Jim Webster on Classic Sci-Fi
I have neglected my blogging duties recently, for a variety of reasons, but this week I interrupt the radio silence to bring you a special broadcast from Jim Webster. Jim is a fantasy author who has previously taken the Barren Island Books challenge on this very blog, but now he's branched out into sci-fi. And after I revealed my ignorance by being unable to identify the slide rule in the classic sci-fi book cover he'd posted, he decided he'd better come and fill me in on a few things. Take it away, Jim ...
In February 1959 Astounding Science Fiction published a story by Murray Leinster called 'The Pirates of Ersatz'. His story made the front cover, with the classic picture of a 'space pirate' with a pistol in one hand and a slide rule clamped between his teeth.
It was also produced as a book, and you can get it free from Project Gutenberg at www.gutenberg.org/
I'd recommend it; it's an interesting yarn and one that I cannot imagine being written nowadays. It has a fascinating view of the universe, one that is so placid and bland that the Interstellar Diplomatic Service is not above encouraging trouble makers who'll jolt people out of their smug stasis.
Now the reason I've picked on Classic Sci-Fi is because it lets me draw out several interesting points.
Generally it is written with the attitude that science tends to be positive, tends to solve problems and we're generally moving in an upward direction. Modern literature tends more to the dystopia where we're fighting a long and probably losing battle against (metaphorical) demons of our own creation. OK, I'm painting with a very broad brush here, I know that Star Trek had its debut in 1966 and 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' was first published in 1968. So I am not trying to say that Classic Sci-Fi died in 1967. But in reality the literature is reflecting the age that produced it. A lot of the Classic work came out of the USA in the post-war years when things boomed. A lot of the dystopian work comes out of the USA after Vietnam and out of a Europe that is getting more and more bureaucratic.
The influence of the age on the genre is obvious in the illustration of the pirate with the slide rule clamped between his teeth. Now you have to explain to people what a slide rule is, never mind log tables. Yet I used both at school. The 'computer revolution', the 'information superhighway' weren't even dreams in 1959. Now if we have a space ship, we have complex navigation computers (because we're used to 'fly by wire' and the amazing electronic complexity of our planes). When Murray Leinster wrote, the US warplane of choice was the North American F-86 Sabre which had electrics, not electronics. So when his character pilots a star ship he does this:
"Hoddan painstakingly made use of those rule-of-thumb methods of astrogation which his piratical forebears had developed and which a boy on Zan absorbed without being aware. He wanted an orbit around Darth. He didn't want to take time to try to compute it. So he watched the star-images ahead and astern. If the stars ahead rose above the planet's edge faster than those behind sank down below it--he would be climbing. If the stars behind sank down faster than those ahead rose up--he would be descending. If all the stars rose equally he'd be climbing straight up, and if they all dropped equally he'd be moving straight down. It was not a complex method, and it worked."
As writers we have to be aware how much we're trapped within the mindset of our culture. When Freas drew Hoddan in 'The Pirates of Ersatz' he showed someone who might have stepped off a Detroit assembly line. In Aliens the Colonial Marines throw back straight to 'Nam' (although that was intentional). Occasionally someone does try and break out; in the film Dune there are definite touches of the 19th century Ruritania in people's dress.
So what's the problem? OK, I'll launch into an extended metaphor nobody will really understand. In winter I spend a lot of time hedging. One thing you notice is that with a hawthorn hedge, ivy is a serious problem; it chokes hawthorn. It twines round the hawthorn, constricting it, and kills it so you're left with a hedge that is struggling to survive and much of the growth will be rotten.
Where you get holly in a hedge, the ivy cannot cope with it. It touches the holly as little as possible and launches itself through the holly, desperate to break out into the sun. The ivy is the plant with the problem, not the holly.
It takes minutes to cut the ivy out of a holly hedge, and hours to cut it out of hawthorn.
So for a writer the mindset of our era is ivy. If we're not careful, we're the hawthorn. We'll find the ivy strangling us, inhibiting us, preventing us from writing as we should, choking our creativity and cutting out the light.
What we want to be is the holly. Yes, the ivy, the mindset is there, but it touches us lightly if at all and doesn't cramp our style.
I'd suggest that a Sci-Fi writer should be 'in' this age but not 'of' it. We should be able to live semi-detached from it. That way we can use it, but it doesn't use us.
Or in holding this opinion am I merely a product of my era?
Be that as it may, I thought I'd mention I've written a book, Justice 4.1 (The Tsarina Sector). Yes, it's a change from Fantasy, but I was given the opportunity by Safkhet and it has allowed me to explore different areas.
When a journalist is shot down in a backward area of Tsarina, Haldar Drom of the Governor's Investigation Office is sent to investigate. He uncovers a hidden medical facility dedicated to the production of Abate, a drug used for population control, as well as evidence of the implantation of pre-created embryos in women brought to Tsarina for the purpose. He also discovers a deeper plot with far-reaching political ramifications. A senior member of the Governor's family, Doran Stilan, is running a personal feud with the major pirate/Starmancer Wayland Strang. Indeed, he begins to suspect that Stilan may even be angling to take Strang's place. The medical facility is destroyed after it is attacked by mercenaries hired by Strang, and Drom has to travel off-world to untangle the threads of the conspiracy. Arriving back on Tsarina, he has to deal with a failed Starmancer attack, punish the guilty and arrange for Doran Stilan to get what's coming without undermining the position of the Governor. To do this, he'll need skill, know-how and a whole lot of luck to ensure that the guilty face justice.
It's published in paperback and as an e-book. If you want to find it (or me) then you might like the following links ...
Facebook page: www.facebook.com/TsarinaSector
Goodreads author page
Amazon author page
And for the book itself:
Many thanks, Jim, for your fascinating post and your words of wisdom ... and for teaching me how to identify a slide rule. (I won't even ask about the log tables.*) The new book sounds brilliant - good luck with it!
* Just kidding. I tried to read my mother's old book of log tables once, when I was about twelve and looking for something new to lose myself in. I didn't get very far. It's hard to lose yourself in logarithms if you don't actually know what a logarithm is. Or, for that matter, if you do.
8/3/2014 02:53:50 pm
Jim is always interesting. Lovely post now peps, go buy his book. :-)
10/3/2014 03:55:34 pm
Hi A.F.E, my Maths teacher once accused me of getting lost in a book of log tables, and not in a good way :-)
22/4/2014 12:01:53 am
22/4/2014 01:46:59 am
Glad you enjoyed it ;-)
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