Genrely Speaking: Hard Sci-Fi

Welcome back to Genrely Speaking, the part of the show where I come out and explain what I mean when I mention various genres and/or subgenres of fiction. I do this in no small part because everyone looks at classifications a bit differently and since I am always in need of content want to be totally clear about what I mean when I use these terms it’s best I spell it out so I have something to link back to rather than defining the terms each time they come up.

Today’s genre is “hard” sci-fi. This is science fiction for the thinking man, something that clocks in at 4 or more on the Mohs’ scale probably qualifies. You won’t find much in the way of laser swords or rubber forehead aliens here, hard sci-fi takes itself and its readers very seriously. The hallmarks of hard sci-fi are as follows:

1) A strong emphasis on technology and science as it works in reality (and thus, in the story.) Hard sci-fi starts with the premise that science fiction needs to have a strong grounding in science. Generally, this doesn’t just mean basic physics and chemistry. Any and all science used in the story must be explained to the reader and the scientific facts (or as-yet unproven hypothesis that the writer is betting will be proven) is important. The narrative will spend time explaining some or all of the high-level concepts the story deals with, be they quantum physics or alien biology. How in-depth this goes depends on the author and their goals.

2) A tendency to advocate a particular kind of technology and the social changes the author thinks it will bring about. In other words, many hard sci-fi writers want science to be doing specific things in our culture and write about what they think science doing those things would be like. There’s nothing wrong with this, in fact pretty much every story is a writer saying, “I’d like to see something like this.” However, in hard sci-fi creating a new tool to make the change come about is the story, or at least one major part.

3) Strong belief that humanity need simply progress scientifically to achieve better philosophy and life. The hard sci-fi author’s love of science borders on a bizarre kind of Messiah complex. Arthur C. Clark’s maxim that “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” is probably the most blatant statement of this principle. Another is the way many aliens in hard sci-fi sound like they walked out of a cosmic horror tale (see this post for more on cosmic horror, although Lovecraft and Co will eventually get their own post, I’m sure). Not only are aliens made deliberately, well, alien to humanity they’re often much more technologically advanced and allowed to do inexplicable things simply because they’re technologically advanced. This point is allowed to contradict point one.

What are the weaknesses of hard sci-fi? Well that’s a difficult question. You’ve probably already gathered that I’m not the biggest fan of hard sci-fi. In fact, I said as much last week. So my critique might be a bit harsher here than it is in some of the genre write-ups for genres I really love. That in mind, here we go.

First, the tendency to explain all the science does horrible things to the flow and pacing of the story. Some hard sci-fi authors have great stories roaring along until they stop for five or six pages and expound on theoretical quantum physics. Once things start rolling again you’re just frustrated and need a break. Eventually the story will draw you back but you’ll probably never get back to the level of your first investment. You can avoid this and still get all that exposition in, but so few authors in the genre actually pull it off.

Second, the way hard sci-fi handles human vs. non-human intelligence is directly contrary to its core tenants. Humans are almost always running into weird aliens with more advanced technology that somehow can’t quite figure out human psychology and/or behavior. Yet humans tend to get a handle on aliens pretty quickly. There’s a huge array of reasons for this, from the desire to avoid rubber forehead aliens to the fact that the writers are human, and thus can only create aliens that make sense to humans (unless the aliens behave randomly, but that has a new host of problems.) This is a problem because hard sci-fi says that technology should be the defining element in advancement. Thus, aliens should have an easier time understanding humans than the opposite. On the other hand, a strong AI will probably understand humanity just fine but it’s creators will find it almost inscrutable.

Part of this is just because the story wants to keep the focus on the human characters, but then, why be so hard line on “hard” sci-fi? While it’s not something every reader will notice, it sometimes galls me.

What are the strengths of hard sci-fi? Hard sci-fi does have some great strengths. It’s the best genre for asking hard questions about what technology we’re making and what we intend to do with it. Serious philosophical issues underlay these questions and the very serious matter of technology and human development give these sometimes-abstract questions very immediate consequences.

Hard sci-fi is not a genre for everyone. There’s a reason laser swords and rubber forehead aliens are what define science fiction for most people – they’re fun. Also, the people who are telling those stories have spent huge amounts of time studying the art of story and making their stories as interesting as possible. Hard sci-fi writers are less invested in story or fun, but that’s not saying they avoid it entirely.

There’s also no saying that hard sci-fi couldn’t do both, make great stories and still carry most or even all of their scientific and philosophical emphasis. But it will take a lot of time, effort and skill. Right now, the genre is still defining itself. I find it worth a visit every now and then, but not something I’d want to read all the time.