“Hard” Science Fiction DOES NOT EXIST. It’s a delusion. A phantasm. A phantasmagorical illusion.
It’s a lie Hard SF writers and audiences mutually agreed to, the original “consensual hallucination”.
Let’s start with something easy: fast interstellar travel. It’s physically impossible to travel faster than the speed of light. Period. Physics is very clear on this subject. There is no known scientific principle which would allow one to violate Relativity. Traveling faster than light always involves time travel to the past, which violates causality, which the physical laws of the universe absolutely forbid.
Any SF story which involves faster-than-light starships or communication is absolute drivel, scientifically speaking. You may as well be writing about inch-high fairies summoning ghosts in Narnia—it’s just as scientifically accurate.
Galactic Empires? Hokum. Boldly Going Where No Man Has Gone Before? Bunk. Hyper-jumping into a system to launch a planetary assault on a just-discovered Rebel Alliance base? Utter tosh and rubbish.
Fast interstellar travel is a scientific impossibility. Also impossible: teleportation (violates the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle), time travel (violates causality), and pretty much every other fun and interesting idea that SF writers have celebrated since the dawn of the Fantasy & Science Fiction genre. Science hates fun.
Science also hates scientific accuracy in stories. Science is an ever-evolving field and while certain things are constant—like Newton’s Law of Gravity—new discoveries are upending stuff all the time. Like Newton’s Law of Gravity, which proved inadequate to the task of calculating the orbit of Mercury. It took Einsteinian Relativity to let us do that.
Science changes constantly, and today’s rigidly scientifically accurate Hard SF masterpiece can, in one day, be relegated to the dust bin with all the other stories who got the science wrong. It’s happened.
I’m not saying scientific accuracy is a bad thing, but rather that minute and pedantic adherence to current scientific knowledge isn’t necessary for a good Science Fiction story. Audiences don’t want realism, and they don’t want accuracy. They want a good story, well told, with a veneer of verisimilitude: a story that is believable enough to believe in, whether it’s actually scientifically accurate or not.
This is so much the case, that even Hard SF cultists will gladly accept something that is scientifically impossible—like fast interstellar travel—in the interest of a good story. When it comes to great storytelling, even Hard SF hardcases wink at violations of science. All you have to do is give them a good enough excuse and they’ll happily accept whatever it is you’re peddling, whether it really makes scientific sense or not.
Scientific or technical accuracy should never be allowed to wreck a good tale. Stories which elevate these elements above all others may appeal to a narrow slice of the audience, but they generally repel the mainstream. Such stories should never have become the dominant or sole form of Science Fiction, and the effort to make them such coincided with the collapse in sales of SF, and its relegation to a ghetto genre, fit only for adolescents and nerdy adults.
Hard SF absolutism wrecked SF. Which is a damn shame, because Hard Science Fiction DOES NOT EXIST.
Jasyn Jones, better known as Daddy Warpig, is a host on the Geek Gab podcast, a regular on the Superversive SF livestreams, and blogs at Daddy Warpig’s House of Geekery. Check him out on Twitter.
There was some somewhat firmer sci-fi in the background that just never came up in the scripts; all those moons are intended to have been terraformed I believe and they get their nice bright sunshine from modified versions of the FTL gates the spaceships use to get around quickly. Those gates themselves and the apparent Earth-scale gravity everywhere are the only glaring handwaves.
Hmmm…I was not aware of this at all, but I think my point stands. As far as the audience was concerned, there was no “realistic” explanation. Yet no one seemed to care, as the reception of the show attests. The show is valued for its quality, not for its realism.
“The science is bad” is the most useless criticism I can recall encountering yet I see it all the time in reading reviews of sci-fi. It tells me nothing of how well-written the story is.
In the 1900’s, nothing could escape a hole. In the 1800’s, man could never fly. In the 1300’s, the moon was a perfect sphere. And so on. The notion that our current scientific understanding is perfect is itself hokum and bunk. It strikes me as likely that mankind could eventually learn to “game” the laws of physics the same way we gamed instantaneous lift.
Hard SF is not differentiated by strict adherence to known laws of physics. It is characterized by adherence to scientific principles – i.e. the provision of a hypothetical method by which something might be achieved.
*Correction: Black hole
“Scientific accuracy” in a story, for me, is like an excellent stereo in a car or large breasts on a woman: If everything else is optimal, it’s a bonus, but that one feature will NOT seal the deal.
I’ve owned several great cars with crappy stereos and I could reread GODS OF MARS tomorrow, no problem.
The PulpRev is coming.
Heinlein’s boy scouts on Venus story (A Tenderfoot In Space) loses none of it’s charm just because we know the real place is closer to Hades than the swamp of 50’s science fiction. The Venus of Heinlein is a fictional place you can’t send a billion dollar probe to. Like every other destination in SF, it can only be explored through the imagination.
Totally agree. Some of those who squeal about the “inaccuracy” will at the same time proclaim that the basic concept of Locke’s “Blank Slate” is absolutely valid, despite what the last two decades of research has shown us. “Selective accuracy” , indeed.
Exactly. And these settings also lose none of their VALUE just because they are imaginary. Anyone who has ever tried to read the modern Pink Slime (I never have) could tell us if there is any VALUE to be found in putting those “stories” into our brains. What do we GET out of them?
“Scientific or technical accuracy should never be allowed to wreck a good tale. Stories which elevate these elements above all others may appeal to a narrow slice of the audience, but they generally repel the mainstream. Such stories should never have become the dominant or sole form of Science Fiction, and the effort to make them such coincided with the collapse in sales of SF, and its relegation to a ghetto genre, fit only for adolescents and nerdy adults.”
If you’re looking to sell only to the descendants of the New York science fiction clubs, stay the course. But just remember how many science fictions fan screaming from the sort of scientific absolutism of Astounding and her kin. Germnay, France, Britian, Japan, California, midwest America…
This isn’t to say that the rest of the world that isn’t New York doesn’t produce some crunchy hard SF. It just rejects New York’s characteristic blending of science fact with literary realism, complete with a double-helping of that realism’s snobbish “nothing else is true literature”.
Maybe the definition of HardSF -because it implies scientific accuracy and therefore some kind of intellectual status- has been watered down, but I always assumed this is known as there are authors in that genre who dismiss FTL, teleportation, and instantaneous communication.
I also suspect you are aiming at a wrong target here. HardSF is NOT the genre that the establishment likes to portray as “true” SF. The literati is made of people who studied humanities and critical theory; they wouldn’t recognize a story with accurate science even if it spat them in the face.
Still, Hard-SF is probably more a continuous or some kind of “ideal” than a discrete object.
100% agreement from me. The stories about Venus being a jungle full of dinosaurs and lizardmen are WAY more fun than being scientifically accurate about Venus. Holding fast to a chimerical thing like science will ensure that your story will become a bullshit anachronism within two generations, probably less. And scientific realism is the antithesis and killer of fun and wonder in fiction.
>Let’s start with something easy: fast interstellar travel. It’s physically impossible to travel faster than the speed of light. Period.
1) This is not at all true. Faster than light travel is merely impossible–according to Einstein’s theories. Which are theories. There are quite a few workarounds or alternates that could work.
but that aside…
2) Which is why John writes all his space stories with no faster than light speed and things have at glacial speeds, literally.
“I tend to characterize fiction by its philosophical basis, and so I think of what is usually called “Hard SF” as “Materialistic Fantasy”. That is to say the acceptable tropes in Hard SF–faster than light travel, self-aware machines, handheld laser weapons, human cloning, and so on–are no more plausible or less fantastic than wizards and dragons. It is a fantasy of a particular metaphysic, the clockwork universe of determinists.”
— Misha Burnett
What is interesting is that the terms and even the mental models to predict future science do not exist until they have been invented.
A good example of this is the Star Trek Next Generation episode “Best Of Both Worlds”. In the end, the protagonists defeat the Borg by accessing their group mind and implanting a command to sleep.
Basically, they hacked the Borg. Except at no point did the show use the word “hacked” because the term was not yet in widespread usage. So the show had to use clunkier phrasing like “neural pathways” and “subcommands” and so forth because the concept of hacking an opponent’s computer network as part of information warfare, instantly recognizable in the 21st century, did not yet fully exist.
So it is very difficult to have scientifically accurate SF because the technology of the future may very well involve ideas and concepts that simply don’t exist yet.
Read a how to write book which did an extrapolation showing how new theory is discovered, and then over the next few decades employed. It showed cycles of discovery and development on a multidecade scale.
Without any stunning advances, in 400?? years, you’d have 50% magic ….totally new science. Lot of space for brand new science based on currently undiscovered principles.
What does Chuck Tingle have to say about the Buds of Hard SF?
Time travel is possible though. More than that it is happening. You, me and everyone else in the universe are time traveling right now!
You’re also similarly wrong about the other things you mentioned. This is easily the weakest (not to mention most absurd) criticism the Pulp Revolution has launched against Hard SF so far.
You guys have made many excellent points and have done a wonderful job making the case for the greatness of Pulp and the wrongs done against it by the Futurians and others of that lot. This one is just a misfire.
Misha Burnett calls it Hard SF “Materialistic Fantasy” which I find apt.
Agree with your premise, a good tale is what’s important
Sorry Jasyn, I’m going to have to hold with the dissenters. Of course hard sci-fi exists; you say that judging on a hard to soft SF spectrum is a mistake, but – and I say this with the utmost respect – who are you to tell ME what criteria I want to see in my stories?
Some people prefer harder sci-fi; “The Martian” would not be as good if Andy Weir didn’t take a heck of a lot of time getting the technical details right. That some stuff – like water on Mars – ended up invalidating certain things is quite besides the point, and the point is that the hardness of the science – the effort at making what happened in the book at least look and feel as if it could really happen somewhere – was extremely important to the book.
And I agree with you that storytelling is more important! So would Andy Weir, who made the scene at the beginning that cut off Mark from the rest of the crew a dust storm even though dust storms of that magnitude are impossible on Mars; he did it because such a storm fit his theme of man vs. nature better.
But to pretend the science in his story was as soft as “A Princess of Mars”, and that this didn’t contribute to a completely different storytelling experience that some people might find more or less to their taste, is just ridiculous.
I kind of want to erase my comment now and just 2nd yours because you make your point far better than I did mine.
Since I can’t do that I’ll just say well done.
My personal definition of Hard SF is science fiction in which there is an effort made to keep the scientific inaccuracies to a minimum while still telling a compelling story. That’s not to say there aren’t things in it that aren’t possible based on known science when the story was written. FTL being the most prominent but not the only example. Different writers will use different “inaccuracies” and “impossibilities”. Greg Benford comes to mind as a writer who doesn’t use FTL; Larry Niven, another writer generally considered a hard SF writer, will use hyperspace. And many of the writers who use elements which violate the current state of scientific knowledge will at least strive give their violations the veneer of plausibility. That’s my definition of hard SF. YMMV.
And most honest science fiction writers will quickly admit that science in a story can become dated before a story is ever published. It’s not something that will necessarily kill a story for me. I think the thing that’s most important is the author establishes a suspension of disbelief and is able to maintain until the last line. This is where personal taste and preference come in. What one reader doesn’t notice will throw another reader completely out of the story. Personally, I find characters who don’t act like real people to be much more of a problem in fiction than poor science, and I say that as a person with a scientific background who enjoys hard SF.
“This is where personal taste and preference come in. What one reader doesn’t notice will throw another reader completely out of the story.”
One person’s miracle is another person’s sorcery.
If it can happen, it’s realism.
If it’s about to happen, it’s prophecy.
If it could happen, it’s sci-fi.
If it couldn’t happen, it’s fantasy.
If it did happen, it’s history.
If it could’ve happened, it’s religion.
If it couldn’t’ve happened, it’s mythology.
If you start every sentence with “if”, you’re tr0lling.
Grammatically, any story, no matter whether it involves starships, just one starship, or anything else, IS drivel, not ‘are’ drivel. The verb should agree with the singular noun because that is the subject of the sentence. You wouldn’t write “This story are drivel.” So you don’t change the verb just because of words that qualify that noun.
And the prefix is spelled PSEUDO, not PSUEDO.
Since I write stories where the scientific accuracy of the speculation is one of the selling points that the readers seek in my work (cf. THE GOLDEN AGE, COUNT TO A TRILLION), and since, in fact, my “Hard SF” stories have no faster than light drive, no time travel, and no unicorns, if Hard SF does not exist, to what term do you use to describe stories of this type?
I mean, I also have written space operas and science fantasies (SUPERLUMINARY, NULL-A CONTINUUM) where no attention was paid to sound scientific speculation, the distinction between the two types of stories exists.
I submit that one might as well call Hard SF by the term “Hard SF” as by any other, since it is already in use, and its definition is well known enough to make breezy statements of its nonexistence too easy to dismiss as mere rhetorical posture.
If you want to make a point about the deliberate inclusion of sound scientific speculation into SF stories being unnecessary, you would do better by construction a sound argument to move the ball.
Merely changing the definition of a word to mean what no one means it to mean (which is what you are doing here, by defining “Hard SF” as that which does not exist) is a flashy trick, like the cheers of a pretty cheerleader squad. Such cheers rouse team spirit, but do not actually do the work of moving the ball, if you catch my drift.
To continue with John’s point:
You seem to be saying that a sub-genre of science fiction that:
– People claim to write and know what they’re writing
– That readers have recognized for decades
– That much ink has been spilled over developing things like spectrums for the hard and soft scale
…Simply does not exist. We can all see it, and people can create it and we can acknowledge it as hard SF, and people can create “hard to soft” spectrums and judge works on such a scale, but somehow we’re still supposed to believe that hard SF is a thing that does not and never existed.
I don’t buy it.
John’s point misses two details: literary critic Gary Westfahl actually made a decent point (in spite of being a professional literary critic) when he said that “neither term [hard and soft SF] is part of a rigorous taxonomy; instead they are approximate ways of characterizing stories that reviewers and commentators have found useful.”
Ironically, the label Hard SF is a bit of Soft science, at best.
Also, when making the distinction that he does between Verne and Wells, Verne himself denied writing as a scientist or attempting to make accurate predictions about anything.
In other words, the distinction that he views between the two modes is nothing but serendipity and luck.
All right, here’s my defense of hard SF. It also applies to realism in historical fiction, and of course stories set in the contemporary world, as well:
The world is interesting.
That’s it, but I’ll expand a little, going in a couple of directions.
First, fiction that actually tells you and shows you something about the world is entertaining. There used to be a whole genre of people like James Michener and Harold Robbins, writing books about airline executives or hotel managers. They were full of soap opera stuff, but they were also full of neat descriptions of what it was like to do those jobs. I suppose current legal thrillers still do that to some extent. Tom Wolfe has been writing panoramic, realistic novels about the current world for a couple of decades now, and they have the same appeal.
In science fiction, it’s cool to know that this stuff is real. When you read Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit Will Travel, half the fun of the first section is that Kip’s suit is so convincingly realistic. Sure, there’s flying saucers and aliens — but by grounding it in the sweat-smelling reality of Oscar the space suit, RAH gets the reader to buy into the fantastic adventure which follows.
Second: the world is interesting. Which means it’s a huge resource for writers. You don’t have to make stuff up; the world makes up cooler stuff. I’m writing a story right now set in a star system with a planet that has continents of diamond floating on seas of lava. I didn’t make that up. That’s a REAL PLANET.
I have nothing against fantastic stuff. I’ve written stories with dinosaurs in the 1980s, stories about sorcerers, stories about the Holy Grail. I agree that the Campbellians went too far in claiming that Hard SF is the One True SF — but that’s a battle that they lost about two generations ago! The New Wave of the 1960s and 1970s was partly a rejection of the idea that all SF must be Hard SF. At this point dumping on the straw man of Hard SF is like taking a bold stand against the tyranny of the Habsburgs — it may be true, but it’s been done, and you don’t win any glory.
The world is interesting. Stories about that world are fun. If you don’t think people can have heroic adventures in a realistic setting, read some history.
Yes I think you made my point better. Hard SF does exist and to take your example farther, a story set in current time with 100% true science but with fictional characters or situations would actually meet Jasyn’s definition of “Hard SF.” I have always used the loose definition of SF as any fictional story that highlights science or a scientific theory to further the story. And hard SF is more accurate with what is known at the time of writing. Science Fantasy otoh totally ignores whole portions of current science at the time it’s written.
I happen to like both it just depends on what I feel like reading at the time.
Not everything that has crunch is hard SF. The Martian is not hard SF, for hard SF in the traditions pre-pulp was “all about extending science fully into the unknown, and not simply imagining that science has finally accomplished such and such a feat currently in the process of coming to be.” The Martian has significant scientific accuracy, but it is all emergent engineering and not the extending of science fully into the unknown. John C. Wright’s Count to the Eschaton is far more fanciful than the Martian, but it is true hard-SF as it takes the vast distances between worlds and postulates what might be needed to create a polity between them.
This is one reason I have so much admiration for Cowboy Bebop. It is the only (relatively recent) thing I can think of at the moment that is so willing to completely ignore realism in order to tell its story (every planet being inhabitable a la Barsoom). I am horribly ignorant of science, but I am pretty sure we already knew that was impossible in ’98. So why shouldn’t we today just ignore all this “selective-accuracy” of the “hard” SF and write about the Samurai of Jupiter or whatever we please.