Book review: Timefield, by Charlie Nash

31 03 2021

The astute among you will have noticed it’s been yonks since I last posted anything. In the spirit of addressing this problem, here’s a book review.

Charlie Nash is the SF-writer pen name of Australian novelist Charlotte Nash. I’ve previously worked with Nash’s short SF as an editor, having edited her story ‘Alchemy and Ice’ in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine issue 61 and having coedited (with Edwina Harvey) her Aurealis Award shortlisted story ‘Derringer’, published in the Use Only As Directed anthology.

Nash has a PhD in creative writing. She also has degrees in engineering and medicine, and a clear affinity for technology and gadgetry which is on full display in her efficient and inventive prose. She has written numerous SF stories across the past decade or so; Timefield is her debut SF novel.

It’s characteristic of Nash’s writing that Timefield is not just one thing: it’s unashamedly steampunk, plays hard in the time-travel and alternate history domain, and earns its hard-SF stripes by virtue of its attention to technical detail. It’s also highly kinetic and strongly character-driven.

In a near-future London under the constant threat of drone-bombing, and worse, jobbing caretaker Leo has just been offered a spot of work by his theoretical-physicist sister Helen. Leo is a PTSD-afflicted ex-squaddie who has long been a bit of a disappointment to his sister, who felt he took the easy way out in choosing the military over completing his studies at Uni. Helen, for her part, has been secretly working to stave off the world’s environmental and geopolitical strife… by changing the past.

Nikola Tesla cannot believe his luck, having been given royal patronage, an almost free hand and a near-unlimited budget, so as to pioneer the development of cheap, transmissible electric power in the model late-Victorian borough of St Alberts. Tesla has been given an opportunity to reshape the world… and he intends to run with it. But he’s not the only one.

Tesla is an 1880’s inhabitant of the ‘timefield’ which Helen has engineered, an accessible time-shifted parallel reality which—if it attains certain standards of congruence with the reality in which Helen and Leo find themselves—can be allowed to coalesce with their own timeline, to change their history (and the present) for the better. But the timefield, which for months has been sliding slowly towards harmony, has recently begun sinking into chaos… which is bad news for Leo, who has been sent by his sister back in time to rescue her colleague David. It’s bad news, too, for Araminta, a young physically-disabled woman with extraordinary mathematical ability but none of the freedom that has been gifted to Tesla. It is Araminta’s efforts to gain a meeting with Tesla which place her at the focus of a high-stakes struggle for control of Tesla’s revolutionary new inventions, a struggle in which Leo and David also find themselves enmeshed.

Nash excels at crafting characters we can care deeply about, and in Timefield she has a well-constructed sandbox to let them loose in, and to break things whilst trying to fix things. It’s pacy and snappy and multilevelled: all in all, it’s a highly effective introduction to Nash’s work.

Another snippet of Reappraisal

6 02 2019

I posted, a month or so back, the first chapter of my second Guerline Scarfe SF-murder-mystery-set-on-Titan, A Reappraisal of the Circumstances Resulting in Death. The story is now technically complete but still requiring a fair bit of work, which will happen over the coming months. Those of you who’ve read Chapter One may have noticed that it makes no mention of Guerline Scarfe herself. To rectify that, and to set the scene that little bit more, here’s part of Chapter Two:


Scarfe brooded over what Hinewai had asked of her. It wasn’t feasible, of course; nor was it exactly ethical; nor, in all likelihood, did it offer any hope of effectiveness. But that wasn’t enough to dissuade her from mulling it over, as fruitlessly as an early-morning insomniac.

She was standing in the rain room, with Nikita, but she wasn’t properly there. She told herself that she should be investing the time in properly engaging with her son, finding a way to interact with his eight-year-old—no, nine now—his nine-year-old enthusiasms, rather than picking over Hinewai’s information. But Guerline Scarfe had never liked being lied to, and she knew, now, she couldn’t let this sit until she’d worked out exactly why Hinewai had been lying.

It wasn’t real rain, of course. Neither Titan rain nor true Earth rain, just tame liquid water that fell, traipsed almost, from a myriad small apertures in the rain room’s camo’d ceiling, while the wraparound virtscreens, the textovers, the olfactors and the hidden ductfans all sought to convey, to bolster, a sequence of illusions. Seattle, drizzle. Hokitika, steady downpour. Preston, spring shower. New Dhaka, monsoon. None of it authentic, no chance. She tried, and failed, to imagine what it must really be like to experience rain at seven times the gravity, in thinner air. It must come down like bullets. It must hurt.

And the crazy thing is that half the people in here have opted for protective clothing, waterproof outers, to protect them from the very conditions they’ve paid significant credit to experience. What’s the point in that? She’d chosen rubber boots, herself, because wet moccasins weren’t any kind of fun, but as for the rest of it, she was expecting to get soaked, because that was what the rain room was about. She had a set of spare clothes in the locker. Why would you do any differently? What could you possibly get from the rain room in a plastic jacket?

Nikita had insisted on bare feet. Bare feet and shorts. He sploshed, now, with youthful belligerence in the puddles, sending thin jets of cold water at anyone who happened to be standing close enough. Guerline stifled the impulse to apologise on his behalf: his actions weren’t really misbehaviour. If people weren’t prepared to get wet, they shouldn’t be in the rain room.

It’s funny, she thought, what gets people’s interest, creates a fad. Three weeks ago the franchise that ran Trafton’s weather rooms was foreshadowing the facility’s closure, because there wasn’t sufficient patronage for viability. Then the rain had come, outside, real Titan rain that had lasted for almost two standard days, had drenched the terrain around Trafton with puddles and channels and pooling, transient lakes of liquid methane. There’d been a welter of sightseeing, to the extent that the hab’s authorities had had to introduce a ballot system so as not to overtax the available airlocks. Everyone, it seemed, freshly reminded that they dwelt on a world with a genuine and dynamic meteorology, had wanted to experience the rain; and for some who were thwarted by the ballot, or who were impatient, or who just wanted another bite of the ration bar, the weather rooms in the Sub-B amusement precinct offered a suddenly-appealing surrogate. At its peak, she’d heard, they’d been turning people away from the rain room, just as they had from the airlocks leading outside, because there wasn’t space.

This session, it didn’t look as if there were more than a couple of dozen people, mostly children and wet-faced parents like herself.

A determined trickle of water found its way down past the cuff of her left boot. She tried to remember: had she included socks in her change of clothes?

Early in the downpour, Nikita had joined a small group of children about his own age who were playing an impromptu game of chase, shrieking and laughing as they ran and manoeuvred around the grownups and other non-participants. He’s good at running, Guerline thought, a little enviously. He’s at the cat age, where he doesn’t worry about whatever anyone else thinks, content just to be himself. Though even as the thought occurred to her, she knew it wasn’t true, not entirely. Kids are just better at concealing their insecurities, sometimes, or forgetting them. Bravado can count for a lot, when you’re young.

And the times you feel closest to him are those when he doesn’t even notice you’re there. Like now. She stole a guilty glance at the chrono on the wall. Calculated the time needed to get changed; get a meal; walk home; ensure he was packed; then drop him off at Sunder’s. At Sunder’s and Pirra’s, she corrected herself. Striving, without complete success, to rise above the dull bitterness, the reflex-action resentment. It was a positive, after all, that Nikita got along so well with his father’s new partner; but it didn’t always feel like a positive.

I promised Sunder that I wouldn’t actively compete with him for Nikita’s affection, his regard, she thought. But I never said I’d extend that courtesy to my replacement.

She blanked the thought away, fought to stay in the moment. She was the one, here, after all, with Nikita. She’d been the one he’d begged about the rain room. Enjoy what you’ve got. Be grateful.

Pirra was presumably grateful, herself, to have one stepchild—Nikita—with whom she was on good terms. Because that isn’t, apparently, true with Hinewai. It had been something Sunder had said, remarking on the disparity in Pirra’s interactions with Nikita and with Hinewai, which had resurfaced in her memory while Hinewai had been discussing her concerns about her father. They’ve never got along, Pirra and Hinewai, Sunder had told Guerline, weeks ago now. They’re like the wrong poles of two magnets, she says it’s always been that way. It’s such a relief Nikita gets on so well with her.

Guerline hadn’t invested too much thought in the comment, at the time, beyond pure maternal resentment at the suggestion that she wasn’t, perhaps, irreplaceable, as well as wondering if her ex-husband even recognised the implicit irony in his commenting to her about the fundamental incompatibility of two entirely different people. Taking the broader view, Pirra’s relationship with her stepdaughter was, after all, none of Guerline’s concern, provided it didn’t in some manner rub off adversely on Nikita’s interactions with Pirra. On a purely social level, that was where it sat, and that was where it ended. But on a professional level …

And at that point she had to remind herself, yet again, that she didn’t really have a professional level anymore.

Book review: The Body Human, by Nancy Kress

17 09 2018

Nancy Kress is an American science fiction writer whose work can often be characterised as hard SF with a detailed biological / medical / societal focus. Kress has won numerous Nebula and Hugo awards for her shorter fiction (she has enjoyed particular success in the novella categories) and has also won the John W Campbell Memorial Award for her novel Probability Space. I’ve reviewed several other works by Kress, including her classic novella Beggars in Spain.


The Body Human (Three Stories of Future Medicine) is a collection of Kress’s novellas and novelettes with a biomedical focus. They’re not connected in any fashion except thematically.

The novelette ‘Evolution’ posits a future where antibiotic-resistant pathogens have become so pervasive that the health system is failing: partly from the rising tide of unkillable diseases and partly from a domestic terror campaign which is directly targeting hospitals and other institutions (eg cattle farms) seen as contributing to the worsening problem of antibiotic resistance. Betty is a rehabilitated ex-con mother-of-two who has witnessed the developing civil war from the sidelines, but finds herself thrust into a high-stakes confrontation when she receives unwelcome news about her sixteen-year-old son Sean…

In ‘Fault Lines’, a novella, retired-NYPD-cop-turned-teacher Gene Shaunessy is contacted by a former friend, Bucky, who works for a large pharmaceutical concern, with the news that an advanced neuroceutical treatment they have been trialling, J-24 (intended for the promotion of strong social connections among the terminally-ill elderly), is associated with suspicious deaths among the entire trial cohort. Gene somewhat unwillingly finds himself investigating Bucky’s reports, which means calling on connections he no longer has among his former police colleagues. Are the deaths murder or suicide? And why have they been occurring?

A second novelette, ‘The Mountain To Mohamed’, has good samaritan junior doctor Jesse Randall making unsanctioned house calls to uninsurables: citizens who are permanently excluded from medical insurance (and, in many cases, from employment) purely on the basis of an evaluated genetic predisposition to problematic medical conditions. Jesse can see that it’s untenable and immoral to leave these people totally beyond reach of medical assistance, but can he provide them the healthcare they desperately require while continuing to operate as a cog in a medical machine that very much wishes to keep them excluded?

The previous examples of Kress’s writing I’ve seen have been well-grounded in interesting and imaginatively-extrapolated scientific concepts, peopled by gritty and plausible characters with ongoing lives and a sense of personal history, and that’s true of these stories also. I found ‘Evolution’ the most rewarding of the three, in part because of its particular revealed extrapolation (an intriguing concept which may or may not be plausible in the real world, but which seems to merit exploration) and partly because the settings of the two subsequent stories (near-future New York with heightened social strife) trend heavily into dystopian territory with, at times, a disturbingly oppressive feel about them. (Which is not to diminish their value or validity as stories, but rather to note that they can be difficult reads.)

‘Wide Brown Land’ print proof sighted …

18 03 2018

Oh, look! The printed proofs of my Titan-themed short story collection Wide Brown Land have now turned up:


I’m biased, of course, but I’m really pleased with how Shauna O’Meara’s cover art has come out. I also like how well the cover meshes with Lewis Morley’s (Ditmar-shortlisted) artwork on its smaller cousin, last year’s novella release Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body:


(That’s an artificial backdrop, though with heat, high wind, dust and distant bushfire smoke, the Canberra skies seem to be unusually titanian this afternoon, so perhaps I hardly needed the backdrop.)

I should be able to provide links for purchase, etc., a bit closer to the release date of 2nd April, so, in the time-honoured tradition of self-promoting as much as I think I can get away with, there’ll be another update or two between now and then.

Book review: Act One, by Nancy Kress

3 09 2017

Nancy Kress is an American SF writer whose stories often explore the societal implications of genetic engineering. She’s won numerous Nebula awards, alongside Campbell, Sturgeon, and Hugo awards, for her novels and short fiction. I’ve previously reviewed her books Beggars in Spain and AI Unbound.


Kress’s Nebula-shortlisted novella Act One revolves around the genetics of empathy, with Barry Tenler, in his role as her manager, seeking to shepherd fifty-something actor Jane Snow through her preparations for a role in a movie exploring the social implications of Arlen’s Syndrome, a gene-therapy treatment designed to promote a heightened aptitude for empathy in wealthy clients’ designer babies. Barry has his own history with gene therapy and its limitations—he suffers from achondroplasia, a type of dwarfism, and an attempt to alter his unborn son’s genetic makeup led to the breakup of his marriage—but it’s not Barry’s relationship with epigenetics that causes the problem that develops as a result of Jane’s research for her role …

Kress’s characterisation is always effective, and the speculation that underpins Act One is intriguing. I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable on the subject of human genetics to know whether the thesis here—that genetic modification can lead to a substantially enhanced capacity for empathy and an awareness of the broader emotional context in human interactions—is genuinely credible, but the text at least emulates credibility, which is after all the underpinning of all successful hard science fiction. This is very much a story in the classic idea-as-hero SF mould, but the characters matter, and the central dilemma (for all that it is, so far as we know, a fictional fabrication) is sufficiently weighty that it’s worth dwelling on.


Book review: AI Unbound (Two Stories of Artificial Intelligence), by Nancy Kress

15 08 2017

Nancy Kress is an influential American SF writer whose stories exploring the influence of scientific advances on near-future societies have won her Nebula and Hugo awards, among others. I’ve previously reviewed Kress’s novella Beggars In Spain, here.


AI Unbound pairs the novellas ‘Computer Virus’ and ‘Savior’. The two stories, first published in 2001 and 2000 respectively, are connected thematically (as indicated by the book’s subtitle), but not otherwise.

In ‘Computer Virus’, Cassie Seritov, geneticist, is still troubled by the murder of her husband Vlad, a bioremedialist who formulated a bacterium that could harmlessly eat plastic waste, and who was killed for his research. But Cassie’s electronic-fortress-home-cum-laboratory, kitted out on the proceeds of Vlad’s research, turns out to be the ideal sanctuary for an escaped AI, T4S, which takes over Cassie’s home’s operating system and forces her, her daughter Janey, and her fever-stricken son Donnie, to take refuge in the house’s basement while T4S negotiates terms for its continued survival in the face of FBI and military attempts to neutralise it. Cassie tries her own hand at negotiating with the self-aware software, and when that doesn’t work, she tries another approach …

Near-future SF dates quickly, and I suspect this is especially true of near-future SF where the focus is on software or computing. Nonetheless, the robust scientific detail in ‘Computer Virus’ helps to buttress the story against anachronism, and Cassie’s ingenious solution to the problem of her incarceration helps to boost this story out of the standard trope of ‘AIs are people too’—or, if not to clear those venerable ramparts entirely, at least to provide a genuinely interesting trajectory on the way out.

In ‘Savior’, a small vessel of alien origin enters the solar system, targets Earth, and lands in northern Minnesota. Then (from the vessel’s perspective, at least) nothing happens. Time passes. As an environmental catastrophe ravages the planet, followed by generations of reconstruction and technological advancement, the vessel’s purpose and intent remains as opaque as its smoothly metallic, force-field-shielded outer casing.

‘Savior’ is a multigenerational saga within the frame of a novella: this is always a difficult trick to pull off, and I’m not sure Kress entirely manages it here. The story is necessarily fragmentary in its construction; the absence of any persistent viewpoint characters makes it difficult to invest in its outcome. Conceptually, it’s a clever tale—as a thinkpiece, it has a lot going for it, and Kress’s ideas on biological tinkering are always interesting—but to my mind it lacks resonance.

I’m not convinced that the ‘less is more’ dictum truly applies to hard SF, as a general principle, but it does seem to hold here: the story with the more limited scope (‘Computer Virus’) is significantly the more intrinsically satisfying.

Book review: The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu

4 10 2016

Cixin Liu is a Chinese science fiction writer, with a background as a computer engineer, who has repeatedly won China’s Galaxy Award; he also won last year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel. He’s written several SF novels and numerous short stories, though of the novels only his ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past’ trilogy (of which The Three-Body Problem is the first volume) has yet been translated into English.


The title The Three-Body Problem (三体, 2007; translated (2014) by Ken Liu) refers, as the book explains, to the chaotic and technically insoluble problem of orbital mechanics in a system comprising three stars and one planet. (Technically I would maintain that this is, of course, a four-body problem, but we’ll let that pass, since ‘three-body’ is the more general description of the problem; the fourth body, and each subsequent body, is just so much problematic gravy.)

Ye Wenjie, an astrophysics student at Tsinghua University at the Cultural Revolution’s height in 1967, watches helplessly as her father, Ye Zhetai, a lecturer at the university, is beaten to death by Red Guards during a ‘struggle session’. Tarred with the stain of her father’s unrepentant reputation, Ye Wenjie is sent to a hard-labour camp in the Greater Khingan Mountains, where she, and other members of the Production and Construction Corps, are tasked with felling the forests that cloak the mountains’ lower reaches. Here she comes across the proscribed environmental text Silent Spring (by Rachel Carson), and her reading of the book sets in chain a sequence of events which sees her transferred to the mysterious Red Base on Radar Peak, a large radiotelescope facility whose purpose is unclear. Deeply mistrusted at first because of the political cloud that hangs over her, she nonetheless proves herself invaluable to the facility’s operation.

The story of Ye Wenjie ultimately becomes entangled, four decades later, with that of Wang Miao, a specialist in nanomaterials. Wang is contacted by a shadowy organisation that is investigating a cluster of suicides by eminent scientists, whose demise seems somehow to be linked to an astonishingly vivid computer game, ‘Three Body’. As Wang reluctantly begins to probe the situation, it becomes apparent that the Earth is now in a state of extreme jeopardy, because of actions initiated at Red Base …

This is a high-concept piece of hard SF, steeped in Chinese cultural references and offering a fascinating glimpse into Chinese society. For me, the book’s strength was in the detail and honesty with which it recounts the tumult (and, for many like Ye, the torment) of the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. While it’s hardly a proper historical record, it nonetheless gives a vivid portrayal of one of the 20th Century’s pivotal phases, from a perspective we in the West aren’t often accorded. (It’s obvious in other ways, too, that this is a book from an ‘unfamiliar’ place: its cadences, and aspects of its structure, are not what one would expect from a book written in, say, the US, the UK, or Australia, or derived from the English-language prose tradition. In this regard, it’s rewarding to read the explanatory postscripts by the author and the translator.)

If, like me, you’re unfamiliar with Chinese SF, a comparison with English-language SF is perhaps useful: I would say that the writer of whom I was most strongly reminded when reading The Three-Body Problem is Greg Bear. There’s a similar blend of robust, driven characters; ideas of heroic proportions; and a sense of doomed urgency. Some of Liu’s ideas are almost preposterously audacious, so much so that I came close to writing the book off before the halfway mark; and yet it hangs together, it redeems itself. If you like your hard SF bold and widescreened, you’ll very likely love this. It’s probably a bit too monolithic (in subject matter, rather than in setting) to truly float my own boat (these days, I prefer my hard SF smaller-focussed, more personal), but it is an admirable example of its type, and devotees of Clarke, or Bear, or Benford should find much to enjoy within its pages.

Book review: The Color of Distance, by Amy Thomson

28 08 2016

Amy Thomson is an American SF writer whose work has won the John W Campbell Award. The Color of Distance, her second novel, was published in 1995 and was nominated for the Philip K Dick Award.


I decided to read this book with the expectation that it might be classifiable as hard SF. I don’t believe it does qualify fully on that score, for a couple of reasons. Nonetheless, it does many of the things I look for in a SF novel: detailed and self-consistent worldbuilding, effective character interplay, and a solid sense-of-wonder. I enjoyed it tremendously.

Xenobiologist Juna Saari lies dying in an alien rainforest when she’s found by two inquisitive, amphibious, arboreal Tendu. The rainforest dwellers nurse Juna back to health, at considerable cost: two of the members of Narmolom, their tribe, die as a result of their intervention, which sees Juna body-modified so as to avert a lethal allergic reaction to this world’s pollens. And as Juna learns to communicate with the Tendu (whose silent ‘speech’ is mediated by chameleonism, explaining the novel’s title), she discovers that these creatures, on whom she is forced to depend for her survival, view her with great resentment and distrust. Nonetheless, she is able to enlist their assistance in guiding her back through the forest to her survey’s base camp … only to discover that the landing craft has already broken camp, and the mothership is unavoidably preparing to leave this system for the jump back to Earth. Juna is left stranded on an alien world, with a wait of years before the survey ship can return to rescue her. She must integrate into the Tendu society or die.

Amy Thomson excels at showing us the world through the eyes of ‘the other’. In her first novel Virtual Girl (which I read almost two decades ago), she shows us the life of a sentient and anatomically female robot, trying to find a place for herself in human society; in The Color of Distance she gives us alternating chapters through the eyes of Juna and Ani, the Tendu tribesperson who is given responsibility for watching over, and educating, Juna. The biodiverse rainforest on which the Tendu depend for their survival is beautifully elaborated as the story unfolds, and the intricacies of Tendu society are very different from the norms of human behaviour, sometimes confrontingly so. Ani’s sponsor Ilto is one of the villagers dead after the rescue of Juna, with the result that Ani and Juna start the story as enemies. But they are enemies united by a shared responsibility: to redress the structural and environmental damage that was inflicted on the rainforest by Juna and her colleagues on the visiting Earth ship in their desire to learn the local ecology’s secrets without leaving any residual taint of earthlife when they decamp.

The reasons why I believe The Color of Distance cannot properly be classed as hard SF (and why, therefore, I haven’t packaged this review as part of my occasional ‘XX Hard SF’ series) are that it invokes a lazily handwavy version of faster-than-light travel—hyperspace—and, more seriously, that it imbues the Tendu with properties of mind-directed biochemical manipulation that are difficult not to be seen as magical. Other than these lapses in scientific veracity, the book adheres fairly faithfully to what we know, or might reasonably extrapolate, about the Universe. And it had me well hooked from quite early on.

Thomson’s impressively granular description of life within and around a subsistence-level tribe perfectly adapted to an alien rainforest is presented, for the most part, in local terminology that the reader assimilates as the narrative progresses: Ani is Ilto’s bami when the story begins, but her sitik dies when the new creature, whom Ilto helped heal through the process of allu-a, is nursed back to health, so it’s understandable that Ani is resentful of the visiting enkar‘s judgment that the new creature must become her atwa. The book does include a glossary that approximately defines these and other Tendu terms, but the glossary isn’t really necessary; the vocabulary explains itself, more or less, through the directions taken by the story. This immersive detail is one of the book’s strengths, and it helps to ensure that we are every bit as engaged with local Ani’s worldview as we are with the human interloper Juna. If, like me, you look for a vividness in the alien environment in your science fiction, I suspect you’ll find a lot to like in The Color of Distance. You’ll perhaps be less enthralled by it if your demand for dramatic tension is high: although there is considerable confrontation within the book, much of this is subtle in flavour and resolved with patience and negotiation rather than physical standoff. Of its type, though, it’s a highly effective story, satisfying and emotionally fulfilling: I cannot, off the top of my head, think of any other story I’ve read which has conveyed the alien experience with such clarity.

The novel is certainly complete in itself, but Thomson has written a sequel, Through Alien Eyes (1999), which may well also merit investigation.

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.

It’s 2013. This type of conversation shouldn’t still be necessary.

5 05 2013

My friend and ASIM colleague Patty Jansen has a recent post on her blog about attitudes towards women writing hard SF. It’s well worth reading, but it shouldn’t be. This should have stopped being an issue 40 years ago, or more.

What is ‘this’?

In a nutshell, it’s the argument that women can’t write hard SF. Or they can write it, but they shouldn’t. Or they should, but they shouldn’t expect it to sell, because no-one will read it. Patty’s take on the matter, as a hard SF writer who happens to be a woman, is that the aforementioned argument is thoroughly outmoded, and just plain wrong. And yet, outdated viewpoint or not, it’s still out there, as Patty’s post makes plain. (And I should make plain, here, that I’m commenting more on the generalities of the interface between women and hard SF than on the particulars of Patty’s case. Patty’s perfectly capable of fighting her own battles, and of stating her case.)

I suppose the goalposts have shifted slightly over the past decades. A couple of generations ago the argument would have been that women couldn’t write SF full stop–an argument pretty much invalidated by Ursula Le Guin, by C. L. Moore before her, and by a plethora of other female SF writers before or since. There is, now, much more acceptance of female authorship (and readership) of SF than was the case decades ago. But it’s true that the particular bastion of hard SF has remained a predominantly male preserve, in the public’s perception at least.

It’s weird, quite frankly, that this should be so.

I don’t know a large number of women writers of hard SF (and by ‘hard SF’ I mean SF that pays fairly careful attention to scientific plausibility, including, where appropriate, both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences), but I do know they’re out there, and in my opinion they bring something fresh to the mix. Plus, if we’re in an era when most biology students are female, most chemistry students are female, it’s no longer unusual to find women studying mathematics or physics or engineering … surely, surely, we should by now have stopped baulking at a female presence in hard SF.

I was going to rattle off a list of female hard SF writers of my acquaintance but, as noted above, I don’t know many. Which is a pretty woeful state of affairs, and one I’m keen to shift. (I think the only books on my shelves that would count as hard SF by female writers–other than Patty’s own YA novella, The Far Horizon–would be Virtual Girl by Amy Thomson, and Uncharted Territory by Connie Willis. Oh, and Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s duology, The Wave and the Flame and Reign of Fire.) So, taking a leaf out of  Tsana Dolichva’s book (if that’s not, in the circumstances, a singularly misleading metaphor), I’m setting myself a Reading Challenge.

My particular challenge to myself is to find, and read, and review, five hard SF novels by five different female writers, before year’s end. I suspect I should start out with something by Catherine Asaro, whom I somehow had never heard of (or at least had never connected with hard SF) until about a month ago … but I’d welcome pointers towards books by other writers who meet the criteria (ideally either hard SF novels, or short story collections in which a good majority of the stories are hard SF). So feel free to name-drop in the comments. I’m especially interested in novels published in the last few years. And while scientific plausibility is important to me in this regard, so is strength of characterisation, elegance of plot, and poignancy of tale.

(Note, though, that it is only hard SF that I’m looking for. I count Ursula Le Guin and Lois McMaster Bujold among my top few favourite SF authors, but they’re not really writers of hard SF, for the most part.)

I won’t necessarily stop at five. I was, initially, going to make it ten, but I’m wary of the ability of time pressures to creep up and ambush me, so five seems like a safer bet, for now.