So you want to write an award-winning Hard Science Fiction story?

There is a breed of Science Fiction (SF) story that tries to pay special attention to the rules. And by that I mean the story doesn’t play fast and loose with the known laws of physics, chemistry, mathematics, and other natural parameters of which we’re aware. Or, if it does play fast and loose, it plays fast and loose in a very specific way, with a very specific aspect of physics, or chemistry, or mathematics, while paying attention to a new set of rules established by the author — rules adhered to throughout the duration of the story. This type of SF has been called “hard” by most of its fans and authors. One of the more famous practitioners of Hard SF (HSF) is a man named Larry Niven, who himself cut his teeth on the works of one of the all-time greats, Robert A. Heinlein.

I in turn cut my teeth on Larry’s works, and learned to love HSF by taking tours of Larry’s various universes, including the Known Space series. I’ve since gone on to make a bit of a name for myself with HSF stories in what is, to this day, the English language’s premier HSF magazine — the same magazine where Niven and Heinlein have been featured: Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

Now, before I start, I want to make it clear that I submitted perhaps two or three dozen different stories to Analog before (then editor) Stanley Schmidt purchased my first-ever Analog piece; a story called “Outbound.” So it’s not like I walked in Stan’s front door, plunked down my first effort, and raked in the Analytical Laboratory (AnLab) readers’ choice award. I spent a long time — many years! — pushing to refine my storytelling and my wordsmithing (two different skills, in my opinion) as well as reading a lot of HSF: Niven, Heinlein, Vernor Vinge, Kim Stanley Robinson, and others.

I hope it doesn’t take you nearly as long as it took me; to get the hang of writing good HSF. I am hoping that I can provide some guideposts that will help you along your route.

First, a good HSF story isn’t just about the technical details. This is one area where I think HSF and non-HSF readers tend to rely on a canard: that HSF is a “nuts and bolts” subgenre that doesn’t require the author (or the reader) to dwell much on characterization, drama, plot, etc. The idea itself — the technology, or the exploration of a physical phenomenon, or delving into some new aspect of medicine, engineering, astronomy, space launch systems, etc. — is enough. That may have been true a few decades ago, but I think a good HSF story (now) combines both good sci/tech and good, well-rounded characters, who have to grapple with important, pressing issues.

Second, a good HSF story tends to be a combination of two or three strong elements which compliment each other. When I was much younger, I tended to wait until an idea popped into my head — a predicament, say, or a technical barrier, or a dangerously exotic situation — and off I went. I’d write a story focused on that sole piece of the puzzle, send the story off into the universe, and wonder why it only ever got rejections. It wasn’t until I developed the patience to wait until two or, preferably, three or more elements spontaneously clicked together, that I began to have success with editors; not to mention readers. For instance: dangerous new technology, by itself, may not be enough to hold a story up. But, combine the dangerous new technology with a jaded engineer who is trying to recover her career and she just happens to be competing against a company where her rotten ex-husband is the project lead . . . that’s a much meatier situation.

Third, all the gadgetry in the world doesn’t matter if your character(s) can’t be cared about. I’m a firm believer in the idea that drama doesn’t have to be ginned up. Place a sympathetic character into a predicament that is a natural consequence of a certain time, period, place, etc., and the drama will fashion itself. Almost everybody is acquainted with drama in their own lives. What may seem dramatic to you or me, may not seem dramatic to someone else. Unless you keep the stakes raised to such an extent that anyone placed into that predicament might feel the same pressure, the same anxiety, and so forth. People love to root for people. Make sure your story doesn’t turn its individuals into wallpaper for your fascination with a setting, or a scientific theory.

Fourth, your character(s) need to be going somewhere, and the technology, science theory, new idea, etc., needs to somehow be integral to the character(s) journey. To complicate things, your outward journey — travels in space and time — needs to be complimented by an inner journey. Not that hard, really, if you examine your own life. Invariably you can identify challenges you’ve overcome, or protracted problems which were not easily solved, and you realize you came out of the trouble a different person than when you went into it. Personal growth and change will compliment your character(s) change of setting, change of location, change of planet, and so forth.

Fifth, science and technology are often double-edged swords. Almost nothing is ever an unadulterated boon to mankind. Consider that the same jet airliners which make modern travel so fast and cheap, have also been converted into cruise missiles for murder and destruction. The technology didn’t change, it was simply used differently. This may affect how your Good Guys and also your Bad Guys respond to a given scientific or technological development. A brilliant example of this kind of story is Niven’s “The Hole Man.” It was a Hugo winner in 1975, and it’s still a great story today.

Sixth, stories which set out to be the “last word” on a given combination of setting, technology, scientific phenomenon, etc., usually aren’t. Just focus on giving the reader a good time. Trying too hard to be “the last word” will simply distract you from doing your job.

Seventh, never be afraid to tread a well-worn path. There really are no new ideas in SF, much less HSF. For example, you may or may not be the first one to combine a certain aspect of human behavior with a given piece of technology, in a specific setting. What’s really going to set your story apart is the style and voice you bring to your prose. And the only thing that will help you develop that style and voice, is practice. Lots and lots of practice. The bulk of which may not produce very good stories. Not at first. Maybe, not even after a dozen or more tries. But if you work at it, and you’re not afraid to keep pushing, and you have an inquisitive mind that relishes science fact articles, science fact television programs, etc., I think you can teach yourself to mix all of these various things together in ways which will delight an audience.

Now, for a few personal caveats. These are just my prejudices and biases speaking, so take ’em or leave ’em.

Endless polishing is death on productivity, and death on learning. I never learned anything from spending months or years tinkering with the same piece of work. Give yourself a personal rule, for when you’re going to stop on a specific work, and move on to something new. Either how many revisions you’ll do, or how much time you’ll devote to finishing touches once you’ve put THE END on the tail, etc. Just don’t get locked into thinking you can make any story perfect. I can speak from experience: good enough really is good enough.

Downbeat endings suck. They are ‘literary’ and some critics and aesthetes love them. But they suck. If you’re going to roast your characters in hell, at least give them a little silver lining at the end? Some kind of hope for a more positive outcome? Your readers will thank you.

Stories that demote humanity to being puny and insignificant, also suck. We may be small and/or not as advanced as other intelligent life in the universe, but we didn’t get to where we are now by being meaningless dullards. Humans are crafty and stubborn. Never say die. We should be reflected as such.

Some of the best HSF I’ve ever read, inspired in me the notion: Wow, this is how it could really happen! Be it space colonization, or warp drive, or first contact with another intelligent species from somewhere else in the galaxy. When you play by the rules — keeping the universe as we know it relatively intact, accessible, and consistent — you’re shining a light on a possible path. Not predicting the future per se, but illuminating a way that things might develop. That’s the kind of story that may inspire some teenager somewhere to become a rocket scientist.

Speaking of which, leave the “playground equipment” around for your readers to mess with. That’s a Niven-ism. If the reader gets to the end of your story and can imagine events continuing on — populated by your characters, the reader in character form, or both — then you’ve really won. Because you’ve made your world and your story so engrossing, the reader doesn’t want to leave! That’s a reader who will want to come back for more. That’s a reader who will be loyal, and tell others about your work.

35 thoughts on “So you want to write an award-winning Hard Science Fiction story?

  1. This is really where Hugo review of John C Wright’s work goes, not yesterday. so here’s the reference.
    And Brad, I did a three part series on Tolerance, based on my that none was in display toward puppies of any sort, but particularly not puppies who were men and women of faith. The second in the series might not apply to you so much, since it describes my struggle with alcoholism, but if you follow it through, I think you’ll be blessed.

    Peace on your encampment, from former Sp-5 Pat Patterson, 1972-75, and SGT Eli Jordan Patterson, 2011-2015, (ret).

  2. I’ve spent my professional life fixing things that other people break, from postage meters to home computers to bank vaults, and I currently work in building maintenance at a university. This gives me a very jaded view of technology in general, and I use that in my work.

    With any tool there is going to be what the engineers think it can do, what the engineers want the public to think it can do, what it can actually do, and what people will end up using it for–and those four things can be subtly or wildly different.

    So when you introduce a new technology–teleportation, robots, space travel, whatever–try to keep in mind that people are going to use it to do things that it wasn’t designed to do. Someone is going to try to use it to commit crimes. More than that, someone is going to use it as a sex toy. David Gerrold’s “The Man Who Folded Himself” shows that.

    Keep in mind the Law of Unintended Consequences. Any new technology will cause problems as well as fix them, and some cause more problems than they fix.

    I am not anti-technology, and I am even less of the opinion that technology should be controlled by some elite oligarchy of self-appointed wizards. Humans need to use tools to survive–the proper term for a human living in harmony with nature is “fertilizer”. When the tiger is charging, it’s too late to start fire-hardening a spear.

    But just because we need it doesn’t mean that we will always use it intelligently. You’re always going to have a certain percentage of the population who will read “Warning: Do Not Transport Charged Batteries In The Translocater” and load up the teleport stage with every battery they can find, just to see what happens. And then someone else with darker motives with realize that this means that any public transporter (and they are now on every street corner) can be made into a bomb.

    It’s just human nature.

  3. Writing a HSF novel now, Brad. It’s a departure from my previous novels, all ‘soft’ scifi based. This one is called The Ship, book 1 of what will be at least 3, and the general plot revolves around the difficulty of bringing a revolutionary propulsion system from concept/prototype stage to the point where it could take people out into space.
    Established interests have enormous amounts of money invested, long-term contracts, infrastructure devoted to other means of propulsion. They’ll do all they can to hamper the project as soon as they get a sniff that it’s ongoing, and since it truly is revolutionary every government on the planet wants a piece of it. That gives me time pressure, to get the new system operating before it can be stopped/compromised by others, plus the headaches from engineering and dealing with subcontractors, etc.
    But it’s enormous fun too. How would you design a spacecraft, using mostly current technology but with the addition of one new aspect? How would you manufacture the parts? What about intermediate uses of the technology? Where would you put your manufacturing/assembly plant? Licensing? Construction permits? What about people? They need housing, food, power, water, sewage, supplies, entertainment. If a ciy is nearby, that provides all the support for workers, but it also carries a significant security risk. Could the technology be used to generate income while the spaceship is being developed without revealing too much about how it works?
    These are the questions I’m solving right now (seven chapters have been written, the 8th is underway).
    Your column is good advice; I’ll keep it in mind.

    1. That is a good, time-honored technique, using established science except for a single element.

      1. Heh. ‘Established science’ is a separate element all its own. Additive manufacturing, for example, to produce major subassemblies is ‘established science’ already. If you’ve been following this, what’s going on now is little short of breathtaking. This field is exploding, which allows me to add one more gee-whiz element to the story but without it being ‘fiction’.

        1. Oh yeah. It always pays to be up on the newest stuff. That’s why I glance through Popular Science and related magazines to see if there’s details I can squirrel away for my stories.

    2. Licensing? Did you say licensing? Here’s where I can actually be of help. If you are setting this in the present or the near future, the vehicle will need a launch license under U.S. law from the FAA. If it transmits back to the U.S., which 98% seem to do, it will need either a license or a special temporary authorization from the FCC. If it is capable of remotely sensing the Earth it will need a NOAA license.

      It will not need a license under domestic law to be a starship, killjoys to the contrary notwithstanding, just to get off the planet. Also, even if a U.S. entity launches from another country it needs an FAA license, Firestar notwithstanding.

      If any of your licensing issues are plot points and you want more information, let me know.

      1. Write me at, Laura.
        I’ve got all manner of licensing issues to resolve, beginning with building the plant to manufacture the ‘widgets’. I know quite a bit about construction permits, as it happens, but the intricacies of federal licensing for FAA, FCC, and NOAA are outside my experience.
        The first propulsion systems will be used to power a ship (to generate data, as well as begin earning income), while the second will be an auxiliary propulsion system mounted in a standard airplane. I knew this would need to be signed off on by a FAA inspector, who would then license the craft as ‘experimental’.
        That’s the legal path; a separate path involves testing the propulsion units and that one is absolutely non-legal. The plot revolves around getting the spaceship off the ground, fully operational, before someone figures out how it’s being propelled. After that, they’ll be playing catchup for five to ten years while the first crew(s) are claiming everything they can take and hold. Why not claim the Moon, Mars, as many asteroids as possible? IF you have the only ships that can routinely travel there, that can begin building an outpost, that’s a case for ‘ownership’. Despite agreements between nations, there are legal jurisdiction questions that could take years to work their way through the system, so title becomes a separate issue. I’ll probably explore that in book two.
        Lots of work ahead, but I do have a track record; I’ve got four novels in one series and three in another, plus a novella and a short story, all complete on Amazon.

        1. Of course the UN had declared space open to all, which translates to nobody gets to claim anything for themselves or a specific country. Same deal as what they did with the deep sea floor which is why no one is willing to develop the technology to robotically mine there. About the time you started to show a profit the UN would step in and take most if not all you had.
          Doesn’t mean space won’t be developed, just that the UN position is one more hurdle to navigate, probably either by ignoring them or buying them off. Wouldn’t take but a few million in the right pockets to get an official exemption for the purposes of developing off planet resources for the good of humanity. Or similar bilge to make the bribery and corruption look noble.

          1. What army is the UN going to use? [Evil Grin]

            Seriously, the Space Laws will have to be mentioned but IMO won’t be a problem if the major countries decide to “not enforce them” or decide to change them.

            In the Boundary series by Eric Flint & Ryk Spoor, the major space faring countries knew “there’s gold out there” so signed onto a treaty that allowed for countries, businesses and individuals to lay claim to “space property”.

            Since they were the countries that the UN would have called on to enforce the old Space Laws, the old Space Laws were “dead laws”.

            Of course, part of the conflict could involve governments trying to use the Space Laws as an excuse to stop the heroes or to “get a piece” of the heroes’ pie. [Smile]

            1. Consider Texas: Mexico claimed it, but lacked the capability to enforce their claim. For that matter, a number of nations have claimed territory in the past that they couldn’t control.
              I suspect that the US Government will offer quite a bit for sole access to the new technology as soon as they find out it’s available! Ah, the continuing income from licensing fees, having the new US Space Force defending the claims…
              And of course, if they don’t decide to do that, maybe the Chinese will. If not the Chinese, maybe a European Consortium? It’s only capitalism, right?

          2. There is a lot of scholarship out there that support the view that nobody gets to claim anything, but even those folks think you get to keep what you bring back. The real question, IMHO, is territory, and there is a reading of the Outer Space Treaties that allows for private appropriation. It’s not even a complicated reading.

        2. About the experimental stuff, the FAA administers two statutes, the Federal Aviation Act and the Commercial Space Launch Act. The first applies to aircraft, the second to launch and reentry vehicles that are operated by U.S. citizens who are not the federal government. Both regimes authorize experimental activities, the former for experimental aircraft, the latter for experimental suborbital rockets. The squirrely ones are the hybrids, like Scaled’s carrier aircraft lofting the little SpaceShips. When the rocket is lit, both the aircraft and rocket op.s come under the CSLA. When not, they are treated, in combination and separately, as aviation. Most rocket operations of any altitude require Notices to Airmen, so someone will either see what’s going on, or have a hook to get your guys under the law.

          Also, I dropped you a line separately if you want more imaginary opinions. 🙂

      2. 35 years ago, Alexis A. Gilleland wrote a quirky little trilogy about a space colony, starting with “Revolution from Rosinante.” One throwaway bit was the military detecting an incoming enemy missile, but they were unable to launch a countermissile because the final launch authority rested with the EPA due to environmental concerns.

        Here in the 21st century that doesn’t sound nearly so unlikely…

        1. I worked with a former NASA engineer whose entire job while there consisted of calculating whether launch aborts might lead to debris landing in alligator breeding ponds. If the answer was yes, that launch plan had to be revised.

          In the years she worked there, that program NEVER launched (not just due to alligator issues). And when she went back years later, it still had not launched, and they were still recalculating abort trajectories.

          Gilleland’s story sounds pretty plausible to me.

      3. Good to know. I’ll try to remember to include that when my group launches from South America with their middle fingers raised to the U.S. (If I ever get it done, of course)

      4. Now waitaminnut. Some experimental and single-person craft are not required to be licensed by the FAA. What if your starship was just such a craft??

        1. For space transportation, the FAA only licenses launch and reentry to and from Earth. It does not have jurisdiction on orbit. Any size starship (namely, one that travels between stars), would not require a license. It’s the getting to it that would.

    3. That’s certainly a popular mem, all the way back to Heinlein, and has in some instances happened before, as with FM radio. Problem is, I was there for one of these potentially revolutionary technological developments, and when the back-of-the-envelope (literally) calculations showed that it was more cost effective, our entire industry moved to capitalize on a new business model. Unfortunately, not all new tech pans out, and a full-scale trial run proved it to be not nearly as cost effective as everyone thought, and it never came about.

      That’s actually a polite example of what happens in such cases. Try cut-throat competition as businesses jockey to come out ahead with the new technology, complete with industrial espionage, patent infringement, and allege patent infringement to drive an upstart under with court costs. Not exactly action-packed, but plenty dirty.

      Of course, the fictional intrepid start-up could suffer mysterious sabotage right near the deadline for government contract trials, only to discover a big name competitor is introducing what is essentially the same tech. That might be fun for readers.

      Just my two cents.

  4. Because you’ve made your world and your story so engrossing, the reader doesn’t want to leave! That’s a reader who will want to come back for more.

    You misspelled “reader who will complain it was too short” 😀 I get this frequently. It’s a good problem to have and I take it as the compliment it is.

    1. Right? Pam Uphoff has written only 17 Wine of the Gods books; where are the rest?!? And there is this neat diner in Goldport, Colo. that really needs to not be a trilogy. And poor put-upon Ash, what’s she up to?

  5. I was looking for good science fiction quotes and cam across one from Poul Anderson. “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.”

    Regarding the Law of Unintended Consequences, I have a idea but not a story to go with it. If you can do something with it, have at it. If you have a transporter that converts matter to energy and back again you have a way to turn a 150 pound person in a 3 gigaton bomb.

  6. A month or so ago I was musing on the difference between Space as Setting and Space as Plot. In the former, space is a place where stories happen, and the setting affects the stories, but the setting is not the dominant element. In the latter, getting to space and surviving there IS the story. No space story is all Setting or all Plot, there’s a blend; but different blends will appeal to different readers. My opinion is that Space as Setting has a wider reader base, but The Martian proves that Space as Plot can be done very successfully.

  7. Ben Bova once made the observation that the action in the story should mirror the main character’s internal conflict. An example was a lunar rescue story where the protagonist’s struggle to get back to base with an injured colleague mirrored his internal conflict that the same man has figured out his dark past, and it will likely ruin his career if it gets out. The hard SF part was the rescue in a lunar environment. The character interest was whether the character would ultimately do the right thing even if it cost his life, or allow the colleague to conveniently die.

  8. So, File 770 has linked to this post, despite it having nothing to do with the Hugos or Sad Puppies. Figures.

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