With Dan Simmon’s Hyperion Cantos and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series inching closer to television screens, a question resurfaces, a question I’ve been asking ever since first reading these two works of classic science fiction, both of whom have been fighting an eternal battle for the number one spot on my favourites list.
What makes these stories so great?
For me, it’s the scope of these novels. It’s how the authors infuse a multitude of scientific disciplines and morph them into the plot. This little project is intended as a study guide for me to use and others if they choose, and aims to list as many topics and fields of study as possible. It’ll be an ongoing process as I probably will miss a few academic disciplines along the way.
Science fiction is an art form, and visual art and science fiction have complimented and inspired each other from the beginning. From cover art of Jules Verne’s novels and Amazing Stories to the mind-bending number of sci-fi influenced artworks in existence today, to the contemporary music inspired by this muse called sci-fi, it is a shame art doesn’t feature as much inside sci-fi stories as science does. Film and television do combine the two formats (art and literature), a synergy that creates its own standalone art, but there are few stories that explore art as a theme or as a science. How many authors pose the question, what is art?
Science fiction, to me anyhow, is about exploring new concepts, and neglecting to explore such a vast aspect of human behaviour is always going to be a missed opportunity. As humans, we possess a range of sensors that can be aroused by art or information. Our eyes have pictures to lust over. Our ears have music to listen to. Our tongues have gourmet food to explore. Our skin has fashion; our noses, perfume and smell. Our inner ears give us balance, so is not defying gravity an appreciation of its beauty?
How else can humans make art? How would aliens make art? How else can an author explore the endless possibilities of art?
Time-tourism, Up the Line by Robert Silverberg
Mask-making art, The Moon Moth by Jack Vance’s
Holographic sculpture, The Martian Inca by Ian Watson
Music-and-light linkages, The Whole Man by John Brunner
Sartorial art‘s The Garments of Caean by Barrington J Bayley
Psycho-sculpture, The Second Trip by Robert Silverberg
Laser-based artform, The Rainbow Cadenza by J Neil Schulman’s
Dream recording, Dreaming is a Private Thing by Isaac Asimov
Cloud-sculpting, Vermillion Sands by DJ G Ballard
Apart from the SETI researchers who search for signals that are millions of years old, not one person today is a practising xenoarchaeologist. How can they be when there are no artefacts for them to study. This should not stop an author from giving it a go. The discipline can be monumental or incidental to the story, whether it’s uncovering an unknown civilisation, humanity’s alien origins or finding relics predating the cosmos, what better way to give a story some background than to have xenoarcheologists research the history of a place or people, here on a future Earth looking back at its past, on some exoplanet, or in deep space somewhere.
Elder Things, At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft
Multiple cyclical collapses of civilization, Nightfall, Isaac Asimov
Cylindrical alien starship, Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke
High Ones, Across A Billion Years, by Robert Silverberg
Heechee, Gateway by Fredrik Pohl
The Klikiss, Saga of Seven Suns (Book 1: Hidden Empire) by Kevin J. Anderson
Puppeteer homeworld, Ringworld by Larry Niven
Is it the architects leading the writers, or the other way around. Either way, whether you’re a human, transhuman or alien, you have to live somewhere.
From bionic architecture to autonomous buildings nothing sets the scene better than creating unique habitats for your characters to live in. Functional spaces can add synergy to any plot whether they are based inside subterranean slums or in space palaces.
Hyperstructures, Isaac Asimov’s Robot series
Urban Monads, The World Inside by Robert Silverberg
Citadels, Gregory Benford’s Galactic Center Saga
This science is a given. Even if the story doesn’t involve alien ecosystems, a near or far future world is an undiscovered country of new manifestations of living things, human or otherwise. What have we so far found living on this planet? Plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, slime moulds, archaea. From synthetic to quantum biology the list of organisms that can be conjured up is endless.
Udods, The Dark Light Years by Brian W. Aldiss
Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor Cycle
Geblings, Dwelfs & Gaunts, Wyrms by Orson Scott Card
Tendu, The Color of Distance by Amy Thomson.
Biopunk, Ribofunk by Paul Di Filippo
We are already living in Isaac’s world. Big data already allows governments and corporations to make educated guesses at what’s coming around the corner. As this information age deepens, how will it change the way we live? Does big data ever get too big to predict anything?
This discipline is also available to writers. This blend of trends, mathematical modelling, history and sociology and can open up a window into the future, turning anyone dedicated enough into a Nostradamus. Big History, Microhistory, Macrohistory; used as a major or minor plot device, how could any writer get it wrong.
The Prime Radiant, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series
The Technocore, Dan Simmons’s Hyperion Cantos
Universal Actuary, House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds
Let’s face it, we now have the technology. We can rebuild you. It’s rudimentary at the moment but scientists have proved it can be done. As more applications become possible it is hard to imagine any work of sci-fi without featuring some kind of cybernetics, cyborgs or bionics, especially if it’s already the norm in reality.
Cyberbrains, The Cybernetic Brains by Raymond F Jones’s
Brainships, Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Series
Bionic limbs Cyborg by Martin Caidin
Rat Things, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
Wetware, Arthur C. Clarke and Paul Preuss, Venus Prime series
Cyborg, Man Plus by Frederick Pohl
Lobster, Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling
Cryonics (suspended animation)
This is a contentious field. There is an existing industry around this type of thing. Has been for years. Now, no one has ever revived anyone, because… there is no actual technology that has been proven to work. But people a paying big bucks for a two-way ticket without the means for the return trip. And of course, business is catering for these people with technology based on assumptions, which are based on ideas developed by science fiction writers.
A rule I use in science fiction writing is, everything is possible in this cosmos, there is always a way. Maybe freezing body tissue isn’t the right path, maybe it’s something else. It’s a challenge, and that’s why this field makes the list.
Whether its curing existing diseases or encountering new ones, a bit or a lot of pathology doesn’t hurt a story or make for a bad plot device. Injecting fear and dread into any scenario can be as easy as prescribing an epidemiologist or two.
The scope in speculating future disease can again be endless, e.g microbial, fungal, genetic, psychiatric, crystalline extraterrestrial agents, or cyber infections
Space-whirly, Plague Ship by Andre Norton
Denver Madness, The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner
The Green Line of Death, The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton
Helico virus & Silent Untreated Disease Syndrome, Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia Trilogy
Vampiris pandemic, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Zombie plague, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks.
Snow Crash, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
The field of economics probably bores the average lit reader, and probably most sci-fi readers as well. I find that the best sci-fi reads are the ones that construct plausible alternative economic systems. Our lives are immersed and enslaved to whatever the current economic paradigm is in place, so much so that most people don’t even know that alternatives exist, that the economic system that they are bound to be only an invention, and that other (maybe better) systems exist.
The whole point of sci-fi is to get readers to consider new ideas, and the subject of economics is by far the most important in terms of changing things for the better. It can be the root of all evil, and the driver of all that can be good.
Anti-property anarcho-syndicalism, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
Ration stamps, enforced consumption, Midas World, Frederik Pohl
Wooden coins, The Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey
Psychohistory, Asimov’s Foundation series.