The Problem with Hard Science Fiction

The term “hard science fiction” is misguided.

Traditionally, it refers to stories that strive for scientific and technological accuracy. Many of the classics I read during childhood fall under this rubric—think Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein.

Labels come with a host of problems: it puts everything into neat little binary boxes, confining our perspectives, and it gives rise to gatekeepers who say “this is soft sci-fi.” This is especially true for women SF writers, who perennially are told they cannot write hard science fiction (ahem, Ursula LeGuin.)

Asimov's Foundation series are considered by some as less hard because of its focus on sociology. Hard sci-fi has a history of bias to the fields of physics, chemistry, and math.

But labels can also help the uninitiated discover and make sense of new genres. And here lies the problem: “hard” is not a useful predictor of whether you’ll like a story.

Fiction is about humans—how they change and grow; the decisions they make and how they deal with the consequences. We tend to forget specific plot points, but we never forget how stories make us feel. The average reader doesn’t care whether an author’s use of faster-than-light travel is accurate (and no, it is most likely not).

And what is the spectrum of hard? In the most stringent view, the majority of sci-fi isn’t hard. At what point does a story get stripped of this label?

Ted Chiang proposed a different spectrum that I find much more useful: naturalistic versus expressionistic, terms typically associated with artistic movements.

In naturalistic stories, sci-fi authors set up initial conditions which are fantastical: time travel is possible, people can teleport, or robots have consciousness. Then the story develops and explores the consequences of these conditions, but in a way that is consistent and logical. It’s a bit like literary realism, but the reader suspends disbelief for a brief period during the introduction of the initial conditions. Ted Chiang is the ultimate naturalistic storyteller: he draws you into his worlds which seem as real as ours, except for a few “what ifs.”

Expressionistic stories allow the subjective emotion of the characters to physically manifest—think about the stereotypical movie scene where it starts raining when the main character loses the love of their life. Can emotions change the weather? Sure, if it amps up the drama.

Consider the Shrike in the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons. It’s a fearsome four-armed creature covered in blades that jumps through time to kill people in gory fashion. It seems to defy physics—even logic. Simmons never fully explains how it works. The Shrike is an expressionistic device. Perhaps it represents religion, bad omens, and justice, as it strikes people down that deserves its ire.

For me, this spectrum works as a better guide to what I want to read. Sometimes, I’m in the mood for a naturalistic story, where I want to follow along and decipher an author’s logical world. Other times, I want to be carried away by the raw emotions of its characters, and yet, still inhabit a world that is focused on science and technology.

When I began writing fiction, I thought that I’d be a naturalistic writer.

I spent most of my professional life building software and businesses. Both of these are built on the foundation of logic. Very naturalistic. (What if a programmer’s emotions affected the software they build? That’s kind of hilarious, and would be a good sci-fi story in itself!)

What I found was that my stories came out stilted—the characters acted more like thinly veiled puppets than real people. More importantly, I wasn’t having as much fun writing these kinds of stories. Was it too close to what I was doing in tech? Did I feel like I needed to break out of being logical all the time? Honestly, I’m not exactly sure why.

So now, I’ve settled into a middle ground: stories built on a logical initial condition, but where events can be driven by streaks of expressionism.

I have a story that I trunked over a year ago. It’s about algorithmic feeds, autogenerating TV shows, and ASMR. I put the story away because it doesn't quite stick the landing, and I’m not sure how to fix it.

If you’re interested in reading it and giving feedback, reply and I’ll send it.

Reading Recommendations

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

This is the titular story of Ted’s new anthology and a great example of naturalism. It begins as a creative science essay about air and lungs, and, in typical Chiang fashion, morphs into a treatise on entropy and how we cope with the end of all life.

The Veldt by Ray Bradbury

What happens when our uncontrolled desires and emotions become manifest in realistic simulations? Bradbury tends to be expressionistic, and this is one of his most chilling examples.