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Not a bunch of softies, a rant about Hard SF

This is my contribution to the Singularity -vs- Science Fiction writing discussion here on Oort-Cloud.

This essay was originally published on my blog and later published on HardSF.net.

. . .

I've always been a fan of Hard Science Fiction myself (the kind of thing sometimes described as 'Science Fiction with bolts'). So I was happy to find HardSF.net, a web portal that focuses squarely on that subgenre:

This site aims to explore the Science behind the varied works of Hard Science Fiction. Currently, we feature original hard sf stories, an active forum, a comprehensive list of hard sf authors, and a science and technology news section.

They define Hard SF thusly:

Hard Science Fiction is characterized as a story who's plot relies on plausible scientific and technological advances to enhance or support the events within the story.

All well and good, but I've got a problem. You see Hard SF just isn't what it used to be. Why?

I blame Vernor Vinge...

As Charles Stross says, "The Singularity is this enormous turd that Vernor Vinge crapped into the punchbowl of SF writing, and now nobody wanting to take a drink can ignore it."

And as nasty as that turd is for SF as a whole, it gets nastier yet for the Hard SF subgenre. Why? Read that definition above again. If the Singularity is plausible, then you have to take it into account. And, if you do, that means you have one hell of a difficult time writing anything set more than forty or fifty years into the future.

The Singularity is a black hole for human history, folks. We cannot begin to guess what might be on the other side of its event horizon, any more than a country ant can speculate on what a human city is like. Cyberpunk set in the near future is the only real Hard SF left in this scenario, and it has been abandoned by its founders. So you either plausibly explain away the Singularity, or else you can't write Hard SF that includes interstellar travel or gigastructures like Dyson Spheres. Hell, you probably can't even include human colonization of other planets in our own Solar System — because there just isn't time left to get there!

This is a problem for anyone wanting to write Hard Science Fiction. Certainly you can deal with it in a wide variety of ways. Vinge himself started writing Fantasy in Space Opera clothes by using some hand waving about a magical 'slow zone' that keeps Singularities from happening. Charlie Stross wrote about an early omniscient AI that decides to be god; it not only keeps humans around as pets, but it meddles in our affairs to suppress a true Singularity (he also wrote, rather nicely, about a soft-takeoff Singularity in Accellerando, but not all that realistic a one). Ken MacLeod has his own soft-takeoff Singularity stories. Kathleen Ann Goonan wrote from the point of view of a survivor wandering around a post-Singularity landscape. And so on; any regular SF reader can probably point to hundreds of examples of stories that try to sidestep the turd in the punchbowl, and even a few that deal with it head on. And each of them uses some macguffin to deal with the unknowable.

For my own stories I invented a way to hold the Singularity back until near the end of this century. But that wasn't good enough for me, so I came up with my own macguffin (based on human nature) that lets me have (somewhat) recognizable humans for at least another four thousand years. But it is just that; a plot device. Do I think it is plausible?

Uh... No...

Want realism? Realistically something is going to happen. Something big. It will happen within the lifetime of many of you reading this. I can't tell you what it is, because I don't know. I can't know. It probably won't look like Vinge's own view of the Singularity because he can't know, but that's not the point. The point is that we need to accept that something big is going to happen, and to plan for it as best we can.

Science Fiction has always been the literature of the possible, just as Fantasy is the literature of the impossible. As a literature, Science Fiction's main contribution to the Twentieth Century was to look at possible futures and provide cautionary tales of how things might turn out. The best Science Fiction (that other ten percent Sturgeon's Law mentions in passing) make us think about the consequences if we continue down this path, or that. Science Fiction helped us to plan for the future by imagining the best and the worst the future had to offer!

What can Science Fiction contribute to the Twenty-First Century? This isn't an empty question: Our choices consist of either writing purely escapist fare or of asking hard questions about ultimately unknowable things. I've been saying for a while that we need a new label for Science Fiction that tries to be plausible: Transhumanist SF — SF that deals with the consequences of technology which literally transforms the user into something different. Because this is the new reality. This is the new realism.

Hard SF is dead folks. At least in the classic sense. Given the definition at the beginning of this essay only Transhumanist SF stands a chance of carrying that banner, and it will only do so for a little while longer. We need to take advantage of this while we can to put Science Fiction to its traditional work of telling scary fables with morals at the end.

Because it is damn hard to write about the future when you are soaking in it...

Great post. Not sure if I

Great post. Not sure if I agree entirely that Hard SF has to relabelled, though; so long as science is adhered to, the SF remains hard.

I've said before that SF has never been about predicting the future, exactly ... even plausible future histories are never actually realized. The singularity doesn't make the future harder to predict (prediction has always been a fool's errand), it just makes it harder to write about.

A similar analogy can be drawn to modern science. The easy stuff - the low-hanging fruit of relativity, statistical mechanics, mendelian genetics, the periodic table, the periodic table, what have you - was harvested by scientists working alone or in very small groups. The newer stuff - cognition, sring theory, molecular biology, etc - requires the collaboration of vast interdisciplinary teams.

Likewise, modern hard SF. Perhaps intractably difficult for the solo author, at least from a world-building perspective, but in collaboration, not so much.

paulbhartzog's picture

Who decides what is "hard"?

I will take up Singularity elsewhere....

I have always disliked the term "Hard SF" because of the deep problems with who decides what is or isn't "hard."

For example, is FTL hard or not? Well, it all depends on who you ask.

The deeper issue raised, though, is that semantic content is community-mediated. What is "Hard SF" is decided by the hard SF community, and while a writer may think his/her work is hard SF, if the hard SF community doesn't think it is, well, then it isn't.

Sometimes this is fair; sometimes it isn't. Either way, it reveals the flexibility of language and language use.

I have enough material for

I have enough material for another essay on the relationship between Hard SF and 'magic' technology like FTL. Unfortunately I am amazingly busy right now with paying work, so I don't know when I can get to it.

kelson.philo's picture

If transhumanity does come

If transhumanity does come into being, will they have a need for SF?

Transhuman SF

I have absolutely no idea what words like literature and art will mean in a posthuman world, much less specific genres like SF. I do have some fun speculations which are almost certainly wrong...

For example: 'Virtuals' -- Art pieces consisting of a fully realized virtual world which you can wander around in, and even interact with in ways appropriate to that world. Which brings up the possibility that *this* thing we call reality is exactly such a 'virtual', and we are just NPC's. (No, I came up with this idea years before 'The Matrix'.)