Little Known Nifty Ideas From Science Fiction and Fantasy

Such as Pluterday and the real estate effects of psychic dead zones. I’m not talking about Ringworlds or other well known Big Ideas, I’m talking about lesser known ideas that are nonetheless cool.

For example, in “Where Were You Last Pluterday” by Paul van Herck, a regular schlub discovers that rich people have something poor people do not even know about: Pluterday, an extra day of the week they have all to themselves. No lines at the ski lifts, tables in all the best restaurants to be had by walking in, deserted beaches where crowds normally fill the sands, etc. etc. It’s a thought-provoking and funny idea, my wife and I still laugh about it when we tootle about when the streets are empty at unusual times, like when the Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets are both playing home games.

On a more subtle note, there’s “Highways In Hiding” by George O. Smith, set in a future in which the Rhine Institute has figured out how telepathy and remote sensing (the ability to psychically see objects hidden by walls, etc.) work. Turns out these two psychic powers are common, almost everybody has them, some more than others, but with training they manifest to various degrees. Plus both senses can be exercised over a range of thousands of yards. There are also naturally occurring “dead zones” where the psychic powers don’t work, also not rare.

Now here’s the nifty subtlety: the real estate market is knocked for a loop because some of the dead zones are in places where ghettos and other substandard places once were. They’re now highly valuable real estate, because no one wants to live in a place where just anyone who drives by can read their minds or sense what they are up to. And of course once-valuable real estate has gone down in price for the same reason.

Now that’s thinking it through!

Any other original and nifty ideas or nice, subtle touches you’ve found in SF or fantasy that are not widely known?

There are plenty of these. The problem is that what one person sees as a nifty idea, worthy of contemplation and cherishing, may not move most other people. It’s highly subjective. And it’s important to realize that the fact that idea is well-known may have nothing to do either with its inherent niftiness, whether it would be widespread or not.
That said, one of the niftiest ideas is Hal Clement’s description of a new sense. “new senses” show up in many science fiction works, but they’re generally either something not terrifically difficult to grasp (infrared vision) or simply not described at all (read Kuttner and Moore’s “The Proud Robot”).

But Hal Clement, in his 1946 short story “Uncommon Sense” describes just such an unusual method of perception in great detail. It works in a very unlikely situation – creatures living on a very cold world with almost perfect vacuum – but it makes perfect scientific and logical sense. Molecules boiling off or outgassing from anything in this situation travel in straight lines, because the mean free path is huge. Creatures on this world have “pinhole cameras” in place of eyes – big spherical organs with a hole at one side and a sensitive “retina” at the other. Only the retina isn’t sensitive to photons. It’s an olfactory organ, like what you have in your nose. The creature “sees” odors as images, because they travel, like photons, in straight lines, and when restricted by a pinhole aperture the “paint” an image of the emitter on the “retina”. It’s imaging by particles – atoms, ions, and molecules – rather than photons. And, of course, it makes images of things giving off lots of such volatile particles, which are likely to be either food or threats, and generally not images of things like rocks. If life evolved in such circumstances, such a sense seems like a real possibility. (Unlike the currently-considerred possibility of radio communication, as in another thread. Radio communicatiojn might be reasonable for life in some very specific situations, but seems improbable in a world like ours.)

“Slow glass” was featured in stories by SF writer Bob Shaw (although this link claims he wasn’t the first to use it).

Light normally slows down a tiny bit when it enters another medium; this is what causes refraction in water. Slow glass supposedly slowed light way, way down (I vaguely recall something about being folded thousands of times to cause light to keep crossing interfaces, but I might be making that up) such that it took years for light entering one side of the glass to exit the other side. The commercial applications are described in the link above; there’s a moderately well-known story where a murder is committed in front of a pane of slow glass. Years from now we’ll be able to see the murder and the murderer; but right now we have a suspect and pressure for a speedy trial. If we try him now instead of waiting, will that keep people’s confidence in the justice system? What if our verdict is later shown to be wrong?

The concept of slow glass always seemed neat to me and I think about it from time to time.

Lots of SF has “transporters” where basically a flat surface is like a doorway to wherever you are going. I’ll bet it’s not the first book to use it this way, but in Dan Simmons’ “Hyperion” a rich character has a home that has rooms on many different planets connected via these transporters. One bathroom was a raft on an ocean, IIRC.

Unfortunately, glass with merely a high refractive index wouldn’t work that way – we now have situations with effectively huge refractive indices, and the effects are completely different. Not to mention that there are hosts of problems with how “slow glass” would work if it existed that way – it’d be capable of immense energy storage, holding years worth of photons. Don’t break it – it’ll explode. In addition, since the huge refractive index would send all light practically parallel to the surface, the images would go toward the edge, and would never emerge from the opposite face of the glass.

Shaw knew about all this, of course, and eventually adopted another explanation for the functioning of his slow glass. The stories, of course, were always about the social effects, and not about the extrapolation of the laws of optics. But I;'ve never been able to take them seriously because optics is my line, so I’ve been handicapped.

Wow. I’m amazed that anyone knows that novel. I happened to pick it up cheap a few months ago and was intrigued by the idea, but I had never heard of it.

The central idea behind The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach is fascinating – thousands of planets whose sole economy is based upon making carpets out of human hair, that are all purchased by the Galactic Emperor. But no one knows why, or what they are used for.

I always liked chairdogs and beddogs from Frank Herbert’s Dune and a few of his other novels. I always try and lay on my dog, but he of course hates being squished, and a warm cozy animal dedicated to the task seems neat.

Have a look at the living Cloaks from Harry Harrison’s “West of Eden” series.

:confused: I sure don’t remember this from Dune

I have read Dune numerous times and don’t recall chairdogs and beddogs… :confused:

Was it Harryhausen that came up with the Bloater Drive?

Great thinking outside of the box. maybe it becomes practical some day . . .


Light of Other Days has always been one of my favorite stories. Bob Shaw manages to handle an interesting SF concept in a touching, poignant way without being drippy.

I love that book. I bought when it first came out, in a DAW edition back when Donald A. Wollheim (DAW) was actively reprinting European novels for the American audience. The book won the Europa Award for best sf novel of 1972, a bit odd since it first was published in 1968. European sf reads entirely differently from American sf, with all the emphasis on social problems and ideas and nothing on space battles. It’s an acquired taste and not all of it translates well to America since you have to have a complete understanding of the culture to get the satire and commentary.

Anyway, I’ve already remembered the idea of an extra day for the rich as one of the best pure idea “ideas” along with slow glass. (Parenthetically, Cal, did anybody ever take slow glass as serious science? I always remember it as a metaphor, not something that could be built.)

Along the lines of a special gift for the privileged is a character in a book (or possibly story) from Poul Anderson, whose title I can’t remember. He had a mutation that gave him the equivalent of two brains. The scene that sticks with me is that he’s in a meeting and he’s using one brain to follow along and the other brain to read a book. That’s the superpower I’ve always wanted!

That smiley underneath might be absolving this, but Ray Harryhausen is the animator.
Harry Harrison, in Bill the Galactic Hero, is the one who came up with the Bloater Drive.

By his own admission, Shaw did, until he was set straight. But I don’t think anyone would argue that this was supposed to be a “hard science” story – the mechanism is definitely of negligible importance relative to the story.

Hey, thanks for that correction! (the smiley was to highlight how outrageously the Bloater Drive works)

So who staffs the restaurants that the rich eat at on Pluterday? Is that ever addressed in the story?

Me, I’m going to nominate “Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones”. The way holographic memory storage is alleged to work is just silly, and the depiction of underworld passwords is absurd, but that’s all redeemed by the Singers. Apparently Singers are just something that spontaneously emerge whenever population density gets too high: Occasionally (there’s only about a dozen in the whole world), someone will just start singing, usually for no apparent reason, but in a way that just resonates perfectly with those around them. There’s no official recognition that makes someone a Singer; it’s just something that everyone recognizes and agrees on. Nobody would ever even think of recording a Singer, since the song would lose all its meaning outside of its immediate context, and Singers never sing on demand, just when the time is right (something that only the Singer can recognize). All the best high-end parties are judged by the number of Singers attending, just in case they should happen to start Singing.

I beleive he meant the Dosadi universe.

Where Were You Last Pluterday was fun; kind of wish I had kept my copy, now that I’ve been reminded of it… Philip Jose Farmer did something a bit similar in his Dayworld books.

Slow Glass made the (science) news a couple of years ago but I haven’t head anything more since then.

I don’t recall if they’re in the original novel, but I recently read Heretics of Dune, and chairdogs were definitely in there.
This cite thinks that was their first appearance in the Dune universe. They appeared in other, non-Dune herbert stories earlier

I read a short story a long time ago, I think it was by Stephen King. But anyways, scientists come up with a way to genetically engineer cats so that they stay adorable kittens for their entire lifetimes. People buy them for the cuteness factor.

But it turns out that cats learn much faster when they’re kittens, so that they can learn skills like hunting and such when they’re young and then use those skills when they mature. For the eternal-kittens, though, they never stop learning at an accelerated rate. So as the story goes on, the kitten in question becomes more and more intelligent, eventually setting up traps for the dog and his owners.