What’s this ‘hard SF’ stuff, anyway?

posted in: Science fiction | 8
James Web telescope deep field image

Lately I’ve been pondering the term ‘hard’ science fiction. Probably because I used the expression myself when referring to Jack McDevitt’s books. But once you start to ponder, the mind turns to ‘but what does it mean’? And if there is ‘hard’ science fiction, what is ‘soft’ science fiction?

Wikipedia says hard SF is ‘a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy, or on both.

There is a degree of flexibility in how far from “real science” a story can stray before it leaves the realm of hard SF. Some authors scrupulously avoid such technology as faster-than-light travel, while others accept such notions (sometimes referred to as “enabling devices”, since they allow the story to take place) but focus on realistically depicting the worlds that such a technology might make possible. In this view, a story’s scientific “hardness” is less a matter of the absolute accuracy of the science content than of the rigor and consistency with which the various ideas and possibilities are worked out.

To me, this smacks of ‘Rules’, as well as snobbery – the kind of distinction that says literary fiction is a ‘better class of literature’ than genre fiction. Needless to say, Star Wars doesn’t get a jumper in the ‘hard’ SF team. I’m okay with that. The science is often ordinary but regardless, the Star Wars galaxy has held millions enthralled for over thirty years.

Back to ‘hard’ SF. Let’s take Jack McDevitt as an example. Most of his books include FTL so die-hards would discount them as ‘soft’ SF. I don’t because he so rigorously depicts his worlds and his physics. An example is the wide array employed in ‘Black Lightning’ to collect signals sent out thirty years before. Let’s say he squeezes in, then, under the ‘enabling technology’ rule. A foot in the door. What about Anne McCaffrey’s ‘Pern’? Yes, it has dragons – but they are genetically engineered animals based on a beast native to the planet. And the planet’s destructive scourge (thread) is in itself a logical reason why the dragons developed the ability to teleport. Then we have Elizabeth Moon, where humans have spread throughout the Galaxy by terra-forming planets (McDevitt has this, too). We can’t do this now and it seems a monumental task. So I assume we cross off Moon and McCaffrey.

As is so often the case, science fiction offers a spectrum starting from scenarios set (of necessity) in the present or near future which adhere strictly to the known – or perhaps I should say, the currently accepted – rules of physics or an extrapolation thereon. Something like Star Wars would be at the opposite end and everybody else would sit along the line somewhere.

Where would they put my books?

To be honest, I really don’t care. I’ve tried to think through my universe and make it plausible, so I avoid some of the more obvious mistakes. Some spotty student with nothing better to do may well be able to tear apart my world-building but my aim was to tell a story that would grab and hold a reader. I’m never going to please everybody and if readers wish to ignore my work as ‘soft’ SF – so be it.

Oh, and before I finish, I must point out that science is not immutable. In 1920 the Galaxy was estimated at 65,000 light years in diameter. With better equipment and more knowledge, we now estimate the distance at more like 105,000+. That picture at the top of the post shows galaxies – hundreds of them. Maybe one of them is a Galaxy ‘far, far away’. We now know that stars and planets are much weirder than we could ever have imagined. We know that there are no rainforests on Venus and no four-armed Martians on Mars. It’s mathematically accepted that there are more than four dimensions. Etc etc.

At the crux of the matter, though, this is fiction. It takes people to other places, other worlds, other times. Isn’t that why we read this stuff?

8 Responses

  1. Into which pigeonhole does this book fit? | Greta van der Rol

    […] has ‘shades of grey’ (yeah, yeah). Science fiction ranges between hard SF and soft SF. I discussed that here. On the hard SF – soft SF line, I’d put most space opera sort of in the middle. Star Wars […]

  2. rosieoliver

    Hard SF has an extra function over and above being (hopefully) good entertainment. It portrays what gadgets / science might be useful in the future. Scientists do pick up on these themes and follow through with research and development work. This has absolutely nothing to do with snobbery, just pitching at different audience. And therefore there is a need for the differentiation in the market place.

  3. Greta van der Rol

    Claudia, as I said in my opening words, I used the term myself when ‘categorising’ Jack Mc Devitt’s work. I’m really interested in reading other people’s take on it. I’ve seen the words ‘hard’ SF bandied about in the same vein as ‘literary fiction’ – and that aspect of one being in some way better than the other does annoy me – but not a lot. As you rightly say, it’s a matter of taste and at the end of the day, the story’s the thing.

  4. claudia celestial girl

    I really don’t think ‘snobbery’ is the right term. Clearly a good story is always expected. Nonetheless, ‘hard’ is a way to signal to the audience the density of the technology they are going to be expected to read. Does it have to be dense? No, but some people like physics and are ready to read/ingest the underlying physics of one’s world. Other people just want a nice easy read set in space. It’s like military fiction and how much you’re going to be expected to know about tanks and nuances of firing a machine-gun, etc. Some authors (Ludlum??) make a living creating worlds with that sort of density of information. Of course a good story is expected. You can still write a good science fiction story and not spend time with the really dense physics that is part of it. But if you do … then you want to signal to the audience what type of read they’re going to get. My WIP is one where I’m going to get somewhat academic in terms of sociology, social rules, and mass behavior. I hope its a fun read, hope to embed the behavior into the story, but I already now I have to spend some time explaining it because the average reader doesn’t know enough about 18th century society, what the behavioral expectations were. If you read Jane Austen, you’ll see she does a lot of explaining of their society. She makes it work. Does this make it ‘hard’ — yes, because the reader can’t just breeze through it. There won’t be as much ‘white space’ as some editors like to see on a page. But nobody is going to say that Jane Austen wasn’t one of the finest story tellers of our age. And yes, the line is blurry. Just as reader’s tastes are not uniform.

  5. MonaKarel

    IMO it’s a guy thing . Both the need to categorize, plus the need to separate out the hard or “real” SciFi from the rest. Since I read to be entertained and also to live vicariously for a while, I want good characters against whatever back drop appeals to me on that day

  6. Greta van der Rol

    Thanks for your comment.

    ‘Imperial Earth’ still works as hard SF because the readers make allowances. I take your point, and it’s pretty obvious I read and enjoy ‘hard’ SF. But it seems to me the line can be very, very blurry and I’m not sure how much value the distinction adds. Sometimes, it seems, to me, it’s simply snobbery.

  7. Steven J Pemberton

    “my aim was to tell a story that would grab and hold a reader” – which should be every writer’s aim, regardless of which set of rules and tropes they choose to work with.

    Hard SF is based on the best available scientific knowledge at the time it was written. It doesn’t cease to be hard SF if that knowledge later turns out to be wrong or incomplete. Arthur C Clarke’s Imperial Earth has colonists on Titan extracting hydrogen from (what was thought to be) its methane-rich atmosphere, which they sell for rocket fuel. A few years after the book was published, Voyager 1 flew past the moon and found that there wasn’t nearly as much methane as had been previously thought. The colonists’ reason for being there disappeared, but the story still works as hard SF.

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