Quote of the Moment

"What's Past Is Prologue." - William Shakespeare

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hard Science Fiction

Diving back into the sub-genres, today we have hard science fiction. So, what's the difference between hard and soft science fiction?

Hard science fiction stresses the science side of things more. Most fiction in this sub-genre is rooted in real science. In fact, some readers actually will take the time to check and make sure the science is right! I found a wonderful definition at WordIQ.com. It also mentions that hard science fiction doesn't stress characterization much. Although this can be true in many instances, it isn't always the case. Some hard science fiction likes to look at the human condition, to see exactly how science would impact the world.

Star Wars and Star Trek? Yep, that's all soft science fiction. Warp drives are not based in real science. Both shows could also be considered space opera. It is possible to have a space opera that is also hard science fiction, though. Got to love how convoluted genre labeling can get.

I leave you with a few good links I found concerning hard science fiction:

Hard SF - This is a great place to start for all things about hard science fiction. Tons of links, reviews, and information on the genre.

10 Books That Prove Science Fiction Just Got Harder - A great list of more recent books that are bringing hard science fiction to another level. I've read two on this list, and I highly recommend Lilith's Brood.

Why Is Hard Science Fiction So Unrealistic? - Hard science fiction may base itself in real science, but this article discusses how it's actually one of the more unrealistic science fiction sub-genres out there.

References for Hard Science Fiction Writers - Do you write hard science fiction or are considering it? A lot of good scientific links on this website for a starting point for research.

Interview: SF Author Hal Clement - This is an interview from 2003.

NEXT UP: A look at Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Spin - The "What If" Factor and Characters to Reveal Plot

SPOILER ALERT! If you have not read Spin there are spoilers in this essay.

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It's all about the plot, at least when it comes to hard science fiction, and Spin is no exception. Robert Charles Wilson does have a lot of character development in this novel, but the "what if" factor is the central core, the main draw.

What if you were watching the stars twinkle above you, then all of the sudden they disappeared? What if Earth was encapsulated in a bubble, one that not only blocked out the stars, but created a temporal anomaly, so time moved faster outside of it? And why? These are the questions addressed in Spin, and the novel spans over thirty years delving into these questions, with science and technology at the core of the exploration. The perfect set-up for a science fiction novel, and an interesting idea, in my opinion. We assume that the stars will always be in the night sky, but that might not always be the case, so it's a plot that can easily pull any reader in, since it's something that almost every one of us can relate to. Not only that, the novel incorporates the fear of an apocalypse, alien lifeforms, and science and technology based in fact, prominent and usually expected themes for hard science fiction.

We see the story of the Spin from Tyler Dupree's eyes, and he is inexorably connected to his two childhood friends, Jason and Diane. These characters are developed throughout the novel, the encapsulating of the Earth occurring when they are adolescents. While I felt they were rounded characters, I still had a hard time connecting to them. I think this is because the characters are merely there to reveal the plot, to show the scientific and religious responses to the Spin membrane. It's too convenient that our protagonist happens to be friends with both Jason and Diane, since it's through them that he learns anything. Tyler is pulled around by his friends for most of the novel, doing what they wish, and not having much of a desire of his own in the world.

Jason is a genius--this, and the political connections his father has, puts him square in the middle of the project to study the Spin membrane. Anything Tyler learns about the science or the Hypotheticals (the name given to whomever encapsulated the Earth) comes from Jason. At times, it feels over the top that Jason would even be sharing this information with Tyler. They don't see each other for years, Tyler graduates from med school, and out of the blue Jason wants to get everyone together for a mini-reunion of sorts. When Tyler arrives, though, Jason reveals his excitement and fears about what they've discovered, sharing classified information. "'I'm sorry. I know this sounds cryptic. I'm not supposed to be talking about these things at all. With anyone.' 'You're making an exception in my case?' 'I always make an exception in your case.' He smiled. 'We'll discuss it over dinner, okay?'" (64). The learning of information, especially in the first part of the novel, seems contrived, and it's as though Tyler is merely the tape recorder that Jason reports to. This is a key element on how the characters are used to reveal the plot--even though depth of character exists, they feel like pawns to extrapolate what's going on with the world.

Of course there's not just a scientific side to things. The human condition and reaction is also a valid exploration in science fiction, and that's where Diane comes in. She loses herself to religious fanaticism, entrenching herself into a cult of sorts initially, then chaining herself to a husband who devoutly seeks to be redeemed by God, to be rewarded when the end of the world arrives. At the beginning, we're told that Diane is almost as smart as her brother, Jason. That all fell apart for me further into the novel, though. She becomes submissive, doing what her husband tells her, not thinking for herself--her smarts disappear along with the stars. It's as if she's merely a tool, so Tyler sees the religious and human reaction to the Spin. Eventually she's fleshed out more, but it takes a special drug to bring her genius back.

It's interesting to look closely at how a hard science fiction novel works. The "what if" and the plot drive the story, using the characters as speakers and observers. Even though the plot is the central focus and the characters take a bit of a back seat, Spin shows us that those characters can still be imagined well and rounded out. I prefer to read stories that place character before plot, but I can see the benefits of the opposite in hard science fiction.

Works Cited

Wilson, Robert Charles. Spin. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 2006.

NEXT UP: Hard Science Fiction.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Urban Fantasy

Over the last decade, there has been a takeover of speculative fiction from the urban fantasy genre. We can barely turn around without stepping on the toes of a vampire that sparkles.

In class, we recently discussed what exactly urban fantasy is. From everyone's research, it's obvious that the definition of this genre isn't clear, and that there are as many takes on it as there are people who write it. I think that might because it's still growing and coming into its own.

My definition? I think its synonymous with contemporary fantasy--a fantasy that takes place in current day. It's our world, with magic or some other fantastic element thrown in. Of course, the story tends to take place in a city, or at least a town (as was pointed out in class discussions, the Sookie Stackhouse novels are more rural, not a city, but still considered urban fantasy).

As mentioned, though, there are many other definitions out there. All you need to do is a simple internet search on urban fantasy and you'll find a wealth of debate and viewpoints.

Here are some links I came across in my research that I found interesting:

All Things Urban Fantasy is a blog that reviews and discusses urban fantasy (as well as paranormal romance). It seems like a good place to go if you are looking for opinions on more recent urban fantasy.

Carrie Vaughn wrote an article for Tor.com in 2010; Urban Fantasy Recommendations. It's always great to see what other writers think is good in the genre.

Is This the Year Urban Fantasy Conquers Science Fiction? - This article was back from 2009. So what do you think? Has urban fantasy taken over the speculative fiction genre? The statistics they discuss are interesting. Urban fantasy has seen a big boom in recent years.

On the Geeks of Doom website, they have a Top 10 List for urban fantasy and horror books in 2010. One of the Dresden Files books is on the list!

Origin of Urban Fantasy? is a blog post from 2008 discussing the where urban fantasy has its roots.

Urban Fantasy Cliches is an article from 2010. We all want to avoid cliches, and if something is overdone enough, it'll get corralled into that category. One of the things mentioned on a couple sites was how cliche the cover art for urban fantasy has become.

NEXT UP: A look at the novel Spin.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Storm Front - Do You Believe in Magic?

SPOILER ALERT! If you have not read Storm Front there are spoilers in this essay.

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Thirsting for a bit of magic based in our own world? Want a detective mystery along with your fantasy, where the stakes are raised in almost every chapter? Storm Front by Jim Butcher has all this, as well as a wonderfully quirky main character. I found it a quick and enjoyable read, and any problems I came across were tiny and overshadowed by the good stuff.

Harry Dresden is the only private detective wizard in Chicago, and all he wants to do is help people. Unfortunately, his desire doesn't pay the rent. Even at the beginning, everything isn't rosy for Harry--aside from his money problems, the White Council is waiting for him to slip up, so they can throw down a death sentence, and most people have an aversion to magic. Butcher does a wonderful job setting up Harry's character, dragging the reader in right away with Harry's problems.

Once the police ask Harry to help with a murder investigation, and a shy client procures Harry's services, money trouble is the least of his worries. A big-time mobster attempts to convince to ignore the case, a reporter tries to drag the story out of him, the wizard committing murders marks Harry next for execution--not to mention all the little things thrown into his path. When we talk about a writer torturing his or her characters, this is a prime example. Butcher throws everything at Harry, upping the suspense almost in every chapter. And it's great. I felt for Harry, wanted to know how he was going to get out of each situation, knowing that once he did there would be yet another roadblock in his way. Even near the end, when Harry is finally off to face the bad wizard, something happens to thwart him from his goal. This is the way to bring suspense into a novel, by pushing your protagonist to his limits and beyond.

Even though this is a fantasy, readers feel that it's rooted in our world. Butcher drops in references that are clearly from our time--most of these references develop the main character. Since this is first person, we're in Harry's head the whole time, so the particular references he thinks of reveal who he is, and therefore, in essence, do double duty. The one that made me laugh is when a storm whips up outside, and Harry gets up, his apartment dark, the rain battering on the building, and then, "There came a knocking, a rapping, at my chamber door" (176). The Poe reference is priceless, and it fits Harry's character to a tee, since we learn at the beginning he spends most of the time in between cases reading paperbacks.

The biggest thing I noticed, though, when first delving into Storm Front was the magic system. As with many of the things in this novel, the base is from our own world--Harry's magic is rooted in pagan belief systems. I know not everyone will notice this, but I definitely did, and it's one of the things that drew me in and made me smile. Some of the instances that stood out for me were Harry's talk about magic as life, his mention of "As above, so below" (20), the pentacle used as a talisman because of his faith in magic, and the energy direction utilized in his spells, especially drawing from the storm itself. Since the magic system is derived from some ideas of magic in our own world, it made me comfortable and accepting of the use of magic in the novel.

Those little quibbles I mentioned earlier? Well, I felt the word "just" was overused, and that might be because I've been scrubbing it from my own manuscript lately. The only other thing was a small plot hole slip with the pentacle. When he visits Bianca the vampire, he puts it on the table when he stands down. Yet, when he leaves, there is nothing in the text that says he picks it up again and takes it with him. It's later around his neck, one of the last things he has left to fight against the bad wizard. Tiny hiccups, yes? The novel more than makes up for it.

Character, suspense, and a magical detective story set in our world, Storm Front has a lot going on to draw in many different types of readers. I fully intend to continue reading this series to see what Jim Butcher has in store for Harry Dresden next.

Works Cited

Butcher, Jim. Storm Front. New York: New American Library, 2000.

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NEXT UP: Urban Fantasy