“Nothing is as soft as water, yet who can withstand the raging flood?” — Lao Ma in Xena (The Debt I)
Being a research scientist as well as a writer, reader and reviewer of popular science and speculative fiction, I’ve frequently bumped up against the fraught question of what constitutes “hard” SF. It appears regularly on online discussions, often coupled with lamentations over the “softening” of the genre that conflate the upper and lower heads.
In an earlier round, I discussed why I deem it vital that speculative fiction writers are at least familiar with the questing scientific mindset and with basic scientific principles (you cannot have effortless, instant shapeshifting… you cannot have cracks in black hole event horizons… you cannot transmute elements by drawing pentagrams on your basement floor…), if not with a modicum of knowledge in the domains they explore.
So before I opine further, I’ll give you the punchline first: hard SF is mostly sciency and its relationship to science is that of truthiness to truth. Remember this phrase, grasshoppahs, because it may surface in a textbook at some point.
For those who will undoubtedly hasten to assure me that they never pollute their brain watching Stephen Colbert, truthiness is “a ‘truth’ that a person claims to know intuitively ‘from the gut’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.” Likewise, scienciness aspires to the mantle of “real” science but in fact is often not even grounded extrapolation. As Colbert further elaborated, “Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything.” And therein lies the tale of the two broad categories of what gets called “hard” SF.
Traditionally, “hard” SF is taken to mean that the story tries to violate known scientific facts as little as possible, once the central premise (usually counter to scientific facts) has been chosen. This is how authors get away with FTL travel and werewolves. The definition sounds obvious but it has two corollaries that many SF authors forget to the serious detriment of their work.
The first is that the worldbuilding must be internally consistent within each secondary universe. If you envision a planet circling a double sun system, you must work out its orbit and how the orbit affects the planet’s geology and hence its ecosystems. If you show a life form with five sexes, you must present a coherent picture of their biological and social interactions. Too, randomness and arbitrary outcomes (often the case with sloppily constructed worlds and lazy plot-resolution devices) are not only boring, but also anxiety-inducing: human brains seek patterns automatically and lack of persuasive explanations makes them go literally into loops.
The second is that verisimilitude needs to be roughly even across the board. I’ve read too many SF stories that trumpet themselves as “hard” because they get the details of planetary orbits right while their geology or biology would make a child laugh – or an adult weep. True, we tend to notice errors in the domains we know: writing workshop instructors routinely intone that authors must mind their p’s and q’s with readers familiar with boats, horses and guns. Thus we get long expositions about stirrups and spinnakers while rudimentary evolution gets mangled faster than bacteria can mutate. Of course, renaissance knowledge is de facto impossible in today’s world. However, it’s equally true that never has surface-deep research been as easy to accomplish (or fake) as now.
As I said elsewhere, the physicists and computer scientists who write SF need to absorb the fact that their disciplines don’t confer automatic knowledge and authority in the rest of the sciences, to say nothing of innate understanding and/or writing technique. Unless they take this to heart, their stories will read as variants of “Once the rockets go up, who cares on what they come down?” (to paraphrase Tom Lehrer). This mindset leads to cognitive dissonance contortions: Larry Niven’s work is routinely called “hard” SF, even though the science in it – including the vaunted physics – is gobbledygook, whereas Joan Slonczewski’s work is deemed “soft” SF, even though it’s solidly based on recognized tenets of molecular and cellular biology. And in the real world, this mindset has essentially doomed crewed planetary missions (of which a bit more anon).
Which brings us to the second definition of “hard” SF: style. Many “hard” SF wannabe-practitioners, knowing they don’t have the science chops or unwilling to work at it, use jargon and faux-manliness instead. It’s really the technique of a stage magician: by flinging mind-numbing terms and boulder-sized infodumps, they hope to distract their readers from the fact that they didn’t much bother with worldbuilding, characters – sometimes, not even plots.
Associated with this, the uglier the style, the “harder” the story claims to be: paying attention to language is for sissies. So is witty dialogue and characters that are more than cardboard cutouts. If someone points such problems out, a common response is “It’s a novel of ideas!” The originality of these ideas is often moot: for example, AIs and robots agonizing over their potential humanity stopped being novel after, oh, Metropolis. Even if a concept is blinding in its brilliance, it still requires subtlety and dexterity to write such a story without it devolving into a manual or a tract. Among other things, technology tends to be integral in a society even if it’s disruptive, and therefore it’s almost invariably submerged. When was the last time someone explained at length in a fiction piece (a readable one) how a phone works? Most of us have a hazy idea at best how our tools work, even if our lives depend on such knowledge.
To be fair, most writers start with the best of intentions as well as some talent. But as soon as they or their editors contract sequelitis, they often start to rely on shorthand as much as if they were writing fanfiction (which many do in its sanctioned form, as tie-ins or posthumous publication of rough notes as “polished products”). Once they become known names, some authors rest on their laurels, forgetting that this is the wrong part of the anatomy for placing wreaths.
Of course, much of this boils down to personal taste, mood of the moment and small- and large-scale context. However, some of it is the “girl cooties” issue: in parallel with other domains, as more and more women have entered speculative fiction, what remains “truly masculine” — and hence suitable for the drum and chest beatings of Tin… er, Iron Johns — has narrowed. Women write rousing space operas: Cherryh and Friedman are only the most prominent names in a veritable flood. Women write hard nuts-and-bolts SF, starting with Sheldon, aka Tiptree, and continuing with too many names to list. Women write cyberpunk, including noir near-future dystopias (Scott, anyone?). What’s a boy to do?
Some boys decide to grow up and become snacho men or, at least, competent writers whose works are enjoyable if not always challenging. Others retreat to their treehouse, where they play with inflatable toys and tell each other how them uppity girls and their attendant metrosexual zombies bring down standards: they don’t appreciate fart jokes and after about a week they get bored looking at screwdrivers of various sizes. Plus they talk constantly and use such nasty words as celadon and susurrus! And what about the sensawunda?
I could point out that the sense of wonder so extolled in Leaden Era SF contained (un)healthy doses of Manifesty Destiny. But having said that, I’ll add that a true sense of wonder is a real requirement for humans, and not that high up in the hierarchy of needs, either. We don’t do well if we cannot dream the paths before us and, by dreaming, help shape them.
I know this sense of wonder in my marrow. I felt it when I read off the nucleotides of the human gene I cloned and sequenced by hand. I feel it whenever I see pictures sent by the Voyagers, photos of Sojourner leaving its human-proxy steps on Mars. I feel it whenever they unearth a brittle parchment that might help us decipher Linear A. This burning desire to know, to discover, to explore, drives the astrogators: the scientists, the engineers, the artists, the creators. The real thing is addictive, once you’ve experienced it. And like the extended orgasm it resembles, it cannot be faked unless you do such faking for a living.
This sense of wonder, which I deem as crucial in speculative fiction as basic scientific literacy and good writing, is not tied to nuts and bolts. It’s tied to how we view the world. We can stride out to meet and greet it in all its danger, complexity and glory. Or we can hunker in our bunkers, like Gollum in his dank cave and hiss how those nasty hobbitses stole our preciouss.
SF isn’t imploding because it lost the fake/d sensawunda that stood in for real imaginative dreaming, just as NASA isn’t imploding because its engineers are not competent (well, there was that metric conversion mixup…). NASA, like the boys in the SF treehouse, is imploding because it forgot — or never learned — to tell stories. Its mandarins deemed that mesmerizing stories were not manly. Yet it’s the stories that form and guide principles, ask questions that unite and catalyze, make people willing to spend their lives on knowledge quests. If the stories are compelling, their readers will remember them after they finish them. And that long dreaming will lead them to create the nuts and bolts that will launch starships.
Images: 1st, Stormtrooper Walking from Grimm’s Pictures; 2nd, the justly famous Sidney Harris classic from What’s So Funny About Science?; 3rd, Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, photo by Robert Trachtenberg for Rolling Stone; 4th, The Gate, by Peter Cassidy.
Note: This is part of a lengthening series on the tangled web of interactions between science, SF and fiction. Previous rounds:
I guess this one might be called Why SF Needs Fiction!