Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author


Soft science fiction


Which immediately inspires the question: so what do YOU mean by “soft” science fiction? What *I* think of first when I hear that term is sociological science fiction, but I could imagine this term being used to mean science fantasy, for example. No doubt we could come up with a top-ten list of possible meanings for the term “soft science fiction.” The only thing we can be sure of — can we be sure of this? — is that there won’t be appendices at the back of the novel explaining the math and/or physics underlying the plot. Appendices or not, there won’t be any books like Dragon’s Egg by Robert Forward on a list of “soft” science fiction.

Here, by the way, is a post that picks out some of what it calls great hard SF novels. I have my doubts about this post, which reminded me about Dragon’s Egg. That is a great example of hard SF, but also includes Ancillary Justice, which is hardly a book I’d personally tag that way. Oh, good heavens, they also include Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler! Wow, so THIS post is DEFINITELY including sociological science fiction as “hard” rather than “soft.” Lots of good examples on their list, thought, click through if you have a minute and then we’ll go on to the Book Riot post.

Okay, well, after checking out the above list, now I’m wondering even more what Book Riot will call “soft” science fiction. Since this is Book Riot, I am of course wondering if Watership Down might possibly be on their list. (No, they are never going to live that down. This blog will remember that Book Riot post forever.)

So here we go:

In general, hardsci-fi is closer to current science, whereas science fiction that gets further away from what is presently known is considered soft. 

Oh! Well, that is not a definition I had in mind personally. I don’t agree! I can easily think of many books that aren’t anywhere close to current science and technology but are definitely hard science fiction — Ringworld, for example — and others that take place practically tomorrow that *I* would call soft science fiction, such as Persona by Genevieve Valentine.

On the other hand, a paragraph or two later, we see that this post does indeed peg sociological SF as “soft.” Well, that is hardly the same thing as “close to current science!” I think this post is simultaneously using two quite different definitions that point in different directions.

But okay, let’s see what examples this Book Riot post picks out as “soft.”

Ah! Here again is Lilith’s Brood! That means this series is on BOTH the hard SF list I linked AND the soft SF post at Book Riot! Wow, that’s fantastic! I would absolutely have located these two posts on purpose to juxtapose these completely different takes on what is meant by “hard” and “soft,” but truly, this was pure happenstance. All I did was google “classic hard science fiction novels” to remind myself of some titles and now here we are.

Okay, back to the Book Riot post. Ah, honestly, I have to say, the author is not sticking to either of his own definitions very closely. Look at this:


If you want to read detective fiction mixed with some end-is-nigh apocalypse action, then look no further than The Last Policeman. In Winters’s novel an asteroid is bearing down upon Earth, spelling certain doom for the planet. Society has fallen apart, but Detective Hank Palace is still trying to solve murder cases. Winters is good at infusing large philosophical questions into his soft sci-fi murder mystery. The Last Policeman is the first installment of a trilogy dealing with Earth before the asteroid apocalypse.

That’s near future AND it deals with ordinary science! Asteroid impacts! Those are hard! I’m thinking of Seveneves, here. That’s a great example of a hard SF novel! This one has a murder mystery, fine, but that doesn’t make it look like soft science fiction to me. It makes it look like a murder mystery with a science fiction setting. That’s not the same thing!

Well, I will say, this is a list that’s heavy on sociological science fiction. Then it’s got some oddball stuff on the list as well. I personally think the list would’ve been more coherent if the author had labeled it “Great sociological science fiction” and stuck to that.

Let’s end by asking, How do you define soft science fiction?

  1. Sociological emphasis
  2. Far future and/or weird technology
  3. Science fantasy
  4. Really a different genre, like mystery, but with science fiction trappings
  5. Other

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Do you prefer novels with prologues?

At Writer Unboxed, this, by Vaughn Roycroft: Why I Actually Prefer Stories With Prologues

I don’t just love prologues. I actually prefer when stories begin with them. … In my opinion, all of these prologues are terrific at creating atmosphere. But prologues often do more. They can establish the story-world, set expectations, reveal broader or heightened stakes, lay out pertinent backstory, and provide enticing foreshadowing. … Good prologues can help to transport us to the story-world, and even put us in the proper mood to receive it. Simply put, they are an aid to immersion.

Many examples of prologues the author likes at the link, in both novels and movies.

Well, I can come down on both sides of this argument if I want, because out of my, let me see, seventeen novels currently (or nearly) on the shelf, I’ve got prologues in, hmm, just two. Well, two is enough to establish that I don’t automatically hate prologues. Which I don’t. I just usually hate prologues, because usually they’re not an aid to immersion. Usually they’re boring.

One of the examples Roycroft uses here is The Lord of the Rings, and in fact, I hate that prologue. I’m thinking of the one in the movie version. The warm description of hobbits that Tolkien called a prologue was fine. In the movies, the long infodump about the history of Sauron was not fine; it was boring. Personally, I’d have found that kind of infodump boring even if I hadn’t known the story already, because a long history lesson at the beginning of a fantasy story is ALWAYS BORING.

–Short prologues that tell a brief, immersive, complete story that is set before the main story begins = fine.That’s like my prologue in Winter of Ice and Iron.

–Short, clever prologues that are entertaining in and of themselves = fine, and here I’m thinking of Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. “A word from your sponsor: This book begins with a plane crash. We do not want you to worry about this.”

–Any length of prologue, but especially a long one, that delivers a history lesson to the reader, is unreadably boring and I, at least, will immediately DNF any book the moment I see that kind of prologue.

As far as I can tell, that type of prologue is BY FAR the most common in fantasy novels.

In contrast, mystery novels very often open with a short prologue in which the murder victim gets killed. I’m not crazy about that either, but it’s a short, immersive, complete-in-itself story plus entirely standard in the genre. So that’s fine.

But to anyone writing an SFF novel and reading the linked post: think twice before providing a history lesson to the reader. CJC can get by with it in her very long series (I still skip those prologues), but very few other authors can pull it off.

Please provide counterexamples in the comments if you can think of good ones.

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Posting may be light

So, this week I’m going to be distracted and busy. Just letting you know in case I semi-vanish for a week or so.

The problem is, Pippa’s prognosis is potentially very good, but right at the moment she is having a dreadful time. She has an eye injury that should get better, but it has been getting worse rather than healing, so she is now getting two different kinds of eyedrops, one for each eye, but at the moment she is basically blind.

Also, following an atypical seizure type of thing last week and a whoooooole lot of continual mini-seizures that followed, I started her on phenobarb, which flipped the seizures off like magic, but she is seriously uncoordinated and woozy as well as blind.

So if the eye starts to heal and she has time to adjust to the phenobarb, she will be back to normal in ten days or two weeks or at least something fairly close to a reasonable time period. But right now, not so great.

Classes are presumably starting next week and I’ve GOT to get stuff done for that too, so, well, posting here may be light. I do really appreciate your comments on the back cover copy, which I will seriously revise as soon as possible.

Pippa will hopefully be looking this alert and agile in another ten days or two weeks, but right now she can’t even walk in a straight line

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Back cover copy: still hard

So, I’m setting up the second book in the TUYO series, paperback and Kindle formats, and I have some observations here:

  1. Setting up the paperback was SO ANNOYING. This is basically my fault. I scanned the whole thing fixing “widows and orphans” multiple times and THEN realized I had not right-justified the text. So I did that and of course that meant I had to scan through the whole thing fixing “widows and orphans” again. What a pain!
  2. You will never notice this, I bet, but the paperback winds up just a tiny bit different from the ebook version. This is because when fixing up widows and orphans, the easiest way I know of is to change paragraphing a little, sometimes by adding or removing a paragraph break, but also sometimes by adding or deleting a few words or even a complete sentence. This is almost always possible, but you do wind up accumulating a surprising number of tiny differences.
  3. You have to put a cover on a book in order to use the preview function, which means slapping a completely ridiculous cover on the thing just so you can do that. Pity they won’t let you load a blank cover, but no.
  4. You have to write back cover description and load that before you can move on to load the manuscript and use the previewer.

This means I threw words in the “description” box super fast just to get something in there, all the time swearing under my breath at how terrible a description I was writing. Here it is, for your amusement value.

For years, Ugaro and Lau have lived peacefully, near neighbors separated by the river that divides the winter country from the summer country. But an escalating series of offenses and mistakes now threatens to destroy that peace. One young Lau soldier, Nikoles Ianan, understands the Ugaro people better than most of his countrymen, but he can see no way to resolve the conflict. Until one of the king’s scepter-holders, Lord Aras Samaura, arrives to sort things out. But Lord Aras has only a limited time to resolve the problems in the borderlands. He’ll need all the help he can get — especially the help of a young man with a unique connection to the Ugaro people.

By the time I got halfway through that, I’d given up and was just scribbling. Well, the typing version of “scribbling.” The above does kind of give you an idea of what NIKOLES is about, sure, but I certainly need to improve it before I forget and accidentally leave that description in place. Let me just see here …

For generations, Lau and Ugaro have lived peacefully, near neighbors separated by the river that divides the winter country from the summer country. But in recent years, tension has increased between the two peoples, and now an accelerating series of offenses and mistakes threatens to plunge the borderlands into serious war.

Nikoles Ianan understands the Ugaro people better than most of his countrymen–he certainly understands them well enough to know how badly his own people are mishandling the situation. But he sees no way that one Lau soldier can prevent escalating tragedy . . . until the most famous scepter-holder of the summer country appears.

Lord Aras Samaura has urgent tasks waiting elsewhere and a limited time to forge a new peace between peoples who each consider themselves bitterly wronged. He’ll need all the help he can get — especially the help of a young man with a unique connection to the Ugaro people.

Okay! This is a lot like beating my head against a wall. I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to write the above three paragraphs, which I don’t even like. You were all very helpful with the back cover description for TUYO; please tear this apart and/or make helpful suggestions if any occur to you.

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Ranking LMB’s Oeuvre

Given yesterday’s post asking how people tend to rank Bujold’s major series, an obvious thing to do today is lay out all the individual books. Always a tough and yet fun thing to do with a favorite prolific author!

Let me just take a stab at it. Let’s see. Hmm. Okay, from top to bottom, I would more or less put them like this. This order does reflect personal taste and, I realize, may tend to put books I read long ago higher than objective measures of quality might suggest. If I read them all for the first time this year, the order might be different.

Also, the top fifteen or so are all tightly compacted together in a “REALLY GOOD” category, while below that I’d tend to spread them out a lot more.

When I put two books in one spot, it’s because I feel that particular pair of books is essentially a complete duology and the individual books should be considered one story.

  1. The Warrior’s Apprentice
  2. Mountains of Mourning
  3. Borders of Infinity
  4. Ethan of Athos
  5. Curse of Chalion
  6. Komarr / A Civil Campaign
  7. Brothers in Arms
  8. Penric’s Demon
  9. Sharing Knife Passage / Horizon
  10. Mirror Dance
  11. Memory
  12. Penric and the Shamen
  13. Shards of Honor
  14. Paladin of Souls
  15. Penric’s Mission
  16. Barrayar
  17. Prisoner of Limnos
  18. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance
  19. Orphans of Raspay
  20. Sharing Knife: Beguilement
  21. Knife Children
  22. Falling Free
  23. The Vor Game
  24. Diplomatic Immunity
  25. Penric and the Fox
  26. Cryoburn
  27. Cetaganda
  28. Labyrinth
  29. Sharing Knife: Legacy
  30. The Spirit Ring
  31. Myra’s Last Dance
  32. The Hallowed Hunt
  33. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
  34. Physicians of Vilnoc
  35. Flowers of Vashnoi

Okay, there! What would you all argue should be placed significantly higher or lower?

For me: plots that revolve closely around sexual issues lack interest. Bad family relationships move a book sharply downward because I just don’t like reading about those. If the whole story seems slow and/or rather pointless, it drops way down in the rankings — but if the story foregrounds positive family relationships, it may move higher even if nothing much happens, eg “Knife Children” appealed to me much, much more than SK: Legacy. And I just did not much like The Hallowed Hunt, even though none of those situations apply to that one.

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Sharing Knife series

Here’s a column by Liz Bourke at tor.com: Revisiting LMB’s Sharing Knife series.

Interesting! I have read this series quite a few times because it is a comfort read for me — something I will pick up if I have a cold or just feel under the weather, or if I want to read but not something new-to-me, or if I want something pleasant to read a few pages of before bed, or whatever. In general:

–I like the first book quite a bit

–I skip lightly across most of the part where Fawn is visiting Dag’s camp and family in the second book

–I like the third and fourth books much better than the first two

–And btw, Knife Children, the novella that is set after this series, is quite enjoyable and well worth picking up.

So what does Liz think?

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife tetralogy never, I think, equalled the popularity and recognition of her Miles Vorkosigan novels or her World of the Five Gods work (Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, The Hallowed Hunt, and the Penric and Desdemon novellas…) but it remains, for me, a revelation about the kinds of stories that it is possible to tell in fantasy, and the struggles it is possible to reflect.

Yes! This is a promising beginning to the post. I would say that the Sharing Knife stories are unusual in their emphasis on showing the daily life of ordinary people. Sure, sometimes there are giant bats, but mostly these are stories about daily life on a farm, in a camp, on a small riverboat. What we see are ordinary people living their lives while also dealing, generally in small ways, with the necessity of pushing gently for broad-scale societal change. Or that’s what I think. Let me read a little more …

Ah! Liz does mean that, in a sense, but she also has in mind the difference in handling a threat like a Dark Lord, something that is Big and Immediate and then Over, versus handling a threat that requires slow, grinding work generation after generation. That’s a good point too!

Click through and read the whole thing if you have a minute.

Meanwhile, what did you all think of the Sharing Knife series? How about compared to the Vorkosigan and Penric stories? I am not actually sure how I would rank these three series personally. I can see going V –> P –> SK, but I can also see shuffling those letters around into a different order. All the series include books that are somewhat uneven in quality.

But for warmth and settling down comfortably, it’s probably exactly the reverse: SK –> P –> V.

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Internal vs external conflict

Here’s a brief but good post at Pub Rants: Internal vs External Conflict

No matter what stage your manuscript is in, there are three questions you need to be able to answer:

  1. What is your protagonist’s internal conflict?
  2. What is the manuscript’s major external conflict?
  3. How do those two conflicts work in harmony?

All too often, I see internal and external conflicts that don’t work together the way they need to. Here’s the secret: Your external conflict and internal conflict should be tightly woven together because the external conflict exists as a mechanism to force internal change and growth in your character.

The example given is one of the Harry Potter books. It’s a pretty good extended example.

Since it’s a brief post, here’s another, this one by an SF author, Gary Gibson, rather than an agent: USING INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL CONFLICT IN GENRE WRITING

This post offers a rather different take on the topic:

Broadly speaking, the distinction between literary and commercial fiction is this: literary fiction deals in internalised conflict. That could be fear, jealousy, greed, desire for power or revenge, thwarted love and so on. …

Commercial fiction, on the other hand – and remember, we’re speaking broadly here – deals in externalised conflicts. It creates dramatic stories out of direct conflict with something ‘other’, other races, other religions, other cultures, classes or political orders, and so on.

Interesting take! I’m immediately leaning toward the Pub Rants interpretation — I think commercial fiction should, and does, have both, and it’s nice when the internal and external conflicts support each other.

Actually, something to note is that interfering with each other counts as support, in this sense, as nothing creates more tension than pitting two characters against each other via the external plot, while having them strongly drawn toward each other by internal desires but pushed apart by opposing loyalties. Here I am thinking of Joanna Bourn’s Spymaster romances, which are admittedly a little over the top in many ways, but she does a great job of setting up opposing internal and external conflicts and letting them rip through the story.

The linked post above actually does agree with me here, and with Pub Rants, because the author goes on to add:

Once I realised this distinction between internalised and externalised conflict, the defining quality of the very best sci-fi and fantasy became clear to me. It synthesises both approaches – and most often it does so by externalising what is otherwise an internal conflict.

There we go, we are definitely back to using the two basic types of conflict to support each other. Gibson uses The Lord of the Rings for his example. Again, it’s a good example. Gibson sums it up this way:

If your book isn’t coming together – if your characters feel lifeless, or lack motivation, or feel wooden and two-dimensional – provide them with an internal conflict to balance the external. It’s that conflict that, when handled properly, keeps readers glued to the pages. … conflict must be mirrored through your protagonists’ own thoughts and actions, and their own internalised moral dialogue.\

Both posts are worth a look if you have a minute.

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Covers that show action

Okay, so, I happened across this post over the weekend at Bones, Books, and Buffy:

The Friday Face-Off was created by Books by Proxy, where each week bloggers can showcase books with covers centered around a weekly theme. You can visit Lynn’s Books for a list of upcoming themes. Join in the fun each Friday by finding a book whose cover is based on the theme!

This week’s theme: A cover that depicts action of some sort.

And then three book covers depicting action, which you can click through to read if you wish. The person doing this post — Tammy — commented that it was surprising hard to find covers depicting action among the books she’s read recently.

Really? I said. So I went to Amazon and skimmed through the (many) books I’ve bought this year, and you know what? Hardly any of them depict action! Have you noticed that?

Of course for romances, you don’t get covers with action, as a rule. You get That Shirtless Dude or The Lady In A Regency Ballgown or whatever. But for everything else, it turns out, action is also just astoundingly rare on covers.

Here’s one that sort of might qualify? I mean, there is MOVEMENT, even if I’m not sure there is ACTION.

This is some sort of light paranormal mystery or something, I forget, the price was low and it looked like it might be fun, that’s all I remember. Yep, looking at it again, I see it’s free on Amazon.

I had to go 18 books down in my orders before I found one with even this much action. In 58 books that Amazon shows I’ve purchased this year, this is the closest I came to a book showing action on the cover.

That’s really kind of remarkable. There’s a woman on a motorcycle, but the motorcycle is at rest. There’s a soldier, but he’s floating quietly in space. Murderbot is walking, not running, across the top of some sort of space ship. A guy is walking, not running, down a tunnel of some kind on another cover. Here’s a spaceship, but like most spaceships, it could be sitting still, there’s no sense of motion involved in this cover.

Okay, moving farther back, last fall I got this one:

These people appear to be ABOUT to be active, at least. There’s certainly a sense of movement and urgency here.

Okay, here’s one:

There, at last, is incontrovertible action.

I had to scroll back a remarkably long way to find that. It looks to me like fewer than one novel in fifty shows action on the cover. I never would have guessed.

If you’re reading a novel right now that shows action on the cover, or you did recently, out of curiosity, what was the book?

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That’s a lot of caper movies. I see this is an accompanying post to their previous effort to rank the top fifty heist movies.

Here’s how Crime Reads defines the two different subgenres:

The Caper sub-genre features films which are (overall) lighter and wittier than the standard Heist movie. While characters in Capers also frequently pursue large sums of shadily-acquired money or other items of value, these films are not necessarily about the acts of committing robberies, as Heist films always are. This is important, so I’ll repeat it: for a film to be a heist movie, items have to be literally stolen. In a caper, items may be stolen, but they don’t have to be; there can be swindling and cons and money-laundering and other forms of theft. 

Sure, sounds plausible, I certainly won’t argue.

In last place, #35 is The Hustle. Here’s the beginning of the comment: It would have been a huge relief if The Hustle, a female-led con movie starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson were any good, but it’s really, really not….

You can click through to see their #1 pick. Personally, I prefer the sound of How to Steal a Million, which they put at #2:

Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole light up the screen in this perfect little caper, about a young Parisian woman who disapproves of her jolly father Hugh Griffith’s penchant for art forgery. He’s an impeccable imitator of the Great Masters, and makes a pretty penny from selling them, but when he loans a priceless statue forged by his father to a museum for an exhibition, he finds out that the statue will have to be examined in order for it to be given its $1 million insurance protection. Knowing that an examination will expose her family’s history of art crime, she decides to steal it back from the museum, somehow. Only, since she has had no interest in a criminal lifestyle until now, needs to enlist the help of sexy cat burglar Peter O’Toole to help. The heist they pull off is one of the cleverest ones I’ve seen onscreen. And the scene where Audrey Hepburn sees Peter O’Toole for the first time, when he’s peeking out at her over the frame of the painting he’s swiping, and his eyes are super blue and when he puts it down it’s revealed he’s wearing a tuxedo… no better meet-cute in the history of cinema.

I wonder if I ever saw that? I certainly don’t remember it. Sounds delightful — I should definitely add it to the list of movies to see someday.

If you’re interested, they put Ocean’s Eight dead last on their list of Heist movies. I will note that they put the first Ocean’s Eleven remake as their #3 pick, so . . . wow. Quite a point spread there. They put the original Ocean’s Eleven as #42.

Their #1 pick for Heist movies is another old one, Asphalt Jungle.

Much, much, much more at the links.

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Ooh, a game for grammar nerds!

Via File 770, this: Stet!, the Hot New Language Game

The game of Stet! comprises two packs of cards with sentences on them, fifty of them Grammar cards with indisputable errors (dangling modifiers, stinking apostrophes, and homonyms, like horde/hoard and reign/rein) and fifty of them Style cards, on which the sentences are correct but pedestrian, and the object is to improve the sentence without rewriting it. There are trick cards with no mistakes on them. You might suspect that there is something wrong with (spoiler alert) “Jackson Pollock” or “asafetida” or “farmers market,” but these are red herrings. If you believe that the sentence is perfect just as it is, you shout “Stet!

How neat is this?

So, here’s the link to the game on Amazon.

It says:

There are 100 entertaining sentences waiting for you, the copyeditor, to correct–or, alternatively, to STET. The first person to spot the error, or else call out “STET!” (a copyeditor’s term that means “let it stand”) if there is no error, gets the card. There are two ways to play: compete for points in a straightforward grammar game, or play with style and syntax and whip the author’s sentences into splendid shape. The person with the most cards at the end of the game wins!

If I were teaching English grammar and punctuation, I’d definitely get this. As it is, not sure there are enough grammar nerds handy to play it. But it does sound like fun!

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