Is Hard SF Still Relevant?

I attended a panel last weekend at Millennicon. It was the only panel I made the time to attend that I wasn’t sitting on, partly because there were few panels that interested me, and partly due to my busy schedule.

Millennicon

David Drake and Mark Haynes (Dave Creek showed up too late to be in the photos).

long weekend-3

Christopher Stasheff and David Burkhead

The panelists were David Drake, Christopher Stasheff, David Burkhead, Mark Haynes, and Dave Creek. I only jotted a few notes during the panel, but there were some interesting thoughts that I will use to springboard into my take on this. In the comments, I fully expect to hear from you all that you disagree, and why. Or not.

Drake started it off with his definition of Hard SF. First of all, he said, I don’t write hard science fiction, and I don’t read it for enjoyment. I consider what I write to be adventure science fiction, he told the audience. But if he had to define Hard SF, it would be: science fiction written by engineers, not scientists. The First Reader and I talked about this later. In his day job, he works with both. An engineer, he pointed out to me, will build by rule of thumb, It just needs to work. A scientist wants to know why it works, and can get hung up on some odd quirk of the machine rather than just accepting it works and moving on to what comes next.

So Hard SF ought to be practical, the ‘what really happens’, and focused on technology, then?  I know that I have always thought that Hard SF wasn’t so much about the people, although they are in a good story, but about the science, and the consequences.

Christopher Stasheff told the audience that he has always ascribed to Asimov’s three rules – no, not the ones about hurting humans – which partition Science Fiction into:

  • What if?
  • If Only….
  • If this goes on…

Stasheff added that he also likes Norman Spinrad’s question, “who does this hurt?”

Indeed, given those questions and applying one or more to any aspect of technology could quickly generate some very interesting fiction, and some of it would most likely be Hard SF. But as Stasheff went on, he never wrote much Hard SF, as he had “a few questions I want asked, some to do with human beings rather than their gadgets.”

David Burkhead, whose career is in atomic force microscopy, once in itself considered rather science fictional, pointed out that “people like me got into science because we read science fiction.” For him, the hard science was not always constrained to what we know now to be possible, but what might come in times ahead. A hundred years ago, science flatly proclaimed impossible matters that are now daily feats.

So far, we have established at least a nebulous idea of what hard science fiction may be. And we touched on the relevance, with Burkhead’s inspiration of the next generation of scientists. Indeed, as one audience member held up their cell phone and pointed out that it was a Star Trek communicator, we do use science fiction made fact every day.

Why, then, does it seem that we need to question the relevance of Hard SF? Why is it more difficult to name a title published in the last year or two that was not only ‘hard’ but compelling storytelling? When an audience member asked this question, and the panel was stumped, I could only think of one, off the top of my head, which I enthusiastically recommended. Andy Weir’s The Martian which came out about 2 years ago is not a typical novel in format, but still a good story, and diamond-hard SF. I also recommended that she take a look at Baen’s catalog. David Drake told her about the short-story contest he has helped judge for the last three years, the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award. How can you go wrong with entry requirements like this?

What We Want To See: Moon bases, Mars colonies, orbital habitats, space elevators, asteroid mining, artificial intelligence, nano-technology, realistic spacecraft, heroics, sacrifice, adventure. What We Don’t Want To See: Stories that show technology or space travel as evil or bad, galactic empires, paranormal elements, UFO abductions, zombie stories, thinly veiled copies of previous winners, non-standalone novel excerpts, screenplays.

So what do you think? Is Hard SF still relevant?

 

Dragon Noir

The new book!

Off topic entirely: if you’re looking for some fresh Fantasy Noir, my sixth novel, the finale of the Pixie for Hire trilogy, was released today. Dragon Noir was born of reading far too much Spillane, Chandler, and Hammett and then letting my twisted sense of humor loose.

“The pixie with the gun has come home to see his princess crowned a queen and live in peace. But nothing is never easy for Lom. A gruesome discovery on his doorstep interrupts their plans and sends Lom off on a mission to save not one, but two worlds. It’s personal this time and the stakes are higher than ever before. With friends falling and the enemy gathering, Bella and Lom must conquer the worst fears and monsters Underhill can conjure. Failure is not on the agenda.”

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62 responses to “Is Hard SF Still Relevant?

  1. Actually, it was me who held up the cell phone and pointed out that it was a Star Trek communicator. 😉
    The very first cell phone I had was a flip phone by Motorolla called the “Star Tak.” The “sounds like” of that name was no coincidence.

    • Heh. That as my first cell phone too. 🙂

      • My husband, when he had a traveling job, had a flip phone just like the communicator. His voice command to dial home was “Beam me home, Scotty.” Yes, yes, yes, we ARE enormous geeks.

        • But not fans — well, not according to the entrenched “official” fandom. (Rolls eyes.)

          • Oh, of course not.

            I’m also not a real fan because I will, occasionally, read things that aren’t SFF. Perish the thought.

          • Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

            Which fandom? I’m curious. I’ve seen, well, thousands of ‘fandoms’ over the years 🙂

            • Oh, apparently you’re not a fan unless you are part of the group that organizes and attends worldwon. (Rolls eyes.) PFUI. It’s a social and economic exclusionary tactic because I’ve never been in a place where I could devote either time or money to worldcon organizing. Heck, most years I can’t attend. (And yes, I know people go into debt, blah blah blah, but I have a family and obligations to THEM.)

              • Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

                That would include me too. I’ve been to one Worldcon, and that one only because it was local. When I had the money, I was too busy, and now that I’m not busy, I don’t have the money.

    • One of the guys in the audience did, too. I happened to be looking at him 🙂

      • Yeah, as I remember the sequence a guy raised his cell phone, I raised mine in response and said that it was a Star Trek communicator.

        The point remains that yesterday’s hard science fiction is today’s ubiquity. My phone doesn’t just do everything those communicators did (including, properly programmed, I could say “Kirk to Enterprise” and it would make the call), but a whole lot more. It probably has more computing power and data storage than those Tricorders and a bigger screen (what’s lacking is the sensor package).

        • I was joking with Sanford recently that in my school backpack I had the cell phone (with 32 gb card onboard) my 500 gb laptop, and my tablet (with a mere 16 gb memory) and there was a day when you couldn’t buy that much memory for love or money. It’s amazing just how far, how fast, we have come.

          • Martin L. Shoemaker

            I took a backstage tour of Kennedy Space Center. One of the stops was an old Mercury guidance station. You walk through — yes, THROUGH, it was the size of a walk-in closet — the guidance computer. It had 7 KILObytes of storage. This blog post is probably getting that long. Your cell phone has more storage than NASA did in the Apollo era. To do what they did with the tools they had makes us look like mental and moral midgets.

          • Draven

            Back in the day.. I spent $400 for 16 MB of memory, and thought it was a good deal.

            In Neuromancer, Linda Lee was killed over 16 MB or hot RAM.

            You can’t even buy 16 MB of memory for anything current.

        • What kind of sensor package do you want? We have at least one lab here on campus that the students are packaging various sensors for smartphones. One of them has a gadget for measuring the volume and makeup of your food (the idea is to sit down, whip out your smartphone, and do an instant analysis of your lunch, telling you how many calories, etc.) I know his thing includes a spectrometer…

  2. I think hard SF will always be relevant. Just like David, many scientists (and engineers) are inspired by it, and those guys will also try writing it with varying degrees of success. That creates a cycle to keep it relevant.

    If science fiction is the fiction of the possible, then it stands to reason that hard SF has its place and will always have its place.

  3. Martin L. Shoemaker

    Hard SF is about people. It has adventure. It has compelling storytelling.

    What sets it apart is what I like to call ruthless consistency. The rules of the universe are what they are, and they shape the story, not the other way around. If the rules change, they change for a reason, you know what the reason is, it’s a plausible reason (within suspension of disbelief), and the rules remain consistent with that change from then on. You can’t go from Earth to Mars in a week just because the story needs you to, you either have to take months for the journey or explain how you built a 1G constant thrust drive.

    Another defining characteristic is that your description and your world building are such that the reader feels they are really there.

    David Farland talks about the power of specifics in drawing a reader into a scene. “He walked through a forest.” Yawn. “He walked through a pine forest.” Less yawn. “He walked among the pines, his feet deep in needles and kicking up the occasional cone. The needles soaked up his footsteps, so the woods were silent. He inhaled, and the rich, spicy aroma filled his nose. The trees were old growth, their lower, thicker branches practically bare, while their upper and outer branches were sprays of dark green needles. It made each tree look almost hollow from up close, but like a green tower from farther away.” That’s a description that allows the reader to really grasp the setting.

    Now do the same thing in a science fiction setting. “I floated toward the station.” Yawn. “I floated toward the girder tunnel that connected the habitat module to the reactor and refinery.” Less yawn. And then…

    As Leeanne brought the flitter in toward The Tube—the half-klick tunnel of girders that connected Habitat Module to the Reactor and Refinery Module—I hung from its frame and peered ahead, looking for the airlocks into Habitat’s Control Deck. If Wilson wasn’t there, I wouldn’t know where to look for him. There were nearly three million cubic meters in Habitat. And in R&R . . . but I stopped that thought. I’d rather not get that close to a failing fusion reactor.

    Refinery Station was the first of Wilson Gray’s megastructures, massive artifacts in space that were half constructed, half grown by Von Neumann constructor bots. At one end hung the Habitat Module, still mostly unfinished. At the other end of The Tube was the giant fusion ring.
    The reactor provided power for Habitat, but the real reasons Wilson had built the station were the two structures on the far side of the reactor: a giant refinery utilizing the reactor’s raw heat for metallurgy, and the two-and-a-half kilometer mass driver that would launch refined metals from the Jovian system back toward Earth. Wilson had invested his entire fortune into the station, and he had convinced a number of other entrepreneurs to sign up as well. Now all those investments were poised to fail, all due to an unexplained computer crash.

    Finally we got close enough that I could make out the airlock hatches between the girders. I was glad one of the best pilots in the Pournelle Settlements the was flying. As Leeanne neared the closest approach point, the retros fired, bringing us almost motionless relative to Habitat. She had timed it perfectly—less than five meters, Leanne was good—so I leaped.
    For a moment I floated in empty space. Jupiter hung off to my right, half in shadow. The sunward side showed the giant cream-and-brown stripes, as well as an excellent view of the famous Red Spot. Closer to me but still dwarfed by its primary was Ganymede, our closest orbital neighbor. Its dark, reddish-gray surface was dotted with ancient impact craters, evidence that the Jovian system was a treasure trove of valuable rocks. Under other circumstances I would’ve enjoyed the sight, but I couldn’t waste time sight-seeing. I paid close attention to the task at hand, and I grabbed for a girder.

    Contact! My gloved fingers wrapped easily around the girder, a synthetic carbon crystal rod five centimeters across. I grabbed another and arrested my flight. The girders sparkled in my suit light. Their lattice tied the two modules together even in the face of the minimal tidal force we experienced at this distance from Ganymede. The VN bots had spent over a month assembling this giant structure out of carbon that had cost Willy a small fortune to collect; and now at any moment it could all be shattered by the explosion.

    Why yes, I do think it’s relevant. Characters, adventure, and (I hope!) a compelling story, all told against a backdrop of hard science. The idea that you can’t have both baffles me.

    • I didn’t say you couldn’t have both – I’m saying that it’s very difficult to find it well-done. The book I gave as an example of Hard SF was a rare one, and one I enjoyed immensely.

  4. lelnet

    The problem with the relevancy of “Hard SF” is defining what hardness really means, in SF. (“OMG no! He’s going to rehash the whole panel in this combox!” No…at least I don’t think so.) More specifically, the field has suffered grievously from a series of attacks by radical purists who misunderstand the point of SF so thoroughly that to them, any story with science in it that can’t be backed by strict mathematical application of papers in the peer-reviewed journals as of the date of publication might as well be stuffed with guys in pointy hats waving sticks in the air and incanting.

    This, of course, has alienated a lot of people whose care for consistency is merely sincere, rather than obsessive and pharisaical.

    Some would stop the argument there, and declare the whole thing to be merely a categorization problem, with “Hard SF” having been overdefined right up to the border of utter nonexistence. Others would admit that, even accepting a more reasonable definition, there’s less of it being produced than one would expect, and lay the blame for that at the feet of reaction against the purists.

    Either way, though, I think the idea is a good one, and at this point the label is doing it more harm than good.

    • I agree, the definition is a difficult one. I liked that Burkhead pointed out that most would constrain Hard SF from including FTL travel, but there isn’t a reason TO do that. We could very well see that become a reality. Breaking the sound barrier was impossible, once. Do I think science fiction in general is still relevant? Oh, heck yeah!

      • Breaking the sound barrier was impossible, once.

        That’s a bit of a canard there. By the time we even knew what the “sound barrier” was we also knew things that broke it (most military projectiles, in fact). What was in question wasn’t “could you pierce the sound barrier” but rather “we see that there are control and stress issues on aircraft approaching the speed of sound and can we build an aircraft that can survive those and remain controllable at speeds near or beyond the speed of sound”.

        The argument I use:
        Imagine it’s 1890 and you’re a physical scientist. Someone approaches you with the following:

        “I have here two lumps of a material called Uranium 235. If you slam them together correctly, they will release energy with the explosive force of more than one hundred million sticks of dynamite.”

        You’d laugh at him. The very idea is preposterous. First off, what’s this “235” business? Uranium is Uranium. It doesn’t come in types. You’re familiar with the atomic theory of matter, right? Atomic. From the Greek atomos. It means “indivisible. A Uranium atom is a Uranium Atom is a Uranium atom. And this ridiculous release of energy? Energy can neither be created or destroyed. You’ve can convert from one form to another but that’s about it. If there was so much energy, whether chemical or mechanical, in Uranium to do as you suggest, it would tend to go off at the slightest provocation–Like, say, sneezing anywhere in the same county. What you suggest is flat out theoretically impossible.

        Now, instead, suppose someone approached you with the following instead:

        “You know, if you applied a force to something, like say with a rocket, and continued applying it for long enough, there is no ultimate bar to how fast it could go. Enough force, for enough time, and one could travel between the stars in weeks, if not days. Of course that much acceleration would crush most things and the engineering challenges are probably prohibitive, but there’s no theoretical bar to it.”

        You’d probably have to agree. After all speed is simply acceleration over time, and acceleration is simply force divided by mass. Enough force, applying enough acceleration, for enough time and any speed could be achieved without limit, at least theoretically. The engineering challenges might be prohibitive but there were no theoretical limits.

        Now, instead of 1890 imagine it’s 1990. Now the possibility/impossibility of those two events have reversed. We’ve discovered the electron, neutron, and proton and learned that, far from being “indivisible” the atom is actually made up of components. We’ve discovered that there are differences among atoms–isotopes–of the same element. And we’ve discovered that matter and energy can be interchanged and very small amounts of matter can, in the right circumstances, be converted to very large amounts of energy. And we’ve demonstrated the very thing in the first example–slapping two pieces of Uranium 235 together to make whopping big explosions. (And using different materials we’ve made even bigger booms.) As for the other, we’ve found that force applied to an object will produce different accelerations depending on how fast one sees the object of moving and the faster it is moving–the closer it’s speed is to that of light–the less acceleration a given force will produce, with the result that it can never reach, let alone exceed, the speed of light.

        http://thewriterinblack.blogspot.com/2012/03/science-science-fiction-and-possible.html

        It’s utter hubris to think that our current understanding of physical theory is the final, correct one. Come the next “revolution” some things we think are impossible will, in fact, turn out to be possible. Some things we think are possible will, in fact, turn out to be impossible.

        And nobody knows which things.

    • The problem with the relevancy of “Hard SF” is defining what hardness really means, in SF. (“OMG no! He’s going to rehash the whole panel in this combox!” No…at least I don’t think so.) More specifically, the field has suffered grievously from a series of attacks by radical purists who misunderstand the point of SF so thoroughly that to them, any story with science in it that can’t be backed by strict mathematical application of papers in the peer-reviewed journals as of the date of publication might as well be stuffed with guys in pointy hats waving sticks in the air and incanting.

      This is my problem with ‘hard sf’. I am not a scientist, and I was, frankly, driven away from writing anything that isn’t space opera because I could either write a story, taking an idea I may have gotten from an interesting article on astronomy or even just from daydreaming about human exploration of space, or a tale based around the thoughts of asteroid mining being the new gold rush; or spend the rest of my life researching and ‘trying not to get the science wrong.’ Since it seemed that ‘getting the science wrong’ was a HUGE FAT NO NO NO NO IF YOU DO YOU SUCK AND FAIL, it didn’t seem like fun to write so I stuck to writing fantasy. My general impression has been that this is ultimately why the genre of sci-fi has been faltering (again, my impression) in favor of space opera and not-so-hard-sci-fi but fun to read books based off of IN SPACE! videogames (HALO being one of those.) Do I really need to come up with workable and functioning NOW machines that generate atmosphere inside an asteroid, focusing on machinery and minute details of why the physics of this works? Or focus on the humans who struggle to stay alive in one of the most hostile environs known ever?

      The last book I read that focused on concept versus story I still want to turn into target practice, and consider it a waste of money in an attempt to read ‘serious SF.’

      • Laura M

        Just don’t explain beyond the level of your own understanding. It makes me sad that people won’t write about space because someone else is going to complain about their math. When I did my space debris novel I used real satellites (cleverly renamed, of course), with their real altitudes and real inclinations, failed to mention exactly how much time had passed so you couldn’t check me on where their orbits had degraded to, and described what the pictures in front of me looked like. Their tonnage and composition was often publicly available in Space News, and a couple got a little cosmetic surgery. It drove me crazy that the most important one didn’t have certain information in the trade press, but its risk numbers were publicly available so I was able to figure some part of it would survive reentry. The tech was based in part off something someone had won a prize for, and YouTube shows great videos of engine testing. Getting this information together definitely constituted research, but I knew better than to attempt any math or to attempt to explain rather than to describe. Since I was describing things that existed or that people were working on, I felt some confidence. Nonetheless, I was terrified because of the persnickety factor.

        Those of us who want to read about space and asteroid mining would like our storytellers to boldly go. 🙂 Now I’m off to check out Martin’s work.

  5. Once again we are hoist on the petard of reasonableness… Hard SF does, at least in my mind, hew to the realistic strictures of science. The problem is how much of that is embedded in the story, or specified in the story. Therein lies the difference in my mind. If an engineer or scientist reads a novel, they WILL in most cases automatically fact check the science as they go, assuming the author has done his homework. The average reader may wish for more detail, or skip those parts they don’t understand, looking more at the story in itself and ignoring the science. It’s the purist and the attack dog readers that muddle the picture. I believe that hard SF will continue and will hopefully continue to motivate young readers to get into the field. (I work with both scientists and engineers, and most do read SF) Many of the so called fantasies from the 40s-60s are now reality, either on the streets every day (lasers, cell phones, etc.) or coming (rail guns, laser weapons, sound weapons, and ???).

    • Draven

      OldNFO!

      (reader of your blog here)

      Anyway, you know we have a USN vessel, the USS Ponce, that has a laser weapon mounted on it? that they acre actually authorized to use as a weapon in the field?

      And the Air Force is considering putting a similar weapon on the AC-130J.

      We’re living in science fiction.

  6. Holly

    The thing about hard SF is that, well, it’s hard. Most of those writing it have advanced degrees in hard science. A lot of those who aren’t seem to not be overly comfortable with math.
    Hard SF is still relevant. Look at how popular The Martian is. It’s just harder to write than the soft SF genres, because it requires a skill set that doesn’t seem to be all that common among people who practice wielding words.
    I’m not stupid, but higher math is a slog. If I want to know how fast to rotate my space station to generate fake gravity for a one-line about matching X speed for docking, I’m going to spend a couple hours looking up the formula, going through it, and checking my work.
    Or I can skip those details and write much faster.

  7. Short answer, Yes. Longer answer – yes it is. Otherwise we’d have stopped reading Golden Age Sci-Fi long ago. In my opinion the lack of hard SF these days is one of the reasons that Golden Age authors are still popular today. Because they told a good story with a hard science edge.

  8. Holly, etc al,

    I interviewed Weir about The Martian and, while Andy has a background in computer science, he’s not a physicist, nor a geologist, nor any number of other sciences that require a good working knowledge of to get right. Andy asked. He found folks in different disciplines, worked out his problems and asked for critique.
    (He also borrowed shamelessly, lol)
    In one respect at least, I think writing Hard SF is simpler/easier than non-hard SF in that the science only works one way, the correct way. The rules are there for anyone to look at.
    I also think that we’re a bit confused with our definitions here. What was once Hard SF is now largely referred to as space opera, and space opera was awful stuff we’d barely consider a part if the genre.
    Finally, cutting FTL out of the equation is just plain wrong. The jury is not in yet in the science and on the edges of known science is where SF ought to be.
    I’d welcome near-future Hard SF.

    • Laura M

      HobbySpace is mostly space stuff, but it also showcases what the blogger calls “solar sci-fi” stories which happen in our own backyard, namely, our solar system. His definition of hard SF is pretty good, and perhaps more accurate than “that science fiction which is written by engineers.” He describes hard SF as “technically realistic and plausible,” and has a list of books for solar sci-fi. The list emphasizes near-term scenarios.

    • Holly

      Where’s the interview? I got the book for Christmas (Mom managed to buy sci-fi!!!) and it’s great. Too bad it’s not Hugo eligible.

  9. First off, I see from these pictures that I do know who David Burkhead is! I figured I must have seen him around, and I have. (And yeah, it’s very annoying that I missed Millennicon again. I really wanted to go, this year!)

    Hard SF is more about the definite future that can be built, although it mixes well with other kinds of speculation. I don’t think you have to be some kind of math and science genius, though. You just have to be willing to think about nitty-gritty stuff, like “What kind of sewer system would work in a space station, so that I can use it to send secret messages to Bob who works at the sewer plant?” You don’t actually have to have specifications, per se.

    • Or Bujold’s newts. She doesn’t give newt numbers, but she comes up with a funny solution, explains how it could work, and explains some of the problems that could happen. It’s a thoughtful appearance of verisimilitude and it’s thinking in a hard sf way, but you don’t need the specs.

      Mostly, you need specs to tell you when you are full of BS, so that you figure it out before all your readers do. 🙂

    • I have a half a short story plotted about Misha’s Intergalactic Waste Removal and Greengrocer’s that’s sort of about this…

  10. Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

    Let’s toss a bit of gasoline on the fire. No hard SF has been written after June 1977.

    Why? Because June 1977 marked the release of the Apple II and after that point in time it became impossible to write a plausible Hard SF story.

    The introduction of the first easily usable Personal Computer (I am aware that there were a lot of computers available before this, however the Apple II was a huge jump in usability over the Altair and other S100 Buss machines) meant that the pace of technological advancement increased from that point on at a rate that no one could keep up with.

    And I’m not even adding RFC675 into the equation yet 🙂

    • Draven

      Any hard SF that has even tried to predict the proliferation of personal computing power hasn’t even gotten close, really.

      • Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

        True. but I was trying to say that with computers and later networking, the R&D, and human to human communication rate has increased to a point where anyone attempting to write Hard SF will get it wrong, because they have no chance of knowing everything that might impact the science.

        Take the situation with exoplanets – write a story that includes an exoplanet that has been discovered by lensing, gravitational pull on the star, or whatever, and within a year at the most (and more often less than six months) the information you’ve used will have been superseded with newer, more accurate information.

        it is impossible to keep up, in any field, not just computers.

  11. BobtheRegisterredFool

    An engineer, a PE in good standing with their state board of licensure, can absolutely write soft science fiction. Professional qualifications of any sort do not limit the genres a reader can enjoy, or a writer can write.

    However, a mind that works in a way that lends itself well to certain activities can also add to specific kinds of stories. Drake, Kratman, and Wright are former lawyers, and you can sorta tell from the precision of language.

    I dunno if my understanding of the difference between an engineer and a scientist is compatible with Drake’s.

    I understand hard sci fi as a spectrum. I’ve a plot, not as detailed as I need, for a setting that assumes that all biological pseudoscience assumptions are true. I also have some plans for much harder ideas.

    I figure there are fads and fashions in both reading and writing. Hard science requires the effort in world building/problem set up, and character/plot/problem solving. Someone who wants to write om genres that include hard sci fi may write more other because they figure the other out faster.

    I figure a contest advertised the right places, with a theme like ‘there was a wreck and I am burned’ would get a decent number of hits.

  12. Perhaps a hard science fiction story is one that is plausible, but can be rendered obsolete by a new discovery. Larry Niven talks about “The Coldest Place” in those terms.
    And, in honor of Cedar’s release of “Dragon Noir,” I have just posted my March 12 blog review over on Amazon.

  13. I… reject the question.

    I don’t understand why this particular conflict even exists. I think it may be a relic of the mid 90’s “don’t you dare call us genre hacks” freak out. If “Space Opera” was the dirtiest of dirty words (and it was) then it was necessary to explain somehow what the “good” version of Space/Future science fiction was, which was “hard”. It was part of the process that ended up with everyone looking about sort of confused and asking “Where did the fun go?”

    And the thing of it is that stories about geeky persons doing important science and engineering were plenty fun. We romped about the Moon and Mars and flew spaceships and were awed by discoveries on Titan and Europa. They concentrated on the wiz-bang coolness of science and what it could do… very human wave… and very Space Operatic… which was bad and had to be avoided.

    So fantasy took over.

    Until everyone started complaining, what about the Golden Age? And finally Space Opera was redeemed, too. But it’s still behind fantasy, which had also been on the list of bad “how dare you call us genre hacks” non-literature, but at least it was doing something *else* instead of doing science fiction wrong by having fun.

    There’s actually quite a bit of mostly plausible “people get off the Earth” science fiction these days. I think that Eric Flint and Ryk Spoor’s _Boundary_ series is a good example of “plucky engineers and scientists” doing amazingly heroic science and engineering and discovering amazing things in our own backyard fiction.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      I think this is more of the correct area.

      It can still be done, it can still be done great, the notion that tech alone prevents it is bullshit.

      I like Ryk, and Doc Smith is still wonderful.

      I’m grumpy from a sunburn, and I have the sense that with a little bit of competence the experience could be turned into any number of sci fi shorts.

    • Laura M

      I’m with Synova on this one. Regardless of how we define hard SF, which is a separate question, it has to be relevant. Hard science fiction is where we can imagine and maybe even figure out, without magic, how to solve problems. It shows the application of mind to matter. If the writer is human wave, the tools will be used for good. If not, the story can still dissolve into grey goo.

  14. Hard SF is where the Author uses Metric units to provide verisimilitude, because Metric = Science! Even if they use Klicks as either/both a distance or speed measure. Even if it alienates the readers who are still more familiar with SAE units.

    It’s very Eurocentric, and it reminds me of the way liberals tried to force it on the country as if we were inferior for not using it. Annoyingly, a lot of those myths still persist. It’s not “More accurate” – a string is the same length, regardless of the units you measure it in. If anything, it’s less so, because the most common thing you do with a measurement is to divide it in half, and that quickly brings you down into decimals that are WAY too small to scratch into a ruler. Metric is for people who are bad at Fractions.

    By the way, Boeing uses inches. We torque in Inch-Pounds and Foot-Pounds, and even our decimal measurements are in thousandths of an inch.

    Just… don’t ask about the drill bits.

    • So, what about the drill bits?

      (Oh, come on. You HAD to see this coming. 😛 )

      • BobtheRegisterredFool

        Full disclosure: I am trying to get a job with Boeing. I do not work there now, and have not before.

        There are at least two non metric sets of sizes of drill bits. Letters and fractions. It is possible that two or three are used by Boeing.

        • Mostly decimal actually. Except for #30 and #40.

          You don’t need to know that to get a job at Boeing. In fact, to avoid accusations of bias, at least for the hourly union type jobs, they have a set interview of 5 questions they ask everyone.

      • Heh, you think you know how to drill a hole? They send you to school for weeks and drill you in how to do it properly (see what I did there?) And the sizes depend on the material you’re drilling through. Have a Size 6 fastener? (that’s 6/32nds of an inch) then if it’s aluminum, you need to finish with a .187 drill, but if there’s carbon fiber in the stack-up, you have to use a .190. Then there are Reamers, “Dreamers” and double-margin drill bits, and special drills called Gunbarrels for matching holes, and then all kinds of drill guides (Egg cups, crackpipes, steamboats, and bombsights), and most of these drills have pilots on them, because you don’t just drill one hole, you start with a small one, a #30 bit (.128) and work your way up. (I’ve done holes that required 7 bit changes). And when you’re done, they have a device that can measure the hole you’ve made to 1/10,000 of an inch, to make sure it’s round and in tolerance.

        Then to run these drill bits, we use mostly air-powered drill motors, Some are pistol grip, but we also use a lot of right-angle motors to get in tiny spaces, with little short drill bits that have threaded ends on them to attach them.

        And then for the really big holes, there are power-feed drills called “Quacks” (for the now-defunct manufacturer, Quackenbush) that lock into drilling jigs and use high volume air hoses and lubricant pumps to chug through the thick titanium. The wing guys get Orbital drills that are actually computer-driven boring machines for their bolt holes, although they still use specialized Quacks for certain locations.

        At least on the 787 we don’t have to drive a lot of rivets.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      Sigma Alpha Epsilon or Society of Automotive Engineers?

      Grins, ducks, and runs away.

  15. I know I shouldn’t do this, but every time I look at the title “Is Hard SF Still Relevant?” I keep pondering some of the implications behind the question.

    First, of course, is the suggestion that it was relevant at one time, but something has changed to reduce that relevance? What is the change?

    Next, I think is the question of whether fiction of any kind is relevant. What exactly does it mean for fiction to be relevant, and when did that become a major measurement for fiction? Perhaps we should consider just what relevance means?

    Then, of course, come the parsings of “is fiction relevant,” “is science fiction relevant,” and “is hard science fiction relevant?” If you feel adventuresome, you might toss in “is soft science fiction relevant?” Or there’s the hard question, is fantasy relevant? Should it be? Why?

    Does it matter if it is relevant? As you point out, I’ll take good writing — a good story — most anytime.

  16. Hey, I’m getting a group together to drive out to Arizona and visit mayhem on Cedar’s web host. It just went from glacial load times to “You just broke the internet.” The problem is clearly with the web host; a trace route command shows all the problems being with them. Since I LIKE Cedar’s website, and since I especially wanted to respond with thanks to a post Scott J Robinson made, I am aggravated by their apparent inability to get their stuff together.
    So: who wants to go with me? I can put three in the cab of my pickup, and six more at least in the bed. Snacks will be provided, and singing is encouraged. I will be happy to demonstrate both parts to “Down By The Old Mill Stream,” and “Little Bunny Foo-Foo” is a definite part of the program.

    • No, no, no… not “and knock ’em on the head?” That is cruel and unusual punishment, you wabbit person, you. Although I suppose everyone should experience that grand old ditty at least once in their life. And the next time, you can join in on the punchline, so I guess it does build team spirit or something. Groan… I know this story!

  17. Pingback: Opera: To Infinity, and Beyond! | Otherwhere Gazette

  18. Gregory Benford

    “Hard SF: science fiction written by engineers, not scientists”
    Far too narrow.

    • A review of my novel “Survival Test” said “this looks like it was written by an Engineer. Is David Burkhead an Engineer” then after commenting about checking. “He’s not, but he can sure hum the tune.”