This post is inspired by many of the conversations I’ve had over the last year or so when I’ve been talking science fiction with people. I think people are needlessly scared of hard science fiction. It makes me sad, because they don’t know what they’re missing out on. So we’re going to take a closer look at it today.
What is Hard Science Fiction?
Although there are many sub-genres of science fiction, most can immediately be identified in one of two broad classifications. Hard science fiction and soft science fiction. Many books combine the two quite well, but some can really only be defined as one or the other. Many science fiction readers have definite preferences when it comes to seeking out books in this rather vast genre.
Hard science fiction places emphasis on scientific accuracy within the work. Science must also play a solid role in the story itself. (Ie: The characters should probably face at least a few problems based in science – such as in The Martian.)While the amount of detail contained within a piece considered hard science fiction can vary quite a bit, it still has to have firm groundings in science. S. A. Barton covers this quite well in his article “I have to be a scientist to write hard science fiction, right?“
Well-known hard science fiction authors include: Arthur C. Clarke, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Alistair Reynolds.
Soft science fiction is a bit more lenient in the technical / scientific accuracy department. It has more of an emphasis on soft/ social sciences such as economics, politics, psychology, etc. Soft science fiction novels are often what we would consider dystopian works. Some of the most well-known would be 1984 and Brave New World. However, that is not always the case. For example, Ender’s Game is a prime example of soft science fiction. Even though it’s based in space, and they’re training to fight an alien species, the story is really about what Ender Wiggin goes through to become what they need him to be. It explores how isolation, alienation, favoritism, and sleep deprivation (amongst other things) can affect the mind and developing personality.
Well-known soft science fiction authors include: Ray Bradbury, Lois Lowry, and Ursula K. Le Guin.
Hard Science Fiction Doesn’t Have to be Scary
From personal experience and conversations with associates, as well as commonly held beliefs, hard science fiction is definitely considered the most intimidating of the two main sub-genres. People often equate the term hard science fiction with veritable bricks of books filled with pages of physics and mathematics. In other words, not only do they sound intimidating but they also can sound boring to someone who has never read one before!
I know when I first heard about Tau Zero and read the reviews on it, I was very wary. It sounded intriguing, but “pages of mathematics”? No, thank you! But I kept seeing it mentioned, and as I got more into hard science fiction I knew I needed to give it a try. What I found out was this, though: While it was quite heavy on the math, my understanding (or lack thereof) really didn’t make a difference in my enjoyment of the story.
This was also the case in The Martian. “All the science” put off a lot of people from reading it. This is one of my favorite books. Do you know how much I actually understood of the science detailed ? About 30 percent, honestly. Weir established some baseline common-sense stuff, and he went from there. I had no problem just going along with a lot of the more technical information he got into, because I already knew from the stuff I did understand that he wasn’t shoveling excrement. (Sorry, I had to.) Again, my lack of complete understanding in no way impacted my enjoyment of the story.
Hard Science Fiction is Fun!
It also seems like a lot of the people who wax poetic about hard science fiction are able to talk about it in-depth. They have a firm grounding in the science expounded upon. They know why x and y happen when someone does z. It’s not uncommon to find reviewers of hard science fiction that will pick apart the book for the mistakes the author has made. Is it because they just can’t resist pointing out the errors because they’ve got a bit of a teacher in them? Or are they doing it to display their intelligence? It’s actually considered a bit of a game to find the errors. I don’t necessarily see the fun in that because finding errors in books drive me nuts!
What I do know is that when I read a review that dissects a hard science fiction novel for errors, or expounds upon the technical accuracy, I still don’t get a sense for if it was any fun. And hard science fiction can be fun. Jack McDevitt’s Moonfall is a perfect example of this. In Moonfall, a comet is heading straight for the moon, where humans have just opened a moonbase. They have five days to try to get everyone that was on the moon (including the vice president) to safety, and to prepare the world for the havoc wrecked by the fallout of the impact. (If this whole “moon getting destroyed” sounds vaguely familiar, you might be thinking of Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. Moonfall is better.) McDevitt’s work is solid in its science, well-paced, and full of action. They should have made this book into a movie instead of Armageddon or Deep Impact.
Now, there are some hard science fiction novels out there that are a bit less thrilling. One could even say they’re deadly boring. However, the entertainment factor has nothing to do with the subject, and everything to do with the writing ability. In the hands of the right writer, hard science fiction can provide you with edge-of-your-seat thrills or it can ensnare your imagination. Take Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke. It’s not exactly what one might call a thrilling, action-packed work. However, even years after reading it, I remember the sense of wonder I got from reading about the spaceship. The way I could perfectly visualize the interior. I remember being in love with the situation that Clarke put in front of me, and having my eyes opened to just how cool it would be to have a discovery like that actually happen.
Hard Science Fiction Doesn’t Mean Hard to Read
I think too many people are missing out on great books because of the prospect of not understanding what they’re reading. Or that they think it’ll be walls of boring technical data. A talented author should be able to keep his characters and story firmly rooted in hard science fiction without boring the reader to tears. Now, I think some talented authors can get lost to the fascination of what they’re writing about, and start writing less for the audience and more for themselves. When that happens, you get a bit of a case of word inflation and a lessening in the overall enjoyment of the story. (Again I’ll reference Seveneves and add Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora. Both are very talented writers that got a little too involved with their subject.)
You might have even already read books considered hard science fiction, and not even realized it! Consider the following two books.
Did you know Ready Player One could be considered hard sci-fi? Well, the technology of the Oasis is very believable, isn’t it? From what we know of games like second life, and where we’re headed with virtual reality, it makes sense. Cline doesn’t go into huge amounts of detail on how Oasis works, but the fact is that we believe that it could work because it’s based off technology that we already have or are developing!
Ringworld is an interesting one. I initially had trouble believing that it could be considered hard science fiction, but I read into it, and it is plausible. There are some errors in the original novel that Niven corrects in The Ringworld Engineers. It’s not perfect, but it is a thoroughly entertaining read.
Don’t be afraid to give hard science fiction a chance. It’s only as intimidating as you let it be. Also, remember that there’s absolutely no shame in walking away from the book if you’re not enjoying it. Too many good books out there to waste time on one that doesn’t thrill you!
Willing to give it a try now? Check out this list to give you some ideas of what to read.