the Little Red Reviewer

How hard do you want it?

Posted on: October 4, 2012

or, random thoughts on hard science fiction.



How hard is too hard?  How much science do you really want in your science fiction?  According to wikipedia, hard scifi is defined as

“a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy, or on both.”

It goes on to say that hard scifi should have accurate science and lots of scientific details. To simplify greatly, in hard scifi the science is an important part of the worldbuilding.  the soft scifi story says they  boarded a ship and went to another planet, the hard scifi story offers information regarding the type and design of the ship, how it manages to travel faster than light, and what it’s fuel is made of, and all of these details are important to plot development and characterization.

I’ve always had a soft spot for hard scifi because I love knowing how things work. Doesn’t matter if the author mentions elements or fuels or technology that doesn’t currently exist (that’s the fiction part), because I’m still getting a plausable scientific foundation for the technologies mentioned.  Many books that I’d categorize as hard scifi can easily fall into other categories as well – space opera, military scifi, first contact, etc.

Titles that come to mind when I think hard scifi include Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson, Faith, by John Love, Clockwork Rocket, by Greg Egan, and plenty of Peter Watts, Gregory Benford, Larry Niven and A.E. Van Vogt.  It’s the type of stuff where accurate science trumps all, and it’s usually pretty damn awesome.

as readers and fans of hard scifi, how hard do we really want it?

I bring this up because I recently survived Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan. Egan is a bit of a mystery man, and this was my first taste of his style.  Egan dumps his reader on an alien planet (sounds good so far!), and the story mostly follows a scientist who learns of the danger her planet is it (still sounds great!).  The physics work a little different in this solar system (sweet!) so we get all sorts of charts (cool, i guess) and academic discussions (when did I sign up for SCI302 Astrophysics II?)  about the physics and how basically time and light and spacetime is completely different here. And then there are more charts, to put everything in 4 dimensions,  more academic discussions (when did I sign up for SCI515 Non-real Relativity??), and then, well, I started to feel a bit stupid.  What happened to the cool aliens and interesting plot?

If the heavy science in the book bores me to tears, can I still call myself a fan of hard scifi?

I freely admit I’m not the smartest person in the world,  I’ve always loved math and science, even if it didn’t love me back.  But when a hard scifi book makes me feel like I flunked 10th grade geometry, the hard scifi just got too hard for me.


29 Responses to "How hard do you want it?"

If I know sci-fi will be “hard”, normally I’ll avoid it. I know my husband will read it and tell me about it:-D


I used to love hard sci fi when I was younger, don’t know why I’m having a tougher time with it now. 😦


I think it depends on how well it’s written. What you’re describing with the Egan sounds like torture.


oh, it was. that was the title for my local scifi book club, and wow, you should have heard the conversations we had! Everyone thought the aliens were cool, but other than that, most people were turned off. all those hours I spent with that book? i want them back.


Heh, I see that you mentioned Rendezvous with Rama below. That’s one hard sf book that I LOVED, didn’t care that the characters could have just as easily not been there.


I like thinking that I’m smart, but the truth is: I’m most often a hedonistic reader. If I have to wade through too much science to find the story, I’m not going to finish and if I do, I probably won’t have had a good time.


I don’t mind wading through the science, I just want to know ahead of time what I’m in for. If the book advertises itself as a mystery, and it’s really a romance, that’s going to annoy me. If it advertises itself as scifi, and it’s really a treatise on physics, I’ll be just as annoyed.


Can’t say that I’m a huge fan of hard sf. I tend more towards fantasy. But when I do read hard(ish) sf, I like it to have the science subordinated to the plot.


I used to read a ton of hard scifi. . . maybe trying to get back into with the Egan wasn’t such a good idea. I do like fantasy too.


When I first read the title of this post, I had to think long and hard about whether or not I could read this post at work…..

I like my scifi pulse with hardness, as a continuous scientific pounding would be too much.


ha ha! i love stuff that sounds dirty but isn’t. 😉


One issue I have with some hard sci-fi is when the plot comes to a complete halt for an info-dump or science lesson. I don’t mind if my science-fiction is accurate and if I learn something from it. But some authors are just better than others at weaving that information into the story in a more natural way than others.


yes, the infamous infodump. Have you read the recent Kim Stanley Robinson? he sure loves his infodumps, but this time he pulled them completely out of the story to use as chapter interludes. I thought that worked wonderfully actually, otherwise he’d have been forced to put the plot on hold. I like how Neal Stephenson does infodumps too. but I’ve read plenty of authors that suck at it, and it’s a complete downer for the book.


I like the fiction part more than the science. As such I lean toward fantasy. Hard scifi tends to be pretty easy to identify so it’s usually easy to avoid.


i loved hard scifi when i was younger. it’s so funny, because these days I’ll happily read a non-fiction book about science or math (for fun!), but I want my scifi novels to be fun and action packed, less strain on the brain.


This happened to me with a recent book and physics was the offender. I love science-y things and I like it as part of my regular reading schedule too. But, I also like to understand a book. Give me science but don’t make me feel like an idiot otherwise I start using avoidance tactics.


what was the title of the book? if I’m reading Brian Greene’s String Theory Universe book, or a Richard Feynman physics book, I don’t mind feeling a little dim at times, I expect it, in fact. but fiction? that stuff is supposed to be fun, not a brain drain.


I’ve oscillated back and forth over the years and its always come down to my mood and/or headspace at the time. I’ll read hard SF when I want new ideas and don’t care so much about flat characters. Most of the time though, I prefer a well-written, well-told story with casual science – I can overlook the theory for the most part since a lot of it is usually just that. I have high respect for author who restrict themselves through science and can still pull off a compelling story – Alistair Reynolds, for example.


Alistair Reynolds is great, and I”d consider him scifi, but the way he writes his stuff makes me feel smarter, and interested in the science, not punched in the head by it.

speaking of flat characters, have you ever read Rendezvous with Rama? Hard SciFi all the way, and practically zero character development. But I do adore that book.


Well, too much maths and science puts me off to be honest. I don’t mind some but if it makes me feel stupid (or more so than I already feel) then I’m not into it!
Lynn 😀


i want the maths and science to inspire me to learn more about maths and science.

makes me think a little of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. I wouldn’t have considered myself big into history or economics, but man, after reading his stuff all I wanted to do was get history of economics books out of the library.

I’m so happy I did this blog post, because reading and thinking about all the comments has helped me get through the fact that I can severly dislike that Greg Egan book (mostly because it made me feel dumb) but that doesn’t mean I won’t like other better written hard scifi books.


I think a well-written science fiction story is a well-written science fiction story, regardless of its being hard or soft. Using real ideas to build a story can be incredibly interesting if done right. This story does not sound like it falls into that camp. Some authors have managed to marry hard and soft science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey series starts off as soft sf but becomes both hard and soft in the final novel, 3001: Final Odyssey. While the story builds on the very soft premises of the Star Child and freeing the consciousness of HAL in the previous novels, there are many footnotes about the technology throughout and explaining how the ideas are grounded in ideas from the present day. Definitely worth checking out.


It’s been years since I read much Clarke, I’ve got most of his titles so I’ve no excuse not to be reading him. Clarke, and Asimov, those were authors that got me into (hard) scifi when I was younger – that the science and exploration were of prime importance of the plot. I do think many of my favorite books over the years have been the ones that marry hard and soft scifi. Lots of space opera, does that, actually.


Yeah, I think I’ll give Clockwork Rocket a miss 😉 That is definitely too “hard” for me. I still have to read Red Mars, because I enjoyed Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt and its status as a modern classic.


I enjoy hard SF on occasion, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t raised on soft SF. However, the best kind of hard SF is informative without being academic and educating without being pedantic.


I mentioned in the Stross review that I certainly don’t run away from hard sf, but I don’t seek it out either. I haven’t actually read a lot of it. Some of Niven’s work, a Greg Bear book that had some hard sf elements, some Clarke and Anderson. Mostly I read the stuff that is more adventurous and less “science-y”. I know some people who only want sf to have plausible science. I don’t care. I want to be entertained by a story that grips my imagination, and those hard sf stories that I’ve read and kept reading through to the end did just that.


[…] series of hard sci-fi novels by the author.  The same blogger then mused, in another entry, about “How Hard Do You Want it?” – essentially, how much science should be in a science fiction […]


[…] How hard do you want it? (the Little Red Reviewer): The author shares her random thoughts on hard science fiction and when it gets to be too academic. An interesting read that makes me think I’m more into soft sci-fi myself. […]


This sounds awful, if for no other reason than we do live in a four dimensional world, the fourth being time. If they miss that basic element, I don’t know how hard it could be. Added to that it sounds like the author dropped the plot while juggling the physics.

If you like Reynold and Stephenson, there should be no hard sci fi book you should feel dim by reading. they are two of my favorites, I should add.


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