| Hard Science Fiction
Book by Southern Illinois University Press, 1986
Insofar as one can bestow geographical centers on literary genres, science fiction may be unique in having a hard core. When science fiction writers speak of "hard SF," they seem to be designating, more than a form, a place, solid literary ground on which to resist the shocks of literary fashion. Indeed, it may be a place which resists the temptation of fiction itself. For to create this sense of substantiality at the core, science must ultimately seem to outweigh the fiction. And to do so, that science must be the "hardest" possible. In a basic sense this means that both setting and dramatic situation must derive strictly from the rigorous postulation and working out of a concrete physical problem. The method then of the hard SF story is logical, the means technological, and the result -- the feel and texture of the fiction itself -- objective and cold. What hard SF purports to affirm, therefore, is not the universality of human aspirations, for these are more often than not the "soft" products of our desires. Instead it asserts the truth of natural law, an absolute, seemingly ahuman vision of things. Such a vision may seem to run counter to the humanist tradition, to the basically man-centered structures of Western literature itself. Hardness here becomes hardheartedness, and risks repelling even the most open-minded literary scholar who traditionally has drawn justification for his activity from that humanism. Yet, to the degree that it remains fiction, hard SF is still part of the larger system of narrative. And by asking storytelling to adopt the procedures and conclusions of modern scientific investigation, hard SF may not reject fictional narrative so much as reshape it. To get some sense of this shape of stories to come we must, at the very least, come to grips with science fiction's hard core.
Coming to grips is exactly what the sixteen essays in this volume strive to do. Written both by scholars with scientific backgrounds or interests and by prominent scientist-writers who practice hard SF, these essays approach their subject from a broad variety of stances. Concealed beneath these diverse approaches, however, is a persistent polarity. To the question: what is hard SF, for example, we see two responses constantly emerging. For either hard SF is a new literary form, born of our modern sense of change and the future and capable of giving narrative form to the increasingly complex speculations of science. Or, on the contrary, it is merely an old form masquerading as something new, a literature quite derivable from the humanist tradition, hence reducible to its past. And concealed beneath this question is another stubborn duality, this time on the level of how we view science fiction itself. For is science fiction fundamentally defined by its "hardness" of vision? Or should not this vision, ideally, be tempered or "softened" by some sense of man's aspirations and limits? At this point we are no longer analyzing but prescribing, and our field of investigation falls into two opposing camps. To the proponents of hard SF any soft form is untenable, for human wishes and desires have no place in a universe marked by struggle between only two forces -- those of determination and determinism, the iron laws of nature and the steely resolve of the scientific intelligence to master those laws. Conversely, to apologists for soft SF, the hard form, despite its claim to objectivity, itself operates on false premises. For when examined as fiction hard SF may not succeed in shaping brave new worlds of the scientific imagination. What it does instead is merely refurbish the age-old myths and fantasies of that humanity it claims to supercede. Hard SF, then, more than anything else, is a core of controversy, and this struggle for hard or soft options effectively inscribes the "two cultures" rift at the heart of science fiction as a genre.
The first group of essays provides a revealing contrapuntal exchange between practitioners of hard SF and literary theorists. In the opening paper Dr. Robert L. Forward, pioneer in gravitational astronomy and author of Dragon's Egg and Rocheworld, explains how science writes his fiction. Forward is considered by many to be today's purest hard SF writer, and his statement -- that the essence of the fictional process per se is the scientifically accurate working out of a problem posed by the physical universe -- has the force of a manifesto. The next essay, by astronomer-writer David Brin (author of Sundiver and Startide Rising), seeks to know why, within the broad field of science fiction today, less and less of the hard form is being written. He offers two possible explanations. For either the writers of science fiction, reversing the Campbellian tradition, have become increasingly unwilling to abdicate to science that role in the storytelling process conventionally reserved for the creative imagination, or (and Brin stresses this possibility) the science that writes the fiction may itself be running out of speculative niches. Brin offers a view of fictional originality that may seem radical, if not heretical, to the mainstream critic. For, he states, as a given hard SF writer posits and solves his particular scientific problem, he both fills a distinct speculative gap and in doing so lays claim to its fictional landscape, forcing other writers to push on to new problems and scenarios until ultimately the literary field is exhausted. As the physical and biological sciences then (as those which most inspire the hard SF writer) may be closing the gaps in our knowledge of the universe, so that mode of literature which uses its methods must do likewise in its own realm of activity.
The next four papers, written by scholar-critics, argue explicitly or implicitly against the elevation of hard SF, as a method of creating fictional worlds and as a form or genre, to new or revolutionary status in the literary system. Frank McConnell, in his paper "Sturgeon's Law: First Corollary," would deconstruct our idea of generic norms, return us to "a primal chaos of fictive forms" where all are equally privileged. McConnell argues that if science fiction is said to be primarily fiction, then can we not, turning things around, claim that all fiction may in a very real sense be science fiction. Or more accurately, technological fiction. For fiction in the Western world, he claims, is essentially the story of technology, and technology is the dynamics of our exile from the garden, the story of our subsequent struggle with the intransigence of matter. McConnell contends that hard SF, unlike the "soft" form which is technological fiction tempered or contaminated by romance, is not a newly evolved genre but instead the primal genre, that form toward which Western storytelling has been tending all along, and on which it could only dream because such a form was not till now possible to realize. Thus if science writes the fiction, it is on this unconscious level of our mythical desire to control matter.