Rocket Science: redefining hard science fiction

Paul Raven @ 12-04-2011

If there’s one thing that unites almost all science fiction fans, it’s the enthusiasm with which we challenge, debate and redefine its boundaries, and those of its fecund subspecies. So I expect there’ll be a fair few of you interested to see that Ian Sales has attempted to redefine that most contentious and ill-defined subgenre, “hard” science fiction… and a few more (or perhaps the same few) who’ll be interested to know he’s putting his money (or at least a lot of effort) where his mouth is, and editing an anthology to demonstrate that definition.

Take it away, Mister Sales:

There’s an interesting article here on the Cosmos Magazine website about humanity’s future in space – or rather, lack of a future. Much of the author’s discussion revolves around the limitations placed on rocketry by chemistry. Rocket engines have not substantially changed for almost a century, and that’s because there’s very little that can be done to improve what is, at its most basic, a chemical reaction. The laws of chemistry dictate how much energy that reaction can generate, and those laws are not something that can be changed. This seems counter-intuitive because in so many other areas of science and technology progress is rapid and effective – computing, for example. But, as the author of the piece writes, “In the case of electronics and information systems, we are dealing with soft rules, related to the limits of human ingenuity. In the case of space flight, we are dealing with hard rules, related to the limits of physics and chemistry.”

Science fiction often has to sidestep such “hard rules” in order to tell a story. The aforementioned faster-than-light travel is a good example. The laws of physics are quite clear that the speed of light cannot be exceeded. There are theoretical ways around this, but most are either impossible or unlikely – Alcubierre’s drive, for example, would require more energy than is available in the entire universe.

So perhaps we should consider sf which stays within the boundaries of these hard limits as hard science fiction. Any fiction which requires authorial invention to circumvent these limits would thus be “soft” sf – or whatever other sub-genre its characteristics identify it as, such as space opera.

It’s a fairly simple definition, and – unusually – offers a fairly simple either/or litmus test as opposed to the Damon Knight-esque “you know it when you see it” cop-out. (That said, I’d be disappointed if someone doesn’t manage to come up with an anomalous boundary condition or two!)

And as for the anthology, Rocket Science, you can find the details here on Sales’ blog; he’s looking for non-fiction as well as fiction, too, so lots of opportunity there. Submissions don’t open until August, so dust off the old thinking cap, wot? 🙂

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14 Responses to “Rocket Science: redefining hard science fiction”

  1. Dan S. says:

    “Any fiction which requires authorial invention to circumvent these limits would thus be “soft” sf.” Prior to the 1900’s, manned flight would have required authorial invention, so would manned spaceflight before the 1960’s. A round earth or an earth that orbited the sun at earlier times would have required authorial invention. Examples are easy to find, and the counter-argument is that we don’t know what will be possible in the future (the last I checked, the laws of physics had not been nailed down 100%). SF writers/creators are essentially futurists, and it’s their job to extrapolate what might be possible in the future (fusion, anyone?). Similarly, we really don’t know what could end up being impossible for some unknown reason despite seeming reasonable now, so even “mundane fiction” may not end up being accurate. To me, “hard SF” is fiction that gives the feeling of reality through careful consideration of plausible constraints, but not so much as to render the story or imagined future uninteresting. Maybe in the future, we’ll never go beyond the solar system, but where’s the fun in that, whether you’re a fiction writer or a space flight entrepreneur?

  2. Nancy Jane Moore says:

    If hard SF is limited to our current understanding of the limits of physics and chemistry, with the only speculative element being where engineering and technological advances can take us, no wonder it’s becoming less and less popular. I fail to see why fiction that deliberately breaks one or more of the currently understood limits in physics or chemistry wouldn’t be hard SF at its finest: something that speculates about where science might go. I doubt much of it will provide an accurate prediction, but I also doubt that our current understanding of science — even of the limits of physics and chemistry — is the last word on the subject, and some speculation might inspire future scientists to push the envelope a bit and discover new laws and principles.

    Of course, I don’t really object to so-called “soft” SF, particularly if the hard SF is only going to be speculation about new technology. I get plenty of speculation about new technology just reading newspapers.

    But while we’re talking about it, where does biology fit into all this? Or is the hard SF crowd still assuming that biology is a “soft” science?

  3. Ian Sales says:

    Dan S: er, no. That human flight was possible had been known for several centuries. The Wright Brothers just happened to succeed – they were by no means the first to attempt it. But even that doesn’t actually address the point I was making.

    For example, when chemical X and chemical Y react, they generate Z amount of energy. That amount is fixed by the laws of the universe, you cannot change it. You can perhaps add a catalyst, or change the conditions under which the reaction takes place – heat and pressure, for instance. But you can’t make on its own X + Y != Z. That’s a hard limit. To feature a situation in a sf story where X + Y = Z^10 is “authorial intervention”.

    It’s true that we don’t understand everything there is to know about our universe, but neither are there gaping holes in the things we do know well which would allow some of sf’s conceits to exist. Identifying those hard limits, and so identifying fictions which remained true to them, I felt was amore useful way to define hard sf as a genre. Not everything that is not hard sf is soft sf. It’s not an either/or.

  4. Paulo says:

    But Ian surely your argument is fatally flawed when you posit that “there are no gaping holes in the things we do know well” as science is by its very essence being re-written all the time as new discoveries throw theories to be re-worked. Chemistry, I’ll grant you, it’s pretty well understood, but Physics, most definitely is not! And there’s plenty more to learn and discover and identify. The famed (or infamous) Unified Theory of Physics is still currently beyond our grasp. How can you tell that further knowledge in this department will not bring about complete new theories of space travelling?

  5. Dan S. says:

    Ian,

    I see what you’re getting at, and there is (IMO) some validity to your effort in defining hard SF. I’m just saying there will always be unforeseen variables/factors/phenomena that are yet to be discovered. At some point back in history (I’m not a historian), atoms and molecules had not even been conceived or detected in anyway, let alone catalysts. Junk DNA has only recently been discovered to not be junk after all. The differences between iron-based and cuprate superconductors are still not fully understood. There are too many similar examples to make me think all future endeavors must adhere to contemporary limitations. Thanks for an interesting article though!

  6. Ian Sales says:

    Paulo – how? the laws of the universe don’t change, we simply learn more about how they work. If those laws impose a limit, given our incomplete understanding, that limit doesn’t magically vanish when we understand more. We know about strings and branes and quantum foam and all that, but the speed of light is still a universal constant.

    Escape velocity on the Earth is 11.2 km/s, and no new discoveries in physics are going to change that. They may, perhaps, provide us with an efficient and effective means of reaching that speed, but it won’t magically lower it. You could argue that in the future we may discover a way to temporarily lower the gravitational constant within a restricted area… but that’s simply subverting a hard limit – and so, in sf terms, would be “authorial intervention”. Or, in other words, anti-gravity is not hard sf.

  7. Ted says:

    This is a good theme for a collection, but hardly a definition for a genre. It seems deliberately exclusive, and, well, boring. It’s kind of an obtuse way to close the book on an argument that is more fun to debate than to win.
    And btw anti-gravity is hard sf, why? for the same reason as Ian: because I say so.

  8. ConfidentlyDubious says:

    To Ian: sometimes, when “we simply learn more about how [the laws of the universe] work” we find that our previous interpretation of those “laws” (talking about phenomena is perhaps more appropriate here) gives way to a finer or deeper understanding of the universe. And that, in turn, such understanding opens up completely new ways to do things, which were literally unthinkable within our previous view of the very same laws (or phenomena).
    Example: quantum mechanics, which is essential in the design of electronic and optoelectronic devices.

  9. Ian Sales says:

    Ted – that’s exactly the sort useless puerile taxonomic discussion I was trying to avoid. If you read my original piece, I give reasons why I think genre taxonomy is useful, and simply claiming everything is only authorial or editorial dictat does not contribute to it. Like you say, it’s fun to debate; but “because I say so” is not a winning strategy.

    ConfidentlyDubious: indeed, but that doesn’t invalidate my point. In fact, the article form which I took the quote about “hard limits” uses Moore’s Law as an example of a “soft limit”.

  10. ConfidentlyDubious says:

    Ian – sometimes “hard limits” can turn to “soft” (or even disappear) when you expand your view of the problem sufficiently. If you are convinced that your environment is 2-dimensional, and you find yourself within a circle, this is a hard limit: you can’t get out. But if you discover that you actually live in a 3D space, you can overcome the obstacle by going outside of the circle’s plane.
    The point is: the “laws of the universe” are, more humbly, the way we currently think that the universe works; and they are subject to change. Using today’s version of such “laws” to decide if a piece of fiction is “hard SF” or “soft SF” is preposterous.

  11. Ted says:

    I was thinking more along the lines of playful than puerile. Let’s get out of the academics of it and look more at the actual audience. Say Analog vs. Asimov’s, sister magazines where Analog represents “harder” SF and Asimov’s represents “softer.” In Asimov’s the tilt is: “In general, we’re looking for ‘character oriented’ stories, those in which the characters, rather than the science, provide the main focus for the reader’s interest.”
    Analog: looks for “stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse.”
    In the narrative, generally speaking, hard SF spends more time describing the science, often including fictional science that bends or breaks natural laws. Soft SF spends more time developing character. Hard SF might describe a ship’s Bussard Ramjet drive, whereas soft might just leave it at engine. It seems more a question of how the reader is interacting with the story than the specifics of science included. Certainly the amount of space and way the “technology” is described is significant, but this form shouldn’t be confused with non-fiction. SF is fiction first and science second.
    Ursula Le Guin wrote, “All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life –science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook among them.”
    While hard SF certainly uses the metaphors of real science laws, it should not be limited to them or what we see as them within our current paradigm. Rather, it can be an exploration –using unique, often more technical forms of narrative– of, say, the metaphors of physical limitation vs. imagination and how sometimes the lines between them blur.
    So, I would say hard SF vs. soft can be defined by the degree to which the elements of the movement of the story hinges on the technology (theoretical, real, fake, or yet to be realized) versus character.
    Many readers outside of the SF world don’t characterize “Fahrenheit 451” as SF, and because of this, you’ll often find it filed in general fiction versus science fiction. Why is this? It’s because of the relationship the book has with readers, many of whom do not consider themselves SF readers at all. The themes and metaphors in the book strike a universal chord, regardless of the specifics it uses to convey them. I think readers define a genre, not rules.
    That said, I like the idea of specifically limiting a story to the “hard limits” of current science, it creates a real and interesting author obstruction, and I look forward to reading “Rocket Science.” 🙂

  12. Ian Sales says:

    Ted – so what you’re proposing is actually an alternative definition of hard vs soft sf. Although, tbh, any sf which is not focused on character is bad sf, as far as I’m concerned. So I don’t see all that much point in using that as a yardstick for hard vs soft. And while I agree with Le Guin, she misses out one unique aspect of sf: it can literalise metaphors – eg, “her world exploded”.

  13. Ian Sales says:

    ConfidentlyDubious – you seem to think we have a relatively unsophisticated view of the universe and how it works. No matter how much you “expand your view”, the speed of light remains a very real limit, there is only so many joules you can get from mixing kerosene and LOX and lighting it.

  14. Paulo says:

    Ian I can see where you’re going with this and the speed of the light is a constant. So in that sense of course new discoveries won’t alter this fact however new science might allows to travel quicker than we do now and there’s many ways this could be achieved and many authors have utilised these different ideas and theories in their stories with varying success and a few of them may turn out prophetic.
    On the other hand is the speed of light really a constant, an accepted fact? There are some that may disagree, and whilst it is not the current accepted mainstream view more and better evidence may yet sway the scientific community.
    Because at the end of the day, if the speed of light (and taking that as an example as you did) is not a constant and definable number in all circumstances your theory and argument fall apart