Hard SF Considered Harmful

Friday , 24, March 2017 24 Comments

As the genre wars rage on, cool headed fans are stepping up to smooth things over. The subtext of some of this is, “ah, we’re not brutish and nasty like some people. We are not doctrinaire like those other sorts of fans. We don’t mistake our personal preferences for objective fact. We don’t poo poo the stuff that other people like. (Except literary sf. That stuff sucks!) No, we are beings of pure reason, utterly detached from our emotions. Please, let us end this destructive conflict by giving you the chance to recant and submit to our superior conception of how all of this works.”

Gosh, that’s just so kind of the aristocrats of science fiction to offer to sort this out. I am truly overwhelmed with their magnanimity. Such… gentlemen they are!

I am almost taken in by this… but then they bust out stuff like this:

One: Never Mind Science. Sometimes the author wants to do something and doesn’t care if it’s proven impossible. Mammals interbreed with egg-layers, rocks hang in the air, and Rule of Cool is all.

That’s the bottom end of Karl Gallagher’s scale of SF Hardness. And we’re supposed to believe that being at the bottom of the scale is no insult, that there’s no judgement here. We’re supposed to believe that this is some sort of good faith effort to heal an unfortunate breach between brothers in arms in some sort of broader culture war. But here’s the thing: this sounds “nice”… these seem like safe and innocuous opinions that are backed up by the weight of everything working writers take for granted.

But the fact is this sort of thing not only rubs salt into some longstanding wounds. It is also stupid. It’s myth and bigotry dressed up as kindness and objectivity.

The concept of “hardness” in science fiction was not introduced in order to “help” readers find the sort of stories they were looking for. To act like it is merely some sort of arbitrary genre distinction is embarrassingly disingenuous. A true gentleman would not do this.

So let’s be real about this.

Every time I make a claim about an author’s motivations, I get called on it. But you act it’s impossible that you would ever be subjected to the same sort of rigors on this. You casually insinuate that Edgar Rice Burroughs does not care if his science is proven wrong, that his work is the science fiction equivalent of playing tennis without a net. Poppycock. This is an act of literary aggression and it will not stand.

Edgar Rice Burroughs is not some quaint relic at the bottom of your conceptual totem pole. He is the foundation upon which fantasy and science fiction as we know it is built. The man is a giant among giants. And the only way later authors could even begin to compete with him was to change the rules. The concept of “sf hardness” was specifically introduced as a means of disqualifying him from being “real” science fiction. The consequence of this…? The field was fundamentally transformed, subdued by a clique, reduced to a ghetto of people desperate for the sort of recognition and appeal that Burroughs and Merritt took for granted in their day.

This critical frame is the reason why the science fiction field does not have a canon. It implies that things like heroism and romance are vestigial organs of the medium that ought to have been sloughed off as the field “progressed” to a new level of artistry. It didn’t just dethrone the pulp masters. It was part of a wider cultural pulse that replaced the real heroes of science like Newton and Einstein with sneering snake oil salesmen like Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

No, I get that you are cool. You are discerning. You’re not on board with that stuff. And most of all… you’re nice. You’re not a monster like me. I get it, really I do. And I get that genre categories like “hard sf” and terminology like “the Golden Age of science fiction” is going to remain in the vernacular no matter how many editorials I write. But if you really were as easy-going as your posture indicates, you really should look into picking up a new conceptual frame for all of this.

Your current model is not just offensive. It’s obsolete.

24 Comments
  • Anthony says:

    Yeesh. What did Karl Gallagher ever do to you?

  • Ostar says:

    Cliques and social status don’t vanish when you leave high school – most people carry on with that mindset their entire life. SF has plenty of those people.
    BTW – I basically agree with your take here.

  • DanH says:

    Well stated Jeffro!

  • Jesse Lucas says:

    I don’t even care what other people write or how they write it or why. This is the future, fellas, and nobody’s going to choke us out of the market again. Nasty things happened in the past and it’s fun to chronicle it, to be the pioneers of this new school of 20th-century publishing history, but we do not have to be nasty to each other. We do not have to radicalize and we-don’t-care until the movement has three people in it.

    I’ll be one of them, because I’m tough and stubborn, but I’d rather have lots more friends. I’m not trying to subvert you, to turn you into gutless moderates. There is a lot, a lot, a lot of space here for us. Limitless space, vast as the imagination, and we can coexist in it. Karl’s not doing Pulprev any. harm. at. all. His success is our success. Torchship was great.

    ERB being a hard SF author is a great concept. That’s how I think of him now. When Karl Gallagher talks about Barsoom being ridiculous inconsistent fantasy, I mentally note that on that subject he’s uninformed and I move on. I’m not calling anyone a monster for being passionate. This is just looking less like Isaac Newton discovering calculus and more like Isaac Newton investing in South American real estate.

    • Jeffro says:

      This is the discussion.

      If you look back at Appendix N, it really has a few of weak claims. A) Books before 1980 are awesome. B) D&D was put together by looting dozen authors most people haven’t heard of. C) Tolkien wasn’t quite the primary inspiration people think he was.

      This was all way more controversial in 2015 than most people here can imagine now. The narrative has shifted.

      But there is a bigger story here. And we’re only just beginning to piece this together.

      I think I should look into the 43 some odd novels that would convey just exactly what went down between 1920 and 1970. The New Wave was so grossly political there’s not much of a story there beyond “oh yeah, second wave feminism was nuts.” This is much more subtle. And more important.

      And as with Appendix N, the audience for this probably doesn’t exist yet…!

      • Jesse Lucas says:

        I hope you find it, but this isn’t what I signed up for. Puppies spent too much time talking down the opposition and too little time actually making good things, actually making up for these decades of lost apprenticeships, this absurd situation where out of the top three fantasy authors two of them write a book a decade and the third has virtually no pre-1980 education in any kind of literature at all.

        It’s like Richard Williams crying when he found out art students didn’t learn anatomy drawing anymore, and that even if they wanted to their professors hadn’t learned. He noted that modern art schools were going back to it, but they had to learn from photographs because the links weren’t there.

        We still have some links, mostly people who have actually read the old masters – don’t know if we’ve contacted anyone who wrote with them. Wright’s a greater treasure on that account than for his creative output. Most of the authors with anything like his breadth of reading experience are monsters like Swanwick and Gaiman, or even Moorcock, who still lives, gasping out his threats against God, preserved by foul necromancy.

        We can turn the hearts of the children to the fathers. We can train a generation with the skills their grandfathers should have learned, and establish a healthy literary movement that can in time reclaim its rightful place. So why waste time turning your guns on KARL GALLAGHER and the SUPERVERSIVE MOVEMENT?

        Tell us more about that list, I beg of you. Tell us how they did what they did, tell us what kind of world they must have seen, what kind of conceptions and prejudices they might have had, and we will use those. We will grow from those.

        Why do you let us children starve, just to complain that Gallagher must think you a monster? Ignore Gallagher. Ignore Baxter and Niven. They’re symptoms, not causes. Talk about Campbell, yes, get into him, tell us how he did what he did, I recommend his editorials (Harry Harrison collected his favorites, they’re on archive.org https://archive.org/details/collectededitori01camp). Teach us. Build us. You do not need to tear the bricks from the temple of hard SF. They would make poor walls in our tabernacle.

        • Anthony says:

          Yep.

        • Jeffro says:

          It’s astonishing to me seeing an entire culture evaporate. It’s not the thing I set out to discover.

          That it happens on about a 40 year cycle is odd to me. Surely I’m not the first person to notice this…?

          • Jesse Lucas says:

            That’s a generation.
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strauss%E2%80%93Howe_generational_theory#Generational_archetypes_and_turnings

            I’d chalk it up to virulent Soviet meme-ops, that’s what I’m putting my bet on for most of the 20thC cultural wreckage.

          • Hooc Ott says:

            “Surely I’m not the first person to notice this…?”

            I think Dick Lupoff did.

            https://kek.gg/i/4grmb7.jpg

            This was penned at about 1960 just before or just as Stan Lee kick started what would become the Silver Age of comics.

            So when he says “All of this, wiped out, gone forever, as if it has never been” I think after a year or three he might have changed his tune.

          • Jesse Lucas says:

            Oh, just found a neat JWC quote that actually talks about just that. He wrote SF at 1/2c a word to make $500 to buy a Model A and a professor told him he was “prostituting his science.” JWC mentions that he’s been in the business for 38 years now and he’s learned it takes “roughly twenty years for changes of cultural attitude to percolate through.”

            He’s actually talking, in the broad sense, about the assassination of Martin Luther King, but he goes into what it takes to change culture, how it needs patience and constant pressure. Ooh, here’s a good passage:
            “Cultural patterns are written in tar; with warmth, and a slow, steady pressure, the patterns will ooze to new configurations. Strike with a heavy mallet, hammer hard to change them quick – and they shatter.
            “But perhaps, rather than saying they are written in tar, we should say they are written in plastic explosive. Press slowly and steadily, and it molds anyway you wish; shock it, however, and it immediately ends your desire to change it – and you.”

            THAT’S relevant to this discussion. Whoah. Someone’s probably going to proudly talk about shocking the plastic explosive or something though.

          • B&N says:

            The Germans have used 149 spotlights to make an artificial sun that produces light that is 10,000 times stronger than natural sunlight on Earth. They can produce temperatures of 3,500 Celsius by directing them at a single spot. Listen, I’m not saying they made a death ray, I’m just saying they made a scientific device that shares a lot of death-ray-esque properties — and I think we need to have a more open conversation about the death-ray potential here, because I’m not 100 percent cool with a fake sun in a protective radiation chamber after seeing “Spider-Man 2.”

            https ://www .theguardian. com/science/2017/mar/23/worlds-largest-artificial-sun-german-scientists-activate-synlight

        • Nathan says:

          I’d rather talk about how Campbell’s path was a mistake, rejected by much of the world, ushered in low sales without growth, a literature of despair that clung over the genre for decades, and the siren call of message fic that plagues the genre. About how his attempts at revolution in both science fiction and fantasy were subversive in nature, attempting to overthrow conventions established for decades and centuries so that his political agenda might be served. About how he attempted to close the Pandora’s Box he opened, only to find out it was too late. And that his attempts to counter the despair he ushered in led to the decline of influence and eclipse by Gold and Boucher in the 1950s.

          • Nathan says:

            Make that “And that his attempts to counter the despair he ushered in led to the decline of his influence and his eclipse by Gold and Boucher in the 1950s.”

          • Jesse Lucas says:

            Tell me more about him trying to close Pandora’s box. It certainly feels that way, especially with the anecdotes about him realizing the friends he’d lost and the melancholy tone of his late editorials, but do you have any more direct info?

            I have a small stack of ~1970 Analogs, where I found his remarkable essay on societal values. I don’t think they’re available online. I’ll try to transcribe a few more of his editorials, especially if they seem relevant.

          • Nathan says:

            I intend to do a non-editorial on Campbell soon which will have the source for this story, but in 1948, he was a guest at a convention. While on stage, he apologized for all the stories of despair that were filling Astounding and that he would do something to correct that. And, indeed, the stories afterward became less bleak. However, Gold and Boucher openly sought the stories that Campbell turned away, and became the leading editors in SFF. Couple that with the Futurian revolt at the same time (an attempt to make SF more Left), and Campbell’s influence, while significant, declined.

            (Incidentally, in 1952, after having fanned the flames of despair writing, Gold would in turn say enough to despair fiction, stating that the world had not ended yet.)

      • Hooc Ott says:

        “between 1920 and 1970”

        Man I don’t envy you with the later half of those 43 odd books.

        Remembering the rough end you described with working on Appendix N maybe read them backward chronologically so you have something to look forward too.

        “the audience for this probably doesn’t exist yet…!”

        LIES!

      • The New Wave was so grossly political there’s not much of a story there beyond “oh yeah, second wave feminism was nuts.”

        Just like the Pulps were just white male power fantasies?

        • john silence says:

          Yeah… that was way off mark. Some of my favourite authors like Zelazny or Swanwick would fall in that group, and some of my favourite works of theirs would be classified as part of new wave nowadays.
          Heck, even those who are “grossly political” still wrote some great stuff. Early Viriconium tales are great yarns, whatever one may say about their author or his later works…

          Don’t make the mistake of projecting the ailments of modern mainstream SFF on the past wholesale.

  • JonM says:

    Of course the chosen terms themselves connote values. “Hard” is difficult and strong and solid. “Soft” is easy and weak and ephemeral. Do you want to write strong works or weak ones? To ask the question is to answer it. Imagine if we decided to use different language to describe the two ends of the spectrum. Would the Hard Buds object to referring to their preferred style of fiction as “Grey” and the other end “Colorful”? This is how even the language is corrupted to influence readers towards thinking about the literal nuts and bolts of engineering instead of the figurative nuts and bolts of heroism.

    Those who shrug and say, “Well that’s just how it is,” are failing to recognize the poison-pill sci-fi was fed. Some do it through malice, some through laziness, but all have the same effect. They water down the heart and soul of science fiction in pursuit of a bland and meaningless logic.

    You Hard Buds can keep your Spock-like love of logic, me and Jimmy T. are going to head on down to Ten Forward and find some green alien princesses to make out with.

  • I’d like to propose that the “hardness/softness” axis ought to be replaced with a pair of axes, “internal consistency” and “level of imagination.”

    “Internal consistency” is the extent to which the story follows whatever its universe’s rules are with consistence. Stories with high internal consistency have a “canon” or “story bible” that they adhere to in consistently.

    “Level of Imagination” measures how the story presents the rules of the universe. Low level of imagination means that the rules of the universe are spelled out to the reader in concrete detail. High level of imagination means the rules of the universe are left vague in the story (regardless of the extent to which the *author* has worked them out.)

    PULP SF: High IC, High LOI. Imaginative, Consistent. The world makes sense given its author’s assumptions, but the story is driven by action and plot. The rules and science are in the background, not the foreground. Since they are consistent, a careful reader could “reverse-engineer” what’s going on or what the “laws” are at work if desired, but enjoyment of the story does not typically depend on the reader or protagonist caring about the rules. Examples: A Princess of Mars, Starship Troopers, Babylon 5.

    CONCRETE SF: High IC, Low LOI: Concrete, Consistent. The enjoyment of the story arises in part from seeing how the universe works, or watching the protagonist use the rules to win (e.g. 3 Laws of Robotics gimmicks). The best “hard SF” falls into this genre. Note that it is irrelevant whether the science is compatible with our real-world science, only that it is internally consistent for the world. Examples: Dune, Foundation, Ender’s Game.

    POP SF. Low IC, High LOI: Imaginative, Inconsistent. Basic rules of the universe are routinely ignored or violated (e.g. Star Trek ships that move at the speed of plot, wildly inconsistent hyperspace travel times). This type of sci-fi often emerges in comics and cinema where joint authorship of a shared world across multiple media leads to inconsistency. Examples: Star Trek, Star Wars.

    Low IC, Low LOI: Concrete, Inconsistent. Pablum that aspires to be “hard science-fiction” but cannot be taken seriously or enjoyed because it either makes gross errors in attempts to narrate real science, or has inconsistent or absurd universal rules. Examples: Bad 1950s science-fiction.

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