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Towards a new definition of hard


There is a branch of science fiction – some would say it’s the branch which actually defines the genre – known as “hard science fiction”. Like all the terms associated with sf, its meaning is confused, confusing, disputed and not always useful. Wikipedia, for instance, defines hard sf as science fiction which is “characterized by an emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy, or on both”. Yet this is not what I’ve always understood by the term.

To me, hard sf has always been that mode of science fiction which features, or emphasises, the “hard” sciences – physics, cosmology, chemistry, etc. This is in contrast to soft sf, which focuses on the “soft” sciences – anthropology, psychology, archaeology, etc. The fact that two such intersecting definitions for the same thing exist is not unusual in science fiction. Indeed, the genre itself has never been satisfactorily defined.

Yet I also believe that hard sf needs to be rigorous. And Wikipedia’s definition (taken from The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction) does indeed focus on that. But some fictions which would be excluded from the label using Wikipedia’s definition I would still describe as hard sf. Indeed, the classic example given for the sub-genre is often Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity. Which features aliens and, by implication, faster-than-light travel. Neither concept is “scientifically accurate” in the most rigorous sense of the phrase. Clearly, the definition is problematical.

Categorising a fiction by the sciences which feature in it, hard or soft, is no better. Both types may be present. And if they exist in equal measure, is the fiction hard or soft? And which science is hard and which soft? In order to define hard sf, you must first define the hard sciences. So that’s not going to work either.

And then I came across this…

There’s an interesting article here on the Cosmos Magazine website about humanity’s future in space – or rather, lack of a future. Much of the author’s discussion revolves around the limitations placed on rocketry by chemistry. Rocket engines have not substantially changed for almost a century, and that’s because there’s very little that can be done to improve what is, at its most basic, a chemical reaction. The laws of chemistry dictate how much energy that reaction can generate, and those laws are not something that can be changed. This seems counter-intuitive because in so many other areas of science and technology progress is rapid and effective – computing, for example. But, as the author of the piece writes, “In the case of electronics and information systems, we are dealing with soft rules, related to the limits of human ingenuity. In the case of space flight, we are dealing with hard rules, related to the limits of physics and chemistry.”

Science fiction often has to sidestep such “hard rules” in order to tell a story. The aforementioned faster-than-light travel is a good example. The laws of physics are quite clear that the speed of light cannot be exceeded. There are theoretical ways around this, but most are either impossible or unlikely – Alcubierre’s drive, for example, would require more energy than is available in the entire universe.

So perhaps we should consider sf which stays within the boundaries of these hard limits as hard science fiction. Any fiction which requires authorial invention to circumvent these limits would thus be “soft” sf – or whatever other sub-genre its characteristics identify it as, such as space opera.

Admittedly, it’s not as if a new, or more accurate, definition of hard sf is demanded. Most genre readers and commentators are quite happy with shifting, amorphous and evolving genre categories. Others insist that science fiction is resistant to taxonomy; or even that taxonomy itself is not useful in genre conversations. But taxonomy does indeed have its uses – it allows people to compare like with like, it sets the terms of reference for discussions, it allows for commentary on thematic similarities. And my new definition at least has the benefit of being “hard” itself: we know the hard limits imposed on us by the laws of the universe, and we can recognise those concepts and conceits invented by the author to circumvent those limits.

And it does seem fitting that hard sf should be definable, that it should operate within clearly-drawn boundaries, that its definition should be as rigorous as those fictions which comprise it.

11 thoughts on “Towards a new definition of hard

  1. That’s quite a good way of delimiting hard and soft SF Ian.

    But how does that work for SF that concentrates on the softer sciences, those that don’t have the hard limits that we observe in the natural sciences? How can they be judged to have overstepped the mark? Or do we say when they concentrate on such fields of science that where there are no hard limits, they must all be soft default?

    • It’s more a way of defining hard sf than both hard and soft. So anything that professes to be hard sf can be validated. Other sub-genres of sf don’t really apply – it’s not as sf is split only into hard and soft sf.

      • No, but hard and soft are antipodes. Defining one, kind of defines the other. Hard and soft don’t need to be the only sub genres, but they do seem to come as a pair. Poles, positive and negative, though without being positive or negative.

  2. I think the idea works well for soft sf. Soft dosen’t mean implausible, it’s just not running up against the math. It’s more elastic. There’s no equation telling us we can’t have a barter only society, for example. But math tells us exactly how much energy we need to break the Earth’s gravity.

    • Given that The Ascent ofWonder, The Hard SF Renaissance and Engineering Infinity all profess to be hard sf anthologies but have wildly different definitions of the term, I think a more rigorous description is needed.

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  4. I know this marks me as horribly immature, but I read the title and thought, well that could be the title of a porn movie.

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  6. Two things come to mind almost immediately. 1) When did we get all the rules of physics and chemistry nailed down? I must have missed that. 2 “…that’s because there’s very little that can be done to improve what is, at its most basic, a chemical reaction.” Seriously? I won’t even mention the new things coming out of nanotech. I read an article a couple of days ago about a new way of doing solar power that does uses a magnetic discovery. Take a look,

    • If you know of a way to travel faster than light, or to reduce the Earth’s escape velocity, you might want to tell NASA. I’m sure they’d be interested.

      As we learn more about the universe, so we understand more of its workings – but that doesn’t make those hard limits suddenly disappear. We know about branes and strings and quantum foam and all that, but the speed of light is still a constant. Perhaps we will discover ways around those hard limits; perhaps there are no ways around them. But those limits are still there. They are axiomatic.

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