Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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The hardest of hard SF

Here’s a post at Black Gate about “the hardest of hard science fiction” — Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology…

I know this is a fantasy blog, but for this one I want to appeal to the third (and most famous) of Clarke’s laws, which is “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” because I want to talk about the scienciest, most extrapolatey, most out there science fiction, which isn’t overtly different from fantasy except in aesthetic.

This comes from my musings about writing a story set in orbit of a neutron star, and also because I was recently discussing with a friend where to find the hardest SF.

I get a lot of ideas when I read other authors. I love seeing what science people know and transform into story, and I love seeing that unique kind of creative ambition.

Some caveats: When I looked in my book shelf for examples to show a friend, I came up with three authors and six titles…

The authors are Hal Clement, Robert Forward, and Steven Baxter. Of the six books mentioned, I’ve read Rocheworld, and I think that’s it. Hard-hard-hard science fiction is not really my favorite thing.

Nevertheless, even though I’m not sure what all suits the subgenre of “hardest of hard science fiction,” I do think there are several well-known titles that deserve consideration. Some were even lucky enough to get Michael Whelen covers back in the day:

Niven’s Ringworld series is quite hard, with plenty of emphasis on the science and imo enough characterization so the story isn’t offputting to character readers like me.

John Stith’s Redshift Rendezvous did all this crazy stuff with relativity.

Complex characterization is not this book’s strength, but I liked it. However, for me physics is never going to compete with biology, and so I greatly preferred this much more recent title:

Would James Cambias’ A Darkling Sea count among the-hardest-of-the-hard? It’s got plenty of physics in the background. Plus more complex, interesting characters — the humans rather less so than Broadtail.

While we’re on the subject of physics vs biology, I found the former plausible and the latter much less so in the highly enjoyable Seveneves, the only book by Stephenson that (dispite the rather implausible biology) I ever really got into.

Surely the Very! Detailed! Orbital mechanics and stuff means that this one counts as really hard, even though Stephenson never actually explained why the moon broke up in the first place.

Okay, if you’re into hard SF, what’s a title that springs to mind for you?

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6 Comments The hardest of hard SF

  1. Elaine T

    I’m not clicking through, I find Black Gate really hard to look at unless I override the site settings which I don’t want to bother with. But I’ve read one Forward, his first Dragon’s Egg , the neutron star one. It must have been ok ’cause I finished it.

    Greg Bear had some most of which titles escape me – I kept trying him although only his fantasy duo connected – Forge of God was one of the SFs.

  2. Rachel

    Elaine, I do wonder why anybody feels it’s necessary to put light print on a black background.

  3. Craig N.

    THE MARTIAN is so very hard SF that some readers view it as some sort of near-future technothriller, and not SF at all.

    On the other end of the spectrum, Wright’s Golden Age Trilogy was intended to be hard SF, not violating any known physical laws — but being a really far future society with superhuman intelligences all over the place does rather blur that point. This is even more true for his ongoing Count to the Eschaton sequence.

  4. Allan Shampine

    Dragon’s Egg and The Martian are the first two that leap to my mind as well.

  5. Rachel

    The Martian does anchor one end of the spectrum from near- to far-future — and I can’t think of a better example of far, far, far-future SF than the Golden Age Trilogy. It would be interesting to lay out a lot of other hard SF on that timeline. A lot would cluster at “implausible far in the future considering their technology hasn’t advanced further.”

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