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A debate and discussion thread from your views, between Zendexor, Dylan Jeninga and John Michael Greer.

It was sparked off in the OSS Diary when Zendexor confessed he'd forgotten the name of a Bradbury story.  From Dylan's reply the discussion branched into a miscellany which eventually touched upon:  blue Martian rabbits  >>  Nazis  >>  astral biologists  >>  gawions  >>  hard-and-soft-boiled sf  >> reality-engineering...

Zendexor [7 Sept 2016]:  A Ray Bradbury story (the name of which I've forgotten) has as its characters the shades of great authors of imaginative fiction.  These shades are all living on Mars, for some reason.  And their degree of realness, of solidity, depends on how many readers they have on Earth; so they come a-cropper when their readership declines.  It's a way-out plot.  To some extent it overlaps in theme with an Edmond Hamilton tale called Wacky World, likewise set on Mars.  

Dylan [8 Sept] After digging though my copy of The Martian Chronicles, I found that the story you mentioned in your diary is The Exiles! I believe it was originally titled The Mad Wizards of Mars, a very Burroughsian title.  

Also, I've been enjoying Man of the World! Any word on a publication date?

Zendexor [8 Sept] Many thanks for the reference. It surprises me that the tale was in The Martian Chronicles; it never occurred to me to look for it there - the tale seemed more like a standalone one-off.

Man of the World, I'm told, is coming out in "a month or two". I am promised four more (not three more, as I previously thought) chapters to put on the site, to reach a natural break in the story, after which, we will have to buy the book to find out what happens. Cunning policy.

I can see the connection with Earth building up, very indirectly, and I hope the outcome vindicates my decision to include the book in the genre of works discussed on the site - though this is somewhat of an act of faith! And an act of hope, that by supporting the author in this way-out venture we'll afterwards get a more mainstream OSS book in the form of a sequel to Uranian Gleams.  

Dylan [9 Sept]My mistake- The Exiles in fact appears in The Illustrated Man, not The Martian Chronicles. My copy of Chronicles is called The Complete Martian, and contains at the end all the Bradburian Mars stories not included in The Martian Chronicles. Sorry about that!

In an unrelated note, I was investigating a local used bookstore, and found two books which you may have heard of, Zendexor. One, by Kuttner and Moore, was called Earth's Last Citadel, and the other was Outpost of Jupiter by Lester Del Rey. The first was a far-future tale, while the second was a young-adult novel in the vein of Heinlein or Asimov. I had to forego both, in favor of Fury, but if you can recommend them I may return for them!

Secondly, I've been rereading Old Venus, and it struck me that the Venusian character has, unexpectedly, grown since the space race! We have the Soviet Venera probes to thank, for now Russia is forever grafted unto the character of the second planet. I may create a more exhaustive list in the future, but Russian settlements appear in Frogheads by Allen M. Steele, Planet of Fear by Paul McAuley, and The Sky People by S.M. Stirling.

Lastly, I wonder if anyone is familiar with Zelanzy's OSS works? I'd quite like to obtain them!  

Zendexor [9 Sept]: That sounds a handy edition - The Complete Martian.

Your comment on Russian influence being "grafted" onto Venus is very well put. It's a perfect example of the way things can happen in the character-of-worlds-moulding business.

I think I have, or did have, Earth's Last Citadel but I don't think I ever finished it! Outpost of Jupiter is one I'd heard of but haven't so far managed to obtain. Lester del Rey also wrote a book called Marooned on Mars, I believe, and I've never seen that one either. I've also heard of Missing Men of Saturn by Philip Latham (1953), which I'd really like to find some day.

Good luck with reading Fury: I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. A corker of a yarn!

Regarding Zelazny and the OSS, I am not familiar with any relevant works of his apart from the well-known, much-anthologized A Rose for Ecclesiastes, set on Mars, and The Doors of his Face, the Lamps of his Mouth, set on Venus. Personally I like the Mars story and don't much care for the Venus story, though I think it won a Nebula Award - I just didn't go for the style. Oh, and I've just remembered, there's also the Earth-based For a Breath I Tarry, which in my view is by far the best of the three, and which I think I discuss in the Characters of Worlds page. My knowledge of Zelazny's works is quite limited, however, so there might be OSS gems I've not mentioned.

{Later comment: having mentioned Missing Men of Saturn, just for the heck of it I tried once more on, and guess what, there were several copies available!! I lost no time in ordering one. Perhaps our knowledge of Saturnian matters will soon be enhanced.} 

Dylan [9 Sept]Saturn or Bust! Plus More Miscellany

We need more Saturnian yarns! There aren't enough, as you've pointed out. The only Saturnian civilization I can think of (apart from Gibson's Saturians from "Arc") are the Xan from The Daedalus Incident. They were mysterious and powerful, but we are given very little of them, at least in the first book. I've not read the rest yet.

There's a minor overlap with Gibson's tale. In "Incident", the Xan are very strict about forbidding humanity from landing on any of Saturn's moons. Similarly, the Saturnians in Arc of Iapetus police their system strictly and ensure everyone is on their best behavior.

Speaking of obtaining books, I just received The Rolling Stones by Robert Heinlein. I've not yet begun it, but I'm curious to know how would you would say it compares to his other YA affairs?

Now, on a rather embarrassing note, I was rereading Wanderers of Mars for the first time since publishing it here and I realized that I changed Olivia's last name over the course of the story from the Chinese surname "Sun" to the Arabic "Moghadam". Such a display of amateurism is cringeworthy - I would be most grateful if you would do me the kindness of changing Sun to Moghadam. The offending incident occurs early in the story, and happens only once, so hopefully it shouldn't be too much trouble. Hentinj sign for gratitude!

Zendexor [9 Sept]: Will do - should be the work of a moment to make the change of name.

Heinlein's The Rolling Stones - is that an alternative title for his Space Family Stone? I suspect it is, in which case you're in for a good read, a good ramble through the Heinleinian Solar System. Not a masterpiece to compare with Red Planet, but pretty good stuff. The grandma is a great character.

I hadn't heard of The Daedalus Incident - or if I had, I'd forgotten due to brain-overload - and after reading your comment I looked it up online. The series seems extremely interesting. I expect you've read all three; how would you assess them?

John Michael Greer [11 Sept]: Re: Miscellany

Dylan, thank you! I very dimly remembered Earth's Last Citadel, from the dog-eared copy I checked out from the public library in Burien, WA. far more years ago than I like to think about, but had lost the authors and title. Your mention of it struck just enough of a chord of memory to send me chasing after it, and the online used book store I favor turned up the edition I remembered, complete with the Brothers Hildebrandt cover art. Thanks for the reintroduction to an old friend. ;-)

Zendexor [11 Sept]: now you're both starting to make me wonder whether I should re-read it. I wonder if it's the book that reminded me quite forcibly of A E van Vogt and E Mayne Hull's The Winged Man - and that's one I need to re-read too.}

John Michael Greer [11 Sept]Earth's Last Citadel

Zendexor, it's been decades since I last read it, and I can't vouch for my literary taste at age fourteen or so -- I delighted in Lin Carter novels back then -- but it worked for me at the time. The extreme far future setting seemed more convincing to me than Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique or Jack Vance's Dying Earth; though I liked the stories set in those latter a great deal, the setting always seemed a bit too generic-fantasy, while the setting of Earth's Last Citadel (like that of, say, Hodgson's The Night Land) felt genuinely alien to me, as though a billion years or so really had gone by.

(A parenthetic note: one of these days, when I've had the chance to go digging through some paperbacks, I may just do a Your Views page on the thing that's as much a pet peeve to me as the COMOLD is to you: utterly unimaginative, un-alien biology on supposedly alien worlds or supposedly vastly distant times. Ooh, look, somebody spraypainted a rabbit blue and gave it antennae -- how alien! (Yawn.) All right, I made that one up, but there are painfully close equivalents -- and there are also first-rate, jaw-droppingly alien critters oozing and flapping about in the OSS that deserve high praise and a heaping bucket of shoggoth kibble.

(And with that grumble, I return you to your regularly scheduled Old Solar System.)

Zendexor [11 Sept]: Looks like I had better investigate Earth's Last Citadel.

With regard to "blue-rabbit syndrome", you'd find plenty of ammunition for your forthcoming article in Gustave Le Rouge's Prisoner of the Planet Mars (1908), which at the moment I'm reading (and enjoying, it has to be said). There it's a case of red-rabbit syndrome. Still, there are also some interesting cephalopods with human faces, and large humanoid bat-winged vampires.

Dylan [11 Sept]The Incident and the Citadel

Happy to be of service, Mr. Greer! Without spoiling material you intend to use for your article, I wonder how you feel about the creatures of Barsoom? While some, such as the plant men, are wholly original, others rather closely resemble their Earthly counterparts. For example, Great white apes, zitidars, and banths seem to be gorillas, elephants and lions with extra sets of limbs or tusks. Other animals, such as thoats and calots, fill the same niches as horses and dogs while being visually fairly distinct.

In regards to what I will call the Daedalus Series, I've read only the first book so far. The NHOSS universe it took me to was colorful and memorable, especially the segments involving the aforementioned Xan. The voracious Venusian flora also stuck in my mind, as did the beautiful beaches of Callisto and the Martian pyramid. The characters were a bit weaker, slightly cliché, but they served to carry the plot forward. The segments set in our universe were disappointing only for their lack of color compared to the NHOSS segments, but managed to be interesting nonetheless!

The Rolling Stones is indeed Space Family Stone, Zendexor - you guessed right on the money! As it's a Heinlein, I wasn't terribly worried that it would be bad, but your endorsement seals it. I found that I enjoy Heinlein's books even when I don't agree with the message they carry, as was the case with Starship Troopers.

Zendexor [11 Sept]: re Barsoom: ...and the crowning example, the humans of Barsoom... though their oviparousness makes for a difference!

Your info re the Daedalus series' first book is most welcome. Must look into this.

Re Starship Troopers: in my home we thought it good for a laugh. "On the bounce!" we used to say to one another. However, Heinlein elsewhere supplies his own corrective to the militaristic message, in the character of Howe, the nasty headmaster in Red Planet.

Dylan [12 Sept]: The Last Bit

Given the writers of Earth's Last Citadel, I was surprised it wasn't already part of the Far Future Page!

I'm especially interested because two of the characters are, it seems, Nazis. The handling of this by authors contemporary to the rise of the Nazi party would no doubt make for an interesting scholarly read, if not a compelling book!

Zendexor [12 Sept]: one might indeed do a scholarly monograph on Nazis in thirties and forties sf. Including the "Zanis" in ERB's Carson of Venus, and John Wyndham's Derelict of Space - the latter written before the War, and on the assumption that the Third Reich would still be around in the space age.

John Michael Greer [13 Sept]: blue rabbits with antennae, etc.

Dylan, I tend to give ERB the benefit of the doubt, first because he was writing very early on, at a time when evolutionary ecology was still very poorly understood, and second because he was writing very early on, at a time when the creation of SF worlds was still practically in its infancy! To my mind, thoats and calots are very solid examples of well-done fictional exobiology -- they fill parallel environmental niches to horses and dogs while having their own distinctive forms -- and I could see the banths making sense as an example of convergent evolution (which does happen, though not so often as some SF writers seem to think). The white apes and zitidars, though, always made me think that ERB had a bit of Africa on the brain, but that's forgivable under the circumstances.

Zendexor, the oviparous Barsoomian hominids -- oog. I know, I know, you've pretty much got to have a romantic interest if you're ERB, and the tales wouldn't be half so fun without Dejah Thoris, but I'm picky about my biology. (Too many college classes in ecology, botany, et al. -- in my defense, it was the early 1980s, when the Whole Earth Catalog was still in fashion.) The one virtue of the COMOLD is that it makes interplanetary romance and reproduction instantly plausible. Lacking it, you've got to do some very fancy talking to explain why beings with less in common biologically than a dolphin and a chrysanthemum look romantically appealing to one another, and let's not even talk about offspring.

It can be done, but it ain't easy.

(Though of course there's Clark Ashton Smith's typically elegant answer. Though it's not a OSS story, The Monster of the Prophecy is one of my favorites of his, and the ending -- with the Earthling Alvor and the Satabborian Ambiala finding their mutually alien physiques no obstacle to love -- would fit readily enough in an OSS setting. Hmm -- that does inspire story ideas...)

Zendexor [13 Sept]: The Monster of the Prophecy is really cute, and Smith works his magic to ensure we accept the improbable union of Ambiala with the Terrestrial. I guess it works because of the tone of the story, and really, therein lies the answer to the scientific obstacles we've been discussing. You see, there's actually one particular science we've left out of the discussion so far because it's unknown and unnamed. Let's find a name for it: Gettingawaywithitology. The fact is, if you write a story in a certain way, you release a power that over-rides other rules. How this is done, to what extent and why it works, why some people get away with it and others don't - and what the nature of the power is - all these questions await investigation. Perhaps there are particles called getawaywithitions which are released when people like Clark Ashton Smith or Edgar Rice Burroughs sit down at their typewriters.

Dylan [14 Sept]: Blue Alien Bunnies

I tend to agree with you there, John. Weird aliens, or "starfish aliens", as I've heard the trope called, are generally easier to buy.

Stirling's Lords of Creation series does a good job of justifying the presence of Earth-like life on Venus and Mars though the heavy use of COMOLD. It works very well in that series, and I found it kept me from getting hung up on the presence of, say, Birds on Mars.

However, many times, an author will endeavor so hard to make an alien strange that it becomes an amorphous blob of eyes and tentacles. These creatures tend to strike me as fairly dull.

There must be a middle ground. I've done some reading on the thoughts of Astral Biologists, to get an idea of what alien life might be like, but this only supplies the barest of bones. Perhaps, to have truly believable but interesting aliens, one needs a bit of that Getting-away-with-it-ology that Zendexor has theorized about!

Dylan [14 Sept]: Oops!

Curses - Astral Biologists do not exist! I meant to say astrobiologists. Astral biologists would be dead biologists, I presume.

Zendexor [14 Sept]You really had me fooled with "astral biologists" - I assumed you were onto something hot there, perhaps in the Swedenborg line. It would be a pity to change it.

Dylan [14 Sept]Ghostly Zoologists

I suppose I should not say that Astral Biologists don't exist. Perhaps they do, and I've just not heard of them. Who knows, maybe they'd be more helpful in inventing alien species!

Speaking of Stirling, I was reading your page on COMOLD, and I couldn't help but wondering if the Lords of Creation series has changed your views on the common origin at all?

Zendexor [14 Sept] I suppose that because the COMOLD is part of the whole point of the Lords of Creation books, I have come to accept it there. It has - shall we say - enlarged, if not changed, my view. It has shown me how well the COMOLD idea can work in a certain context. The sense in which it has not changed my views, is that I still hanker for the other context - the ERBian gawi whereby the natives are human and at the same time real natives, and to Space with the scientific objections. ERB gets in underneath our intellectual radar. A successful literary stealth bomber.

John Michael Greer [15 Sept]: GAWIology

Zendexor, oh, granted. Science fiction covers the spectrum from the relentlessly scientific to the utterly fanciful, and despite the occasional splutterings of hard-SF fans, the fanciful is not a lesser species of the genre. As JRR Tolkien noted in an essay, sometimes disbelief has to be suspended, and sometimes it has to be hanged, drawn, and quartered; I can think of SF stories that took fewer liberties than ERB that made me roll my eyes.

That said, it's not just that the production of gawions varies from writer to writer -- I think there's some variation in gawionic absorption from reader to reader. The old hairy-eared engineers who used to bombard "Analog" with calculations hot off the slide rule in response to any deviation from scientific fact in a story are obviously well shielded against gawions, for example.

The other side of it, though, is the delight in the game of taking known science and using it to construct the improbable. It's a little like the difference between free verse and a sonnet, say -- when you accept the limits of the form, you gain something by giving up the freedom of formlessness.

Zendexor [15 Sept] excellent analogies, John! The only caveat I would make is, that maybe gawions are not as correlated with "formlessless" as at first would appear. They may have their own laws, in fact I think they're bound to; it's just that we haven't yet worked out what those laws are. But if we knew, we might find that Tolkien-style suspension of disbelief is merely replacement of one strict system by another, and Middle Earth fans could be as picky as those slide-rule-toting Analog readers you mention, but in another sense. The gawi rules would be connected with some kind of poetic or mythic appropriateness, rather than with laboratory science, but they'd be just as hard. At any rate, this is what I suspect. If the gawi laws weren't so hard, there'd be a lot more ERBs and Tolkiens.

John Michael Greer [15 Sept]: Alien Bunnies and Spectral Botanists

Dylan, absolutely! Tentacled blobs are just as dull as blue bunnies with antennae, partly because they've been so overdone in the post-Lovecraftian era (AC, for "Anno Cthulhi"?). Blue bunnies with tentacles -- not much better. Astrobiology is a good source, but don't omit paleontology and ordinary biology -- there have been, and still are, some really, really weird critters on this planet. If you run short of ideas, type the phrase "Burgess Shale" into your favorite search engine; one of the critters found in that fossil bed literally got named Hallucigenia by the paleontologists, and richly deserved it.

(Marginally relevant note -- in my novel Star's Reach, the two intelligent alien species actually described were based on slime molds and jellyfish respectively, with the necessary modifications to live on islands in a hydrocarbon ocean under methane skies, on the one hand, and in the atmosphere of a gas giant, on the other. Comments from readers suggest that they found them quite alien indeed.)

As for astral biologists, though, why not? On the one hand, Zendexor may be on to something -- did Swedenborg travel to Mars, perhaps using John Carter's mode of transport? Putting a seventeenth-century Jasoomian on Mars could yield quite a tolerable adventure.

On the other hand, it used to be tolerably common, in the borderlands where SF and fantasy mingle, to have the astral plane or some other immaterial realm full of its own spooky livestock, which might occasionally deign to munch on humans. Characters in a story of that nature might greatly benefit from the shrewd technical advice of an astral biologist, who could look at the strange triangular markings left in the dust and say, "Break out the Sigil of Koth -- we're in the lair of an Efreet!"

But I'm rambling at this point. ;-)

Zendexor [15 Sept] pity Star's Reach wasn't set on Titan; then I could have done a page on it. But then, you seem to live a double life as an OSS fan and a realistic hard-sf novelist.

John Michael Greer [15 Sept]: Now look what you made me do!

In the process of mulling over the difference between blue bunnies with antennae, tentacled blobs, and alien critters who actually hold my interest, I find I've come up with an intelligent Martian species and the very first sketch of a planetary ecology for Old Mars. Now I suppose I'll have to get to work on a story... ;-)

Zendexor [15 Sept]: sounds good - I guess we can trust you not to do a lapine COMOLD whereby the bunnies of Watership Down turn out to have been Martian colonists, though come to think of it that would explain how they could speak so well.

John Michael Greer [16 Sept]: Planet's Reach?

Zendexor, thank you! Star's Reach is actually set wholly on Earth; one of the things I set out to explore in that book was what happens if interstellar travel turns out to be as imaginary as the jungles of Amtor, a science-fiction dream that will never pan out. The alien critters, from planets of Tau Ceti and Delta Pavonis, are present only in the form of radio communications, including imagery.

You're right, though, that a taste for hard SF can fit awkwardly with a fondness for the OSS! I don't think those two are completely mutually exclusive, though. On the one hand, it's certainly an option to do relatively hard SF on the basis of "If Mars had a breathable atmosphere and intelligent life, then..." On the other -- well, that would be telling! I've got the first couple of pages of a story written; my working title, though I really doubt an editor will let this pass, is "Out of the Chattering Planet." NOSS Mars, here we come...

Martian bunnies on the downs of England, on the other hand...hmm! That could be fun!

Zendexor [16 Sept]: but remember, ultimately all distinctions between hard and soft sf will dissolve like the forces of nature will fuse into one in the theoretical Big Crunch at the end of the universe. I mean, when/if we ever understand where all our thoughts come from... whatever is, is!

Dylan [17 Sept]Greersian Mars

I look forward to reading it, should you decide to post it here! Mars is, after all, my most beloved planet.

There are a few ways to approach the OSS from a hard sci-fi standpoint. The first is to simply take it for granted that the story takes place in a reality separate from ours (the go-to assumption for most fiction, it seems to me). The second is to explicitly state that the timeline is separate from ours, as is done in my go-to example, the Lords of Creation series. The third is to set it in our reality, but in the far future, after humanity has terraformed the planets to Match their OSS counterparts. To my knowledge, this had never been done.

There's another alternate-universe book called A World of Difference by Harry Turtledove, wherein Mars is replaced with Minerva, a larger planet capable of holding its atmosphere. In this way, it circumvents the hard-scientific objection that habitable Mars is impossible because of its size. (It's an interesting idea, but personally, I'd prefer to hang on to Mars if I can.)

I have a confession to make, now. I've never read Watership Down, Martian or otherwise!

Zendexor [17 Sept]: the idea of far-future engineered conformity with the OSS is an important one. But to satisfy my demand for authenticity, it would have to include a retrospective reality-engineering component, whereby the past is amended so as to make it so that the OSS "has always existed" - i.e. something like the rationale of the OSS Uranus in Uranian Gleams. That wipes out the artificiality. Hope I'm not asking for too much... just a modest request to re-write Solar System history from the beginning.

Dylan [17 Sept]Hard Scifi OSS

The reality-engineering worked well in Uranian Gleams, and definitely has a place in the OSS! Frankly, I'd love a Uranian Sequel, perhaps enough to match Burroughs' Martian saga.

However, if one is approaching the OSS from a hard scifi standpoint, that precludes reality engineering (at least for now). One has to either assume the many-worlds theory is correct, or else take the terraforming approach.

Buts it's possible that one could still use the latter method and just maybe satisfy your need for individual planetary characters. Hear me out.

Firstly, each planet is indeed unique. So, perhaps, on course of terraforming, the powers in charge created genetically engineered animals to fill in holes in the ecosystem, alter the atmosphere, and generally carry the process along? In that way, you might get enormous Venusian gralls, spindly Martian werts, or Ganymedean rock-mice.

Secondly, extend the genetic engineering to the people as well. Each planetary population modified to inhabit it's planet. Maybe not all the inhabitants would go in for modification, but a chunk of them would.

Lastly, and this is important- add copious amounts of time. Perhaps throw in a stellar dark age. Time for Mars to start dying, Venus to become still wilder, Lunarian life to retreat underground. Add enough time that the days of world-making are distant myth, not believed or even known of by most. As far as the masses are concerned, the solar system has always been bustling with life, much of it mysterious and unknown.

It's but one possibility, and I'm sure that a more experienced writer could fabricate a still "harder" solution, but perhaps something like this could preserve some of the authenticity of the OSS by having the characters treat it as a fact of the universe.

Zendexor [17 Sept]: Gibson has promised a sequel to Uranian Gleams, as the next book after Man of the World. That's partly why I stretched a point to include coverage on this site of Man of the World - to expedite matters... the more MOTW succeeds, the sooner and more likely we are to get the Uranian sequel.

Re your rationale for inhabited worlds: it works, in its own terms, and could result in something great. My only doubt concerns your dismissal of "retrospective reality engineering" as currently incompatible with the category of hard-science sf. It all depends on how the matter is presented. But this raises questions that are probably unanswerable, about the definition of hard science, since at its frontiers science is fuzzy rather than hard! See Michael Crichton's explanation of time-travel in his Timeline - it sounds convincing to me, but is it hard or soft?}

John Michael Greer [18 Sept]: Iruwon

Dylan, one thing I'm brooding over right now is the spectrum of hardness, so to speak, in science fiction; in fact, I'm thinking of doing a Your Views page on it. It's kind of like the different stages you get in boiling an egg. There's the ultimate hardboiled SF, say, Hal Clement's sort of thing, where the science dominates the story; that can be done well, but it's difficult, and a lot of really inferior science fiction came out of attempts to do it.

You also have the very softboiled SF, say, Cordwainer Smith's sort of thing, in which imaginary technologies are spun into existence at the drop of a hat and made plausible by sheer literary brilliance. (There's a man who emitted GAWIons from every pore!) Planoforming ships, congohelium, mouse-powered robots, and all -- Smith didn't worry about how they worked, and neither do his readers; he simply wove them into the tale, and you believe them because there they are.

But there are stages of boiled-ness between those, and the one that interests me just at the moment -- right in the middle, where the yolk's firm but not hard -- is "nothing actually quite proves that this is false." Science in this kind of fiction, to shift metaphors, is like the wolves that trot around the outside of the herd of caribou, seeing if any of the herd's members are vulnerable, and if not, they trot away. So, in the case of the current solar system, we have certain data streams that must be explained -- those are the wolves. The question is purely how to toss them a puppy biscuit -- okay, I'm mixing metaphors like anything, I know -- so that they leave you alone and you can go on to do what you want.

That's hard to do if you want to have an OSS and square it with contemporary science, but I think it can be done, in at least one (slightly sneaky) way. More on the details once the initial story's finished.

Zendexor [18 Sept] Ah, you're saying what I wanted to say, about the hardness of trying to define hard science sf.

John Michael Greer [18 Sept]: Boiled Martian Eggs

Zendexor, of course -- it's all SF, and thus all part of one corner of the territory of the wonder tale, with plenty of commerce with all other parts of that expansive territory.

(I realized a moment after sending the last comment that I'd given it an inexplicable title and then failed to explicate it. "Iruwon" is the name I'm using for the planet we Earthlings call Mars...)

Dylan [18 Sept]By Any Other Name

Barsoom, Lakkdiz, Zho'da, Tyr, Malacandra, Zdakash, Iruwon... They all sound like Mars to me!

I really ought to have given a native name for Mars in Wanderers. I'll have to set another tale there when I improve a bit.

I know I mention it every other sentence, John, but I really do think you ought to read the Lords of Creation duology. It's a favorite of mine that seems to be exactly what you're talking about! The entire premise revolves around achieving OSS color in a scientific manner. Aside from that, they are both excellent stories, and the only big NOSS books I can think of outside of Gibson's works.

John Michael Greer [19 Sept]: Lords of Creation

Dylan, it's on the list! I have no shortage of reading material to tackle at the moment, with a steady diet of Lovecraft et al. to supply raw material and Easter eggs for the current series of novels, and plenty of nonfiction to read for that end of my writing -- but I'll get to it as time and inspiration permit.

Dylan [19 Sept]: "Hard" Sci-Fi

I'm with you there, John, my own reading pile has become rather overgrown with Three to Conquer, The Rolling Stones, The Best of H.G. Wells, The World Jones Made, and Year's Best Science Fiction 1973. I've also got Something from Mercury on the way, so there's no foreseeable end to it!

Not that I would ever, in a million years, want there to be.

In regards to retroactive engineering, it's a great concept that I would never dream of tossing out, far too useful.

The debate about the nature of hard sci-fi reminds me of a comment Jules Verne once made about H.G. Well's Cavorite, which he regarded as silly and unrealistic. To me, the dichotomy between Wells and Verne symbolizes the entire rift between "hard" and "soft" sci-fi: Verne was concerned with "how it works", where Wells was concerned with "how it affects people". Frequently, hard scifi stories feature technology as their main character, neglecting their human co-stars. Red Mars is, I feel, an example of this, and the reason I didn't care to carry on with the series. The characters were just too flat for my personal tastes.

On the other hand, hard sci-fi can be done well (and often is), as long as it retains a human heart. The Martian is a good example of this. By the end of the book, I found I cared about whether or not Mark Watney would survive. To contrast, I don't even remember the names of the characters in Red Mars.

Soft scifi, then, has an in-built advantage: without the technical distractions, it seems more likely that soft-scifi stories will focus on their human characters. I'm not saying that one version is better than the other, for each has its victories and failures. But I do think that writing hard scifi might be more difficult, as an author needs to be careful to balance the amount of inhuman technical details in their book to be sure they don't drown out the relatable characters. Edgar Rice Burroughs never concerned himself with that.

I think that the best science fiction stories each find their own balance. Perhaps certain kinds of stories call for more hard science than others. The more fantastical your premise, it seems to me, the less real science you will be expected to use. For example, a galactic empire or inhabited Mars will not call for too much realism, as they are "far-out", so to speak. A story about efforts to colonize the moon might call upon the author to pay more attention to what is known about the moon, or else explain why they are flouting common knowledge.

Of course, there are exceptions to all this. In the end, they're all stories, and strive toward the same goal of being engaging. As George R.R. Martin said, what is real doesn't matter nearly so much as what is cool.

Zendexor [19 Sept] an important point - that the hard/strong aspect depends in a practical way upon the subject of the story.

And regarding Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars, I mostly agree with you, though I do find the character of Ann Claybourne sticks in the mind because of her interesting obsession with keeping Mars pristine. All the more interesting because there was no native life to protect.

Dylan [19 Sept]To Clarify

I should make a note that I don't think that what Edgar Rice Burroughs accomplished was easy, nor do I mean to belittle the challenge of writing any good work of fiction. In saying that writing hard sci-fi might be more difficult, I meant merely that it could be perceived as adding an extra ball to an already complicated juggling act.

Zendexor [19 Sept] And also, hard or hard-ish sf writers can perform a service, I think. I don't know a vast amount of science but what I do know is considerably due to having read science-fiction from an early age. And though there's also a lot of wrong science in sf, it does no harm - I'm not going to take off my space-helmet when I get to Mars, in the mistaken belief that I can breathe there as easily as John Carter.

Dylan [21 Sept]The Reds

The Reds, I believe they were called, were indeed a memorable part of Red Mars. I have to give KSR credit for that!

He wrote a book about the Reds, called The Martians, or something like that. I was tempted to finish the series just to read it.

On an unrelated note, I was wondering if you or John could recommend any Edmond Hamilton anthologies. I'd like to read his OSS work, but I can't find any solid collections online.

Zendexor [21 Sept] Hamilton anthologies are remarkably poor in my experience. What's it like Out There and other stories and The best of Edmond Hamilton are unsatisfying, full of slight shorts which aren't much OSS, except for the excellent A Conquest of Two Worlds in the latter collection.

The odd thing is that The best of... was edited by his wife, Leigh Brackett, who ought to have known better - she being an OSS pioneer herself.

Of course there's the mighty ongoing The Collected Edmond Hamilton but that's very pricey and so far has only reached the early '30s, unless the promised volume 5 has now appeared - The Six Sleepers. I'm keeping a look-out for it.

Luckily for me, I acquired quite a few Hamilton classic novelettes in second-hand issues of Fifties magazines such as Imaginative Tales, long ago when they were more easily available. I don't know what one does nowadays to acquire classic sf pulps. I suspect the first move is to get rich.

John Michael Greer [21 Sept]: hard and soft SF

Dylan, from my perspective, at least, soft SF is just as hard work for the writer as hard SF. While trying to make a story work with current science is another ball to juggle, as you've quite accurately pointed out, it also has benefits.

Here's an example. I tend toward the hard-SF end of the spectrum when it comes to ecology and biology -- purely a personal thing; I'm not setting it up as a rule for anybody else, I just like SF that has believable ecosystems and critters. Yes, that lands me in a certain amount of trouble when it comes to, say, working out the ecology of Iruwon, my OSS Mars (or, to bring in an example from another story of mine, trying to figure out where HP Lovecraft's curious ratlike creature Brown Jenkin, from The Dreams in the Witch-House, fits on the family tree of mammals). The flipside is that it's also an unfailing source of ideas.

Iruwon, as I imagine it, is a classic OSS Mars, halfway between Zendexor's categories of BREM and WOM -- I admire the way that CS Lewis blended those two, and of course the sincerest form of literary praise is imitation! So we've got a dry cold world, with lowlands and canals where humans can breathe and uplands where the air is too thin for anything but some of the native life. That sends me looking for Jasoomian or, rather, Sammathiyen analogies -- cold deserts like the Gobi and the Takla Makan, for the uplands, and tundra and subarctic plains for the lowlands -- and the ideas start flowing.

I notice, for example, that tundra environments tend to have big herbivores roaming in herds, constantly on the move so they don't overgraze the fragile growth; I recall that Iruwon has no seas -- and suddenly I imagine vast herds of ungainly, humpbacked, twenty-foot-tall beasts called yhau've that circle the planet in their endless rovings; there are nineteen great herds, and each of them takes many Martian decades to complete the circuit, so that not one beast returns to the place where it was born, and only instinct shaped by millions of years of trudging through dust storms and bitter winds keeps the herds moving along their ancient routes.

I got all that in a flash while looking at a picture of a big herd of caribou crossing the Alaskan tundra, and I know I can make it work precisely because there's an analogy here. I suspect ERB had to work a lot harder -- or expend many more GAWIons than I've got! -- to get his bits of Barsoomian landscape and wildlife to hang together in the gorgeous tapestry they form. Science is another ball to juggle but it can also be a bit of a safety net, and I admire those authors who can dance on the high wire without it!

Zendexor [21 Sept]  this brings to mind your earlier analogy - 15 September - between hard-soft sf and sonnets/free-verse in poetry. The analogy works on many levels. Good free verse is just as hard to write as sonnets are, though it might not seem at first glance. Also, good free verse has an internal rationale which stems from structural aspects just as much as the sonnet does - only those aspects are harder to pin down.

John Michael Greer [21 Sept]: another way to finesse the science

It occurs to me that there's at least one other way to tell current science to run along and play when it gets in the way of telling a story, and that's to take into account the fact that current science can be completely wrong in a very big way about important issues.

My favorite example here is continental drift, which was dismissed as crackpot pseudoscience when it was first proposed, and turned into the foundation of modern geology only after half a dozen important geological discoveries could be explained in no other way. Here in the US, where opponents of continental drift dominated the field of geology, fifty years of work on the origins of landforms and the evolution of the continents had to be thrown in the dumpster as a result. That sort of thing happens routinely in the history of science, so it's entirely scientific to include it in a work of SF!

Take one of the themes of classic OSS SF as an example, and look at the fate of the sun. As a Clark Ashton Smith fan, I insist on having the dying blood-red sun of Zothique shining down on my far future dreams, even though current science has it that the sun will actually get brighter over the course of its existence. Okay, I simply postulate that in 2078 the brilliant young astrophysicist Melissa Hsu turned the entire study of stellar life cycles on its head with a convincing demonstration that the twentieth-century theory of stellar evolution got it entirely backwards, and stars start bright and cool down slowly over billions of years.

That way I can gaze upon the coal-red sun oblique in Earth's far future, and I can also explain why Mars is an ancient world with a history far longer than ours (as the Sun gradually cooled and dimmed from the blazing furnace of its earliest days, Mars reached temperatures at which life could be sustained long before Earth did) and why Venus is a prehistoric jungle planet (by the same process, Venus reached the temperature band where life happens much more recently than Earth).

I don't happen to recall many examples of that in science fiction -- James Blish put some of it into the first volume of "Cities in Flight," if I recall correctly -- and I don't know of any OSS fiction that used it. Still, since science does go through such revolutionary shifts from time to time, it seems worth considering!

Zendexor [21 Sept] a gradually reddening Sun would certainly validate many marvellous far-future scenarios in sf!

Of course, even according to current science our Sun will reach a red-giant stage, after the awkward main-sequence brightening has finished, but during that brightening the Earth is in for a tough time - maybe its orbit will have to be enlarged. Also maybe the Solar System Trust will mount a Save Mercury and Venus campaign, to move them out too. It would be so much simpler if we could re-write physics, as you point out.

But hey, I was forgetting, we can adjust the laws of nature - just turn the gawion emitter vernier dial to maximum...

As for continental drift, that indeed is an amazing example of changing scientific orthodoxy. It also raises a philosophical issue - can a statement be true yet scientifically wrong? Isaac Asimov, of all people, seems to come close to admitting this in one of his non-fictional writings in which he says he himself was against the Wegener theory while it was still un-validated, simply because if you're a scientist you're not supposed to believe in things which aren't proven. i.e. even if it turns out to be true, you shouldn't believe it too early, and those who do are wrong, even though they're actually right... duh...

John Michael Greer [22 Sept]sonnets and free verse

Zendexor, exactly -- and the metaphor can be pushed a little further. There are poetic forms that are much more difficult than the sonnet. Really hard, neutronium-hard SF strikes me as being like a sestina or a villanelle, where the form is rigid as an exoskeleton and half the beauty is that you can make it do anything at all. Then you have relatively flexible forms like the sonnet, which give you strong bones on which you can build just about anything. Then you have even more flexible forms like blank verse, and finally out you go into free verse, where there's no skeleton at all and your shoggoth-structure can extrude anything you like: very free but very challenging.

In a way, you know, the OSS is rather sonnetlike in another sense. There's a skeleton composed of the characters of the worlds and knowledge of what's been done already, and the story dances around that, doing something original with the good strong bones of the form. That's one of the things I find attractive about writing in the genre.

Zendexor [22 Sept]  and the different parts of the OSS "skeleton" are of different strengths or rigidities.  Mars has sturdier bones than Venus or the Galilean Satellites, for example. Venus could have grown into just about anything warm - but the evolution of the "form" took a particular direction, towards lushness, doubtless influenced by a mixture of logic and Aphrodite. OSS origins are a fascinating field of study, though my own approach to the genre is more one of description and acceptance than of "archeological" investigation.

John Michael Greer [22 Sept]the coal-red sun oblique

Zendexor, I think I'm definitely going to discard current stellar theory in my OSS story; perhaps the Iru, the Martian natives, worked out a better theory back a few million years ago when they were still engaged in scientific research, before they learned everything that's possible to find out via scientific means. (The idea that science and technology are subject to the law of diminishing returns is one I'm exploring in my nonfiction work just now, but it also feels right for the inhabitants of Mars, on their ancient, desolate, gorgeous world, to have exhausted the potential for scientific discovery around the time your ancestors and mine came down from the trees.) So the Sun starts out big and bright, and slowly gets smaller and redder and cooler over the course of its lifespan. Says an imaginary Iru commenter: "The point is noted that Kha'yenh of Dhusharre proved this in the twenty-ninth greater cycle, since which, as the honored persons from Earth are doubtless aware, much time has passed. An uncertainty is felt as to why the honored persons from Earth do not know of it."

As for whether true statements can be scientifically wrong, that's definitely one for contemplation! I suppose it hinges on your definition of "scientifically wrong." If we accept Asimov's definition -- a statement is scientifically wrong if scientists haven't yet come to a consensus that it's right -- then there are an infinite number of true statements that are scientifically wrong. "There are exactly 116,264 dwarf planets in the solar system beyond the orbit of Neptune" and "purple photosynthetic organisms comparable to terrestrial algae exist on the third planet of Epsilon Eridani," supposing these statements happen to be true, are good examples; they're scientifically wrong because we just don't know.

If you tighten the definition to say that a statement is scientifically wrong only if it's been disproved in the usual way by scientific research, it's a lot tougher, but I still think it's possible for true statements to be disproved. Again, continental drift is a case in point. Geologists didn't reject it just because they were having a bad day; they rejected it because Wegener's original arguments had serious problems, and it was only after sea floor spreading gave a workable mechanism for it -- one that Wegener had never imagined -- that it got accepted. So continental drift was, by the normal workings of science, scientifically wrong in 1950, even though it was true.

On the other hand, if the Kroth trilogy is correct, I suppose a case could be made that the continents didn't drift until 1969, when some tweak in collective consciousness caused most of us to drop from the more-excited state of motionless continents to the slightly less excited state of moving ones. I hope we don't end up on one where the continents slide southward and drop off into space!

Zendexor [22 Sept]  Then there's Olaf Stapledon's notion in Last And First Men, that the level of culture affects the force of gravity, via some mental-physical interaction. The effect was disastrous as described in the book, but one could develop this idea into a notion that positive wishful thinking has a real power of its own. If the wishes and the will are strong enough. Shades of Poe's Legeia!  Meld that with the Gibsonian retrospective reality engineering and you've got it made - "it" being the Old Solar System as we want it. Hmm... mustn't let all this power go to our heads...

Zendexor [28 Sept] belated extra remark re Hamilton

Dylan, you asked on 21st September about the difficulty of obtaining Hamilton stories. I ought to have mentioned the Armchair Fiction Double Novel series. Like the old Ace Doubles, AF do pairs of short novels published together. That's how I obtained Hamilton's 123-page Treasure on Thunder Moon (1942 - new AF edition 2013), a wonderful adventure centred on Oberon - just the sort of stuff which I always want more of. And AF may have published more in that line since that 2013 edition - who knows?

Dylan [28 Sept]Old Mercury, Etc.

Thanks for the tip! I will look into that, after I finish my current pile. Just acquired The Moon Maid.

It struck me that the title is rather similar to A Princess of Mars in that both are named for a woman in the story. Too bad we never got "The Countess of Mercury".

"Old Mercury" is of course the perfect title for our imagined anthology, in keeping with Old Mars and Old Venus. I will read up on Ghosts of Mercury to let you know if it's worth adding. I also think that we should list Valeddom, even if we theoretically couldn't get the rights.

As to the other anthology titles, might I propose "On Jovian Soil" for the surface one, and
"Beyond Pluto" for the trans-Plutonian planet one? "On Jovian Soil" captures the spirit of the stories, I feel, while "Beyond Pluto" is a bit shorter.

Regarding neologisms, I never had any problem with "nen", nor any other of the invented words in Uranian Gleams. In fact, I've thought of using something similar myself- "ne", for a character that is neither male nor female. It would, I think, simplify things.

Zendexor [28 Sept]: "On Jovian Soil" it is! And likewise - "Beyond Pluto".

Re Countesses of Mercury, there is Ray Cummings' Tama, Princess of Mercury, and its sequel, but to me they always seemed too trite in tone to rate as proper stories, which is why so far I haven't taken them seriously enough to discuss them on the site. Maybe some day you could let me know if you feel the same. In my view, Cummings' Mercury actually is an important field of study, if one is interested in what makes a tale not work! But if I'm being too hard on those books, I'd be only too pleased to recant.

Dylan [28 Sept]Science as a Boon

John, I think I may have inaccurately portrayed my opinions earlier on. In response to your comment on Sept. 21st, with your beautifully painted picture of Martian herbivores, I say: you are right.

I was considering the actual science as a distraction to the writer, getting in the way of the story they want to tell, but I suspect that for many sci-fi wrtiers it works as you have put it. I know that I often delight in a tale which leverages real science to its advantage - Alan M. Steele's brief OSS offerings come to mind. Those stories used panspermia to explain humanoid forms on Venus and Mars, which doesn't really work, until Mr. Steele casts his spell: then it's realistic enough for me to swallow it hook, line, and sinker. The result is an excellent set of OSS stories with realism that pulls you in.

That's not to say that sci-fi stories that don't rely much on realism aren't as engaging. They just use different tricks!

I can certainly appreciate your preference for accurate depictions of biology. An unbelievable critter can spoil the suspension of disbelief for an entire story, if the reader is familiar enough with evolutionary theory. Although, again, this depends on the tone of the story, a more fantastical tale might be forgiven for putting cat-people on Venus or somesuch.

One scientific soapbox I like to stand on is astronomy. I see it as taking the knife that "killed" the OSS and turning it into our weapon. Imagine how the OSS can be expanded with new knowledge! For example, Mars boasts Olympus Mons, an enormous volcano that could fill the U.S. state of Washington. Imagine what kinds of burrowing, climbing, flying, big-lunged, tiny-bodied critters might have evolved to live on its face, or its vacuum-bathed peak! Valles Marineris and the Hellas Basin are more good examples. The last ragged remnants of Mars' lost glory, perhaps, clinging to life where the low altitude and high walls trap atmosphere. They would also be natural places for Martian civilization to congregate...

John Michael Greer [29 Sept]Mons Olympus

Dylan, no argument there! A Mars with the four biggest volcanoes in the solar system and the gargantuan canyon -- or would that be handramit? -- of Valles Marineris is at least as cool, if not cooler, than the Mars of the Grand Canal. (Nor, I think, is it impossible to combine them.) To my mind, that's where science becomes the SF author's friend -- you get to cherrypick the best details, quietly slide by the rest, and have fun. It's when science tries to boss the author around that it becomes, in Zendexor's apt phrase, a bit of an ass.

As for cat-people on Venus, to my taste -- and it really is just a matter of personal taste! -- that depends very much on how it's handled. If they're too obviously Jasoomian cats who've been made bipedal and handed swords or what have you, that's just dull unless you *really* crank up the GAWIons, but if you've got something with its own distinctive character that still has a catlike quality, perhaps as a result of convergent evolution, that can be really fun. When Burroughs was at his best, he was really good at doing this with livestock -- I'm thinking here among others of the tharbans of Amtor, which are recognizably felid but still have that exotic Cosoomian quality about them. But of course you can also just go for straightforward space fantasy, stock your Venus with cat people, and have fun.

Zendexor [29 Sept] And there's Umka, the memorable "cat-man" of Phobos, in Swords of Mars. Not too cat-like, just enough overlap between feline and alien.

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