I've always thought the term "hard science fiction" referred to stories or novels where the science was important to the story, and which strove for absolute scientific and technical accuracy. But now it turns out I was wrong, and actually "hard SF" refers to stories about personal growth, along the lines of the Hero's Journey. At least that's what John Clute claims in his introduction to a new reissue of a 1974 Christopher Priest novel, The Inverted World.
NYRB Classics is reissuing Inverted (whose original cover appears above) with an introduction by Clute, co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. And here's what Clute says about the genre Priest's first novel appears in, as quoted in the NYRB's blog:
Hard SF can be defined as that kind of science-fiction tale in which a clearly defined protagonist (almost always male) leaves his endangered world on a great adventure, during the course of which he begins to understand the true nature of his world and comes to grips with the danger that threatens it through a clearly defined, science-based cognitive breakthrough. A new world is then born, which the hero will monitor for the sake of his folk, in a manner consistent with Joseph Campbell's description of the culture hero in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). The Hard SF tale carries its hero from cognitive darkness to conceptual light, and no stylistic fog, no problematic of any sort, should compromise that powerful movement.
In other words, science is just the trappings for yet another set of stories about dudes finding themselves in the wilderness? [NYRB blog]