David N. Samuelson
A Softening of the Hard-Sf Concept
David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, eds. The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF.
New York: Tor, 1994. 990pp. $35.00.
Anthologies have long been used to advance political agendas in sf. From Raymond J.
Healy and J. Francis McComas's Adventures in Time and Space (1946) and John W.
Campbell, Jr.'s The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology (1952), to competing
best-of-the-year collections, editors have used what they see as the cream of the crop to
define sf and the direction in which it is moving. Since the field is still terra
incognita to the millions whose exposure to sf is largely cinematic, anthologists can
not help but act as educators, even polemicists, though political agendas may be more
visible now in collections taking dead aim on classroom use. Economic hard times may have
reduced the breadth and influence of that market from its peak, but it still has a certain
cachet: school experiences and opinions often have a lasting effect on once-young readers.
Thus we see a radical departure from all professionally and scholarly accepted sf
traditions in The Norton Book of Science Fiction (1993), edited by Ursula K. Le
Guin and Brian Attebery. Preserving what they call the best writing in North American sf
since 1960, they rule out classical practitioners and include in their sixty-seven stories
numerous writers with credentials and achievements at best unproven. A more traditional
competing view is reflected in The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories(1992),
edited by Tom Shippey, which leans somewhat toward fantasy. Its thirty stories, dated from
1903 to 1990, also include some surprises, one of which is that only three women authors
(C. L. Moore in collaboration) are represented compared to Norton's twenty-five. Now, in The
Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF, we see an apparent attempt to explore a
direction in sf only briefly acknowledged in the Oxford book and virtually anathema to the
At first glance, editors David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer seem more conservative than
Le Guin and Attebery, in even addressing hard sf. Like Shippey, they feature few women
writers (seven of sixty-seven selections), who are often seen as more stylish than
scientific, yet they share only one story with the Oxford book, three with the Norton.
Eighteen of Shippey's authors appear, however, compared to seventeen of Norton's.
Hartwell's stated aim is to make accessible to a larger audience something which,
depending on one's side in the argument, is the most hidebound or most authentic form of
sf. His and Cramer's means of achieving that goal, however, cast doubt on both the quality
of hard sf as literature and its claim to be called a distinctive branch, let alone the
center of the sf universe, as alleged by all three of the book's introductions. The book
is handicapped by conflicting purposes, one of which is a postmodern "take" on
the very claim of hard sf to make science a major element.
The good news is that the size and scope of this anthology are comparable to previous
Hartwell collections with implied claims to be definitive: The Dark Descent (1987),
Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment(1988), and The World Treasury of
Science Fiction (1989). Its contents also at least suggest in three ways
something of the tradition or history of hard sf: in the stories; in introductory essays
by Gregory Benford, Hartwell, and Cramer, showing quite different angles of vision; and in
informative headnotes about each fictional text and its author.
Drawing on previous essays, Benford stresses parallels between hard sf and science that
matter to him as a working writer and scientist. He points to the empirical viewpoint of
the hard sciences and the authority of nonfiction which hard sf borrows from science. He
also lauds the improvisatory cross-talk by which both science and hard sf grow, increasing
our awareness of, if not our dominion over, an indifferent but wondrous universe. In
practice, he acknowledges, allegiance to facts may be outweighed by extensive flexibility
of theory, images of science may become mere trappings frozen in time, and the hard sf
affect may be evoked largely by skillful use of narrative voice. In making these
allowances, he argues that such examples seek the sheen of hard sf while inverting its
roots in the world of science, and perverting its customary attitudes toward science
ranging from approbation to neutrality.
Cramer's essay also addresses the rules of science but takes their relevance with a
grain of salt. She argues that hard sf concerns the aesthetics of knowledge, but that its
scenarios are often wildly improbable, and major differences like the almost total
elimination of mathematical expression also separate it from science. Technophilia
dominates sf in her view, to such an extent that she calls it "the religious art of
science" (25). In a deterministic universe, she concludes, the rules themselves allow
wiggle-room, which hard sf writers are determined to exploit, yielding a peculiarly
cerebral form of dramatic tension.
Hartwell's introduction addresses most specifically this book's contents, acknowledging
up front that its title is misleading: "This anthology presents examples of the way
science functions in science fiction...focusing primarily upon the type known as
'hard science fiction'" (30; my italics). All three essays digress at times, but
Hartwell's is extraordinarily diffuse, as it tries to cover the history of sf in contrast
to Modernism, as well as what he sees as the defining features of the hard stuff. One
result is a confusing conflation at times of hard sf with sf as a whole. Repeating
assertions, circling topics from different directions, his essay also features the book's
most egregious typographical errors (I spotted only about forty in 990 pages): two lines
are repeated on pp. 30 and 31, and "genrification" is misspelled
"gentrification" on p. 36, with potentially devastating impact for the
With some debt apparent to Samuel R. Delany (one of several helpers credited in the
Acknowledgments), Hartwell tries to emphasize hard sf as literature (i.e., writing). He
recognizes that it is an acquired generic taste, with contractual obligations between
readers and writers, one which exhibits a general adherence to conservative prose
exposition in the third person and past tense. He points to peculiar tensions and
paradoxes in sf stories, perhaps especially in hard sf, such as escape from our world to
radically different settings in which the same rules still operate, a didactic position
not everyone may share. Although he nominally assents to the centrality sf accords to
images and attitudes from the hard stuff, Hartwell also expands on the problematic note
suggested in his first sentence.
He legitimizes stories with one or two hard-sf characteristics, which may otherwise
challenge or ignore fundamental elements of scientific thought, such as causality, reason,
coherence and empirical evidence. Distancing himself from the Campbellian variety of hard
sf, he leans over backward to the New Wave and cyberpunk movements. He also opens the door
to postmodern skepticism about the coherence of science as a self-perpetuating and
possibly delusional system, a position singled out for attack in Benford's essay. From
there it is just a short step to including stories that use science as a whipping boy or a
mere jumping-off point to realms of fantasy independent of any scientific knowledge of, or
extrapolation about, the world.
Regrouped in chronological sequence, in the New York Review of Science Fiction (#68,
April 1994, pp. 11-21), a selection of Hartwell's headnotes actually does suggest a
reasonable history (and prehistory) of hard sf. That historical sequence makes more sense
of connections which seem random in their placement here. Even Hartwell's own
cross-references are not easy to access in this book, and restriction of story publication
dates to three pages of Copyright Acknowledgements makes it difficult to place a story in
the historical tradition of sf, let alone in terms of what constituted known science when
the story was written and first read. Individual headnotes also vary widely: some suffer
from vapidity, others dip into specialized literary jargon.
The introductions and headnotes in general reflect a broad awareness of sf, and some of
the roles it assigns to science. Each essay has much in it that is defensible, though not
all of it is ably defended. One mitigating circumstance is that a fiction anthology has
commercial constraints against which this apparatus already strains. As an editor of NYRSF,
which has published all three introductions, Hartwell has also helped to encourage
dialogue on hard sf from other fiction writers and scholars. Of the three introductory
positions, however, the one Hartwell enunciates most obviously fits the book's contents.
Like his essay, this collection of stories is disorderly and diffuse, trying to serve
not only the announced purpose, but others as well, among them a history lesson, a
pleading for literary quality which may imply terms antithetical to sf
"hardness," and a questioning of the very bases outlined in the introductions
that supposedly constitute the subject at hand. Superficially laissez-faire, allowing
room for each claimant to hard sf status, its scatter-shot methods of selection and
presentation in fact deprecate the real thing, watering it down so much as to virtually
destroy any generic consistency.
Of the familiar varieties of hard sf, "gadget" stories are represented, like
Bob Shaw's "Light of Other Days," J.G. Ballard's "Prima Belladonna,"
and Ed Bryant's "GiANTS." There are also "problem-solving" stories,
such as Theodore Thomas's "The Weather Man," Tom Godwin's "The Cold
Equations," John W. Campbell's "Atomic Power," and Isaac Asimov's "The
Life and Times of Multivac" and "The Last Question." "Disaster"
stories include Philip Latham's "The Xi Effect," Arthur C. Clarke's "The
Star," Randall Garrett's "Time Fuze," and Larry Niven's "The Hole
Extraterrestrial settings are evident in fourteen stories, establishing cosmic scope as
well as providing a base for approximating and dramatizing the unknown. Extraterrestrial
beings, however, are restricted to those in Poul Anderson's "Kyrie," Hal
Clement's "Proof," and Robert Forward's "The Singing Diamond," with
walk-on parts in Gordon Dickson's "Dolphin's Way" and David Brin's "What
Continues, What Fails . . . ." "Terrestrial aliens" appear in several
stories, as well. Intelligent undersea creatures populate "Dolphin's Way,"
Hilbert Schenk's "Send Me a Kiss By Wire," and Raymond Z. Gallun's 1935 story,
"Davy Jones' Ambassador." Chimpanzees with augmented intelligence figure in Kate
Wilhelm's "The Planners" and Vernor Vinge's "Bookworm, Run!" Robots
and computers also put in several usually perfunctory appearances.
Large-scale artifacts, a staple of hard-sf novels, are basically limited to human space
colonies, e.g., Robert A. Heinlein's "It's Great to be Back," Dean Ing's
"Down & Out on Ellfive Prime," and George Turner's "In a Petri Dish
Upstairs." All three (the Ing especially) are alternately readable as stories of
social organization. Such exercises often dominate sf as a whole, but they are a
second-order extrapolation in hard sf. Social change of a sort is also foregrounded in
James Blish's "Beep," John Ford's "Chromatic Aberration," William
Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic," Raymond F. Jones's "The Person from
Porlock," Kipling's "With the Night Mail," Katherine MacLean's
"Snowball Effect," Bruce Sterling's "The Beautiful and Sublime," Ian
Watson's "The Very Slow Time Machine," and Theodore Sturgeon's "Occam's
Scalpel." The last-named is not even sf, let alone hard sf.
Scientists as major characters are not common. The thrill of discovery powers the Brin
story and one of Gregory Benford's, "Exposures." Scientists as victims appear
more often, in Philip Latham's "The Xi Effect," John Ford's "Heat of
Fusion," Clarke's "The Star" and "Transit of Earth," and Raymond
Flynn's positivistic ghost-research story, "Mammy Morgan Played the Organ: Her Daddy
Beat the Drum." Other examples of hard sf "affect" may be evinced by an
authoritative quasi-documentary tone and a hefty dose of didacticism (often turned against
science in these stories). Sometimes, however, the "hard man against the
universe" pose is confused with the hardheaded intellectual honesty and accuracy
science demands. Two of the space-station stories center on issues of management and
control, as do Don A. Stuart's "Atomic Power," Donald Kingsbury's "To Bring
in the Steel," Isaac Asimov's "Waterclap." Tom Godwin's "The Cold
Equations" is perhaps the classic example of confusing rigid management with hard
New technologies are ubiquitous, ranging from both backgrounded and foregrounded
transportation and communication to methods of weather control ("The Weather
Man") and biological engineering ("Prima Belladonna") still far from
realization. Actually, biological innovations are restricted to Hawthorne's
"Rappacini's Daughter," James Blish's "Surface Tension," Frederik
Pohl's "Day Million," Ed Bryant's "GiANTS," and the chimp stories.
Although rejected by science, time travel shows up in such variations as Henry Kuttner and
C. L. Moore's "Mimsy Were the Borogoves," Blish's "Beep," the Watson
story, Hilbert Schenk's "The Morphology of the Kirkham Wreck," and Clarke's
"The Star" and "The Longest Science Fiction Story Ever Told." Also of
dubious scientific value are "creationist" cartoons like James A. Hogan's
"Making Light" and Asimov's "The Last Question."
Near-future predictions typically deteriorate into parallel universe stories, since
their futures simply don't work out that way in our past or present. Time proves their
details especially vague or wrong, even if the main premise in some way "comes
true." Evanescence is most apparent here in those stories included mainly for
historical reasons. Time has certainly passed by the unintended "parallel
histories" of Kipling, Verne, and Wells. Only "The Land Ironclads" (the one
story shared with Shippey's anthology) has even passing relevance to real-world history or
technology; tanks have been used in warfare since, though hardly as Wells anticipated. If
his technological details are curious, Verne's are laughable. Kipling's are all but
incomprehensible since the jargon and slang he associates with dirigible flight either
fell out of use or never came into use.
Since by any account hard sf is a recent conception, Poe, Hawthorne, and Miles J.
Breuer, M.D., are also anachronisms, though their stories highlight some things leading to
hard sf. "Descent into the Maelstrom" is the prototypical problem story,
although Poe introduces virtually nothing unknowable at the time. "Rappacini's
Daughter" is one of Hawthorne's three proto-sf exercises in Faustian Gothic that
survive as cogent moral fables. Breuer's "The Hungry Guinea Pig" (1930) is also
a cautionary fable, though it ignores the square-cube law concerning the sustainable size
of organisms. It echoes Well's giant creatures (including humans) in The Food of the
Gods (1904), the original source of such monster movies as those pastiched in
Even to represent the ways science functions in sf, stories based on mathematics are
weak examples. Three play with space-time dimensions ("Mimsy," Rudy Rucker's
"Message Found in a Copy of Flatland," Greg Bear's
"Tangents"), two with imaginary colors (John Ford's "Chromatic
Aberration," Gene Wolfe's "All the Hues of Hell"). Three feature other
mathematical oddities (Richard Grant's "Drohde's Equations," Alfred Bester's
"The Pi Man," Philip K. Dick's "The Indefatigable Frog"). Such
"thought-variants," a term common in F. Orlin Tremaine's pre-Campbell (and
pre-hard-sf) Astounding, lack a clear empirical base.
They may appeal, however, to a postmodern sensibility that wishes to reject the
accuracy or reliability of any sense impressions or instrument readings. Skepticism toward
results and methodology certainly belongs in hard science, the home of Uncertainty and
Relativity, but skepticism based largely on word-play is more appropriate to
post-structuralist philosophers for whom every intellectual domain is word-play. Little
hard-sf sensibility is visible when abnormal psychology ("Mimsy,"
"Hues") challenges sensory evidence. Lame-brain satire also misdirects
scientific impulses, as in Hogan's "Making Light," John Sladek's "Stop
Evolution in Its Tracks," Wolfe's "Procreation," and especially Clarke's
"The Longest Science Fiction Story Ever Told."
Several stories show little pretense that science provides any positive attitudinal
bearings at all. Ballard's "Cage of Sand," James Tiptree, Jr.'s "The Man
Who Refused to Do Terrible Things to Rats," and Clifford Simak's
"Desertion" overtly criticize science and technology and then metamorphose into
surrealistic fantasy. Cordwainer Smith's "No, No, Not Rogov," and Anne
McCaffrey's "Weyr Search" show hardly any pretense of science. Hartwell's
headnote justifying inclusion of the latter bases it on the dubious ground that "in
genre fiction, intentions count" and that "McCaffrey intended it as hard
sf" (398). Neither point is proven, nor are they necessarily sequential.
Neither editorial commentary nor the apparently random sequence of stories helps
readers understand what different gradations of "hardness" such departures may
represent. Hartwell and Cramer may have no use for distinctions between extrapolation,
speculation, and transformation as progressively distancing devices, but something is
needed to show their awareness that Clement, Benford and Anderson actually write hard sf,
unlike Grant, Hogan, and McCaffrey. Without such distinctions, the editors seem to have
sold out the very premises on which they say they wanted to please both the hard sf
constituency and that of the curious neophytes. What shows instead is the usual discomfort
of litterateurs with the nature of hard sf--and of science--both of which are politically
and literarily "incorrect."
If the stories are not hard, are they good? The editors acknowledge that the defining
features of hard sf often do not coincide with characteristics literary judges would call
good writing. I would grant that a third of the sixty-seven stories are quite
good--including classics like "Dolphin's Way," "Kyrie," "Mimsy
Were the Borogoves," "Light of Other Days," "Nine Lives,"
"The Star," "Surface Tension," and "The Very Slow Time
Machine." A few more are representative examples of hard sf, not universally
coinciding with the stories that are good.
Lame expository styles are especially evident in Asimov, Breuer, Campbell, Clement,
Forward, Garrett, Godwin, Verne, and Wells. Characterization and development are usually
minimal, especially in stories filled with melodramatic events and enough background to
yield an "Aha" effect, but they are also virtually nonexistent in satire.
Illogic, moreover, is a feature, often deliberate, common to both satires and fantasies,
traditional or postmodern. Some apologists for postmodern writing even argue for its
calculated disinterest in traditional characterization, sometimes hard to distinguish from
sheer incompetence in a more naturalistic guise.
Asimov, Ballard, Benford, Blish, Clarke, Ford, Le Guin, Schenk and Wolfe are each
represented by more than one story, not always the best one could want, but editors face
myriad problems in assembling an anthology. Rarely typical of hard sf, Heinlein and Asimov
are more interested in social problems. Afflicted like Asimov with "boyish
humor," Clarke moves freely between hard sf and mysticism. Of his three stories here,
only "Transit of Earth" is really hard. The cosmology of "The Star" is
dated and its faster-than light travel (aka time travel) is conventionally fantastic;
accepting a religious tradition that any star could be visible on Earth only "in the
East" is simply irrational.
Ballard, Ford, Le Guin, Schenk and Wolfe would be over-represented once, as Bester,
Bryant, Dick, Jones, McCaffrey, Simak and Tiptree actually are, in terms of their value to
hard sf. The fact that they fit (when they do) the fall-back position of showing different
ways science may function in sf is a weak justification. Hartwell's lame rhetorical ploy,
that these texts are "in dialogue with" hard sf, might apply to every story with
the slightest pretension to be sf. The presence of these authors in such numbers is itself
an indication that this book honors the "hard sf" appellation more in the breach
than in the observance.
There has been no lack of sf textbooks in the last two decades, but few have shown much
interest in the hard sciences or hard sf. A couple of years ago, I wanted a book for
classroom use to emphasize science in science fiction. Hartwell is wrong in asserting that
his is the first book to do that, but the only thing in print then was the hyperbolically
misnamed Great Science Fiction by the World's Greatest Scientists (1985), edited
by Isaac Asimov, Martin Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh. Indeed, even out-of-print
anthologies are limited in scope and quality: beyond collections devoted to one science or
technological creation, the competition is basically restricted to Imagination
Unlimited: Science-Fiction and Science (1952), edited by Everett Bleiler and T. E.
Dikty; Great Science Fiction by Scientists (1962), edited by Groff Conklin; and Time
Probe: The Sciences in Science Fiction (1966), edited by Robert Silverberg on behalf
of Arthur C. Clarke.
The greater size and scope of this volume compared to its predecessors does not make it
the book I sought, however, much less the great book of examples any student of hard sf
might want. Indeed, it so muddies the waters as to make it appear that its subject may not
even exist, and its imposing presence in the vacuum of competition makes it positively
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