Friday, December 26, 2008

The Enormous Big Thing

In the introduction to the "From Ringworld" section of Larry Niven's fine 1990 retrospective volume N-Space, he talks about the technique he used to gradually brace the reader for the incredible scale of the Ringworld, showing first the Pierson's puppeteers Fleet of Worlds, presenting scale comparisons, keeping the number of characters small, and letting the Ringworld's size and nature "come as a recurring surprise to the characters."  He writes, "Today you could full a long shelf with books about (in David Gerrold's phrase) 'the Enormous Big Thing.' Eighteen years ago, Ringworld was the first to be written since the days when all the science was imaginary...since, say, Simak's The Cosmic Engineers."

Something written a few years more recently than Simak's book, however, which is also in a way an Enormous Big Thing story with a lot of science that probably wouldn't bear a great deal of serious scrutiny--but which works because of the skill of the author--is James Blish's Cities in Flight saga. There's nothing quite as huge as the Ringworld in this story, but big cities are levitated off the surface of the Earth and travel the galaxy like spaceships, and whole planets can be moved and sent careening through space at speeds so astounding that actual intergalactic travel can be achieved thus. I recommend these stories to people who are willing to look back a few decades and give some time to a writer who employed a real respect for scientific plausibility (even when he was completely making up the science out of whole cloth) along with a serious literary refinement, and did those things in the service of a wild, fun tale. So far, among the fine stories that I have scheduled for publication in the M-Brane mag, I don't have any Enormous Big Thing tales, and maybe they are out of fashion.  I've been wondering if someone will send me one sometime.

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Anonymous said...

I have one in the works, so I will send it your way after workshopping it.

The thing about these more classic tropes is that it can't just be a story about a BMO (big mysterious object). Even in my teens I felt awe at Niven's ringworld but bored at the tacked on quest.

It is a good thing that --it seems to me-- modern readers will not accept 'just' an SFnal flight of fancy but also demand some of the traditional accoutrement of mainstream fiction. It signals that SF is no longer relegated of a whole to the realm of mere pulp. Not that there is anything wrong with pulp. Or hard science fiction.

The negative to the current slant of SF is away from hard science ideas and, well, flights of fancy.

Surely, we can have it all. :)



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