Hard science fiction is more philosophy than science

RP continues to flog this horse well into rigor mortis

Hard science fiction is more philosophy than science
Photo by Joshua Sortino / Unsplash

Hard science fiction stays true to scientific facts and logic

Soft science fiction is all that other stuff with wizards and dragons and, like, feelings and junk.

Is there really such a thing as "Hard SF"?

Unfortunately, there is, if only as a way that some authors and fans classify their work. Quoth the Wikipedia article:

The heart of the "hard science fiction" designation is the relationship of the science content and attitude to the rest of the narrative, and (for some readers, at least) the "hardness" or rigor of the science itself.

If that's right (always a helping of salt with the ol' Wikipedia) there's two different things happening here.

One is the "relationship of the science content and attitude to the rest of the narrative". Stress on both the content and the attitude of the science guy.

That means that the facts as known to the best current science are a central part of the story, whether expressed through character, setting, or story problems. It also means that the attitude of the scientist is on display, whether in those characters or as the frame of the story.

It's possible to tell a "hard SF" story with only backward, superstitious dim bulb characters, provided that the story is told from a viewpoint grounded in scientific thinking.

The second is "the rigor or the science itself". You want to tell a story about biology? Not when we've got the laws of physics to calculate, plebe.

I'll go ahead and spoil this article for you.

I don't think there's any such thing as "Hard SF", and definitely not if its only criteria is a distinction from "Soft SF" or from the wider weirder worlds of fantasy stories.

All fictional stories are fantastic tales.

They are art, products of the imagination, subject to aesthetic judgments.

Whatever contents those stories may have is, of course, subject to difference.

And let me throw this Molotov:


The difference between hard SF and non-hard or fantastic stories is not about the science and definitely not about logic

That doesn't work at all.

Here's one reason.

No matter how "hard" the SF tale, there's always, and I do mean always, a handwave in there somewhere.

Larry Niven wrote about a Ringworld orbiting a sun. Tell me with a straight face that this is a legitimate engineering project. Go on.

Flip the mirror and look at it from the other direction.

Hard SF is a sub-category of fantasy.

It's got some well-defined rules and boundaries. There's aesthetic choices about what kind of story you're getting. These stories will express a certain worldview, which is favorable to science and discounts other, magical, mythical, or theological explanations.

And that's all fair. I have no beef with that kind of story or those who want to tell them.

The current point is more subtle than brainless bomb-throwing at the other team.

The difference between a hard SF story and the generic category of fantasy can be summed up as a philosophical difference.

What we have here is a profound difference of opinion about how and in what ways the discoveries and methods of science relate to story.

And that's got very little to do with what scientists figure out, or even how they figure it out.

You might tell a dramatic tale that covers the "what" and the "how" of a scientific discovery.

But you're still up to your dirty elbows in the art of dramatic storytelling.


Hard SF pushes its own agenda on the reader

The art of story does not mix with the political agenda of the author.

That's as close to a universal truth as you're likely to find in the creative arts.

And it's just as true if the author's agenda is pressing a certain point of view about science as any "woke" politics.

The likes of Hugo Gernsback and John C. Campbell flat-out said as much at the dawn of the "Golden Age" of hard SF. They wanted their stories not only to express a particular viewpoint... they intended "hard" science fiction to make a statement about good stories.

Which, to underline the point again, is really not about science at all.

It's a philosophical view about how science ought to shape art...

And through shaping art, how science ought to play a part in shaping the experience of human life.

Whenever you're talking about ought to, you're no longer in the provinces ruled by scientific thinking.

You're roaming in the lands of metaphysics and ethics and aesthetic ideals.

Science doesn't deal in the necessary and the ideal.

Science trades in the what is.

Failure to understand this can be catastrophic. Science isn't just about producing new knowledge and shiny new machines.

The growth of science is the growth of ignorance. Every new discovery raises 100 new questions.

The author of hard SF must always chase a moving target. And the relentless march of progress inevitably stamps a date on these stories.

Do you get Good Boy Points for working out the finest details of the science, only to discover 20 years later that your work looks as quaint as a Jules Verne book?

(The answer is "no".)

And worse:

When we blur the lines between story and science, we're risking a total breakdown of the boundary between the aims of science and the fine art of storytelling.


How the philosophy of Hard SF can lead to good stories

At the far distant horizon of hardness, you find Greg Egan, who writes few novels without smuggling in a physics class. Yet, for all their attention to fact and scientific orientation, they remain as speculative as any fantasy tale.

Egan's found a different path into the What If?, using the laws and rules and findings of mathematical physics as his starting point. His speculations begin from a fundamentally different starting point than the magic and myth of a classical fairy tale story.

Yet... they are speculation. They begin in the author's imagination.

The Science is, at best, the starting point for a ripping yarn.

That's when "hard SF" works at its best: Taking a shocking, unexpected, frame-shattering scientific finding as the "what if?" core of a dramatic story.

Faith to scientific fact is not the point. If it were, we couldn't enjoy SF stories from even 20 years ago.

Thanks to the wily nature of scientific discovery, you can be as sure as the sunrise that the stories drawing on today's best science are going to be out of date. Not "if". When.

What about the scientific attitude? Again, this can be done better... and not so better.

You can write about characters that have a skeptical, materialist, empirically-driven belief system -- and use them as fuel for dramatic conflict with other who disagree. Or pull a Lovecraft and send that guy into a dark room with Cthulhu.

Not so better is when the author has no empathy with the shifting subjectivities of human experience, preferring the cold, hard numbers to silly irrational homo sapiens.

That kind of story, frankly, tends to be uninteresting if not boring. I won't name and shame, but I will say this:

If you are so uninterested in the human condition that you can't even write about human beings and their problems without transforming them into math problems, you are unlikely to write interesting stories.

Hard SF is only different in how it arrives at its own brand of fantasy


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