Three Monkeys - Ten Minutes : #9 - September 2003

Hard SF Definitions

During the panel discussion for the August Phoenix meeting panel discussion on Hard SF, I read out a few definitions that I had found. I have reproduced these for you amusement. The views expressed below do not necessarily correspond with my own opinion, although a few of them do make pretty good sense. Where possible, I have included an author attribution, but there are a few pieces where I could not find the author. If you know who did write any of those pieces, please let me know.

Brad Templeton:
I would put it simply as "science and technology seem real and are 'characters' in the story". When I say characters, I mean that you notice and remember them as much as you would a memorable character. They're important to the story, it would not be the same without them.

Doug Tricarico:
I'm partial to the idea that fantasy deals with the impossible, while SF deals with the possible; that hard SF deals with hardware while soft SF deals with wetware. (Hard: Hogan's Voyage From Yesteryear. Soft: Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.) The best science fiction, however, deals with both aspects, applying the science to human behaviour and systems.

A Larry Niven quote that applies when analysing the quality of writing:
A good SF author invents the car; a great SF writer comes up with the traffic jam.

Norman Spinrad:
If the science is 100 percent faithful to the best available knowledge, then a piece of fiction isn't science fiction at all, since scientific speculation is then entirely absent, and what we have is mimetic fiction with futuristic technological trappings.

(Hard SF is) "fiction that applies all the available literary techniques to preserve the illusion of verisimilitude, while it pushes the edge of the best known scientific world view just far enough to enter terra incognita without actually contradicting known scientific fact".

Matt Austern comments:
I don't see that scientific accuracy has anything at all to do with genre distinctions. You see, one category I recognize is "science fiction that has inaccurate science". As I said, I'm a scientist, so of course I know more about science than most SF writers; picking technical holes in SF stories is an easy and largely pointless task. Almost all SF books I have read contain either errors or made-up science that contradicts things that are known today; most of the exceptions are books that are so vague that there isn't any substantive scientific content. At some point, if you know enough science and if you want to continue to enjoy SF, you just have to learn to stop caring. I don't see the value in defining SF so strictly that the set of "true" SF books becomes the empty set.

Christian "naddy" Weisgerber offers this definition of "hard":
"SF that is written to a high degree of conformance with current scientific knowledge, where all extrapolation of new phenomena is plausible, self consistent, and limited in number and/or scope as to not reduce its effects to arbitrariness. The plot should center around the exploration of a scientific phenomenon, its applications, or generally the application of science and engineering to the solution of problems." All the same, the "strict" definition of hardness is useful, and I have great respect for authors who can stick to it and produce interesting work. Really I'd like to see a change in terminology. There are, after all, works which avoid assuming any changes to current science simply because they avoid assuming much about science at all - for example, some of the books about over-populated future Earths - and I would hate to accord them the accolade of calling them "hard" while Niven's Neutron Star is denied it because he assumes FTL travel. (OK, for a "hard" writer, Niven proposes some remarkably implausible tech.) Some purists would probably apply the term "science fantasy" to works that go beyond currently believed science, and that leads us to discuss the distinction (if any) between SF and fantasy.

Somebody who I couldn’t identify said in rec.arts.sf.written:
My own favourite definition is even looser than those above: it simply says that hard SF is about how natural objects (and machines built out of them) behave in the author's invented world, while soft SF is about how people (and societies built out of them) behave in an invented world. Note that people may be human or non-human. The weakness here is that there are sciences whose subject matter is people, so if I accept anthropology as a science, I may have to accept, for example, The Dispossessed as hard ScF. Hmmm. You be the judge.

Then there is Soren F. Petersen:
Hard SF is a form of alternate universe fiction, set in a world where the world-view of American engineers in the late twentieth century is a precise reflection of The Way Things Are.

Moving along to this guy who I also cannot identify:
Well, hard sci-fi begins by defining sci-fi as that branch of literature which is written with science or technology as the main focus of the story. Since the name of the genre is "science-fiction", one might conclude this is how sf started out, huh? By the above stringent definition of sci-fi, most of what is being published today under the sf label doesn't qualify. Perhaps we should apply a label coined by George Lucas: "Space Fantasy". The "hard sf" writer takes great care to make the science and technology as plausible as possible. He asks you to believe, at most, one unbelievable thing per story, not several dozen.

Gary Westfahl quoted by somebody else:
"Westfahl offers an extended definition of hard science fiction--i.e., scientifically accurate SF that does not go beyond current scientific knowledge. He distinguishes between two forms--near-future extrapolation of current scientific developments and the far-future projection of large developments and strange (but scientifically plausible) worlds.

These are some snippets from a discussion group:
From Science fiction/Hard science fiction: "Hard science fiction is largely a literary genre, as the complexities of physics rarely translate well to the screen."

Interesting point!! Can anybody think of any exceptions offhand?? Personally, I'd question whether 2001 is an example - details of astrophysics and technology certainly aren't discussed much therein. I think 2001 might be more of a "New Wave" movie than anything else.

Good points, but there was considerable attention to scientific detail and accuracy that hasn't been present in virtually any other sci-fi film. For instance, note the time delay on the videophone conversations, the silence of space, the depiction of zero-g and the carousel, and so on. Also, it's very abstractly philosophical rather than too concerned with the relationships between people - another trait of hard sci-fi. I'd give it the benefit of the doubt. Certainly it's closer than anything else I can think of. It's certainly not space opera. -Robert Merkel

Probably not. :-) But the techically accurate details are background rather than crucial to the plot - the plot would procceed identically without the time-lag, silent space, centrifugal "gravity", etc. Most of the plot developments hinge on Clarke's Third Law more than anything else, I'd say. (I mean, the film that plays Also Sprach Zarathrustra on the sound track when somebody re-solders a diode is really hard science fiction. :-))

The only Hard SF movie I've ever seen, also my favorite movie, is GATTACA. It deals mainly with genetic modification and some space flight. Highly recommended, and very popular movie.