Inside-Outside the Box

I was trying to come up with a topic for today’s post, and chatting with Amanda about it, we discussed, as we so often do these days, the Hugo process. It’s getting a lot of publicity, far outside the normal realm of things, but I don’t want to fatigue our readers here about it by talking about nothing but the ups and downs of one topic. Yesterday there was a *facepalm* moment, one that left me commenting that the person making the gaffe was like nothing so much as a blinkered donkey, set to work on a narrow path. He can’t see anything besides what is right in front of him, and he’s learned from long experience that if he turns his head to either side, his master’s whip, or the bites of the gadflies, sting him. So it’s easier for him to simply proclaim that his path is the only one, and that only the people who are on his path are “more educated and self-consciously cosmopolitan.” And this self-declared cosmopolitan plods on, declaring that everything he can’t see, doesn’t exist.

But it did give me an idea for this post. I’d planned to talk about science in the news, and I’m still going to do that, but I want you to play along with me. Let’s pop into this box, and think from the inside, outside the box.

This Box

What is Hard Science Fiction?

Calvin would no doubt insist it was the stuff that kept him looking at a dictionary every few words, had NO exploding spaceships, and was probably assigned by a teacher. Hobbes would trot out the definition that it is fiction wherein the science used is solely the provenance of what we can extrapolate from known science.

So that means no Faster than Light ships, right? Well, at one point, we could absolutely state that FTL travel was impossible, broke the universal laws of physics, and was strictly the tool of lazy storytellers who wanted to explore space without those inconvenient time lags. Now, there are inklings, nothing solid yet, but certainly theories that this isn’t going to always be the case.


Coming back closer-in to near Earth and building those space ships, or maybe that underwater city, we find that recent strides in metallurgy bring light steel into the realm of possibility. What else could we transmogrify from this metal? What other metals could we transform with the ability to manipulate an alloy on a nanoscale?


What if we really could penetrate the ‘brane to reach another universe? How many almost-like-us-but slightly different worlds are there? A few scientists are getting ready to detect particles that come from one of those theoretical worlds. Sure, a photon or a neutron isn’t a fully functional human body but hey! what if through manipulation of those particles, we could communicate with the other side?


We’re pretty sure, right now, that there are no bug-eyed aliens out there. Pretty sure. So, at the moment, your hard SF novel probably shouldn’t have aliens in it. But on the other hand, if you are writing the war of the future, who are you going to go to for snappy, relevant quotes and wisdom on how to fight (and win)? For one blogger, that man is not Sun Tzu, but Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.


Not so fast with that no aliens assertion. Where is all this unknown DNA in the NYC subway system coming from? For that matter, if you swab your nose, why is it that you will find a fair proportion of ‘dark matter genes’ up there?

We watched a video in my genetics class last week about  ‘breeding out disease,’ which purports to show the future in which an embryo’s genes could be rewritten, or at the very least, tested and culled before the child was allowed to develop into full life. What sort of future would we engineer for ourselves? As far as writing hard science, when it comes to genetics the sky is currently the limit. Especially when you have research professors who gleefully proclaim “I don’t care if it’s right or wrong, it’s cool!


And here, in the softest, squishiest science of them all, we find an interesting study on, well, bias. “All of which raises the question, “To what extent is research on politicized topics in social psychology, psychology, and the social sciences distorted by political bias?”  Or, put differently, how much does political bias lead us to entirely unjustified and invalid conclusions?” And while we’re wading in the squishy (you are wearing tall boots, right? Rubber ones?) there is this to consider: what are the ramifications of the social science experiments people have been carrying out on themselves for the last six decades or so? “My mother’s feminist principles coloured every aspect of my life. As a little girl, I wasn’t even allowed to play with dolls or stuffed toys in case they brought out a maternal instinct. It was drummed into me that being a mother, raising children and running a home were a form of slavery. Having a career, travelling the world and being independent were what really mattered according to her.”


Oh, wait, where did that bowl of soup come from?

In summary, I wanted to say this. You don’t have to be a scientist to write Hard SF. You just need an active imagination, a very large cardboard box  good decent research skills, and a talking stuffed tiger probably wouldn’t hurt, either. the internet. Which was also at one time, in a story. A Logic Named Joe, if I recall correctly.


  1. Of course, if we could ‘brane to another ‘verse, magic might work there, and boom, all of fantasy is included in science fiction. I’m fine with it.

  2. Why line out the last bit? Now, I admit a stuffed feline might not be of much use, but the live ones are very useful when you need to come up with that completely unpronounceable alien name…

    Seriously, you missed two things. The ability to write a decent story (of any kind) – and the courage to take that first step.

  3. Cedar dear, take it from a tired old man that while our parents and other assorted relatives do have a major impact on us, once you become an adult (at whatever age that occurs) they no longer define us.
    As for the no aliens bit, why? Just because we’ve been pumping out RF for over a hundred years now and no one has answered?
    Sure, that could mean no one’s there, or not advanced enough to reply, or simply don’t use those frequencies. Or, my favorite, are advanced enough to know that such knowledge would significantly impact our current development, and not necessarily in a good way. An advanced interstellar culture quite possibly could have well intentioned rules for “Please do not disturb the wildlife” so to speak.

    1. 😀 You’ve been peeking into my computer, haven’t you? In the Cat Among Dragons books, one of the changes I made to Earth’s history was that “first contact”, or at least first officially admitted this-ain’t-local-we’ve-got-a-problem contact leads to the curtailment of the US and Soviet space programs and a shift to lots of research into passive signals detection and communications and weapons development on the grounds of “why advertise until we can defend ourselves?” And gleeful retroengineering of anything “exotic” humans can get their hands’ on. Because a few people in the right places come to the conclusion that if there is a “no trespassing – wildlife preserve” sign, eventually eventually that sign will be ignored.

      1. Of course when the wildlife become advanced enough to ignore the sign from their side of things the sign is no longer necessary.
        Regarding that “changes I made to Earth’s history.” Since our last boots on the ground off planet was December 1972, other than public knowledge of aliens what exactly would be different?

        1. No space station, no Voyager missions, only two moon landings. No space-probes launched that might exit the solar system, even by accident (looking at the orbit of Pluto as the edge of “safe” exploration territory.” But there is an earlier and far more concentrated program for the SSDI and hunter-killer satellites, Hubble and it’s siblings spend more time focused just outside the Oort Cloud looking for possible “visitors,” and energy weapon technology develops much faster, in part because nuclear energy doesn’t get shunted aside the way it did in our real timeline. There are other, smaller changes as well, like holography developing faster along with 3-D digital projection, so the military “sand tables” are kinda like the monster-chess set on board the Millennium Falcon, but cooler.

    2. I should clarify that the quote above is not me talking about my mother (who stayed at home and raised three kids, with the intention that we give her scads of grandkids. I’ve done my bit). The quote is from the daughter of Alice Walker, who wrote the Color Purple.

  4. Isn’t there a convention that in hard sci-fi you can violate ONE law of the universe, and then your story has to involve the ramifications of that violation?
    Or maybe I’m think about poker….

    1. OSC talks in his “How-To” books about using one piece of balognium per story. You can handwave FTL but you’d better be able to explain everything else with “real” data, for example. Not sure if that’s a strict rule or just a really good world-building guide, though.

      1. IMO you also have to “play fair” with your handwaviam. David Weber has a “handwaviam” space drive that allows for accelerations of hundreds of G’s but also doesn’t allow spaceships to “stop on a dime and reverse directions”. The “math” doesn’t allow it and David Weber makes it clear that it doesn’t. In one of his books, the “good guys” detect a merchant ship being chased by raider ships but are unable to go to the rescue because the “math” involved with his handwaviam space drive doesn’t allow it.

      2. I’d class it as “a really good rule of thumb.” You can probably break it, but you’ll have to be really good about playing fair.

        1. In SF, some thing are accepted. FTL, that space stations work, that there could be alien life out there. _Then_ you can make up one wild and unique thing for your story. Any more, and your readers start wondering what you’ve been smoking, and that’s bad for reader immersion. So make it _good_.

  5. When I get told how FTL is impossible, I like to remind the speaker that breaking the speed of sound was impossible, and going faster than 60 mph, the wind would rip your face off.

    1. Or that patent office clerk who supposedly retired circa 1900 because all the really important inventions had already been discovered.

  6. It’s getting to where the SF writer’s main worry is getting published before his handwavium is either utterly disproven, or a high-end big kids toy.

    I think the hardest thing is not violating your own “how my fictional world works” rules, as new things are discovered. I’ve got genetic engineering, written before I’d ever heard of epigenics. 😦

    1. Finally had the time to get to the links myself. I found particularly amusing the FTL article with the cost estimates for antimatter…

      Whenever someone does something like that in my hearing, I just remind them that the scions of the super-rich for several years were not born with a silver spoon in their mouth – but with an aluminum one.

      1. I vividly remember reading a Nancy Drew mystery tale where the big treasure was aluminum (can’t recall if it was something made of aluminum, or a recipe for smelting it). I’m young enough that made me do a double take and look up more about aluminum, which was interesting.

    2. I know a good bit about fecal biota transplants, and I didn’t read that article, but it is a very new therapy, and there is also the possibility that because your gut bacteria do process about 15% of your food into digestible bits, that she gained weight when she suddenly had that help again.

      1. There have been a few studies with mice, and I recall reading of some Chinese (maybe) case of a patient with somewhat similar results after a fecal transplant (if I remember it even close to correct. Unfortunately I don’t remember enough to have the right search words for finding it now). And I did find this, about at least one mice experiment (first time I remember seeing a story with some ideas as to why there might be an effect):

  7. We’re pretty sure, right now, that there are no bug-eyed aliens out there. Pretty sure. So, at the moment, your hard SF novel probably shouldn’t have aliens in it.

    Depends entirely on the assumptions we’re using– it would be kind of fun to do a hard science type story that explores the assumptions for what we’re pretty sure about. *big grin*

    A lot of our problem is the same as with physics– we’re looking at a really, really tiny sample to draw conclusions. (it took a long time before “air resistance” became a serious issue for calculation, for example.)

    1. Right, and that’s why I worded it the way I did. Following the current conventions, you couldn’t have Hard SF and have aliens in it. But I have written aliens, and will likely do so again in the future, because it’s a big universe and who knows?

    2. True! We are pretty sure that we have zero evidence of their being aliens out there. To call them impossible is another matter entirely.

      (Hard at work at a story currently titled “Bug-Eyed Monsters”)

  8. “Light Steel” actually exists. It “has the strength of titanium” and less expensive. It’s made from aluminum and steel, with _chromium_ added. Right now, experimental, but working on “mass production status.”

  9. Nice soapbox Hops on

    No FTL means no Hal Clement. A definition of hard SF that excludes Hal Clement is like a definition of mystery that excludes Sherlock Holmes or one of epic fantasy that excludes Lord of the Rings.

    I must also point out that by definition, ghost stories are hard SF. Name a scientific law that they violate if you doubt it.

    hops off.

    1. I was with you until the ghost stories. Now you’ve got me thinking hard to figure how to disagree.

      1. Ooh! Ooh! How about the “it’s got to explain how it works” rule for stuff that’s disagreed on?

        It wasn’t listed, but I’ve noticed it; if you pick a side, it’s got to be explained why, and not everybody (even if we use the informal “everybody,” which is more like “if you get a random group of folks there won’t be one” than “not a single example exists”) believes in ghosts.

    2. Mary, you won’t find me in disagreement. But part of the premise of this post is that there ARE people who would limit Hard SF to only extrapolation from knowns. But it’s not difficult to see how far short that can fall of reality, if you look back at say, Jules Verne, and compare his efforts to what came after.

    3. Oooh, I’ve never thought about it that way before.

      especially the very common phenomenon of temperature drop and the EM spikes supposedly caused by the spirit draining surrounding energy to manifest…

      Oh hey it’s midnight. And I suceeded in creeping myself out now just thinking about it. *runs away~*

      1. Bonus scary:
        we have a very long, well-established history of the ghost activity that they find in the ghost hunter houses.

        From Catholic exorcists.
        (I don’t know if anybody else does exorcisms the same way– I know there are some Japanese rituals that are similar for driving out bad spirits, but that “knowledge” is mostly from anime and any research would bring up the same.)

        Now try to find a way to actually prove that evil spirits are against any solid rules…..

                1. We are! Guardian angels.

                  Although mine does things like cut the break line…..

                  (Was actually good. The hydraulics SHOULD, according to the time estimate by the guy who fixed it, have gone out when I was on a twisting mountain road with either a giant cliff or deep water, or both, on one side and a rock wall on the other. Instead it went into a massively accelerated leak a block or three from the only repair place I could use at the time– the guy thought I was lying that the break pedal hadn’t felt odd until less than 10 minutes prior, because the hole wasn’t big enough for that speed of failure, and I was able to stop when I got to their parking lot.)

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