The Importance of Hard Science Fiction

For the last eighty or so years, science fiction writers have been the doormen to a strange and exciting universe replete with extra dimensions, elementary particles, time-travel, intergalactic wars, speculative evolutionary biology, and more. Sometimes this universe bears a charming resemblance to our own (hard sci-fi); other times it violates known laws of physics (soft sci-fi). In both cases, however, our minds are massaged and stretched in a consciousness expanding way upon entering. A few months ago Applied Sentience editor Paul Chiariello wrote a fascinating piece on the import of literature on empathy development (among other things). I’d like to follow suit and talk about how science fiction can fuel the development of science, and visa-versa.

For me, part of the fun in learning science—which I forget every time finals roll around—is that it provides tools to think about the things I want to think about. If I want to understand how options in a stock market behave, my eyes only need to adjust to the variables of Brownian Motion having different letters assigned to them. If I want to imagine what organisms on a far-away planet might be like, I can read about convergent evolution, theoretical biophysics, population genetics, and the like.

All my speculations could of course still be dead wrong, but at least I know I’m not violating any laws of nature, and that my guesses have logic behind them. But how can a person with no scientific training think about these things realistically? The difficult truth is that they can’t: no one is born knowing about neutron stars orbiting black holes or particular solutions to the Schrodinger Equation. When your elementary school teacher told you that there are no limits to your imagination, she wasn’t talking about science. If your idea about extra-terrestrial ecosystems, for example, contradicts one of the laws of thermodynamics, it’s doomed—plain and simple. In other words, there’s no chance it could ever happen in this universe.

If your aim was the fantastical, rather than the possible, then there’s no problem at all. If at this point you’re despairing—don’t. There’s a way to partially circumvent lack of scientific training, and that’s by hopping on the backs of science-fiction writers who are scientifically literate.

The Point

Before  schools strip away our natural lust for science, most of us wonder incessantly about the world we live in. Why is the ground below our feet and not above it? Why does the sun shine? Why is the sky blue? Why don’t we have more eyes? Unfortunately, unless your child is a prodigy, the “true” answers to the above questions are simply too abstract to relay in words:  you would need some pretty heavy mathematics/logic. And since most Americans never make it past pre-calculus, the probability of an adult being able to even sort of explain nuclear fusion to a five-year old is vanishingly small. Textbooks are likewise a no-go, for obvious logistical reasons.

The only way out is to give the kid a few good science fiction novels, and hope she absorbs some intuition for the facets of Natures that aren’t readily apparent to humans (i.e forces, atoms, conservation laws, etc) Now you see where the importance of “good” hard-sci comes in. If the plotline of a book that purports to be hard sci-fi rests on the main character inventing a perpetual motion machine, that kid will have some pretty wonky ideas about thermodynamics.

Let me say what I know many of you are thinking right now: “Who gives a %$@&? At least the kid is thinking about science!” Answer: not me! I agree, if the kid is thinking about perpetual motion and energy conservation laws at age ten, that’s better than most adults do in their 80 years of life. What I’m more concerned about are demonstrably incorrect explanations for physical phenomena.

To pick an easy example, legendary sci-fi writer Jules Verne once wrote in a story that weightlessness on a lunar mission only happens at the point in space where Earth’s gravitational pull cancels out with the moon’s gravitational pull. I don’t need to tell you that this is wrong, and had he consulted a scientist or read an elementary physics book he wouldn’t have made this mistake. Another more modern example would be from Star Trek, where Vulcan’s can happily breed with humans. Given what we know about molecular biology, some scientists have remarked that the cross between a terrestrial and an extra-terrestrial is about as likely as the successful mating of a man and a petunia. Its avoidable errors like this that good hard sci-fi leaves out.

To Reiterate

Sometimes learning about science can be boring. Sometimes I don’t care what the first 10 energy states of an electron in a 1-D infinite potential look like. Sometimes I don’t care what the probability of an alpha particle tunneling through a nuclear potential is. Sometimes I want to go back in time and punch Erwin Schrödinger in the face. (Also, can you guess which one of my upcoming midterms I’m most stressed about?)

A surefire way to make learning science fun for a person who can’t be bothered to slog through mountains of textbooks is to masquerade it as fiction. Like I mentioned earlier, if you want to get some crude idea about the wonderful and multifarious extremes our universe allows, or even the reasons for the different things we see around us, you need only to pick up a time-tested hard sci-fi book. Here’s a short list to get you started:

Enjoy!

Leo Kozachkov (Staff Writer, Rutgers University)
Leo KovachkovLeo Kozachkov is an undergraduate at Rutgers University, studying physics and mathematics. He is currently working as an Aresty Research Assistant under Professor Thomas V. Papathomas. He enjoys writing, drawing, creating/playing music, going on long walks with his beloved dog, and reading/hoarding books. His grandest hopes are to discover a new physical law, have a mathematical theorem feature his last name, and to write many books.

12 responses to “The Importance of Hard Science Fiction

  1. Pingback: The Importance of ‘Hard’ Science Fiction | Zeddev·

  2. disagree … basic scientific principles should be present in science-fiction writing but trying to integrate latest theories and such is counterproductive in terms of drama and content – just look at all that techno-babble they put into Star Trek Next Generation – ugh

    science-fiction expands the realms of the possible in our imaginations and attempting to inject hard science into it kills creativity and limits its scope and results in a kind of sameness

    when Star Trek came out in the 60s transporters, phasers, communicators, universal translators, etc. were made-up technologies but turned out they anticipated real tech

    you have it backwards in terms of enticing young people to take up an interest in science – the more outlandish and exciting the more likely they are to delve more deeply into it

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    • Ezekial, thank you for the response. I disagree strongly with your claim that injecting hard science into sci-fi kills its creativity. Like anything else, it depends on context and substance. Take Carl Sagan’s contact, for example. Part 1 of the story rests on radio technology, which has been around for a very long time now. Part 2 of the story involves the astronauts using an intergalactic Einstein-Rosen bridge (aka a wormhole) to get to where the aliens are. Both radio and E-R bridges fall under the domain of “hard science”.

      I also disagree with your last paragraph/claim. If you entice people into science with psuedo-science, they could quickly become disillusioned with the real thing. Of course I don’t have anything but anecdotal evidence to back that up, but I’ve seen many bright people drop out science majors because they found it “boring”. Better inculcate people with a love and reverence for “real science”, I think.

      Thanks again for reading!

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  3. So… Where’s the real hard Scifi in your list? I’m talking Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds. These guys really have a handle on how the universe works and why, on top of being really good authors – would suggest checking them out.

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  4. Check out James P Hogan also.

    In particular his time travel books are the best I’ve read (and maintain a consistent theory).

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  5. Most of these examples are from decades ago. Do you have any examples of modern hard sci-fi? I haven’t read Enders Game yet. I always thought of O.S.C as a fantasy writer. When was it published?

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    • That’s awesome, welcome to the club 🙂

      My advice is to know the level at which you want to learn this stuff. What I mean by that is, don’t look in a graduate-level physics textbook on quantum mechanics or cosmology if you’re just trying to get a general, overview understanding of the material. I’d recommend starting with some popular science books, and if you’re craving something deeper, working through some undergraduate texts. Though at that point you’ll need to learn some “upper-level” math (especially calculus).

      There are plenty of amazing pop-sci books out there. A classic is Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg is also very good, and focuses on cosmology. For quantum, I’d check out some videos on Youtube by MinutePhysics, Veritasium, or Sixty Symbols.

      Best of luck, let me know if none of these work for you. If not, I can suggest some more.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Are you sure Jules Verne was not correct. Objects in orbit are constantly falling toward the object about which they orbit, but constantly missing because of their perpendicular velocity. Verne was correct in saying that there would be a point between the Earth and The Moon where the two gravitational fields cancel.

    But I like your essay. Yeah, school can make science soooo boring. Your list is good too. Six works by the Big Three. I would go with A Fall of Moondust by Clarke and Citizen of the Galaxy by Heinlein though. LOL

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  7. Good list.

    I both agree and disagree with your article. Good science in science fiction is definitely necessary and important, but the sense of wonder engendered by speculation leaving the more-or-less well defined boundary of science is what’s really importnat to pull you in. If an author can manage to do both things at once, then that’s best.

    For example, no matter how strict Clarke may have been in the depiction of science in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, it was the speculation on the Monolith artefact and what it represented, and the open ended questions on man’s potential for subsequent evolution that really made me go “wow” and reeled me in to the genre.

    You are definitely missing some more modern authors in your list, some of which I’ll just mention. I’m afraid I don’t count Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” as hard science fiction. I’ve only ever read one Heinlein novel and that happens to be “Stranger in a Strange Land”, which I’ve also never thought of as hard science fiction.

    Australian author Greg Egan is required reading. His two collection of short stories, “Axiomatic” and “Luminous”, are brimming with ideas that will keep you thinking for ages. When it comes to his novels, I highly recommend “Quarantine” and, especially, his brilliant novel “Diaspora”. “Schild’s Ladder” is probably the ‘hardest’ of his science fiction novels, it even starts right off the bat with some maths, but I most definitely prefer “Diaspora”.

    Stephen Baxter has long been considered one of the best hard science fiction writers of all time. His Xeelee sequence of books are classics that combine the ultra grand scope of space, nay, cosmic opera, whilst never forgetting the nitty gritty of physics. The main sequence Xeelee books are (in publication order): “Raft”, “Timelike Infinity”, “Flux”, “Ring” and “Vacuum Diagrams”. “Raft” and “Flux” are independent side stories in the Xeelee sequence.

    Greg Bear’s excellent “Blood Music” (both the short story and the later novelisation) and “Eon”.

    Robert L. Forward’s “Dragon’s Egg” and it’s sequel “Starquake” which speculates the form life may take on the surface of a neutron star.

    Neal Stephenson’s brilliantly immersive “Anathem”, which cleverly postulates empirical phenomena and consequences starting with the most fundamental of all ideas, Plato’s ideal forms. The whole book is filled with Socratic-like dialogues on mathematics, philosophy and physics, and is a great example of a book that tries to derive empirical conclusions from non-empirical initial conditions (philosophical ideas). Don’t read any reviews of this book which might give plot details away. Just buy the book (the back blurb should be enough). The first 80 pages are a little slow (and hard going), then it’s smooth sailing.

    Peter Watts’ “Blindsight” (which I’ve read) and the related novel (though not a sequel) “Echopraxia” (which I’ve not yet read). “Blindsight” is a very interesting take on first contact, and while I enjoyed it, it didn’t compare to the high bar that Stanislaw Lem set with his excellent “Fiasco” – one of the best Lem’s ever written with a deadly, deadly finale.

    Another classic is Gregory Benford’s “Timescape”.

    Charles Stross’ “Singularity Sky”. I just read this recently. The opening really reels you in. Parts of it were slow going, but the most impressive (and slightly confusing) aspect of the book was his take on time travel. I had a difficult time with some of the time-causality explanations (the nature of a closed, time-like loop), and my head got addled trying to imagine three dimensional light/time cones as four dimensional spheres (the past light/time cones as 4d spheres did me in, the future bit I was somehow able to visualise, I think). I’m a layman, not a science guy.

    Alastair Reynolds, one of my favourite British science fiction writers, who was a former researcher at the European Space Agency. He writes excellent space opera with a hard edge. No FTL in his Revelation Space universe, for example. My suggestion is to start with his independent novels, “Pushing Ice” and/or “House of Suns”. If you’d like to try his Revelation Space works (consisting of a trilogy, two independent novels, two novellas and a collection of shorts), then either start with his collection “Galactic North” or one of the independent novels in the Revelation Space universe, like “Chasm City”.

    Here is an excellent short story by Reynolds’ called “Understanding Space and Time” which concerns the journey of an individual seeking the mysteries of reality. The story is in Reynolds’ collection “Zima Blue and Other Stories”. http://lolwh.at/~pii_/Alastair%20Reynolds%20-%20Understanding%20Space%20and%20Time.pdf

    Also, Karl Schroeder with books like “Ventus” or “Lady of Mazes”.

    Vernor Vinge, with his excellent “Marooned in Realtime”. It would make more sense if you read “The Peace War” first. Both are collected in one volume together with a short story in “Across Realtime”. And Vinge’s independent “Rainbow’s End”.

    And an older classic that must not be missed: Poul Anderson’s “Tau Zero”, though I’ve been led to believe that a later published paper by Hawking disproved some of the premises that the book took for granted.

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  8. The Two Faces of Tomorrow by James P Hogan

    To include something reasonable and intelligent involving computers.

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