Hard sciencers? You got to be kidding me!


That does it… I can no longer hold my peace…. so here goes….

Damien Walter over on his blog has summarised what the eight tribes of science fiction are. The full post is here. The list is:

  1. Commercial Story Tellers (e.g. George R R Martin)
  2. The Weirds (e.g. China Melville)
  3. Hard Sciencers (e.g. Kim Stanley Robinson)
  4. Military Conservatives (no example author given… can’t think why…)
  5. Progressive Fantasists (e.g. Samual Delaney)
  6. YA Adventurers (e.g. Patrick Blackman)
  7. LitFic Tourists (e.g. Justin Cronin)
  8. Sexy Beasts (e.g. Jacqueline Carey)

He has a wider knowledge of science fiction than I and the groupings he has come up with certainly reflect what I’m seeing in the bookshops.

The problem I have are his comments about the Hard Sciencers, which I copy out here in full:

There’s a near irreconcilable tension between the poetic values of literature, storytelling and novels, with the logic driven realms of science and technology. When Hard SF inhabits that tension, as it does in the novels of Kim Stanley Robison, and the best work of earlier masters like Robert A Heinlein, it produces some of the greatest writing of the the last century. But taken as a whole the Hard Sciencers slip easily into an ideological quest to prove science can stand alone without poetry, emotion, or human insight. From their pinnacle in the 1980s when authors like Larry Niven banged out bestseller after bestseller, the Hard Sciencers are now a dwindling minority even within areas they once dominated. But the recent success of The Martian and Gravity among other suggests that, when it remembers to tell great stories, there’s still a huge appetite for hard SF.

Where to start…

  1. Science and technology is not logic driven. Its driven by observation of the environment and identifying what can be replicated. The language of science and technology is the way of communicating the principles of how do something to get a repeat effect. In a way, the descriptions of science and technology are like the spells in witchcraft. Logic just happens to act as the equivalent of the index to those principles and how to mix and match them.
  2. The last novel I read by Kim Stanley Robinson was 2312 and I got about half way through it before I couldn’t take any more. Whilst I’m more than happy to turn a blind eye to occasional techie mistake (heck, it’s difficult to get everything right in complex tech-land), there was so much amiss with the background science and technology, it just did not make sense to me. It had turned into burbleage. So I would not propose him as a leading proponent of hard science fiction.
  3. I do agree with him that many hard sciencers fall into the trap of writing about the science and forgetting about the story. That’s because it is so much easier for the techies to explain the science behind what they’re writing. In a sense it boils down to lazy writing. Take for instance a lizard species that has five sexes. Explaining how those sexes maintain an equilibrium amongst themselves is the first step to understanding a story, and once written, it is this that ends up being passed round as the story. The prospective authors would have missed the next steps of plotting, characterisation, etc. (Oh by the way, there is really a lizard species with five sexes, just forgotten the name of it.)
  4. The authors and stories Damien cites are more about engineering the science, not showing the science itself. Rarely is there a story based on solely on what many call blue skies research. It is 99% plus put into applications that humans or aliens can use. The problem I have is that the science on which hard sciencers SF is based was at the forefront in the 1980s. It hasn’t, in the main, moved on from the blockbusters of Star Trek, Star Wars, Terminator, etc. Its stuck in the limbo land of the tech glory era of mid-twentieth century. And yet there are so many inventions coming on line, in fact we’re facing multiple tidal waves tsunamis. It’s really scary seeing loads of people burying their heads in the sand and not taking an interest in what’s round the corner. I for one am looking forward to coding my new dress with different patterns for different occasions, levitating cars (let alone driverless cars) and real virtual reality, especially the type of scenes that break the laws of physics. So the real question has to be why hasn’t it moved with the developing technologies?


I’m going to take the last point a little bit further. There are a lot of demands on scientists and engineers today. They are spread thinly across society. They have less leisure time to indulge in producing hard sciencer science fiction. For instance I only heard yesterday that there is a call out from the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) to help with two new projects – Project Q-Cube   and Nanosat Launch Vehicle Feasibility Study. And the calls to do this or that keep on coming thick and fast for various different purposes. It takes a strong personality to say no because they want to write science fiction instead.

Another issue is that science and technology has advanced in so many directions that keeping up with it can be a full time job in itself. Unless you can come up with a way of corralling these advances into a framework that makes sense, you are left with concentrating on a small area of science. Publishers these days want variety, not a one-trick pony. So it’s trying to fit everything into a framework… all I’m going to say is it can be done, but it takes time, experience, insight and dedication. There are very few talented people that can do this. So we are left with science fiction that to some extent relies on past tropes.

O.K. Rant over… and I feel much better for it… all I’m going to say at this point in time, I’m doing something about it…and people in the know, know what.



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