On Hard SF

A couple of things got me thinking recently about the distinction between 'hard' sf and everything else, particularly after finishing reading an anthology called 'The Hard SF Renaissance', edited by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. Put slightly crudely, a popular distinction of Hard SF is that it's based on plausible scientific ideas and conjecture, whereas everything in the fantasy box isn't. Again, this isn't a criticism, it's an observation.

When I became a published writer, I had a bit of an identity crisis. Some reviewers referred to me as a writer of 'hard sf'. How could I be, if I couldn't do an Egan and spend half a year working out the physics of my next book? In that case, did that make me a writer of fantasy, or science fantasy at the very least? After all, I had faster than light travel, worm holes, and force fields - all stuff firmly in the realm of fantasy according to those more scientifically literate.

I was therefore enormously relieved to find not one but two thoroughly clear-eyed summaries of the essential spirit of science fiction in the aforementioned anthology in the form of Peter Watts' and Ted Chiang's introductions to their own stories.

From Ted Chiang's introduction to 'Understand':

"SF needn’t have any­thing to do with sci­ence, but to the ex­tent that a work of SF re­flects sci­ence, it’s hard SF. And re­flect­ing sci­ence doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean con­sis­ten­cy with a cer­tain set of facts; more es­sen­tial­ly, it means con­sis­ten­cy with a cer­tain strat­egy for un­der­stand­ing the uni­verse. Sci­ence seeks a type of ex­pla­na­tion dif­fer­ent from those sought by art or re­li­gion, an ex­pla­na­tion where ob­jec­tive mea­sure­ment takes prece­dence over sub­jec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence. And though hard SF can take many dif­fer­ent forms, it al­ways de­scribes peo­ple look­ing for or work­ing with that type of ex­pla­na­tion.”

The second quote is from Peter Watts' introduction to one of two stories he has in the anthology:

"... hard SF is of­ten dis­tin­guished from its soft­er, in­fe­ri­or cousins by virtue of ad­her­ence to rig­or­ous — or at least, plau­si­ble — sci­ence. Plau­si­ble, is it? Okay, then: Good­bye Niv­en, good­bye Her­bert and Vinge. Be­gone with your genes that code for luck, your space­ships pi­lot­ed by psy­chics, and your galac­tic Slow Zones. Good­bye Brin: A Ph.D. should’ve known bet­ter than to re­sort to ftl. You’re not plau­si­ble enough for this sand­box.

But of course I’m at­tack­ing a straw man here — be­cause as we all know, it’s not the math that counts, it’s the at­ti­tude. (...) we may not have the blueprints for a warp en­gine handy, but you’d bet­ter be­lieve that our fu­ture tech­nolo­gies have sprung from the same em­pir­ical sci­ence that gave us Teflon and chemother­apy. Our tales abide by the spir­it of sci­ence, if not the let­ter."

Our tales abide by the spirit of science, if not the letter. How great is that? There's more - a lot more - Watts has to say, but I've taken a fat enough quote out of the book as it is. For my tastes, these two arguments represent what I believe is the best analysis yet both of what sf is and what it's for. Does that mean I'm a 'hard sf' writer? I suspect not, at least certainly not compared to those authors who have the relative advantage of a working background in the sciences. But then am I a writer of science fiction, or technological fantasy? Given the above arguments, I think it's safe to say I do indeed write sf.
And it gives me a much more certain sense of what it is I do, and why I do it.


Anonymous said...

It's always puzzled me why people get so hung up on the definition of SF, hard, soft, speculative or with whipped cream on top.I think we know when we read a book if it falls into what each of us define as SF/Science or Speculative, Fiction or Fantasy... and surely those terms are as subjective as our definition of what tates nice or nasty. Personally I go for "I like this author" or or even "I like this book"...just so happens that most of what I like can be termed SF (by my definition)

Anonymous said...

A definition I came across years ago was summed up pretty much as...

Hard SF: The story explores the physical sciences. Physics, chemistry, biology, etc...

Soft SF: The story explores the social sciences. Psychology, sociology, etc...

While this doesn't necessarily answer your question of "what makes SF?", it does at least open doors to classify a broad range of things as SF that may not fit into certain people's narrow definitions.

But, like Mike above, I just prefer to go with authors or stories I like, rather than debating over whether something fits some random person's list of qualifications for SF.

Gary Gibson, science fiction writer said...

We all have personal definitions Mike, but the objective analysis is as important as the subjective. SF sits at a very precarious balancing point between the arts on one side and science on the other, each a rough-edged unending conversation with fundamentally different philosophies underlying them that themselves continually shift and ebb depending on who is taking part. As a writer, I feel pulled in both directions, and sf could be seen as an attempt at reconciling the two. I wanted to find my place in terms of an objective, rather than a subjective, analysis in this particular case, and both Watts and Chiang led me to it.

David B. Ellis said...

One aspect of the debate over the definition of SF that interests me is the contention that a science fiction novel can't have elements of the supernatural. I encountered that claim in a blog not long after having read an SF Signal discussion by several authors over the question of whether science fiction is intrinsically antithetical, in some sense, to religion.

And I realized that we often DO define SF in a way that presupposes a naturalistic worldview. Though I share that worldview I'm not inclined to define SF that narrowly.

I think, for example, that its perfectly reasonable to call CS Lewis's OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET science fiction even though angels feature prominently.

It is a tricky issue, though, since science fiction (the hard variety at least), at heart, does embrace a approach which is essentially at odds with beliefs based on faith.