how far can we go?

The challenges of the "New Old Solar System" - that's to say, of OSS fiction created in a retro spirit by more modern writers - are in some ways akin to those empathic hurdles which historical novelists have to overcome.

Stid:  You surprise me, Zendexor.  I should have thought that your type of OSS devotee would be only too blithely keen to plunge back into a pre-1960s mind-set...  Easy as falling off a log.  But - ahem - maybe, come to think of it, that depends how old you are...

Zendexor:  Indeed it does.  At least, it does for the ambitious writers of NOSS-R.  I refer the reader here to an extract from the Diary, concerning NOSS-R and NOSS-T.  These are my labels for the two poles of the NOSS, the reactionary and the trendy. NOSS-R writers resurrect the old-fashioned mind-sets as well as the old-fashioned worlds of OSS tales, whereas NOSS-T resurrect the worlds only, while populating their tales with now-ish protagonists.

Stid:  What about all the range in between? 

Zendexor:  You're hinting that the labels I've given for the poles are of scant use because they denote unreal extremes.  I say, no!  Sure, there's a spectrum, a range of intermediary blended qualities, but in my experience their distribution isn't smooth but tends, rather, to bunch at either extreme.  Which brings us back to to considering NOSS-R and NOSS-T.

Now, with regard to NOSS-R, which poses far greater challenges than NOSS-T, here's a debate which was conducted by email between myself and Troy Jones.

9 Jan 2018:


Some random thoughts that pertain in a roundabout way to NOSS-R/NOSS-T and relevantitis: I don't know if you ever play board games, but there are a few OSS-themed board games out there. This past Christmas I got Onward to Venus, a game that is kind of a send-up of the 19th-century Scramble for Africa, but set in the OSS - an imperial scramble for the Solar System. Players representing competing Earth-based imperial powers (Great Britain, France, Germany, etc) claim mines and factories on different planets, but various crises threaten as well (native uprisings on Venus, Mars, and/or the Moon, a robot uprising on Earth, an extrasolar alien invasion arriving in the Kuiper Belt, stuff like that). Since it's generally more profitable to selfishly snap up mines than it is to deal with a looming crisis though, players are put into interesting dilemmas (dilemmae?), having to choose between, say, consolidating imperial control of Mars (and risk letting the Venusian Uprising get out of hand), or taking care of the situation on Venus (and risk another player taking over Mars). Fun times. It feels very NOSS-R (especially with the Golden-Age-of-SF-inspired artwork), but in a way that parodies and subverts traditional NOSS-R expectations and cultural mores.

That also is a launching point for consideration/discussion of what the cultural and political situation is like back home on Earth in NOSS-R stories, which may not be what any given story is "about", but which should affect the story even so-- even if the story is going for more of a NOSS-R feel. Why are our plucky adventurers exploring the Solar System anyway? Is Earth under the control of a somewhat corrupt yet mostly benign United Nations-esque government (as in Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, which I guess counts as OSS since it has Martians) that sends out our characters on scientific exploration missions, or is Earth run by ruthless empires competing to see who can exploit the natives and their resources the most pitilessly and efficiently (as in Onward to Venus) and which send our characters out for that purpose, or has Earth been forced to accept some kind of détente with alien powers that are as powerful as (or more powerful than) humanity (as in The Arc of Iapetus) and our would-be explorers must act on their own, without the support or sanction of any Earth-based government or organization? Even if the question is not answered directly in a story, it's something for the author to think about and at least hint at. Was our protagonist sent to Neptune or did they choose to go of their own initiative? Were they sent by a (possibly corrupt) government agency or a (possibly greedy) corporation? Or are they fleeing said agency/corporation (as in The Secret of Sinharat)? These questions will inform both character motivation and what kind of resources should be available to help the protagonist overcome plot complications. These questions may also be the basis of the plot conflict itself (though direct conflict with human authority threatens to move a story closer to NOSS-T/social commentary territory). But in my opinion, giving due consideration to such questions is likely to lead to a more interesting story than simply saying Commander Tomorrow's escape pod randomly crashed on Amalthea, so that's where the adventure will be this week.

It's not uncommon in older literature to see individuals undertake space expeditions on their own initiative, sometimes literally for no other reason than personal glory (as in Brightside Crossing). It's harder to write stories like that nowadays though for at least a couple of reasons. The main reason it's hard to make a story like that work, I think, is that sensibilities about that kind of thing have changed; in real life, people who summit Everest today (for example) are no longer seen as heroic adventurers, but as obnoxious rich idiots, wantonly wasting money and risking the lives of themselves and others for mere bragging rights. The quaint culture of Brightside Crossing's universe, where thrill-seeking (and apparently self-funded) daredevils race each other like Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott to best this moon or that planet to the acclaim and praise of the media/public are hard to accept. It is easier for a modern reader to accept breathable air on Mars and a world-girdling ocean on Neptune (understanding it as fantasy) than it is to accept a culture in which Major Mikuta and company are lionized in the tri-V news shows instead of roundly condemned for their incredible foolhardiness.

(And that's not to say Brightside Crossing is bad; on the contrary, it's a strong story that strongly influenced my own entry for the anthology. But it is hard for me to relate to the motivations of Mikuta and Claney, and I know I'm not the only one for whom that's true.)

In my own story I went for a more NOSS-R feel, focusing more on the colorful adventure than the political "world-building" with its implied social commentary as much as I could, although there is some of that there even so, mostly just hinted at (hints are good-- the Brick Wall Sketch Theory of short story writing). And in the end, D.J. and company are criticized by the media for their "adventure" instead of praised, which could be considered a nod to modern, NOSS-T sensibilities (but arguably subverting them).

10 Jan 2018:

Zendexor: Kaor Troy - what an eye-opener!  And a cute one at that.  I never had the slightest inkling that there were OSS-themed board games. 

Regarding your main point, about sensibilities having changed and the Mikuta-Claney mindset being no longer possible to accept: hmmmmm! this really sets the wheels turning; no issue is weightier in the field of OSS lit crit.

We are, I guess, agreed that the mindset-gap can be bridged by readers, depending on what we mean by "accept".  Thus, I can, on one level, accept the Barsoomian war-is-a-glorious-game mindset provided it is confined to the stories.  It's a weird process, but it seems that quite a bit of moral stretch is possible in the literary experience.  It's as though I put some sort of futuristic helmet on and get transformed into someone or something else while I hold the book...  and this likewise applies to the grotesquely foolhardy motivations in Brightside Crossing.

What you are suggesting, is that though we can bridge the gap as readers, it gapes too wide for us as writers.

I would, however, question this limitation.  For a start, we don't know how much Alan Nourse himself believed in the ethos in his story.  He may have been writing an objective psychological study.  (He was a doctor, after all.)

Next I would allude to the great historical novelist, Alfred Duggan.  His works - set in antiquity and in medieval times - brilliantly bridge the mind-set gaps between modernity and ancient Rome, Dark-age England, Norman culture during the Crusades...  He just plonks you there and gets on with it, enlisting our empathy with (for example) noble families who think it a disgrace to have to work for a living...  or Roman soldiers who accept that it's all right to massacre people if Caesar orders it...  it sounds impossible but Duggan manages it without being too annoying.  And surely he wrote it all without sharing the mind-set of his characters.  It passes belief that he himself could have had attitudes which are so bizarre in modern terms.  Besides, he couldn't have held them all; he ranges too widely, getting us inside the skulls of Romulus, Lepidus, Alfred, Bohemond, Beckett...  Duggan must have been a kind of moral ventriloquist, giving voice to all those different mores.

So I suspect the NOSS-R stretch can be accomplished by a writer who really wants to.

I confess that with me, the flexibility only works one way.  i.e. not in the opposite direction, from present (1966 or so) to future (2018).  In other words I can't seem to undergo the moral stretch necessary to enjoy much of the stuff written in this future age in which my body is now stranded; instead my reaction is, "Yuck", and I tear off the helmet in disgust, my soul returning with relief to 1966 (or maybe 1964).  Rather unfortunate, but that's how it is...

I'm thinking of asking someone to get me Onward to Venus for next Christmas.


Interesting thoughts. I would definitely agree that it's easier for a reader to "stretch" in that way than the writer. Indeed, I think it's good for a reader to challenge themselves in that way, reading stories that have different cultural assumptions, especially stories that were actually written in a different time, in a different culture, with different background assumptions, thus broadening the reader's cultural horizons and indirectly making them aware of their own background assumptions.

That notion is not just limited to OSS literature, of course. A year or two ago, I read the Jane Austen novel Sense and Sensibility. (Before you judge: I was dating an English teacher at the time.) The cultural mindset in S&S is hard for a modern reader to wrap their brain around also. Example: at one point in the story, one person overhears a male character call a female character (not a family member) by her given name. Shock! Scandal! In fact, when it happens, that causes everyone to think that the characters in question must have been secretly married, and absolutely no one seems to question this logical leap. And elsewhere in the story, people insisted on referring to characters by their last names only at all times, even when they knew it would lead to confusion because two characters had the same last name. Apparently in that time, calling someone who isn't a family member by their given name was Simply Not Done. It staggers the imagination-- or at least it staggered my imagination. It was as hard for me to relate to that mindset as it was to relate to Major Mikuta and Peter Claney's mindset. But it was doable; the mental gap can be bridged, as you say, and it was a really enjoyable and interesting read, and I am better off for having read it.

The challenge of writing such stories, though, is on a whole 'nother level. Lots of people write Jane Austen pastiche, for example - or try to at any rate - but few can pull it off convincingly. Even when it's well-written, you can tell it was written by a modern author, with modern cultural assumptions, modern writing conventions, etc., and the same is true for most historical fiction I have read as well. A few years ago I read The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, and while it was a really interesting and clearly very well-researched book, the characters all talk and think like modern people even though they are living in 11th-century England. Poul Anderson's Time Patrol stories are the same way. So it's not surprising that people writing mid-20th-century OSS pastiche often fall into the same trap.

Which is not to say it can't be done, just that it's really hard, especially in our own culture, which is very prejudiced against the mindsets of antiquity to begin with. (We even write songs congratulating ourselves for "watching the world wake up from history", a fine example of chronocentrism, as JMG calls it). If Alfred Duggan manages to convey an ancient mindset in his fiction, then that's great, and it gives hope that others may be able to also. (Though I haven't read anything by him, so I can't comment as to how successful he is). And now that I think about it too, Anna Lowenstein's book The Stone City (set in 1st-century England and Rome) does a pretty good job of conveying an ancient mindset, or at least it seemed that way to me. So it isn't impossible.

As to whether Alan Nourse himself was on board with the ethos of Brightside Crossing, it's hard to say. It's possible he was subtly taking a poke at the prevailing mindset of his day instead of implicitly endorsing it, though that may be my own modern mindset trying to rationalize what I'm reading. But even allowing for that possibility, it is still strange to me that no one in that universe seems to question the basic underlying philosophy of, the challenge is there so we must seek to conquer it, with no thought spared as to the cost or even loss of life. And even though the character Claney appears to be skeptical at first, it's only because he'd experienced the prior crossing attempt firsthand, and [spoiler: moreover in the end it appears that he's, if anything, the craziest one of all for wanting to try it a second time.]

11 Jan 2018:


Kaor!  I have read about half of The Pillars of the Earth and I'd agree that the characters talk like moderns, though I didn't feel that their thought processes were too anachronistic - that's open to debate.  But your main point stands, that sustained mind-set voyaging is a hard trick to pull off, especially in our age which looks down its nose at past assumptions.

Regarding the language issue, oddly, in my view, it's more acceptable to portray medieval and ancient folk talking in modern idiom, than it is to do the same for more recent early-moderns (Tudor and Stuart times).  That's because for the older periods we know that the entire language has to be thoroughly translated anyway, whereas for early-modern there already is a readable and understandable yet noticeable different version of English available to be portrayed in fiction.  So - for example - you can have Julius Caesar talking modern English and get away with it, but if you're writing about Samuel Pepys you'd better have him talk as he really did, else you'll strike a glaringly incongruous note.

Keith Laumer chose another way which was to have his past-era characters speak all in a kind of quaintly archaic English whatever era they came from, and this works very well in his tales.  See for example certain episodes in Assignment in Nowhere, A Plague of Demons and The Long Twilight.  It's a question not of accuracy but of necessary atmosphere.  A case of the medium being the message.

I'm interested to hear that you were staggered by the name-business in Sense and Sensibility.  It shows how modern you are compared with me!  I accepted it all with the greatest of ease, though I wouldn't like it much to live with.

On the other hand I find the political phenomenon of dynastic inheritance of nations extremely odd - e.g. that the King of Scots inherited the throne of England in 1603, thus effectively extinguishing the independence of his own country merely through a genetic accident.  And as for the King of Spain inheriting the Netherlands in the century before - sheer madness.  It's a wonder to me that people didn't object to the inheritance principle when it was applied to whole countries. 


Dynastic succession may not make much sense, but it's great fodder for fiction haha-- the "reluctant ruler" is a classic trope. Story seed: the Empress of Venus inherits Pluto from a deceased uncle and sends the Princess there to set things in order. Culture shock and hilarious antics ensue. (If anyone takes that seed and runs with it, it's fine by me.)

People didn't object too strenuously to foreigners inheriting their nation back in the day because kingship was a divine right bestowed on those of royal blood. That was just "the way it is". And if our own king died without a royal heir, well, better a foreign king of royal blood rule us than some upstart local peasant - one of these two has the divine right, and it ain't the peasant. The idea that the unwashed masses had (or should have had) some kind of say or stake in who ruled them, or had the right to object even to obviously unsuitable rulers, was not a common belief then. It is widespread now - it "seems obvious" to us - to give the people a say in who rule them, even to view governance as a kind of exchange of services (i.e. the rulers get certain powers and privileges, but in return are expected to enact policies than benefit the people, the so-called Social Contract Theory), but that wasn't the prevailing mindset then. Back in the day, the king/chief/whatever had the divinely-sanctioned right to do whatever they wanted (short of blaspheme the Divine One Himself, of course). People only rebelled when abuses got so bad that they had no other choice.

Re: historical fiction, for me the issue is not so much how characters talk - I would rather characters talk in modern idioms than period vernacular done incorrectly anyway - but a certain mindset that shows a character suffers from modern prejudices. Some things that are common knowledge or common beliefs today were not so common way back when (and vice versa), as with the Social Contract Theory of government. Few authors get it right. It is very common - very common - in historical fiction for a protagonist to give some kind of speech lecturing the other characters for their obvious failings, their obvious failings being their pre-modern beliefs/habits. ("How can you simply stand by and let this foreigner inherit our throne? The 'divine right' is pure codswallop! We have to overthrow the king and replace all this with a system of representative democracy," shouted the uneducated serf. Yeah right.)

A particular anachronistically modern thing I remember from The Pillars of the Earth was when the girl (I don't remember her name) builds a marketplace or something in her village for the specific purpose of attracting private capital and stimulating the local economy. She doesn't use that jargon, but she has an awareness - somehow - that if the nobility were to spend money on public infrastructure instead of on luxuries for themselves, that it would create a self-sustaining cycle of prosperity and benefit everyone, including the nobles. "Everyone knows that," I'm sure some would say, but actually not. Keynesian economic theory is actually a very modern thing. People just didn't think in those terms in the 11th century. Medievals believed that the social order that then existed had always existed and would continue to exist largely unchanged until the Lord came again (see Barbara Tuchman's eye-opening non-fiction history book A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century). Even Social Contract Theory, the idea that leaders should serve and benefit the people they lead instead of simply exploiting them, was unknown until the so-called Enlightenment. If some rulers were beneficent, they were so simply out of pity for the people. And it's been a while since I've read TPotE, but I know that's not the only example. The main protagonists of that book seem to have a noticeably modern, post-Enlightenment, Progress-oriented outlook on life that gives them an edge over their regressive antagonists.

The good news is, capturing the NOSS-R mindset as typified in Edgar Rice Burroughs or the aforementioned Brightside Crossing ought to be easier to do than capturing historical mindsets and cultures that are further removed. And no doubt it would be way easier to write ERB pastiche than Jane Austen pastiche. After all, many of the original OSS stories were written in the lifetime of people yet living. But there is still a wide cultural gap there to be aware of even so.

12 Jan 2018: 


I think maybe the girl in The Pillars of the Earth achieved what she did because she was of above-average intelligence and guts, and impelled by stress to do something special; I can believe that could have happened; it's surprising what one-offs can occur.

I still feel that the foreigners-inheriting-a-nation thing is odd even in the terms of the times.  People had a realistic streak and could easily have saved themselves a lot of trouble by evolving a limited and specific custom to avoid such disastrous events, without impugning the Divine Right of Kings.  I think it's important to remain surprised. 

Another example: diplomatic relations between England and France were amazingly un-disrupted despite the English monarchs' theoretical claim to the Crown of France.  e.g. Charles II corresponded amicably (for the most part) with his cousin Louis XIV despite claiming the title of King of France himself!  (I think I'm right in saying that English monarchs claimed the title King of France from 1337 all the way to 1802.)  To me that's weird even in the terms of the time.  Surely the French kings ought to have been more sensitive on this issue.  Whereas in fact it apparently didn't bother them.

Think of how generously Louis received the exiled James II and housed him from 1689 to 1701.  All that time, James was in his own eyes titular King of France!  Crazy - especially when one considers how touchy Louis was in other respects concerning his prestige and 'honour'.  What a foggy mystery the past is!

You mention pastiche-writing.  That's a vital aspect of the NOSS debate since in a sense the entire NOSS could be regarded as a kind of genre-pastiche - though I'm aware that this is a controversial statement, biased towards the idea that the only proper NOSS is NOSS-R.

By the way, no one to my knowledge has ever done a good Burroughs pastiche.  Lin Carter's Thanator is by and large a failure, though an interesting one. 

Considering how much money ERB made, there must be a lot of incentive to follow in his footsteps, yet no one really has - but rather than regard that as an indication of how hard it is to get back into an OSS mindset, I suspect it simply means that ERB was a greater writer than he's usually given credit for, and thus harder to emulate.

Meanwhile on 11 January Dylan Jeninga joined in to sway the discussion in perhaps a more syncretic direction...


Specifically, sci-fi has always been a mirror to the world while simultaneously looking forward. H.G. Wells, Leigh Brackett, Kim Stanley Robinson, Andy Weir - four authors who brought Mars into our homes, and while those various Mars' varied substantially, all of them said something about who we are, good or bad, and all of them whispered to us about the triumphs and pitfalls of what we could be. 

My point, then, is that there really isn't any difference between the golden age OSS works and the NOSS stuff, or even RSS stuff. The mirror doesn't change, but what it reflects does. (This may seem a bit obvious, and perhaps it needn't be said at all, but frankly I'll take any excuse to talk about the nature of science fiction.)

That said, I can on one point see what you mean about missing the attitudes of old scifi. One thing in particular I wish we could replicate in a modern work is what I'll call the "of-course-edness".  Of course people can go to work as independent prospectors on the Moon. Of course you can crashland on a frontier asteroid and have a chance at making it home alive.  Of course the space race didn't stall after a few Lunar landings - we've got to have colonies on Pluto by now, right?

It's a sort of coziness, a feeling that space is a challenge, but it's nothing we can't handle. I think knowledge of the true hostility of the Solar System jaded us somewhat, and most modern fiction has to take the view that we are a bit out of our league if it wants to seem credible. It's probably more realistic, and I find myself nodding along as James S. A. Corey describes the grueling lives of Belters, but sometimes you get tired of the grit and want Commander Spaceage to invite you onto his rocket for a swing around the Jovian Moons. 

In short, it's my feeling that confronting the ever changing political, social and scientific landscape had always been a vital function of scifi, but I can appreciate a bit of escapism too.

12th January 2018:


A rather difficult though important sentence in that email of yours: 
"My point, then, is that there really isn't any difference between the golden age OSS works and the NOSS stuff, or even RSS stuff. The mirror doesn't change, but what it reflects does." 

If you're mainly saying that all three sub-genres possess in common a certain outward-looking adventurousness and a fascination with other worlds, which survives as a constant through all social changes, I agree, but that wide similarity leaves room for a lot of vital differences, which in my view can sometimes be stark enough to obliterate the similarities - so that, for instance, in an ultra-modern tale the mind-set of the characters may be so repulsively trendy that they strike a note of moral incompatibility with the adventurers of the past, such that it drowns out the breeze of adventure itself. 

In other words, though you do make a good case for saying that the spirit of SF has accommodated changes in public attitudes, I'm uneasy about how far this can or should apply to the OSS/NOSS  sub-genre.  I'm wondering if maybe the OSS/NOSS could prove ultimately to be a kind of drag-anchor, shifting forwards but at a reduced rate compared with the RSS, and offering, by its frictional resistance, an opportunity for the survival of certain old values.  A topic to keep philosophers busy! 

Finally, your remarks on the cosy "of-course-ness" are one hundred percent apt.  It sure is great the way one can simply charge around the OSS, prospecting, getting into scrapes, messing around... without supervision from Mission Control.  It's partly that the OSS is much more habitable, and partly that spaceships seem a lot cheaper there!

I might have left it there, with some readers perhaps still puzzled over the point of my previous remarks to Troy concerning Charles II, James II and Louis XIV, but luckily I received a timely intervention from my next-county-neighbour Robert Gibson, from whom I can always expect a salutary admonition whenever I look like straying off-topic.

RG:  Zendexor, with due respect I'd say it seemed like you were drifting a bit, when you expatiated upon the theme of Anglo-French diplomatic relations during the centuries when English monarchs claimed to be titular Kings of France.  Some of your readers, I suspect, might say to themselves, "Huh?  So what?  How is this example of royal vagary and inconsistency supposed to connect with the issue, of how well a NOSS author can expect to bridge a historic mind-set-gap?" 

I think you were jumping from point to point by instinct alone, so allow me to thread the argument for you a bit more explicitly and more consciously.

The usefulness of your point, about past protocols which were plumb nuts even in their own terms, is that it helps undermine the notion of a coherent past mind-set, and to substitute for it a more turbulent mental timeline, heaving with contradictions all along its length, so that authors are freer to wobble around and snatch what they want, picking and choosing their ideological frameworks - in short, we can go NOSS-R with a vengeance if that's what we feel like!

Zendexor:  Er - yes, that is what I wanted to say, sort of!  But while you're fixing things for me, RG, can you go one step further please?

You see, I want to avoid spouting too much relativism.  I agree about the turbulent mental timeline, but I also want to say that the NOSS-R yearning represents something reasonably stable and big.  A heavy supertanker riding out the waves of the rough ideological ocean, if you like.  I await your reply.

15th January 2018:

Robert Gibson:  Sorry for the delay in replying.  It needed some thought. 

First, let me state your dilemma, as I see it:

You sense something beautiful in decent old-style heroes and heroines, a freshness and a cleanness which fits nicely with the bracing outward breeze of freedom and adventure in the Old Solar System.  (We've discussed this before, you and I, when we were working together on Flame Lords of Jupiter:  the controversial and interesting parallelism between old-fashioned moral and old-fashioned scientific beliefs.  A chronological coincidence merely, but powerful for all that.)  So, in order that other NOSS writers may be encouraged to get at the beloved old attitudes of the OSS, and not be coy about embodying them in the kid of tale where they fit so well, you want to make it easier for them - you want to help smash the glassy time-wall between contemporary and traditional mind-sets.  But the way you set about this, creates another problem. 

You see, the means whereby you seek to smash or rather dissolve the wall, is by emphasizing the turbulence of the ongoing history of moral ideas, so as to show that rigid barriers cannot exist between the mind-sets of one age and those of another, and that therefore we can just reach back and snatch what we want.  Indeed, so we can - but then, how to tame the storm you've unleashed?

In magnifying the accessibility of the Decent Hero theme, you fear that you may, at the same time, be uprooting it and allowing it to flutter as one small leaf among many along the tempestuous and chaotic time-line which you have to face when you break that line's internal barriers. 

Well, my view on this is, that you needn't worry.  Sure, you uprooted the Decent Hero from his age and, in making him potentially universal, exposed him to the simultaneous competition of myriads of other mind-sets.  But he need not be overwhelmed by this.  Though adrift, he can still be heavy.  Just as great masses float in space, so a mind-set can validly cohere, internally robust despite lacking the support of exterior connections.

It's the coherentist versus the hierarchical notion of truth.  (You may remember I touch on this in The Slant.)

Let me do your neologizing thing...  

You remember my dialogue some time back with John Greer in his Ecosophia blog, and so you know the term I used when he and I were arguing about natural law:

Swodge.  Short for "Substantial Wodge".

That's the kind of free-floating moral mass I'm talking about - a sizeable manifestation of arguable (though not provable) natural law.  Sizeable enough to command respect.  Not the only game in town, but weighty enough to give pause to those who would dismiss it.

The concept of the Swodge in my view deals effectively with Greer's objection to natural law arguments - that's to say, his point that natural law can mean anything because of a multitude of contradictory examples.  The Greer argument comes too late, because the growth of the mighty Trad-Swodge, its accretion over centuries, its historic entwining with the lives of so many good people, so many achievements, so many  literary associations which depend upon it (for instance you couldn't re-write The Lord of the Rings in lib-speak; it wouldn't work) - the whole thing, in sum, is so big that it's far too late to dismiss it with the relativist observation that other Swodges contradict it and that therefore "anything goes" as regards natural law.  The Swodge which spreads its glow over old literature, including the OSS, isn't just "anything".

Certainly it can't compete with the rival Libberoid Swodge which only began to prevail in the 1960s. 

In the centuries to come, perhaps the Libberoid Swodge will likewise accumulate kudos, style, dignify, if this culture lasts that long.  But at the moment, in its mewling infancy, it can't compete.

So, all you writers, if it suits your tales to go into NOSS-R mode, feel confident and free - the glowing realm is still there for the taking.

16 Jan 2018


Re: the great NOSS-R/NOSS-T debate, I think what Robert Gibson said is of much merit. I would add only that authors, whether writing for the anthology or otherwise, should feel free to portray whatever culture or mindset that strikes their fancy. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say - a good story is a good story. For me it is more important that a story be good than that it seek to propagate a belief that I agree with. But then again, I am not judging the anthology.

One other suggestion I would offer to authors who want to draw on the image of a traditional, "decent" hero would be to consider having a protagonist be such, but with a surrounding culture and/or a companion "foil" character who is the opposite (i.e. postmodern and cynical). The contrast so drawn will let the author explore the theme more fully, if they wish, or at the very least will be rich fodder for some comedy relief. In fact, ancient Greek comedies were often structured that way, with a naively idealistic main protagonist and a sarcastic, world-weary sidekick called the eiron (from whom we get our word "irony"). To my mind, an approach like that is much more likely to "work", even for modern (and postmodern) audiences, than purely Golden Age pastiche. If it catches on, call it the Electrum Age of SF.

One other thing to add: even though I probably come down closer to the NOSS-T end of the spectrum than you or Robert Gibson, I find literature that's deliberately "trendy" and "relevant" to be frustrating sometimes also, especially if the "relevantitis" is taken too far. Recently I re-read an anthology of RSS sci-fi novellas called Escape From Earth: New Adventures in Space, a 2007 collection edited by Gardner Dozois (i.e. the guy who did Old Mars and Old Venus). According to the book's introduction, it is intended to be Young Adult fiction in the same vein as Heinlein's juvenile SF from back in the day, but I have to say most of the stories in EFE are really heavy and depressing (unlike Heinlein), much of that because of the relevantitis. The protagonists of these stories are mostly pre-teens (give or take a couple years), who are invariably alienated from their abusive or missing parents (relevant!), who have harrowing adventures in a RSS that is portrayed as an incredibly grim and grueling environment (up-to-date science!), and who would love nothing more than to be free of fun-less Ceres or Ganymede or Mars and return to Earth, which the title of the anthology claims is a thing to be escaped from (irony!). It's not that the stories are bad, most of them are actually really, really good, but if the collection truly aims to be YA, then it must be admitted it fails in that purpose.  I can't imagine actually giving a kid a copy of Escape From Earth to read, unless the kid is really annoying and I want to send them away running and screaming from the very thought of outer space.

(The one exception is Orson Scott Card's contribution to EFE, a story called "Space Boy", which is MUCH more traditional in its sensibilities, including a more whimsical, OSS-ish treatment of fictional science.)

tl;dr... Authors, write what you think will be good, but consider a fusion of NOSS-R and NOSS-T themes.


Your comments provide a perfect "coping-stone to the arch", if I may put it that way, of the NOSS arguments - and I can imagine a "foil" character being just what a writer might need to use, as the only way round certain viewpoint-problems.  I hadn't known about the "eiron" - I'd better look into Greek comedy sometime!  So much to learn...

Glad you agree about relevantitis.  Escape from Earth sounds dire.  The fact that they're good stories must make it all the sadder - the sort of stuff that makes me feel that I'm being preached at by stunted souls.  Preaching is only rarely successful, and when it is, it's because it's inspiring, consciousness-expanding and chock-full of that special wisdom that can burnish platitudes so that they shine as fresh as the day they were born.  Otherwise it's just "nudge, nudge... remember, be a good boy, celebrate diversity, look after the environment..."  As Conan might say, "Crom!"

As an alternative to the pandemic of relevantitis, it is certainly preferable to encourage the literary alloy, the amalgam of NOSS-R and T, which you've dubbed the Electrum Age of SF.

This page has exceeded my hopes.  More than an exchange of views - valuable though that is - we seem to have achieved something fairly unusual: a philosophic-literary discussion which has actually got somewhere.

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