What makes good SciFi?

I am re-reading Peter Hamilton’s “The Naked God”, the last book in his “The Night’s Dawn” trilogy and even on my second turn, I love (nearly) every passage, character and plotline.   Hamilton now holds first place on my list of authors, a place that Neal Stephenson used to hold – before Neal published the abortions Reamde and Seveneves and thus utterly destroyed my devotion to his prose.  But on that later.

Then was of course the hubbub around the “Fountain War” book that died prematurely due to incredibly bad planning and marketing.  I had endorsed that book and was genuinely looking forward to it before I had read a single word by Jeff Edwards.   So, I felt compelled to buy one of his books “The Sea of Shadows” but struggled to finish it.   I maintain that with solid research and good editing, Jeff could have done an awesome job at writing our story in a popular fiction format but I can’t see myself reading anything else by him.

So I found a new favorite author, ditched an old one, assessed a candidate and developed a strong opinion on every one.  But why?

First of all, Jeff Edwards was the odd one out, it wasn’t SciFi, it was contemporary Tom Clancy-style US Navy chestbeating where strong-jawed men and women in uniform beat a technologically advanced foe with even more technology but also good ol’  American improvisation.  Written with nothing but the most implausible backstory and cartoonish characters it loses itself in naval techno-babble.  The same can be said for Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves.  It basically tries to be a feasibility study how mankind could survive if the moon exploded and its bits rained onto earth with rather obvious consequences.  Its disjointed writing style, total absence of likable characters or believable emotional plot makes it tolerable maybe as a dinner conversation piece among engineering students but it entirely lacks emotional stickiness.

But if those books don’t work, lets reach back for a second and understand what SciFi really is.

Human’s strive to improve ourselves has created all the technology around us.  In principle, there are two ways to create something new – random changes to the existing design with subsequent culling of inferior results (=evolution) or deliberate changes as a consequence of the assessment of an imaginary product (creative design).  SciFi is the epitome of the second path, it is an expression how we can imagine the future if we change a few of the design elements.

The origin of this imaginary trip into an alternate presence has to be the reader’s current experience.  Jules Verne famously wrote SciFi based on the experience his society had with steam power and gun powder.  Consequently, his method of spaceflight consisted of building a very large gun (by the way, read the book, its really good, don’t rely on that Georges Méliès’ production – that was groundbreaking in a different context).


The gun covered the distance between his reader’s base expectations of technology at the time and his proposal to use it for a moonshot.  The reader has to just trust the author that his advanced society manages little things like acceleration, vacuum, navigation etc but otherwise, the physics is reasonably sound.  A very large gun could indeed shoot a projectile into (at least near) orbit. Impractical but possible.

For today’s readers who have a base concept about Wormholes, traversing them is likely as unbelievable as Jules Verne’s gun at its time.  I am personally quite comfortable that it can’t be done within my lifetime but I can see that eventually the challenges can be overcome.


I do however have a real issue with “The Force“, StarWar’s plot element to explain telekinesis and telepathy.  In my imagination there is no conceivable way how humans could just spontaneously segregate into the “haves” and “have nots”.  One step too far for me.

Good SciFi knows all about the distance between the plausible and the ridiculous. Good SciFi eases the reader into the story with a few approachable concepts and builds on it.  The best example that I can come up is immortality.  Of course, as humans, eventually we will reach it.  So, the idea in itself isn’t that complicated to grasp. What is, is the method by which we will gain it.  Cellular rejuvenation?  Mind transfer into cloned bodies?  Convergence of personalities into a communal mind construct?  Pick one, all of them have been written in good SciFi books.  But now for the next step: how does society function under those conditions?  Death penalty lost its grip. Life in prison gets a new definition, so does marriage – forever means really forever.  What will money buy me once I am truly eternal?  Good SciFi takes issues like these head on and walks the reader through the “what-if” thought experiment – if only to acquiesce the nagging doubt.  Bad SciFi glances over these consequences and literally puts technology into the foreground becoming nothing but a geek’s wet dream.

To end, not sure why I write this post other than that I spent this week on the road without scratching my EVE itch and hence let my mind wander a bit.  EVE related – my last post about my industry experiment generated a ton of extremely good, genuinely helpful feedback.   Oreb Wing was so kind to even send me a contract with BPCs and detailed instructions how to use them.  I am humbled by the support and will kickstart my manufacturing team into overdrive this week. So, much thanks to Oreb and the others who sent me all the advice and offers to help me along.  You are my reason for playing EVE.

Oh, last one- I found it rather ironic to write post about ScifFi and then encounter a bad-sector issue, literally the exact same problem I had many times over the last 10 years.  Some things just don’t change.






2 responses to “What makes good SciFi?

  1. Seveneves isn’t that type of Scifi novel. It’s not a rabbit hole of questions about how technology affects us. It’s a novel of what’s possible and what may be possible.

    The first two thirds of the novel were based on some fairly big engineering problems we’d have to solve to do X, Y, and Z things. He gave us an answer for how it could be done using plausible technology. It’s all about what we could do now if we wanted to. If we had the drive we could accomplish with current or near current technology.

    The last third is pie in the sky thinking. Right now the holy grail of realistic ideas is a space elevator, it’s everywhere in scifi and been explored to death. The Eye is bigger than that, better than that. And the physics of it work out, assuming material technologies, it’s possible. He gave science fiction a new thing with that. We’ll see the Eye pop up now in the type of science fiction you are talking about. The big whip thing in the Indian Ocean, that’ll show up too. It’s a new spin on an old idea, but an interesting variant. The Moirans are also an interesting concept.

    Seveneves is about setting up ideas for future exploration. If enough of those ideas take off Seveneves will be cemented as a scifi masterpiece because it gave us things scifi needs more than anything. New “What If’s?” to explore. Who knows how that’ll pan out. Could come to pass, may not come to pass. Depends what other authors decide to do with it.

    • you are entirely correct. Seveneves may in future be a seminal document. But in the meantime, it is a badly written thought-experiment how the species could survive in space. The plot is a joke (the moon explodes because of a traveling singularity. Oh please), humans go to outer space despite that the real logistics is so much easier to build out massive caves and house 10s of thousands of humans with unlimited energy. No, space had to be the solution because Neal wanted to write about it. Or rather, his posse of interns – the entire book appears glued together by snippets acquired from breathless millennial West Coast students.

      Aside from the rampant inaccuracies, aside from the plotholes that you could fly a comet through, aside from the boring and uninspiring characters, aside from the out-of-nowhere racism, its a terrible book. It has no real story line, it has no real ending, it has no real personal development and – above all – I just do not care about any survivors. Sure, its better than that pseudo-Tom-Clancy crap of Reamde but only because we can superimpose ourselves as survivors, basically keeping the stage and erasing the actors.

      No, friend, the Stephenson of Diamond Age, Snowcrash, Baroque Circle, Cryptomonicon and – my favorite – Anathem, is dead or hibernating.

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