SF That’s Probably Not for the Masses
Posted by hyperpat on November 2, 2006
I’ve been reading a fair amount of ‘hard’ science fiction lately, the type where it sometimes helps if you have an advanced degree in physics to understand it. Now this sub-genre, which was pretty much started by Hal Clement with his Mission of Gravity, was at one point thought to be almost dead, that there weren’t any more new scientific ideas that a story could be based around, and everyone went off and wrote stories that revolved around ‘soft’ sciences (sociology, psychology, economics, etc.). Then came black holes, string theory, wormholes, tangled quantum states, Bose-Einstein condensates, Moore’s Law, nanotechnology, and a host of other concepts and inventions. Some of these weren’t really new, but had suddenly received increased attention as actually being possible things rather than just theoretical concepts. Aided by a new crop of well-educated writers (quite a few of the practitioners of this sub-genre hold doctorates in one hard science or another or work as scientists for their day job), this field has seen a great resurgence in the last fifteen years or so.
Now as is typical for any field of literature, a lot of what gets written is not exactly stellar (pun intended), following Sturgeon’s Law, and this particular branch has its own special minefields for unwary authors. The most prominent of these is to allow the neat scientific idea (whatever it is) to dominate over story and characters, often with large info dumps and authorial asides interrupting the story flow. This is not a new problem for SF writers – some rather execrable examples can be seen of this in stories dating from the twenties. In fact, getting the necessary amount of scientific info into a story while avoiding this problem has historically been one of the hardest of the unique aspects of SF writing to accomplish. It hasn’t gotten any easier when the basic concepts you need to impart to your readers are really complicated, confusing, fly in the face of ‘common-sense’, and are just plain difficult to communicate.
But when, for that 10% or so that manage to avoid being part of the ‘crud’ of Sturgeon’s law, the author manages to get it all right, suddenly we have a story where that ‘sense of wonder’ is not only most likely present, but suffuses and illuminates the entire story. And that’s the thing about SF that first captured me, that help set my interests towards the scientific realm, and I imagine that the same will happen to youngsters today who so happen to come across one of these. At least I hope so, as we need more scientists, people who are both curious and willing to put in the hard labor to learn all that is necessary to reach a point where they can start finding some new answers, answers that will benefit everyone, not just the ‘geeks’ who get their kicks from SF.