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Am I The Only One Getting Hard?: Rambling on Science Fiction

May 13, 2012

I posted a quip the other day to Facebook and Twitter about how I find that no one seems to be writing hard science fiction anymore. To some, they might not even be writing science fiction anymore but just writing (as I suggested), people talking about their feelings while holding ray-guns. What I mean by this, is that I think for some reason our appreciation for hard science fiction has dwindled.

There are two major trends that I think could be unpacked by a lack of appreciation for the serious, grounded, science fiction of the middle of the previous century. The first is the general ennui that seems to cover our society like a blanket. This oppressive fog of apathy and fatalism that some folk drape themselves in.* When people begin to view their planet as dying, their society as declining, and their progeny as lost, it’s hard to imagine a future that is better or at least more interesting. Perhaps such feelings might account for the lack of utopias amongst our literature, and the increased interest in escapist fantasy rather than serious science fiction. The other major trend that I think has become problematic to our science fiction is our populace’s general scientific illiteracy. What’s the point in imagining a story where a human-raised bonobo doesn’t understand why it was wrong to rape a young women, if people don’t know that bonobos are sentient and sapient creatures? Why wonder about a generation that views a sea as a tranquil, gray expanse, when people still debate that man has ever been to the moon?

Scientific illiteracy is much more harmful to space travel, than the monolithic alien artifacts our minds can conjure to confound our protagonists.

Per usual though, I’ve gone much farther afield in a single paragraph than I would like to. This isn’t supposed to be a call to invest more into our education system.** This is supposed to be a discussion of why hard science fiction is both awesome and absent from the current landscape.

Let me first do the important work of defining terms. When I say science fiction, I mean fiction which grapples with scientific thought experiments to explore the human condition. To give an indication through the most well known franchises: Star Trek, not Star Wars. Of course, really I mean more Left Hand of Darkness or I, Robot than Star Trek. I also do not accept bending the subject matter to fit this definition. Someone could certainly argue that Star Wars, as being a version of the monomyth is a part of the human condition, and it mentions parsecs so there’s your science. I’m not calling the person who argues that wrong, I’m merely calling them an asshole.

The other important definition here is what does “hard,” science fiction mean?

Hard is one of those tricky to define terms because sometimes even sci-fi that is hard can seem a tad ridiculous. I’m reminded of a table top roleplaying setting called Eclipse Phase, certainly everything it describes is possible and it angles much harder than soft, but when I first realized it was supposed to be a serious hard piece of science fiction, I laughed. What hard has always meant to me, is that it is within the realm of scientific possibility given what we currently understand. The hardest of science fiction would most likely lack Faster-Than-Light travel, and have little extra-planetary travel without intense modifications to human physiology. Of course, plenty of great hard science fiction has involved bending the laws of science to better suit the story. The ultimate point of hard science fiction is that science matters.

A hard sci-fi author might agonize over how cold it really is in space over the moon, for example.

This sort of fiction has seen somewhat of a decline as of late, and I’m mostly concerned with whether or not this is good.

On some level, the idea of minimizing hard science fiction’s role intrigues me. It seems almost a natural process within the readership. Once you’ve read your greats of the genre, you know your way around the rules of relativity, and much like wizards and orcs in fantasy, you get a little bored. Instead, you want to start reading stories set in science fiction worlds, where the science doesn’t matter as much as the characters do. The process of how genetic engineering came about as a generally accepted thing parents do for their children doesn’t matter as much as how those children feel about being genetically engineered, if they care at all. Perhaps, it’s interesting to imagine that their lives are little different from children and teenagers in this time, and you can quietly reflect on problems that are facing the youth of today without anyone getting too up in arms about it.

In such fiction, you’re definitely grappling with the human condition. Humanity’s humanness is something worth playing around with without being shackled by questions like, “But is that possible?” Certainly there is worth in allusion. After all, one of my favorite novels was once maligned as a “sci-fi story about Vietnam,” that no one would want to read. That novel was also particularly hard in its science, too.

Which is I think where I begin to trip up. I’m beginning to feel much like when a friend stated that there’s been an increase in dystopic science fiction, and I argued that there’s actually just a decrease in utopic stories. Stories of people talking about their feelings while holding ray-guns have always been around. Perhaps there was once less of them, and there are more now, or maybe they just didn’t receive the lime light as much because of a demographic fallacy.*** What can be said with certainty though, is that there is less hard science fiction than there once was.

Personally, I don’t think it’s good. I enjoy other types of science fiction, and I enjoy science fantasy, but I don’t think it’s good to throw away the hard science fiction. It would be like everyone suddenly agreed that there could be no more stories about wizards fighting goblins. Sure, it sounds good sometimes but it’ll hurt us somewhere down the line.

Hard science fiction serves a great purpose in literature. Hard science fiction forces you to go down the dark path of possibility and hold what you find up to your psyche. Then, in the light of science, you are forced to deal with it, and to ask what would become of man. We’re forced to ask what man is, when we see what might be down the rabbit hole.
That’s what makes hard science fiction not just beautiful, but necessary.

*: Now, I’m not saying fatalism is wrong, or unnecessary. I’ve certainly described myself as a fatalist before, because in my opinion it is an integral part of the human condition to realize that ultimately you will die and be forgotten.

**: Though we probably should.

***: The idea that “most people wouldn’t want to read that,” might cloud how much effort is put into advertising it.

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