I’m a big fan of “hard” science fiction, but I’m increasingly of the opinion that, in practice, it’s really more of an aesthetic, not a taxonomic category.
In principle, hard science fiction is science fiction that focuses on technical accuracy and scientific rigour; while speculative technologies and developments may be present, ideally these speculative elements should be consistent with what’s theoretically possible, even if they don’t currently exist.
In practice, trying to treat hard science fiction as a coherent category of literature runs into four main problems:
1. The scientific consensus is constantly evolving, which makes it difficult to get a handle on what we mean by “theoretically possible”.
Suppose that a work’s premise is believed to be possible today, but is proven to be impossible tomorrow. Does that work stop being hard sci-fi? Does it continue to be hard sci-fi on the basis that its premise was believed to be possible at the time it was written? Or does this mean it was never hard sci-fi in the first place, and both its author and its audience were mistaken about its status all along?
Conversely, what if a story’s premise was believed to be impossible at the time it was written, but is later demonstrated to be possible after all?
Every possible approach to resolving these questions has serious issues. If we allow a work’s “hardness” to be judged based on the scientific consensus at the time it was written, for example, then we’re really basing our assessment on the author’s level of ignorance rather than the work’s level of rigour.
On the other hand, if we judge a work’s “hardness” based on the present concensus, then we can never really know whether the work in question is hard sci-fi or not - the possibility that its premise will be refuted tomorrow can never be entirely ruled out.
2. A great deal of science fiction ventures into territories where we simply don’t know enough to say one way or the other whether a given premise lies within the realm of possibility. How do these works interact with the hard/soft binary?
Are they hard by default? If so, then hard sci-fi takes refuge in ignorance - a curious position for a genre that’s ostensibly defined by rigorous thought.
Are they soft by default? If so, then hard sci-fi would seem to be restricted to those works that don’t engage in any substantive speculation - which is a problem for a genre that’s ostensibly defined by its speculative nature.
Or do we simply reserve judgement? If so, then the hard/soft binary is inapplicable to the vast majority of sci-fi literature.
3. It’s not at all clear that scientific rigour and consistency with the current scientific consensus are related in any essential way.
Suppose that a work takes place in a world where the laws of physics permit slightly different things than they do in our world, and carefully reasons through what those differences would imply in terms of technology and society.
Is this work hard sci-fi? And if it is, what’s to stop, say, a fantasy novel with an especially well-thought-out magic system from claiming the same distinction?
4. In practice, the canon of hard sci-fi tends to be very selective about the particular branches of science in which rigour is necessary.
Many acclaimed works of hard sci-fi are exceedingly careful about their physics, for example, but their sociology is so far out of whack, they may as well be taking place in Narnia.
What justification is there for treating some branches of science as more important than others when judging a work’s scientific rigour?
Without such a justification, it’s difficult to say what we even mean by “scientific rigour”, much less to evaluate whether any particular work exhibits it.
Don’t get me wrong: many of my favourite stories would be considered hard sci-fi. It’s just that when I dig into what actually defines hard sci-fi as a genre, I’m not convinced there’s anything there apart from a generally cynical tone and a penchant for frequent expository infodumping. The whole “scientific rigour” thing feels like an aesthetic pose, no more essential to the substance of a work than pulp sci-fi’s batwinged spaceships and noisy zap-guns. And there’s nothing wrong with that - but boy do some folks get worked up about it!
Silverhawks was a Rankin/Bass cartoon set in the 29th Century in the Galaxy of Limbo, a region of space where cyborgs with organics repeatedly exposed to hard vacuum and radiation suffer no ill effects and metal wings allow for aerobatic maneuvers in space. And the principle villain is named Mon*Star. I’m serious.
I stuffed batteries into my jacket pockets by the handful, trying not to glance guiltily up and down the aisle. Mac had said he could hack the cashier, and I trusted Mac, but I still wasn’t sure what he’d suggested was actually possible. The batteries were cold against my fingers, all sizes and brands jumbled in a bin, clicking together as I rummaged through them. I felt like if I took any more the inside pockets of my coat were going to tear right out. I reached down, thinking I might put some back, but there was a guy in a green turtleneck pushing a cart full of streamers and party hats down at the other end of the aisle, and I jerked my hands back and started walking towards the entrance instead.
The cashiers sat behind the counter, all in a row, gleaming in the orange light streaming through the windows. Their silver heads were tall and oblong and had two red eyes and an LED mouth that flickered into life every time someone walked past. “Greetings, valued customer!” they chirped, torsos swiveling slightly on their bases. You could get them all to say it one after the other if you walked past slowly enough, as all us kids had discovered sooner or later, although after enough lazy strolls back and forth the cashiers’ eyes would start to glow, and a different, more stern voice would emerge from their voice boxes, warning that company time was valuable, and that all who wasted it would be prosecuted. Rumor had it that when faced with criminals the cashiers’ eyes could shoot right out of their heads like tasers, leaving would-be robbers twitching and drooling on the tiled floor. I’d never seen it happen, but Robin from tech class swore up and down that his second cousin had gotten hit when he tried to lift a pack of cigarettes in Palo Alto, that the cashiers had just watched him, wires protruding from their eyes, while the cops came and dragged him out and failed to get him to a hospital in time to treat his wavering heart.
Mac said not to worry about this.
I dawdled by the magazine rack, pretending to check out the models on the covers of all those magazines I’d never actually seen anyone buy, batteries weighing heavy in my pockets. The cashiers swiveled back and forth, eyes unblinking. Could they see through clothing? What kind of tech was packed into those heads? There was maybe fifteen feet between me and the door, but if I ran for it they’d hit me for sure, and if I just tried to walk out it would be “Halt, valued customer!” and a request that I step through the scanner so my respect for the company’s time could be verified…
Come on, Mac. If you’re gonna do something, it has to be now.
The guy in the green turtleneck who I’d noticed earlier was checking out, piling plastic packages of birthday supplies from the counter back into his cart. “She’s gonna be seven,” he was telling the cashier, passing his credit card into its skeletal hands. “We’re getting her a puppy. Just a basic one for now, but you’re supposed to be able to install new modules on it once the kids get a little older.”
“They grow up so fast,” said the cashier mechanically. It swiped the card and handed it back across the counter. “Thank you for shopping at Valutech,” it said. It leaned forward slightly on its base. “Thank you for for supporting our company.” The robot’s voice suddenly sounded very earnest. It reached out and grasped the customer’s hands.
“What the hell, buddy–”
“Thank you for your patronage,” said the cashier, now leaning as far forward as its base would allow, “Thank you, valued customer, thank you have a great day, thank you,
enjoy your purchase,
thanks, THANK YOU–”
“Let–let go, you crazy–”
The cashiers were swiveling toward the disturbance, chirping things like “Please remove your purchases from the counter in an orderly manner” and rapidly cycling their eyes from red to blue and back again. The customer in the turtleneck was beginning to look genuinely terrified. Nobody was looking at me.
Quickly, but not too quickly, I shoved my hands into my battery-filled pockets and made for the door. I could hear the cashiers still chirping away behind me. I expected at any second to feel the sting of their eyes bursting through my coat.
I pushed open the door, and walked out into the light.
Mac was standing by edge of the dusty parking lot, staring at the sunset burning away over the desert.
“You should hide in the car,” I told him, trotting over with batteries rattling in my pockets. “They’re probably gonna call the cops in there soon.”
Mac shook his head slowly, a smile flickering across his face. “Phones are down,” he said. “Got ‘em while I was cranking their gratitude protocols up.” He turned towards me, tilting his gaze down so he could look me in the face. “You got it?”
“Yeah, I got the stuff. Here…”
I dug a big double handful of batteries out of my pockets and passed them to Mac, whose hands shook slightly. Stray batteries tumbled through his fingers and fell down in the dirt.
“Thanks,” said Mac. He straightened up and tossed both handfuls of batteries into his mouth. There was a tremendous crunching noise, and a series of grinding sounds from Mac’s chest.
“Ah,” said Mac. The smile appeared again, a toothy hologram flickering in front of his metal lips. “That’s better.” He turned to me again. “Thanks, little one. This should do me for another couple months. We should go, though. Phones will be up again soon.”
“Sure,” I said, and we started walking towards the car. “You’ll keep up your part, though? You’ll play it again?”
“It’s safe on my hard drive,” said Mac, the smile shining brighter now. “Don’t worry, little one. I didn’t forget.”
We drove away down the highway, and from the speaker embedded in Mac’s throat my mother’s voice came out, singing lullabies that drifted through the lonely desert night.