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? 🙂


Chris Beckett: sf is not a genre, it’s a toolkit

Paul Raven @ 26-04-2010

British sf author Chris Beckett has been browsing through the BSFA survey book, and decided to respond to some of Charlie Stross’ comments contained therein regarding science fiction’s longevity and mutation:

I agree with [Stross] that it would indeed be ‘the trump of death’ to try and endlessly recreate the science fiction of a previous generation.  But I increasingly think that it is mistaken to think of science fiction as ‘a genre’ or ‘an art form’ (singular).   Think of  Orwell’s 1984, Ballard’s  Terminal Beach, a Star Wars movie,  Dan Dare, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, District 9…   Are they really all the same genre?  Hardly. But they are all science fiction as I would define it.

Rather than think of SF as a genre, perhaps we should think of it as a resource which can be used for many different purposes, as a pack of playing cards can be used for games from Bridge, to Poker, to Canasta to Snap and Old Maid.  SF’s continuing value as a means of telling stories and exploring ideas is illustrated by the frequency with which authors who don’t think of themselves as SF writers nevertheless make use of it (Orwell is a case in point, but see also Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, P.D. James, Doris Lessing etc etc.)

Stross is rather sniffy about this sort of thing.  He speaks of SF being ‘colonized by backpackers from the literary faculty, who appropriate the contents of the [SF] toy chest’.   But surely it is precisely the concern to cling onto our toys, to be pure,  to discourage miscegenation, which lead to the kind of death by staleness and repetition that he himself warns about?

Another iteration of a long-running (and probably interminable) debate, for sure… but I was intrigued by its serendipitous chiming with Tom Hunter’s comments about literary outliers in the Clarke Award shortlist earlier today:

I’ve always been drawn to the idea of there being a toolkit for science fiction rather than a manual, but even more than this I’m drawn to the idea that, these days, the science fictional element is simply part of a much larger toolkit for the work of making art and unpacking meaning from our world.

Perhaps I’m being a bit disingenuous, because both Chris and Tom are talking in parallel with my own theory that science fiction is a floating-point variable rather than a binary.

But what about you lot – do you think there is a distinct genre that can be labelled as science fiction, and if so, where (or how) do you draw the boundaries? Can leakage across those boundaries be prevented, and if so, is such prevention an admirable goal?

[ In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that Chris Beckett is a client of mine, not to mention a jolly decent chap. ]


Is “sci-fi” still a dirty word?

Paul Raven @ 08-12-2008

The gals and guys over at io9 have reheated the perennial debate of whether or not ‘science fiction’ is an accurate or useful descriptive name for the genre, with a side excursion into ‘is it OK to say sci-fi?’

As pointed out by plenty of commenters there, it’s not really a very important question. However, I am unable to get on my high horse about it, because I do tend to get sniffy when people who don’t know anything about the genre beyond Trek and Wars dismiss my book collection as ‘sci-fi’… and don’t get me started on people who say “oh, proper science fiction… like Heroes, yeah?” [image by Jim Linwood]

But from a marketing perspective, there’s a worthwhile question at the root of the debate: is the label of science fiction (however you contract or recast it) a kiss of commercial death? The massive success of Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union – very carefully not marketed as science fiction, but embraced by the genre scene nonetheless – seems to suggest that the public can stomach the material of the genre.

So maybe it’s the internecine bitching over ephemera that puts them off?


How to define a genre … and why not to bother

Jonathan McCalmont @ 25-06-2008

Blasphemous Geometries returns, ready to bask in your merciless indifference.

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

This month Jonathan McCalmont has been thinking about that perennial discussion that is mathematically certain to arise in any situation where three or more sf fans or critics are gathered – how do we define science fiction? Jonathan has decided that we should stop trying. Continue reading “How to define a genre … and why not to bother”