.

You are unlikely to find (or sell) a story of Tolkienesque elves and fairies, or of barbarians and sorcerers in Analog or one of quantum drives and galactic fleets and politics in WEIRD TALES or BLACK GATE, etc.

How many speculative fiction readers, do you believe, would define the LOTR as "science fiction"?

I admire anyone who beats their own drum or who takes the path less traveled by, but one should always be aware of the general perspective of the majority.

E.g. For a list of the 100 Best SF novels, see http://scifilists.sffjazz.com/lists_books_rank1.html

For a list of the 100 Best Fantasy novels, see http://fantasy100.sffjazz.com/lists_books.html
(And look who is at the top!)

Respectfully,
History

[This message has been edited by History (edited September 12, 2011).]


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I think MattLeo has a point, though.

OSC has said that he doesn't write science fiction--he writes fantasy with science as the "magic."

And I have to say that I think a lot of so-called "science fiction" writers do the same.

If we're going to distinguish the kind of fantasy Tolkien (and the other Inklings MattLeo mentioned, as well as others like them) wrote from the fantasy that sells well today, we should also distinguish the kind of science fiction that Arthur C. Clarke (and other "hard" science fiction writers like him) wrote from the kind of science fiction being written today.

I submit that while scientific ideas are still being written about in today's science fiction, there is really not as much "hard" science as may have been written about in earlier years.


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MattLeo
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Well, Kathleen, I think the real difference between sci-fi logic and fantasy logic doesn't lie in the hard sciences, but the social sciences.

Let's compare what happens when a sci-fi character zaps somebody with a ray pistol with what happens when a fantasy character zaps somebody with a magic wand. The physical mechanism by which the zapping occurs is in either case indistinguishable from the other case. What differs is how the instrument of zapping comes to exist in the world.

In the sci-fi world, the ray pistol is the product of an economic system in which a large number of people, probably thousands or tens of thousands, work independently from each other, motivated by incentives (profit) or dis-incentives (the central committee's spies). It has a bill of materials, and if we follow the supply chain back far enough we'll probably end up with mining operations and wherever the chemical plants get their feed stocks.

It doesn't matter who does the mining, or why. As long as the correct mineral is fed into the supply chain, a working ray pistol will result. That's true at every step of manufacture.

In comparison, the wand may well only be makable by certain people, say Ye High Elfs of Olde. Not only will they have to have the correct type and grade of wood, they'll have had to harvest it under the full moon, and then only after undergoing a ceremony of purification. In other words, *symbolism* is a branch of physics in the fantasy world.

Now lets look at the ethics of zapping. The fantasy wand zapper, if he is on the side of Good, is justified by transcendent purpose. It is his destiny to perform the Great Feat, and that in itself is enough to justify his zapping anyone who gets in his way. Because he is good, he doesn't like zapping; he avoids zapping and doesn't enjoy it. But if it comes down to a choice of zapping or failing in the Great Feat, he has no choice. Nobody questions that killing an orc is a virtuous deed.

But the ray gunner isn't justified in zapping anyone just because of who he *is*; this is where many sci-fi authors stray into fantasy. He can't ray somebody down just because that person stands in the way of his objective; he's got to apply some kind of utilitarian calculus (I must ray this one person so that millions will survive; I must ray this person so that I will survive).

I once wrote a short story to prove this very point: a ethically sci-fi story with fantasy furniture. In the story the forces of Light and Darkness were locked in a desperate struggle, and the necessity of survival had over the years erased any moral difference between the sides. It was a pretty good story.

Now since Dr. Bob believes I think like a Talmudist, I will for his amusement argue the other side.

You can construct any kind of dichotomy you want, and unless it's self-inconsistent you can use it to divide speculative literature into "fantasy" and "sci-fi". That doesn't mean that dichotomy is *significant*.

Readers don't draw these kinds of fancy ontological distinctions, when they want a fantasy story they want a story about elves and Dark Lords, or maybe vampires and magicians. They want pseudo-medieval settings, or perhaps a wainscoting magical world wrapped around the "real" world. When they're hankering for a sci-fi story whey want super-advanced technology, aliens on distant planets, recognizably "modern" (if not ultra-modern) settings.

This is completely clear to readers, and editors who want to sell magazines or books have to take their lead from that. Thus my smarty-pants story will never sell, even though it's a pretty good story. Only a fantasy market would even consider it, but then the story makes a point of violating fantasy story expectations.

[This message has been edited by MattLeo (edited September 12, 2011).]


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Robert Nowall
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Or to summarize...ray guns (SF stories) are egalitarian and democratic and capitalistic, while magic wands (fantasy stories) are aristocratic and elitist and snobbish. (Never cared much for the pseudo-aristocracies you find in a lot of modern fantasy.)

*****

Back to the survey...well, since nobody brought it up when I mentioned one series that was excluded, I'll name names. Probably the most influential fantasy work of the last ten years is the Harry Potter series, which, near as I can tell, was deliberately excluded 'cause they're officially juvenile YA novels...which is utter foolishness...


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MattLeo
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quote:
Or to summarize...ray guns (SF stories) are egalitarian and democratic and capitalistic, while magic wands (fantasy stories) are aristocratic and elitist and snobbish.

Only if you insist on reading fantasy in sci-fi terms, but of course a lot of it is written that way.

You don't seriously think that the people who created fairy tales believed that when you have three siblings of the same sex, the youngest will be the most beautiful and virtuous, do you? Sci-fi's métier is mimesis; fantasy's is symbolism.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Science fiction as mimetic? Okay, I can see that.

But I'd offer that fantasy is then heroic or mythic as much as it might be symbolic. (Going with Northrop Frye's modes of story-telling, by the way. And horror is probably mostly ironic.)

Also, if you posit science fiction as mimetic, basically you are agreeing with the distinguishing "rule" that science fiction is about what could happen and fantasy is about what couldn't. Wouldn't you say?


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MattLeo
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quote:
Also, if you posit science fiction as mimetic, basically you are agreeing with the distinguishing "rule" that science fiction is about what could happen and fantasy is about what couldn't. Wouldn't you say?

That's quite a challenging point. Take any science fiction story with FTL. Let's even posit FTL is possible in some way that doesn't conflict with our knowledge of relativity. Unfortunately, it's not enough to wave our hands and say, "well, there's something we haven't noticed about relativity." Most if not all FTL stories seem to me to be *entirely* inconsistent with special relativity. They implicitly assume that there is some kind of time that is uniform throughout the galaxy, which special relativity says is rubbish. So you have your choice: either special relativity is rubbish, or FTL travel stories without counterintuitive temporal effects are rubbish.

So should those of us who think that special relativity at least has _some_ predictive value then regard all FTL stories as fantasy? I don't think so. The reason is that we don't approach stories as readers using our academic knowledge of science. We approach most of what happens in a story without intuition, unless something is specifically brought to our attention.

This has practical implications for science fiction writing.

Just looking at effective storytelling here for the moment and nothing else: The implicit background rules of a science fiction story have to be consistent with the way our intuition believes the universe works, even where our intellect tells us otherwise. However if a detail is brought to our conscious attention, that detail had better be consistent with what our intellects know about how our real universe works, otherwise the soap bubble of suspended disbelief pops.

As I said, the only practical marketing criterion for judging whether something is science fiction or fantasy is some kind of walks-like-a-duck rule. But from a literary standpoint (which authors should think about because it's the palette they're working with) I think it might be more useful to arrange stories, not into buckets, but along a continuum.

At the left side of the continuum is the hardest of hard sci-fi. These are stories which strive to get every detail explicit or implicit consistent with the current state of science. I think the first Rendezvous with Rama was one of these. Adjacent to these diamond-hard sci-fi stories are ones that are more like ruthenium or corundum or something. They're still pretty hard, but the background details are a little soft.

At the right side of the continuum are what I'd like to call "hard fantasy". It's as soft as soft can be from a sci-fi standpoint, but it has its own inviolable rules. This is the realm of the fairy tale, in which the third and youngest sister MUST be the most beautiful and virtuous. Adjacent to "hard fantasy" there's high fantasy, which makes a few concessions to psychological realism, but is still very driven by symbolic motifs.

And there's the vast and squishy middle, where anything goes. This is where a lot of stuff's happening in the last decades. I'd put Urban Fantasy almost smack in the center.

[This message has been edited by MattLeo (edited September 12, 2011).]


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Robert Nowall
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As I recall, at one point Clarke had his giant spaceship in Rendezvous with Rama violate Newton's Laws, and had the characters remark on it...

I see FTL as something of a convention, like characters in movies breaking into song, something to be used as a way to get one's characters someplace interesting and quickly. (A lot of stories have a spaceport that disappears once the action starts taking place elsewhere.) The real-life restrictions on faster-than-light travel mean it'll take years to get somewhere and it's a one-way trip. (Once in a while, working through the restrictions produces an interesting story---but rarely and far-between.)

I had to look "mimetic" up---but should have known from its root word, "mime." Other than other SF, what's it imitative of? As for imitation, how much of contemporary fantasy derives from Tolkien?

*****

I have questions about Urban Fantasy, but I'm going to start another post to see what answers come.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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My understanding of "mimetic" in literature is that it refers to stories about more or less ordinary people. In SF, of course, they would be in "extraordinary" situations, but they wouldn't be expected to have supernatural powers, for example. They just be plain old folks, plugging along, doing the best they can in their very human ways.

I think "mimetic" can apply to science fiction, but that doesn't mean all science fiction is mimetic, necessarily.


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Brendan
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quote:
That's quite a challenging point. Take any science fiction story with FTL. Let's even posit FTL is possible in some way that doesn't conflict with our knowledge of relativity. Unfortunately, it's not enough to wave our hands and say, "well, there's something we haven't noticed about relativity." Most if not all FTL stories seem to me to be *entirely* inconsistent with special relativity. They implicitly assume that there is some kind of time that is uniform throughout the galaxy, which special relativity says is rubbish. So you have your choice: either special relativity is rubbish, or FTL travel stories without counterintuitive temporal effects are rubbish.

So should those of us who think that special relativity at least has _some_ predictive value then regard all FTL stories as fantasy? I don't think so. The reason is that we don't approach stories as readers using our academic knowledge of science. We approach most of what happens in a story without intuition, unless something is specifically brought to our attention.


Two points here, one regarding stories, and the other regarding the application of science. Firstly, the writer does lead the reader in what to expect, however the reader does come with some expectations about the story too. There has been a number of stories that I have stopped reading because the science has been ill managed or the writer didn't really understand the science. Usually, this has been a result of the writer indicating that they are positioning the story at one particular part of the spectrum, and the science not being consistent with that part of the spectrum. The harder science the promise, the stronger I hold the writer to deliver that promise - I like to learn science in science fiction, particularly implications of science.

Secondly, science has associated with it the sense of progress that results in theories superseding their preceding counterparts. This means that it can be quite fine to speculate, for example, FTL and still remain well within the hard science fiction fold, so long as the other parts of science, the parts that are known, are dealt with the rigor expected of the sub-genre. Catherine Asaro did a fascinating example of this in Primary Inversion.

On the point about FTL and special relativity, one must remember that special relativity hasn't prevented a number of scientists speculating about beating the speed of light (including some proven incompatibilities between quantum mechanics and SR/GR, and some recent experiments proving sometimes the speed of light has been beaten). Even without destroying SR, some proposed FTL methods (both in science and SF) can be considered entirely independent of SR, resulting in effectively small relative velocity differences between the two locations, and thus having negligible time differences. (I'll leave the debate about a universal time alone for now, but that has also come under some scrutiny by a few scientists.)


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MattLeo
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Kathleen -- the technical term "mimetic" comes from a Greek idea about art in general and theater specifically: that it imitates nature. So while Shakespeare says "all the world's a stage", Aristotle might say, "the stage is a model of the world."

There's a pretty good article on Wikipedia; in particular Aristotle's view is worth considering. He thinks that a play achieves catharsis because what happens onstage is both recognizable to us (i.e. it is mimetic), yet at the same time it is distant from us in a way that frees us from arguing over irrelevant details. This poetic license to be distant from the actual facts is the writer's best defense against nitpickers ("Von Blücher didn't arrive the vicinity of Waterloo until June 16, so he couldn't have exchanged that secret note with mistress of Napoleon's bootblack, who by the way was gay!") I once went to a lecture in which Gene Roddenberry was asked by an audience member whether the character of Ilia in ST:TMP was sexist. After hemming and hawing and giving a weak justification, Roddenberry played his trump card: "That's the way they are on her planet."

The difficulty of reconciling the differences from reality with the belief necessary for catharsis is why many people who love sci-fi detest fantasy with an intensity that fantasy fans who don't care for sci-fi can't match. They feel about fantasy the way Plato felt about drama: it may be fine for juvenile minds but it's just too *wrong* to interest a true philosopher.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Plato thinks romantic love is a crock too, a view shared by many hard sci-fi fans.

Brendan -- in order to be "science", an idea has to be negatable. A "theory" like special relativity is just as negatable as anything else, but negating it involves throwing out a lot of other stuff we believe to be true.

There's basically three ways around an inconvenient theory. You can posit a wrinkle to the problem that isn't part of the the theory. Mass having an imaginary phase component (the way current and voltage are related in alternating current circuits by the square root of minus 1) gets around one of the reductio ad absurdum arguments against FTL travel: that you'd need more than infinite mass. The unexpected wrinkle is the approach most consistent with ultra-hard science fiction.

The second approach is to come right out and negate the theory. The characters watch, white knuckled, as the astro-speedometer creeps up to c. Then it goes over. Hooray! Einstein was wrong. Let's open the champagne and watch (???) the stars streak by. An explicit assumption of a universal clock falls into the category of outright negation of current scientific theory.

The third approach is poetic license. We just all agree to ignore the inconvenient theory and let the story move forward and never mention it again. This is the approach Star Trek takes. The negation approach to relativity also entails this somewhat. What, exactly, are we watching those stars streak by *with*? It can't be photons. Likewise an implicit universal clock is poetic license, not really a serious negation of special relativity.

Squishy sci-fi tends to make liberal use of poetic license. Star Trek, for example, is more like Jason and the Argonauts than it is like anything Arthur C. Clarke ever wrote. *Doctor Who* sometimes takes a self-referential, postmodernist stance toward inconvenient science. In one episode the Doctor describes time as a "big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff." That's the writers coming as close as they can to telling you to accept the TARDIS as something that's forever beyond your comprehension.

[This message has been edited by MattLeo (edited September 18, 2011).]


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KayTi
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Hmm....ten of the best Sci-Fi novels around and not a single one written by a woman.

We sci-fi writer chicks sure have our work cut out for us!

Not to say I disagree with the list, although I haven't heard of several even though I've read several others from the list so many times my copies literally fell apart. But some notable omissions include Ursula Le Guin and even though they're not chicks, Gibson and Adams.

But it's always good to get a list from which to add to my reading wish list pile.

I personally am enjoying finding sci-fi in unexpected places in YA fiction these days, like Hunger Games, Maze Runner, and one I just finished called Matched. They're not space stories (which is what I prefer to write) but they're fascinating studies in humanity and ways culture/society can totally break down or oppress people.


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Robert Nowall
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Er...hadn't noticed that...trying to think if any of my favorites were written by women...favorite novels, 'cause I can think of many short stories by women I really really like...
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Brendan
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quote:
The second approach is to come right out and negate the theory. The characters watch, white knuckled, as the astro-speedometer creeps up to c. Then it goes over. Hooray! Einstein was wrong. Let's open the champagne and watch (???) the stars streak by. An explicit assumption of a universal clock falls into the category of outright negation of current scientific theory.

You might find this interesting then, out today.


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MattLeo
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Brendan -- well, its probably too early to break out the prosecco.

IIRC, they measured the arrival time of tau neutrions and they came up with a velocity of c + 6*sigma, where sigma is the estimated standard deviation of their error. Note that amounts to about seventeen meters over a 732 km course.

The problem with this is we haven't seen this in nature; we can get a pretty good idea of the relative velocity of photons and neutrinos, and there haven't been any confirmed cases of supernova neutrinos that outpaced photons; if neutrinos could travel this much faster the difference over interstellar distances would be dramatic.

My guess is that this will turn out to be a repeatable error in GPS positioning for one or both of the locations.


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Brendan
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Oh, there is plenty of water to go under the bridge yet, but it is interesting. I'm still skeptical, but positively so (because the Fermi lab also had similar results last year, though their errors were higher). I was just as fascinated with the timing of this announcement with regard to our discussion.

On the correlations between supernovas and neutrino spike, I don't believe (maybe until now) that they have had any reason to attempt to correlate neutrino spikes with times years in advance of the photon front. The size of the effect was estimated to be 3.2 years time difference for SN1987A (by the way, this one did outpace the photon front, but only by about 3 hours). So I wouldn't rely on an absence of data to conclude it doesn't exist. Furthermore, even if such analysis does prove false, it doesn't negate the finding, if, for example, it turns out to be a tunneling effect limited to the start of the journey.

I have heard that this study included a measurement of the change in distance between the two labs due to an earthquake last year. They measured that at 7cm, so they seem confident with the GPS measurements. (Apparently they can be determined down to the cm if you spend long enough measuring, with expensive equipment).


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MattLeo
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The problem is that GPS can be more precise than it is accurate. There are repeatable errors that give you very precisely repeatable position fixes. It's like you can toss BBs and reliably get them to land inside the same thimble; that doesn't mean you know where the BBs are, because your thimble might be in the wrong place.

I think I mentioned my late father in law who worked on the guidance system for Apollo, Polaris and Trident. He once visited a navy base and discovered that they didn't know where they were -- not accurately enough to target nuclear warheads at any rate. Imagine you set up a DGPS beacon using the survey marker on that base. Using that beacon you might get position fixes that agreed to within a cm or so, but were thousands of meters inaccurate.

Then there's extrapolating from that position fix to the actual positions of the receiver and source. A small but systematic error in their surveying technique could throw them off by hundreds of meters. Remember the Hubble primary mirror. The technicians assembled their most precise test apparatus incorrectly, and when their less precise instruments told them there was a problem, they believed their "better" instruments.

A result like this isn't science until it's been replicated; even the most careful experimenter can make a mistake. Still, it would be really cool if our understanding of how the universe fits together were totally wrong.


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Robert Nowall
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My understanding---I can't remember where I read it---is that Global Positioning isn't accurate to within one hundred yards---deliberately, by the command of the Defense Department, as they don't want the commercial versions being used to guide missiles to their targets. But I gather they can get the accuracy down to forty yards.

For "yards," read "meters," or even possibly "feet"---like I said, I read it somewhere, but I can't remember what or where.

How accurate measurements can be made with it, especially for scientific purposes, I don't know.


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DavidS
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The deliberate GPS inaccuracy is called "selective availability". It still exists as an option, but was turned off in May 2000 and hasn't been turned back on since.

I think the inaccuracy was about 50m horizontally and 100m vertically. I can recall holding a GPS back in the 90's and watching the position change with every update due to selective availability.


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MattLeo
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You can get much more precise than that using differential GPS (DGPS) -- to the point where your readings will be repeatable to a cm or so. That's enough *precision* for the measurements in question, but precision does not equal accuracy.

It's like target shooting. If you have a nice tight grouping, you're shooting precisely; if you are close to the bullseye, you're shooting accurately. In this case we don't know where the center of the bullseye is (that's the very question we're using GPS for). With differential correction you can get your grouping to fall into the same 1cm circle, but you don't know whether that circle's on the target or not. Once you've accounted for all the repeatable errors, you know you're hitting the bullseye.


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LDWriter2
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Wonder how the GPS treasure hunters or whatever they call themselves, work it.
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