Science Fiction Studies

#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 ever before.

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 symposium.

Other SF writers—Anderson, Asimov, Clarke, Clement, Lem, Pournelle and Niven, Preuss—have 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 materials—including John J. Pierce's 3-volume thematic history of SF—discuss 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 volume.

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 the test.

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