Tag: Science Fiction

Psychics in Science Fiction

Usually when people think of science fiction, it is a rule-based setting. Near future, far future, alternate past –  the “what if” of a good science fiction novel usually sticks with what could be, if things develop according to the way society is trending and the rules of science allow. But what then do you do with science fiction that adds in something fantastical? For my purposes you get a Science Fiction/Fantasy blend.

Psychic powers are one of the most common fantasy elements that get added to what can otherwise be straightforward science fiction.  There is no scientific basis (at this time!) for psychic powers. No proof that they exist or could exist, or would exist if the conditions were right.  But they are irresistible to authors in many genres. Some even bother to walk through scientific example of why the powers manifest.  But really, they’re just cool. The great thing about genre blends is that authors feel free to borrow whatever cool bits they like from other genres. It’s a big part of why I like blends. So with no further ado, here are some great examples of SF with psychic powers

 

foundationFoundation series by Isaac Asimov

Start with: Foundation

Asimov’s classic series is the story of a galactic empire in decline. Hari Sheldon is the inventor of psychohistory, the ability to see the future through the use of history, psychology and statistics. He foresees the end of society and brings together humanity’s greatest thinkers to create a safe hold, a foundation at the edge of the galaxy. But that’s not even the psychic part!  There is a character of Mule, whose ability to control others through their emotions makes him a dangerous man, and a threat to Hari’s plans.  There’s some other psychic stuff running through the series, but none of this makes it any less of a classic of the science fiction genre.

bloodysunDarkover series by Marian Zimmer Bradley

Start with: The Bloody Sun

People have been arguing about the Darkover series since it was first published.  SF or fantasy? There are also quite a few arguments over whether it is worth reading.  The quality of the series is really, really all over the place. I loved the books as a teen but see their flaws quite clearly as an adult.  But somehow I have fond feelings for them, and their cray-cray sf/fantasy weirdness. On the one hand, some of the volumes have a completely fantasy feel, with a feudal society where the aristocracy have psychic powers. Best examples for those books are HawkMistress! or StormQueen! (or as I think of them – the exclamation point books!). But The Bloody Sun is a better example of the books that deal with this feudal, psychic society’s clash with earth, which has a much more SF feel. MZB gives a semi-scientific example for her psychic powers in these later volumes.

dunesmDune series by James Herbert

Start with: Dune

Hmm… how to talk about the psychic woo-woo stuff in Dune without giving too much away? I fully admit to bouncing off Dune hard when I first tried to read it, as it starts with a very dry explanation of galactic politics. But once you get on the planet of Dune, and our young hero Paul starts to take his place in destiny, it starts to really work. In the series, one of the galaxy’s master manipulators is a group known as the Bene Gesserit. Through a combo of long-game genetic manipulation and the use of the mysterious Spice, found only on Arrakis, they have developed a whole range of psychic powers, especially telepathy and precognition. Oh, and the basis of interstellar travel has a psychic element as well, as the navigators use Spice to put themselves into a weird state that allows faster-than-light travel.

manycoloredlandSaga of the Pliocene Exile by Julian May

Start with: The Many-Colored Land

In the Pliocene Exile books, a man from the future (just looked it up 2034 – not too future now!) discovers a portal to the past of six million years ago. Ever since, certain disaffected mavericks have made the one-way journey to the presumed peaceful and idyllic era. The first book follows a group that make the trip from 2110 to the Pliocene, only to find two warring humanoid but alien races already living there. Both races have paranormal powers, and the humans find themselves drawn into the conflict between them. The psychic powers are not alien-specific, though. As you read the whole series the set-up is that humanity, as a species, has been developing ESP powers as well. Some of the exiles who chose to jump to the past do so because they feel out of step with the new galactic mind.  It’s been decades since I read these books, but I really enjoyed them.

demolishedman starsmydestinationThe Demolished Man  and

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

The Demolished Man is a classic of the SF genre. Everyone in the future society written about here has psychic powers – it’s just a matter of how much. The story revolves around a man who is determined to kill a business rival, but how do you commit murder in a society of telepaths? This clever SF/Mystery blend won the Hugo in 1953, and has some obvious noir influences. Bester also dabbled in psychic powers for his novel The Stars My Destination (a book that inspired the name of the SFF bookstore I spent many a happy hour in when I lived in Chicago in the late 1980s and 1990s, The Stars Our Destination). That novel hinges on personal teleportation, a skill that is apparently psychically controlled. Both novels feel like SF (Stars is often cited as a precursor to cyberpunk), while skillfully borrowing the fantastical element of psychic abilities,

rowanThe Tower and Hive series by Anne McCaffrey

Start with: The Rowan

Loosely connected to each other and to other McCaffrey books, this first novel in the Tower and Hive series sets up the premise of a future human society where certain individuals with psychic abilities are known as Talents. Rowan survived an alien attack that destroyed her planet and family when she was a young child. She grew up to be a major Talent, known as a “prime”, and worked for the Federal Telepath & Teleport network, which controls all communication and shipping in the galaxy. Her talents set her apart and leave her lonely, until she hears the distant psychic call of fellow-talent Jeff Raven from across space. The two fall and love and fight aliens together. Like you do.

 

soldiersdutyTheirs Not to Reason Why series by Jean Johnson

Start with: A Soldier’s Duty

While most of the books on this list are pretty old (I read most as a teen and I am also old), this is a relatively new series, and one that also blends sf and romance, which is a blend of which I am particularly fond.  I just started reading it, so I’ll crib from the publisher blurb. “Ia is a precog, tormented by visions of the future where her home galaxy has been devastated. To prevent this vision from coming true, Ia enlists in the Terran United Planets military with a plan to become a soldier who will inspire generations for the next three hundred years-a soldier history will call Bloody Mary.”  As I said, I’m reading this one now, but I loved how Ia sees the future, or should I say the many possible futures, sifting through them to try to get the one she needs, the one that doesn’t end in the death of everyone and everything she loves.

What to read after watching The Expanse

expanseLast night was the official Syfy network premiere of the new space opera tv series The Expanse, although some folks watched the show online when it went up a couple of weeks ago. Tonight will be episode two, setting the hook even deeper to get viewers sucked into this new series that promises to bring the network back to its science fiction roots. So far, it’s a stylish adaptation, with some nice acting and great scenery. I can’t wait to see how it develops as the season goes on and how faithful it remains to its source material. I promise not to spoil anything for those who haven’t watched yet!

 

leviathanwakesThis season of The Expanse is based on the first book of James S.A. Corey’s series, Leviathan Wakes.  In this novel, humanity has spread throughout the solar system, but no further. Divisions in human society have developed between the major outposts of Earth, Mars and the outer planets, with mutual distrust between all factions. It’s a canny choice, keeping the action close to our planetary home and the actors human. It makes the series more accessible to readers (and now viewers) who are not necessarily long-time SF fans. The other clever thing the authors (Corey is a pseudonym for two sf writers, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) have done to bring in a wide readership is to have the first volume adopt some of the trappings of another popular genre, the mystery. There is a missing person case, a hangdog cop and plenty of noir atmosphere.

If you have been loving the show so far or are a fan of the books that the show is based on, I have some suggestions of books to read.

The book (and presumably series) has two main points of view, that of Jim Holden and focused on him and his crew, and a second point of view with noir-tinged belter cop Miller. If you like the shipboard bits with Holden and how his crew work together, here are some books to try:

OnBasiliskStationHonor Harrington series by David Weber, beginning with On Basilisk Station

This long-running space opera series is centered on Royal Manticore Naval office Honor Harrington. Much of the focus is on shipboard life and crew dynamics, which should appeal to fans of The Expanse. In this first volume, Honor has been set up to fail by a superior who hates her and sent to a backwater system. But things are more exciting than she anticipated.  This series is very much for fans of C.S. Forster and Patrick O’Brian, but in space. It doesn’t have the tight focus on our solar system and there are aliens, so probably more for the SF fans.

fortunespawn-coverParadox series by Rachel Bach, beginning with Fortune’s Pawn

A huge part of the appeal of this series is lead character Devi Morris, a mercenary who has a strangely intimate relationship with her weapons, a love ’em and leave ’em attitude towards relationships, and a burning ambition. Sounds like a dude, right? But she’s a kick ass female soldier.  She takes a position on a ship called The Glorious Fool because she was told a year on board would give her enough of a reputation that she would be a shoe-in to win a place amongst the king’s guard known as Devastators.  But the ship is even more dangerous than she thought.  There’s plenty of action, danger, and space opera shenanigans, but also a big dash of romance. Hopefully that won’t keep away male readers, because this is grade ‘A’ SF.

retributionfallsTales of the Kitty Jay by Chris Wooding, beginning with Retribution Falls

Not space opera, but more of a steampunk-ish fantasy heist. BUT WAIT.  It has one of the most entertaining crews in SFF with the motley assemblage of misfits who keep the airship Kitty Jay in the air. While Frey, captain of the Kitty Jay,  is more of a ne’er-do-well than Holden, who always strives to do the right thing, the two crews share the camaraderie of those forced to live and work together in tight spaces, and yet have their own secrets to keep.  I wrote about this book in a review post, where I recommended it to fans of the TV series Firefly, another wonderful example of a crew to fall in love with.

More great space opera:

If you like the mixture of noir and SF, I have a whole different batch of recommendations for you.  I did a post with a flowchart of mystery/SF blends that you might want to check out, but here are just a few of my favorite science fiction mysteries set in space:

disappearedRetrieval Artist series by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, beginning with The Disappeared

In this first book of the series, Miles Flint is a Retrieval Artist: a kind of cop tasked with hunting down humans who break alien laws. HIs conflict is that the alien laws are often draconian beyond all reason, so Miles will need to find a way to reconcile his job and his ideas of justice. It takes place on the moon and has a nice combo of sf ideas and mundane police routines. Rusch is not read as much as she should be.  In addition to this fabulous series she also has the Diving universe books, which also usually have a nice mystery element.

seekerAlex Benedict series by Jack McDevitt, starting with my favorite: Seeker

In the year 2688 a colony ship called Seeker left earth only to disappear.  Thousands of years later, antiquities dealer Alex Benedict finds a relic from the lost ship and decides to try to finally solve the mystery of what happened to Seeker.  But that’s not the only mystery Alex and his assistant Chase Kolpath will have to solve.  There’s nothing wrong with book one of the series, A Talent For War, but I think they all stand alone well and this (book 3) has a better mystery. These books are fun thriller/mysteries with enough interesting science fiction to satisfy both crowds.

alteredcarbonTakeshi Kovacs series by Richard Morgan, starting with Altered Carbon

In the 25th century, technology exists where people can download their consciousness into a new body or “sleeve”, essentially living forever. Centuries-old billionaire Laurens Bancroft brings U.N. Envoy Takeshi Kovacs to Earth, where Kovacs is sleeved in a cop’s body to investigate Bancroft’s murder. The wealthy man resleeved, of course, but his cortical stack was deliberately damaged and he wants Kovacs to find whoever tried to kill him permanently. Morgan explores the consequences of life where death can be cheated by anyone with enough money. Oh, and it is really violent and swear-y, just so you know.

Don’t forget that you can use the blender to find more science fiction/mystery mixes.

 

 

Planetary Romance

Some of my earliest and longest-lasting love affairs in SFF is the subgenre of planetary romance. It seems strangely old-fashion now, but when I first started reading science fiction, these were the books I read, loved and wallowed in. So what is a planetary romance? Contrary to what you might think, it is not actually a blend between romance and science fiction (although it can be that too).  If anything, it’s more of a blend between science fiction and fantasy.   (more…)

Near-future SF

In science fiction canon, big-scale far-future stories usually get all the glory.  Books set on other worlds, with space ships and alien encounters are what many people think SF is all about.  And those books are great.  I love space opera, and I love far-future SF books like Dune or the Culture books by Iain Banks, or Peter F. Hamilton’s crack-o-liciously good duology of Pandora’s Star/Judas Unchained. But there is something equally appealing about near-future SF stories. (more…)

My Favorite End of the World Fiction

In the process of making the huge chart featured earlier in the week, I spent a lot of time thinking about the genre.  There are so many good stories about terrible things happening! Here are some of my personal favorites.

Nuclear Disaster

  A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller
This tri-part classic of Science Fiction is about the rebuilding of society after a nuclear holocaust. In the aftermath of devastation, the world rejected technology. The novel follows the monks of the order of Saint Leibowitz over hundreds of years as they attempt to preserve relics of the world’s technological past until civilization is once again ready for them. (more…)

Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalypic Fiction

I recently decided to chart another genre, this time post-apocalyptic fiction. I love the genre, which has more variety that most people suspect. Why do we love books about the end of the world?  In a way, it is the ultimate triumph-over-adversity narrative. Whether ante-, mid- or post-apocalypse, the end of the world as we know it is a pretty good conflict for characters to strive against.  Usually characters are a big part of the appeal in apocalyptic fiction. You need characters you can root for to SURVIVE. Readers like to imagine how they would behave in the world possible scenario of a world-ending catastrophe, and these books can showcase the best in humanity, while it usually also shows us a vivid portrait of the worst we can do to each other. (more…)

Hot Books for Santa Ana Days

While the rest of the country is enjoying crisp fall days, colorful foliage, and excellent sleeping weather, Southern California had Santa Ana winds blowing through over the weekend. If you’ve never heard of the Santa Ana winds, they are supposed to drive people a little crazy.  Raymond Chandler has a typically awesome quote:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana’s that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. “

(more…)

Pirate Week: Space Pirates

I’ll end this series of posts with some of my favorite pirates — space pirates.  Science fiction has a marvelous subgenre known as space opera.  The name comes from both soap operas and also from horse opera, which was a nickname for westerns. But for me, what space opera most resembles are nautical adventure stories.  Most of the time the action takes place in and around spaceships, with the nomenclature and hierarchies of naval life that haven’t particularly changed from the 17th century. And like any good shipbound adventure, sometimes you’re gonna get pirates. In some of the “space navy” series the pirates are a traditional foe that the naval forces are trying to control. Sometimes the pirate forces are more like mercenaries that have crossed a line. As tempting as it was to include mercenaries (especially my favorites, The Dendarii Free Mercenaries from Bujold’s Vorkosigan books) I wanted to stick to those operating truly outside the rules. So as your last homework for Talk Like a Pirate Day, here are some science fiction pirates. (more…)

Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding


ADVENTURE/FANTASY/SF

TITLE: Retribution Falls
AUTHOR: Chris Wooding
PUBLISHER: Gollancz, 2009 (Spectra, 2011)
SERIES: Tales of the Ketty Jay, Book 1

THE BOOK:
Darian Frey captains the airship Ketty Jay, scraping up jobs of dubious morality and legality but usually staying on the lawful side of piracy. The crew of the Ketty Jay are of dubious morality as well, each hiding secrets and running from the past. When Frey takes a job to hijack a trunk of gems from another airship he know this is both bigger and more illegal than anything they’ve pulled before, but the payday is too good to resist.  When everything inevitably goes wrong, Frey and the rest of the Ketty Jay crew will face piracy and murder charges. They need to find who set them up if they want to survive to fly another day. (more…)

Featured Blend: Science Fiction Mysteries Noir-o-Meter

Yesterday, I presented a flowchart that would allow a reader to navigate a plethora of SF Mystery blends depending on what kind of plot they were looking for.  But plot is by no means the only way that readers determine what they want to read next.  For a lot of readers (especially mystery readers, I think), they are looking more for a certain tone in their mysteries.  Some like things dark and gritty, other prefer a lighter cozy with a minimum of violence.  These shades of tone are present in blends that include mysteries too.

I think that it’s interesting that so many blends that include a mystery go self-consciously for the trappings of a particular subgenre: noir.  Although non-readers think noir is all about film, but the dark, cynical and fatalistic tone that directors brought to the many, many film noir movies from the 40s and 50s  is equally present in books from the same era. But I think we can thank film for locking in the imagery of a lone investigator in a trench coat, beset by femme fatales and double-crossed by those he trusts most. The reason we continue to see mysteries with these elements is because 1) They WORK. Dark brooding protagonists working slightly outside the law and with the rich and powerful arrayed against them are crazy appealing.  2) You can use small cues like a fedora to conjure up a whole mood. Shortcuts are awesome.

But even if a detective is in a fedora, that doesn’t necessarily make the book noir. And here I mean specifically books that are dark.  Super dark. On my graphic, some of the darkest are novels that start from the SF premise of the end of the world, and add a mystery.  Ben H. Winter’s truly marvelous series that starts with The Last Policemanis an example of one of those.  Just as there are mysteries that look at the darkest impulses and actions of man, so does some SF. Although there are many SF writers that look to the future and see possibility and progress, there are just as many (maybe more) that see the shadowy paths that technology can take us on.  They look to the future and see that humanity will probably take all their bad habits forward with them, including killing each other. The dark side of technology plus murder? These can be some pretty grim books.

But it’s not all gloom and doom! Looking at the right side of the chart, there are mysteries that are low-violence puzzle plots with an SF twist (You’ve Got Murder), whimsical time travel stories with romance and a cozy mystery (To Say Nothing of the Dog), and undercover dinosaur private investigators (Anonymous Rex).  In between there’s a nice variety of social SF, space operas, and near future thrillers.  So pick your place on the spectrum below, from the darkest and bleakest to the funny and lightest. There’s an Science Fiction Mystery for everyone.

noirmeter