the Last Word in
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BSFA paperback £8
review by Peter Schilling
This assemblage of nonfiction by Britain's premier hard-SF novelist, Stephen Baxter, is published by the British SF Association (of which Baxter is Vice President), and offers several well-researched articles, a few quite fascinating essays and some fairly astute criticism. Although two of Baxter's least remarkable stories are reprinted here to bookend the main texts, it's probably not those particular items that genre fans are likely to buy this slim booklet for, anyway.
The articles include much constructive reading on the craft of writing science fiction, and surveys of works on topics like Saturn's moon Titan, variations of and unofficial sequels to Wells' classic The Time Machine, 'world-building' scenarios, quirky gadget tales (such as remote viewer devices for looking into the past), and eschatology. Overviews of other genre subjects range from visits to the Moon in American SF in a piece tackling both seminal Heinlein and more recent works by Allen Steele, to speculations of what lies just beyond the cutting-edge of human knowledge - "arguably a key cultural role of SF." There's a reminder of the importance of research that would certainly prove helpful to any budding SF authors, and Baxter also mulls over how the lamentable failure of NASA's space programme to make significant progress since Apollo, has given rise to the SF subgenre of alternative rocket histories, including his own book, Voyage (1996), which explored the idea of a manned mission to Mars during the 1980s.
Of especial interest to many will be the diary notes concerning Baxter's collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke on the excellent novel The Light Of Other Days, and with Eric Brown on a short story. Unlike Clarke's other co-writers, there's a definite sense that Baxter's talent and imagination actually rivals Clarke's own, making their work together a true partnership instead of just another struggling hack borrowing Clarke's fame. The brief yet telling account of work on LOOD supports this.
As a critic, Baxter pulls no punches. His comments about others' work on similar themes to his own books (future history and space opera, etc) are often strident but also highly perceptive. Unsurprisingly, it is American writers that are the main targets of Baxter's incisive analysis. He's justly intolerant of implausibility in both plot development and character motivation, and derides US authors for their lack of any sense of irony. Baxter seems to suggest that this last bit of typically British sensibility is an essential part of any SF writer's mindset, irrespective of their nationality. This is not to say that Baxter slams optimism, only that American blue-sky thinking ought to be tempered with an awareness and deep consideration of the alternatives.
Hopefully, as a spin-off effect, this publication will attract more fans to join the BSFA.
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