Philosophy of hard science fiction?

Neptune on Triton's Horizon 2006
Neptune on Triton’s Horizon 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When C.A.T. was first published, I thought there would be a flurry of interest in it and then it would over the period of a year or so dwindle to nothing.

Wrong! C.A.T. is still getting wonderful reviews, nearly 30 months on. It is certainly a cheering thought. I am grateful to those to have bought C.A.T. and its follow-on, Neptune’s Angel, and to those that have taken the time and trouble to write such lovely reviews. A big THANK YOU to you all, and a special thank you to Terry Press at TWBPress for having faith in me and the stories.

In the meantime I’ve been trying to answer the question: “What is allowable science in hard science fiction?”

The answer I’m coming to is rather surprising and I suspect at odds with what most people perceive as allowable science. Just like the way I perceived the sales and interest in C.A.T. would go.


Just like here are assumptions in science fiction publishing  hidden to me,  there are hidden assumptions in the way we use mathematics to interpret science. Yes, these conclusions are deep, insightful and need quite a bit of explaining. It’s enough for me to want to write a pamphlet on the subject and self-publish it… well, no sane publisher would want to deal with such an obscure subject.

But the bottom line it that a lot more science should be allowable in hard science fiction than most people currently believe.  And I’m not just thinking about things like Alcubierre‘s faster than light way of travelling.

Which brings us to what people think hard science fiction ought to be. Most people would agree that it uses reasonable extrapolations of scientific developments at the time of writing the story.

[Note the use of the word, reasonable. What is reasonable to one person, could be totally unreasonable to to another, which is why there seems to be so many arguments about what is included in the sub-genre. The other caveat is at the time of writing the story. For instance if a story was written using FTL travel before 1905 when Albert Einstein published his paper about special relativity saying nothing could travel faster than light, then it would classed as hard science fiction.]

But with my contention that my allowable science is broader than most people’s, it would lead to me having a wider range of science to choose from.

Well, not quite. It’s more like different rather than wider, and it could be wildly different at that.

And for that to have a chance of becoming acceptable, more people need to debate what I call the philosophy of science in hard science fiction… and it’ll be a long debate…

13 thoughts on “Philosophy of hard science fiction?

  1. I do hard SF here too. I like your post here, and I am tempted to read the rest of your entire blog. I generally like to write things that definitely can happen, so that means that if I can’t crack a book, teach myself some equations, and then understand the science, I shouldn’t write it. That said, I don’t see FTL as off-limits, just that I need to delve into the strongest candidates for doing that that actual scientists are working on.

    1. Welcome to my little blog.

      The more I study science, the more things I thought were absolutely impossible turn out to be possible. It’s just a case of working out how.

      Good luck with your writing and look forward to seeing some of your stories.

  2. I have another peculiar slant on this – my taste in science-fiction hinges not so much on the science content, but on the total _absence_ of “fantasy” elements (no fairies, swords, ghouls and vampires and other nonsense that gets slipped in as though it were somehow science fiction). An untenable view, probably, but there you go, it’s my view and I didn’t say that it had to be anyone else’s! Slightly dodgy science I can easily forgive so long as plausibility remains intact.

  3. I once wrote an anecdote in which Thor made an appearance… and then explained it away later by a combination of the setting being suggestive to the Norse Gods and some unusual, yet plausible natural phenomena. And to to describe a natural way of curing cancer that, by the way, has good grounding in science!

    Not sure whether you would stop reading this before the scientific reveal! Anyway food for thought.

  4. Rosie, you have raised the question that will upset the ‘keepers of the faith’ that have the arrogance to think that what Einstein produced is the be all and end all of science.

    This faith has prevented, or at least slowed, the looking at anything that does not conform to that theory. This is why no one questioned the positive result of the Mickelson Morley experiment and those that followed, in fact going to great lengths to try and disprove any follow up results by calling them aberrations in the equipment.

    Until we can get past the negativism in all walks of life there is not going to be any advances. Just look round to see this. We have gone from the use of atomic power and putting people on the moon, with SF leading the way, to trying to use windmills and wood chips (converting Drax power station) for energy and the odd probe looking round the solar system, with SF navel gazing at a dark post apocalyptic future.

    I have to ask why is there such a fear of the future, especially seen in a lot of modern SF writers? So much so that the odd ones that challenge this stagnation and say scientific advance has not halted have great problems to get published. I have never tried to get my stories published – I do it as a change from writing technical manuals and because friends teens asked about it several years ago. Now they expect me to have a new story for them every summer and Christmas when they arrive for holidays.

    Keep on pushing the boundaries Rosie, we need to turn round SF and get it outward looking again.

    1. Hello Ivan,

      Thank you for your support in my trying to bring forward-looking science back into science fiction. But I fear I am only one of too few voices and we will not be able to change what the majority of people think.

      Having said that, I keep coming across people who want this type of imaginative hard science fiction. To a person they complain they can’t get hold of enough of it.

      What’s worse I’m sorry to say the current popular hard science fiction writers either cross the line into fantasy to a greater of lesser extent (see my post about 2312 as an example) or fail to break through that glass ceiling that I’m going call the hard science fiction imagination barrier by limiting themselves to ‘acceptable’ extrapolations of the tangible.

      I’m not well versed enough in the results of the Michelson-Morley experiment to comment at this stage. What do you believe the consequences are of these positive results?

      1. Don’t put yourself down Rosie, you may be an almost lone voice at the moment but, as you say, there are people looking for outward looking SF.

        To answer your question re the positive results of the Michelson-Morley experiment and the subsequent experiments of D. C. Miller in 1925/26. I am sorry I can’t quote paper, chapter and verse because I haven’t got all my files back on the computer yet after a lightning strike (I have got back my normal login, real name, rather than the test 25tech) so I will give my impressions as an engineer.

        For a start the actual results were some 8km/s and not the calculated 30km/s, but even so that should have caused some questions but it didn’t appear to do so. Einstein went on to produce his theory of relativity and corollary and the establishment said ‘that is the definitive answer’ and so science stagnated. Miller’s work was attacked from all angles because it didn’t conform to the consensus as was the work of an English physicist (whose name I forget but there was a quite lively discussion in the letters section of Wireless World in the early 50s).

        I believe physics and engineering would be on a much more advance path now if the scientists hadn’t closed ranks back then. Quantum physics and engineering would be far in advance of what they are today, we would most probably have instant communication over solar distance using quantum entanglement, we might even have better ways of getting about the universe.

        I offer a couple of short stories, again from the past when SF writers were outward looking.

        The first is, Local Effect by D. L. Hughes (Analog April 1968).

        The second, The Road Not Taken by Harry Turtledove as Eric Iverson (Analog Nov 1985).

        The first is a gentle dig at those that will not question the status quo, while the second asks have we looked at everything or are we blinkered?

        One thing I learned at university in the 50s was to ask ‘why?’ and the follow up ‘prove it’ or ‘why not?’ It used to be the job of SF writers to ask those things because the scientists were too narrow focused to see the big picture of how it should fit together. At university we used to joke about what we saw as over specialisation, saying that we were being taught more and more about less and less until we would end up knowing everything about nothing. This appears to be nearly true today – where are the modern equivalents of the Victorian inventors/engineers that tried something because it looked interesting, where is the modern Arthur C. Clarke that looks at something and says that is the logical way of doing this, I’ll write about it.

        Sorry, this may be too long, so I’ll stop now.

      2. Ivan – sorry to hear about your computer suffering from a lightning strike. Thanks for the details about the Michelson-Morley experiment.

        From a science point of view, it sounds as if they ought to repeat the experiment. We are far better equipped to do so nowadays than when Miller did his experiments.

        From a science fiction point of view, it would make a good story of aliens forcing the government and science powers that be to follow Einstein’s theory so we don’t get into space to invade their territory.

        It is interesting you mention quantum mechanics as one of the areas that has been held back. If I had got my first novel with an agent, then I would have moved onto develop a different view of quantum mechanics as an underlying science theme for the second novel. I was already getting some very interesting insights (and nothing like what I’ve seen to date in published science fiction) when my last rejection came in. So now neither novel will see print. I’m sorry, but the publishing world is just not interested in this kind of science fiction.

  5. I agree they should redo the experiment but how do you guard against the results being made to fit preconceived ideas and/or assumptions?

    We should be much further along the road of quantum mechanics than we are, in fact we should have the first working quantum computers by now based on some of the early work at IBM in the 50s and 60s.

    It is very frustrating to see the lack of even wanting to progress with science and engineering. It must be doubly frustrating for you when publishers don’t even want to know about it, let alone publish anything that might rock the status quo.

    Maybe, just maybe, you should consider turning some of your books into epubs and letting them loose on places such as Amazon, just look at the success of the ‘Wool’ series. In fact that is the type of thing I do with my writing, instead of the teens getting paper as they did at the start they now get epubs that they read on their tablets or computers. They also share them round their friends – in fact the Christmas book is going to be based on a request from a friend of a friend at university, ‘what if Queen Elizabeth III went to uni and got a degree in nanotechnology’..

    1. Not sure how you can guard against prejudice in any sphere of life… but there are usually lone voices who continue chipping away at falsehoods and eventually when the falsehoods start to fail, the truth will get accepted. At least that’s the hope.

      When I last looked the quantum computers were at proof of principle stage in the universities… as you say progress is slow…

      e-books require publicity and I don’t have the right personality for that kind of thing, which means there will be very few sales, which means the intention of getting new science ideas into the wider world will not be achieved. So whilst this route may be open to others, it wouldn’t work for me.

      Like the idea of the story… good luck.

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