Saturday, April 9, 2016

Is Hard Science Fiction Impossible?

'Hard' is an adjective that some science fiction readers or critics use to denote science fiction that tries to be as realistic as possible. The author is supposed to use all the scientific training he/she has, do research into what is known about the background of the story he/she is writing, and then try and not write anything in contradiction to that. This position is fairly tenuous, as science changes from time to time, and the latest in findings as reported by the press may be overturned within a year or a decade. So adhering to the full gamut of scientific research may be even self-contradictory, if the scientists themselves had not had enough time to fully explore new findings, or what they think are new findings or deductions.

Put aside the difficulty of writing to adhere to a set of findings that are still being revised. Even if the author decides to stay away from the most recent discoveries or expected discoveries, he/she still has a very difficult task. The task is not learning about the science; that is something that gives way to great effort. The task is the plot.

There are certain things that a plot must do in order for the story to be sold and to be appreciated. The author can abandon his/her quest to write hard science fiction, and introduce whatever magic they want. If the author proceeds very far from this original concept, he/she could wind up writing fantasy, which is when there is little thought given to any consistency with what is scientifically believed. If he/she still wants to try for the pinnacle of hard science fiction, he/she has to figure out how to create a plot that is interesting for the readers. The plot is the essential part of the science fiction work, it has to have characters, including a hero and a villain, events, struggles, conflicts, relationships, and so on. That is what makes it sell. It is almost as if the science leaps forward are icing on the cake, there to appeal to a secondary motive within the readers.

If a particular reader wanted to learn about science, he would consult a textbook, go on the internet, read some scientific commentary or science news or something specifically related to science. Something without a plot and all its encumbrances. That is not what they are reading, and while someone could enjoy reading both, they take up a science fiction story to enjoy the plot.

Hard science fiction postulates a situation in which the plot is to take place, and the situation is to be consistent with known science, but it must also be self-consistent. Both of these are difficult.

To be consistent with science, gizmos are typically not possible. Like a time travel gizmo or a starship gizmo. How do you build a interesting plot when the principal devices are all off limits? Without gizmos, what can happen? Characters can interact, one can fight another one, two can ally, someone can be betrayed, a secret can be unveiled, and so on. If this is all the author has to offer, constrained as he/she is by hard science fiction, why not write it set in a historical time or a modern time? What is the point of it being science fiction if there are no gizmos allowed?

Take some examples. There are many stories written that involve time travel, and usually the author tries to be cute about how it's done to make the details interesting. Maybe destinations are not settable, maybe the machine goes awry, maybe only bits of information flow backward, maybe it is only temporary, or lots of other shenanigans related to the impossible supposition. Time travel has contradictions and doesn't happen. Hard science fiction can't use it.

What about star travel at faster-than-light speeds, without an energy cost greater than that included in a massive black hole? Countless extravaganzas are predicated on this being possible, but no one bothers to do the consistency check of finding out how the flyers get all that energy. How is it stored? How is it transformed, and with what efficiency, and where does the waste heat go? It isn't that star travel is impossible, that is not known now here on Earth, but fast, low energy star travel is. Magic portals can't exist. Hard science fiction can't use this gizmo either.

The alternative, a thousand year voyage, might be possible, but just how interesting is that? If the ship involved was a multi-generational ship, there could be the usual individual versus individual conflicts and all the strife that could happen in a tiny village, or even a small city if the ship was large enough, could happen to make up a plot. But why bother writing up such a plot unless there was something about the travel that was connected to the plot? Some dramatic turn had to be imminent and dangerous and only some particular actions on the part of some particular individual can rectify things. Why not just write about the tiny village or the small city? Why put it out in space? There are threats that face tiny villages and small cities.

Conjuring up the threats to a large ship means that the designers did not foresee all consequences of their designs, which is typical for a first design, and somehow, testing was not done. This is not consistent with how engineering would be conducted. No large expense would be taken without extensive testing. Of course things go wrong, and a look at the space exploration vehicles that Earth has sent out provides a list of things that can go wrong and have. Testing does not find all the failure modes, although it tries to. Testing does find most of them and the simpler ones for sure, so the plot has to involve something that would have escaped long term testing, of components and of systems. This makes creating a plot for a hard science fiction story involving a star ship quite perplexing.

If there is no time travel and no fast star travel, the author is left to write about life on a planet. Gizmos might be the thing that makes it science fiction, but most gizmo ideas are not based on scientific extrapolation, as that typically does not go very far. They may be based on extrapolation beyond reasonable limits. Again, many gizmos are ruled out of hard science fiction.

What is left is a translation of Earth society into a future time with some changes, but not so many that readers can't immediately recognize the type of society, its flaws, and the struggles within it. They are simply recognizing what they know, underneath the trappings of a future projection. There is a giant flaw in this, in that technology will be curing these problems, just as it cures those in health and energy. The lack of consistent projection of scientific advances across the different fields of science is perhaps the most common failing of future scene science fiction.

Almost nothing is left. Well, fantasy is more exciting to read, anyway.

1 comment:

  1. A good example of hard science fiction is the martian by Andy Weir, the science of it is at least 95 percent believeable and possible and science is a key part of the story. In my opinion everything which doesnt contradict science as we know it should be considered hard sci fi in a sence that it doesnt usemagic to propell the plot forward. So no teleportation, no ftl travel, no exits from a black hole etc. :). I love this blog it is awesome and you are awesome. Cheers from a Serbian reader!