To say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it is not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.
…Good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.
War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.
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:
“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:
“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.