Favourite throw-away ideas in Science Fiction

Occasionally in a sci-fi novel the author will casually toss out a piece of information or idea that really knocks the wind out of you or just makes you sit up and take notice.

For example a few that come to mind:

In Light by M. John Harrison -

There are a half dozen salvaged alien FTL drives in use that rely on mutually incompatible theories of the universe. And yet, they all work.

In one of Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee sequence stories (can’t remember which) -
A neutron star orbiting a binary twin bursts gamma rays, so bright its sun casts a shadow.

The Algebriast by Iain M. Banks had several nice ideas.

First is the concept of rHumanity and aHumanity. Several thousand years ago aliens took some individuals from Earth and helped them spread among the stars. So when the rest of humanity finally makes it into space they find out that not only are they not the first humans in space they aren’t even the most common.
Therefore aHuman for Advanced Human and rHuman for Remainder Human.

That would really be a punch in the gut…

Also at one point a character has an attack of “Swim” when the realisation that he’s in the middle of an intergalatic war with all sorts of weird aliens and technology finally hits home. Something thats fairly common and aliens are prone to it as well.

So what side-concepts in sci-fi blew your mind?

What do the last five minutes of The Black Hole count as?

There was some book I read where they had the typical space elevator so common to sci-fi. And in the background, or before the action of the book, or something, some terrorist blew it up and it crashed down and killed millions of people as it fell. Really stuck with me.

Sounds like Sundiver by David Brin.

The Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster.

Robert A. Heinlein’s works.

I was gonna make a list of 'em, but then I thought there were SO many of 'em, that it’d just be easier to name the author and let y’all work 'em out for yourselves.

From American Flagg (a comic from the 80’s) Television and entertainment without the use of flesh and blood actors (a closer reality today than one would have thought) and the reality show from the same series: “Inter-species Romance”

I was going to say the Somebody Else’s Problem Field. (The Total Perspective Vortex is literally pretty mind blowing, but as a concept I think that the SEP is cooler.)

I think Niven’s invention of the gaseous torus in The Integral Trees and The Smoke Ring should stand well and above the Ringworld as his most innovative creation; a true free-fall environment, a world floating in space around a neutron star. It’s implausible as hell, but at least it isn’t inherently unstable (like the Ringworld).


I think the same thing happened in Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, by Frederik Pohl.

One I found was more religious in scope: Legion, by W. P. Blatty (sequel to The Exorcist) stated that the whole Universe is a being (Lucifer) who exploded into many parts (the Big Bang) so that he could experience everything, and man’s consciousness is the universe beginning its journey to reuinification. It was the only way to experience good and evil, apparently.

A concept MAYBE briefly alluded to but mainly neglected in the movie version, which also messed up the tragic origins of the serial killer character.

This happens in one of the books of the “Mars” trilogy by Kim Robinson. As I remember, the elevator was so long that it wrapped around Mars’ equator a couple of times before it was finished falling.

The ships weapons in the culture books, the effectors.

remember all the cool things that they did with the transporters in precisely one episode of star trek and then completely forgot about. Do you want to teleport a bomb on board the enemy ship, strip it’s engine core off, power down all it’s system, make the enemy captain decide to go home, or just dissasemble it into it’s component atoms. you can do all this and much much more with the effectors.

Come to thing of it none of the tech described in the culture books seems to be more advanced than trek tek it’s just used far more logically.

Disclaimer for enraged Star Trek fans - I am aware that narrative pressure forced the star trek writer to forget about a lot of the things that they’re shiny toys could do, please don’t hit me.

One ting I always had a chuckle about in Star Trek were the transporters. Basically, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle keeps them from working, what with not knowing the position and velocity of a particle. So, what do they do? Why, they invent the Heisenberg compensators! Cleared that problem right up! Why didn’t we think of that?

The most "Well hot damn!"ed I’ve been by a Sci-Fi-ish book was the David Wingrove Myst book where he has a world that has been created to just be the most beautiful, perfect place ever–but the angle of slope of the shore is off so the whole thing is going to destroy itself.*
Just the idea of how small and insignificant a detail can be, and until someone tells you about it, it would never occur to you. But then once you are told the problem and how it’s going to ruin everything, the sudden “Oooooooooh!!!” as you see how immensely important it was after all is amazing.
Terribly cool.

  • Something like that.

In the book version of Contact, Sagan had your everyday super-powerful aliens, then he had the builders who were another level of powerful. Builders were so powerful that they could manipulate the value of pi to encode hidden messages. That really blew my mind and, to this day, is probably the closest I’ve ever come to understanding what it feels like to believe in God.

The early John Varley stories were filled with this sort of thing. Some small throwaways included:

[li]Routine sex change operations; people would change their sex like changing clothes[/li][li]A kid wandering into an operating room and poking a finger into a man’s brain (the top of the head had been removed and he was conscious)[/li][li]The teacher scolding the kid, saying it was impolite and that in the past, there were things called “germs.”[/li][li]A woman needs to change her appearance, so she takes a screwdriver to her face and turns some adjusting screws to change her cheekbones.[/li][/ul]

He later expanded on some of these, but in the beginning, they were tossed in, often as side issues to the main story.

I always loved how Niven’s Kzinti had invented artificial gravity, and what did they do with it?

Use it so they could stand on the deck? This is by far the most widespread application of artificial gravity. Obviously, 'cause it’s expensive to simulate freefall on teevee . . . but yet you see it in novels and such all the time, too, so that it’s almost a given in space opera. “Oh, of course we have artifical gravity installed on our spaceships so we can walk around. Er, no, we don’t use it for anything else . . . but freefall is so low-class, don’t you think?”

Okay, so the Kzinti also use it so they can walk around on the deck, but they also use it to, oh, propel their spacecraft. And as a weapon. In other words, having developed an incredibly advanced, sophisticated branch of physics, they actually exploit it.

Corollary: I also like Vinge’s sophisticated, galaxy-spanning, no-artificial-gravity-havin’ free-fall-lovin’ Qeng Ho society.

Ranchoth, a space elevator extends up to geosynchronous orbit—or rather areosynchronous orbit, in this case, which according to my calculations is 20,400 from the center of Mars. The radius of Mars is 3400 km so the cable of a space elevator would be 17,000 km long. The circumference of Mars is 21,300 km, so at most the cable would only wrap 80% of the way around. (Only!)

It’s been quite a while since I read Red Mars, and my recollections are vague of what Robinson actually claimed, but, unless my math is wrong (feel free to check!) the cable couldn’t make it all the way.

Just from vague memory doesn’t it have to extend the same distance past geosynchronous orbit, so as to balance?

(Could be wrong, haven’t read Fountains of Pardise for ages.

T.J. Bass was great at this. His novels The Godwhale and Half Past Human are filled with offbeat toss-off ideas that aren’t essential to the plot. Dan Simmons does it, too, in his Hyperion/Endymion series.

Can’t recall any specific examples from either.
As noted, Heinlein was a master of this, too. In his novel Friday, for instance, he casually remarks about “The Beanstalk”, and doesn’t even tell you that it’s one of those space elevator towers – you get to figure that out for yourself (The novels Fountains of Paradise and The Web Between the Worlds had already described such towers in detail, and the idea was a conmmon one in SF discussions. Niven’s Rainbow Mars was way in the future.)

Wasn’t the Kzinti gravity polariser part of the reason why they lost their wars with mankind? Their telepaths reported that humans had no weapons, and they didn’t. But our primitive spaceships were powered by reaction drives, which to conserve reaction mass had the highest exhaust velocities we could engineer. So the drives of our ships functioned as enormously powerful particle beams or laser cannons, hence the Kzinti Lesson.

We would have lost eventually of course, if it wasn’t for those meddling Puppeteers…
Re the space elevator - you have to extend it beyond geosynchronous altitude to balance all the mass below that, which is at sub-orbital speed. In Fountains of Paradise the elevator went only a little way beyond geosynchronous, but had a little asteroid on the end to provide the required tension!