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Eight Science Fiction Questions from Quora

Here are a few of the science fiction-related questions I’ve answered over on Quora. You can see other answers and explore other viewpoints for each of these questions over on Quora:

What has been the impact of science fiction books on readers? 

science-fiction-definitionThe fundamental premise of science fiction – in my opinion – is that children can learn from the mistakes of their parents. Not that they will! But this means tragedies and mistakes and pitfalls happen because we ignored warning signs. Because we made mistakes that did not have to happen.

This is where science fiction departed from the mother genre – fantasy. In both of them, gaudy, fantastic things can happen! But the older fantasy tradition – going back to Achilles and Gilgamesh and Rama – is fatalistic. The story unfolds as the gods willed, not as human choice. Above all, in fantasy the feudal pattern of rule by demigods and kings goes unquestioned. You might change which chosen-one becomes the demigod or which noble prince becomes king. But the pattern is rigid. See my posting: The Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Science fiction contemplates that things tomorrow might be different than today. And that affects the psychology of its readers.

What are some science fiction novels with a memorable protagonist?

510a33eiytl-_sx333_bo1204203200_I especially loved the title character of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, who’s just this post holocaust kid who’s trying his best to make it, and maybe do a little good, along the way.

Lessa the dragonriding matriarch in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series is inspiring, as is her deeply moving The Ship Who Sang. The girl protagonist in Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage.

As ongoing characters in multi-book series go. Poul Anderson’s Flandry and Nicholas Van Rijn are both fun and memorable.

Of course, Isaac Asimov’s immortal R. Daneel Olivaw , whose battle to save humanity spans 25,000 years in the Foundation novels, is certainly a massive archetype. I try to “humanize” him in Foundation’s Triumph.

However, I don’t care for demigods. Ender Wiggin from Ender’s Game has some of the emotions of a lost kid far from home, but he always, always wins. He suffers and so we identify with him. But he is a god – like all Orson Scott Card characters. Sorry, gods and demigod characters teach one lesson – as in Star Wars and Tolkien – that normal people are hopeless, stupid and worthless. Our institutions and efforts to work together and build a civilization of normal men and women who rise and cooperate? Hopeless. Give it all over to a demigod.

UKPostmanPBI tried to answer this with Gordon, in The Postman, the only character in science fiction who came in 2nd for three Hugo Awards… kind of symbolic since he’s a normal man who does some important heroic things and never exactly “wins.” He just inspires his fellow citizens to win.

Can you name a concept that is rarely explored in science fiction?

Look at the most prevalent cliches and poke at those. The most common ones go unnoticed because we were all raised by them. Example: every Hollywood films offers up four standard positive messages and the same two evil ones.

Positive cliches: include 1) Suspicion of Authority  2) Diversity 3) Tolerance and 4) Personal eccentricity.

Negative cliches: 1) No institution shall ever be trusted and 2) All of your neighbors (or the hero’s neighbors) are useless, cowards and sheep,

There are exceptions to all of these. e.g. in every Spiderman movie, he saves New Yorkers but always there’s a point when New Yorkers save Spiderman. But these six cliches are almost always followed. Learn more about this in my essay: Our Favorite Cliche – A World Filled With Idiots 

In The Postman, I tweaked the final two, resurrecting a beloved institution and assuming that people are brave deep inside, and that they would want to be citizens again.

sheckley-storyCan you name some good science fiction short story writers?

I have an entire shelf  in my office devoted to my personal all-time favorite short story writer — Robert Sheckley, followed closely by the great Cordwainer Smith — whom my daughter has just rediscovered. I see that someone did mention the stories of R.A. Lafferty.

Sure, half a dozen of Alice B. Sheldon’s (James Tiptree Jr.) tales were among the best and scariest stories in English and probably all languages. See a collection of eighteen stories by Alice Sheldon: Her Smoke Rose Forever.

Ditto the incomparable Harlan Ellison (Sample some of Ellison’s award-winning stories in the anthology I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.) Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Those Who walk away from Omelas” was stunning.

41yczltkz4l-_sx324_bo1204203200_Well, well… my dear friend Ray Bradbury – fellow Los Angeles High School graduate – was in a league by himself. See a fabulous collection of dozens of his works: Bradbury Tales: 100 of his most celebrated tales.

Sure Frederic Brown, William Tenn, Larry Niven at his spectacular best in All the Myriad Ways. It goes without saying that Philip K. Dick wasn’t shabby at all. Theodore Sturgeon? Hm… Pretty good, but only so-so compared to most of these folks.

Some more recent authors: Ted Chiang (whose novella Story of Your Life forms the basis of the new movie Arrival). Lavie Tidhar (sample his excellent collection Central Station). Cat Rambo. Catherine Asaro. Hao Jingfang. Aliette de Bodard. Too many to name…

51ocbhm5x5l-_sx322_bo1204203200_Where can I find a science fiction story based on the idea that stars are in and of themselves intelligent beings?

Two that I can name are Olaf Stapledon’s classic 1937 novel Star Maker and my own novel Sundiver.

Are warp drives science fiction or future reality?

Very unlikely for 3 reasons:

1- Physics suggests that even if you can make wormholes or warps, you’d need the energy of a star.

2- The Fermi Paradox. If warp happens, the galaxy should be overflowing with civilization, as I depict in my Uplift Novels.

3- If we live in a simulation, then the programmers won’t want to allow warp. It demands way too much computing power if we’re flitting all over the place!

What is the best science fictional story involving parallel universes?

51lm5xjo7ylI would recommend “Store of the Worlds,” a story by Robert Sheckley — whose Dimension of Miracles was one of the best science fiction novels ever. I’d also name John Boyd’s 1978 novel, The Last Starship from Earth.  Of course, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. A series of parallel earths exists in The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter.

A fun recent novel that dives into multiple parallel universes is Black Crouch’s Dark Matter. My own novel, The Practice Effect presents a parallel universe — one where tools get better with practice!

Want more? Wikipedia offers an extensive list of literary works as well as films, TV shows, comics and video games that make use of parallel worlds.

What are the best books by Isaac Asimov?

Of course, Asimov’s Foundation novels are critical reading for any science fiction fan. And yet, I was critical of Isaac’s decision to try to include all of his fiction in a single SF universe. It seemed self-indulgent and too restraining. It meant he had to reconcile two incompatible facts: that humans invent intelligent robots in the early 21st century… and 25,000 years later, a hyperdrive-using galactic empire of 25 million worlds does not know of robots.

He did it, though. He came up with reasons and those reasons drove stories. And I tied together all of his loose ends in my ultimate concluding book Foundation’s Triumph.

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