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Book Review – Starswarm by Jerry Pournelle

Kip, the young heir of one of the planet-controlling corporations of a future humanity, has been in hiding on a planet the residents call Purgatory and unaware of his true identity most of his life. His parents, major stockholders of Great Western Enterprises, were killed in what amounts to a VERY hostile corporate takeover attempt over twelve years before. Not sure who was behind the attempt, his guardian, his parents’ former bodyguard, keeps him hidden until he becomes old enough to vote his shares.

This novel intentionally mimics the ‘juvenile’ science fiction stories from the 1950’s through 1970’s, especially the Heinlein juveniles. Today, such books might be called ‘Young Adult.’ It’s an enjoyable enough read, although the plot is predictable and the main characters are fairly cliché. The supporting characters and aliens are imaginative, though. I especially liked Gwen, the AI program Kip’s mother created to watch over him and to whom he communicates via a chip in his head. The genetically modified dogs are great sidekicks — smart but not unbelievably smart. The starswarm alien is quite interesting.

My biggest disappointment with the story was that it wasn’t believably futuristic. There are no speculative leaps in either culture or technology. Essentially this is a contemporary adventure story for kids with some cool aliens and ray guns thrown in. Politically, economically, and culturally, this is mid-Twentieth Century America. They use helicopters, tapes to record data, air conditioning is not ubiquitous, they play Warcraft and reference Star Trek the Motion Picture — well, I suppose I’m okay with the last thing. Star Trek is timeless. But a believable or thought provoking portrayal of a future humanity, this is not.

It’s a fine, light read for a rainy day. I found the one I read at the library, and if you see it at the one you frequent, go ahead and pick it up. It’s not a ‘keeper,’ though.

Book Review – Shelby and Shauna Kitt and the Dimensional Holes by P.H.C. Marchesi

 My Rating: 4.5 Stars

Shelby and Shauna Kitt are kids with special abilities and an abundance of “positive energy.” It is this unique energy that makes them the most suitable people on the planet to save not only our world but also the parallel world of Miriax from the Klodians who inhabit a third parallel world. Dimensional holes have opened between Miriax and Earth, and between Earth and Klodius. They must be closed and Shelby and Shauna are called on to help. These young heroes are engaging and likeable. The adult characters may sometimes seem childish or simplistic to older readers but I think younger readers would find them believable.

This wonderfully imaginative book is sure to appeal to Middle Grade readers. It’s a bit Little Prince, a bit Wizard of Oz, a bit Alice in Wonderland and a lot of fun. What I like especially are the lighthearted tone and positive mood that are carried throughout the book. The plot is strong enough to carry your interest and the tone is just silly enough that you know not to take it too seriously. This combination makes for a very enjoyable reading experience.

Book Review – The Outpost by Mike Resnick

   My Rating: 4 Stars

A collection of rogues and heroes meet at an out of the way bar – really out of the way – on a planet at the fringes of human occupied space. It seems to be the only thing there. They share tall tales of their exploits and learn of an approaching war and that the alien invaders have just destroyed the Human Space Navy fleet sent to stop them. So after finishing a last round of drinks they go to do what heroes do. When they return, well, most of them anyway, they relate their tales for posterity.

This isn’t serious science fiction, nor is it intended to be. It is however an enjoyable romp, which is a bit Gulliver’s Travels and a bit Spider Robinson with maybe a hint of Douglas Adams. It is a fun read.

Positive Science Fiction – A Better World

   In the first post in this series, I defined a work of positive fiction as one that conveys a hopeful, optimistic, or other positive mood. In the second post, I argued that the positive image of humanity that supports this mood in science fiction is a realistic one. In this, the final post of the series (or the last one I’ve planned anyway), I will discuss why I think positive science fiction is especially appealing and why I think there should be more of it.

I struggled with how to present this case because there are several points that need to be made. Let me start out with this one, which may be a bit controversial. Speculative fiction is fundamentally a more intellectual genre than others. That may be something of a value call though so let me rephrase it. Speculative fiction, especially science fiction, causes us to step outside our current world and look back at it. In this way it is the most philosophical and scientific of fiction genres because it can question pretty much anything. Every belief, every assumption, every aspect of culture is open to scrutiny. Like other genres, speculative fiction begins with our real world but it isn’t set there. It wouldn’t be speculative if it was. Something must be different and I don’t mean just ray guns or flying cars. The addition of some high tech hardware or alien life does not make a work of fiction speculative by itself. I try to avoid the pejorative use of the term ‘sci-fi’ (sometimes pronounced skiffy) because I don’t necessarily agree that the distinction between sci-fi and SF is as clear as some seem to believe. But a novel with flying cars isn’t true science fiction if all other aspects of the setting are essentially the same as those where the reader lives. It may be ‘sci-fi’ but not SF or speculative fiction.

Science fiction posits a truly different world that would feel strange to us if we were dropped into it. It can have flying cars or ray guns or even ghosts, gremlins, or two-headed crocodile gods but these must have some plausible explanation, at least plausible enough for an intelligent reader to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. I hope this doesn’t sound elitist but some means of differentiation is needed.

Speculative fiction often begins by asking, “What if?” What if history unfolded differently? What if something happens tomorrow that challenges our current assumptions? What would we do? How would our world be changed? Many works of soft science fiction especially look at current human cultures and contrast them to what could be. They remind us that human society as it exists today is just one of an almost infinite number of conceivable possibilities, some of which may appear better and some worse.

This questioning of everything is the defining characteristic of speculative fiction and it is what sets it apart from other fiction genres. It is also what makes some people truly dislike it. This brings me to my next point.

People who read speculative fiction are especially bright. The intellectual challenge of being exposed to a different world where very little can be assumed excites them. They want to figure out what makes this fictional world different from their own and how it works. They are open minded and willing to entertain questions about their own beliefs and assumptions. They understand that they occupy a single point in space-time and that it is not a privileged position. Not everyone is comfortable with this. Some may not be capable of it. But speculative fiction readers thrive on such mind stretching questions.

In all speculative fiction something is different than it is in our world and science fiction stories show us how people are affected by those differences. In order to do this believingly, or entertainingly in the case of fiction that is humorous, satirical, or intentionally unbelievable (e.g. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), the author needs an understanding of humanity and how it might react to such differences, which brings us back to that underlying question about the fundamental nature of mankind. The one thing fictional stories must retain is a realistic image of humanity otherwise readers will not be able to identify or empathize with the characters.

The types of people who are drawn to speculative fiction are capable of asking big questions and they are capable of seeing the big picture. I believe that are also likely to understand that a species such as our own cannot go from flint knives to spaceships without having something going for it. Humanity has demonstrated that it can accomplish great things and readers of speculative fiction especially are likely to appreciate this either consciously or subconsciously. If a fictional story is based upon the mistaken premise that humanity as a whole is stupid, warlike, aggressive, cruel, and selfish then the story will seem contrived to them. They may have a hard time understanding exactly why but it will feel wrong.

For intelligent and insightful readers such as these, positive science fiction can provide a tonic to cure the misconceptions about humanity and its future that the news and mainstream fiction can convey. It can remind us that humanity has progressed and is likely to continue to progress, it can help us put current events into a more historical perspective so they can be seen more accurately, and it can reaffirm a sense of hope and optimism for our future.

Consider what is sometimes referred to as the Golden Age of science fiction in the middle of the last century. The stories that mark this period were often a celebration of human achievement and they inspired not only a sense of wonder about the universe but a hopeful image of continued human exploration and discovery. Stories such as these are the true roots of science fiction. They were a different type of story for a different type of reader and I think part of their appeal was because they were based on a truer understanding of what humanity was and what it is capable of.

It may be something of a cliché but fiction really does shape our future. This is especially true for science fiction. I attended the 100 Year Starship Symposium sponsored by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was held the first weekend of October 2011 here in Orlando. This was a gathering of scientists, engineers, and even science fiction writers and philosophers to discuss the future of human space exploration. A point that was made in several talks was how much science fiction had inspired people. One speaker said that an impromptu survey he took of his engineering students revealed that over 80% of them listed Scotty from Star Trek as their primary motivation for going into that discipline. The works of Asimov, Heinlein, and others from the golden age of science fiction were also credited as being major inspirations for scientists and engineers.

Think about that and consider what current mainstream science fiction might be inspiring young people to become if anything. As writers it is our job to entertain, not shape the future but intentionally or not this is something that fiction can do. And I think we should ask ourselves if we are helping to create a bright future or a dismal one.

I would like to see science fiction return to its golden age roots. Other fiction genres can take the dark side but true science fiction should not. I suppose a subgenre distinction could be make between “mainstream” science fiction, which follows the tone and mood of other genres to appeal to wider audiences and “true” or “positive” science fiction, which carries a more hopeful (and truer) tone and mood but I can find no indication that this distinction is being widely made. Perhaps it should be.

Related Posts:

Positive Science Fiction Part 1 – Emerging From The Dark
Positive Science Fiction Part 2 – Understanding Humanity

The 100 Year Starship Symposium (100YSS) – Resurgence of a Dream
On Digital Books And The Evolution Of Genre Fiction
Why Are Good Books So Hard To Find?
Beyond Genre – Tone And Mood
Beyond Genre – Novels And Emotional Needs

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