Science Fiction Studies

#64 = Volume 21, Part 3 = November 1994


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 Norton editors.

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 uninitiated.

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 Man."

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 science.

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 "GiANTS."

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 dangerous.

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