The Torchship Trilogy

New SF author Karl Gallagher dropped me a note last week that offered me copies of his first work, a novel sequence: Torchship, Torchship Pilot, and Torchship Captain. He explained that the ideas I expressed in The Deep Norms of SF helped form his ideas about writing.

Since that is part of the effect I was hoping for when I wrote the essay, I told him so and remarked on my first reaction when I stumbled over these books while browsing Amazon. My thought was “Hmmm…looks like someone tried to write a high-quality Heinlein pastiche. And maybe succeeded…”

Karl replied “I certainly aimed at a ‘Heinlein tribute.’ Whether it’s ‘high quality’ I’ll leave to others.” The following review is a considerably expanded version of my reply to him.

Mission accomplished, Mr. Gallagher. These books are indeed quite a high-quality Heinlein tribute. Not without flaws, but quite excusable ones in a new writer.

In this future, humans live in the shattered aftermath of what they call the Golden Age. They are spread out over dozens of terraformed worlds connected by stargates, but Earth and the worlds nearest it are long lost. They were lost in the Betrayal, infested now by hostile artificial intelligences that threaten to overrun what remains of humanity. One of the big questions most people try not to think about is…why haven’t they?

Gallagher’s world-building is impressive even at first glance, and gets more so as the sequence develops. He gets good mileage out of the realization that there wouldn’t be one human response to the AI threat but several, corresponding to and generating different political choices. I don’t think the major premise – future human societies restricting technology out of a justified fear of hostile AIs – has been done quite so thoughtfully before.

The Heinlein callbacks are well done. Disconnected Worlds ships use specialized analog computers – glorified slide rules – for navigation so nothing Turing-complete will be available for the AIs to subvert. The bridge scenes echo those in Heinlein’s Starman Jones (1953) without being imitations. I’m probably not the first reader to suspect that the whole trilogy might have originated with the author remembering them and wondering “Hmmm…given what we know now, how could this actually happen?”

The protagonist, Michigan Long, could be Friday’s kid sister – a spy under cover as starship crew. When she signs on to the torchship Fives Full, Captain Schwartzenberger is quite recognizably one of the Old Man’s gruff, competent old men.

They manage to not be cardboard cutouts, though. The characterization in general is good enough for SF. Heinlein himself probably wouldn’t have done much better, but standards have risen since his time and I told Gallagher he’d need to up his game a bit to compete with today’s A-list.

I also told him not to worry too much about this or sacrifice what he’s good at – just learn by practice. SF that gets too deep into character study almost always fails at the things SF uniquely needs to be good at. I suggested he study Lois Bujold as an example of the right level of investment.

The plotting is quite good and gets better as the sequence continues. We get a wider and wider view of the setting and its problems, and start to sneak up on the central mystery around the Betrayal. The reveals are well handled and make sense as they arrive.

One thread that I particularly liked is around the Terraformers, a spacegoing caste that has retained Golden Age technology and bioengineered themselves for increased intelligence. Their giant ships edit worlds, they still work with AIs…and they hold some vital clues without quite knowing it.

The ride is a lot of fun. The biggest flaw, I think, is that there is a bit more sex slathered on than the armature of the plot can support without creaking. Later Heinlein did this too and it’s not something to emulate. These books would have been better if that aspect were dialed down just a little.

That said, one of the sexual/romantic subplots gets into some surprisingly bittersweet subtleties. There’s a seductress who is as much a victim as the diplomat she is set to trap – her masters know their target and have selected her so that she is quite likely to fall in love with him. Which she does, even as he deliberately springs her trap knowing that if he refuses her the next snare is likely to be nastier and more difficult to free himself from. The intertwined elements of helpless mutual love, guilty knowledge, and the doom both know is hanging over the relationship are well realized and quite poignant.

Everything builds up smoothly to the biggest reveal, the return to lost Earth to confront the true nature and origins of AI hostility. Gallagher plays the game fairly and well; if you’ve been paying attention and thinking you may anticipate one of the central resolutions (I did), but there are enough surprises that the others are rewarding.

Overall this is a fine evocation of Golden Age story values and well worth your time. I look forward to more from this promising author.

66 thoughts on “The Torchship Trilogy

  1. Another thing worth (in my mind) to imitate from Lois McMaster Bujold is that she can write a long series (like the Vorkosigan saga) without it being tiring, and without the author being tired of the series. Probably its because of one-two punch of drama followed by comedy.

    P.S. Generally authors improve more and more as they write…

  2. An encouraging review. I’ve been looking for some fresh, interesting scifi for a while…

    $15 for the trilogy on Kindle – SOLD! :)

    Time to settle in for a good read….

  3. @ESR

    >and has as its most particular reader experience the sense of conceptual breakthrough – of having understood the universe in a new and larger way

    Hmmm, I get it now why you don’t share my enthusiasm for Jerry Pournelle’s military SF. What Pournelle was focusing on was exploring a very Classical understanding of psychology, sociology, political science and suchlike, human nature and behavior in a social context – which is also what I like to focus on – in the framework of replaying historical events or elements thereof in futuristic contexts. A good example was the novel that got republished in Riding The Red Horse: the Spanish Civil War casted in the future, but in practice it was a whole lot more about exploring how communist revolutionaries roll, what do they tend to screw up in military leadership such as being overly puritan about the ideological allegience of officers and suchlike.

    This was not really about the universe. This is about Pournelle thought that the Spanish Civil War demonstrated some elements of a Classical understanding of human nature and the only reason to put it in the future was, IMHO, that in an actual historical novel using real events to illustrate some points is difficult as reality is rarely that straightforward, and writing quasi-alt-history fanfic is just uncool, so putting it on planet whatever and calling it SF is better. This is indeed not really SF. I think it is a very good thing, but it is some other genre. It is a way for history and Classical social science fans to show up and say “see we can also modernize, we like spaceships and stuff now”. Which sort of describes me ;)

    In the preface to Empire and Republic, Pournelle gives us a standard 101 course on the Classical view of the cycle of constitutions, how republics fall, the novel itself is obviously an illustration of it all. This is a good thing but not strictly SF.

    The Kzin stuff – introduced by Niven but the best novels were from Pournelle – is actually fairly close to SF. It is the examination of honor cultures – the honor code of barbaric warriors, but in an exaggerated way because the Kzin species has evolved out of predators, are in fact still predators, so the whole “viking” ethic can be dialed up to 9 when it is about them. Besides the general fuck-yeah berserker coolness of it all, again it illustrates important lessons like how such cultures undermine themselves by pulling down intelligent leaders. So if you see it as “how intelligent predators might conceivably roll” it is SF. Change one variable about humans – evolved out of predators, not omnivorers – and see the results, yes, that is SF. If you see it as “an illustration of barbarian codes of honor and social structures, bound in ratcat skin”, then it is not SF.

    To like Pournelle one has to be a bit more interested in humanities than in the hard sciences (Pournelle doesn’t even give a rat’s ass about how his CoDominium spaceships are propulsed) and have a definitely Classical outlook at them. Pournelle was a “social psychology teacher at the Jesuit school” type of writer.

    I wonder who his favorite writers were.

    • Read ‘Building the Mote in God’s eye’ for an exceptionally well-twerked ranine patooty donation. Dan Alderson was a real physicist.

      • Pournelle was smart enough to know he couldn’t create high-quality FTL Handwavium, so he got Alderson to give him and Niven some primo stuff. The Alderson Point allows everything but the FTL itself to proceed with tech we already have or can reasonably project from efficiency gains over known tech. And lots of other writers have ripped it off to various degrees because it’s so good.

        • >And lots of other writers have ripped it off to various degrees because it’s so good.

          Indeed. The history of SFnal star drives can be usefully divided into before “The Mote In God’s Eye” and after, because tramlines solved a real dramatic problem. It’s tough to have dramatic positional warfare in space with point-to-point star drives – there can’t be anything really like a blocking action, movement is too unconstrained. Today, effectively nobody writes those any more.

          • The Honorverse is an exception, though only partially: wormholes and wormhole junctions carry a lot of traffic, but it is feasible to travel through hyperspace away from them.

            • But the “hyper limit” conveniently means you have to drop to normal space when you get close enough to a star for most things worth fighting over (except goods in transit, and even then Space is Big and it’s tough for pirates or blockaders to anticipate exactly where a freighter could be.

            • Cinnabar series allows FTL pretty much upon going exoatmospheric, and arrival is permitted (though not all that safe) in “cislunar” space. Pursuit is possible but combat is not when supraluminal.

              (This is all in aid of writing Aubrey & Maturin IN SPACE, for which it works well enough)

            • The Honorverse is exception because its Hornblower in SPACE – and the physics of FTL drive was invented to allow naval-like (wet navy, that is) action.

            • Perhaps attempting to make a sci-fi setting conform to some Earthbound historical setting by limiting the proposed FTL is a limiting choice. Don’t try to force interstellar FTL to be an ocean. Make up some rules that are natural, then work out the consequences (that would be the sci-fi thing to do!)

              Interestingly enough, any form of unconstrained FTL drive is also a way to travel backwards in time. Special relativity makes sure of it: If you can end up outside of your initial light-cone by whatever method, you can time-travel. Oddly, one of the only settings to treat this specifically (whether intentionally or not) is Star Trek: It seems in that setting, every starfaring nation is well aware of the potential, but no one does it because they want to stick to their native time-lines (they also pull the many-worlds alterable-history card in that setting).

              • PS: The lack of any universal reference frame for “instantaneousness” is one of the things that annoys me about a lot of the pop-sci reporting on quantum correlation effects. Relativity is pretty well established – instantaneous *in what frame*, or fix the inconsistencies in your theory!

                • If ever write my SF novel, I have a plan to deal with that. I have somewhat-Alderson-Point-but-artificially-created nodes in a hyperspace travel network, with non-instantaneous (but to the traveler, subjectively near-instantaneous) travel between them. Even pure information transmitted through a hyperlink takes a certain amount of time to go from end to end, based on a variety of factors that include the relative velocity of the frames of reference at the endpoints.

                  The idea is to make closed timelike curves impossible by effectively imposing sort of a universal reference frame defined by the hyperlink endpoints in geosynchronous orbit around the Earth (the nodes have replaced and extended the role of communications satellites, so it was the natural evolution for them to take over the Clarke Belt) and a few other major multi-link nodes in the network.

                  • You don’t actually need a single universal privileged frame for time-travel-free FTL. You just need a irrotational, differentiable field that assigns a slower-than light velocity to every point in specetime. If your field meets these conditions, any given point in spacetime will be part of a slice of spacetime in which any two points are separated by a spacelike spacetime interval. If an FTL jump from a given point in spacetime must go to another point on the same slice as that point (or to some point on a later slice), then causality will be preserved, even though different points on the same slice may have a different privileged frame, and different points on the same worldline may have a different privileged frame.

                    • Since anything moving faster than the speed of light in any frame of reference must also go backwards in time in some frames of reference, the wormhole network necessarily privileges some frames over others. No, it’s not a single universal privileged frame, but that’s why I said “sort of” to indicate that the fact that there’s some wiggle room. Basically, the moment one stable wormhole is created, it forecloses the creation of other wormholes within the light cones of its endpoints that would create timelike curves. It’s sort of a first-come-first-served privilege principle. (And even that rather begs the question of what happens first, as simultaneity itself doesn’t exist in Relativity.)

          • Hence my liking for Peter F. Hamilton’s otherwise kind of mediocre Commonwealth Saga: he threw out ships entirely (initally) and ran trains through portals. That at least made an interesting novelty.

          • John C. Wright’s last series with TOR has interstellar travel all done at slower than light speed. Of course, the entire series “Count to Eschaton” takes place across an immense timespan. Interstellar travel (at least by human) are done via laser propelled lightsail. And interstellar war actually have agreement to slowed the the opposing forces. The first book covers about 200 years in the life of our hero. Book 2-3 covers 40k years. And time span just goes further and further out.

      • But the Alderson drive was not part of the CoDominium, Falkenberg series. If I remember right. And the Bussard ramjet – perhaps more of a Niven thing – also not mentioned. If I remember right in e.g. The Prince of Mercenaries pretty much all the action is dirtside and there is little mention of how they got there except that it was on FTL ships.

        Naturally in the Mote it was all about the Alderson drive but that timeline is a good 1000 years later than the CoDominium.

        Do I suspect right that in the Mote Niven supplied the hard science oriented parts and Pournelle the humanities oriented ones?

        • The CoDominium uses the Alderson drive. It’s a plot point in one black hole story; otherwise the stories are set on pretty-Earthlike planets and the FTL is just handwaving to get them from one planet to another.
          Pournelle worked at Boeing and did space science stuff. He was good at humanities stuff too, but the orbital launches in Exiles to Glory or King David’s Spaceship didn’t come from Niven.

  4. I haven’t read the book yet, but there is one thing I’d like to point out: digital computers might be Turing-complete, but there is one significant limitation – Turing machine has infinite memory, digital computer doesn’t. So beside analog tools, digital computers with limited memory could not be AI-fied.

    • >So beside analog tools, digital computers with limited memory could not be AI-fied.

      Conclusion doesn’t follow, After all, the AIs themselves only use finite memory.

      • I’m sorry, that was not what I wanted to say. What I mean is that with severely restricted memory you cannot have AI, even if the computer itself is Turing-complete.

                • I’ve always been a fan of the term “Combat Epistemologist” from one of the Laundry books.

              • > Specifically, this entry.

                Take people convicted of a capital offense and sentence them to (x*2) interdictions where x is the average number of ships/contacts that show up between a problematic one.

                Existentialists (well, some of them) argued that when one made a decision one made it for all of mankind. This means that if someone decides that other peoples lives are cheap, we should respect their valuation and force them to live up to it.

                • A nicely practical solution, but I suspect the Empire of the Star would not go for it – in their calculus, there’s all the difference in the universe between condemning someone to be deleted, and condemning them to a (subjective) eternity in some perversion’s hell. The former is justified, as the social equivalent of excising a neoplasm, the latter is absolutely not. (It’s an infinite consequence for a finite act.)

                  • Not only that, but you don’t know how many interdictions there will be between problematic ones, and a convict sentenced to be sent on such missions until he is killed or subsumed might decide to take society with him and not give an honest answer on a problematic interdiction.

              • I was not previously aware of The Eldraeverse. Thank you very much for pointing at it! Any website has my vote when I can encounter this after just a bit of browsing:

                “The ancestors of the Photonic Network dates back to one of the Precursor periods (specifically, the passage of the spinbright circumgalactic migration through the area of the Worlds in roughly -102,000), but since said ancestors weren’t sapient at the time, they didn’t pay much attention to recording historical information. (Trying to get useful information out of their ancestral data is like, for example, trying to deduce the 21st century from a random Linux machine’s /var/log/syslog.)”

  5. > future human societies restricting technology out of a justified fear of hostile AIs –
    > has been done quite so thoughtfully before.

    Haven’t read the trilogy yet, but remember in Dune that the Mentats were created because of AIs running amok. In that universe the mentat/AI bit was a minor bit of historical back story. IIRC Herbert’s son was cashing^w fleshing out the backstory in a series of novels. I read one or two of them before getting distracted.

    Probably give this series a look.

  6. Thanks for this recommendation. Your writings on SF are always welcome.

    With regard to Bujold’s series, I think a key part of her success is that each novel has a satisfactory conclusion. You’re never left with a cliffhanger. Some novels might require some background provided by previous novels, but there are multiple entry points into the series, which can’t be said for a lot of other series I’ve read lately (most of them leave so much unresolved at the end of the first volume that I’m often not that all interested in revisiting the series).

  7. Looks interesting – a similar but not identical premise to the “Eclipse Phase” RPG setting. I’ll have to look into this

  8. Looking at the excerpts, I find myself put off by the stories being good Heinlein pastiches. Not because of the pastiche part, but because of the Heinlein part. Even though I respect Heinlein’s accomplishments, I’ve found that I just don’t like his stories very much. I didn’t even like them very much back in the “golden age of science fiction” – i.e. when I was 14.

    Something about Heinlein’s stories rubs me the wrong way. The odd thing is that stories by other science fiction authors of roughly the same vintage (e.g. H Beam Piper) don’t have that effect on me.

  9. I’ll think about reading Gallagher.

    FYI – Starman Jones came out in 19_5_3. By 1963, it would have been seriously retro. Not just the computers that only know binary numbers, but the hobo-jungle opening, a lot more plausible 12 years from the Depression than after 18 years of post-WW-II boom. (Unemployment was 15% in 1940.)

  10. Offtopic: @ESR I remember you wrote about the Flynn effect, which is an important topic because very counter-intuitive, as culture is getting dumber. Well, finally someone actually looked at the details, and it seems while people indeed much better at remembering things, actual mental manipulation skills are getting worse, and that is how the average of IQ test results is rising.

    ” While short-term memory scores have risen in line with the Flynn effect, working memory ability has been declining”

    Maybe I am taking it too far but I imagine the “typical person” demonstrating this trend would be someone who remembers a lot of trivia about really dumb TV shows. But of course that is long-term, not short-term memory.

    So no, people are not getting smarter. Perhaps they are getting better at remembering long instructions at work and that is certainly useful, but not better at coming up with solutions to new problems.

    I don’t think aging is a good explanation.

    • Culture isn’t getting dumber, though. The average movie or television show has far more complex difficult-to-follow storylines than it did back in the Fifties or Sixties. The average comedy has more complex and rewarding jokes. The sort of ultra-continuity heavy storylines that used to be the province of niche genres like comic books are now mainstream. Even sitcoms like “The Big Bang Theory,” which are derided as dumb comedies, are much smarter than the sitcoms of the Fifties and Sixties. Children’s programming has made fantastic advances, even the simplest modern culture is leaps and bounds ahead of older stuff.

      Prose fiction hasn’t increased in intelligence nearly as much, but it certainly hasn’t gone down in quality. Modern YA books are easily on par with YA books from 50 years ago. Science fiction novels seem more complex than fifty years ago, although a lot of that is probably a function of their increased average length. I don’t read much li-fi, but it seems about the same.

      If I were to hazard a guess as to the decline in working memory, I definitely wouldn’t blame pop culture. I think it’s more likely that the increased regimentation of school might be the reason. Scholastic success today is based more on ability to follow instructions rather than creativity. Free play and other forms of creativity are replaced with repetitive coursework.

  11. Maybe I am taking it too far but I imagine the “typical person” demonstrating this trend would be someone who remembers a lot of trivia about really dumb TV shows.

    That’s the thing. Television has been getting smarter, too. Yes, on the sitcom side of things we have the inexplicable success of the idiotic The Big Bang Theory, but some of the most lauded TV dramas — Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad — have complex and intricate plots and deep backstories for the characters. And ordinary Joes and Janes are riveted by this material.

    It has, among other things, practically spelt the death knell for the traditional soap opera. Even kids’ cartoons are enjoying this effect. The whole reason “anime fandom” became a thing in the United States is because Japanese animation houses were producing material that was downright sophisticated compared to the bland, calculatedly inoffensive toy commercials the North American animators were making. Today, with the likes of Adventure Time and Steven Universe (and yes, Jay Maynard, even My Little Pony), studios here have more than caught up, while anime mostly rests on its reputation from the 80s and 90s.

    • I’ve noticed that the anime I happen to like all tends to be older stuff. The Dirty Pair is just plain fun. Ghost in the Shell could be interesting at times. Much of the modern stuff seems to be so formulaic that it’s painful. What happened to anime? Am I seeing the aftermath of some “golden age of anime” in the 80s/90s?

    • Are you sure these smarter than Mission: Impossible (1966-1973), the original Star Trek (1966-1969) or The Forsyte Saga (1967, my grandma really used to like that) ?

      As far as I can tell the traditional soap opera moved to Latin America and Turkey long ago and there weren’t any big ones produced in the US or UK after Dallas. I may be wrong though, I wasn’t following this closely.

      Kid’s cartoons my kid watches are positively terrible today, the ones you mention seem to never be on my TV, it is Peppa the dumbf*ck pig with his apparently negative IQ kid brother all the way down, then again my kid is 3 so I hope the menu gets better as she ages.

  12. I followed the link to your previous article about sf norms, and since it’s unlikely that anyone will read responses to that old article there, I’m posting one here.

    I agree pretty much 100% with your view that “classic” sf is the truest form of the genre. I agree less with the view that it’s the most popular, *at this moment in time,* for reasons I’ll articulate here.

    I would say that until about 2004, classic sf stories dominated the field; Gregory Benford’s THE MARTIAN RACE and Vernor Vinge’s A DEEPNESS IN THE SKY were two examples, right before sf took a drastic turn for the worse.

    While fans of the traditional sf have noted, for instance, the fact that Hugos no longer go to decent stories, they tend to blame this on ballot stuffing by the SJWs at WorldCon; however, they overlook a much larger factor.

    To wit: cSF is being swamped by multimedia garbage. The majority of people identifying as sf fans today know about Star Wars, Game of Thrones, anime, et al, and have no knowledge of classic sf authors such as Heinlein, Niven, and Anderson. Now, it should be noted that most of these people don’t have any ties to New Wave authors, either; but because of their ignorance of, and apathy toward, cSF, the “literary” types are able to dominate the field.

    As I see it, the turning point for the worse came when the rules for Hugos were changed to allow fantasy. Don’t get me wrong, fantasy is a perfectly good form of literature, but it is not SF and should have separate awards.

    In a way, it’s analogous to the way leftists support mass immigration, even from very illiberal societies, simply to swamp the increasingly conservative native vote.

    • I should add that there is another similarity to the immigration issue; namely, that many cSF types tend to have warm feelings about blurring the line between sf and fantasy, just as many Republican politicians have warm feelings about immigrants. There is, after all, a history of “Unknown Worlds”-type stories that mix outright fantasy with sf-style rationalism. The difference today, however, is that fantasy–and I would consider almost all multimedia to be fantasy, even if it has spaceships–at the time of Unknown Worlds was in its own ghetto. Nowadays it is a huge literary juggernaut, way bigger than sf.

    • >but because of their ignorance of, and apathy toward, cSF, the “literary” types are able to dominate the field.

      I think you don’t know what’s going on in indie e-book publishing. There, where response to actual customer demand is not mediated by literary-status-envy-afflicted gatekeepers at publishing houses, cSF is not merely alive and well but outselling the paper product. The Torchship Trilogy is actually representative there.

      • Enh…I’m not impressed for the most part. Indie work is less leftist than most of the gatekept stuff, but it seems to also be mostly poor quality. Maybe I’m not seeing the full picture.

        • @Ken @ESR Sturgeon’s Law, but also because when the cost of publishing is nearly zero the barrier to get published is obviously extremely low. Suppose the publisher has to spend 10 work hours reading it, discussing with the author, doing some editing, anything that has a good chance of generating a few thousand bucks of revenue worths that cost.

          In other words, you do need gatekeepers, you just need some better ones, not literature snobs.

          Eh, gatekeeper is not a correct term. Since _some_ people do buy and read that crap, gatekeepers somehow preventing those from getting published would be wrong in the utilitarian sense, and not a stable market equilibrium. What you need is not some gatekeepers but people who compile lists of what is actually good and deserves a look. You just need to have some better ones, not lit crit snobs.

          I and I think many people here would be very interested in for example ESR publishing top lists – top 100 favorite ebooks, top 100 favorite blogs, top 100 favorite food recipes and so on. The question is, how could we create some kind of an ecosystem where making these lists is rewarded and incentivized?

          I mean basically we need a Kickstarter type site, except that the only project funded is making these favorite lists, and they would be published on that very site, and instead of one target it would be more like a sliding target – for every $100 raised the person offers to add one more book or recipe or blog link to the favorite list with a short one sentence review maybe, starting with most favored, of course, so the funding dries up when he goes down long enough on the list that the rest does not seem too interesting.

          The idea came from wanting to ask Jerry Pournelle what his favorite books from other authors were as I really like his, and then he died just when I was about to get around to write that email…

    • I liked Anderson a lot. I read Niven in highschool (from my uncle’s attic), and didn’t really discover Heinlein until undergrad (my local library didn’t carry him.)

      The literary-vs-not culture battle in the background has gotten to be a little annoying to me. Yes, I understand the grievances of the authors involved, and what they’re rebelling against, but I hope they do a little more writing good sci-fi than getting sucked into the black-hole of yet-another-culture-war. Write good stuff. The gatekeepers are gone. I hope the indie authors collectively realize that getting sucked into drama detracts from creating things. (At least it seems that way to me).

      I liked the first two books in this Torchship series. I’m reading the third now that I’m alerted to it.

    • This is putatively a response to Ken, but I will be casting a wide net, and it is far longer than I expected it to be.

      To wit: cSF is being swamped by multimedia garbage. The majority of people identifying as sf fans today know about Star Wars, Game of Thrones, anime, et al, and have no knowledge of classic sf authors such as Heinlein, Niven, and Anderson.

      The Normies we shall always have with us. The price paid for being the subculture that dominates the direction of technology, therefore culture, therefore politics, is that the jocks and cheerleaders will try to come over and hang out at the cool kids table. However badly they may imitate us they are heading in the right direction, and some will be inducted into the proper mindset in the process.

      What might be called “popcorn SF”, or “bubblegum SF” spreading is a sign that we are winning, not losing.

      but because of their ignorance of, and apathy toward, cSF, the “literary” types are able to dominate the field.

      The literary True Ahhht doesn’t sell. How many copies of If You Were a Dinosaur My Love sold vs how many of A Darkling Sea? We can’t know for certain; the invaders don’t tell us their sales figures, which is in itself damning. For every Melancholia (15.9m box office) 3 Iron Man (585.2m, 623.9m, and 1.215b respectively) are made.

      And what ESR describes in Why the Deep Norms of SF Matter is relevant also:

      This is why SF readers – even inexperienced ones – often experience violation of the deep norms of cSF as a kind of dishonesty or malicious subversion. They can tell they’re being cheated of something even if they don’t know quite what. Forty years ago this feeling was often articulated against the New Wave by complaining that its works were “depressing” – which was true, and remains true of a lot of defective SF and anti-SF today, but doesn’t get at the actual root of the problem.

      And the Hugos are only relevant now as a negative advertisement.

      Now for my broader point: Do you think something like The Martian, or The Expanse would have been green-lit 20 years ago? I don’t mean basic SF, there is always some kind of SF on the market at any given time. I am talking about hard SF, which The Martian is undeniably, and The Expanse is much closer to than the average. Inception also casts a very long shadow.

      The reason this is relevant is because the production costs of TV and Movies are far higher than for a book. That these were green-lit, and then sold well (The Martian 630.2m) is in indicator that the standards that the audience expects – and that can be expected of the audience – have increased greatly.

      /me gets out his soapbox

      Now it is time to talk about videogames. It is ironic that ESR’s linked post was published in August 2014, the same month that Gamergate began. As in other mediums the values of SF are alive and well in games, except in this case I am familiar with enough instances to give multiple examples (translation: I am about to gush over several games I like).

      Kerbal Space Program. This does not have a story, it is Space Legos. KSP teaches the player how space works by throwing them into a sandbox and challenging them to do something.

      The Talos Principle. This is classic SF through and through. TTP is not based on a reveal that completely changes the player’s view of the universe: by the half way point the player will have figured out what is going on if they are paying any attention. But what it lacks in earth-shatter it makes up for in promotion of the values of SF: it is a celebration of sophonce, and of learning to understand the world. Not to mention that several times it rebukes the Humans are a Blight fools.

      Mass Effect. The premise of “An ancient evil of eldritch proportions threatens to destroy everything: go forth and punch it in the face with your space magic fist of doom.” dates back to the very beginning of videogames as a medium. On the surface Mass Effect looks like shooter-RPG #743. Looking past the immediate surface reveals layer after layer of well thought out SF worldbuilding. Though the codex doesn’t always match what is on screen, digging into it shows that the writers gave extensive thought to space opera tropes and their implications. Mass Effect does not have many McGuffins, and the ones it has are used very efficiently. We know that the writers were familiar with Atomic Rockets, as this famous scene shows (note the names of the soldiers). The Eldraeverse is heavily influenced by Mass Effect.

      Prey (2017). Like Mass Effect, Prey starts off with a trope as old as the hills: “You are on an isolated station. It is infested with monsters. Go.”. Like Mass Effect underneath that surface is layer upon layer of well-executed worldbuilding. It forces the player to answer the question: Destroy it all which will protect Earth, or take a chance and preserve the technology which will be needed for the next attack? It is possible to figure out The Reveal before the post credits scene, but only if the player was paying close attention. Notably Prey’17 takes one of the most reviled cop-out tropes in fiction and uses it in a way that adds to the story instead of detracting from it.

      Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Wait a minute; Star Wars isn’t SF, it is Fantasy with an SF veneer, why is a Star Wars game on this list? KOTOR plays the SF Game straight: there is an earth-shattering reveal, and you can figure it out beforehand if you are paying attention. But it also plays off against the player’s knowledge of how the Star Wars universe works, if the player just takes The Force as a catch-all explanation they won’t pick up on it (aside from a couple slightly too-obvious hints). The sequel KOTOR II: The Sith Lords goes deeper into the problems with the Star Wars universe. It must be noted that Chris Avellone wrote for both KOTOR 2 and Prey’17.

      Horizon: Zero Dawn. At first glance this is just dumb fun: post-apocolypse plus robot dinosuars (woo!). At second glance it looks like it will be an SJW Narrative-fest: The player is a Strong Female Character, who comes from a matriarchal society, and the level of diversity in the population would make New York look like an out of the way backwater. H:ZD is a triple-A games released in $CURRENT_YEAR, so yes there is infection. But each of the points I mentioned has a good reason behind it: the matriarchal society is clustered around an ancient vault door, the voice from which is female, and the tribe is no paradise. The player character has spent years training to fight and hunt so that she will be accepted in her tribe, has found some Old World tools that give her a huge edge, and from information found during The Reveal we know that she is a genius. Any more would be spoiler. H:ZD plays the SF Game straight: the best TL;DR is that it takes Mass Effect and The Talos Principle, plus an extra dose of actiony gameplay and puts them in a blender.

      But as far as “playing the SF game” goes, the 300-ton juggernaut is the Bioshock series. Like its spiritual ancestor System Shock 2 or its spiritual descendant Prey’17, Bioshock 1 puts the player in an isolated location infested with enemies. But instead of a space station or starship, BS1 puts the player in an underwater city called Rapture, aka: Galt’s Gulch realized. Unlike those who are infected with literary status envy the writers of Bioshock wrote a story that critiques Atlas Shrugged without getting preachy; things happen for logical reasons, characters do what they do for reasons that follow from their nature. And the reveals follow the rules: for the main reveal the player is fed their first piece of data within the first 30 seconds, and that continues with the player learning details of dozens of seemingly unrelated plot threads until the end of the second act. At that point the player (literally) drops into a room, and is confronted with a final set information which screams at the player to solve it. A couple minutes later one of the most famous plot twists in videogame history happens. Another parallel to “classic SF” is that the characters are in many ways megaphones for one concept or another, not navel-gazing projections of True Ahhhht.

      Bioshock 2 was made by a different team, and unfortunately it has many problems with both the software and the flow of the plot. BS2 is also not based around an earth-shattering reveal like the other entries in the series. The villain is switched out as well: instead of BS1’s Ayn Rand expy or con-man, BS2 has Sophia Lamb, a Randian villain so true to the form that you would not even notice if she was transplanted into one of Rand’s works. One of BS2’s focuses is on the limitations of Utopia as a concept: “Utopia cannot precede the Utopian.”, calling back to the comments upthread on The Eldraeverse.

      Bioshock 2: Minerva’s Den (the DLC for BS2) returns to the earth-shatter focus of BS1; drip-feeding the player with information until giving the player a final piece that challenges the player to solve the plot. Then waits several minutes for the final boss to be defeated before pulling back the cover.

      Bioshock Infinite moves into a different setting, but it still abides by the rules: within the first half hour the player has been told the reveal, but in a way that they will mistake it for something else. From there the drip-feed continues, with numerous small reveals building throughout the game until in the last 15 minutes it does the standard last information dose, wait, then drop the reveal. But that reveal also serves as the last infodump for the final reveal, gives a short wait as the player character figures out a way to right what once went wrong, and in the last minute drops the final reveal. I’m not going to go into BSI: Burial at Sea, because it is more complicated and retconny (and controversial). It’s also long past time to wrap this up.

      The point of all this is that even if none of these would compare with something from Greg Egan, these are still good science fiction. And they have a wide range of hardness. Not everything has to be the most bleeding edge, and the subject at hand is the health of the SF culture: It is healthy, and good SF sells. In keeping with the comparisons between the literary world and SF there is a similar situation in videogames. There is a genre of games that is derided as “walking simulators”, where all the gameplay is removed in favor of some typically navel-gazing story. And big surprise the journos never fail to sing their praises. But they aren’t fun. Of course we know that the journos are incompetent anyway.

  13. “SF that gets too deep into character study almost always fails at the things SF uniquely needs to be good at.”

    I’m not sure what “good characterisation” looks like. I do know that if reviews complain a lot about the characters then I am quite likely to enjoy the story (see e.g. Greg Egan’s work). I sometimes complain about characters who do obviously illogical and self-destructive things, whether in the service of “character development” or just to drive the plot forward.

    Will definitely take a look at these novels. My other fear when starting a new series is that the world-building turns out to depend upon the author’s leftist assumptions. That’s probably not a risk, here.

    • >esr, this article’s RSS feed shows a link to a porn site.

      Hmmm…not when I chase it. Looks like an RSS feed as it should.

      We recently fond and removed a link to a Russian porn site that had been inserted in a footer widget, though. That was removed last week.

      • I just pulled the feed within the last hour or so and the RSS reader rendered a thumbnail of a girl in a bikini in a suggestive pose in the preview text. Maybe the code is detecting “local” queries so it can hide better?

        • >I just pulled the feed within the last hour or so and the RSS reader rendered a thumbnail of a girl in a bikini in a suggestive pose in the preview text.

          I think I just found this and killed it – bogus widget in my sidebar. Try again?

          • It’s in the regular page source also

            (removed some html tags so it will appear)

            and citeTorchship Captain. He explained that the ideas I expressed in The Deep Norms of SF helped form his ideas about writing.
            a href=”” rel=”nofollow”/a
            Since that is part of the effect I was hoping for when I wrote the essay, I told him so and remarked on my first reaction when I stumbled over these books while browsing Amazon. `

  14. Eric: Didn’t you write an introductory sci fi guide a while back? I can’t seem to track it down in the archives.

    I enjoyed sf when I was younger, and am only now returning and trying to fill in both the “classics” I missed and the best of the newer authors. If anyone has suggestions on either count, or can direct me to a useful reading list, I would be very grateful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *