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Hard SF

Entry updated 2 October 2023. Tagged: Theme.

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Item of sf Terminology coined by P Schuyler Miller in Astounding (November 1957) and since then widely used by sf Fandom and readers; it has sometimes overlapped in meaning with "hardcore sf", often used in the 1960s and 1970s to mean the kind of sf that repeats the themes and (to a degree) the style of the Genre SF written during the so-called Golden Age of SF. Though still sometimes used in a way that implies the element of nostalgia associated with "hardcore sf", the term "hard sf" now seems to refer to something rather simpler, as summarized by Allen Steele (in "Hard Again" in New York Review of Science Fiction, June 1992): "Hard sf is the form of imaginative literature that uses either established or carefully extrapolated science as its backbone." Steele goes on to regret the association in many readers' minds of hard sf with "a particular political territory – usually located somewhere on the far right", an association which, while certainly sometimes justifiable, has cultural origins that cannot easily be elucidated. The commonly used distinction between hard and Soft Sciences runs parallel to that between hard and Soft SF, a central distinction between the two being the assumption underlying almost all hard sf stories that the problems they present are ultimately solvable. For readers lacking sympathy with Genre SF in general, this assumption can seem not so much simple as simplistic; and arguably can lead to authors engineering Thought Experiments they know can be solved. Such stories may create confirmation bias in readers whose opinions range from conservatism through the "effective altruism" popular around 2020.

. Theme entries in this volume which deal with the so-called hard sciences include, but are not restricted to, Astronomy, Black Holes, Computers; Cosmology, Cybernetics, Faster Than Light, Gravity, Mathematics, Nanotechnology, Nuclear Energy, Physics, Power Sources, Rockets, Space Flight, Spaceships, Technology and Weapons. All but the most puristic reader would probably accept also Biology, Food Pills, Genetic Engineering, Grey Goo, Terraforming and Weather Control as appropriate material for hard sf. But it is possible to write a kind of hard sf about almost anything, as can be exemplified by Brian M Stableford's rationalizing treatment of Vampires in The Empire of Fear (1988). Hard sf should not, however, wilfully ignore or break known scientific principles, yet stories classified as "hard sf" often contain, for example, ESP, Superman, Faster-than-Light and Time-Travel themes (see also Imaginary Science). Occasionally it is characterized by auctorial lecturing about the story's supposed scientific underpinning, a didacticism which may lapse into numbing Infodumps. While a rigorous definition of "hard sf" may be impossible, perhaps the most important thing about it is, not that it should include real science in any great detail, but that it should respect the scientific spirit; it should seek to provide natural rather than supernatural or transcendental explanations for the events and phenomena it describes. [PN/JC]

see also: 2300 AD; Silicon Dreams.

further reading: fiction

Year's Top Hard Science Fiction

further reading: nonfiction


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