Harder-Than-Thou SF

Monday , 20, March 2017 30 Comments

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.

  • deuce says:

    I can read just about anything written by Niven…as long as it was co-written by Pournelle.

    “Harder-than Thou SF” is a good term.

    “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.”

    This is the SF I cut my teeth on. It’s also why I retreated back to Drake, latter-day Anderson, Pournelle and Cherryh for the new stuff.

  • john silence says:

    Aye, Fire upon the Deep is a legit beauty. It had larger than life hero, beautiful heroine, self-sacrifice and warmth combined with genuine sense of wonder and strangeness. And it was one of few novels that touted playing with the concepts of self and identity where that actually worked, given the fascinating peculiarity of race to which that play was applied.
    Also puppies.
    Also pair of nice, old… trees.

  • instasetting says:

    I really liked FUTD.

  • keith says:

    David Zindell deserves to be placed alongside Vinge. He’s a scientist, yes, and high end science is huge part of his Neverness cycle. But, many of qualities you applied to Vinge’s work can also be applied to his, and he was also able to instill his SF with this strong sense of mystical. Damn fine prose stylist, too.

    Sadly, he is all but completely ignored today.

  • Alex says:

    This was one of the hardest pieces of SF I’ve ever read. In a short essay, the writer assures us that everything, except for the super-intelligent brain-bug controlling the hive and the ability to shrink men down to the size of termites was based entirely on science fact, which made the story all the more horrifying.


  • There’s a difference between “big science idea” hard SF and “extrapolation of technology” hard SF.

    In the former I’d put something like Baxter’s Xelee sequence novels (Ring, Timelike Infinity, etc.).

    In the latter I’d put say Bova’s Kinsman Saga (Kinsman, Millennium).

    My problem with so much “hard SF” written in the last couple decades is that I just can’t relate to or care about the characters – having mind-blowing science or tech is not enough.

    • deuce says:

      “My problem with so much ‘hard SF’ written in the last couple decades is that I just can’t relate to or care about the characters – having mind-blowing science or tech is not enough.”

      Right on.
      Another Bova book I liked was his post-apocalyptic BAPTISM OF FIRE.

  • “SF is the mythology of the scientific age.”

    A nicely turned phrase. Allow me without shame to recommend my own THE GOLDEN AGE and COUNT TO A TRILLION. Both are Hard SF and have human characters.

    • Fenris Wulf says:

      “The Golden Oecumene” and “Zones of Thought” are the two series that got me back into SF after twenty years wandering the desert. (One caveat: The Children of the Sky is not so good.)

      “The Golden Oecumene” is remarkable for its philosophic rigor. Several key plot points involve the use of logic to dismantle common SF tropes.

  • Quick note, and I know I’m nitpicking: Heinlein did the Lazarus Long books. Niven did Known Space, including Ringworld, and the Integral Trees.

  • deuce says:

    Fenris: ” His characterization is nonexistent (his most memorable character is Lazarus Long with the serial numbers filed off)…”

    He wasn’t saying the character WAS Lazarus Long.

    I’m not sure who he’s talking about, since I don’t read Niven’s solo novels.

  • There’s a scene in the film “Ed Wood” in which the title character is reading a review of a stage play that he wrote and directed. The reviewer blasts the play, saying that the writing, acting, and direction were all horrible. At the very end of the review the critic grudgingly admits that at least the costumes were authentic.

    Later on Ed Wood quotes that review, claiming “So-and-so praised my historic verisimilitude!”

    That’s kind of the feel I get from people who pride themselves on being “Hard SF”. If what you feel proudest of is breaking fewer laws of physics than the average SF writer, maybe you need to reexamine your priorities.

    • deuce says:

      The “cart before the horse” attitude definitely gets me. When SF went from being “entertaining fiction using science to add something extra” to essentially “fictionalized science lessons and word problems with boring characters”, they lost me.

      Characters and drama are subordinated to scientific rectitude. Cold equations and bitter pills — and often some preaching about how would be better off in a technocracy where every Human Slate could be correctly inscribed from birth. While it isn’t the case every time — it certainly wasn’t the case with Poul Anderson — it’s prevalent enough to show where the mindset tends to lead. It’s anti-human and not superversive. I sense a great deal of misanthropy in writers like Asimov and de Camp. Human beings are utterly lost without Secret Kings like them to lead us all to Reason — whether we want what they’re selling or not.

      • Nathan says:

        John Wright is onto something in the Count to Eschaton sequence. Why do these secret kings always assume that there won’t be a just as capable opposing team?

      • deuce says:

        I agree that Mr. Wright did not go down that path and good on him. Poul Anderson certainly posited that red-blooded folk of intelligence and good will would fight back and find a way to thwart the plots of Secret Kings brandishing sliderules and manifestos.

        • Blume says:

          One of his books about a time traveler almost exactly uses that plot. And the ending with time travelers using slow ships to walk to the stars was cool.

    • Except those of us who write hard sf do not define that particular subgenre to mean what you are claiming here, that it is diamond hard near future sf with no speculation. So yours is a straw man argument, and a lazy one at that, since anyone familiar with hard sf knows that the audience accepts and expects a certain amount of unscientific baloney, particularly faster than light drives or self aware computers.

      In effect, you are arguing against the tastes of the readers. They are the ones who define the tropes of any given genre or subgenre, not the writers, not the editors, and surely not the critics.

      • Fenris Wulf says:

        My point is that a writer can tell a good story using hard science, fantasy, or any mixture of the two. I used MOBY-DICK as an example of a story that is steeped in realism and mythic at the same time.

        I dislike certain strains of Hard SF because the science is ultra-sophisticated to the point where it’s intimidating, but the sense of adventure is replaced with postmodern despair and SJW preaching. It’s a counterfeit of Campbellian SF. My impression is that the gatekeepers won’t let anything through that doesn’t conform to the postmodern ethos, reader tastes be damned.

      • What do people who write Hard SF define it as? Can anyone give me a definition that isn’t subjective? Is there a test that I can apply to a work of fiction that will determine if a work is Hard SF or not–one that will yield the same results no matter who is applying it?

        • Fenris Wulf says:

          It’s a story that makes extensive use of hard science. That’s all. Almost any hard science, soft science, pseudo-science, or imaginary science can be used to tell a story. Whether it’s good or bad is a matter of execution and balance.

        • Science fiction is called harder the more hard science like physics and astronomy is mingled witn the hoakum and baloney to create the illusion of versimilitude that aids the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief; and when soft science like anthropology or linguistics is used instead, it is called soft science fiction. When no science is used in the baloney, it is space opera. If it takes place in thr old west, it is a western. See?

          But, my friend, if you are asking for an objective definition, it is like asking a judge in a beauty contest the objective definition of female beauty.

          Genres are defined by something like a family resemblance, whi h sums up a large number of subtle factors which can be seen, as beauty is seen, but which cannot be measured.

          A story that you are in the mood to read after you’ve read Jules Verne is hard; after HG Wells is soft.

          More to the point, allow me to suggest that an author who brags about the hardness of his science fiction is annoying because he brags, not because his science is accurate or not.

          • Blume says:

            It’s generally not the authors, it’s the fans bragging or just talking bad about everything else.

        • Fenris Wulf says:

          The “harder-than-thou” attitude isn’t so much bragging, as implicit in the work itself. A lot of modern SF is “sophisticated” in the sense of being decadent and dull. The Pulp Revolution is partly a reaction to it.

          I’ve noticed that every writer has his own “toolbox.” One writer’s toolbox might be math and computer science, with a dose of pulse-pounding adventure. Another writer’s toolbox might be physics, cybernetics, philosophy, myth, and romance. There’s usually one element that predominates and sets the tone.

          I tried to write a novel with two clashing elements, and caused myself a lot of aggravation. I’m trying to learn something about the craft of writing, and blogging about the process. I may get things wrong on occasion.

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