What even is this ‘hard science fiction’, anyway?

6 08 2016

This is a question I’ve been pondering over recently, in connection with my efforts to identify and review books by women writers of the stuff.

It seems as though it should be straightforward to define ‘hard SF’, but it is, in truth, a rather slippery concept. The borders of genre are always nebulous, those of subgenre even more so, and to confound matters, there’s the oxymoronic aspect of the label itself: ‘hard science’ implies logical rigour and, one would hope, veracity, while ‘fiction’ denotes that deviation from truth that makes a story a story. So hard SF is a subgenre in which, almost by definition, the intent is at war with the content. A consequence of this internal contradiction is that any two readers’ (or creators’) Venn diagrams of what is, versus what isn’t, hard SF are very likely to differ.

If decoherence did not exist, hard SF would find it necessary to invent it.

With the above provisos, I still think it’s useful to try to answer the question: what is hard SF? (Well, I believe it’s useful. Your mileage may vary.) The simplest answer is probably to say that hard SF is SF that pays close attention to established scientific principles. Which is fine, insofar as the ‘hard science’ part of the label goes. (Let’s ignore, for the moment, the quibble that ‘established scientific principles’ sometimes turn out to be unreliable.) But the ‘fiction’ term in the equation means that the author has, one hopes, somewhere along the line, made some stuff up. There’s a word for this kind of thing in the scientific community: falsification of data. (Yes, I know that’s three words. Don’t harsh my vibe, okay?) So what stops the made-up stuff from invalidating the established-scientific-principles effort?

The answer is: it depends. This is often something that needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis, plus it’s something that might well turn out to be different for different readers of the same text. The internalised definition that I try to work with runs something along the lines of: Just as SF diverges from fantasy in describing the (in principle) possible versus the avowedly unrealistic, so does hard SF occupy that sector of SF space in which the events portrayed, though clearly fictional, are framed in such a manner that the reader can imagine such events unfolding, as written, somewhere in our exact Universe. Thus hard SF is that subset of SF which most cleanly allows our credulity to overpower our scientifically-informed skepticism.

I probably haven’t expressed that very well. And I’ve also failed to distinguish between ‘hard SF’ and ‘mundane SF’, which is something, I think, that needs to be done. I suppose the difference is that ‘hard SF’ is something that we’re pretty sure hasn’t happened yet, but which might happen, sometime, some place, most probably in the future, ‘mundane SF’ is something that just might actually already have happened, when we weren’t looking. So Howard Waldrop’s ‘The Ugly Chickens’, which breaks no known laws of science and which posits no new scientific, technological, or social developments of any significance, would probably qualify as mundane SF; Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Sentinel’, which postulates manned spaceflight to the Moon, and was written at a time before such spaceflight had been achieved, is pretty clearly hard SF. (Note that ‘The Sentinel’ is still hard SF, even though manned moon missions have been and gone: stories aren’t, in my opinion, superseded by subsequent historical events. The primary consideration is that the author has made diligent efforts to be faithful to then-current scientific understanding, and has only cautiously veered into the realm of make-believe insofar as is necessary to make of the narrative a satisfying story rather than a dry report. (Of course, based on this consideration, one could wilfully argue that many classical myths and legends, as well as the foundation documents for several long-established religions, would also need to be classified as ‘hard SF’—something that quite clearly isn’t so—but that’s always the problem with seeking to set guidelines: interpretation is in the eye of the beholder. I suppose the distinction would be that SF’s primary aspiration is generally to entertain, rather than to explain or persuade …) It’s worth noting, too, that (to my mind, at least) a hard SF story doesn’t necessarily lose that classification through being subsequently proven incorrect. A good example here would be the Larry Niven story ‘The Coldest Place’, which made recourse to accepted scientific knowledge that, between the time of its writing and the time of its publication, was shown to be erroneous (with the result that Niven asked the story’s editor, Fred Pohl, if the story—Niven’s first sale—needed to be pulled, and his paycheck cancelled). The story still works as hard SF, even if the embodied science is faulty, because the fault was not knowable to anyone at the time of writing.

Why are the boundaries of hard SF so subjective? It’s useful to trot out the Rumsfeld knowledge matrix that performed so well (statement may contain traces of sarcasm) in predicating the case for Iraq War 2. If a SF story employs only known knowns (the fact of the historical existence of the dodo, for example), then it can be fairly reliably classified as mundane SF. If it ventures into the territory of unknown knowns (say, the detailed surface conditions on the pre-Apollo-era Moon, or on Mercury), then it’s hard SF. Once it ventures into the territory of unknown unknowns (Is faster-than-light (FTL) spaceflight possible? Is time travel a thing, and how does the Universe handle paradoxes? Can we bring back the thylacine or the trilobite? Is a meaningful and indefinite extension to a human life achievable?), then it’s a judgment call, dependent as much on the reader’s extrapolated understanding of the nature of the Universe as on the writer’s. I, for example, am exceedingly skeptical about the even hypothetical achievability of time travel, and I’m sufficiently ishy on the subject of FTL that I usually seek to bravely duck the issue in my own hard SF stories. (If I set a story on Titan, I don’t need to invoke magical engineering to permit the plot line. Well, not for the transportation aspect, at any rate.) But a case can be made for FTL, even in its multitudinously handwavingly-explained-away forms (warp drive / wormholes / write your own ‘new physics’ paradigm), in a hard SF story if this prop serves to usefully place the action in an interesting and scientifically credible scenario from which some facet of the human condition can be satisfactorily explored.

There’s another layer of subjectivity, as well. How broad is the window of ‘acceptable underpinning science’? We’ve moved past, I hope, the idea that it has to be the physical sciences—physics and astrophysics, chemistry—and / or computational science, engineering or mathematics to which any true hard SF story has its ultimate recourse, though these are certainly important possible components. Biology should also, in my opinion, form an acceptable basis for some forms of hard SF, so too should anthropology, psychology, and sociology. So long as the story has some basis in existing or plausibly projected research, and shows in its internal logic a respect for the scientific method, it should be assessable as hard SF. But this position won’t meet with universal favour—the variable Venn diagram thing—and readers’ markers for which disciplines are inside the hard SF habitat, and which are outside, will almost unavoidably differ. It’s not my place to press the case too strongly. I will suggest, though, that one’s perspectives on this can be shifted by the right story. For example, before I’d read Claire Corbett’s When We Have Wings, I would have considered winged, flight-capable modified humans to be inappropriate fare for a hard SF novel, but Corbett pretty much nails it, through a well-researched and carefully-constructed exposition on the subject. Likewise the biological engineering that underpins Octavia Butler’s Dawn (and, from a different direction, C J Cherryh’s Cyteen). Hard SF, which is as much as anything a mindset paying homage, in fictional form, to the scientific method, is a richer literature if it is seen to be inclusive of diverse approaches to its subject matter than if it is too narrowly prescriptive.

It is also a richer literature if it does indeed seek to address the human condition rather than just to present variations on a theme of fictionalised problem-solving. We might well read hard SF for the gosh-wow factor it can deliver like almost no other genre, but the stories are only likely to resonate if they tell us something about us. We’re a notoriously narcissistic species, after all. I’ve enjoyed several of Greg Egan’s hard SF masterpieces (and it’s difficult to think of any other popular living SF writer whose work is more deeply informed by current physics and mathematics), but what gives his stories their ultimate kick is his skill with character portrayal. The weird physics of Schild’s Ladder could have made for a very dry novel in the hands of someone who could not give us characters to care about.

Does it, ultimately, matter whether a story is hard SF? To some people it does, and everyone’s obviously entitled to their own brainspace. I generally have a preference for hard SF, because as a reader I’m looking for something that can impress upon me its plausibility, and stories that wilfully flout scientific principles generally don’t do that for me. But a skilled writer can impart plausibility through other approaches: while I would have liked to be able to categorise Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite as hard SF, its lapses in rigour don’t damage the novel at all in my eyes, and it stands as one of the best examples of planetary SF worldbuilding that I’ve yet encountered. Analogously, I don’t care that the work of Jack McDevitt and Lois McMaster Bujold, for example, doesn’t generally make the hard-SF grade, because they are such excellent SF storytellers.

Finally, is hard SF still the male bastion it’s sometimes made out to be? My ‘XX Hard SF’ review series would argue that it’s not, but it’s undeniable that the ‘known names’ are still very predominantly male. On a recent trawl through a less-than-a-year-old reddit thread on the subject of hard SF, I encountered the names of 45 authors whose works were categorised (sometimes erroneously, in my humble opinion) as examples of hard SF. I suspect I don’t really need to tell you the gender of 44 of those authors.

Make of this what you will.




One response

7 08 2016

I may have learnt something … 🙂

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