What is hard science fiction, anyway?
Brandon Q. Morris writes hard science fiction. But what does that actually mean? I like to explain it this way: What happens in my books could happen in reality. There are no laws of physics that would prevent it. You could also call it «realistic» science fiction, although the fiction remains, of course. In the end, it is a story that I tell. Apart from the degree of hardness (more on that below), hard science fiction also tends to depict the conflict between the hero and the environment (in the form of the universe and its manifold phenomena) instead of a conflict between people. In addition, things are often relatively technical, but this is not a requirement. Also, the resolution of the conflict may like to be technical in the end.
This does not mean that we do not need strong characters. On the contrary, the universe as an antagonist is quite a strong character that requires real development from the protagonist. At the beginning, the hero doesn’t even have a chance, and only in the course of the conflict does he gain strength and eventually acquire the ability to save the world. Equally important: the «Sense of Wonder», the feeling of greatness and magnificence that the universe brings. You know this from starry nights, lying in your backyard looking up at the sky. When a novel conveys that feeling, I think it succeeds.
Back to the hardness. The website AllTheTropes has invented a scale modeled after the Mohs scale for the hardness of minerals. It looks something like this:
- Class 1: Science in genre only. The work belongs to science fiction, but it has nothing to do with science. Futurama, Star Wars, the DC and Marvel universes, Doctor Who, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fall under this.
- Class 2: Consistent Rules. The universe is full of non-scientific rules, but they are at least consistently applied. Once a rock falls from the bottom to the top, it always does. These rules are considered to be scientifically based in the particular world. Examples: Neon Genesis Evangelion, Star Trek, StarCraft. A subclass (probably 2.5 on the scale) contains stories that are scientifically sound, but the physics applied is not our own (two spatial dimensions instead of three, etc.).
- Class 3: Physics Plus. Again, strange, unrealistic things happen, but the writer tries to justify them with real or invented laws of nature, and in a consistent manner. Works like Schlock Mercenary, David Brin’s Uplift series, and Battlestar Galactica (2003) fall into this class.
- Class 4: One Big Lie. Here, authors invent one (or at most a few) laws of physics and explore the implications of this «one big lie» in the story. The computer game «Mass Effect», for example, uses the discovery of the theoretical matter «Element Zero», which is responsible for the «Mass Effect» and thus the basis for all futuristic technology. A subclass (4.5 on the scale) contains stories that require only a single counterfactual device (often to travel faster than light), but where the device is not a major element of the plot.
- Class 5: Speculative Science. These are stories in which the «big lie» of Class 4 does not exist. The science used in the narrative is real, albeit speculative, science or technology, and the writer’s goal is to make as few errors about known facts as possible. For the most part, books by Brandon Q. Morris fall into this class 🙂 A subclass (5.5 on the scale) might be called «futurology» because their stories predict the future by extrapolating from current technology rather than inventing great new technologies.
This classification, by the way, is not to be understood qualitatively at all. Just as in general «hard» SF is not better or worse than «soft» SF. I like to watch StarWars or StarTrek (yes, both!) and enjoy the fantastic pictures. I only find it difficult when (as in the film «Ad Astra») a «hard» claim is made but not fulfilled. When the reader or viewer believes to see the real universe, but is deceived.