Monday, August 11, 2014

Hard SF

This is a neat essay on women and science fiction by Vandana Singh. She writes in specific about women and hard SF, the manly stories about physics and engineering, which women writers tend to avoid, because they can't do the math. Singh is a physicist and can do the math, and she is concerned that women become more comfortable with hard SF.

As far as I can tell, she is absolutely right about everything she says, but I added a comment anyway. And because I like to use what I write more than once, if I can, here is what I wrote:
A couple of comments on hard science fiction. For the most part, it has been based on engineering and physics, also (I suppose) chemistry and materials science. (I am not entirely sure what materials science is, but I run across it in New Scientist, mostly in articles on research on the properties of materials.) Hard SF can include biology, though SF based on biology and evolutionary theory begins to look a bit soft. SF based on the "human sciences" -- history, anthropology, sociology, political science, psychology and maybe economics, though I'm not sure economics is any kind of science -- is completely soft and squishy. Hard SF writers mostly ignore the squishy sciences. As a result, they create far-future societies that are exactly like current American society, populated with people whose names are "Bob Smith" and "Joe Jones." They appear to have no idea that societies change and evolve, and that new technologies change societies. If you have FTL, then you have far different physics. What else is changed, besides space travel? How has the society changed?

So that is one point. I find most hard SF contains really bad soft science and that makes it unconvincing.

Second, what about paradigm shifts? One technique I use is to figure out how far into the future my society is, then look back a comparable distance into the past. If the story is set 200 years in the future, how much has science changed since 1814? How much of our current science could have been predicted in 1814? What this means is -- a current hard SF story that is set in the future is going to be using way out of date science, unless it is set in the near future or assumes a static or regressing society, that has produced no new science. The better -- the truer -- the current science is, the more out of date it will be in a story set far-out. I think there's an argument for far-distant stories using the science we have now. What else do we have, after all? And Newton still works when dealing with large bodies. But hard SF writers who get all self-righteous about how scientific their work is are silly.

None of this is a reason to give up on hard SF. We need to build a new kind of hard SF, that recognizes the soft sciences and the history of science. I think I'm saying pretty much what you have said above. So I will stop.


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