Just as the favorite subject of fandom is fandom, in the weird little subworld of hard SF, the hard SFnal people do go on about it. I guess in that regard we're not much different from baseball statistics junkies, jazz enthusiasts, oenophiles, or fashion fans -- to us, there's just so much to say, and to pretty much everyone else, that's one of the most mysterious things about us. So, fellow hard SF enthusiasts, here's something to kick around, along with ten million other pieces, and I kind of hope I said something new here but probably all this has been said before and I just didn't happen across it in my reading.
Nonetheless, here goes, and there'll be more stuff, I hope, pretty soon, and this place will get busy again.
Attempt to roll a saving disclaimer against nitpicks: all of those are also about some other kinds of knowledge too; I’m making this up as I go and being anything but exhaustive.
Among all these subgenres of sf, hard sf is central, because so much of the first really popular science fiction was hard sf, and it is from hard sf that science fiction got most of its expository tricks for laying out that consistent, knowing-stuff-matters universe. Thus the readers, critics, and writers can’t get rid of that hard sf heritage, and mostly don’t want to.
And yet it’s awkward. It’s hard for the rest of sf to make peace with hard sf, or find one comfortable place in which to confine it, exactly because there’s an awkward, ineradicable difference between telling the reader “you need to know this for my story to work” and “you need to know this because it’s true, and here’s a story about it.”
Hard sf never quite sits right with the rest of science fiction, because whether you like it or not, science fiction may sometimes be the genre of Analog, Hal Clement, and "engineer fiction" but it is ever so much more the genre of Superman, Star Wars, Avatar, and The Terminator, all of which will give you about as accurate a view of the possible technological future, and of real human reactions to it, as Tarzan of the Apes will give you of the real behavior of gorillas and the culture of indigenous Africans.
That overlap between the myth-real of pulp fiction and the real-real of modern science is awkward. You may have heard the actor’s rule about not working with kids and dogs on stage, and it's a real rule, because no actor, be he or she ever so trained and talented, can be as comfortably real as a three-year-old or a cocker spaniel. In very much the same way,the insistent reality of hard sf spoils the illusion of many other kinds of sf -- though not all other kinds. In a little bit here I'll be talking about how much of contemporary identity sfs (that is, the science fictions that are in part or whole about the experience of a different identity than the Standard First World White Straight CisGuy) are awkward in just the same, wonderful, blessed way of grounding their authority more in the realism of broad-sense science and less in the tropes of fiction.
But for the moment, let's stick to the awkwardness and centrality of hard sf. That awkwardness spreads out from hard sf and its other external-reality sourced cousins, and into the more purely fanciful subgenres, like refrigerator mold through yogurt. Interesting things that are not necessary to the story weasel their way into final drafts because they have important real world consequences, and as long as the topic that a reader does have to understand is so close to this important real world stuff, why not slip a bit of it in? The awkward intersection of real-real with mythic-real encourages a snarkish tendency to make fun of the media version of everything, since it is an iron law that the media version of everything is always wrong.****** That same awkwardness leads us to overvalue and draw too harshly the distinction between thinkers/talkers/planners on one side and doers/whackers/improvisers on the other; we might make our Person Who Knows Stuff into a hero who shows the jocks were wrong, or into a hapless, ineffective dork to be shoved aside by the jocks who At Least By God Take Action, but we write very few real Hamlet types suspended between an external need and capability to act and an internal, moral need to get it right. A hard sf story is always wobbling down a too-narrow channel between the encyclopedia and the instructional filmstrip on one side, and the crudest sort of adventure story on the other.
Now, I buy the truism, articulated by critics in many different arts, that it’s the limitations, difficulties, and awkwardnesses of a genre that make it what it is. Musical comedy can only achieve what it does because it has to solve the problem of oscillating between a representational street corner to a singer on the stage of imagination; action-adventure comics draw their energy by converting the complex interactions of violence between bodies into a flat, stationary, divided page; and pop songs need to be commercials for themselves, crystalize new audience perceptions, and situate everything comfortably in the familiar, all at once.
Hard sf’s noisy back door opening into reality, behind its gaudy facade of pop fiction, isn’t a permanent weakness or chasm. It’s the whole reason for doing it.
And when that chasm is treated as the source of energy rather than an awkwardness to be papered over, hard sf can be pushed into new realms by new advances in science or by clearer understanding of existing science. This means that sf can take us to genuinely new and strange lands, which is one of the mutually contradictory pleasures in reading, the other of which is the connection to myth, i.e. familiar stories and truisms that primarily reassure us that we “always already know” that our culture has the world figured out.
It’s taken a large part of my life to see a major mistake in my thinking during my first decade or so of fiction writing. I used to think this subjugation of real wonder to mythic goshwow was a bad thing and a betrayal of promise; in a fairly-often-reprinted speech at an American Library Association convention quite a few years ago******* I made far too much of the point that science fiction contains wonder in the same way that a cylinder contains gas, a quarantine contains plague, or NATO contained communism, that is it keeps it from getting loose into the general world.
It does, of course. The fictional apparatus keeps the wonder within bounds, but that also makes it tolerable to have it carried out into the world, and the vessel is always waiting to rupture from the force of what’s inside it, and without the vessel, no one would go near enough to encounter the wonder.
Of course not every vessel harbors that saving, awkward core. Most don’t. For example, Star Wars’s real controlling Force is the immense pile of tropes from a century of adventure movies, and though that goes many places, it doesn’t go anywhere new.
Now historically, hard sf has tended to contain, or outrightly confine, more than it explodes. Hard sf has done pretty well at describing the effects of a massive infalling of antimatter into a black hole, twenty centuries in the future, but only by witnessing it from the viewpoint of a Purdue Class of 1947 mechanical engineering/Army ROTC small town Presbyterian Republican radio ham and hot-rod builder. Nonetheless, hard sf has continued to provide at least a few escape hatches that lead to tunnels out of consensus reality (even if they only lead to consensus reality next door), and its particular hatches are part of the basic definition of the genre. Every now and then there’s a little shock in there for the careful reader who discovers the universe is a little bigger and a lot different.
Let me go a little deeper into a comparison that might offend people on both sides of it: the abundant new Anything Except More Middle Class White Straight Guys science fiction, whose rapid growth and spread and diversification is the biggest story in our genre in the last twenty years, is another awkward center, and one reason it's revitalizing the field so vigorously is that it's doing what hard sf did at its best.
The reason hard sf was always the irritant that couldn’t be expelled and just kept causing more pearl to form was that invasive, painful immutability: it wouldn’t dissolve and it wouldn’t shatter and it wouldn’t go away, it was central and awkward and coping with it made everything else in the field grow up, and that was because, dammit, the equations said what they did (and they were cold), and explosions really don’t make noises in space and the Van Allen belts are there and other planets are really far away and things like entropy, bandwidth, and mass ratios mean your time machine, cyberreality, and rocket yacht just don’t work.
Well, that’s what gay, and feminist, and Third World, and all the combinations and mergers and flow-togethers of all that sf does: puts an indissoluble, immutable core of reality that won’t go away right there in the middle of a big old comfy ball of genre tropes.
Ultimately there is an experience there which cannot be dismissed by the traditional reader. Right there at the heart of the traditional narrative that was being used to contain the shocks and surprises of quantum physics and cybernetics and silicon chemistry, some subversive somebody—or rather a whole army of subversive somebodies—are planting other realities that are real, and don’t change to accommodate what the average story-consumer thought s/he was buying.
The assumed supremacy of an external and not-universal experience stands in complete defiance of a basic rule of fiction laid down by the New Critics and propagated through university MFA workshops and little lit magazines and their sf followers ever since: that the heart of what a story is about is not supposed to rest on an authority outside the story, or the author, or some belief system. That went with the idea of a text in a context: either things only needed to be true within the story, or with reference to the author's background, or with reference to some shared system of belief.
Being just plain true, and alien to the common experience, but nonetheless true, though not what you'd think, BUT TRUE GODDAMMIT!!! meant kicking holes in that safe wall that protected literature from the world and tenured faculty from review.
Hard sf had to break that rule to be what it was, and now, so do all the "identity sfs" that are bursting out everywhere and turning the field over again. And high time. There's no fertility if you don't turn the field over now and then.
Now, for the near future, hard sf will probably be less interesting than the identity sfs, owing to the fertility and excitement of a new frontier: at this moment in the history of science fiction, there’s just so much more stuff that we haven’t heard before to say about the experience of AfroCaribbean women than there is about rockets. Tropes about gender queerness are still being developed and created whereas the ones about the Singularity are pretty worn down from decades of traffic.
So, for those of you who lament that sf isn’t about what it was about when you were young, well, duh. Neither is the world, and neither are you.
The "planetary" (or so I visualize it) structure of hard sf:
Even the eternal attempts to cram hard sf back into other genre expectations, somehow, seem to have exact mirrors in the attempts to similarly cram and suppress the identity sfs. Indeed, one way to tell that the new polycultural sf is vital to the field (in the strict sense of vital, i.e. having to do with its continuing life) is that defenses mustered against it are parallel to the ones traditionally mounted against hard sf. For example:
6. The argument that "but nothing really changes." Nothing to see here, folks, walk away, don’t look, the fictional universe is what it’s always been. The Hero is still wearing his same old thousand faces, everything’s just a hero with a problem and a likeable protagonist versus an interesting but fatally flawed antagonist in an escalating game of Ping Pong, you’ve been here before, all that changes are the furniture and the minor characters. The Tempest dealt with the science of its day and particularly the excitement of discovering new lands, and it has a lot to say about colonialism, and they made Forbidden Planet and Prospero's Dream out of it, so if you know The Tempest, you know as much as you need to. In fact you could just throw The Tempest over the side too because you can say the same things about The Odyssey. Everybody should stop shouting about all this supposedly new stuff and let us get back to our cultural nap.
The defenses against hard sf then and against the identity sfs now are the same because the threat is the same: that awkward core is going to get too hot for the mantle of overused tropes to contain, and before you know it our comfy standard-fiction crust will have the hot magma of change and surprise all over it.
Well, yeah, that was a very overblown metaphor.
Of course many hard-sf aficionados want to stay back with their familiar, comfy wonders, and are just hoping for a story that makes them feel like they understand the Higgs boson.
Sure, most of the new young writers don’t see any particular reason to venture very far back into that old dead white guy stuff, any more than people who want to learn to fly a plane feel like they have to put in an apprenticeship as bicycle mechanics.
Nevertheless, here we all are, and in the ever-continuing struggle to breach the genre-trope containment and let loose a whole volcano of wonder, we're the allies we have.