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July 2006 : Review:

NFSF: Getting Down to Brass Facts

Hard Science Fiction
Edited by George E. Slusser & Eric S. Rabkin
Southern Illinois University Press, 1986
284 pp.
ISBN 0809312344

Cosmic Engineers: A Study of Hard Science Fiction
By Gary Westfahl
Greenwood Press, 1986
168 pp.
ISBN 0313297274

Science fiction has long generated questions about just what the relationship is between the two uneasily yoked terms that make it up—"science" and "fiction"—and what that relationship should be. For many writers and readers, the science is only there as an excuse to have exotic adventure. These folks read fantasy as readily as science fiction and don't make any meaningful distinction between the two. Others use their scientific extrapolations or trappings as tools for political or literary ends. These may care about the science, but not as much as those other ends, which are usually seen as larger and more important. In fact, sometimes the goals loom so large for these writers that they don't realize they are writing science fiction; think of Margaret Atwood's denial that she has anything to do with SF.

And then there is hard science fiction. Hard science fiction writers and readers see themselves as putting science at the center of the SF enterprise. Many science fiction writers see themselves as basing their fiction on science, allowing the stories to flow from science and to be guided by it. Many draw fierce distinctions between what they do and what others do. If you're reading this, you probably already know what you mean by hard science fiction and, whether you read it or not, you can point to individual authors who write it (Hal Clement, Larry Niven, etc.).

But what is hard science fiction? What does the term mean, and what does the existence of this particular tradition within SF mean? Those are the questions that these two very different books set out to answer. The appropriately named Hard Science Fiction was edited by George E. Slusser & Eric S. Rabkin, two of the premiere scholars and theorists of science fiction. Each man has published numerous independent books and the two together have edited several volumes of essays presented at the Eaton Conference, an annual conference on science fiction that's been held for more than a quarter century. Each year the conference focuses on a different theme; the 1983 conference focused on hard science fiction and provides the essays collected here.

The essays collected in Hard Science Fiction are all brief and focused, making the volume extremely readable. Slusser and Rabkin organize them into clusters by rough focus, though there is necessarily considerable overlap since the authors address the same topics, even the same works. This is desirable and productive, indicating one of the defining characteristics of hard science fiction: a community of writers in active dialogue with itself and its readers. (Lest this seem a minor point, many writers who write science fiction for other purposes do so in relative isolation from the larger speculative community, coming in to write The Handmaid's Tale [Atwood] or This Perfect Day [Ira Levin] but not staying to discuss methods or implications.)

However, despite this conversation, this collection is also marked by several other defining characteristics of the hard science fiction community. The authors use the term very differently and at times for highly idiosyncratic purposes; the best example of this is Michael Collings' "Science and Scientism in C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength," which does a fine job of discussing the way Lewis portrays those themes, but has to stretch to link Lewis's work to the conference themes. A more important shared characteristic is a relative lack of reflection on the part of some of the authors of hard SF included. When writer Robert Forward explains the reasoning processes involved in hard science fiction, and how he developed the world and plot for his novel Dragon's Egg, he is honest and clear—but naïve and unreflective, blurring personal and arbitrary choices with science and failing to address things like why creatures so biologically unlike humans (the novel is set on a neutron star!) think so much like twentieth-century middle class white American males. Other essays are lightweight or clunky, while others still are solid studies of single works or themes that will primarily interest those interested in those topics, rather than the larger question of what is hard science fiction.

Those caveats aside, there is a core of about half the collection that will deeply interest those interested in hard SF. Editor Eric Rabkin contributes a study of how cities have functioned in hard science fiction, analyzing how a supposedly objective extrapolation of urban technologies has continually taken on symbolic resonances. His co-editor George Slusser examines a fundamental paradox within hard science fiction: how its creators struggle to shape worlds that are at once pure idea and purely accurate material fact, creating in the process a genre as distinct from daily life as formal poetry.

A few other authors are quite useful as well. John Huntington analyzes how hard science fiction authors use the rhetoric of science to produce credibility and to raise the distinction between hard science fiction and other art forms to the level of myth. Gregory Benford discusses the different ways science has been used in hard science fiction stories—and how these uses feed the political allegiances of these supposedly scientifically faithful authors. David Clayton's "What Makes Hard Science Fiction ‘Hard?" tackles the name that's been assigned to this sort of story, arguing that the "hardness" of the science (how well-grounded it is in scientific fact, theory, and practice) gets aligned with other forms of "hardness," such as tough-mindedness, clean dichotomies, harsh judgment and an adherence to certain "rules" that simplify the universe and characters described and lend to them an air of inevitability. Given these rhetorical resonances, it will come as no surprise that Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" is referred to repeatedly. This clockwork perfect story about mathematical precision and the inflexibility of the physical universe functions as a paradigm for hard science fiction.

Published ten years later, Gary Westfahl's Cosmic Engineers has several advantages over Hard Science Fiction. First and most simply, as a book-length work by a single author, Westfahl's study has much greater space in which the author can explore the implications of his ideas. For obvious reasons, it is also more unified. Another almost as basic advantage is that Westfahl has read the earlier collection and digested it, having a full decade in which to formulate his responses to it. As he does so, though, Westfahl introduces another fundamental strength: a historical approach. Westfahl methodically reviews genre debates from the 1920s onward that grappled with science fiction's relationship to science and those specific discussions in which the term hard science fiction emerged. The term "hard science fiction" emerged surprisingly late in science fiction's development, by the way; Westfahl dates its use to the latter half of the 1950s. In a later chapter, Westfahl tracks the development of "The Closely Reasoned Technological Story," one of the major forms hard science fiction takes.

While Westfahl's study is not as theoretically insightful as several of the authors in the Slusser and Rabkin collection, his meticulous review of the specific interactions that produced the term "hard science fiction" is exceeding fruitful. When it is coupled with the unfortunately very brief chapter examining the origins of hard SF, the resultant portrait is extremely persuasive. Hard science fiction emerges as a community endeavor with very strict rules, as fans and practitioners of hard SF fans openly claim. However, some of those rules work to mythologize the genre's history, to create false distinctions between hard SF and other types of speculation and to plant a flag firmly on the genre's center. While hard SF supporters may see themselves as practicing the only true science fiction, or the best or most pure form of it, seen through Westfahl's history, they come off sounding like fundamentalists. Such an impression seems decidedly odd for a genre committed to intellectual rigor and anticipating change.

Given the recent revival of hard science fiction documented in DavidG. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's The Hard SF Renaissance, and the fact that another ten years have passed, it seems time for another study of hard science fiction. Has it changed? Are practitioners changing in response to these critics? Are new writers using these conceptual tools differently? Right now, there are no books that answer such questions, so readers of IROSF will need to dip into these two older volumes and consider the questions themselves.

Copyright © 2006, Greg Beatty. All Rights Reserved.

About Greg Beatty

Greg Beatty lives with his wife in Bellingham, Washington, where he tries, unsuccessfully to stay dry. He writes everything from children's books to essays about his cooking debacles. He has a particular fondness for speculative poetry; he won the 2005 Rhysling Award. Greg recently published his first poetry chapbook. Titled Phrases of the Moon, it is available from Spec House

For more information on Greg's writing, visit


Jul 10, 23:07 by IROSF
A thread to discuss Hard SF or Greg Beatty's take on two studies of the sub-genre.

The article can be found here
Jul 11, 03:58 by Robin Zimmermann
Err, is something wrong with the text? It cuts off midword.
Jul 11, 05:21 by Terry Hickman
What Packbat said.
Jul 11, 08:35 by Bluejack
A technical glitch during final editing chopped off the second half. I'll look at the glitch, but in the meantime, the article is restored.
Jul 11, 11:51 by Robin Zimmermann

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