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Staying on the Cutting Edge of Science Fiction

EDITOR’S NOTE: Since comments have now passed the point of being useful, they are being closed. Lesson learned regarding with the absence of women on the list. Civil discussion about that omission is welcome and we’ll take our well-deserved medicine. Personal attacks will not be tolerated.

James Wallace Harris maintains a website devoted to identifying the Classics of Science Fiction. He is fascinated by how books are remembered and forgotten, and often writes about science fiction at his blog, Auxiliary Memory.

The Cutting Edge of Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris

A case could be made that whenever science makes a discovery, science fiction writers will soon follow behind and imagine all the possibilities that discovery implies. Many consider “Somnium” by Johannes Kepler, written in 1608 and published in 1634, to be the first science fiction story. Would it have been written without Copernicus and Galileo? Kepler’s story was cutting edge science fiction in 1634, but silly nonsense today.

Science fiction has been around a very long time, just how long, is debatable. If we just consider tried and true science fiction, hundreds of SF novels are published each year, with a back library adding up to tens of thousands of volumes. Every possible science fictional theme has been well explored, especially if you read all the SF short stories too. For any writer sitting down to start a new novel, it’s very difficult to find unexplored territory. Much like doctoral students doing literature reviews looking for something under-studied to research for their dissertation, science fiction writers wanting to be on the far horizon of the known science fictional universe must read widely.

Yet, just knowing the history of our literature isn’t enough. Science fiction writers who want to meet the challenge of working on the cutting edge of science fiction must also keep up with news from the frontiers of science. Is it any wonder that many writers have turned to fantasy or other genres, or write another book in a science fictional universe they’ve already established? Or even take a popular science fictional theme and create a new story focusing on innovative storytelling rather than exploring the cutting edge of new science fictional insights.

Great science fiction explores the philosophical possibilities of science’s impact on reality. Take Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest book, Aurora, which I believe works the cutting edge on the idea of interstellar travel. Since the early stories of interstellar travel like A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsay or The Skylark of Space (1928) by E. E. “Doc” Smith, science fiction has been concerned with how to travel to the stars, and the wonders of what we might find on arrival. Robinson questions if interstellar travel for humans is even practical. Robinson shows the propulsion system is the least of our problems. The new territory that Robinson examines is to ask if we can maintain an artificial ecology for hundreds of years, and if Earth ecology can coexist with alien ecologies.

Science fiction has built an industry around the idea of human space exploration, so for Robinson to challenge this belief takes science fiction into new territory. All along science fiction has worried that the dream of the final frontier might not be possible, but usually from a technical perspective, or worries about humans being unable to survive the harshness of space, radiation, lack of gravity, or isolation. What if we could overcome the engineering problems and the limitations of the human mind and body, but not be allowed to land on any world that has any kind of life? What if Mr. Spock could never have existed because Earth and Vulcan microorganisms could never coexist? What’s ironic is H. G. Wells came to that same conclusion in 1898 in The War of the Worlds. And C. S. Lewis even found theological reasons staying put on Earth in Out of the Silent Planet in 1938.

One way to explore the cutting edge of science fiction is to examine the current common assumptions. It was widely believed in 1950s and 1960s science fiction that a way would be found around the speed limit of light, but many modern science fiction writers have come to accept that FTL is impossible and are exploring the future of slower-than-light travel. Such hard science thinking revises the cutting edge of science fiction.

The advancement of science tends to put the kibosh on many older science fictional dreams. For example, the theme of time travel has has moved from science fiction to fantasy, even though most fans still haven’t gotten the Tweet. Although Star Wars is popularly labelled science fiction, it’s pure fantasy, no different from Tolkien. The trouble is the fans often prefer the beliefs they were raised with, and not those belonging to the cutting edge. Many front line science fiction writers must become atheists to older science fictional beliefs. Science fiction has become like religion, promising more than it can deliver.

Part of the skill of being a cutting edge science fiction writer is knowing what science fiction has become dated by our growing knowledge. Science constantly refines how reality works. Science can be quite cruel to dreamers. Even within the discipline of science, science is going through a reevaluation of its theoretical underpinnings because speculation has gotten too far ahead of experimental results. That same skepticism in science is creeping into science fiction.

Science fiction has always been a literature of wild ideas. Readers want wonder and adventure, and seldom care about reality. Most people who call themselves science fiction fans could care less if they are reading science fantasy. But for the hard working science fiction writer who wants to speculate and extrapolate about the impact of real scientific knowledge on the future of human societies, they need to know how to discern reality from fantasy. And they can’t let older science fiction cloud their vision.

Science fiction fans love to think science fiction has unlimited potential, but strangely if you study the history of science fictional ideas, it has a limited number of areas to explore. Broadly, they are:

  • Interplanetary travel
  • Interstellar travel
  • Alien life forms
  • Artificial beings (robots, AI, digital life, artificial life)
  • Predicting future social structures
  • Predicting future politics
  • Impact of new technology and inventions
  • Impact of new science (anti-gravity, multiverse, higher dimensions)
  • Utopias
  • Dystopias
  • Post-apocalypse and collapse
  • Post-humanism (mutants, clones, mental powers)
  • End of humanity, end of the world

Here is a mind map of one way to divvy up science fiction ideas:

Click image to enlarge:

It makes it easier to find the event horizon of science fiction if you focus on just one theme. For example, let’s use artificial intelligence (AI) machines. Just a few of the more famous science fiction stories that used AI supercomputers are:

  • 1909 – “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Foster
  • 1957 – They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley
  • 1960 – Vulcan’s Hammer by Philip K. Dick
  • 1961 – A For Andromeda by Fred Hoyle and John Elliot
  • 1966 – Colossus by D. F. Jones
  • 1966 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  • 1968 – 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
  • 1968 – Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
  • 1972 – When HARLIE Was One by David Gerrold
  • 1979 – Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • 1984 – “Press Enter _” by John Varley
  • 1989 – Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  • 1992 – Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers
  • 2009 – Wake by Robert Sawyer
  • 2013 – Her, a film by Spike Jonze
  • 2015 – Ex Machina, a film by Alex Garland

Far more AI machines can be found at Wikipedia’s List of fictional computers. Anyone writing a new story about an intelligent supercomputer needs to be roughly familiar with what past writers have already imagined. Even more, they need to know what is going on with real AI. AI was constantly in the news in 2015. Machine learning is a hot job category, with deep learning programs making progress in artificial vision, pattern recognition, artificial speech, voice recognition, text processing and language translation. People around the world are getting used to talking to Siri, Cortana and Alexa. (Poor Google’s machine needs a proper name.) Soon, intelligent machines will drive our cars for us, and we’ll probably talk to them.

How can anyone write a novel about an intelligent supercomputer and say something that’s not already been said? I have several ideas, but I’m keeping them for my own novel I’m writing. But to me they are glaringly obvious for being overlooked, and I’m constantly on the lookout for new novels that will beat me to the punch. Which goes to show anyone exploring the cutting edge of science fiction needs to read a lot of current science fiction.

In the long run, science and reality will overwrite the distant edge of science fiction. The 19th century was full of science fiction stories, but probably less than a dozen are actively remembered, and six of those are fading fast. Science fiction writers working the event horizon between reality and what might be possible have just a few decades to entertain their readers with wonderful possibilities before the whole world gazes at Schrodinger’s Cat, and our collective consciousness collapses quantum reality. Greg Egan wrote a wonderful novel, Quarantine, about this in 1992, where aliens isolate humanity because we were limiting reality with our observations.

About James Wallace Harris (9 Articles)
James Wallace Harris is fascinated by the concept of science fiction, its history and execution. Jim searches for science fiction where writers use scientific knowledge to explore the possibilities of what reality could exhibit beyond our current observations or extrapolates on what reality could unfold in the future. He delights in stories with original speculation that offers philosophical thought experiments which entertain our sense of wonder. Jim studies old science fiction to understand how people of the past imagined the nature of their existence.
Contact: Website

73 Comments on Staying on the Cutting Edge of Science Fiction

  1. Each to his/her won, and I do agree that keeping up with the scientific developments alone is all but impossible.

    Nevertheless, a list about AI supercomputers that leaves a humongous gap — from 1992 until 2009 — and does not include Greg Bear’s Blood Music (1983!), Vernor Vinge’s Marooned in Realtime (1992) and A Fire Upon the Deep (1996), Greg Egan’s Permutation City (1994), Damien Broderick’s The Spike (1997), Charlie Stross’s Accelerando (2005) and Peter Watts’s Blindsight (2006) leaves a *lot* to be desired in the area of true ‘cutting edge’, as all these examples are much, much more cutting edge than the “Her” and “Ex Machina” movies.

    Not that I have anything against the “Her” and “Ex Machina” movies, but calling them cutting edge is either being highly ignorant of what happens in SF fiction, or an insult to the actual cutting edge in science fiction.

    Wikipedia lists are not the be-all and end-all. One needs to read actual cutting SF novels, as well.

    • You don’t suppose those are just examples? Calm down, spazz. Nobody said they were the only ones and least of all best of the best. Maybe you should try actually reading the article and not just skimming for things to gripe. Did you seriously type “science fiction (SF) fiction”?

      • My, that escalated quickly. Did you really just call a commenter “Spazz” (short for spastic, I suppose) for having suggested a number of additionally relevant works? I call troll.

  2. Excellent (as always) – mind map in particular.

    On the AI front – Ellison’s I have No Mouth….

    Just one quibble: While many have have accepted that “FTL is impossible”, that’s actually not true. It may seem that its development is highly improbable at this juncture, but FTL, like time travel, has not been definitively ruled out by science yet. (And a LOT of SF rides the “highly improbable” wave.)

  3. The Shrike has 4 arms dammit!

  4. Any titles left out is due to my memory or limited reading experience. I was just giving a rough example. It would be fun to write a full history of intelligent machines in science fiction.

    Steve there’s always hope for FTL or TT, but we do have to consider that if FTL and TT were possible, why haven’t we had any visitors using those machines?

    Her and Ex Machina are cutting edge for movie goers who don’t read SF. And I do believe the way Her evolved out of the smartphone was new in fiction, but pretty obvious after Siri. SF tends to follow behind the real world and then improvise melodies of possibilities.

  5. Richard Fahey // February 13, 2016 at 9:01 am //

    As the Canadian SF critic Angus Taylor stated,SF is essentially fiction,which means it needs the same formulae as any generic and general fiction to create and sustain it.The greatest SF then can be called literature,but if the best fiction outside of Genre SF borders is composed of entirely known and realistic material,how can SF be considered equal qualitively?

    SF of course,is not limited to generic frontiers,and has deep roots in the history our literary culture.Two obvious but prime examples of books that contain SF tropes published within general literature,are Olaf Stapleton’s “Star Maker” and “Last and First Men”,and Anna Kavan’s “Ice”.Stapleton’s novels deal with ontological and theological themes,while Kavan’s book is predicated apon a second ice age of doubtful origin,and both could be said to have failed modern scientific scrutiny.However,both have survived because of their literary worth,that is due to the crucial building blocks of great fiction,and because SF is fiction,we can assume the same process is equally important,rather than a purely realistic analysis.

    Other works of fiction,such as those by William Golding,Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges,are not entirely realistic in concept and premise,but contain the essential stars that make great literature.The same can be said for the greatest SF authors within the written genre,whose stuff is far from realised truth,but possess the obvious skills needed to produce work of literary worth.Not that they don’t approach realistic issues,far from it,but while they lack accuracy in scientific prediction,their outlook is one that looks at how technology or technocratic power will effect future changes in our sociological and political environment.Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun” imagines a far future world that resembles medieval folklore,but in fact is one where ancient atavistic memories have surfaced because of a technology that has become stale and commonplace,and only survive as relics.The end results are are definitely cutting edge in what it has to say about societal change rather than scientific realization,and is imbued with spiritual meaning.

    I can’t take your article entirely literally,and will treat it subjectively.I know from past readings of the stuff you like,that your tastes in SF are similar to mine.

  6. Thank you for linking Somnium Project in your post! I hope modern sf readers may find more than just silliness in Kepler’s amazing 400-year old tale of adventure, witchcraft, astronomy, space travel and life on the moon. The Somnium also contains the germ of the Heliocentric theory itself with its portrayal of a living world (our moon) in orbit around another – for the key contention of Geocentrists was that the earth must be unmoving, rather than that it occupied a central place in the cosmos.

    Kepler’s Somnium also envisaged space travel to the moon as a hard physical process where an astronaut is “fired as if from a gun” beyond the earth’s atmosphere to the lunar surface, and must be protected from the freezing vacuum; while our moon itself is portrayed as a rational living world populated by adapted alien peoples who delight in astronomy and their view of our earth overhead.

    Could the Somnium have been written without Copernicus and Galileo? An interesting question: Kepler was an avowed Copernican, but his discoveries eclipsed both Copernicus himself as well, IMO, as Galileo (but Galileo always gets the credit). It was Kepler’s mathematical planetary laws that revealed the sun’s central position at one focus of the elliptical planetary orbits, and which led directly to Newton’s Theory of Gravitation. The mathematical “lunar theory” in Kepler’s Somnium is thought to have been written around 1608, before Galileo’s key discoveries with the telescope gave the Copernican theory much greater popular weight.

    So Kepler’s Somnium, I submit, is a unique case: Not only is it one of the earliest stories recognizable today as science fiction, it was written by one of history’s greatest scientists to expound some his remarkable ideas – ideas that really did change our whole view of the universe.

  7. Kev McVeigh // February 15, 2016 at 1:41 am //

    While I fundamentally disagree that cutting edge science fiction needs to follow cutting edge science, Science Fiction isn’t fiction about science, it is fiction about human social, political, emotional and philosophical response to science. Lewis Shiner once observed that as a writer he didn’t need to know how to fly a helicopter, he needed to know how a helicopter pilot thinks. It can be a subtle nuance, but it can be a huge distinction. This is why SF often becomes at least partially a genre in dialogue with itself.
    An author like Kim Stanley Robinson is as cutting-edge for bringing new or at least less heard political voices to existing sf scenarios as for any technologies he adopts.
    You ask about new ways of looking at AI or supercomputers well maybe the answers are in superficially more mundane applications? Social Networking (Tricia Sullivan’s Lightborn) or popular music (Gwyneth Jones’ Bold As Love) come to mind. There are quasi religious interpretations of AI in Sharon Shinn’s books, or as military hardware in Elizabeth Bear’s Jenny Casey series or Linda Nagata’s Red series.
    If you look at the super aliens of a novel like Egan’s Quarantine it is hard to distinguish them (per Clarke’s Law) from some of SFs more grandiose AIs such as Dan Simmons in terms of their human effects. The manipulation of humanity by aliens or AIs has the same core subject: human response. So in this vein there’s plenty of radical SF by Andrea Hairston (Mindscape), Judith Moffett (Holy Ground trilogy), Nnedi Okorafor (Lagoon) and more. And don’t miss Ann Leckie ‘s series beginning Ancillary Justice for AI spacecraft.

    • Chiming in to add other phenomenal, ground-breaking AI fiction: Cat Valente’s “Silently and Very Fast,” Andrea Phillips’ “In Loco Parentis,” and a fantastic game Phillips contributed to called THE WALK.

  8. An expert in forgetting books indeed.

    Personally I don’t think the cutting edge of sf is straight white men (or straight Jewish men) at the moment. And that’s all to the good.

  9. I would also consider Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain, which postulates what would happen if we lost the requirement for sleep (a plausible scientific conceit, as sleep is biologically unnecessary for our bodies, only our minds).

    Lois McMaster Bujold writes far-future space opera, but usually plausibly mired in near-future or even current scientific ideas, most notably the development of uterine replicators allowing gestation and birth of a child outside of a human body (Peter F. Hamilton followed this up with exowombs in his Night’s Dawn Trilogy) and the resulting implications of that. She also deals with genetic engineering. Even the notably non-SF writer PD James wrote an SF novel, Children of Men, asking what would happen if the human race became infertile. She deals with it to an extreme, with people stopping conceiving overnight, but the implications for an aging population are valid as the birth rate slows in many developed countries.

    For cyberpunk and its near-future implications, Pat Cadigan is easily as worth reading as Gibon and Sterling as well.

    • The list provided was AI related. The referenced works are not AI related.

      • Kev Mcveigh // February 15, 2016 at 9:34 am //

        The full post talks about a range of SF not just AI related. It talks about the cutting edge of science in general so these suggestions are very relevant.

  10. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) // February 15, 2016 at 7:04 am //

    I think leaving off Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series in terms of discussing A.I. is a major omission.

    • Kev Mcveigh // February 15, 2016 at 7:08 am //

      I think leaving off women entirely from any list of SF shows a lack of awareness that shouldn’t be possible in 2016.

    • I would disagree. Anne Leckie’s use of AI is largely derivative to the point of being trope-ridden. It doesn’t add anything new that area of SF. SF has been there, done that.

  11. Kev Mcveigh // February 15, 2016 at 7:06 am //

    Adam mentioned sleep, which reminded me of Comma Press latest anthology Spindles about the science of sleep. If you want fiction based on the latest science then Comma’s series of excellent anthologies linking authors with leading scientists as consultants have to be on your list. Featuring writers such as Claire Dean, Sara Maitland, Lisa Tuttle, Liz Williams, Zoe Lambert, Sarah Hall, Simon Ings, Geoff Ryman, Ian Watson, Adam Marek, Nicholas Doyle and more, they deserve wider attention.

  12. Elaine Gallagher // February 15, 2016 at 7:38 am //

    Ironic that you finish your article by noting a story where your reality is limited by your observations. You start off by limiting your definition of SF to a small range of topics primarily addressing technologies, then you limit your investigation to a wikipedia article, then, possibly because of these limitations, your reality fails to include any women writers.

    I suggest, therefore, as several people have corrected you in the comments above, that your investigation is flawed and your conclusions could use work. I suspect that the lack of women writers is down primarily to the wikipedia editor’s bias, conscious or otherwise, but you should have been aware enough to correct for that bias.

    • Elaine, I am limited by many constraints, but I failed to included books about emerging AI machines by women writers because I used books I remember reading. I assure you I do read books by women, but evidently not ones who write about this topic. That does gives me ideas for more essays.

      Also, I didn’t mean to say I limited my investigation to a Wikipedia article, but to suggest that people can find more titles there, ones I haven’t read. But if Wikipedia doesn’t list books by women writers on this topic then that suggests ideas for even more essays.

      • Funnily enough we noticed that you didn’t remember women. In my research I’ve noticed this to be rather common among male writers and survey respondents. So how about, when you start writing an article, you *always* ask yourself; in a field where there are now a lot of women, which women should I remember?

        Here’s the thing:? if you present yourself as a expert you need to do the research to justify that presentation.

        Women who have written about AI:
        Marge Piercy
        Justina Robson
        James Tiptree Jr
        Anne Leckie
        Pat Cadigan

        What I do when I start on a new topic is to circulate my list and ask who I have missed.

  13. So just to be clear, no women are allowed in the canon as a matter of principle, or no women are good enough to be admitted to it on grounds of quality?

  14. No women? No Pat Cadigan, Justina Robson, … Ursula K. Le Guin?
    I have to ask, does anyone edit these articles? It’s not acceptable that a piece supposedly on “cutting edge sf” written in 2016, 198 years after the publication of FRANKENSTEIN, reference no women writers. Please try again.

  15. Russell, I’ve read stories by Pat Cadigan and Ursula K. Le Guin, but I don’t remember any of their stories featuring an intelligent supercomputer as a main character. Can you list them? Obviously I need such stories to list if I use this example again. The comments to this essay makes me want to find stories of this type written by women.

    • Kev Mcveigh // February 15, 2016 at 9:46 am //

      Jim, firstly only a part of your article is about AI/Supercomputer SF so it’s valid to question you on the whole of the piece being exclusively male.
      Secondly, whilst it is impossible to read everything, it isn’t difficult to be aware of major award winners and nominated authors and note their presence.
      Finally, but perhaps most importantly: if you produce a list of important works it should be standard practice to reread it and ask yourself why is this all white male, what have I missed? What more research should I do before I finish this?

      • Sorry Kev, if I wasn’t clear. Basically I was saying writing SF is hard, and if you want to be on the cutting edge, you had to read widely in the genre, and know what’s going on with real science. I used stories about intelligent supercomputers as an example.

        By the way, I just had a V-8 moment. Since writing this article I read All The Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders that features an emergent AI built by a Maker kid with home computer parts. Exactly the kind of story I was thinking about.

        But I’d like to know about other stories that feature an intelligent self-aware computer set close to the present written by women or men. I’m collecting them. I’d like to read about how emergent AI might show up soon, and how it will affect our society. So, y’all list the stories I missed.

        • Kev Mcveigh // February 15, 2016 at 10:31 am //

          Ok, here’s the rub:
          There has never been any movement, trend or subgenre in SFF where women have not been part of the forefront.
          If you haven’t noticed this you need to look around further before spouting I’ll-informed nonsense like this.
          It should not be up to us to educate you, though plenty have tried here, you need to open your mind.

        • Justina Robson’s SILVER SCREEN deals with emerging machine AI in the near future (from several approaches, actually). CARNIVAL by Elizabeth Bear deals with a world where ecological preservation is given over to intelligent machines. The video game PORTAL, co-designed by Kim Swift, features an AI antagonist (who has her own theme song) which was originally designed to help scientists with their research.

          The STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION episode “The Measure of a Man” by Melinda Snodgrass engages with the issues of AI, sentience and the “rights” of an android as an independent lifeform.

          • Jonathan Baker // February 15, 2016 at 1:18 pm //

            Which itself echoed Asimov’s Bicentennial Man (the story not the movie) where the eponymous android goes to great lengths to prove himself human. Which echoes The Velveteen Rabbit and farther back Pinocchio, not to mention the Creation of Humankind from clay and Divine breath.

    • Pat Cadigan’s DERVISH IS DIGITAL. And Le Guin, I can’t think of an AI story, but given you only talk about AI for maybe 3 of the ~15 paragraphs, surely you could have brought in someone like her when you were being more generic about the other cutting edge sf?

      You say you’re interested in how books are forgotten: wouldn’t you think that writer gender plays a part in this?

    • [Possible Spoiler] Pat Cadigan’s novel Synners features a significant AI character called The Fish. Many of the other characters are interacting with it and it is a plot driver. There’s a certain amount of subtlety involved.

  16. Josh Jasper // February 15, 2016 at 9:57 am //

    Off the top of my not-enormously-widely-read head, “Spin Novels (Spin State, Spin Control, Ghost Spin) all have AI as a main character.

    But you know what? The fact that this list went out without the author or the editors noticing the omission of women is the issue at hand, not “please send me books so I can include them next time”. Try instead “what’s wrong with my thinking that I did this actually offensive and silencing thing, and how do I fix myself?”

  17. Liz Williams // February 15, 2016 at 1:06 pm //

    Why do I bother, I ask myself?

    I’ve only had 17 SFF novels published.

    I have a masters in AI: I’ve not written about it that much because it’s not that interesting yet in SF terms. If you think this is ‘cutting edge’, you need to review your opinion of science, and take a deep look at some of the philosophy of consciousness and theories of intelligence.

    • Then Liz, you are exactly the person I’d want to read who’d write a novel about emerging AI.

      • Mungo Beano // February 16, 2016 at 3:22 am //

        Your phrasing here suggests that you “would like” to read her books but can’t or won’t. It somehow manages to sound like you don’t believe they’re real (who’d write – future). Do you just not intend to look into any books by women that don’t get sent you for free or do you not believe that they’ve really written them when they tell you they have.

    • By the way Liz, I think there are three breakthroughs that science is working on that have always been considered science fictional that might happen in our lifetime. 1. Landing people on Mars. 2. Detecting life on other planets (SETI or remote sensing) and 3. Emergent AI. All those ideas have been covered endlessly, but I still think there’s room for cutting edge speculation.

      • Richard Fahey // February 16, 2016 at 7:59 am //

        SF is exciting because it is speculative and inventive.Novels and short stories that lack these values,will be forgotten and remain out of print forever.Many SF futures are now actually non-existent,but survive as classics,for the very same reasons.

        It doesn’t have to be about the future either,and can even deal with the past,and confront the moral,social,political and psychological issues concerning telepathy,theology,spiritualism,immortality and inner space.

  18. There’s a woman not mentioned, even though her work is: Lee Hawkins Garby, co-author of THE SKYLARK OF SPACE.

    Lots of classic sf has been written by women about space exploration. It seems as if a piece which has space to mention C.S. Lewis (whose work I love, but whose space romances are hardly central to the history of the genre), there should have been space to mention C.L. Moore or Leigh Brackett.

    It also seems weird that a list of AI stories in sf wouldn’t include some mention of Asimov’s I, ROBOT, but that’s a separate issue. I suppose one can’t include everything.

    But a selection should be a representative selection.

    • James, I was aiming at stories that featured a computer rather than a robot, especially stories that featured mainframe computers that turned sentient. But I was not making a complete list. Only a sample to show creating a story about a specific idea in science fiction has lots said about it already. My list was the ones I read, the Wikipedia list was a much larger list, but still incomplete.

      • Well, you really should have another look at I, ROBOT. Computers like Gerrold’s HARLIE and Heinlein’s Mike are obviously literary descendants of the Brain in “Escape” (collected in I, ROBOT) and computers who take over the world, like SkyNet or Colossus, have a lot of literary DNA from the Machines (in “The Evitable Conflict”, also collected in I, ROBOT). Asimov’s later story “The Last Question” features another self-aware computer, and it casts a pretty long shadow on this kind of fiction.

        You might want to sort out your objectives, too. An interest in the classics in any field is laudable. These are the works we can return to again and again for renewal. But, because of that very fact, they’re not on the cutting edge anymore. Cutting-edgeness is a temporary condition. A cutting edge work either becomes some kind of classic, or it ceases to be relevant (see the contents of DANGEROUS VISIONS for some examples of both kinds of story–or the TOC of old issues of GALAXY or ASTOUNDING or whatever). The cutting edge cuts and, having cut, moves on.

        People have been drubbing you pretty hard on the representation issue, and it wouldn’t be surprising if you were feeling a little defensive. I’d encourage you to think about some of the stuff these guys are saying and reflect on your assumptions. Everyone needs a clue sometimes, and these are people who care about the field, not just some political target.

  19. Hi James. It’s probably a bit dismaying to have this many people pointing out a flaw with the list, and I wanted to say thank you for listening.

    It’s a little dismaying for me in turn to look over a list like this and see not a single woman, when I can think of so many who belong, and yet I keep seeing this phenomenon in recent essays, to the point where it sometimes seems like part of the process of erasing a significant amount of contributions to the genre. Toni Weisskopf blogged about this recently and how important it is to historical accuracy – on Kris Rusch’s Women in Science Fiction website, which is a great resource.

    Any chance you’ll try revising a bit to make things more accurate?

    • Cat, I’d be glad to update the list. It would help if the people posting comments sent me titles to read and research. We need to apply the wisdom of crowds to this project since no one reader can know all the books. Also, to keep the list manageable, stories need to about the near future dealing with an AI mind emerging. There are just too many AI stories about the far future. I don’t know if the editors want to revise this page, or have me make a whole new essay, but I’ll be glad to do either. I’m already curious about Justina Robson’s Silver Screen.

      Cat, thanks for being the diplomat.

      • just another fan // February 16, 2016 at 7:04 am //

        Lots of people already gave you plentiful suggestions by the time you posted this comment.

        Also, “thanks for being the diplomat” – thanks for not being yet another uppity and militant and pushy woman or person of color who isn’t polite enough to a clueless old white guy for his taste.

      • Frank Underwood // February 16, 2016 at 1:39 pm //

        Jim, for what it’s worth, I’d encourage you not to let these jerks come in and tell you what is and is not permissible for you to enjoy. And yes, other posters, that’s exactly what you’re doing. For instance, take this little gem:

        > Try instead “what’s wrong with my thinking that I did this actually offensive and silencing thing, and how do I fix myself?”

        At this point I don’t think it matters whether your original list is valid or not. If you cave in now you’ll just make it that much harder for the next person they swarm.

        Good luck, and I’m sorry this happened to you.

        • Kev Mcveigh // February 16, 2016 at 2:25 pm //

          Frank, this isn’t a post about what Jim enjoys and nobody is telling him what to enjoy. It’s a post about what is cutting-edge SF and it implies that only men can be cutting-edge.
          Then after a wide range of comments making a significant number of suggestions, Jim says to Cat, “I’d be glad to add to the list if people make suggestions” and yet ignores every suggestion made. Odd that he a) didn’t do research *before* writing like most people would, b) now wants others to do his research for him and c) ignores all the suggestions he’s offered anyway. Makes me wonder how sincere Jim is about learning and not “forgetting”.

          • “It’s a post about what is cutting-edge SF and it implies that only men can be cutting-edge.”

            Actually, that’s incorrect, Kev. The article is about what’s needed to stay on the cutting edge of science fiction from a theme and ideas standpoint. The author provides a list of “Just a few of the more famous science fiction stories that used AI supercomputers” by way of example. He does not suggest that the examples define the cutting edge of science fiction. Far from it.

            Given the qualifiers and limits the author places around the list, it certainly does not infer that only men can be cutting edge. One may disagree with the examples he provides, but it is dishonest to smear the author by putting statement in his mouth that he in no wise makes. There is making an honest and reasonable inference, and then there is using infer to misrepresent.

            You, Kev, are not making honest and reasonable inferences.

    • Cat –

      Given the nasty and illiberal tone of most of the commenters, I would say that revising the article would amount to caving into a thuggish mob. While your outreach to James is civil, your suggestion that he give in to the mob’s demands without condemning mob’s behavior puts you squarely on the side of the torch-and-pitchfork crowd.

      I thought better of you, Cat. However good the intentions behind it, this is an illiberal and thuggish display of intimidation. Your support for it does you no credit.

    • Frank Underwood // February 16, 2016 at 1:26 pm //

      Excellent idea!

      While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about “A Man and His Parasite.” All those sentence fragments you used in there drive me absolutely crazy. While Mr. Harris is rewriting his piece, is there any chance I can get you to rewrite your work to better suit my tastes?

      Or would that be an appallingly arrogant thing to even suggest?

  20. I too am appalled that there are no women that you consider cutting edge and that you went to no effort whatever to find some that you might not be aware of. Pretty light on POC also. But of course you yourself are so cutting edge that there can’t possibly be anything going on in the field that’s not at the tips of your fingers.

    I’d like to suggest that a list based just on things that you’ve read and can remember off the top of your head, might be subject to some unconscious bias. This happens again and again and again and again and each time the response is oh, we’ll do better next time, and you never do better (I mean “you” to refer to SF Signal and similar publications, not this author specifically, whose record I’m not that familiar with). The writer might be a clod in this way, but the editors should REALLY know better.

    You pretend to care, but if you really cared, you would actually start doing better, instead of just giving an absent-minded nod in the comments to the people you ignorantly excluded, and then going on to repeat the error.

    • Read the article before commenting on it, Tyler. The list provided was not intended to describe ‘cutting edge’ authors.

      People like you make me not care. Don’t be an ill-mannered thug and then expect me to buy into your argument.

  21. Mark Mandel // February 15, 2016 at 7:09 pm //

    Tangentially: Let whosoever hath a problem with a Wikipedia article remember that Wikipedia is “The encyclopedia anyone can edit”, and consider doing so themself.

  22. Authors to try: Lynn Abbey, Eleanor Arnason, Octavia Butler, Moyra Caldecott, Jaygee Carr, Joy Chant, Suzy McKee Charnas, C. J. Cherryh, Jo Clayton, Candas Jane Dorsey, Diane Duane, Phyllis Eisenstein, Cynthia Felice, Sheila Finch, Sally Gearhart, Mary Gentle, Dian Girard, Eileen Gunn, Monica Hughes, Diana Wynne Jones, Gwyneth Jones, Leigh Kennedy, Lee Killough, Nancy Kress, Katherine Kurtz, Tanith Lee, Megan Lindholm, Elizabeth A. Lynn, Phillipa Maddern, Ardath Mayhar, Vonda McIntyre, Patricia A. McKillip, Janet Morris, Pat Murphy, Sam Nicholson (AKA Shirley Nikolaisen), Rachel Pollack, Marta Randall, Anne Rice, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Pamela Sargent, Sydney J. Van Scyoc, Susan Shwartz, Nancy Springer, Lisa Tuttle, Joan Vinge, Élisabeth Vonarburg, Cherry Wilder, and Connie Willis, then move on to Marcia J. Bennett, Mary Brown, Lois McMaster Bujold, Emma Bull, Pat Cadigan, Isobelle Carmody, Brenda W. Clough, Kara Dalkey, Pamela Dean, Susan Dexter, Carole Nelson Douglas, Debra Doyle, Claudia J. Edwards, Doris Egan, Ru Emerson, C.S. Friedman, Anne Gay, Sheila Gilluly, Carolyn Ives Gilman, Lisa Goldstein, Nicola Griffith, Karen Haber, Barbara Hambly, Dorothy Heydt (AKA Katherine Blake), P.C. Hodgell, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Tanya Huff, Kij Johnson, Janet Kagan, Patricia Kennealy-Morrison, Katharine Kerr, Peg Kerr, Katharine Eliska Kimbriel, Rosemary Kirstein, Ellen Kushner, Mercedes Lackey, Sharon Lee, Megan Lindholm, R.A. MacAvoy, Laurie J. Marks, Maureen McHugh, Dee Morrison Meaney, Elizabeth Moon, Paula Helm Murray, Rebecca Ore, Tamora Pierce, Alis Rasmussen (AKA Kate Elliott), Melanie Rawn, Mickey Zucker Reichert, Jennifer Roberson, Michaela Roessner, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Melissa Scott, Eluki Bes Shahar (AKA Rosemary Edghill), Nisi Shawl, Delia Sherman, Josepha Sherman, Sherwood Smith, Melinda Snodgrass, Midori Snyder, Sara Stamey, Caroline Stevermer, Martha Soukup, Judith Tarr, Sheri S. Tepper, Prof. Mary Turzillo, Paula Volsky, Deborah Wheeler (Deborah J. Ross), Freda Warrington, K.D. Wentworth, Janny Wurts and Patricia Wrede

  23. That’s biased to 1970s and 1980a authors because the number of women writing in the 1990s and later is too large for me to casually provide.

  24. *That’s* what you call ‘cutting edge’?

  25. just another fan // February 16, 2016 at 7:02 am //

    “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.”

    Hey, S/F Signal, do you just post anything you receive? You should have rejected that embarrassing “empath” essay, and you should have gently explained to Mr. Harris that maybe his reading tastes and “cutting-edge s/f” aren’t mutually inclusive sets.

  26. Frank Underwood // February 16, 2016 at 8:44 am //

    Nice list, Mr. Harris. Thanks for putting it together. You called my attention to a couple I hadn’t read.

    For the rest of you:

    Congratulations on yet another LOVELY public shaming. It’s really taking off, too–I heard about this one all the way over on Facebook.

    I’m sure that the next time Mr. Harris has the temerity to enjoy something that’s not on the sanctioned list, he’ll make sure to keep it to himself.

    I’m in complete agreement with what you’re saying re: diversity. I just think the way you’re saying it is disgusting. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.

  27. Ah, team torches and pitchforks is out in full force. Never mind that that the content of the article was thoughtful and useful. Mr Harris failed to check the appropriate boxes and the self-deputized thought police cry ‘ERASURE!’ call up the social media mob and demand that SFF Signal properly censor itself. Based on the comments, it’s evident that most of the commenters here didn’t bother to read Mr. Harris’ article before condemning it.

    This sort of attempt at content control through intimidation smacks of the citizen brigades of the early 20th century who laid down rules like the MPPC, the CPTB and the CCA to tell the comic and movie producers what they must/must not do lest they damage/offend society. Science Fiction’s public morality mob is getting increasingly illiberal as it tries to intimidate writers and publishers, and shut down speech with which it does not agree or that does not properly bend the knee to morality mob priorities.

    Regardless of how good your intentions, what you are doing is wrong. It is ultimately bad for your cause, and bad for science fiction. Coming as it does on the heels of this same mob’s sad treatment of Amy Casil, I can say without reservation that you have lost all moral credibility.

    Shame on you. Shame on every last one of you.

    • John E. O. Stevens // February 16, 2016 at 10:33 am //

      Indeed, SHAME on everyone for discussing the article and making suggestions! Taking about other authors that could be included and the poster’s approach to elucidate this subject? SHAME! Commenting on the author’s perspective and it’s ramifications? SHAMEFUL! This is not the sort of thing we should have in a comments section!

      • There’s a difference between discussion and social media mob intimidation. Buy into the thought-police sensibility if you must, but don’t attempt to rationalize it as thoughtful discourse.

        I find your collective attitude and behavior offensive and harmful.

        • Yeah, all those people who provided names were really hammering away at the poster.

          If you want to indict individuals, go ahead, but be specific. Painting everyone with your self-righteous, undiscerning brush just makes you look thick-headed and dismissive, lacking perception and perspective to fulfill some ideological goal. “YOU ARE ALL CONDEMNED” is a form of groupthink.

          And there’s no call to be mean to Cat, except to reinforce your blinkered vision. She’s one of the nicest, most level-headed people in the field, and undeserving of your myopic snark.

          • When Cat stands at the front of a mob suggesting an author change his words to appease the mob, however nicely she says it, she on the side of the mob. I merely pointed this out. Cat chose to respond with the ‘have a lovely day’ dismissal dance. I responded accordingly.

            If Cat disagrees with my assessment of her behavior, she is perfectly capable of disagreeing with me. I regard her well enough that I don’t think she needs you to ride to her rescue.

        • Kev Mcveigh // February 16, 2016 at 11:50 am //

          Dorothy, I’m sorry you don’t think adding to the list with suggestions is constructive. I’m sorry you don’t think requesting that people stop and think “who have I missed? Oh yes 51% of the population” before publishing doesn’t encourage a better and more thoughtful article. I’m sorry too that you are happy for your SF to be written by the same tiny handful of mostly dead, exclusively white males, because you’re missing so much great writing and fabulous ideas.
          I began not by saying “erasure” but by querying the premise of the post (which, by the way, I found formless and confusingly written, only reaching its supposed topic in paragraph 11 of 16) and citing multiple examples. I deliberately avoided the erasure issue to try to show not tell. Unfortunately I became frustrated with the defence that Jim “forgot” the women, and his insistence that other people do the work for him by sending him books (or maybe titles, he’s not clear.) I apologise therefore for attempting to add to the knowledge here and to enlighten those who seem unaware that SF is and always has been written by women.

          • I don’t see what’s happening here as constructive suggestions or generative criticism. You are a case in point. You aren’t interested in an exchange of ideas, but in imposing your ideas of correct content on the author. Your seem to have less interest in spreading knowledge than in enforcing adherence to a code of content.

            You have no idea who I read, but because I’ve dare to call you out in front of your social-media mob friends, you have attempted to smear me by suggesting that I am enemy of diverse reading. Your rhetoric is that of a cynical bully. If you had any interest in enlightenment, you would not be using the tools of Limbaugh and McCarthy.

            • Kev Mcveigh // February 16, 2016 at 1:07 pm //

              You’re right I don’t know who you read, just what you infer. You don’t see that an article listing 25 men and no women might be somewhat incomplete, which suggests that your view of SF is similarly one sided. If I’m wrong I apologise.
              I’m not arguing for strict quotas but if around 40% of SF is now by women, then 0% on a list is sending out a message that people are entitled to query. Suggestions were made constructively by others, and ignored or dismissed as being irrelevant, there was no engagement with these comments just rejection. You in specific mocked any suggestions that weren’t about AI despite 75% of the article not being about AI, nor 60% of the works named. You specifically chide commentators for not reading properly yet this suggests the same failure in you.
              There have been detailed and informative comments here by professional authors, esteemed critics and casual fans, and there have been aimless, unsubstantiated accusations of mob rule and bullying.
              So let’s be constructive, let’s here your suggestions for what makes SF cutting edge? Go back, look at my original remarks about the parallels between AI and super aliens, for instance. Do you agree, disagree, have anything to add?
              See what I said about cutting-edge sf not just meaning cutting-edge edge science, but cutting-edge politics, emotional content, social commentary and more. What do you think?
              Or is asking questions and raising ideas just bullying?

            • @Kev –

              My comments so far have been restricted to the behavior of the mob, not to the quality of the author’s list. Regardless of whether or not I agree with the mob’s position, I stand for the author’s right to express himself without the author or SF Signal being subjected to the intimidation for failing to fall in line with the mob’s agenda of others. A mob in a good cause is still a mob. The end does not justify the means. The end is the means.

              All you can infer from my comments is that I don’t believe good intent absolves wrongful acts.

            • Kev Mcveigh // February 16, 2016 at 2:54 pm //

              Some quotes from you Dorothy:
              “The list provided was not intended to describe ‘cutting edge’ authors.”
              “The list provided was AI related. The referenced works are not AI related.”

              So you have commented on the quality of the list but you haven’t engaged with responses that question your interpretation of the post. Most of the comments here have been about the whole post, yet you continue to only refer to the list, and ignore anything else. Why is that? Why are you avoiding discussion in favour of calling names?
              You say I don’t want discussion, but I’ve named names, pointed out stats, and expressed opinion about types of SF, so I’m offering you the chance for discussion.

            • Have a lovely day, Kev

            • Kev Mcveigh // February 16, 2016 at 3:24 pm //

              Thanks, you too. Pop back if you want a proper discussion on SF anytime.

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