Hard Science Fiction: A Working Definition

Tuesday , 7, April 2015 16 Comments

To say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it is not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.

~Terry Pratchett


…Good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.

~Albert Camus


War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

~George Orwell

The Beauty, Detail and “Documentary” Nature of Hard Science Fiction (Composite image by Lightfarm Brasil)


The term “hard” science fiction can mislead some into thinking that it is hard to read, hard to relate to, or hard to follow. There is a prevailing stereotype that “hard” science fiction is somewhat passe because it, by definition, lacks characterization and style. A lot of people throw the term around as if it can mean practically anything in SF that they oppose (or support.)

Jason Sanford, who proclaims a boyhood love for Starship Troopers, recently tweeted a stream of criticism for Heinlein and, somewhat more broadly, a perceived cult of Heinlein. The novel hasn’t aged well for him:

“I loved the novel back then because it presented an exciting future with spaceships and battles and a philosophy which sounded reasonable to my young mind. I probably read the novel a half-dozen times before moving on to other SF stories and authors.”

One particular stream of tweets and conversations centered around his assertion that:

No, Heinlein Isn’t a “Hard” SF Writer

“Heinlein is held up as a “hard” science fiction author but in last battle of Starship Troopers a “special talent” (psychic) locates enemy.”


In response to claims that Campbell was into psionics as well, he replied: “Ah yes. I forgot that. For an editor who supposedly created modern SF, Campbell believed a ton of pseudo-science crap.”


He also retweeted Nick Mamatas: “Hard” sf is just sf that appears rigorous, usually through character rhetoric.”


When another reader responds: “I’ve read pretty much everything Heinlein published, and calling him “hard science fiction” seems off-base.” Sandford replies with:


“Agreed. But he’s held up as the epitome of what true science fiction should be.”

I believe here we have a decent example of a fundamental ignorance of the concept of “hard” science fiction. Despite Sanford’s insistence, Heinlein is not held up as the epitome of what true science fiction should be, nor has he ever been considered a “hard” science fiction author. The term originates in 1957, with P. Schuyler Miller, a regular reviewer at Analog and Astounding. Often James Blish is credited with coining the term, but that appears to come well after Miller described Blish’s work as such in print as early as 1959.

Science fiction historian Gary Westfahl uses C.S. Lewis as a sort of test for who is – and who is not – to be considered a “hard” science fiction writer:

“Lewis is not a hard science fiction writer because: in the first twenty years when the term was regularly employed, he was never called a hard science fiction writer, even by commentators like Miller who were well aware of his work; Lewis’s novels do not fulfill all traits usually announced as characteristic of the form, such as extreme attentiveness to scientific fact and extrapolation; and in his own remarks on hard science fiction (‘Engineers’ stories’) Lewis expressed disdain for the form, thus distancing himself from it.”

~Gary Westfahl “The Closely Reasoned Technological Story”

Some of the same exclusions apply to Heinlein (in fact, Westfahl specifically cites Heinlein as not being among the “hard” SF crowd.) Occasional works of his were considered as possible candidates for hard science fiction, but as an author overall, his works demonstrate a greater interest in philosophical and social worldbuilding rather than the “extreme attentiveness” test.

Compare this to Jefferson Sutton, whose works such as Spacehive and the obsessive engineering descriptions of even the juveniles like Apollo at Go! were widely acknowledged during the Space Age nascency of the subgenre as definite examples. In fact, until Sutton’s later works (such as the Programmed Man and Whisper from the Stars) nearly all of his fiction, including the historic adventure fiction of The River, could be considered obsessively detailed, scientific and “documentary” in outlook, even when the subject matter was not science fiction.

Westfahl notes that when it comes to “hard” science fiction as a subgenre, “most references involve authors who emerged or became prominent in the 1950s and 1960s: Anderson, Blish, Budrys, Clarke, Clement, Dickson, Garrett, Gordon, Herbert, McLaughlin, Niven, Sutton, and ‘to a degree,’ Hoyle.”

Although some works by Heinlein are considered retroactively to be of the “hard” variety, he was not in that group in the 50s or 60s, when the term’s use solidified.

Sanford also goes to twitter to demonstrate that:

Heinlein was Not a Great Literary Writer

“Also interesting how in Starship Troopers one of Heinlein’s major reasons for collapse of USA are gangs and juvenile delinquents. LOL”


“The older I get the more I understand that Heinlein was not a great literary writer. He simply can’t avoid page after page of sermonizing.”


“Did you know that Heinlein goes on for pages in Starship Troopers about how not spanking kids helped collapse society? Shakes head & laughs.”

Keep in mind, Starship Troopers was written for the juvenile market. Setting aside the fact that looking for “literary” in kid’s space fighting books is a spectacular category error, it also calls into question any who insist that someone, somewhere, insists that Heinlein is the pinnacle of “hard.” Although children’s literature does not necessarily disqualify a work from being considered “hard” science fiction (Apollo at Go! Jefferson Sutton’s juvenile classic surely qualifies. It could be used as a middle school physics text.), it is more likely that juvenile science fiction of that era demonstrated greater interest in the moral modeling of characters, and ideas about a civic society.

Starship Troopers is far more descriptive of the social forces around us, and the acts that make good men, than it is of describing the technical specifications of weaponry, ships or psionics. Understanding the book as juvenile literature is important: While Sanford ridicules Heinlein’s “message” that the US declined due to juvenile delinquency, he misses that Heinlein is in fact delivering a story point to inspire his young readers to avoid delinquency!

So, like a lot of people who make the mistake of believing the “Heinlein as ‘hard’ science fiction author” myth, Sanford attacks a ghost. While there are certainly disputes about categorization (there always is within subgenres) Heinlein’s books rarely fall into the “hard” category – and then only retroactively, in his works written before Miller ever coined the term. Heinlein, the author, is not only not among the leading gods of “hard” science fiction authors, he isn’t even in the pantheon. He wasn’t back then, and he isn’t today upon further reflection.

So. There you have it: if you want to attack hard science fiction as a subgenre, you had better pick books and authors who actually attempted and succeeded to write in the subgenre.

I understand; it is tempting to hold Heinlein up as a strawman representative of “hard” science fiction, because his politics and philosophy were the “wrong” sort, and you don’t need to be all that good at STEM to attack his science. Also, he’s dead now, and unlikely to shout back if you cross him.

The truth is that hard science fiction – in the so-called “documentary” style – is hard to write, which is why even the most notorious “hard” science fiction writers often relaxed into other types of SF. For Heinlein, hard SF was almost never his objective.

  • The CronoLink says:

    Despicable morlocks trying to attack their betters by flinging their own dung at them.

  • Writing plausible hard SF is a lot harder, these days, because there really isn’t much incentive to put people in space. NASA still hasn’t settled on a replacement for the Shuttle, and though companies like SpaceX are doing some neat stuff, a manned Mars mission is off the table for the foreseeable future.

    In the 50s and 60s, it looked like there would be significant economic impetus for manned space stations, lunar bases, etc. It seems implausible to us in hindsight, but nobody really predicted just how miniaturized electronics would become, or that the U.S. would give up on manned space exploration in favor of funding various Wars on Nouns.

    Nanotech is going cool places, as are molecular biology and genetics, but stories about those things usually lack the romance of rocket-ships hurtling through the void atop a giant plume of radioactivity.

    That being said, I think Sanford’s propping up Heinlein as a hard SF strawman has more to do with ignorance (and refusal to admit it) than malice against the subgenre. It’s possible he dislikes hard SF in general, but I didn’t get that impression.

    • Daniel says:

      Hard SF has always been damn hard. I have gotten a glimpse of Jeff Sutton’s research notes for the 1960s, 172 page juvenile Apollo at Go! There’s one and a half pages, single spaced engineering details about the glass in the window of the lunar lander that contributed to about six words in the final published fiction.

      The key to hard SF is you have to want to write it. Most authors do not. There is nothing wrong with that. Even authors who like to get into the technical details of their speculation tend to focus on certain things (the weapons, the ships, the scientific innovation.) To get to hard, you have to make the documentary approach consistent and comprehensive.

    • Eth says:

      On the other hand, thanks to Internet, resources to write hard SF are far more accessible than before.
      Where Jules Verne would have to directly ask scientists and Jeff Sutton at least spend lots of time in specialized libraries and making hand calculations, we have access to on-line calculators and comprehensive resource/advice collections like the website Atomic Rocket.
      (It’s actually by checking the twitter of Atomic Rocket’s author Winchell Chung that I found about Castaila House’s blogs.)

      Of course, there are levels of hardness. If your standards are Star Wars, Heinlein is comparatively hard SF.
      Heinlein tried to make things believable, thus it’s not exactly Soft SF; and it’s confused with actual attempts at Hard SF. (So it’s what, Rigid SF? Firm SF? Stiff SF?) And now it’s even easier to pick it apart with the wealth of resources available today.

      • Russell says:

        “If your standards are Star Wars, Heinlein is comparatively hard SF.”

        I was thinking the same thing.

        How about Crunchy SF?

        • Daniel says:

          That’s pretty good, although in the big picture I really don’t think there’s a huge need for a bunch of differentiated subgenres in the field.

          Science Fantasy, Hard SF, general SF and Science Horror (and maybe Weird) are pretty much all most people need to know whether they are interested or not. Star Wars, incidentally, was Science Fantasy, which – for me – is enough to distinguish it from Hard SF (Spacehive) and General (Starship Troopers).

  • Daniel says:

    Considering that Jason Sanford has written at least one novella that I know of that was promoted as “hard” science fiction when it wasn’t (Sublimation Angels – it not being hard SF doesn’t make it a bad book, just a grossly miscategorized one. It, like the C.S. Lewis example above is not an engineering story, it is a character story in a pseudomagical tech backdrop) and the fact that he uses Heinlein as a vehicle to attack a squishy idea of hard science fiction (that it isn’t actually hard. It can have whatever magical explanation you want in it, as long as you handwave and jargon it) instead of, I don’t know, actually holding up one of the many exemplars of hard science fiction that indicates he’s a bit lost.

    Add to that he was quoted in 2010 jabbering on about how “hard SF” was morphing into something new called “SciFi Strange” which is somehow “hard SF” plus diversity of minority opinion, and it is fairly clear that his likes or dislikes are irrelevant, but his authority on the subject is suspect.

  • Astrosorceror says:

    Larry Niven and Stephen Baxter both write excellent hard Sci-Fi. Both have an excellent sense of story, character, and drama. They are also easy to read and follow.

    Hard Sci-Fi as I understand is Sci-Fi driven by science, or a hypothesis that is rationally developed. It adheres precisely to established science, and where there is something new, it’s properties and behavior are logically detailed.

    Also: yes Heinlein is not hard Sci-Fi, but it’s still great fiction.

  • Daniel says:

    Westfahl refers to “the closely reasoned” science fiction story. There are advantages and disadvantages to writing hard sci-fi. Perelandra, for example, would have failed as a documentary description of Venus.

    There are ideas that are better left explored outside the realm of hard SF. “Hard” is a specific tool and it isn’t right for every job. It is, however, the exact and precise tool for other jobs.

  • Eth says:

    I felt a vague unease reading Starship Troopers, as there were what I perceived as military far-right overtones with the Federation, particularly with how the war is described as a natural, inevitable course of events because both species are competing for living space. There were also elements that would be mild by themselves: public corporal punishments, morale lessons in class, very statist society, said enemies as numerous, cast-divided, individuality-lacking aliens… Added together and in addition to the previous one, they are not helping.
    Now, I read it a long time ago, so maybe my perceptions were skewed (for example, by hearing about Heinlein’s McCartyst sympathies). Or maybe those overtones are simply because the main character has military far-right leanings, not the Federation.

    That said, it’s still a pretty great book. And those attacks on its supposed morality are ridiculous.
    Even though I felt those undertones, it doesn’t make it a propaganda book in any way, but beyond that, he is criticising a morale system he happens to disagree, without even taking into account the difference in time, perspective or even goal in the writing.

  • Jill says:

    Heinlein’s a lot of fun, but his books are certainly not character-driven or literary. His science has integrity for the worlds he builds–kind of silly to us, maybe (What? An advanced moon colony, but no cordless telephones?). Still, he makes it work. I don’t know about sermonizing. What others call sermonizing, I often call philosophy.

  • The Original Hermit says:

    “Did you know that Heinlein goes on for pages in Starship Troopers about how not spanking kids helped collapse society? Shakes head & laughs.”

    Badly behaved children become badly behaved adults. I’m guessing this guy is a baby boomer, and has exactly zero self awareness.

  • Hard sf need have no political stance at all, and often has none. You might consult Hartwell’s THE ASCENT OF WONDER for discussions and many examples.

  • KWood says:

    In Heinlein’s book “The Rolling Stones”, the author goes into great detail when discussing (through his characters) the mathematical and theoretical details of launching a rocket from the surface of the moon, sling-shotting around the Earth and heading for Mars. He did this before Sputnik had even be launched. Does this not qualify for at least a ‘retrospective’ badge of honor for hard science fiction? He was way before his time on this and went way further than most of his peers who were saying (figuratively), “And he pressed a button and the rocket whooshed off to Mars!”

    I would also argue that Heinlein’s discourses on society and how it could/would/might/should change due to various circumstances might also qualify as ‘hard’ even though it doesn’t involve outright mathematical engineering. It was nonetheless speculative and quite deeply thought out.

    Just throwing this out for discussion. I am not very well versed in many of the authors classified as hard sci fi and have much to learn.

    • Daniel says:

      H. Beam Piper sketched out the principles of Sputnik on a napkin for scifi friends who didn’t understand the newspaper story when it came out, too, but he quickly abandoned hard science fiction for more far flung fare.

      He didn’t like that Engineering ran the risk of feeling dated so quickly. Not wrong, mind you, just dated.

      Heinlein could hack the science, too. But when your hardest stuff is written for kids, you don’t meet the criteria. He was way more interested in social and military exploration than the ramifications of live load in a vaccuum or the inherent speed limitations of solar sail tech.

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