Dr. Robert Goddard at Clark University in 1924. Credit: NASA
Science fiction purports to be based on science. I hate to tell you this, but a lot of SF is as close to science and math as Taco Bell is to authentic Mexican cuisine.
I revelled and still revel in mass ratios and scale heights, albedos and exhaust velocities, evolutionary biology and world history. (I’m not the only one. Big wave to my homies out there.) So…as much as I love SF, I’m constantly running head-on into settings that could just not work the way the author imagines. My SOD (suspension of disbelief) is motoring along merrily and suddenly, bang! Dead in its tracks. Perhaps you can understand now why so many of my reviews grumble about worldbuilding.
Teen me had no net, no Wikipedia. It was dead-tree books or nothing. Teen me also had his father’s library card and could access the University of Waterloo libraries. (In retrospect, I wonder that the library staff let me do this. . Thanks staff!)
What was I reading? Books like Stephen Dole’s Habitable Planets for Man, and Cole and Cox’s Islands in Space. Fond memories. But I’ve got to admit, the stuff that’s available online, today, free, is way, way better and bigger than the resources that seemed so wonderful forty years ago.
All of this is an extended prologue to a recommendation for a fantastic online resource for the budding spaceflight fan: Winchell Chung’s Atomic Rockets.
His site was initially inspired by the works of authors like Clarke and Heinlein, not to mention Jerry Pournelle’s “Those Pesky Belters and Their Torchships.” He wanted to supply budding SF authors (and fans) with the info they needed to keep the necessary suspension of disbelief alive. He planned a one-stop site where authors could find conveniently organized information that life (and declining public library funds) had denied them.
Chung started the site way back in the 1990s, when the internet was a collection of coal-fired VT100s connected by lengths of frayed twine. His initial efforts were rather humble. But one has to start somewhere.
Today, however…well: The site map looks like this:
Atomic Rockets is my go-to resource when I have forgotten some bit of rocket-related science, and when I need to learn more than I actually do.
Caveat emptor: actual rocket science differs from the plot-convenient SF variety with which you may be familiar. . But (to my way of thinking at least) the effort you put into learning how things work will give your fiction a depth that using time-worn implausible tropes will not. If you have ambitions of writing hard SF and your work has rockets, consider perusing Atomic Rockets.
If you are a reader, and you crave rocket-science SF, Atomic Rockets offers a handy and convenient list. Two lists, actually: books that could have been inspired by Atomic Rockets and ones that actually were. Enjoy.
This week, Atomic Rockets founder Winchell “Nyrath” Chung announced via Twitter that he’s been hospitalized with a serious illness and is in the process of planning for the continued curation of the site. This has led to an outpouring of support and tributes on Twitter—if his work has helped or impacted yours, or your enjoyment of SF, please consider reaching out.
An earlier version of this article originally appeared in May 2019.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.