Well, first of all, what is it? For many sf writers the term 'hard sf' is a little like that embarrassing tattoo you got in high school and just can't seem to live down now that you have a real job. Hard sf devotees tend to use the term in regrettably silly ways . . . like to talk about how 'hard' they are, and to weed out people they think aren't 'hard enough' to play in their league. In return, people who write the various subgenres of SF that don't generally include multipage explications of imaginary technology complete with equations tend to respond with equally absurd claims that there is no such thing as hard SF and the whole concept of hard SF is just the science fictional equivalent of a No Girls Allowed tree house. As a result, the hard sf label (actually coined in the 1950s by Astounding Stories editor P. Schuyler Miller) often evokes the worst excesses of 1950s Agenda SF (1) . . . stories where aliens were enemies, women were green, and white men saved the free world with science. All of which has nothing whatsoever to do with the nuanced and complex stories being written by today's best hard SF practitioners.
So is the hard/soft divide really just name-calling? Italian sf fans think so. They call all sf FANTASCIENZA, or science fantasy. And they read Hal Clement, Ursula K. LeGuin and William Gibson without suspecting they're not members of one big crazy but happy family. So can't we just take a tip from the Italians, scuttle the hard sf label and get on with life? It would certainly be the mature and sensible thing to do. But, alas, we're not mature. In fact, we're ridiculously immature. And the fastest way to enrage almost any sf writer is to suggest, however subtly, that his or her books are 'soft.' All of us, whether we love hard sf or hate it, are victims of the hard syndrome. Quantum physicist Charles H. Bennett summed up the hard syndrome pretty neatly as it applies to theoretical scientists:
"Theoretical computer scientists, like their counterparts in physics, suffer and benefit from a high level of intellectual machismo. They believe that they have some of the biggest brains around, which they need to think about some of the hardest problems. Like mathematicians, they prove theorems and doubt the seriousness of those who don't." (2)
This is a fascinating as well as a funny statement. One of the more interesting things about it is the recognition that 'intellectual machismo' has 'benefits' as well as pitfalls ... hold that idea. We'll get back to it later.
PLAYING WITH THE NET UP. Given this combative subtext, it's not surprising that definitions of hard sf range from the critical-analytical ('Fantasy set in an alternate universe where the superstitions of late twentieth century American engineers are a precise reflection of The Way Things Are' (3) ) to the downright insulting ('Where men are men and the electric sheep run scared.' (4) ) For my purposes, however -- both as a writer and reader -- the best working definition is the one Gregory Benford suggested when he wrote that hard sf writers 'play with the net up.'
I like Benford's definition partly because it's so broad. It encompasses near-future close extrapolation fiction like the works of Greg Bear and of Benford himself. On the other hand, it doesn't rule out the far future thought experiments of visionaries like David Brin, Greg Egan, Catherine Asaro, and Wil McCarthy. After all, the net's a moving target that changes with every new issue of Physical Review Letters. The underlying process of extrapolation may be the same for near-future and far- future sf, but mileage will vary.
Another strong point of Benford's definition is that it doesn't necessarily limit the scientific reach of hard sf to specific scientific disciplines. Physics, computer sciences, genetic engineering, biogeography, anthropology, psychology. It's all fair game under this definition ... and of course some of the greatest science fiction ever written has come from writers like Eugene Zamyatin, George Orwell and Ursula K. LeGuin who went outside the traditional poaching grounds of hard sf to draw ideas from sociology, anthropology, political theory and other 'soft science' disciplines.
POLITICS, POLITICS. In fact, there's a good argument to be made that the classification of sf as 'hard' or 'soft' is really tangential to the most fundamental division in the genre: the division between writers who view sf as being primarily about science and writers who view sf as being primarily about politics. This divide is as old as the genre itself, and it's no accident that at least half (by my guesstimate) of the active writers in the field call their fiction 'speculative fiction' rather than 'science fiction.' A number of commentators have noted the political undercurrent of both hard sf and its various rebellious offshoots. Some have even gone so far as to claim that hard sf as a genre is inherently libertarian. They've got a point; few hard sf writers fit the standard American elephants vs donkeys model. But plenty of them break left instead of right, and there's a good argument to be made that hard sf's political underpinnings really just boil down to the kind of instinctive contrarianism that George Orwell advocated when he said that "no writer can be a loyal member of a political party."
Recognizing that there is a scientific-political continuum in sf -- and one that is only tangentially related to the better known hard-soft continuum -- would certainly help make sense of one of the strangest phenomena in the genre: books that are labeled as 'soft' sf, 'space opera' or 'science fantasy' despite the fact that their science is every bit as defensible as that of many hard sf icons. When readers complain that writers like C. J. Cherryh, Bruce Sterling, Neal Stephenson, and Nicola Griffith aren't 'really' hard sf writers, they are implicitly complaining that they put too much emphasis on the politics of their fictional worlds and not enough emphasis on the science. They are (correctly) identifying these writers as the literary children of Mary Shelley and George Orwell, rather than of Jules Verne and Isaac Asimov. Anyone who's made it this far down the page can probably guess that I'd like to see a world in which sf fans can recognize and enjoy both strains of science fiction without name-calling. Among other things, it would let us talk more intelligently about contemporary writers like David Brin and Catherine Asaro whose work draws on both the core hard sf tradition and the Orwellian political tradition. And it would head off some of the sillier statements of overzealous defenders of hard SF's purity, (e.g., that Asimov's robot stories aren't "political").
YEAH, BUT . . . . isn't there a real difference between sf that focuses on the hard sciences (physics chemistry, computer science and so forth) and sf that foregrounds the so-called soft sciences (anthropology, political science and the like)? Of course there is. And people who argue that there isn't, or shouldn't be, are in some sense missing the point. Because at some basic level -- the level of our inner fourteen-year-old geek -- what hard sf junkies are really after is what one of my best early draft readers calls the Wow Factor.
If you're a hard sf fan, you already know what Wow Factor is. It's Isaac Asimov's giddy descriptions of people conveyors and planets entirely covered by skyscrapers. It's Stanislav Lem's bickering, spacefaring robots. It's David Brin's cellular automata, or Greg Bear's nanotech run amok, or Wil McCarthy's mindblowing fax technology, or Catherine Asaro's gorgeous concept (and if you doubt it's gorgeous, go read Gauss and Riemann) of using the square of an imaginary number to rotate around the light speed barrier.
These wild ideas are more than just window dressing; they're the inventions of writers who look at the stuff our lives are made of, from toaster ovens to string theory, and say: what if? If you're a true hard sf fan, you thrill to these ideas not because they're somehow intrinsically more "serious" or "worthwhile" or [fill in the blank] than "soft" sf ideas, but because . . . well, probably because you're an absolutely hopeless geek, just like me. At some basic level I've always thought the best test of whether a writer belonged on the "hard" or "soft" side of sf's great divide would be to ask whether he/she ever broke a new computer/radio/electrical appliance/car while trying to figure out how it worked . . . and then had to make up some lame story to explain to his/her parents why it no longer functioned. Ask that question in a roomful of hard SF writers and you get an avalanche of stories on topics ranging from wanton destruction of private property to narrowly avoided self-electrocution. Ask it in a roomful of normal humans and someone is liable to make odiously sensible comments about the inadvisability of voiding the warrantee on a major appliance. Hard sf may be a broad field and getting broader daily -- I remember when people said C. J. Cherry's Cyteen wasn't hard sf because cloning was 'fantasy science' (5) -- but it will always be a genre written by and for people who are passionate (albeit at times foolishly passionate) about science and technology.
BIG IRON. Many hard sf writers actually are scientists, of course. But some of the best writers in the field have the same relationship to real scientists that mafia movie directors have to real gangsters: they want to hang with them and carry the 'big iron' (or at least pretend to), but they don't want to do the jail time. These writers include luminaries like Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson, who don't have tenure in any math or physics department but who are science writers in every sense. Like the Stephen Jay Goulds, Lee Smolins and David Deutsches of the world, they want to grab you by your shirt collar and talk to you until you get particle physics or cryptography or whatever else they happen to be obsessed with. And they are certain, absolutely certain that you will get it, because . . .
This is where I make my heartfelt plea for the Social Rehabilitation of Intellectual Machismo . . . because looked at from another angle, what is hard sf's intellectual machismo but faith? Faith in the ability of average readers to understand particle physics, to understand quantum cryptography, to understand genetic engineering, quarks, charms and their own home computers ... in short, to be intelligent participants in humanity's long strange trip into the future. In this sense, hard sf is the ultimate postindustrial political literature. It invites ordinary readers to think about the ideas and technologies that drive our daily lives and shape our economies. It invites us into the realm of the specialist and the trained scientist. It invites us to have opinions about something our society's institutional and economic structures often fail to account for: the moral, social and political implications of the way we create and use knowledge.
Above and beyond those (arguably) political ideas, however, there is a more fundamental ideal that
lies at the core of hard SF. It is an ideal embodied in the image that Arthur C. Clarke returned to
and again over the course of his long career: the doomed astronaut or exploror who continues to
collect data and make observations in the face of death so that later researchers can make use of
This image also lies at the heart of one of my very favorite hard SF novels: Frederik Pohl's The
at the End of Time. If there is a bedrock ideology of hard SF, this is it: the idea that science is not a
set of religious dogmas but something people do. And that
the quest of science -- the quest to understand our worlds and ourselves -- is one of the most
worthwhile and noble things our species has managed to accomplish with the 3 pounds
of squishy gray evolution in action we all carry around inside our skulls. This ideal lies at the core
hard SF. It's also what lies at the bottom of much of the pig-headed insistence of hard SF fans that
this or that book is or isn't "really" hard SF. And of course it's also what keeps us, writers and
alike, coming back to the genre.
NEAR-FUTURE EXTRAPOLATION. So what's in hard sf's future? Several recent books have asked this question, including David Hartwell's The Hard SF Renaissance, and Thomas Disch's The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of. As usual, of course, the experts disagree. For my money, though, the exciting developments to watch in hard SF are coming out of the cross-fertilization between traditional hard sf and several other science fiction subgenres -- often ones that have had an uncomfortable and combative relationship with hard sf in the past.
To my mind, the most important genrebending influences in hard sf today are coming from two subgenres often presented in anthologies and critical studies as being somehow diametrically opposed to hard sf : feminist sf and space opera.
Feminist sf has the longest and most rancorous history of separation from hard sf. The very term 'hard sf' was coined in a period when one of the primary concerns of hard sf loyalists was distinguishing their work from the new style of sf associated with overtly feminist writers like Ursula LeGuin who used hard sf ideas and storylines to question instead, not confirm, the dominant worldview of 1950s and early 1960s science fiction. The separation of "hard" sf from "feminist" sf is patently ridiculous by any logical standard ... and yet it persists. And it has had a real and unfortunate limiting effect on the genre. Among other things, it has left the substantial hard sf work of writers like Leigh Bracket, C. L. Moore, Katherine MacLean, James Tiptree, Jr., Ursula K. LeGuin, Joan D. Vinge, C. J Cherryh, and others stranded in a no-man's land between the two categories. When they are published or collected at all, they are usually presented as 'feminist' writers rather than 'hard sf' writers, and the works selected are those that specifically deal with gender issues or that play up the conflict between feminist ideology and traditional science fictional attitudes in ways that frankly aren't all that representative of the entire body of work of several of these writers. It serves no one for Judith Merril to only be remembered as the author of "That Only a Mother" or for James Tiptree to only be remembered as the author of "The Women Men Don't See" or for Katherine MacLean to only be remembered as the author of "The Snowball Effect." (It also serves no one, on the other side of the never-ending and to my mind increasingly uninteresting debate, for Tom Godwin to be only remembered for "The Cold Equations.") James Tiptree, Jr., as usual, can stand in as a one-person symbol for everything that's stupid, silly and shortsighted about the fesminist sf vs. hard sf debate. I recently stumbled across a real collector's item: the November 1969 issue of "Worlds of IF" which debuted Tiptree's very first sf story: "Happiness is a Warm Spaceship."
And what was the caption of the first story of the writer who would become one of the most important and respected voices in hard sf in the early 1970s? Can't guess? Sitting down? Okay, folks, here it is:
"Every male aboard had a minority problem, a race problem -- and the same damn girl problem!"
Happily, such captions are a thing of the past ... thanks to writers like Nancy Kress, Joan Slonczewski, and Linda Nagata, among many others. These writers (and others) are discussed and listed on my 'chickpunk' page. Partly this is because (mea culpa!) I have fallen prey to the same old problem of categorization. But partly it's because much of the best hard sf by women in recent years incorporates space opera and cyberpunk influences in a way that genuinely defies categorization. Much of this work hails from a long tradition of science-oriented deep space adventure stories by women, beginning with golden age pioneers like C. L. Moore and Leigh Bracket, and passing through the explicitly feminist hard sf penned by James Tiptree Jr. and Ursula LeGuin in the 1960s, to the ongoing work of writers like C. J. Cherryh, Joan D. Vinge, and Lois McMaster Bujold ... all of whom seem to delight in tapdancing, Heinlein-like, along the razor's edge that divides hard sf from space opera.
And, uh, now that I've mentioned space opera ... psst! Yeah, you. Step into the shadows. I got premium grade space opera right here. Wanna get a fix??
Space Opera, Hard SF, and the Respectability Trap One of the most important of genrebending influences in contemporary SF as a whole is the reunification of Hard SF with its much-maligned little sister, Space Opera. This separation has always been rather artificial. Sure there are writers like Hal Clement in whose work science is so overwhelmingly central that they seem to define the hard sf subgenre. But many of the great SF ideasmiths -- writers like Heinlein, Kornbluth, Sturgeon, Aldiss, Varley, Niven, Egan and Brin to name a few -- focus as much on future societies, economies, and political systems as they do on future technologies. Is Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress hard sf or space opera? And what about C. J. Cherryh's Hellburner? Or Egan's Diaspora? Much of the vibrancy and daringness of the best golden age SF had to do, I think, with writers' willingness to follow new scientific ideas anywhere they might lead without worrying over much about genres or categories. When I go back and read the great golden agers -- writers like Cordwainer Smith, C. M. Kornbluth, and Katherine MacLean -- I can't help feeling that those old timers had more romance, more adventure, more daring flights of fantasy . . . and, well, just plain more fun than most 'hard' sf writers allow themselves to have today. Think of the all-stops-pulled-out tear jerker love story of Cordwainer Smith's "The Lady Who Sailed The Soul" for example. Or the doglike aliens in Katherine MacLean's "The Trouble With You Humans" who are so chagrined (and disdainful!) when their flawlessly diplomatic gestures of public peeing inexplicably offend the deformed hairless mammals of Sol's third planet. Sometimes I think that hard sf today has been bitten by the serious bug, and that a lot of us would benefit from sitting in the basement reading old issues of Asimov's and Galaxy and reminding ourselves of how much fun even the most serious sf was back then.
A book that illustrates the futility of trying to distinguish between hard sf and space opera is Joan D. Vinge's Outcasts of Heaven's Belt. It is a rigorously thought-out extrapolation of the social and technological disintegration of an asteroid belt colony that has lost its only viable terraformed planet to civil war. Vinge asks two basic questions: (1) what are the technological and organizational requirements for long-term human survival in an asteroid belt without a habitable planet to provide logistical support and buffer swings in population and resource consumption? and; (2) what can (or can't) the belters do to bootstrap their mini-worlds out of extinction when population and technology drop below the critical point? This is a fantastic hard sf premise by any measure. It's also played out through a story that provides more than enough deep space mayhem and piracy to keep the typical space opera or military sf fan happy regardless of the science. In the face of a book like this -- so clearly steeped in the rip-roaring golden age tradition -- drawing lines between hard sf and space opera seems like taxonomicall overkill. It's both masterful hard sf idea-smithing and dazzling space opera spectacle. In some sense, the best way of looking at a book like Outcasts of Heaven's Belt is to go back to the words of Gordon R. Dickson (another writer who knew how to sling a tasty side of adventure with the hard sf meat and potatoes) back when 'hard sf' was a less widely used term than it is today:
The science fiction hard-core audience is interested in the investigation of all possible subjects .... The explorations of science fiction are normally for the purpose of testing an idea, a question, or a possibility in the literary laboratory; as opposed to tryting it out in the real world, where a botched experiment can mean famine, pestilence, or the bloody slaughter of one people by another .... Science fiction is, in fact, essentially an unstructured think tank in which authors of different points of view can paint differing solutions of eventualities suggested by present problems or situations. As a literature it is favorably designed to act as a vehicle for ideas or arguments -- to be a seedbag for philosophical fiction.
I don't propose Dickson's 'free form think tank' model as some sort of definitive definition of hard sf, or any kind of sf. But I do think it's a useful paradigm for thinking about sf generally, and about the peculiarly central role of 'hard sf' in the genre. There is a plethora of great books in the last 30 years (many sadly out of print) that have put together the 'furniture' of deep space exploration or colonization with a thoughtful investigation of the implications of specific scientific and technological advances. Indeed much of the most exciting contemporary sf -- we could pick out a line of work stretching from the work of writers like C. J. Cherryh and Dan Simmons to the contemporary 'radical hard sf' or 'hard space opera' of Iain Banks, Ken McLeod and Alistair Reynolds -- is united by little more than a revival of the taste for science-heavy high adventure and the grand disregard for persnickety genre distinctions that characterized the best golden age sf. Maybe we are asking the wrong questions about these books and these writers....
CONCLUSION. Since the 1960s (and arguably earlier) hard sf has suffered from the attacks of new wavers, feminists, cyberpunks, socialists, postcolonialists, poststructuralists postmodernists posthumanists and nearly every other imaginable kind of -ist in the genre. These attacks have been accompanied by loud and frequent proclamations that hard sf is dead and the golden age is over. In reality things have turned out to be more complicated ... and more interesting. Today's hard sf seems to have incorporated the critiques of its attackers, rolled the best of their ideas into its toolkit and moved on. Established writers in the core of hard SF are writing books about female african-american physicists (Gregory Benford's Cosm) and taking on societal issues that were once considered to be the exclusive currency of 'soft' sf (David Brin's Glory Season). Genre-bending writers like Greg Bear, Neal Stephenson, Linda Nagata, and Justina Robson are bridging the gaps between Orwellian political SF, feminist SF, and traditional hard sf. Scotland's Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod are writing postcyberpunk hard sf that predicts a gritty socialist future only slightly more Orwellian than the alternate reality most of us call real life. Edgy classics like the works of Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, and James Tiptree, Jr. are coming back into fashion and reminding people that hard sf always could put together smart science and smart politics.
Hard SF has accomplished its latest rebirth (like prior rebirths after the New Wave, etc) precisely because of an essential and largely unrecognized quality: political neutrality. The bottom line in hard SF is always the science. And that means that if you can think up interesting new ideas in the fields of physics, chemistry, mathematics, etc., and back them up with hard numbers, and make them fun to read about . . . congratulations, you're writing hard SF in its highest incarnation. And this is the case regardless of whether you're a libertarian, a communist, a feminist, a monarchist, a zoroastrian, or a three-headed newt. Hard SF is a toolkit, not an ideology -- and it's there to be used by anyone who's willing to hit the books and sweat through the equations. In short, hard SF is the most unexclusive exclusive club there is. Of course, if you don't believe in the objectivity of quantitative analysis or the knowability of the unverse, then you might have trouble finding a place for yourself in hard SF . . . unless you're talking about Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle or the Lorenz Equations. In which case, bring it on, we love that stuff!!
In short, hard SF is still going strong, fueled by writers and readers who thrill to that special hard SF combination of visionary speculation backed up by nuts and bolts 'here's how we get there from here' science writing. It's still about the science, and it always will be. But it's also about people and politics and everything else in the known and unknown universe. It's all up for grabs. Just like it always has been. . . .
(1) John Clute, quoted in Ken MacLeod's "Science Fiction After the Future Went Away," Infinity Plus.
(2) Charles H. Bennett, "Quantum Information and Computation," Physics Today, Oct. 1995, 24.
(3) I have heard this quote or some variation of it many times and have no idea who first said it. If you said it first (or know who did), please contact me so I can give credit where it's due.
(4) Yeah, okay, I know someone will out me sooner or later. I've said this in public. More than once. But I say it with affection ... I like sheep.
(5) Actually, I think there may be another, non-political factor behind the longstanding reluctance to include stories based on biology in the hard SF cannon. Part of it is a straightforward and perfectly understandable aesthetic impulse; until the advent of genetic engineering and mathematical biology, there was a truly deplorable absence of equations in most biology texts, which made biology-based sf stories a hard sell for the numerophilic hard-cord hard SF fan. However, I can't quite buck the suspicion that part of hard SF's historic biology phobia was mere squeamishness. The kind of squeamishness so entertainingly encapsulated in the old Star Trek episode, Amok Time, where Spock precedes a highly euphemistic discussion of salmon spawning procedures with the shamefaced admission that his illness "has to do with biology . . . Vulcan biology."
NOTE TO NEW READERS: This essay was originally written in 2004, and I've left it up here as I wrote it because there were too many incoming links to deal with and because ... well ... history's history. On the other hand, I'm still thinking and talking about these issues, and so are a lot of other people. So if you feel the urge to comment, criticize, disagree, or suggest updates and additions, come over to SFness and tell me about it.