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About this book

Strange Divisions and Alien Territories explores the sub-genres of science fiction from the perspectives of a range of top SF authors. Combining a critical viewpoint with the exploration of the challenges and opportunities facing authors working in the field, contributors include Michael Swanwick, Catherine Asaro and Paul di Filippo.

Table of Contents

1. From Slide-Rules to Techno-Mystics: Hard Sf’s Battle for the Imagination

It is impossible to imagine a twentieth century without science fiction. It’s an age that began with the first aeroplanes, built from balsa wood and wire, and ended with deep-space exploration of the solar system by semi-autonomous unmanned devices and a global communications network that serves billions. To not explore the future ramifications of such rapid and sudden social and technological shifts through writing and other forms of art seems unimaginable.
Gary Gibson

2. Space Opera: This Galaxy Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us

It’s a misleading term, a throwback to the days of radio serials, of soap operas and horse operas. It was coined in 1941 as a derogatory cover-all for what the writer Wilson Tucker saw as the ‘hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn’ (entry on space opera in Clute and Nicholls, 1993): pulpy, landfill-grade science fiction, in other words, cranked out by the yard by writers with bills to pay. With time however (much like the initially insulting term ‘Big Bang’ in cosmology), the label has ceased to have overtly negative connotations. Space opera is now an accepted marketing category for a particular sub-genre of SF, and its current practitioners generally have no qualms about being identified with the form.
Alastair Reynolds

3. Aliens: Our Selves and Others

Aliens are what most people think of when they think of SF, alongside starships and rayguns. The genre is much wider than that, especially at the literary end, but these are its most well- recognized trademarks. However, not all aliens are the same. Their biology, culture and goals are as diverse as the stories they appear in and even though they are most commonly cast as the ‘bad guys’ they can take on any role. They can do or be almost anything; the only rule is that they’re not exactly like us.
Justina Robson

4. The Literature of Planetary Adventure

From the first days when humans sat down to tell stories, we’ve imagined tales of great heroes in exotic lands. Consider the Greek pantheon: larger-than-life gods and goddesses whose adventures read like fantasy epics lived by all-too-human celebrities; or Jötunheim in Norse mythology, a realm of enormous proportions, of mountains and frost giants, as terrifying as it is beautiful. Such mythologies have inspired writers throughout history and continue to enrich the work of modern storytellers. In planetary adventure, the tales may be set within the context of a space-faring civilization, but they take place primarily on another world or in a lost land, and retain many qualities of those earlier adventures.
Catherine Asaro, Kate Dolan

5. Infinite Pasts, Infinite Futures: The Many Worlds of Time Travel

As Mack Reynolds indicated as long ago as 1959, time travel is one of the most fecund sub-genres of speculative fiction, and one of the most interesting. The task of surveying the field within the confines of a mere few pages is daunting,1 and would be made even more so if the discussion were allowed to become overly inclusive. So, what am I excluding?
  • Movies and television. My subject is the printed word.
  • Reincarnatory novels, as typified by Joan Grant’s Winged Pharaoh (1937), Taylor Caldwell’s The Romance of Atlantis (1975; with Jess Stearn), both supposedly based on memories of past lives, and the acknowledgedly fictional Ferney (1998) by James Long.
  • Ghost stories. The haziness of the boundary is exemplified by W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe (1982). When historic baseball players start appearing on the narrator’s baseball field it’s reasonable to think of them as ghosts. But in one section, he seems certainly to be visiting the past: ‘I have been dropped, soft as a falling leaf, into a starry June night in the summer of 1955, Doc’s seventy-fifth year.’ Overall, though, while some time-travel stories involve ghosts, the ghost story seems outwith my remit.
  • Alternative histories. While some stories considered here involve the concept, the average alternative history tale isn’t sensibly discussed in terms of time travel.
  • Tales in which the time travel is to an imaginary past, like the various tales of the Incompleat Enchanter series (1940–54) by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt.
John Grant

6. Alternate History: Worlds of What If

Historians call it the ‘counterfactual’, that which goes against fact. Science fiction professionals called it ‘alternate history’. Everyone else calls it the ‘what-if’. What if your father had married his first fiancé instead of your mother? What if your grandfather hadn’t immigrated to the United States? What if your great-grandmother had died in the flu pandemic of 1918? What if, what if, what if.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch

7. The World of the End of the World: Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction

Every major religion has a tradition of apocalypse. In Judaeo-Christianity there are the prophesied ‘end times’, a period of extreme tribulation for humankind culminating in a final conflict between the forces of good and evil, Armageddon. The Earth will be purged, the righteous saved.
James Lovegrove

8. Does God Need a Starship? Science Fiction and Religion

Speaking as both an infidel and a SF writer, religion fascinates me. I don’t say so in a spirit of Dawkinsinian secular hostility, and God knows (if you’ll pardon the rhetoric) that I speak neither ironically nor condescendingly. Philip Pullman once rather splendidly said he was an atheist, but a Church of England atheist, and more precisely a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist. I could claim something similar. Though raised without religious faith by unbelieving parents, I am nevertheless ineluctably the product of my (broadly, Protestant) cultural milieu, not least on account of my massive emotional investment in a body of English literature shaped as much by the King James Bible and Anglican liturgical tradition as by anything else. SF, to which I have been powerfully drawn from an early age, and where all my own imaginative, creative efforts are focussed, is a particular case of the same thing.
Adam Roberts

9. No Place Like Home: Topian Science Fiction

Science fiction is commonly, albeit simplistically, seen as predictive fiction — stories that set out to predict the future. Indeed, Hugo Gernsback’s original attempt to define what he labelled ‘scientifiction’ identifies the genre as a vehicle for prediction:
By ‘scientifiction’ I mean the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story — a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision. (Gernsback, 1926)
Keith Brooke

10. Who Owns Cyberpunk?

In the beginning, nobody could decide what to call the cyberpunks. Various names were proposed: radical hard SF, the outlaw technologists, the eighties wave, the neuromantics and the mirrorshades group. You can see the problem. For a movement to catch on, it needs a catchy name. In 1983, a writer named Bruce Bethke had published a story called ‘Cyberpunk’ in the November issue of Amazing Stories. But although he can claim the original coinage, Bethke did not exercise his naming rights. Editor Gardner Dozois is generally credited with popularizing the term. Here he is, writing in 1984, ‘About the closest thing we have to a self-willed aesthetic school, would be that group of writers, purveyors of bizarre hard-edged high-tech stuff, who have on occasion been referred to as “cyberpunks.”’ (Dozois, 1985, p. 11).
James Patrick Kelly

11. Beyond the Human Baseline: Special Powers

A baseline human being — born today in pretty much the identical state that he or she would have manifested when plopped into the world some 400,000 or so years ago, at the dawn of our species — is a creature of well-established capacities and abilities.
Paul Di Filippo

12. Just Passing Through: Journeys to the Post-Human

Post-human SF deals with the next stages in human development: it asks the question what comes after Homo sapiens?
Tony Ballantyne

Postscript: Picking Up the Pieces

As you can no doubt now see, SF is a genre made up of twelve sub-genres, as discussed in the chapters of this book. No? Well of course not. For a start, what about the sub-genres that for various reasons didn’t quite make the cut? Military SF, slipstream, science fantasy, steampunk, comedy SF, soft SF, young adult SF and many more categories are worthy of consideration in just the same way we’ve looked at hard SF, alternate history, cyberpunk and the rest.
Keith Brooke
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