How hard should sci-fi be?

Both Star Wars and the Foundation series fall under the umbrella of science fiction. There’s an galaxy of difference between the two, including the ‘hard’ aspect that most readers think about when discussing sci-fi. While Star Wars is a space opera in its essence much like the Vorkosigan Saga, Legend of the Galactic Heroes and so many others, it falls somewhere between science and fantasy. Perhaps, it is more fantasy because of its inclusion of space wizards and improbable creatures and environments that make little scientific sense. After all, not all science fiction must be hard. Some novels and shows can occupy the cozy space between fantasy and science.

Harder than it looks….

Maths and science. This wobbly space in the middle is difficult to define. On the one hand, we have Lem, Asimov, Bradbury, Robinson, and many other classical science fiction authors, who are more abstract philosophers than storytellers. Many of these authors share a couple of distinctive features. First, the vast majority of them have degrees in science (getting a PhD pays off!), although sometimes a scholar shows up among them (Le Guin). Second, they focus on grand ideas and, to a lesser extent, on characters. Even newer and younger authors sometimes adhere to this pattern. They can have degrees in science (Daniel Abraham has a B.A., for example), although they are rarely on the academic level of Asimov or Lem. They focus on grand scientific questions and abstract ‘what-if’s like their predecessors. Unlike their predecessors, they often pay more attention to their characters.

Story-driven VS character-driven. If you ever read any classical hard sci-fi, you’d be hard-pressed to fall in love with any of the characters they featured. I still recall Asimov story about a planet, where the sun never set, causing eventual madness, but I have trouble remembering any particularly exciting hero from the Foundation. I trudged through the series because I liked the concept: I copied citations and underlines paragraphs that I found useful, but I did not really swallow the series or rave about any of the instalments. I can’t say I enjoyed the Foundation. It was turgid. It was work, not entertainment. Not hard sci-fi, but hard-core sci-fi. Such are also most of Robinson’s books to me – very timely, very grand, but ultimately, not entertaining. They don’t need to be.

Don’t know math? Add a UFO and talk about the unknown!

Nowadays, the situation has shifted slightly. The Expanse (both the series and the show) gives you unforgettable characters (ok, Holden is not particularly interesting, but everyone else is) and also sprinkles science on top of the pie. The Expanse is believable. Moreover, it plays with our understanding of science and sociology because gravity influences not only our bodies, but also our social structures. However, I would not call the Expanse series hard sci-fi.

A simple comparison of Robinson’s books (think Red Moon) to the Expanse reveals how the level of hardness in sci-fi influences the work: the harder the sci-fi, the more irrelevant the characters become, the more abstract the story becomes. It’s neither a positive, nor a negative shift. It simply happens.

Character-driven stories also explore grandiose ideas, but those are the people (elves, aliens) that run the show, their minds introducing the reader to the world. I read many books I did not really like because there was a certain character I appreciated (a favourite type of character, usually). But none of those novels were hard sci-fi. As a kid I had trouble digesting Lem because my general understanding of science was not up to snuff. What I realized back then was that truly hard sci-fi focuses on the concepts, but not on characters. Also, hard sci-fi thrives in a short story format, allowing the ingenuity of the concept to shine. Think Bradbury’s short stories. They don’t offer great character development. They offer concept development instead.

What are the implications?

Exploding minds. Hard sci-fi is, perhaps, one of the most difficult genres to get into. First, if you don’t have rudimentary knowledge of certain disciplines, you will only understand half of the author’s message. You may enjoy the novel, but you won’t get the full package. Second, if you are not into the concept that is discussed (if I am not obsessed with planet terraforming as such and unable to understand the science behind it, I am bound not to get all the intricacies of Red Mars), you won’t like it.

Some of us seek certain character types they enjoy. Others pick up a novel, searching for beloved tropes – worthy opponents, enemies-to-lovers, stoic genius, etc. In hard sci-fi, you come to challenge your mind, not to let it rest.

There is, perhaps, one exceptional hard sci-fi that I read because of the characters. The Three-Body Problem (I am also, probably, the only person, who loves the first book of the trilogy more than the sequels). Ye Wenjie is an amazing example of a scientist utterly destroyed by society and, perhaps, science itself. Even today she remains one of my favourite characters as well as the brilliant and ruthless Thomas Wade from the last book. Again, perhaps, these two are variations of my favourite character types (especially Wade), thus I do appreciate them immensely.

The murky in-between. The space between the most challenging sci-fi and the lightest science fantasy is occupied by…everything else. Most novels written by Scalzi fall into the category of ‘fun sci-fi’: it is easy to get into and it focuses on characters, while still exploring grand concepts. Nowadays, the only undeniable feature that labels something as sci-fi is…well…a spaceship. If you find one, you are reading sci-fi, even if it is piloted by elves. Futuristic setting is optional (you can create a Byzantine Empire with spaceships and still call it science fiction). In a nutshell, science fantasy is a more accessible version of hard science fiction with cooler spaceships. Laws of physics need not apply, laws of character development are obligatory.

If you have a spaceship, you have a sci-fi on your hands!

How ‘hard’ can a sci-fi be to be enjoyable? For my engineering parents, the sky is the limit. I, on the other hand, rarely choose books because the grand concept alone piques my interest (unless the grand themes are nationalism, dissolution of Empires and propaganda). In that case, you have my eyes, ears, and cash. In another case, I still prefer to encounter fascinating characters before discussing climate change, space travel and sociological shifts.

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