Archive for the ‘science fiction’ Category

L. Sprague de Camp (1907-2000) was a writer of the Golden Age of science fiction in the 1930s and 1940s. Not quite on the level with Asimov, Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke, but up there.

He wrote over a hundred books in the course of 50 years. He especially liked to write about time travel, ancient history, magic and pseudo-science, mainly in the form of stories about adventurers, but sometimes as non-fiction. He helped to keep Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian alive into the 1980s when it made it onto film.

Ballantine books says he is “a man with the mind of an archaeologist, the heart of an adventurer, and the soul of Indiana Jones.” He was also a scholar and a gentleman.

His single best book is probably “Lest Darkness Fall” (1939). It is about an archaeologist who suddenly finds himself in Rome back in the year 535 in the time of Justinian. He becomes an inventor….

Most of his books are good, light reads. While he is a good writer, he has never taken his writing so seriously as to think of it as art. For him it was just a way to make a living. Yet he did win the Nebula (1978) and the Gandalf (1995) as a grandmaster of both science fiction and fantasy. He also won the Hugo in 1997 for his autobiography.

Born in New York, he went to Caltech to get his engineering degree. During the Second World War he worked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard with Asimov and Heinlein: “For three-and-a-half years, Heinlein, Asimov and I navigated desks and fought the war with flashing slide rules.” He and Asimov became good friends.

De Camp is a materialist, a big believer in science who applies reason to everything – particularly to things like UFOs, creationism, Atlantis and racism.

Even when he writes about a world where magic or time travel is possible, he is thorough in applying strict reasoning to it. He has that kind of mind. He is also careful to get his facts right and make sure that the science of his science fiction is, in fact, science.

His love of facts and getting them right and his love of telling stories of adventure and stories of what-if is what makes him good. You feel like you are back in time or in his other world.

His love of facts and adventure took him round the world to places like Uganda, Iraq, Guatemala, India and Easter Island. When he was writing a book about ancient cities, he went to visit their remains first-hand.

It also took him all over Texas when he wrote about the life of Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan. His matter-of-fact truthfulness angered Howard’s fans. De Camp also wrote a book about another author he loved: H.P. Lovecraft.

De Camp wrote books well into his 70s.

He was married to the same woman for almost 70 years, his “rewrite gal”. He died on her first birthday after she passed away.

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Written: 2003
Read: 2007

“Pattern Recognition” by William Gibson is science fiction set in the present day. As Gibson saw much of the future that we are living in now back in the 1980s, it is interesting (and probably a good idea) to see how he reads the present.

When the book came out in 2003 Neil Gaiman said it was Gibson’s best book since “Neuromancer”. The Economist said it was one of the best books on the world power of advertising in the Internet age, even though it is not a business book.

It is part science fiction, part spy thriller. It features the Internet, 9/11, the new Russia ruled by money and crime lords, the London advertising world and a Tokyo that is still the future of mankind.

At the heart of the story is the footage: a film that is put out on the Internet frame by frame, but not necessarily in any particular order.

The main characters, each for reasons of his own, want to find out who is producing the footage. It is a mystery. On the Internet you can be anywhere and nowhere. But the closer they get to the truth, the stranger and more violent the story becomes. There is a reason the footage is a well-guarded secret.

Even though the story takes place in the present day, it is still science fiction.

First, it is science fiction in content: it looks at how science and invention affect society through the what-if power of fiction. In this case, Gibson shows how the new power of the Internet bypasses the old power of countries and armies.

Second, it is science fiction in style:

The characters think the way they do in science fiction: making sense of the world through reason, science and false analogies.

It also makes heavy use of description. While necessary for most science fiction, it is overkill for a story set in the present.

The language too is that of science fiction: his words are those of an engineer, not a poet. For example this:

Nothing at all in the German fridge, so new that its interior smells of cold and long-chain monomers.

and this:

… setting herself for auto-nod.

Yet Gibson does have something of the poet in him, far more than Clarke or Asimov or Niven ever did. This makes some of his description good. He does choose his words with care.

Most of the places in the book Gibson has seen first-hand. He is not imagining: he is reporting. That is why his descriptions seem so true-to-life.

They seem so true-to-life, in fact, that readers thought they could go out and buy the same bomber jacket that the hero wears: a Rickson’s MA-1. Gibson had made that up. But Rickson’s got so many requests that they starting making them! It is not the first time that Gibson’s fiction has become fact.

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William Gibson (1948- ) is a science fiction writer, famous for giving us the word “cyberspace”. His first book “Neuromancer” (1984) is still his best. It was the beginning of a new sort of science fiction called cyberpunk, which gave us, among other things, “The Matrix”. Many of the ideas in that film come from Gibson. One of his own stories was made into a film: “Johnny Mnemonic”.

In the 1980s he was a sort of dark prophet of the coming Internet age, writing about evil hackers and virtual reality when those things were still science fiction, not yet the stuff of newspaper articles.

He now writes fiction that takes place in the present day, but it is the world that has changed, not him. The present has caught up to his future.

As a boy Gibson discovered William S Burroughs (beat author) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (science fiction author) in the same week. His own fiction is a marriage of the two: science fiction with a beat or punk rock sense of the world. Thus the name “cyberpunk”. It is more Orwell than Asimov; more “Blade Runner” than “Star Trek”. Not a golden age of spaceships, but a troubled age of computers. Like ours.

His prose can be a bit hard-going, but he has a fertile mind. Reading Gibson helps you to understand the world we live in because he saw it coming.

Gibson’s father helped to build Oak Ridge, where the first atom bomb was made. He died suddenly when Gibson was six.

His mother moved them back to south-western Virginia where she was from. Gibson said it was like going back in time. He withdrew from the world into books: mainly science fiction (Dick, Zelazny, Bradbury, Burroughs) and the beat writers (Kerouac, Ginsberg and the other Burroughs).

His mother had the rare presence of mind to send him to a boys’ school in Arizona. This helped to bring him out of himself. But when he was there the other shoe dropped: out of the blue his mother died.

He left school and joined what became known as the counterculture. To avoid fighting in the Vietnam war he fled to Canada when he was 19, first to Toronto, then to Vancouver, where he lives to this day.

He had always dreamed of becoming a science fiction writer, but not till he had a family to feed did he get serious about writing for a living. He was not suited for anything else. This was 1977 when punk rock was in the air and he saw it as the next big thing. It guided his science fiction. His first stories appeared mainly in Omni magazine.

He comes out with a new book every three years or so. His latest is “Spook Country” (2007). It takes place in the same world as “Pattern Recognition” (2003), probably his best book after “Neuromancer”.

Gibson likes Borges.

He has written two so-so television shows for the “X-Files”. That they were not very good is no surprise: Gibson himself rarely watches television. He prefers to write instead.

Cyberspace: Although he credits Bradbury, Gibson was one of the first to understand that hooking computers together into a worldwide network was creating a new kind of world, a new space. Thus “cyberspace”.

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Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was an American writer of science fiction and science fact from the late 1900s. Although he wrote hundreds of books about science for ordinary people, he is famous for his science fiction. He is best known for his books and stories about robots, like “I, Robot” (1950), his Foundation series and the short story “Nightfall” (1941).

His robots were like men made of metal, not born of flesh. They had Three Laws of Robotics built into their brains:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

His robot stories show how these would play out in real life – or what happens when they are broken.

The Foundation series is about an empire among the stars that fell and how Hari Seldon shortened the dark age that followed through the science of psychohistory (made up by Asimov). Seldon designed the history of a new, future empire. Of course Seldon could not predict everything…

Asimov tied his books into a future history, which goes something like this in years AD:

  • 2007: I, Robot (1950)
  • 3500: Caves of Steel (1954)
  • 3501: The Naked Sun (1957)
  • 3503: The Robots of Dawn (1983)
  • c. 3700: Robots and Empire (1985)
  • c. 11,000: The Currents of Space (1952)
  • before 12,000: The Stars, Like Dust (1951)
  • 13,327?: Pebble in the Sky (1950)
  • 24,522: Prelude to Foundation (1988)
  • 24,530: Forward the Foundation (1993)
  • 24,567: Foundation (1951)
  • 24,878: Foundation and Empire (1952)
  • 24,944: Second Foundation (1953)
  • 25,066: Foundation’s Edge (1982)
  • 25,067: Foundation and Earth (1986)

Before becoming a full-time writer in 1954, Asimov was a scientist (and part-time writer). He did work on nucleic acid, one of the substances that life is built on.

Writing style:

While his writing is very clear and easy to read, it rarely rises to the level of art. His characters are a bit flat. You do not feel any real difference between them whether they are male or female, flesh or metal. But his stories are good and full of interesting ideas.

When writing about science, he writes just as if he were talking to you, not as if he were writing some long-winded, dry-as-dust schoolbook. Rather than listing facts and explaining theories, he prefers to tell stories. Science in a way is nothing but a great big mystery story.

He wrote about 468 books. He worked on two or three books at a time and finished about one or two a month. He could write 1,880 words a day. For him it was a labour of love.

Although it was not known at the time, he died of Aids from blood he received during a heart operation nine years before (when, unknown to doctors, Aids was spreading among New York’s heroin users).

His best books:

  • I, Robot (1950)
  • Foundation (1951)
  • Nightfall and Other Stories (1969)
  • Asimov’s New Guide to Science (1984)

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