I write science fiction and fantasy, but mostly my work is classified as "hard" science fiction. I've found that there are many readers who know and love hard science fiction, but I think just as many are determined to avoid it, convinced that the hard stuff is not for them. Why? They just don't know what hard science fiction is, and what it can be.
What makes a story "hard"? Everyone involved has an opinion. My own definition is simple and inclusive. Hard SF is science fiction that extrapolates future technologies while trying to adhere to rules of known or plausible science.
Of course definitions of what is possible or plausible can be seriously squishy. In my Nanotech Succession books people commonly make "ghosts" of themselves, virtual equivalents let's say. Is it possible to replicate a personality in a virtual environment? Who knows? But it's not flat-out forbidden, like exceeding the speed of light, and it's not treated as magic. So these books happily wear the label of hard SF.
As a handy rule, let's say that hard SF does not allow for magic or supernatural events, and that many of us are made skeptical if FTL or synthetic gravity fields appear in a story. (And yes, I'm aware that many hard SF writers have devised clever responses to the FTL problem.)
So if you play the SF game within some variation of this very simple rule set, that's hard SF. No big deal, right?
And yet there are some common misconceptions about hard science fiction. Here are a few.
Hard science fiction is about science, technology, and engineering.
Well yes, it can be, but mostly it's about the implications of science, technology, and engineering and how all of it affects people. In Gregory Benford's far-future Great Sky River, the galaxy is overrun by an unknowable machine intelligence, while the remnant human population, despite their enhancements, exists on the edge of extinction. It's a remarkable setting, but the story is about the people: their flaws, their vulnerabilities, their ingenuity, and their love for one another.
Hard science fiction is written from the point of view of scientists.
It's true that it's fairly common to find scientists writing hard SF, and why not? Scientists generally have great imaginations, along with curious and questioning natures. Science fiction lets them pose thought experiments in dramatic form while working within some real-ish world limits. But that doesn't mean they write from a scientist's point of view. They might. They might not. But whether they do or not, why would that automatically be a turn off? Scientists can be very interesting people!
Full disclosure: I have a bachelor's degree in zoology, but I'm not a scientist. Among all my novels I can think of one main character (Virgil in Limit of Vision) who is a scientist.
Hard science fiction is of interest only to scientists.
I hope not! Good heavens. Surely the world and where it might be going is a subject that could interest anyone with a curious mind? The incredible, intricate mechanisms of life? and technology? I mean, smart phones? Despite all the negatives, our world is utterly amazing.
Hard science fiction takes a science degree to understand.
In any genre, some writers are more difficult to get into than others. Some books are more challenging than others. As an example, Greg Egan's Incandescence is heavy on the physics of an extreme environment, but it's a fascinating read as the characters work out the peril of their situation. The best writers will help you to understand the science when it matters.
Why Do We Have to Call It "Hard"?
I think the term "Hard SF" is a marketing disaster. The implication to the uninitiated is that it's "hard" to read, so why bother trying? You'd have to be a brainiac to get into that stuff, right? (And doubtless many long-time readers want to be thought of as brainiacs, and a lot them actually are, so there's that.) Still. Why actively discourage readers?
Then of course there are the sexual jokes which, honestly, I'm sure are beloved by many in the subgenre. I don't plead innocence. I have muttered darkly to myself, when faced with another's success, "Mine is harder than his." But it's easy to see how this might turn off potential readers.
Another, related, term is "mundane science fiction"—a subset of hard science fiction in which interstellar travel doesn't come into play because it's considered unrealistic. As a term, "mundane" is a practical impossibility. This means that "mundane" stories are set on Earth or within the solar system, in a future without aliens. Don't these restrictions seem grossly limiting? Given the vastness of both time and the solar system, they're really not limiting at all, and yet . . . mundane? Doesn't that have the implication of "boring"? To me, the term is another marketing disaster.
Toward an Extrapolative Fiction
So I've lately taken to calling this stuff "extrapolative" fiction, because that's what we're doing. We're extrapolating from the world we know, to tell stories of what could be, in futures that are strange and wondrous and compelling and yet still in some sense possible, still reachable, without relying on a magical-as-yet-unknown element. It's not that we're trying to predict the future, we just want to explore it, and there's a wide range of space and time open to our investigation.
For example, my own most recent novel, The Red: First Light, is extrapolative fiction of the very near future, told through the eyes of a dedicated soldier faced with finding a way forward in a world where a combination of extreme wealth, government corruption, and loss of privacy have produced an unexpected fallout.
Moving a little farther out in time, Tobias Buckell's Arctic Rising is an environmental thriller powered by unique and memorable characters including a Nigerian-born United Nations airship pilot, who is drawn into conflict in a future where global warming has created a gold rush in the ice-free Arctic.
Even farther out in both time and distance, M.J. Locke's Up Against It is an intricate adventure of settlement and conflict among the asteroids, with engaging characters, multiple plot lines, and a diversity of lifestyles.
Pat Cadigan takes a different look at solar system settlement in her Hugo Award winning novelette "The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi." Set among the moons of Jupiter, its whimsical title reflects the slang used by characters as they reinvent themselves and their destinies.
Leaping vastly farther ahead in time—six million years—Alastair Reynolds' House of Suns is set in a relativistic Universe constrained by the speed of light but little else, in which the descendants of humanity rise and fall, their cultures flowering and dying across millions of worlds, while privileged travelers wander the galaxy on circuits that consume a quarter-million years—and where, despite the passage of time and the grandeur of technology, love still matters.
In our rapidly evolving world there is surely value to fictional explorations of the scientific, technological, and cultural changes we all face, and how those changes might affect us and the world we live in. Where are we going? And who will we be when we get there? It's something to think about. It's something to read about.
So if you take nothing else from this post, take this: just because it's labeled "hard" that doesn't mean it's hard to read, hard to get into, hard to understand, or emotionally uninvolving. I know that all of us who write "extrapolative fiction" would love it if more readers gave us a try. The world is a strange and surprising place. You might find that at least some of the hard stuff is exactly what you're looking for.
Linda Nagata is the Nebula Award-winning author of several novels, including Vast, Memory, and The Red: First Light. Find out more on her website.