Hard SF

A perennial topic, addressed again in this Twitter thread:

I always find posts like this frustrating because of the lack of agreement about what “hard SF” is in the first place. Without agreement there, you’re stuck. You can say, “No one is naming modern authors!” but if no one agrees that those authors are in fact writing hard SF, your complaint goes down in flames.

Sure enough, the third comment on this thread mentions Octavia E Butler. As far as I’m concerned, she’s as far away from writing hard SF as, say, I am. If you drew a normal curve and put hard SF at one end, Octavia Butler would be … on some other axis completely, I guess. (Science fantasy would actually be at the other end of the curve.)

Butler was writing sociological SF, not hard SF. Lumping the two together does no one any favors, as people who love a lot of sociological SF (raises hand!) may not love all that much hard SF (raises hand again.)

Well, I’m sure I’ve done posts attempting to define hard SF before, and pointing to other people’s attempts to do so, and I don’t feel like doing that again right now. Let me just take a look …

Here are some of the hard SF writers mentioned in this thread. I’m picking out the authors where I personally agree that they indeed wrote and are still writing hard SF.

  1. Vernor Vinge
  2. Greg Egan
  3. Kim Stanley Robinson
  4. Hal Clement
  5. Larry Niven
  6. I know there are lots of others, but I’m stopping here.

Okay, and for some more modern authors, I haven’t read that many, but I agree with:

  1. Mary Robinette Kowal, with her Lady Astronaut series. I read the first book and liked it a lot, probably because it’s got a lot of sociological stuff going on too in addition to the hard SF elements.
  2. Andy Weir, in The Martian. I don’t know about his other book; I haven’t read it and had the impression it’s more space opera.
  3. I don’t know, honestly, I barely read anything in hard SF. Who else would you all suggest?

An author who’s being mentioned in this thread is an example of a classic problem with defining hard SF — it’s Martha Wells. I definitely don’t consider the Murderbot novels hard SF. I’m not sure what I do consider them. Rapid handwavy hacking by cyborgs plus the existence of amazing bots like ART does not equal hard SF. In fact, once again, this seems closer to sociological SF to me. Much closer.

We really, really need an industry-wide recognition of sociological SF as a thing. That needs to be recognized so that people will stop trying to cram it into hard SF. Then it would be much easier and a lot more fun to argue about where Murderbot fits.

Anyway, I pulling this suggestion out of the comment thread:

S. Qiouyi Lu 🧧 陸秋逸@sqiouyilu·Feb 21 —-“chimera”—hard biogenetic scifi that literally cites a paper in footnotes and also “möbius continuum”—so hard of a scifi story that it’s math fiction

Those sound intriguing, so I’ve provided links. I haven’t read them, and I may not because hard SF isn’t really my thing, but if one or both are great, by all means let us know in the comments and I’ll definitely read the stories at that point.

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11 thoughts on “Hard SF”

  1. I suspect it is relatively difficult to write, because hard SF forbids FTL travel and the ansible. Fusion-powered rocket engines are pretty much it. And space travel is mostly just boring: a few hundred years at 0.3 light speed.

    Linda Nagata writes pretty hard SF.
    Eleanor Arnason, “A Woman of the Iron People” is both sociological and hard. (Highly recommended.)
    Alien movie. Also, the best horror movie I have ever seen.

  2. In terms of modern authors, Andy Weir did immediately come to mind. For older authors, Robert Forward’s Dragon’s Egg was quite good. Humans meeting life that evolved on the surface of a neutron star.

    On hard sci-fi adjacent, Barry Eisler is notorious for thoroughly researching everything in his thrillers. A lot of that involves pushing things just a bit past where the current state of the art is (or at least, speculating that the current state of the art may be just a bit further out there for covert ops). I say notorious because this is the gentleman who tasered himself several times to definitively settle a question a reader had raised about whether Mr. Eisler had accurately described taser marks.

  3. The problem with “no FTL” is that it makes Hal Clement not hard SF, which is like saying Tolkien is not epic fantasy.

  4. BTW: I cannot recommend “A Woman of the Iron People” enough. I suspect sales would have been far higher with a more appropriate cover: the one it actually ended up with for paperback gives off “sexy witch” vibes. So, so wrong. Fortunately, the blurb is by LeGuin, so I snapped it up, way back when.

  5. I’m fine with a loose definition of hard SF as heavily influenced by current science. But the lines are really blurry. Things are impossible until they aren’t. There are things today that would have been considered fantasy a hundred years ago (or even 50 years ago). When this sort of question comes up I always remember the Lensman series. Ships got around by “tuning” things with dials like an old analog radio. There were some pirate ships that seemed to do impossible things, and it turns out their big technological breakthrough was REALLY BIG tuning dials so they get a degree of precision impossible for other ships! Then, of course, the digital revolution in the actual world came along…

  6. I can easily see a story in which the villain’s big secret is the use of analog controls to get those fine shades of difference that digital lumps together.

  7. The way I understand it what makes SF “Hard” is not that it only does things current science knows how to do (or knows for sure can be done and how), but merely that it doesn’t directly contradicts the current scientific knowledge by doing things which are “known” to be impossible or to “absolutely not work that way”.
    This doesn’t include things like “well, nobody knows for sure there isn’t hyperspace so let’s say hyperspace”, because current models of the universe don’t include hyperspace. But it could include things based on abuse of gravity since the models get fuzzy and open and full of questions at the extremes, and there’s a lot of “we don’t know if” and “we don’t know how” which aren’t quite “we know that it’s impossible”…

    In practice, the definition probably also often includes things that feel to most non-scientists like they’d meet the above, even if technically they don’t if you’d get experts in the field. It’s may not be exactly “hard”, but it’s “hard enough”.

    This … does not rule out FTL categorically. It just means that the method of FTL used has to, well, not be explicitly known as theoretically impossible. Which leaves a lot of leeway around the edges of current knowledge. “This is wrong and known to be false” kills hard SF, “This is highly speculative and possibly quite unlikely to be how it really works” doesn’t.

    Also, it just has to match Science at the time of writing, I think. Changing genre retroactively is… a bit iffy (though understandable). So there are books which may be hard sf, but wouldn’t have been if they were written today, or will be written in the future. The judgement on whether what happens in the book explicitly contradicts scientific knowledge varies based on what is scientific knowledge, which for a specific writing/publication time is “fixed”.
    To go maybe a bit extreme on this point, I’d feel comfortable arguing that “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” is Hard SF, because scientific knowledge at the time was relatively poor in the relevant fields and the book is somewhat based on cutting-edge research of the time, so Mary Shelley technically belongs on the list.

  8. Yaron, these are all really good points and I think I agree about all of it. I definitely agree that if a book was hard when it was written, it stays that way no matter whether the current understanding of physics might contradict stuff in the book.

    Yes, okay, I think my definition probably boils down to something like this:
    –nothing in the story is flatly contradicted by a reasonable understanding of science at the time it is written.
    –the story feels like hard SF; eg, it’s “hard enough.”
    –and, to pull in Mary Catelli’s fast definition, the story feels like the author probably had to solve a equations to write it.

    Not sure about Frankenstein, but that would make a great discussion during some panel on hard SF at a convention.

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