Friday, March 17, 2017

Let's Talk "Hard SF"

Recently Daddy Warpig, Eminent Sage and Howitzer Operator, has been blowing up the Castalia House blog with posts about "hard science fiction." I know it's been a couple of weeks since this all happened, but I'm slow and take a while to form my thoughts, so give me a little grace here. I thought I'd throw my hat into the ring on this topic and play with it a little bit, tease out where I stand on the issue. There might be a little bit of retreading some covered ground here, fair warning.

Now, DW has made his position abundantly clear, and if you'd like to read up on that you can scroll to the bottom of this post where I'll be linking several of the articles in question. I'm going to be linking in order at the bottom of this post. So if you'd like to catch up, then head on over there. I'll be here when you get back, promise.

Okay, now that we're caught up here, it seems to me that this topic is contentious for a damn good reason. There's a lot of people out there who like hard science fiction. But maybe it would be useful to define our terms first. Going with the first thing on Google because I'm lazy like that, "Hard science fiction is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy." This is what I think of when I think of "hard scifi," so that's the definition I'm going to use.

 I think it's safe to say that hard sf absolutely does exist. There are most definitely writers out there that try to keep as close to the accurate science of their time period as possible, and good on them for that. John C. Wright, on the Superversive SF Podcast, has mentioned several times that there are enough planets and stars and all that good junk out there in the real universe that we currently live in that you don't have to make anything up, and I can understand that point of view. The world we live in is fascinating, and truth is oftentimes stranger than fiction in a very literal sense. I distinctly remember, and forgive me if I'm mis-paraphrasing, Mr. Wright saying that writers of science fiction have no excuse for scientific inaccuracy in their work.

Well, allow me to respectfully disagree.

Not about excuses. If you're trying to write hard sf, then you really don't have any excuse for scientific inaccuracy in your work. With the internet we have nearly all of human knowledge at our very fingertips, and if you need to look up say, a particular planet name, or the gravity on Titan, or what have you, all it takes is a quick search on your engine of choice and you have your information. The only valid excuse I can think of is that the particular information you're looking for is behind a paywall and you don't have the money for it, in which case I think even the most hard-nosed hard sf purist can make an exception.

My disagreement with Mr. Wright is about the very principle of whether or not it's necessary for writers to attempt scientific realism in their writing. As the Eminent Sage and Howitzer Operator himself laid out in probably several of those Castalia House posts, the rule of thumb in hard sf is that you get ONE AND ONLY ONE bit of magic in your story, and everything else has to conform to the scientific standards of your particular time period. Now some people might disagree with my use of the term 'magic' here, but that's basically what it boils down to. This technology that we don't have and can't explain in proper science exists in this universe you're building, and that's what allows them to travel faster than light, or what have you. But technology that we don't have and can't understand and furthermore can't explain might as well be magic, so in lieu of writing all that out again and again I'm just going to call it 'magic' or 'magic tech.'

The issue that I have with this rule of thumb is that you're already sacrificing your scientific accuracy by adding in this ONE AND ONLY ONE magic tech. Why are you limiting yourself to just that? I've said before that I think limiting the human imagination is a fool's game, especially in speculative fiction. So if you're adding in this one piece of magic tech, why not add another? Or two? Or three?

Why not just throw scientific accuracy out the window and let your imagination run free?

Now I'm absolutely certain that hard sf purists have their reasons, but they don't make sense to me. If anybody would like to help me understand, I'm more than game, however as of right now it is completely baffling to me that some people would set up arbitrary rules for themselves like that. I will say that I completely get wanting to challenge yourself and set up rules that you must abide by to prove to yourself that you can do it. For example, I've beaten Metro 2033 so many times that now when I play it I set up all kinds of retarded challenges for myself to make the gameplay interesting again. I have to get through this level without dying, I have to sneak through this station without getting spotted, I have to kill everyone in this station without firing a single bullet, etc etc ad infinitum retardum.

So I can 100% get the desire to write a story within certain parameters and stick as closely to those parameters as you can, just to prove you can do it, or to make the writing challenging and fun. But, that said, writing every single sf story you produce like that seems needlessly pedantic to me. This kind of thing has been going on since Campbellian sf became a thing, and do you know what happened to the incredibly vast majority of writers in that sub-genre?

They were proven wrong later.

Inevitably, science is going to change. That's just what it does. It's a continually evolving picture and explanation of the universe and the phenomena in it which is altered as time goes on and new information is added to the picture. I won't get into attempting to quantify all knowledge and demonstrate how limited human understanding is, we all know how stupid that attempt is. But, I will move forward on the premise that human understanding, especially human scientific understanding, is limited. I think that this is a premise we can all agree on, hard sf purists and others alike. And with the rate at which scientific understanding is progressing nowadays, you could finish your book, send it off to the editor, get it back, send it to the publisher all fixed up, and the day before you go to publish it the main scientific underpinning of your story could be wiped out of existence because someone was eating cotton candy at the Higgs-Boson supercollider and wound up turning into the fucking Pink Hulk or something retarded like that.

It might not be that quick, though. You could have the reputation for the most scientifically accurate sf novel for decades, maybe even hundreds of years, and that would be quite the achievement. I wouldn't knock that at all. However, eventually, somewhere further on up the road, someone's going to discover something that will turn your hard work into the equivalent of an sf story based on phrenology. Which will inevitably lead the reading public to say, as we so often do now of sf authors gone by, "Yeah, they were really scientifically accurate for their day. Of course it's all nonsense now, we know better. Science has moved on. But it's still a fun story."

People say this about Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, pretty much any hard sf writer will suffer this same fate, all in the name of some arbitrary commitment to current scientific accuracy. The thing I would draw your attention to, and I put it in this example statement because I've heard and said it so many times, is the last sentence.

"But it's still a fun story."

This comes up every. Single. Time. Every time I'm talking nerd shit with one of my friends, or someone on social media, and we wind up discussing hard sf authors past, that eventually comes up. I'd imagine you've had this exact line leave your own lips in regard to people who thought they were hot shit with scientific accuracy in their day. Which brings me back around to the drum I've personally been banging on for nearly a year now, and will continue to bang on until the day I die: Speculative fiction should, first and foremost, BE FUN.

Fun is the point here, not conforming to scientific standards. The phrase "science fiction" has two components. I don't mean to insult people's intelligence, but the science portion delineates the main setting, levels of technology, whether or not we've achieved space flight yet, etc; while the fiction portion delineates that this story is, in fact, not true. It is a work of fiction, there will be something that the author put in there regardless of their commitment to scientific realism, that is in effect magic. Personally, I think the fiction part of "science fiction" is the most important, and allow me to further bloviate and explain why.

I'm just gonna come out and say it. The vast majority of the populace is not scientifically literate. Most people don't read the latest study or paper by Michio Kaku, or Niel Tyson, or [insert personal favorite physicist here]. Unless the science has some immediate, practical application to their everyday lives, the average person doesn't give a wet fart in a supernova whether or not their scifi is the most accurate, up to date science fiction story on the market at the time. They just don't. I'm sorry to tell you, but there's a reason John Carter of Mars recently got a fucking multi-million dollar movie (unfaithful to the source material as it might have been), and that everyone I talk to about 2001: A Space Odyssey thinks it's some of the most boring crap that's ever been slapped on a screen. I know that anecdote does not equal evidence, but unless you're a science nerd, or a film nerd, or you've just got your head so far up Kubrick's decayed asshole you can't even see the light of day anymore, stuff like 2001 just isn't exciting.

Oh, sure, it's a classic. You'll get no argument from me on that. And the FX are technically magnificent. That rotating corridor was some hype shit practical effects. I loved that part of the movie. But how many people can you convince to sit down and actually watch the damned thing? I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say, "Not that many." Or even better, how many people can you convince to actually read the book? (Yes the movie was based on a book. You young'uns don't be tryin mah patience with that.) Once again, I'm betting the number is vanishingly small. The only person I know personally that's read that book all the way through (that I know of, at least) is my younger brother, and he said it was basically the same thing as the movie. Boring, pretentious, should've been called Shit Floating Through Space To Classical Music, and the AI HAL was the only interesting character in the whole damn thing.

So for the part where I get to the fucking point already, what I'm getting at here is that by holding up Campbellian scifi, or hard scifi, or big men with screwdrivers scifi, as the gold standard not just of science fiction but of speculative fiction in general you are alienating a huge part of the market. Now we're all good little capitalists here, so I don't need to explain to you that in a free market system like the writing and purchasing and reading of speculative fiction, if you don't have an audience your product will not sell. And if your product does not sell, your genre dies on the vine. You might have the best, most technically accurate science fiction novel to come out in the last 300 years. But if nobody buys it because they're bored by all the science talk and there's not anything HAPPENING, nobody's going to care how accurate you were. You could perfectly describe the living conditions on Titan, down to the accurate terminology for how the gravity is and how it's different from Earth's and what effects that has on the human body, but if that takes up more space than the conflict then people are going to get bored.

And conflict could be anything. Political machinations, a war like in Cowboy Bebop, or simply trying to survive like in The Martian. But if the conflict, if the story, is not your centerpiece with all this nice, neat, perfectly laid out science around it and enhancing it, people are going to stop reading. They'll probably also start leaving negative reviews scattered around the internet about how bored they were. People aren't shy about doing it on Steam, I don't see why Amazon should be any different.

It's like that image I posted at the beginning of this post says. "Hard Scifi. Because the physicists and thermodynamics experts deserve to be entertained too." Now I'm not contesting that. Those people are a portion of the market, and if someone wants to capitalize on that then go to and good luck. I won't knock you at all for getting paid by catering to a niche market. I wish you all the best.

But making those people the arbiters of what is and isn't "real" or "good" scifi is alienating your average reader that isn't a physics or thermodynamics expert and doesn't really care about that stuff at all. And if you alienate your readership, your genre will die. These people deserve to be included, surely. Without science and actual scientists, science fiction would be nothing more than the fever dreams of crazy drunk assholes like me. It might as well be fantasy at that point. And that's not a knock to fantasy or caving to this Campbellian vision of how scifi "should be." That's me admitting that much of fantasy would be properly classified as fever dreams of drug addicts were there no precedent for these insane ramblings about what elves are doing in Middle Earth or whatever. It's crazy stories about shit that doesn't exist. Point blank. So of course the actual scientists among the authors and readers out there should have their say and their preferred method to writing stories.

However, that is not and should never be the gold standard. Your accurate science can and very probably will be actual fiction within a few short years or decades. And at that point, you'll be down here with the rest of us whether you like it or not. The issue here is that if you set this arbitrary benchmark of "hard scifi is best scifi," you're going to eventually convince the readership and the authors that this is something they should be shooting for and anything else is "kid's stuff." We don't have to speculate on whether or not this is a possibility. We've seen it happen. It's why most Appendix N stuff was memory holed. Or one reason, at least. It's why when you ask the average fan to list off three of the most important authors in scifi they say, "Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke," instead of, "Burroughs, Merrit, Vance."

People have this weird obsession with "acting adult." They want to be considered mature by their peers, and if everyone is telling them that the sword and planet stories they're writing are juvenile crap and not "real scifi," eventually they're going to start listening. The phenomenon of internalization is very real, and people rely on their peers for cues going forward with their projects. I do it, you do it, we all do it. So this setup of, "It must be scientifically accurate or it's nothing," is a quick way to kill the genre by playing to an incredibly small, unsustainable audience. Sure, they're going to absolutely love your stuff, but eventually you're going to have to get a regular job because the flagging book sales aren't making ends meet because you've limited your marketability to people who understand astrophysics. A subject which many people find incredibly boring, sorry to say. So in the interest of reviving the genre, which has been on the downslope for a while now, I propose that we get rid of this supposed "gold standard" and encourage writers to write whatever they want.

Having said all that, I do know from talking to Jeffro and Daddy Warpig that there are people out there who like Campbellian hard scifi and are actively worried that the Pulp Revolution is going to get rid of it. It's a bit funny that they think we've got that kind of power, but they wouldn't be worried if it wasn't a threat. At least in their minds. Whether or not that's true is up in the air. But, in an effort to assuage those fears, I'm going to just come out and say it once and for all. Of course I'm speaking only for myself here, but I can't imagine the other Pulp Revolution guys disagreeing with me.


There. I said it. You can direct all complaints to the contact form on the side of the blog.

But seriously, we really don't want to get rid of Campbellian scifi. Or at least I don't. I enjoy a good hard scifi story myself from time to time. I do enjoy the pulpy stuff more, but every now and again it's fun to read a story that's scientifically accurate. Extrapolating a bit from what I know of Jeffro and the Eminent Sage and Howitzer Operator, their purpose in seemingly maligning hard sf lately is to get rid of the false narrative that hard sf is somehow better than the pulps, or any other subgenre of scifi. They don't seem to want to destroy it, they're just ripping off a band-aid that, quite frankly, has grown fucking septic. This rigid adherence to scientific accuracy is killing the genre, it is restricting creativity, and it is driving away readers.

I will be the first to say that hard sf has its place, but if we make that the go-to of what sf should be then we will be (and have been for decades) consigning our beloved genre to slow death. There needs to be room for all types of scifi. If you want to write hard scifi, go do it. If you want to write pulpy scifi, go do it. Hell, if you want to write feminist scifi, go fucking do it. All of that stuff has a market, and honestly the more and different kinds of scifi that's out there, the bigger the market grows. And the bigger the market grows, the more slices of the pie there are to go around.

And isn't that really what we all want? For our genre to grow, be successful, and find more readers who are willing to pay for it? We need to get rid of this arbitrary distinction that "hard sf is best sf" and let people do whatever they want with their science fiction. And for the love of fucking god, stop shitting on people because their tastes differ from yours. Unless, of course, it's harmless, "Your waifu is shit," type stuff. That's all in good fun, and shouldn't be taken seriously by anybody. But the in-all-seriousness, "Your scifi is childish and shouldn't be read by REAL FANS because muh scientific accuracy," type of malarkey has got to go.

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  1. So, speaking as someone who reads hard SF, writes hard SF, speaks on panels on cons about hard SF, where are you finding this "Hard SF is the only true SF" propaganda? Because hard SF hasn't been dominating the genre for decades. If you look at Amazon it's just another sub-genre and not the most popular. It's sure as heck not dominating the awards.

    As for the "one made-up thing" rule: it's a useful rule of thumb but nobody insists on it. The definition in practice is more like the "Mohs Scale of SF Hardness" at TV Tropes--there's a scale from rock hard all technically possible to a few bits of superscience all the way to making up everything.

    Seeing your science superseded by new facts is part of the fun in the game. It happens to everyone. Larry Niven's first published story, "The Coldest Place," was negated by research finding Mercury wasn't locked to the Sun. The Martian's adventures in water making became superfluous when NASA discovered permafrost where Andy Weir set the story. Fans will try to poke holes in a stories science. This is part of what hard SF fans enjoy.

  2. Well, I can't point to a specific place, but it seems to be a kind of general consensus in conversations I've had with other nerds. The scientific rigor seems to be something to aspire to, and you're just lazy if you do otherwise. It's just something I kind of grew up with, and never really noticed it until DW pointed it out. Kind of like the background radiation of the fandom, or at least the parts I was in. But you're probably right, it might not be as widespread as I think it is. After all, my experience is limited, and given that you've been here longer than I have and you have more experience with the boots-on-the-ground aspect of the genre you'd probably know better than I do, so I'll defer to your experience on that.

    I'll have to look up the "Mohs Scale of SF Hardness," then. I was not aware that was a thing. Should prove to be some interesting reading. Thanks for the new info!

    And I suppose I can see that. I mean, I'm not a super-huge fan of hard SF, so I don't get the appeal in putting all that effort into research and making sure everything is watertight only to have the seals degrade anyway. Not saying it's bad or anything, I just don't get putting effort into separating oneself from non-hard SF authors when time and science is going to reunite them eventually no matter what. But hey, who am I to judge how other people have fun? I'm just glad they're having it. It's like sports. I don't get why watching sports is fun, but I'm not gonna begrudge those people their fun. They're enjoying themselves, and that's all that matters with regards to entertainment.