Heterocosms: Science Fiction in Context and Practice
Click on image to enlarge.
by Brian Stableford
Category: Science Fiction/General Nonfiction
Description: This new collection of critical essays on science fiction and fantasy literature and media features the following pieces: "The Last Chocolate Bar and the Majesty of Truth: Reflections on the Concept of 'Hardness' in Science Fiction," "How Should a Science Fiction Story End?", "The Third Generation of Genre Science Fiction," "Deus ex Machina; or, How to Achieve a Perfect Science-Fictional Climax," "Biotechnology and Utopia," "Far Futures," "How Should a Science Fiction Story Begin?", and "The Discovery of Secondary Worlds: Notes on the Aesthetics and Methodology of Heterocosmic Creativity." Brian Stableford is the bestselling writer of 50 books and hundreds of essays, including science fiction, fantasy, literary criticism, and popular nonfiction. He lives and works in Reading, England.
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 2007 USA
eBookwise Release Date: June 2007
3 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [436 KB]
Reading time: 254-356 min.
I. THE LAST CHOCOLATE BAR AND THE MAJESTY OF TRUTH: REFLECTIONS ON THE CONCEPT OF "HARDNESS"IN SCIENCE FICTION * * * * 1. Hard and Hardcore Science Fiction
Employment of the term "hard science fiction" dates back at least as far as November 1957, when P. Schuyler Miller used it in the introductory essay leading off one of his "Reference Library" columns in Astounding Science Fiction. The essay in question cites three books--John W. Campbell Jr.'s Islands of Space, Murray Leinster's Colonial Survey and Hal Clement's Cycle of Fire--as widely different but nevertheless cardinal examples of "what some readers mean when they say they want 'real' science fiction". Miller claims that the first of the three examples had been "characteristic of the best 'hard' science fiction of its day" and observes that "the ultimate in present-day science fiction is being written by Hal Clement". The Leinster novel, on the other hand, he considers "fashionably soft."1
In a subsequent "Reference Library" column (August 1959) Miller referred to James Blish's novel The Triumph of Time as a "'hard science' story in the vein of E. E. Smith's Skylark stories [and] John W. Campbell's Mightiest Machine" 2. This might have been where Blish picked up the notion of hard sf, which he employed in a more combative spirit in a 1960 fanzine review of the story series making up Brian Aldiss's Hothouse that complained about the proliferation of "science-fantasy"; the piece was subsequently expanded into part of a chapter in More Issues at Hand (1970 as by "William Atheling Jr."). Alleging that the hardness-forsaking trend has "gotten out of hand," Blish notes that H. G. Wells had used the term science-fantasy "to cover what we would today call 'hard' science fiction, in which a conscientious attempt to be faithful to already known facts (as of the date of writing) was the substrate on which the story was to be built, and if the story was to contain a miracle, it ought at least not to contain a whole arsenal of them," but then adds the stern warning that: "Today it is being used as an excuse for getting the facts wrong."3 He attaches the blame for this to the editorial license permitted by Robert P. Mills and Avram Davidson, the editors of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction who published Aldiss' series, citing Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles as another key example.
Miller's review columns and Blish's essay were elements in an ongoing argument about the proper usage of the term "science fiction," which flared up during the 1950s and intensified markedly in the 1960s. What can now be seen as a significant threshold was passed in 1960 when Judith Merril's annual series of eclectic anthologies stopped being The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy and became simply The Year's Best S-F, thus tacitly dissolving two alleged genres into one. To begin with, this move was presumably a mere matter of convenient packaging, but as Merril became one of the most ardent American proponents of the British "New Wave"--which sought to revise the limits of genre sf and to challenge much that had been long taken for granted about its nature and concerns--it began to seem like a calculated reformation. As Miller had noted in 1957, "softness" was fashionable, and becoming more so.
Merril went on to advocate such a broadening of definition polemically in her essay "What Do You Mean: Science? Fiction?" (1966), which does not use the term "hard science fiction" but might be identified retrospectively as the point at which the potential range of reference of the term "science fiction" was so comprehensively widened that it became necessary for an extra term to be added whenever subsequent essayists wanted to speak about the narrower field to which the label had been assumed by most would-be definers to apply. "Hard science fiction" was not the only term which came to be used in this way. The first edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979) edited by Peter Nicholls subsumes discussion of that term under the heading "hardcore sf", which Nicholls then considered to be synonymous with it.
Nicholls alleges in the 1979 article that "hardcore sf" has "two parallel meanings [which are] not quite identical: first, hardcore sf is the kind of sf which repeats the themes and usually the style of genre sf written during the so-called Golden Age of SF; second, it is sf that deals with the so-called 'hard' sciences."4 The revised version of this article in the 1993 edition of the encyclopedia, however, is titled "hard sf", the meaning of which term is held merely to "overlap" that of "hardcore sf." Nicholls here restricts the first of his two meanings to "hardcore sf" and quotes a definition of hard sf borrowed from Allen Steele: "Hard sf is the form of imaginative literature that uses either established or carefully extrapolated science as its backbone."5
The term "hardcore sf" had earlier been used in two of the essays in Reginald Bretnor's critical anthology Science Fiction: Today and Tomorrow (1974). Thomas N. Scortia claims that "the closely reasoned technological story has come to be known as a 'hard-core science fiction story'," citing Asimov and Heinlein as the "leading adepts" of this kind of fiction;6 Bretnor subsequently uses the term en passant. Three other essays in the book, by Hal Clement, Anne McCaffrey, and Jack Williamson, use the term "hard science fiction," all of which references are subsumed under "'hard-core' science fiction" in the index; this may be why Nicholls did the same in the 1979 edition of the encyclopedia.
The article by Allen Steele quoted by Nicholls in the 1993 edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction was part of a series of articles by various hands featured in The New York Review of Science Fiction, launched in that periodical's first issue by Kathryn Cramer's "Science Fiction and the Adventures of the Spherical Cow." Cramer's essay firmly stakes the claim that hard sf has been the genre's hard core by observing that "there's been a persistent view that 'hard' SF is somehow the core and center of the field (the true blue SF); that all other SF orbits around this center; and that ... the characteristic of this core is a particular attitude to science and technology." Cramer subsequently quotes Poul Anderson's definition of Miller's alternative term, the "hard science story": "A hard science story bases itself upon real, present-day science or technology and carries these further with a minimum of imaginary forces, materials or laws of nature"; she notes, however that any such definition must be further elaborated, because hard sf also has a characteristic "attitude" and a characteristic "feel" which are additional to, and distinct from, hard sf content.7
In describing the "hard sf attitude" Cramer quotes Anderson's view that "Science, technology, material achievement and the rest are basically good [because in] them lies a necessary if not sufficient condition for the improvement of man's lot, even his mental and spiritual lot". The "hard sf feel" she finds more difficult to pin down, but she proposes that it has something to do with a particular narrative voice that is "pragmatic, deterministic and matter-of-fact" in its descriptions of the (usually futuristic) world in which the story is set.
Subsequent articles in The New York Review of Science Fiction (NYRSF) proposed a few further elaborations of this basic characterization of hard sf. A fragment of a debate reproduced in the 46th issue includes David Hartwell's insistence that "one of the pleasures of reading hard science fiction [is] the pleasure of discovery.... it is a kind of delight in education."8 In the 62nd issue Hartwell elaborated this point by insisting that "Hard sf is about the beauty of truth. It is a metaphorical or symbolic representation of the wonder at the perception of truth that is experienced at the moment of scientific discovery. The Eureka." Later in the essay he proposes that what distinguishes the moment of revelation in a hard sf story from that in a "soft sf" story is that it concerns "the functioning of the laws of nature" rather than "the inner life" of the characters. He also contributes some further comments about the customary narrative voice of hard sf, saying: "Hard sf relies, at some point of the story, on expository prose rather than literary prose.... Originally this exposition was merely a device for achieving verisimilitude ([as] in Poe) but by the advent of 1920s 'scientifiction' it had become of central interest, and by the 1940s, the essential point or turning point of a science fiction story".9
Another contributor to the debate in NYRSF 46, Hal Clement, attempts to put the attitude of his own hard sf (which P. Schuyler Miller and many others considered paradigmatic) into a nutshell. He explains the absence of villainous persons from his plots by observing that the universe itself is a perfectly adequate villain, and subsequently says: "I think it's a more interesting story when the expedition gets down to its last chocolate bar, not figuring out who gets the chocolate bar, but what they do to find out how to identify the local equivalent of a cocoa tree"--to which Hartwell adds: "the idea of solving problems so that the outcome is positive and life-affirming.... seems to be one of the core attitudes of hard science fiction."10
A further contribution to the celebration of the merits of hard sf was made by Gregory Benford in NYRSF 65, which calls attention to the camaraderie of its writers and the way that hard sf stories often react and refer to one another, collaborating in a process of trial-and-error evolution of thought much as scientists and their published papers do. He too insists that hard sf is the hard core of the genre, "the most simon pure breed," which "yields central images (spaceship, glittering future city, time machine, alien world) on which the rest of science fiction feeds."11
This series of NYRSF articles is reasonably consistent--and fits in reasonably well with the earlier deliberations of Miller, Blish and Anderson--with respect to the examples given of what is presumed to belong to the "hard core" of "hard sf". It is agreed that much of the work done by Hal Clement, Poul Anderson, Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, and Gregory Benford qualifies as a series of exemplars for modern hard sf, that some significant precursors of their work can be found in the work of John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov and a few in the even earlier work of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. Not all the examples offered, however, are uncontroversial--for instance, Cramer chooses Asimov's "Nightfall" as a key example while Hartwell includes Anne McCaffrey's "Weyr Search" in an annotated list of hard sf titles in NYRSF 68,12 neither of which I (for one) would be prepared to admit to the canon. Such quibbles have long dogged discussion of how much of what is cited as "hard sf" really warrants use of the term.
When writers of the time before the term "hard sf" was coined wanted to cast off certain items which, although labeled sf, were not really sf, the most common distinguishing term they used was not "science-fantasy" but "space opera". Miller's cardinal examples of the hard sf of the 1930s were, however, the space operas of John Campbell and "Doc" Smith. While it is undeniable that much of what the early pulps published was not hard sf it is hard to find any description which encapsulates exactly what it was. Stefan Dziemianowicz's characterization of the "weird science" story that "often ... plugged the basic elements of science fiction into a weird fiction matrix, replacing the psychopathic madman with the mad scientist, the magic book ... with the marvelous invention, and the vampire or werewolf with alien invaders"13 accurately describes one alternative category but does not include all the early magazine sf that was conspicuously un-hard. Nor is it the case that John W. Campbell Jr.'s succession to the editorial chair of Astounding Stories was followed by a conclusive sorting out of sheep and goats. Certain figures undeniably central to the "hard core" of contributors that Campbell maintained while he steered Astounding Science Fiction through its war-haunted Golden Age--notably A. E. van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, "Lewis Padgett," and L. Ron Hubbard--rarely figure on lists of hard sf writers, and the majority of their works clearly do not belong to that category.
The conspicuous presence of many un-hard individuals in the history of magazine sf and the ambition of various editors, fans and critics of the genre to annex into that history even more problematic figures--including, among many others, Mary Shelley, Edgar Rice Burroughs, A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, and C. S. Lewis--calls into question the notion that hard sf can or should be regarded as the "core" of the genre as it is presently conceived. Moreover, even if it were conceded that these writers did not belong to the "core" of the genre, it would not follow ipso facto that they should be regarded as less interesting writers, automatically less deserving of praise. The kind of evaluative privilege allocated by the critics cited above to writers of "real", "true blue", "simon pure" hard sf has not been echoed in the purchasing policies of large numbers of readers; furthermore, critics trained to apply orthodox methods of evaluation routinely consider "hardness" as a vice rather than a virtue, precisely because--as Hartwell notes--it tends to require the invocation of substantial expository lumps whose language may be impenetrable to those not trained in science.