What’s this ‘hard SF’ stuff, anyway?
Lately I’ve been pondering the term ‘hard’ science fiction. Probably because I used the expression myself when referring to Jack McDevitt’s books. But once you start to ponder, the mind turns to ‘but what does it mean’? And if there is ‘hard’ science fiction, what is ‘soft’ science fiction?
Wikipedia says hard SF is ‘a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy, or on both.
There is a degree of flexibility in how far from “real science” a story can stray before it leaves the realm of hard SF. Some authors scrupulously avoid such technology as faster-than-light travel, while others accept such notions (sometimes referred to as “enabling devices”, since they allow the story to take place) but focus on realistically depicting the worlds that such a technology might make possible. In this view, a story’s scientific “hardness” is less a matter of the absolute accuracy of the science content than of the rigor and consistency with which the various ideas and possibilities are worked out.
To me, this smacks of ‘Rules’, as well as snobbery – the kind of distinction that says literary fiction is a ‘better class of literature’ than genre fiction. Needless to say, Star Wars doesn’t get a jumper in the ‘hard’ SF team. I’m okay with that. The science is often ordinary but regardless, the Star Wars galaxy has held millions enthralled for over thirty years.
Back to ‘hard’ SF. Let’s take Jack McDevitt as an example. Most of his books include FTL so die-hards would discount them as ‘soft’ SF. I don’t because he so rigorously depicts his worlds and his physics. An example is the wide array employed in ‘Black Lightning’ to collect signals sent out thirty years before. Let’s say he squeezes in, then, under the ‘enabling technology’ rule. A foot in the door. What about Anne McCaffrey’s ‘Pern’? Yes, it has dragons – but they are genetically engineered animals based on a beast native to the planet. And the planet’s destructive scourge (thread) is in itself a logical reason why the dragons developed the ability to teleport. Then we have Elizabeth Moon, where humans have spread throughout the Galaxy by terra-forming planets (McDevitt has this, too). We can’t do this now and it seems a monumental task. So I assume we cross off Moon and McCaffrey.
As is so often the case, science fiction offers a spectrum starting from scenarios set (of necessity) in the present or near future which adhere strictly to the known – or perhaps I should say, the currently accepted – rules of physics or an extrapolation thereon. Something like Star Wars would be at the opposite end and everybody else would sit along the line somewhere.
Where would they put my books?
To be honest, I really don’t care. I’ve tried to think through my universe and make it plausible, so I avoid some of the more obvious mistakes. Some spotty student with nothing better to do may well be able to tear apart my world-building but my aim was to tell a story that would grab and hold a reader. I’m never going to please everybody and if readers wish to ignore my work as ‘soft’ SF – so be it.
Oh, and before I finish, I must point out that science is not immutable. In 1920 the Galaxy was estimated at 65,000 light years in diameter. With better equipment and more knowledge, we now estimate the diameter at nearly double that amount. That picture at the top of the post shows galaxies – hundreds of them. Maybe one of them is a Galaxy ‘far, far away’. We now know that stars and planets are much weirder than we could ever have imagined. We know that there are no rainforests on Venus and no four-armed Martians on Mars. It’s mathematically accepted that there are more than four dimensions. Etc etc.
At the crux of the matter, though, this is fiction. It takes people to other places, other worlds, other times. Isn’t that why we read this stuff?