On his blog, Paul Kincaid has been writing recently about hard science fiction and its politics. It all started with a reprint of a piece originally published in a magazine in 2008, in which Paul argued that hard sf was intrinsically right-wing – see here. Which promptly generated some comments,and which in turn Paul replied to with a second post – see here. I was one of the commentors. Well, I have written hard sf – the Apollo Quartet has been described as “art house hard sf” – and I certainly don’t consider myself right-wing. Quite the opposite, in fact. But that’s me, the writer; not the subgenre.
It seems to me there are two problems with Paul’s thesis. First, he’s defined hard sf as Campbellian sf. While it’s certainly true the origin of hard sf lies in the pages of Astounding under Campbell’s editorship, and Campbell had a very heavy hand on the tiller, that was fifty or more years ago. Genres and subgenres change, definitions evolve. The term space opera was originally coined as a pejorative; it isn’t one now. The generally accepted definition used today for hard sf is based upon either the sciences a text references – the so-called hard sciences of physics, chemistry, cosmology, etc; or the rigour with which the science is treated in the text. Nothing in that definition mentions politics.
Paul’s argument – and I hope I’m paraphrasing correctly – is that the rigour, ie, the adherence to inviolable natural laws, in hard sf is subsequently transferred to human laws and, as a result, hard sf presents authoritarian spaces in which to tell its stories. The example he uses is Tom Godwin’s ‘The Cold Equations’ (a story he discusses in an earlier blog post – see here – reprinted from Vector, the critical journal of the BSFA). ‘The Cold Equations’ has long been seen as the epitome of hard sf, but I don’t think it actually qualifies. It’s certainly the very definition of Campbellian sf, but I contend that Campbellian sf no longer maps onto hard sf.
In a nutshell, the plot of Godwin’s story is as follows… A rescue starship is carrying vital medical supplies to another world. A young girl stows away aboard the starship because she wants to visit her brother on that world. But her presence aboard means the starship is overweight and cannot land. The only excess weight which can be ditched in order to safely land with the medical supplies… is the young girl herself. Clearly, the situation is completely artificial: why does the starship only carry the exact amount of fuel needed for the journey and its load? Surely there is something else aboard which weighs as much as, if not more than, the girl which could be ditched instead? The only fixed limit in the story, the only natural law in the story, is the amount of energy the pilot can get from the fuel he carries. That is unchangeable. Though the plot of the story is predicated on that limit, it uses arbitrarily applied human limits to present a dilemma… and then completely fails to solve it.
Hard sf generally does the opposite: it presents dilemmas predicated on fixed natural limits, and then finds solutions using human ingenuity. (Godwin apparently submitted three different attempts at such a resolution, but each was rejected by Campbell, who wanted the girl to die.)
Of course, that’s no more comprehensive a description of hard sf than Paul’s reliance on ‘The Cold Equations’ as a defining text. Certainly, “Analog-style” stories fit that mould (Astounding renamed itself to Analog, so Campbell’s legacy does continue to some extent), and there are plenty of examples of such hard sf stories by the likes of Clarke, Clement, Bova, Steele or Nordley. But then what about ‘Hardfought’ by Greg Bear – that’s certainly hard sf, but it’s hardly Campbellian. Or hard sf stories by Kim Stanley Robinson, Stephen Baxter, Paul McAuley, Joan Slonczewski, Linda Nagata, Julie E Czernada, Catherine Asaro or CJ Cherryh…
I don’t think it follows that authoritarian spaces must result from a strict adherence to natural laws. Some hard sf stories are set on Mars, but that doesn’t mean all hard sf stories are. Likewise, not all stories set on Mars are hard sf. It doesn’t help that most writers of hard sf appear to have politics that lean to the right – either conservative or libertarian. But that’s an attribute of the writers, not of the subgenre in which they’re writing. I can’t think of any Marxist hard sf stories off the top of my head – in fact, Marxist sf stories of any type are in remarkably short supply. But there are certainly hard sf stories set in the USSR (as was), such as Fellow Traveler by William Barton and Michael Capobianco, or ‘Red Star, Winter Orbit’ by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (which appeared in Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology but is patently not cyberpunk). The USSR also makes an appearance in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Icehenge, a hard sf novel which is not right-wing. Nor indeed is his Mars trilogy, perhaps the most-celebrated hard sf series of recent decades.
Certainly a lot of hard sf is right-wing, especially the near-future variant. But that’s a characteristic brought to it by the writers, not something innate to the subgenre. That ‘The Cold Equations’ presents a right-wing aspect is irrelevant, because it is not emblematic of hard sf, even if it is emblematic of Campbellian sf. The two modes have diverged in the forty-two years since John W Campbell died, and whatever artificial constraints exist in Godwin’s story – and they were editorially, not authorially, applied – I don’t think they arise from a rigorous adherence to purely natural laws.