The Reference Library

by Don Sakers

We have a mental model of evolution, be it biological or linguistic, that’s hierarchical: species and words “progress” from simpler to more complex, from primitive to modern, from worse to better.

That model is misleading.

A better model, it’s been suggested, is the old lava lamp: a blob of melted wax suspended in water, its shape changing as it responds to heat, gravity, and currents in the water.

So it is with the shape of science fiction and its audiences.

Last issue we talked about how the history of science fiction was marked by the accretion of various distinct audiences, making it impossible to speak of a singular “audience” for SF. Now, I’d like to turn my attention to how those various audiences affected the field (especially the text form of SF).

The first distinct audience, before SF was even a recognized genre, were readers who enjoyed exotic adventure tales. So authors gave them what they wanted. Verne’s expeditions around the Moon, to the center of the Earth, and under the sea were all part of a 54-volume sequence called Extraordinary Voyages (in French, Voyages extraordinaires). Wells’s fiction wrapped musings on morality in adventure dress. Burroughs took readers to Mars, Venus, and inside the Earth—but also to an equally unreal Africa, the Wild West, and swashbuckling eras of history.

When Hugo Gernsback launched Amazing Stories in 1926, he’d already attracted an audience of electronics hobbyists and amateur engineers, almost exclusively intelligent white boys. SF writers of the era responded with lone inventors, engineers as heroes, and bright talented outcasts who saved the world from bullying aliens. There was a dearth of women characters.

With the Campbell years, more and more professional engineers and scientists became readers, along with a fair number of military men (especially when so many were drafted in World War II). To please this audience, SF became more mature, and placed a higher regard on the use of accurate science. (The earlier audience remained; while some magazines tried to follow in Campbell’s footsteps, others—notably Amazing—stuck with the exotic-adventure and lone-inventor approach.)

Come the 1950s, and an explosion of social scientists (along with their non-science counterparts, ad men and pollsters and political consultants) led SF writers to include psychology, sociology, and other soft sciences in their stories.

Sometimes there’s a chicken-and-egg question of whether changing audience made SF change, or changes in SF brought in new readers. With the “New Wave” of the 1960s/1970s era, there’s no question: the youth-centered counterculture movement, which started in Britain and moved to the U.S., definitely preceded SF’s move toward more diversity in characters, themes, and literary experimentation.

Please note, I’m not implying that greedy SF writers looked around and said, “Ah, here’s a new social trend we can exploit.” The pioneers of the New Wave, just like those of all the other shifts, were predominantly writers new in the field, bringing with them the sensibilities of the particular social evolution.

When SF movies and TV began to appear regularly—especially shows like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Star Trek—many people who had never been exposed to SF before started reading (and writing) it. This included for the first time a fair number of women. And the field reacted with greater emphasis on characters and relationships, more tolerance for romantic elements, and less of an emphasis on hard science. (Of course, a portion of the field also reacted with thinly-disguised misogyny . . . and does so to this day.)

Further expansion in the wake of Star Wars helped inspire a resurgence of action-based military SF.

Concurrent with all these developments, waves of more diverse audiences came to read SF—people of color, feminists, LGBT readers, and a world full of distinct ethnicities and cultures. That brings us up to the present era, when SF is struggling with issues of identity, cultural appropriation, and inclusion. Like all the shifts that have gone before, this one will undoubtedly leave the field broader and richer, with more different kinds of SF for more different kinds of people.

As long as the water stays hot, the glob of wax will continue to transform its shape. So why don’t we all relax and enjoy the shifting forms?

*   *   *

The Oppenheimer Alternative
Robert J. Sawyer
Caezik Books, 349 pages, $19.99 (trade paperback)
ISBN: 978-1-64721-0013-1
Genre: Alternate History, Hard SF

*   *   *

You might think you know what to expect from a Robert J. Sawyer book: something set in a near-future world similar to our own; real people dealing with the social implications of ideas from the edges of current science; fascinating, well-dramatized exploration of philosophical and ethical matters. The Oppenheimer Alternative, an alternate history thriller set in the opening years of the atomic age, might seem a bit of a departure. Not to worry, this book has everything a reader wants from Sawyer.

Just as the arrival of the atom bomb was a pivotal event for science fiction, it was also pivotal for the so-called “real world” outside our field. This year is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the first detonation of an atomic bomb at the Alamogordo Bombing Range in New Mexico. That test, code-named Trinity, was on July 16, 1945. Publication of The Oppenheimer Alternative is scheduled to coincide with the anniversary.

Like the best alternate histories, this extensively researched book conveys a real sense of life in what, to almost all of us, is a past distant enough to be alien, yet recent enough to have familiar elements. The protagonist is J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American theoretical physicist who headed the Los Alamos Laboratory during the Manhattan Project—and who was later stripped of his security clearance because of his advocacy for international control of nuclear weapons. It is Oppenheimer who, after the Trinity test, quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

In Sawyer’s alternate history, Oppenheimer struggles to keep together his team of world-class scientists, in order to fight a looming disaster perhaps more of a threat to the planet than the forces they unleashed in Trinity. For Oppenheimer has discovered an irregularity in solar fusion patterns—one that he forecasts will cause a nova in eighty-odd years. The Earth’s atmosphere will be blasted away, its oceans boiled off, unless Oppenheimer and his team can come up with a solution.

While it’s not necessary to be familiar with the story of Oppenheimer and the atom bomb (Sawyer is an excellent guide), those who are will recognize the names—scientists, military personnel, and politicians—who populate the narrative. If nothing else, Analog readers almost surely know such names as Einstein, Teller, Feynman, Fermi, and Szilard.

Well-drawn alternate history, rigorous SF thriller, social commentary, redemption narrative—The Oppenheimer Alternative reimagines one of the most influential lives of the twentieth century. Well worth reading.

*   *   *

Accepting the Lance
Sharon Lee & Steve Miller
Baen, 432 pages, $25.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 9788-1-9821-2421-2
Series: Liaden Universe 22, Theo Waitley 7
Genre: Romantic SF, Space Opera

*   *   *

A new Liaden Universe novel is always cause for celebration. In this series, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller have created a delicious mix of high-concept space opera and romantic SF that never fails to delight. In fact, they’ve done for space opera pretty much what Anne McCaffrey did for colonies on other worlds: made it sparkle and fizz.

The previous book, Neogenesis (reviewed here in the May/June 2018 issue), focused on the return of supergenius AIs called Complex Intelligences, thought destroyed in war centuries ago. Accepting the Lance picks up that thread and weaves it together with those from other recent books, producing a tapestry of political plots, economic machinations, and old rivalries all aimed at Clan Korval, the family/trade union which is the true protagonist of the Liaden novels.

A few years ago, the dastardly Department of the Interior (DOI) forced Clan Korval to leave their homeworld Liad and retreat to the frigid outpost world of Surebleak. As Korval ships range through the galaxy, seeking to rebuild their shattered trade empire, the DOI ups the stakes. They send the Complex Intelligences to finish the job of destroying Korval.

It’s up to heroic pilot Theo Waitley and her AI-powered ship Bechimo to meet the invaders and convince them to abort their attack . . . and, if possible, to join forces with Korval.

Meanwhile the survivor of another DOI attack, Rys Lin pen’Chela, is having troubles of his own. He’s involved with his own plot to defeat the DOI, but is derailed when his adopted family faces a crisis. The Bechdel, who generations ago were abandoned on Surebleak by their own people, have made a comfortable home living secretly on the wintry world. Now a message comes saying that their people have found them, and a ship is on its way to bring them back. There are only three questions: is the message legitimate, or another DOI trick? If it is legitimate, do the Bechdel want to leave their home to return to a world most of them have never seen? And . . . will they have the choice?

It all sounds terribly complex and confusing, but don’t be afraid. Lee and Miller are old hands at this; in their care, even readers brand new to Liaden won’t get lost. One of the strengths of the Liaden Universe is that—with very few exceptions—there’s no mandated reading order. Jump in with any Liaden Universe book; everything you need to know is contained there.

*   *   *

Frozen Orbit
Patrick Chiles
Baen, 336 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $8.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-9821-2430-4
Genre: Exploration & Discovery, Religious/Philosophical SF, Space Travel

Patrick Chiles is a relative newcomer to our field. He arrived in 2016 with Perigee and Farside, technothrillers telling the story of a supersonic suborbital passenger spaceplane marooned in orbit and the aftermath (yes, Thomas Block’s 1982 novel Orbit had a similar theme).

Frozen Orbit is a more ambitious book, a near-future tale of space exploration and discovery with echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and some of Larry Niven’s work.

The NASA spaceship Magellan is bound for the outer Solar System, first making a flyby of Jupiter to collect a cargo module launched earlier. On the way, they get astonishing news from home: they’re not the first to come this way.

The wreckage of a long-lost Soyuz capsule contains old records telling of Arkangel, a Russian mission launched just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Arkangel was bound for Pluto, and transcripts of the dead commander’s log reveal that they made it. Experts in the Kremlin also believe that they discovered something there that drove the crew mad.

In defiance of NASA orders to abort at Jupiter, the crew of Magellan elect to continue on to confront the decades-old mystery and find out what’s waiting at Pluto.

During the long trip to the Kuiper Belt, astronauts Traci Keene and Jack Templeton pore over Arkangel’s commander’s log and diary, hoping to find some buried clues. What they find leads them to believe that the Soviets may have stumbled on a secret older than life on Earth—and one with profound implications about humanity’s place in the Universe.

Chiles, an ex-Marine who works in aviation safety, certainly knows his stuff: his depictions of Magellan and its technology are persuasive and well thought out. He does a great job of depicting the complexities of cutting age tech and the people who work with it every day. And if his extrapolations of politics and economics are a trifle simplified (have fun spotting the sly references to Ayn Rand), he more than makes up for it with the philosophical and theological questions the book raises.

Fair warning: the ending is a tad abrupt; I assume a sequel is on the way to address many of the questions the book raises. But even without such a sequel, it’s definitely a thought-provoking story in the traditional Analog mode.

*   *   *

The Blood-Dimmed Tide
Michael R. Johnston
Flame Tree Press, 229 pages, $24.95 (hardcover),
$14.95 (trade paperback)

Kindle: $6.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-7875-8313-9
Series: Remembrance War 2
Genre: Alien Beings, Military SF, Psychological/Sociological SF

*   *   *

Michael R, Johnston is another relative newcomer. He’s a high school English teacher in Sacramento, California. His debut, SF novel, The Widening Gyre, was published last year by Flame Tree Press. The Blood-Dimmed Tide is a sequel.

The Widening Gyre introduced us to a far future in which the last surviving humans, adrift in a damaged colony ship, were rescued by an alien race called the Zhen. The Zhen rescued the humans, gave them a place to live, and them adopted into the Zhen Empire.

Life wasn’t easy for humans in the Empire. To some of the Zhen, they were unwelcome freeloaders; others tolerated them but insisted they assimilate into Zhen culture. Human languages and history were outlawed. Over the course of eight centuries, Earth was forgotten and human culture receded into the realm of legend and folklore.

Human Tajen Hunt, advancing in the Zhen military, became a hero in the war with the enemy Tabrans. Later forced to resign in disgrace, he retreated to the frontier. There, against all odds, he and his crew discovered the legendary planet Earth . . . and uncovered the fact that it was the Zhen, eight hundred years ago, who exterminated most of the human race.

The Blood-Dimmed Tide opens years later, when the repopulation of Earth is well underway. Settlers arrive from all over the Empire, fleeing Zhen oppression. For humanity, a new age has begun.

Optimism fades when Zhen attacks bring the nascent Earth to its knees. Tajen Hunt is dispatched to seek help from the Kelvaki Assembly, a potentially friendly government. But then the Heir to the Kelvaki throne is almost assassinated, leaving Tajen at the mercy of opposing factions of the Byzantine politics of Kelvaki.

Then the Zhen land and occupy Earth, and Tajen has to return to free his new world. However, that’s not going to be as easy as he expects—for some Earth humans are actually agents of the Zhen. And nobody knows who’s on which side.

Fine thrillers with many resonances for today’s world, both The Blood-Dimmed Tide and its precursor are rewarding reads.

*   *   *

Starborn & Godsons
Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Steven Barnes
Baen, 416 pages, $25 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978-1-9821-2448-9
Series: Heorot 3
Genre: Colonization

*   *   *

Despite all of the technological changes in the past few decades, traditional publishing still moves fairly slowly. This lends a particular melancholy following the death of any prolific author, as stories and books “still in the pipeline” continue to appear in subsequent months and even years.

As I’m sure you know, Dr. Jerry Pournelle died in September 2017. Starborn & Godsons is the latest book bearing his name to appear. It’s a worthy memorial. (Take heart; as of this writing both of his coauthors, Larry Niven and Steven Barnes, are still with us, and may they remain so for many years to come.)

The Heorot series (the name comes from Beowulf, as does much of the underlying structure) started in 1987 with The Legacy of Heorot, and continued with Beowulf’s Children (1995) and the 2012 novella “The Secret of Black Ship Island.” You can find the latter in The Best of Jerry Pournelle, also reviewed last issue.

The colony on the planet Avalon is now into a third generation, and thriving. They’ve conquered the grendels, semi-sapient monsters who produce an enzyme called speed that temporarily kicks metabolism into super-speed. They’ve built hydroelectric stations to supplement the dying nuclear generators brought from Earth. The island core of the colony is successful, and outposts on the mainland are firmly established.

Unfortunately, as their tech continues to break down, the Avalonians, who call themselves the Starborn, are losing the AI that stores most of their knowledge. With it, they’re rapidly losing the ability to get into space. It looks as if the colony will forever be imprisoned on this one world.

Then another colony ship from Earth arrives, and the happy colony is thrown into turmoil. The newcomers, the Godsons, represent a faction on Earth that the original Avalon colonists feared and disliked, fleeing to the stars to escape their growing influence. The Godsons have their own plans for Avalon, plans that don’t include the colonists.

But there’s another faction with quite different ideas, a supremely alien intelligence native to Avalon. And how humans fit into their plans is an open question.

With separate introductions by Niven and Barnes, Starborn & Godsons is a fine capstone to the story of Avalon.

*   *   *

The Renegat
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
WMG, 754 pages, $29.99 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $5.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-5614-6090-9
Series: Diving Universe 8
Genre: Adventure SF, Space Opera

*   *   *

In Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Diving Universe, everything revolves around the salvagers. In the eternal conflict between the Nine Planets Alliance and the evil Enterran Empire, the key to victory lies with advanced tech salvaged from ancient alien derelicts in the vast, lawless volume of space known as the Boneyard. Trips into the Boneyard are risky and uncertain, but the salvage from a successful expedition can mean the difference between life and death for millions.

It starts off innocuously. Fleet cadet Nadim Crowe, a gifted engineer, accompanies several of his fellow cadets on an unauthorized joyride. Before the trip is over, they’ve unwittingly destroyed a Scrapheap of alien ships: an immeasurable loss for the Fleet. Nadim winds up assigned to the Renegat, a ship notorious for being a home to misfits and losers.

When the Fleet becomes aware that another Scrapheap was invaded and cannibalized, they want to know who was responsible. And where they are now.

A ship must be sent on a mission to go back through time and space and solve the mystery. A mission that will almost certainly result in the loss of both ship and crew. An impossible mission that no one wants to undertake.

There’s only one ship the Fleet can risk—so the reluctant crew of the Renegat sets forth into the unknown. The odds are against them . . . but if anyone can beat those odds, it’s Nadim Crowe and the oddball crew of the most scorned ship in the Fleet.

*   *   *

Vulcan’s Forge
Robert Mitchell Evans
Flame Tree Press, 233 pages, $24.95 (hardcover)
$14.95 (trade paperback)

ISBN: 978-1-7875-8399-3 Genre: Artificial Intelligence, Noir SF, Other Worlds, Psychological/Sociological SF

*   *   *

Robert Mitchell Evans is a horror and SF writer with half a dozen pieces of short fiction to his credit. His 2011 collection Horseshoes & Hand Grenades: Tales of Terror and Technology includes five short stories of SF horror. Vulcan’s Forge is his first novel.

Nocturnia is the only human colony to survive the destruction of the home planet. Society on Nocturnia has developed into a distorted version of 1950s America, complete with a sexually repressed culture, an emphasis on conformity, and a socially enforced nuclear family pattern right out of Leave it to Beaver (for you younger readers, please look it up online).

Jason Kessler doesn’t fit in the strict, repressive society of Nocturna. He’s too much of an individualist and nonconformist. When he meets Pamela Guest, a mysterious and beautiful woman, he rebels against the strictures of society and begins a clandestine affair with her.

Things take a serious turn when Pamela convinces him to steal Vucan’s Forge, a powerful near-AI computer. In no time at all, Jason finds himself deep in the criminal underworld, tracked by the government, various gangs of crooks, and an enigmatic cabal with unknown intentions.

Before long, Jason learns that his world isn’t what it seems, and his future—as well as the colony’s—rest on the unknown abilities of Vulcan’s Forge.

*   *   *

The Collapsium
Wil McCarthy
Baen, 368 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
ISBN: 978-1-9821-2449-6
Series: Queendom of Sol 1
Genre: Far Future/Clarke’s Law

*   *   *

Oh, look, here’s Wil McCarthy again (I reviewed his Antediluvian last issue).

The Collapsium, originally published in 2000, is back in a nice-looking trade paperback edition from Baen. First in the Queendom of Sol series, The Collapsium is one of those far-future hard SF books that conforms precisely to Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. This future is a place filled with wonders and terrors, precariously teetering on the edge of surreal absurdity.

Bruno de Towaji, scientist and dilettante, lives on his self-constructed planet and plays with technological marvels. Foremost among them are wellstone: fully programmable matter that can take on any desired configuration, and collapsium: a substance made of crystallized black holes, capable of transmitting matter and energy across the Solar System.

Bruno’s former lover, Her Majesty Tamra Lutui, the Virgin Queen of All Things (thanks to advanced tech, her virginity is self-renewing), is likewise tinkering. It seems that her Majesty’s scientists, under the direction of Marlon Sykes, have constructed a collapsium ring around the Sun. All very well and good, until sabotage sends the ring toppling toward the Sun.

Faced with the imminent destruction of the entire Solar System, Bruno has to put aside his jealousies, both professional and personal—for Sykes has replaced him as Her Majesty’s chief lover—and work with his adversary for the survival of all.

The Collapsium is rollicking good fun, and well deserves to be back in print. If you haven’t had the pleasure, now’s the time.

*   *   *

Gremlins Go Home
Ben Bova & Gordon R. Dickson
Baen, 123 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $7.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-9821-2424-3
Genre: Alien Beings, Humorous SF

*   *   *

Originally published in 1974 (as Gremlins Go Home!, and apparently the exclamation mark counts among bibliographers), this little gem has been out of print since the 1980s. It’s very much a product of its time, but if you can ignore the dated elements it’s still a quick, fun read.

Rolf Gunnarson lives near Kennedy Space Center with his father, mother, baby sister, and faithful dog Shep. Rolf’s father is in charge of the upcoming launch to Mars, but Rolf has no interest in the space program. Feeling quite neglected by his busy parents, Rolf goes to his favorite place, a wildlife refuge near the Cape, to indulge his interest in nature.

After taking a tumble, Rolf awakens to see two foot-tall men arguing with his dog. As it develops, the two are authentic leprechauns, a.k.a. Gremlins. Except they aren’t mythical creatures but aliens marooned centuries ago on Earth. All they want is to go home to their world Gremla.

And now that human technology has developed to the point of space travel, the way home presents itself. All the gremlins need to do is get aboard the mars ship, then hijack it: next stop, Gremla.

Except there’s too much cold iron about, so they need a human accomplice. And Rolf, given his father’s position, is the ideal candidate. . . .

That’s about it for this issue. See you next time.


Don Sakers is the author of the Rule of Five serial at and A Cosmos of Many Mansions, a collection based on previous columns. For more information, visit


Copyright © 2020 Don Sakers