Hard Science Fiction in a Rut?

All stories start with an idea or character or plot. In my case, in true science fiction style it always starts with an idea. The idea tends to suggest a plot line, which in turn suggests who the main character should be. Well, you’ve guessed it, I’m in the middle of writing a story, more like a novelette… only something very oddball is happening with the writing of this story… and it’s got me excited – I mean REALLY JUMPING UP AND DOWN EXCITED.

Why? Every time I start a new paragraph, something new and unexpected drops onto the page. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the character taking over or the background ‘world’ intruding or the the tech producing something new… it’s something new every dashed paragraph.

I haven’t even written a fifth of it, when I realised something rather deep and profound about the state of hard science fiction (my subconscious was probably locked onto the previous post).

I know there are fifty (and probably an infinity more) shades of hard science fiction, but we all know it when we come across it. So let’s dispense with the argument of what and what does constitute hard science fiction, because it doesn’t matter with what I’ve got to say.

There is evidence on the web that editors are finding it difficult to attract hard science fiction stories for their publications. Some of it is because they are giving authors a narrow choice of subject matter to write about. But even if they aren’t, there is still a lack of good hard science fiction shorts.

On the novel side of hard science fiction, I’ve had a few disappointing reads lately. I’m not going to name the novels concerned, but in one case there was a plot ploy I had seen before – written by Isaac Asimov no less. Now I can accept that the author concerned hasn’t read the Asimovian story and probably thought it was his idea, but it left me with a sense of deja vu. In another case the author resurrected an idea he’d had twenty years back. Again another sense of I’ve seen it before. Well we are talking about hard science fiction, which has well over half a century’s worth of authors working at it. So this shouldn’t come as a surprise, should it?

Actually it should. Technology and the understanding of technology moves on. It makes these novels seem stuck in time warp that won’t move on. It suggests that the short story writers aren’t clicking in with the new tech to give them ideas for stories. And when you look around the scientist generation of hard science fiction writers tends to be from the older generation of writers e.g. Ben Bova or Larry Niven.

In short, hard science fiction is not getting the feed from up to date science that it should, or at least there aren’t enough writers with the knowledge to produce it.

So we come back to my story – it was one of those throw-away lines that would not stay in the background. It kept rearing its head to bite me and add something else new in. The tech is all feasible in the timeframe concerned, but it makes a heck of a difference to the story not only in the world building background, but to how the story follows the plot line. It’s now got the stage where I’m frightened to write more in case I spoil what I’ve got.

Then my mind flipped to another short story that I’ve got subbed at the moment (I know it’s in the to-be-read pile). It also had me excited and again the tech is feasible. Both these stories will change the way we view how the future society might develop, which in my mind, led them to having the label: “Move over hard science fiction – you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Hard science fiction, as we know it, is stuck in a rut. Why is entirely another question.

Part of the answer is that scientists earn better money being scientists rather than writers. Another part of the answer lies in the way the more professional end of the publishing market works. You won’t get a big publisher risking putting out a new novel because they don’t see the evidence in their readership of wanting to buy that type of novel.

The only way to break out of this rut is through the short story market, where there is less to lose by taking a financial risk. It’s the traditional way of doing so… and there’s nothing wrong with tradition if it still works!




2 thoughts on “Hard Science Fiction in a Rut?

  1. You hit a large part of the answer in the second last paragraph – we no longer have scientists writing science fiction.

    There are times I wonder if the new authors know any science at all, even the social soft sciences. A very large proportion of the old writers had a science and/or engineering background and hence could write descent SF – not so today.

    The other thing that appears to be rather obvious is that modern authors are not very well read in the SF field. Like you I have seen several things lifted from the glory days of SF and regurgitated in a slightly more modern setting – I normally dump the book when I see that (the down side of a photographic memory, I remember the stories but not always the authors because I’m, generally not that interested who wrote it).

    I don’t know if I should commiserate with you about your characters taking over the story, or not. I’ve been there and know what it feels like. In my case those that read the story commented that the characters appeared to know what they were doing and were very difficult to second guess.

    1. Of the three others on my MA Creative Writing course who wrote speculate fiction, none had a hard science degree! Two had english degrees and the third had some sort of degree in psychology. But then none of them were trying to write hard science fiction! The point I’m trying to make here is that a hard science fiction writer has to be trained in both science and creative writing to a high standard before they can write good quality hard science fiction that publishers will accept. Is is any wonder scientists have shied away from writing the sub-genre?

      Ack back to my character – she’s given me another twist and turn to play with… darn it!

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