Hard Scifi: I Do Not Think That Means What You Think It Means.

There are certain people out there who seem to be misusing the term “hard science fiction.”

In preparing to write this entry, I was actually shocked that the definitions I found for “hard science fiction” completely agreed with me on what it should mean: namely, that the fictional science included is made as realistic, as explicable, as possible.  Hard scifi seeks to extrapolate from real scientific knowledge, to present future tech that seems plausible given the current state of our real-world understanding . . . it strives both to work within known science, and to extend it.

The flip side of this is “soft scifi,” which operates on handwavium.  Spaceships exist because they do; lightspeed travel is possible because it is; the state of AI constantly contradicts itself and the technology can spawn new tentacles as the plot demands without any adherence to known natural law.

This is, of course, a continuum: many types of fiction fall between the two extremes, and people can debate endlessly whether something should be categorized as “hard” or “soft.”

These are the same definitions I have always taken for granted, until recently.  Still, I was surprised when my Google search agreed with me entirely . . . because it seems that every time someone insinuates that women can’t or don’t write hard scifi, this is not the definition those people are using.  Which leads me to: What the hell, people.

Come on.  If we accept that hard science fiction has only to do with realism and rigor, then a lot of what people say about it is just. plain. wrong!  Let’s look at this rationally for a moment, shall we?  Working from such a definition, we get:

What Hard Scifi Isn’t

  1. Hard science fiction does not preclude romance.
    Why on earth would it?  The level of romance in a story versus how well the technology is explained are two entirely orthogonal concepts.  Why would one in any way impact the other?  Why do some people set up romances as the opposite of hard scifi, when it is entirely possible to have a romance plot be central to a world of completely consistent technology and also entirely possible to have a handwaved, contradictory universe with no romance plot at all?  If two characters fall in love over a background of solving Navier-Stokes, with completely realistic fluid dynamics, you bet your ass that’s hard scifi.
  2. Nor does hard science fiction preclude a concentration on human relationships.
    In fact, I would argue that writing harder, more realistic science fiction should encourage more concentration on the relationships between characters.  What is something that anyone with even a cursory knowledge of scientific progress continually complains about with regard to science fiction?  That it completely ignores the massive collaboration present in real scientific advancement!  The “lone genius” is a common trope of fiction, but how often does this happen in reality?  The world of science is full of relationships—and not just cursory relationships, but loves, rivalries, scandals, heartbreak . . . hey, one of my favorite books as a child[1] was a book about the drama that has surrounded the history of mathematics.  The Axiom of Choice and the Well-Ordering Principle, Newton versus Leibniz, the cult of Pythagoras, the strong friendships and collaborations of Hardy and Littlewood or Lovelace and Babbage . . . mathematicians are passionate people, and the interpersonal stories of mathematics alone would fill a library.  Nor are the other sciences exempt.  A novel featuring scientists who lack any interpersonal interaction, any irrationality or yearning or vast emotion, feels . . . well, unrealistic.
  3. Hard science fiction is not limited to the hard sciences.
    There seems to be some assumption that hard science fiction must be the purview of those who are experts in physics.  Why?  Why don’t the other sciences get any love?  Hey, one of my favorite science fiction stories ever is Isaac Asimov’s tale of a goose who literally lays golden eggs—Asimov, being a biochemist, provided a very well-thought-out accounting of the phenomenon, and in my opinion, this is one of the hardest science fiction stories of all time.  Why do we not assume that hard scifi can encompass all sciences, including chemistry, biology, even sociology?  Heck, I’m dead serious when I say I think the argument could certainly be made that The Handmaid’s Tale is rock-hard science fiction (with apologies to Margaret Atwood[2]).
  4. Hard science fiction does not and should not equate with space travel, military scifi, plentiful technology, or even a plot driven by the science fictional elements. It’s the realism of the science that matters, not the flashiness.
    When most people think “hard scifi,” they probably picture something vaguely like Star Trek—except that Star Trek is one of the squishiest science fiction premises in the galaxy.  It’s practically a fluid.  Yet I’m suspicious that’s what people tend to picture, rather than, y’know, The Handmaid’s Tale.
  5. Hard science fiction is not inherently smarter, more sophisticated, more well-written, or in any way better than soft science fiction.
    Don’t believe me?  Look at some of the classics of science fiction.  H.G. Wells is about as soft as it gets, and I defy anybody to say that made his works less valuable to the genre.  Douglas Adams is another name no one would dare to defile, and the hardest thing about his science fiction is keeping all the contradictory time travel straight.  Why on earth would any writers (read: female writers) get discounted because their work doesn’t scratch diamond?  In other words, why can men be respected for writing soft science fiction, but when the author is female, the observation of what sub-genre her work falls into suddenly becomes a criticism, something to belittle her with?

I should add that of course women can write hard science fiction with no romance and a heavy emphasis on flashy space-faring physics if they want to.  Duh.  But I’m sick of the above insinuations about the sub-genre, because they do strike me as a quite blatant attempt to draw boundaries that will exclude or put down as many female writers as possible.[3]

  1. I was an odd child.
  2. For those who don’t know, Atwood has in the past resisted the characterization of the book as science fiction at all.
  3. I’m not actually sure modern SF by women includes more relationships/romance/etc. than modern SF by men—anecdotally, I’m suspicious that it’s more older SF that eschews character-driven tales, and not male-authored SF, since all the modern SF I’ve read by men seems to include relationships as well.  But because the playing field in prior decades was so much more vastly unequal than it is today, drawing the lines to exclude trends in modern SF would also result in disproportionately excluding female writers . . . as I expect the people doing it intend.

5 thoughts on “Hard Scifi: I Do Not Think That Means What You Think It Means.

  1. Layla Lawlor

    Yeah, your definitions are the ones I know: hard scifi = scientifically plausible according to today’s knowledge (as opposed to sci-fi containing psychic powers, faster-than-light travel, or planets that blatantly defy the laws of physics).

    I do think a lot of people (including me), if they’re just doing off-the-top-of the head thinking, tend to think of hard SF in the Clarke/Cherryh vein — high tech, spaceships, etc.. But you only have to put in about 2 seconds of deep thought to realize that it isn’t necessarily so. I think Robert Sawyer’s Neanderthal books are a good example of hard sci-fi that revolves around the very squishiest of sciences (anthropology and psychology), not to mention that the plot is centered on a romance. Oh, but they’re written by a man! A man who also writes “respectable” sci-fi with spaceships in it! Must be okay then….

    Star Trek is one of the squishiest science fiction premises in the galaxy. It’s practically a fluid.

    This is an awesome quote. :D

  2. Ruth Hull Chatlien

    Good clarifications. Sci fi is not my genre, so I haven’t really thought about it a lot, but when I’ve taught it in literature anthologies (I work in educational publishing), these are the definitions I’ve encountered.

  3. Polenth

    I have an apparently odd view with hard science fiction, as I think the science only needs to be possible. Not necessarily what we’re plausibly expecting to happen and not requiring a detailed explanation of how it works in the text. But the basic point applies either way, that extra lines are drawn when it’s a woman writing it. Along with deciding if she isn’t writing hard science fiction, she’s writing fantasy.

  4. slhuang Post author

    Thanks, guys! :)

    @Polenth — See, THAT is what I think would make a much more interesting discussion. How much does the science/tech have to be explained in-story? How much does the author have to draw the line from the present to how we got there? Or is it enough that the science/tech doesn’t contradict currently known theory? And there’s Clarke’s law, after all — that anything sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. 2001 is often considered seminal hard scifi (and Clarke was, IIRC, conscious in his decision to make some of the future tech incomprehensible to the reader because he felt that was more realistic), but I can’t help but wonder if it would be called “science fantasy” if it were written by a woman . . .

  5. InMyBook

    These definitions and points of view have helped me broaden my understanding of this genre. Interesting and well-written post. I enjoyed the examples of stories and authors and found them to be helpful.

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