>The return of the prodigal – hard-work-to-write books


Ok, I am baaaaack…..
Life, life at last…..
Sorry folks – it’s been a monumentous couple of weeks with the net access going down, power going down, proofs for DRAGON’S RING needing to be rushed through, and finally, on a more personal front, our visa allowing us to emigrate to Australia coming through too. South Africa – that I had once been so hopeful about – has been on a slowly increasing slide with crime and corruption leading into an abyss. The murder rate has now climbed to 87 per day (from medical records – the government records show a decline from 52…) collaping healthcare, and corruption everwhere, and while the country is far from Zimbabwe, with patches of wonderful success, I am afraid I am calling it a day. It may recover and become the dream rainbow nation, but I believe that’s a long way off, and some distance down before it starts to turn. I will always have an affection for the place and people (and many are good people) but it’s time to move on.
Ok -on the subject of writing again: In the discussion of genres and sub-genres it always strikes me there is one sf sub-genre — which I love — which no one else seems to acknowledge exists. Yes, now that you mention it, that is typical of me – loving something no-one else even admits is there… officially anyway. Authors… because it is hard-work-to-write (and the pool of authors who CAN do it is even smaller than the pool that can write humor), and readers because they don’t realise it is hard-work-special-clever-author-required. It’s what I call the ‘problem solving subgenre’ and its a nearly extinct branch of hard sf (generally) but you do get right across the spectrum (even into fantasy). You might say it was the sf version of a whodunnit: the science-howdunnit – the clues and cues are there hidden in plain sight, but the problems seem insurmountable. Yet a bit of science and thought and there is your answer. Yeah, no dreadnoughts slugging it out with pyrotechnics in deep space, and no superhero stuff – except as background special effects. Just thinking, really. Poul Anderson wrote a fair number of these (you might say he was the real master, and I wouldn’t disagree with you, although Heinlein and Asimov wrote quite a number too) — since then, Larry Niven a good few. Other subgenre examples – in Space Opera for eg is Jack Vance’s BLUE WORLD and in alternate history Sprauge de Camp’s LEST DARKNESS FALL or Eric Flint’s 1632 (alternate history really lends itself to this more easily – the solutions have been thought of elsewhere. If it is done well, it still takes a lot of research and ingenuity on the part of the author.) The trouble is it really takes a scientist or an engineer — or someone who will research the subject damned carefully to write them — and someone who has the many-ways-to-skin-a-cat attitude. Often, let’s be honest, character is neglected for clever science. Still, I love the science-howdunnit dearly. But there seem to be a shortage of authors out there doing this sort of thing (or maybe a shortage of publishers buying it).
Anyone got any recommendation of authors who do this, possibly more recently (although I’d be nostalgic/curious about your ideas on old ones)?
And do you have to be a scientist to enjoy these?


  1. >I'll take the poetry. [G]Unfortunately, I can't think of any authors you haven't already mentioned. I think the problem for me is that, for this sort of book, I still gravitate toward RAH, Anderson and Asimov. Of course, there is a certain simian we all know and love who has never turned away from something because he might have to do a bit of research or add a bit of humor. I likes that monkey, I does ;-p

  2. >I can't think of an author other than those you've mentioned. Something I've always wanted to read was a no-holds-barred Christie/Conan Doyle-ish whodunnit in SciFi. The dificulties of the tech messing with the story tend to be erm, problematic. But I think SciFi lends itself to a whodunnit style just as well, if not moreso, than a modern setting does.

  3. >One that pops to mind is David Brin's Sundiver. Startide Rising also struck me as a bit of a problem-solver, too (with a space battle in the background providing the pyrotechnics even). It seems to me that quite a bit of Brin's stuff falls into this sub-genre.BTW, one of my favorites of his is "Thor vs. Captain America." It was my first introduction to Loki in literature. Though, I think the best portrayal of Loki to date was the one Dave did in Pyramid Power 😉

  4. >Amanda, my poetry (like my singing ability – you should hear my immortal* "My Glockenspiel lies unter der Badenzee") is no light threat. After a recitation of my Ode to an ancient Merino, fifteen people commited sheepicide and several lesser offences. The Monkey did write a short called 'Boys' which was the second topological howdunnit.*immortal – like lady opera singers it just won't die

  5. >C Kelsey – now all we need is a hard scientist to write the damn thing -because it could be a lot of fun with forensics particularly, and a whole lot of fun with new kinds of locked rooms. Asimov's Wendell Urth (IIRC) were aboutthe closest. Leinster did some good science solveits (I'm not a big fan, he irritated me with some of his work).

  6. >Sundiver. Yeah. The cumarin. I actually worked that one out! I think he did it in his early books.Loki – the scene with Loki trapped with Doc Lukacs was my attempt at doing a science howdunnit in a fantasy BTW.

  7. >I used to love Hal Clemment's books, Dave. He had one where the planet was huge and the aliens evolved at the poles where they could with stand great gravity. A human crashes at the equator and the aliens try to help him, risking their lives. Did he write the doctor books as well? About a human doctor treating aliens.I thought you were going to say humourous SF and F. Another very hard and dangerous sub genre!

  8. >Dave,My background is from the aircraft accident investigation end of science. It's as much science as it is good old cerebral art form. Take any of the classic space opera worlds, wreck a ship via crime, and you have great fodder for a whodunnit. I even wrote one myself once… editing needed, BADLY. 🙂

  9. >Dave,Dancing rodents and Felix excitations for getting your visa applications past the idiotocracy! I love the mystery-solving SF books, but alas have seen far too few of them. The whole "unravel the mysterious technology before it destroys us/does something terrible/does something even worse" can be wonderfully tense and fascinating.The fantasy flavors of the same thing – like you did with Pyramid Plan – are also a lot of fun, but too many (other) authors take the easy way out and magic it all better.Oh well. Maybe one day.

  10. >A slightly wrecked alien spaceship could be fun. The tech side could be wondering if any of those symbols are a countdown on a self destruct. The paranoid side could be wondering what sort of weapon brought the ship down, and which side is the Good Guys, or whether any such question is laughably naive. The weird side (Hey, Dave's involved, you know there has to be one) is harboring the missing Alien crewbeing(s).

  11. >Mike. Yes!I kept think James H White, getting him mixed up with TH White.Yes, I really enjoyed both James White's Alien Hospital series and Hal Clemment's hard science books.I find hard science now is reduced to Nano tech that solves everything and might as well be magic, String Theory that creates parallel worlds that might as well be fantasy, or AIs that gobble up humanity and might as well be horror. The physics revelation one of Greg Egan's books (I think) became reduced to flashing lights and I completely lost interest. Plus his characters were supposed to be 2,000 years old, living in clone-grown bodies, but they had the emotional maturity of 24 year olds.Sigh, I'm turning into a grumpy old woman!

  12. >I write that sort of thing. Most of my short fiction is SF, and half of that in the harder SF/science mystery sort of vein. Any ideas where to send that stuff? I can't get it published.I wrote one story called Time Pump, where the central character crashes his exploration probe on an ice planet & is isolated from the mothership. He has to use his engineering smarts to survive the sub-sub-zero night with what's left of the ship. I tried Asimov, but apart from the nice letter no cigar. No luck with On Spec, Aurealis or Agog.Any suggestions?

  13. >Dave? Planet Explorer or Doctor to the Stars/the Med Series? Those the Leinster books you're thinking of?Kind of quirky, but I was also thinking of Joel Rosenberg's D'Shai and Hour of the Octopus? They're more whodunnits, although how did it get done gets mixed in. And he's playing with a very different culture at the same time. And I think he plays fair with the reader, as I recall.

  14. >Rowena- A Mission of Gravity – Hal Clement. And I believe the others must be the Sector General books by Irish author James White. i'm fond of both but not sure they're 'problem solving' books any more than Robert Forward's (of whom I am very fond)Rocheworld is. That's good science, and addresses the issue of practical interstellar travel. What I mean by howdunnit is something like the Poul Anderson where the Alien culture refuses to allow a wheel – for religious reasons – to be used for work. The heroes have to move something that really needs to overcome friction. It's a solvable problem from the first. Another – Leinster I think involves a broken transmitter (which we are repeatedly told requires aluminium to reper and a spaceship trapped in a crater full of jewels – topaz, Sapphire, Emeralds Tourmaline… and the futility of this wealth when they would die there (look up the chemical makeup of the gemstones).

  15. >Kate -I've never seen the point of 'magic makes it easy'out books. To be really interesting (for me) magic needs clear limits, and internal consistancy. That makes for good fantasy, which I read as happily as sf.

  16. >Dear Grumpy Old Woman – nanotech you really shouldn't have said that :-). It's one of my pet hates. I'm a relatively unusual author in that I've actually done a lot of manual labour. So – unlike writers who have gone from Uni to a desk I actually have a real idea of just how hard it is to move several tons of earth with a shovel. Most 'nanotech'tasks written about miss the aspect of scale, and of the amount of work involved, and energy requied. People just don't get the scale (just how big is a nanometer guys – and how heavy is the task and how far does it require moving?) or the numbers involved. Many are the equivalent of asking a single flea to pick up Mount Everest and move it to Australia. There are places where nanotech will indeed change the world, where it is the best tool for the job. But there is and will always be an appropriate size tool for the job – no use using a steam-shovel to repair watches, or using a watchmaker's forceps to move a thousand tons of earth and rock.

  17. >Dave,Re: nanotech – heck yeah. You use nanotech for the itty bitty scale jobs, and honking great mechanical monsters to dig your rare ore out of the mountain. And yes, I utterly loathe deus ex in the form of "mystery device proves to be the one thing that kills the evil aliens" or "magic fixes it all". It's guaranteed to give the book a flying lesson.

  18. >Dave, congrats on the Visa! I have to admit – I haven't read much of the kind of SF you are talking about – but that is mostly because the clear majority of SF I have read is VERY recent. This is something I am trying to remedy, but am having to put it off until I finish my current course.But you've piqued my interest 😉

  19. >Dave,I'd gladly send the story to you, but honestly it's not in readable shape. I did a re-read about two months ago and found that, while I really enjoy the characters and the story, the erm… spelling/grammar mistakes that I'd never edited out of it made it impossible to really read.If you still want to glance at it let me know. I just don't want to accidentally torture you. 🙂

  20. >Kesalemma – Thank you! I hope I make a decent Australian, but the country is richer by my lads and Barbs anyway. The problem with problem solving sf is there is very little of it – it's hard to write, and as chris pointed out, not that easy to sell. But it is fun in the brain-tickling sort of way.

  21. >Kate said : "And yes, I utterly loathe deus ex in the form of "mystery device proves to be the one thing that kills the evil aliens"unclean, unclean. inevitibly the narrator/pov character is just a observer and leaf in the tide of events. War of the worlds has much to answer for.

  22. >I shall scrub it off for you then sir. To where would you like it sent? Please note, if at any time you start to feel as if you're going (coco)nuts, please stop reading. I've already finished Dragon's Ring and I desperately need some more! 🙂

  23. >Dave Said: War of the worlds has much to answer for.The War of the Worlds is cool, Dude. Just because the first to see an intriguing possibility and use it _ought_ to have also been the last . . . In many ways the emotional impact of the War of the Worlds was greater because the reader could understand the helplessness. The movie actually got that part right.But it's a style(?) that should only be used sparingly. Powerless victimology and needing outside rescue rarely works, now. Except maybe in Literature, I haven't checked recently.

  24. >Sarah,Yes ma'am. Although I just re-read the ending. Work is required. Why did I throw in that twist that makes no sense? Two chapters to re-write. 🙂

  25. >Matapam – it's the kind of thing that works once century I'm afraid. It is trotted out once a week in sf, and once every ten minutes in 'literature'. And because it worked once it's going to work always…

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