The mind of the hard science fiction author can be a strange place sometimes. It can also be an interesting place, to say the least.
But before we dig into what’s happening in the gray matter of the writer, let’s get some definitions out of the way…
People, readers and writers alike, often confuse science fiction and fantasy. In fact, the two are very different despite both being in the larger category of speculative fiction. To further add to the confusion, within SF you have both “hard” and “soft” subgenres. While not all-encompassing, the definitions given on Wikipedia are close enough for all practical purposes, at least until you get into the variations from one publisher to another or into the domains of highly specialized fandom.
Let’s look at each of the above…
See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantasy for the full Wikipedia article.
“Fantasy is a genre of fiction that uses magic or other supernatural elements as a main plot element, theme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic and magical creatures are common. Fantasy is generally distinguished from the genres of science fiction and horror by the expectation that it steers clear of scientific and macabre themes, respectively, though there is a great deal of overlap between the three, all of which are subgenres of speculative fiction.”
In other words, if there are dragons, wizards, witches, or were-whatevers, it’s fantasy. There may be some actual science as back-story, but even that is rare.
SOFT SCIENCE FICTION
See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soft_science_fiction for the full Wikipedia article.
“Soft science fiction, or soft SF, is a category of science fiction that uses less probable or realistic science elements. It either (1) explores the “soft” sciences, and especially the social sciences (anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, and so on), rather than engineering or the “hard” sciences (for example, physics, astronomy, or chemistry), or (2) is not scientifically accurate, or (3) both of the former. Soft science fiction of either type is often more concerned with character and speculative societies, rather than scientific or engineering speculations. It is the complement of hard science fiction. The term first appeared in the late 1970s.”
Soft SF need not be 100% accurate in its science and there is rarely any high technology or science playing a major role in the plot of the stories. Generally speaking, time travel stories will fall into the realm of soft SF.
There are some people who claim that any story that uses faster than light (FTL) travel or any form of teleportation is soft SF. Wrong. I’ll tell you why later on.
HARD SCIENCE FICTION
See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_science_fiction for the full Wikipedia article.
“Hard science fiction is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy or technical detail or both. The term was first used in print in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller in a review of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Islands of Space in Astounding Science Fiction. The complementary term soft science fiction, formed by analogy to hard science fiction, first appeared in the late 1970s. The term is formed by analogy to the popular distinction between the “hard” (natural) and “soft” (social) sciences. Science fiction critic Gary Westfahl argues that neither term is part of a rigorous taxonomy; instead they are approximate ways of characterizing stories that reviewers and commentators have found useful.”
The major difference in hard and soft SF is the degree of adherence to scientific principles. For example, if the writer uses nothing in the story except relativity and/or quantum mechanics and treats them as facts, then having a FTL drive will be very difficult if not impossible. Oh…and that pesky conservation of energy thing will shoot all manner of holes in your main character teleporting to meet his dinner date. And to paraphrase Monty Python, “…time travel is right out…”
As I said, the Wikipedia articles are not 100% the way of things in the publishing world or even in the minds of the fans, but they are close enough for our needs here and have the benefit of being both easily accessible and easily understood.
One thing that is worth noting is that no matter what some authors may think or want to believe, just because THEY say their work is (for example) hard SF does not make it so. Like it or not, it is the publishers, critics, and readers who will decide that for you.
Anyway, on to what it’s like inside the noggin of a hard SF writer…
Most hard SF authors have degrees (usually post-graduate) in one of more of the hard sciences. They may also have other training in the soft sciences, but the majority don’t. The most common soft science degree held by hard SF writers is in psychology followed closely by sociology. A fair number of hard SF writers have actually worked in positions that most people would see as being “scientists”.
Have you ever spent any time having a casual conversation with a person who holds, let’s say, a doctorate in theoretical physics or math? Maybe you’ve attended a conference where such degreed scientists spoke on one topic or another. Either way, unless you too hold an advanced degree in the field or, perhaps, are a radical hobbyist with an interest in the particular subject, you probably felt one of two ways:
(1) The doctor was living (and thinking) in a world that you could only see glimpses of every now and then, or…
(2) The aforementioned doctor was trying to make you understand some item but was unable to put it into words that you (or another other “normal” person) could understand.
There is a third possible scenario as well, and that is you felt like the doctor was talking down to you. This usually isn’t the reality of the situation, though…the doctor is every bit as frustrated with their inability to get their point across as you are, and their passion tends to make them think that everyone should be as excited about the (typically) esoteric subject as they are.
The thing that makes many of these scientists turn to entertainment (and we writers are indeed in the entertainment business) is that they discover they have the ability to communicate complex scientific concepts to the non-scientist general population. As two well known examples of this I will offer Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Both Carl and Neil have long pedigrees as competent scientists and they also can make nearly anyone, regardless of their education and background, grasp things like general relativity. No small feat!
Then there are the full-time hard SF authors…
A good number decided that they could make more money writing than working in the scientific field. Others realized they could reach more people with the science by telling stories rather than staring through a telescope. Some reached the conclusion that academia is too competitive and political for their tastes. But regardless of the reason, they decided to write SF.
At its core, what is SF? The simple answer is that SF is, basically, fortune telling. We hard SF authors look at the state of the art in terms of scientific theories and try to see what the future might be like by operating within those limits.
It’s worth noting here that in many of the hard sciences like physics there are no firm facts. At least not yet. For example, the best descriptions we have for how the universe works are found in the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. These are both fairly mature theories and have, for the most part, been able to predict things that we are still discovering. Like gravitational waves…relativity predicted them 100 years ago, but it’s only been in the last year or so that we had good enough hardware to actually see them.
Relativity deals with the universe on the scale of the very large. The combined theories of special and general relativity do a good job of describing the structure and behavior of big things like solar systems, galaxies, clusters, and even on to the entire universe. But when things get small, relativity fails us.
Quantum mechanics deals with the universe on the scale of the very small. When we talk about elementary particles like quarks and bosons, quantum mechanics does a good job. But for things much bigger than a small molecule, quantum mechanics breaks down.
And, just for fun, when we get close to the beginning of time (AKA the big bang), both relativity and quantum mechanics get goofy. In both theoretical structures, you literally end up trying to divide infinity by zero. Adding to this party atmosphere is the simple fact that quantum mechanics and relativity are, in many major areas, mutually exclusive and contradict each other.
It is this nagging condition that tells us that neither relativity nor quantum mechanics is actually correct. They are, instead, pieces of the bigger puzzle that theoretical physicists and mathematicians call the Grand Unification Theory (GUT) or the Theory of Everything.
This all means that even hard SF authors have a great deal of leeway in the theoretical structure they use as the basis of their stories. We don’t have to stick to just relativity and quantum mechanics to make things work…we can, and often do, use other theories as a framework.
Again, the training and/or experience of the writer is important. We must be able to defend our choice and use of a particular theory to do certain things.
For example, in most SF stories, FTL travel is nearly a requirement. Our characters must be able to move from one star system to another in reasonable times. Communications must be able to move between star systems fast enough to hold civilization together. And as an aside, instantaneous communications is just FTL travel using information instead of ships. Again, using quantum mechanics or relativity you may have a problem.
But other theories may help…I’m going to pick on just one of them.
M-Theory (formerly string theory) has a good number of the qualities that the GUT needs. It can, in some solutions, reconcile the issues with relativity and quantum mechanics. It can go back and make predictions about the instant of the big bang. A few solutions even push back to a point before the big bang. And, for a hard SF author, it is a gold mine…you can travel FTL and teleport! There are other theories that also offer these benefits, but many are still too immature to put much stock in just yet. M-Theory is becoming more mature and accepted every day.
Nearly all scientists accept relativity and quantum mechanics in general. No pun intended. The number who accept M-theory is much smaller. But it is gaining. Stephen Hawking has even said that M-theory “…may be the theory of everything, but we’re not yet bright enough to realize it…”
But M-theory is accepted enough to use as the framework of a hard SF story. But there is a problem today…
Many authors have, at best, only a tenuous grasp of M-theory. That is to say, they don’t understand the theory well enough to make use of it.
Personally, I think the problem is the multiple dimensional nature of M-theory. No, not like the four dimensions of relativity (length, width, depth, and time). In M-theory, you have either eleven or twelve dimensions to deal with. The exact number of dimensions is still fuzzy, and that’s one reason M-theory is still not universally accepted. Again, no pun intended. For my money, I like eleven.
A good number of people have trouble visualizing a three-dimensional object. Toss in the dimension of time (the proverbial space-time image) and maybe 30% of the people can visualize the object. (Remember, the dimension of time is at a right angle to the length, width, and depth of the object. All at once.) Now take that four-dimensional object and multiply it by three to get twelve dimensions. And remember that every dimension is geometrically at a right angle to ALL of the others.
Now draw a picture of that object. Hell, draw a picture of the object’s shadow! I can’t do it. Ed Witten can’t do it, either.
But I know it exists. I can “see” it in the equations. I can deduce it from its effect on things around it. And I can use it in stories to get my hero from Earth to Barnard’s Star in just under a week. All I have to do is charge up the hero and his ship to a few billion electron volts and tuck them up inside dimension G. No muss, no fuss.
This brief dissertation on seemingly competing theories (not actually the case, really) has a point…it shows you a little of the things that hard SF authors have rattling around in their bean. We have to take all of these things and make them the back-story for a book that will be entertaining for the reader. We also hope that the reader might just learn something, too.
When you add to this the inevitable society that particular technology will create (actually a range of possible societies) and the needed character development to go along with it, you begin to see the problems that come up in what we authors call “world building.”
For a wonderful treatment of how small changes in the assumptions for a single technology might impact society as detailed by one of the masters of hard SF, see Larry Niven’s Exercise In Speculation: The Theory and Practice of Teleportation.
So, has your head exploded yet? Or have you simply decided that writing hard SF isn’t something you care to try? Well, there is one more thing to think about if you want to give it a go…
Hard SF is pretty much the ultimate niche market. Readers tend to fall into the general classification of geeks. They know a LOT about science. And they are outspoken when they think you’ve botched some element or another of the science in a story. And they are usually right. In short, screw up the science, and the hard SF readers will shred you faster than a pack of hungry hyenas.
The good news, more or less, is that it is a niche market. Hard SF books rarely sell more than 2-3 million copies in the first two years. If you write in other genres and are doing well there, you might be better off trying to increase your production and/or sales in that arena rather than jump into the shark-infested waters of hard SF.
The hard SF writer has a boatload of issues to deal with that other genres avoid. Oh…did I mention that the real hard SF publishers put your manuscript through scientific peer review just like the various academic journals to make sure the science is solid? About the closest genre to this level of scrutiny is real historical work, but even that is a far cry away.
I personally like hard SF. Then again I have doctorate degrees in both theoretical physics and theoretical math. I also have a masters in astrophysics. And I still get the science wrong sometimes. And I catch hell from the readers, too.
So, if you’re so inclined, dust off those science books, put on your shark suit, and come on in! The water’s fine!