Tag Archives: Ian Sales

Rocket Science: redefining hard science fiction

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? 🙂