A Brief Examination of ‘Hard’ SF
When I started pulling my thoughts together for my review of Alistair Reynolds’ House of Suns, I found myself getting bogged down in a pile of science fiction terminology and information that might be useful for people who aren’t big SF readers, but just slows down the book review. So I thought I’d break up the review into a quick examination of the subject matter, followed by the review of the actual literary work. We’ll see how this goes.
There’s a pretty big gulf between ‘hard’ SF and ‘soft’ SF, but the differences aren’t immediately obvious. Hard science fiction is a term coined to describe a subtype of SF that tried to remain within the constraints of currently known physical laws of the universe. It is characterized by lots of technical detail and an emphasis on explaining why things work. Soft SF isn’t actually a recognized sub-genre of science fiction, but is a counterbalance for the hard SF terminology. Soft SF is characterized by its critics as lacking real science, but it also tends to create more dynamic action sequences because the rules of physics have been more or less discarded.
For examples, Star Wars would be on the far edge of soft SF, (some extremists even refer to Star Wars as science fantasy because of its array of reality violations) while works like Star Trek and Iain M. Bank’s Culture novels are examples of ‘harder’ soft SF. Alistair Reynolds is renowned for his hard SF works. His Revelation Space series has been hailed as a triumph of space opera and he is particularly known for his depictions of accurate interstellar combat.
Here’s where things start getting technical. Hard SF typically denies the existence of faster than light (FTL) travel. If you want to get to Alpha Centauri, it’s going to take at least four years and probably more than that. Space in hard SF is enormous, as it is in reality. So storylines in hard SF settings start taking place in ‘deep time.’ The plot arcs for Reynold’s 3 book Revelation Space series take place over several thousand years. While many of the players experience only fractions of that time due to relativistic effects and various forms of stasis, these enormous gulfs can be daunting for a reader. House of Suns is even more entrenched in deep time. Almost all of the protagonists measure their lives in the multiple millions of years.
There’s nothing inherent to hard SF that makes it superior to soft SF or any other of the myriad variants out there. Looking at these epic hard SF stories just requires a sense of perspective that isn’t exactly easy to develop. I can’t even begin to imagine the thought process required to create these stories in the first place.