Instead of a book or movie review, this week I’m going to muse on the phenomenon of “Hard SF,” specifically the kind written after 1980.
The autistic tendencies of Hard SF probably began with Larry Niven. Now, I’m very fond of Niven’s work. He’s one of those writers whose glaring deficiencies are compensated by great strengths. His characterization is nonexistent (his most memorable character is Lazarus Long with the serial numbers filed off); his style is bland; his characters face puzzles and challenges, but have less pathos than Asimov’s robots. But his fictional technologies and races, and the way they clash and interact, are just so awesome that it makes for an epic story. There’s ancient mysteries galore, terra incognita, and a sense of wonder. The science is well-researched, but it’s kept in the background, out of the way of the story.
In post-1980 Hard SF, the science is the story. The writers always have multiple PhD’s in the hard sciences. The science is bleeding-edge, ultra-realistic, and ultra-sophisticated. The technologies and the social implications are terrifying. It’s so advanced that you’ll get future shock just from reading it.
And there’s a complete absence of human interest or relatable characters. In some cases, the absence of humanity is literal: all the characters are genderless AI’s, alien hive minds, or some variety of post-human.
Vernor Vinge is one Hard SF writer who does a good job of keeping it human, through various plot devices such as the “Zones of Thought.” His stories have real heroes, real villains, and high-stakes plots in which the characters have to fight for their lives and their sanity.
Other Hard SF writers? Not so much. I won’t name names, but some of them start with “B.” To borrow a phrase from H.G. Wells, their stories are vast and cool and unsympathetic.
Contrary to popular belief, Campbellian SF is not Hard SF. It’s not even close. Most of Asimov’s science is hand-waving nonsense. Heinlein was an engineer, not a scientist. Clarke, the atheist, dabbled in pure mysticism.
That’s why Campbellian SF is so much fun. It’s not so much scientific, as science-y. It has the atmosphere of science, but it contains a bare minimum of actual scientific facts, just enough for the requirements of the story. The best Campbellian writers were masters of the short story, an art form that demands absolute economy of style, and barely exists today. When Astounding changed its name and forgot to be entertaining, it faded into irrelevance.
If you define “science fiction” literally, about the only thing that qualifies is Jules Verne, the original Tom Swift series (firmly grounded in the cutting-edge technology of the early 20th century), and a handful of Heinlein juveniles. Everything else is fantasy, including Harder-Than-Thou SF that tries to put over blatant impossibilities such as sapient computer software. We might as well admit it. SF is the mythology of the scientific age.
Now, some of my favorite novels are “realistic.” But they also have a mythic or spiritual dimension. A good example is Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. It’s so detailed and so vivid, based on the author’s first-hand experience, that by the time you reach the end, you feel as if you’ve spent eighteen months on a whaling ship. But it also has a mythic dimension. The crew perform acts of heroism and superhuman endurance on a daily basis. Captain Ahab is equated with Prometheus and other figures from mythology. The style has an ebullience that seems to belong exclusively to 19th-century Romanticism. There are lengthy passages about the details of whaling life; but they are well-integrated with the novel, in terms of pacing and style.
Melville was more skilled in this regard than his contemporary, Victor Hugo. Hugo was a transcendently great novelist, but he had the habit of interrupting the story with long and excruciatingly dull historical essays.
If you’re an aspiring writer, beware of trying to emulate the greats. If you don’t possess their great virtues, you may end up emulating their glaring flaws. Figure out what you can do well, find a story that hasn’t been told, and remember that you’re writing for human beings.