What Is Hard Science Fiction?

You can’t have science fiction without science. It’s right there in the name, and even the loosest, goosiest approach to the genre still has some science in it. Star Wars might be full of space wizards, but it also has robots. Even the much maligned (by me) science fantasy, retains that first half of the genre. Science. It gets around. But some books take their science more seriously than others. The name commonly given to these books is Hard Science Fiction.

But what does that actually mean? As with everything genre, there are a dozen ways to define it. My personal definition would be something to the effect of ‘Hard SF is Science Fiction that does not run counter to our current understanding of science.’ Of course, science is an ever-evolving thing, and so the odd fringe topic coming up can be forgiven. Current theories suggest that there might be alternate universes. Though we have no way of proving that one way or another, the scientific theory is solid. Therefore we can tell a story about alternate universes that is scientifically sound.

Now, there are theories for just about everything, but there are a few topics outside the boundaries of what I would class as Hard SF. Faster than light travel is the big one. Wormholes might be possible, but are currently too far beyond our understanding if they are. Casual conversations with humanoid aliens are also out of the question. If there are aliens out there (and you can have them in Hard SF), they won’t just be people with lumpy foreheads as Star Trek would have you believe. Earth-like planets with breathable atmospheres are (sadly) also rather unlikely.

Looking past raw content, there is another element that should be considered, and that is the way science is treated. Hard SF should revel in science. Give us those juicy details. Tell us how things work. Solve your problems with science and walk us through the steps. To an extent, Hard SF should be educational. But above all else, it should make science a thing of joy.

The Race To Space

One of the great scientific accomplishments of humankind is the space programmes that started in the nineteen fifties and have been ongoing science. Yes, going to the Moon is the headline here, but let’s not forget that for the past twenty-two years, there has been a constant human presence in space. The true story of these space missions is full of triumphs and tragedies, but it has also bred a number of fictional volumes.

Chris Hadfield is, for all intents and purposes, and ambassador for space exploration. That’s something he shares with all astronauts, but Hadfield has gone one step further. In addition to many videos chronicling his time in space, the spacebound Canadian released the first ever album of songs recorded in space. In 2021, he released his first novel. The Apollo Murders follows the fictional Apollo 18 mission, and mixes real people and historical facts seamlessly with an original story of conspiracy and murder. There are no aliens here, just a tight thriller of human ingenuity and the power of the mind.

The Apollo Murders looks to the past for ideas, but there is another book that looks to the future of spaceflight. Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, along with author John Barnes told of a potential future in their novel Encounter With Tiber. With the important caveat that the future it foretold is already in our past, it’s a brilliant idea of how the space race may have gone had NASA’s funding not been slashed. Like real history (often mirroring it to an uncanny extent) Encounter With Tiber is full of technological innovation and heart-breaking tragedies. The latter half does deal with first contact with an alien race, but even that is handled in a wonderfully analytical way, with the aliens; own space programme taking an important role in the story.

In a future that has not yet come to pass, Andy Weir’s The Martian follows Mark Watney, a lone astronaut stranded on Mars after a freak weather event. This book is the joy of science in novel form, as Watney has to think himself out of one problem after another in order to survive on Mars until help arrives. As well as being gripping, it’s also an incredibly uplifting story about the strength of the human spirit, and the ability to endure hardship, with a healthy dash of humour. Weir’s other books Artemis and Project Hail Mary take the the same approach to the Moon and deep space exploration respectively.

The real king of Hard SF for me, is the late, great Ben Bova. With his Grand Tour saga, Bova took a look at every major location in the solar system and asked himself ‘What would it be like if we went there?’ Aside from the odd bit of outdate science (a real peril with this genre), the Grand Tour books take the joyful sense of exploration you’d find in Star trek, and apply it to the more realistic world that we actually live in. Bova imagined in great detail the first manned mission to Mars, a rescue mission to Venus, and even life at the limits of human exploration. All without breaking a sweat. If you take any recommendation from this article, let it be Ben Bova.

How Far Can We Push This Thing?

Science is all about finding the limits of what we can know and achieve. With that in mind, here are two stories that push the limits of Hard SF. They deal with technology and theories that are very much in their infancy (if mot the embryonic stage) today, but with their rigorous approach to science, they squeeze into the borders of this genre and have made themselves at home.

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time takes one simple idea and runs with it. What if evolution ran wild, and spiders had a planet of third own. It might not be the technology and physics most associate with Hard SF, but evolution is about as scientific as you can get. Tchaikovsky’s generations-spanning story of the spider Portia and her descendants shows us what a society developed by something other than humanity might look like. The sequel, Children of Ruin adds both octopuses and something even more unfamiliar to the mix, with fascinating results. This is the book for the biologists among you.

For our final Hard SF tale, we come to Cixin Liu. In addition to being the title of the first book in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series, the three-body problem is an astronomical dilemma about how a planet with three stars might support life. The first book is dedicated to an exploration of this mystery, and the scope only grows from there. Book two The Dark Forest tackles the Fermi Paradox, and how world-changing events affect society. And if sociology isn’t enough science for you, Death’s End caps off the series with some mind-bending ideas about physics and the nature of reality. It’s science at such an extreme level I can barely comprehend it, but the love of science is clear to see.

What Are You Waiting For?

Hard SF has a bit of a reputation for inaccessibility and, dare I say it, being a bit dry. But that’s simply not true. If you’re interested in science (and as a science fiction reader, I imagine you probably are), then Hard SF is one of the most exciting and engaging genres out there. So let your little nerd flag fly, and dive into something on the crunchy side. You won’t regret it.

One response to “HARD SF: Science Fiction For Your Inner Nerd”

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