TT: Alan Thinks About Themes

ALAN: I’ve been thinking…

JANE:  Uh, oh!

ALAN: There’s an apocryphal story that after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, a reporter interviewed some SF authors and asked: What are you going to write about now that reality has caught up with you?

Exploration and Adventure!

Exploration and Adventure!

JANE: Ah, the great fallacy rears its head once again.  I wonder when folks will stop thinking that SF is about predicting the future?

ALAN: Or the fallacy that SF is all about exploring the moon, and other planets. There is no doubt that the idea has always had a large role to play in the genre, but it’s by no means the only thing that SF concerns itself with. I think there are several fundamental themes that SF returns to time and time again, themes that define the framework that we hang our genre stories on. I think it might be useful if we tried to pin them down. Are you game to give it a go?

JANE: This sounds like fun.  It will be interesting to see which still seem vital and which (if any) have run their course.

ALAN: OK – let’s begin with the question raised by that apocryphal reporter. Stories that tell of a trip to another world and what we find there have been a staple of science fiction since long before there was any such thing as science fiction.  H.G. Wells wrote the story in 1901 (The First Men In The Moon) and Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote it again in 1912 (A Princess of Mars).

JANE: Let’s not forget Jules Verne!  His novel From the Earth to the Moon was first published in 1865.  The second part of the story Circling the Moon was first published in 1869.  These make Wells and Burroughs absolute latecomers to the theme.

However, according to my research, there’s a story that has them beat.

ALAN: Really? Tell me more.

JANE: Apparently, Lucian of Samosata’s True History written in 1827 includes a voyage to the Moon.  He was apparently writing in response to Antonius Diogenes’ (second century CE) The Wonders Beyond Thule, which features a report of a visit to the Moon.

However, as True History was satire, there is active debate as to whether it should be classified as SF or not.  Diogenes’ piece seems to have been rooted more in Pythagorean mysticism than in any sort of science, so I only include it out of a desire to be complete.

ALAN: Goodness me – the theme has more of a history than I realised. I’m sure that must be because the idea of exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, and boldly going where no man has gone before is a story that appeals to absolutely everybody on a really visceral level. After all, the original series of Star Trek told the story in almost every episode and, probably as a direct result, Star Trek was hugely popular!

JANE:  Whoosh!  (Sorry, finishing the quote from the opening of Star Trek.  My brain always adds the sound effect when the Enterprise goes by.  I don’t care that spaceships don’t make a sound in the void.  It’s cool.)

But, momentarily being more serious…  Original Star Trek worked for me in large part because it told stories of frontiers and exploration.  Frontiers remain an integral element of the American mythos, long after the conclusion of the days of physical exploration.

(I’m speaking of the U.S. variant of “American.”  Maybe our Canadians can answer if the idea of the frontier has a pull for them as well.  I don’t know if we have any South or Central Americans reading this who can answer for the other Americas.)

I’m curious if that element works for you as an Old World transplant as well.

ALAN: I’m old and my palate is jaded but nevertheless the story of travelling to a new world and exploring it still gives me a tingle in my sense of wonder. I’m sure I’m not alone in that – it may be a very old story, but it is still being told today – Andy Weir’s excellent novel The Martian was recently made into an award-winning movie, and that’s by no means the only example of it in modern day SF.

JANE: Indeed not.  I’m currently reading a proof of a near future novel – I will tell you what it is when it’s released – that deals with an attempt to establish an in-system colony.  Part of what makes it such a good read is that it’s so firmly rooted in recognizable limitations, both scientific and social.

Two of my favorites in this theme are both by Heinlein: The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950) and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966).  The first envisions lunar exploration as it might have been if driven by private ambition and dreams, rather than as government-backed ventures.  The second focuses on what would happen after a colony was established and had a chance to build its own identity.

Do you have any favorite tales of space exploration?  Don’t feel you need to stay in our solar system!

ALAN: Despite its scientific inaccuracy, I absolutely love Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars. It was first published in 1951 and it has long been overtaken by events. We know a lot more about conditions on Mars today than we did back then. The story is a thrilling tale of colonising the red planet. Mars has been surveyed from orbit, but not yet fully explored on the ground… Among other ideas, the novel speculates about techniques for terraforming the planet – a surprisingly sophisticated idea for 1951!

I’m also very fond of Brian W. Aldiss’ Helliconia trilogy. The novels chronicle the rise and fall of civilisation on an Earth-like planet over more than a thousand years. A space station orbiting Helliconia transmits details of the drama back to Earth.

JANE: Shamefacedly, I will admit I haven’t read either of these.  However, I think I may need to do so!

There’s no way we can list every good book about space exploration without inviting the dreaded TL/DR monster into our Tangent.  Perhaps some of our readers will help fill in the gaps by commenting on their personal “don’t miss” titles of planetary exploration.

Even without listing more titles, I think it’s obvious that neither of us think that SF built around planetary exploration and colonization is in the least played out.  However, it might be worth mentioning what is needed to make a new venture in that territory fresh and of good quality.

You first!

ALAN: Don’t pad the story with unnecessary events like meteorite collisions and avoid technical infodumps about spacecraft propulsion systems. I just read a trilogy which would have been amazingly good if the padding had been removed, and as a bonus it would only have been a single novel! In other words, stick to the straight storyline of planetary exploration.

JANE: I’ll add that attention needs to be paid to characterizations.  The days when characters can be “the pilot,” “the captain,” “the astronomer,” etcetera are gone.  Readers want to believe that real, three-dimensional humans with families, friends, even phobias, can achieve these goals.

Space travel is only one element among perennial SF themes.  Would you like to suggest another?

ALAN: I know! Let’s talk about time travel last week.

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18 Responses to “TT: Alan Thinks About Themes”

  1. James M. Six Says:

    The phrase “technical infodumps” reminds me that some authors iwho focused on hard sf wrote the stories partly as a way of thinking out loud about the technology. Hal Clement’s work sometimes falls into that vein. One of them, Still River, (IIRC) had students designing their own suits for exploring a planet and went into the technical considerations and problems they faced on a particular world.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Don’t pad the story with unnecessary events like meteorite collisions and avoid technical infodumps about spacecraft propulsion systems.

    Did you just read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy? If so, I’d read your bugs as my features.

    That comment bothers me not a little. Exploration is all about the novel details and things going weird and/or wrong. It’s the exploration of a milieu and how it creates problems for the characters. Why focus on a character study under such circumstances? Isn’t the family room good enough for that?

    That’s not to say that explorers are cardboard or should be characterized that way. Most of them seem to be eccentric at the very least (see the origin for the name of the Mad River in California. It was named after the behavior of the expedition botanist). Still, it’s a mistake for a story about exploration to be all about what happens around the campfire and nothing about what they see when they’re working. When I see that in a story, all it says to me is that the writer is lazy and doesn’t want to do the work of imagining a new world. A cardboard set is as deadly as cardboard characters.

    I do agree that infodumps are a problem, but there is a simple solution: Murphy’s Law. I’ll bet any trip on a starship is much more interesting when things break down and they need to be fixed without calling out for supplies. And a meteor is a feature, not a bug. Anything moving at more than 10 km/sec (in other words, ten times faster than a bullet) is a large bomb if it hits. Are we going to do anything about that bomb, or is it more important to linger over drinks in the starship lounge? Space is extremely dangerous, and ignoring that is (IMHO) a far worse sin than trying to figure out how a starship might work, even though it’s a sin committed by a majority of science fiction.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      I can’t answer for Alan. My reply would be, I agree with you wholeheartedly IF those things are worked well into the novel. If, however, they seem like padding to provide a require “car chase” action moment every so many pages, then I get peeved.

      That said, the yet unpublished novel I alluded to above would make you very, very happy. I’ll try to remember to flag you when it comes out!

    • Alan Robson Says:

      Jane took the words out of my mouth. All too often that sort of nonsense is there solely and simply to eat up wordage and provide artificial tension. If it really is organically part of the story and if it really does move the story forwards, then I’m perfectly fine with it.


      -Alan

  3. Jane Lindskold Says:

    A “ghost” asked why we didn’t deal with Aliens and Alien encounters, since this was a logical development of space exploration. That’s because we had a lot of fun with that topic just over a year ago. If you’re interested, the series on aliens starts on 9/17/2015.

  4. Louis Robinson Says:

    Don’t miss? Far too many miss the greats [and, nowadays, too many miss the grates, too, although I admit that there are more efficient means of heating that book-burning], so I’ll toss out a few of the older titles. 3 are very different, but very alien, environments; in the fourth it’s the occupants who are alien – although the explorers are getting a bit strange too. In chronological order:

    Iceworld
    Surface Tension
    Mission of Gravity
    Wings of Victory

    [and yes, some are older than I am, so it’s not just a longing for the good old days]

    As for the frontier, I’m not so sure it’s the Romance of the Frontier that sub-49ers are in love with so much as the Idea of the Romance of the Frontier. Most people didn’t want anything to do with it when it was the Frontier, and know even less about it now. I’d say that holds true up here as well: the most common single sign on the Trans-Canada Highway around Lake Superior is probably Tim Horton’s. Second place going to Canadian Tire. “Moose Crossing” might make 3rd.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      Isn’t a Romance an idea right off the bat?

      • Jane Lindskold Says:

        I added a “grin” after that that didn’t come through. I actually appreciate your weighing in for Canada AND the book titles!

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        No worries, grin not needed. Right off the wall, I would have said…

        What I’m trying to convey is the multiple layers of, hmmm… my vocabulary engine _is_ on the fritz this morning… encapsulation that separate most of those – particularly those who do so the loudest – invoking the frontier spirit and advocating for the new-frontier flavour of the month from anything like the reality. As usual when you get into mythology there’s at best a nodding acquaintance with the original.

        Mind you, when you do get into frontierish type places, the locals don’t help a bit. I recall that back in the day the rest stop on the Alaska Highway between Whitehorse and Dawson was completely off the [nonexistent] grid. No power, no running water, lever-action gas pumps, phone only because the line follows the highway. You had to be really serious about making a phone call, too, because getting to the pay phone meant climbing a 35-foot ladder to the top of the pole. Why? “Local colour”, of course.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      Iceworld — YES
      Surface Tension — YES
      Mission of Gravity — YES
      Wings of Victory — Don’t know this one…

      Clearly Louis and I read and enjoy many of the same books for many of the same reasons.


      -Alan

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        Poul Anderson – it’s actually a short, about the first human contact on Ythri. It’s the first story in the collection The Earth Book of Stormgate, most recently reprinted in Baen’s The VanRijn Method.

        Come to think of it, quite a few people would file it under First Contact [another must read!], but unlike many of those not only are the humans involved engaged in a Columbus-scale leap into the unknown, they also have to [darn, the only good verbs i can come up with are in French!] surpass the frontiers of their own conceptions of the paths sentience can follow to _make_ the contact. You’ll doubtless recall a couple of James White’s stories that followed that path as well.

      • Jane Lindskold Says:

        I really liked that story, too.

      • Alan Robson Says:

        Ah! I must have read it (I have The Earth Book of Stormgate) bur clearly it didn’t stick in my head..


        -Alan

  5. henrietta abeyta Says:

    SF has wildlife like Native American legends and mythology around the world, I myself have plenty of insight about what animals can have in common in their true attitudes even if they don’t look it, to put the Toucans with the Wolves in my own imaginary place.

    If you read enough old facts of Toucans and Wolves they have several things in common, but you see more of what these 2 have in common when you have insight of how spirits have the possibility to match just like attitudes can match.

    Knowing Yourself Is True Wisdom the wolf would say
    There’s Inner Wisdom That Can Help You Solve Problems the toucan would say. BE THE REAL YOU both would suggest. And in science both have a big diet that helps Earth’s nature stay balanced. While if you understand enough spirit and attitude facts about the two they have the same top values too.

  6. Alex Says:

    If we replace the theme of “Stories that tell of a trip to another world and what we find there” with “Stories that tell of a trip to another place and what we find there”. Then this is as old as time. I’d suggest that you could easily transpose “The Odyssey” into a SF story by shifting it to another planet. Then there’s “Gulliver’s Travels which while being Satire, can also read as SF.

    In the genre of SF as a Travelogue, the two ones that spring to mind are:

    Ringworld by Larry Niven.
    Voyage of the Space Beagle by A.E van Vogt.

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