American Science Fiction, Classic Novels of the 1950’s

“Kingsley Amis did in his 1960 critical study New Maps of Hell. Amis contended that science fiction, like jazz, developed a self-aware identity in the second and third decades of the twentieth century, attracted a knowledgeable and devoted following largely of younger fans, and gained new levels of imaginative and stylistic sophistication in the 1940s…By the 1950s, science fiction had accreted a variety of modes and conventions…By the end of the decade, a field once dominated by short “pulp” fiction had reinvented itself, and expanded the range of “the novel” more generally.”

Classic American Science Fiction Novels of the 1950s

Never really thought of the 1950s as the time science fiction transitioned from pulp fiction to the novel, but it’s obviously true now that I see it pointed out. This website provides an overview of seminal works of the period.

Silurian Stories

I have a idea for a series of stories exploring the Silurian Hypothesis as recurrent history, where we discover previous industrial civilizations on earth, and are in turn discovered by the industrial civilization after ours, possibly after some minor colonization of the solar system but where climate change catastrophe cuts the sustainability of human settlements everywhere and tracing a future history where there is a decline to small hunter gatherer groups that then returns to an Information Age, and perhaps a discovery of an artifact from our previous era, something distinctive like a Space Shuttle, fusion reactor, NORAD bunker, or some such.

Watching Babylon 5 in 2018

Note: I’ve tried to avoid any spoilers, which significantly limits this discussion.

In June 2018, Babylon 5 became available on Amazon Prime. On Amazon Prime, the series starts with The Gathering, which is a 2 hour pilot that lays out the narrative framework with different actors from the main series. Then, it’s 5 seasons of 22 episodes of ~45 minutes a piece. So, if you want to watch it, you’re looking at investing about ~85 hours of your life. Is it worth it?

Babylon 5 was planned from the start to be a 5 season series. It has a multi-season narrative arc that uses an ensemble cast with characters and situations that evolve in a way that is interesting and engaging. From episode to episode, different characters are central to the story, which gives each character a depth that is unusual for any television series, even today.

It’s an epic science fiction story. It involves a couple of thousand years of history but is focused on just 5 crucial years within that span, with each season lasting a year. It’s a complete world, with multiple alien civilizations and individuals that are central to the narrative, where Earth is one culture among many. While evolving technology plays an important role in plot dynamics, it’s really the relationships and interplay between different people and cultures that drive the action. Every character and society has strengths and is flawed in some important way, which really breathes life into the series.

Clearly, Babylon 5 has had a major impact on rethinking what kind of story a television series could convey, and it was a precursor to the best television series of today. But, it does have some weaknesses.

The CGI from the mid-1990s has not aged well, but I don’t think it detracts significantly from the story. You could make the argument that while Season 5 ties up a lot of loose ends, it is the weakest season and could be skipped. Some of the acting is stilted. There are elements of the story that are reminiscent of a soap opera. There are also some story lines that end abruptly because of personnel changes or they are just left dangling. On the whole, Babylon 5 feels like an organic piece of story-telling, but it is a little messy. In many ways, it’s reflection of real life. It also explores universal questions about love, time, addiction, diversity, cooperation, brokenness, etc. There is much to consider beyond the story itself.

Watching it now, in the context of a global move to nationalist politics and fear of the Other, I found that there was much in the story that speaks to our historical moment, even though there is almost 25 years separating them. Despite its weaknesses, I enjoyed watching Babylon 5 in 2018. It may be eclipsed by the likes of The Sopranos, Band of Brothers, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and the many excellent series that exist today, but it is still good enough to be included in any conversation about important series worth watching. If you are a fan of other science fiction series beyond Star Trek variants and Star Wars, i.e., Farscape, Firefly, X-Files, Quantum Leap, Sense8 (also by J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5), etc., chances are good you will like Babylon 5.

If you’re on the fence, try the first five episodes of Season 1.

Greg Egan and the Permutation Problem

“Then on September 26 of this year, the mathematician John Baez of the University of California, Riverside, posted on Twitter about Houston’s 2014 finding, as part of a series of tweets about apparent mathematical patterns that fail. His tweet caught the eye of Egan, who was a mathematics major decades ago, before he launched an award-winning career as a science fiction novelist (his breakthrough 1994 novel, in a happy coincidence, was called Permutation City). “I’ve never stopped being interested in ,” Egan wrote by email.

Egan wondered if it was possible to construct superpermutations even shorter than Houston’s. He scoured the literature for papers on how to construct short paths through permutation networks, and after a few weeks found exactly what he needed. Within a day or two, he had come up with a new upper bound on the length of the shortest superpermutation for n symbols: n! + (n-1)! + (n-2)! + (n-3)! + n-3. It’s similar to the old factorial formula, but with many terms removed.”

—Erica Klarreich. “Mystery Math Whiz and Novelist Advance Permutation Problem.” Quanta. November 5, 2018.

Greg Egan’s hard sci-fi novels are amazing. Axiomatic is a collection of short stories that can give you a sense of what to expect. Read Diaspora if you want to jump right into the deep end. Read Quarantine if you want to take on a series.

Exploring the Future Beyond Cyberpunk’s Neon and Noir

Discussion of nine current subgenres in science fiction: Chinese Sci-Fi, Afrofuturism, Gulf futurism, Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi), Solar Punk, Water Crisis Thrillers, Kitchen Sink Dystopia, Woke Space Opera, and The New Weird. Each category has three book suggestions. Of the suggestions I’ve read (which are very few), I’ve liked Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy and everything by N. K. Jemisin.

—Jay Owens. “Exploring the Future Beyond Cyberpunk’s Neon and Noir.” Medium.com. October 17, 2018.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

“Of all the things you can read on the internet, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is one of the only good ones. In perpetual conversation with itself, ever growing and expanding—perhaps threatening, in its accumulated obsessions, to become self-aware—this index of the fantastic documents possible pasts and futures alike.”
—M.H. Rowe. “The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is the Best Place on the Internet
Self-Referential, Argumentative, and Never Dispassionate.” Lithub.com. August 16, 2018.

M.H. Rowe’s article is a love letter to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. The whole thing is fantastic. If you aren’t interested in diving in after reading it, you’re never going to be.

My favorite entry, thus far, is infodumps. Also, I appreciated the reminder to read Ted Chiang on my first dive in.