#60 = Volume 20, Part 2 = July 1993
David N. Samuelson
As long as science fiction has had a
coherent existence, writers and critics have debated its relevance to science. From Jules
Verne and H.G. Wells, through Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell, Jr., to Gregory Benford
and J.G. Ballard, SF's "hardness" has been both help and hindrance to popular and
critical appreciation. In the last half-century, the label "hard SF" has been
applied to tales in which scientific theories and technological applications get a
significant share of attention. Both friends and foes of hard SF acknowledge that it bears
some relationship to science, pure or applied, though they do not agree on the worth of
that core. Neither camp claims scientific "hardness" as a guarantee of literary
quality, and some detractors of hard SF derive the label from "hard to read,"
because it is badly written. Some essays from the 1983 Eaton Conference on SF and fantasy,
collected in Hard Science Fiction, approach the controversy from a
post-structuralist position, denying any claims of science to have a unique corner on
truth. SF writers argued for scientific content and accuracy; literature professors
discounted them, seeing "hardness" as mere rhetoric.
Rhetorical features of science do help characterize hard
SF, since it uses scientific findings and theories as measures of reality. Accurate but
unobtrusive science may not define the subgenre, but neither does a rhetoric of hardness
without scientific substance. In the best examples, the two interact positively, demanding
reader sensitivity to both as indicators of quality. Writing and reading hard SF require a
mind set that thrives on "hypotheticals," fantastic assumptions with theoretical
justification in science, a seemingly paradoxical yoking of fantasies to the oxen of
science and technology.
If agreement fails on what constitutes hard SF, confusion
reigns about who writes it. Some Eaton contributors emphasized Stanislaw Lem, C.S. Lewis,
William Morris and the 17th century geologist, Thomas Burnet, none of whom qualify in my
view. Hard SF has never existed in large quantities. Without some technical education, it
is difficult to write, and most scientists do not write fiction. In SF's formative years,
Verne, Wells, Gernsback and E.E. "Doc" Smith at least had technical training. During
the "Golden Age," SF magazines published scientific puzzle stories and tales
invoking the vast universe. Few writers, however, wrote hard SF before the '50s. The major
body of evidence is less than 50 years old, and more people seem to be writing it now than
Authors who write hard SF regularly include Poul Anderson,
Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, Arthur C. Clarke, Hal Clement, Robert L. Forward, Larry Niven,
Paul Preuss, Charles Sheffield, and Vernor Vinge. More occasional visitors include Brian
W. Aldiss, Isaac Asimov, Ben Bova, David Brin, John Brunner, Michael Crichton, Gordon R.
Dickson, Harry Harrison, Robert A. Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Fred Hoyle, Frederik Pohl,
Jerry Pournelle, Carl Sagan, and George Zebrowski. Besides the classic and basically
unclassifiable Olaf Stapledon, the essays following propose Stephen Baxter and John
Cramer; other plausible newcomers include Roger McBride Allen, Michael Kube-McDowell,
Michael McCollum, Allen Steele, and John Stith.
Whomever we include or exclude, hard SF is a largely
Anglo-American and masculine production. Stories of nuts-and-bolts technological SF from
the Soviet Union, reported by historians, are largely untranslated; similar American
stories seldom escape the pages of Analog, known to its detractors as "the
magazine with rivets." From Michelangelo to Le Corbusier, Continental Europeans have
embraced large architectural designs, but unearthly engineering projects seem to excite
mainly Americans, flushed perhaps with the successes and failures of our national design
of continually changing social engineering. C.J. Cherryh may be the only woman to find
writing hard SF congenial, but backgrounds in science inform the fiction of Vonda
McIntyre, Pamela Sargent, and Joan Slonczewski. Doris Lessing, author of a half-dozen
intellectual "space fantasies," respects hard SF, though she lacks the technical
education to write it herself.
Hard SF could not have spread without a growing receptive
audience. Required science classes in high school and college, news media reporting, and
simply living with technology have made readers progressively more conversant with issues
involving science. The broadening of SF itself correspondingly increased the number of
readers comprising a potential audience for the hard stuff. Although of varying hardness,
novels by Asimov, Clarke, Crichton, Heinlein, Herbert, and Sagan even became best-sellers,
a measure of popularity undreamed in the Golden Age.
Hard SF has influence beyond its numbers, moreover,
flavoring other writers' work, adding elements to the stew, as well as setting limits to
speculation. A prolific fictional inventor, Samuel R. Delany recognizes the need to
rationalize changes, even if only by implication. The work of Philip K. Dick reverberates
with technological change, dissolving the borders between humans and machines, illusion
and reality. Ursula K. Le Guin, rarely an exponent of hard SF, felt obliged to rationalize
"mindspeech" and to recognize light as a speed limit. Not just a variety of SF, hard
SF is also a direction or tendency.
Defenders of hard SF often pose two contradictory
arguments: that it is at the core of the entire genre, and that it is always in danger of
being abandoned. The latter is certainly on shaky historical grounds and the sense that SF
must always be returned to a hard core may well be Golden Age nostalgia. The innocence of
early SF is lost, to be sure, but the belief that the past was better is particularly
inappropriate for this branch of SF. Compared with its predecessors, the hard SF of the
past decade or so makes this as close to a Golden Age as we have ever had.
My humanistic training makes me uncomfortable with the
idea of historical "improvement" in the arts, except in an artist's apprenticeship.
The discomfort increases when I seem to be granting real existence over time to a group of
works united by a rhetorical abstraction, and taking a deterministic predictive stance. It
seems to me, however, that both external historical forces and its own inner dynamic
produce an ideal of hard SF continually in the making. Perhaps never realized in the past
or present, this "ideal type" is always hoped for in the future. In the history of
hard SF, this may be the future.
Barely recognizing the existence of hard SF, however, let
alone its generating power, scholars and critics largely fail to deal with either the
science or the rhetoric. Relatively ignorant of science, most of us are uncomfortable with
it. Those who study SF prefer to deal with Delany and Dick, Le Guin and Lem, whose
fictions are more congenial to literary concerns with subtle and plurisignifying
characterization, structure, and style. It is perhaps no coincidence that literary
critics, as specialists under fire both from outside and inside their own discipline, also
favor SF which at least implies the decline of Western civilization. While I share many of
their interests, I see attempts to restrict SF to these unrepresentative examples as
reductionist and short-sighted.
Picking the flowers that smell sweetest inevitably severs
them from their roots, ignoring not only the soil but also the fertilizers that enabled
them to grow and blossom. Hard SF does not lack semiotic interest, but its codes and
conventions differ from those most of us as critics are trained to understand and
appreciate. Style tends to be more direct and limited in signification, characterization
more deterministic, standards of judgment for behavior more relativistic.
The Star Trek universe is a simple test case known
and loved by millions. Its narrative structures may be less subtle than those of the
scientific problems and the physical universe within its stories. Examples show rational
thought and technological civilization persisting into a future, and puzzles being solved
in an hour or two of screen time. Both premises, which suffuse much of hard SF, may be
unbelievably naive and ethnocentric, but they are not universal. Aldiss, Benford, Bear,
and Pohl show literary sophistication in their fiction, even as they raise our eyes from
the decline of the West to humanity's fragile hold on survival, its glimmers of
intelligence and self-understanding.
Considering how uncongenial most literary people find
science, the Eaton Conference was a reasonable start. Continuing debate in print, however,
has largely bypassed hard SF. As the accompanying bibliography makes clear, titles seldom
mention it by name. Under "hard SF," Hal Hall's 1987 reference bibliography lists
only Bainbridge and Dalziell, Bridgstock, and Benford's "real world" essay. Norman Spinrad, mentioning hard SF by name, sees it as potentially solving the genre's identity
crisis. By taking science seriously, not just as a source of images, James Gunn's
scholarly efforts have even earned some critics' enmity, as Pierce points out in this
Other SF writersAnderson, Asimov, Clarke, Clement,
Lem, Pournelle and Niven, Preusshave written about writing hard SF. John Barnes
recently explained his use of forecasting, and Paul Park discussed science in his novels.
Benford has written on various elements of hard SF, including narrative voice, aliens, and
the transcendent "vision" of science, while fending off "regressive"
tendencies in fantasy and utopia. Other secondary materialsincluding John J. Pierce's 3-volume thematic history of SFdiscuss examples and exponents of hard SF,
largely assuming its value. Recent books about Asimov, Clarke, Clement, Verne and Wells
also highlight the science in their fiction.
The matter of hard SF is inseparable from the role in SF
of science. Samuelson's 1962 thesis and Westfahl's dissertation trace interest in the
subject back to the 1920s and 1930s, while scholars in the last two decades have produced
books on the presence in SF of physics, linguistics, robots, and computers, as well as the
"cyberpunk" fad. There were even two "coffee-table" books on the subject. Close
Encounters? Science and Science Fiction has a good short sketch of the science in SF,
while The Science in Science Fiction at least takes a stab at being a reference
Some of the best models available for analyzing hard SF,
however, virtually ignore it as a subgenre. Bainbridge, Berger, Hirsch and Stableford
explore the sociology of SF and Ray Lynn Anderson examines the rhetoric of science in
Asimov, Clarke and Hoyle. Delany's theoretical work stresses codes and conventions
involved in reading anything as SF, basically relegating science to a storehouse of
images. Joanna Russ also argues SF's rhetorical need for scientific constraints. Albert W.
Wendland grapples with SF's gradations from conceptual to perceptual world-building, while
Gary K. Wolfe uses SF's icons to illuminate hard SF's central issue: encounter with the
unknown. Countering Wolfe on the space station, Westfahl shows it typically standing for
resistance rather than accommodation to the alien.
Like Wendland and Samuelson in their dissertations, Carl
D. Malmgren argues that SF appropriates the world view of science; his typology goes
further, moreover, scrutinizing variations in characters, societies, settings, even
science itself, the last step allowing for him a theoretical place for science fantasy.
Versions of the scientific world-view form points of departure for other critics. Robert
Nadeau and Susan Strehle examine the role of physics in works by 20th century writers
outside SF. Katherine N. Hayles specifically applies field theory and chaos theory to
works by non-SF writers, although her more recent study mentions by name Dick and Lem,
along with Italo Calvino and William Gibson. Novels by Aldiss, Delany, and Kurt Vonnegut,
Jr., that nobody would call hard SF are Frank Sadler's examples in looking for influences
of 20th century science on SF.
To such a relatively short and mostly oblique list, this
special issue adds four essays. Gary Westfahl begins appropriately by exploring origins:
whendoes the term
"hard science fiction" emerge and what elements
build reader perceptions of who writes it? John J. Pierce defends hard SF for its unique
literary experience. A physicist and a practicing SF writer, Gregory Benford meditates on
the scientific underpinnings of his most popular novel, Timescape. My own lengthy contribution is an
excerpt from work in progress. In the context of scientific principles from which the
distinctive formulaic nature of SF arises, it anatomizes an essential generic element
specially emphasized in hard SF: extrapolation.
The definitive study of hard SF has yet to be written; it
may not even be possible until SF is no longer written. The cutting edge is always
somewhere between the known and the unknown, the proven and the unproven, like the
"fantastic" in Tzvetan Todorov's conception, always threatening to resolve into the
mundane or the marvelous. Scientific and technological progress make mere reportage out of
SF "hypotheticals." Short-lived theories make once bright ideas only "alternate
history." Assuming science continues to progress in its approximations of reality, the
nucleus that is hard SF always moves out of grasp. Constantly decentering the entire
field, hard SF shifts the periphery, sparking ideas in SF that may be less scientifically
rigorous but often is more artistically satisfying.
As long as science and technology bring changes, writers
will try to capture and bottle it in stories. We scholars and critics can only eat and
drink what is put before us, not create it before its time. We can, and I think should,
however, encourage writers to try out new recipes, knowing a few gourmets will put them to
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