Writing Excuses 9.2: Hard Science Fiction with Eric James Stone

Eric James Stone joins us for a discussion of hard science fiction. We begin with a discussion of definitions, and then we take care not to spend the whole episode just talking about that. We talk about what we like about hard science fiction (with examples) and of course we address the crux of the matter: can you write hard science fiction without having a degree in the hard sciences?


Think of a way to combine two technologies that are currently not combined, and weave them into a story.

Bowl of Heaven, by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven, narrated by Zach Villa

14 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 9.2: Hard Science Fiction with Eric James Stone”

  1. Once again a podcast that starts with fighting over – ahem, collaborating on – definitions. And of course it’s tough. If any (not only Hard) Science Fiction is defined by “If you take the science away, there is no story left”, one might argue that this excludes a lot. The movie “Avatar” would not be Science Fiction, since if you take the science away, you still have the story, only it’s now called “Dances With Wolves”. And Military Science Fiction becomes an oxymoron, since if you take the Science away, you still have Military Fiction. (See what I did here?)

    My working definition of Hard Science Fiction is that it is Science Fiction where the known laws of physics or other sciences are only broken when it’s neccessary, but not gratuitously. The indestructible hull in the Neutron Star story is an example. Stories with FTL but where people still use firearms and missiles in conjunction with laser weapons are another.

    The counter example would be stories where people use light sabers, fly space fighters that make whooshing sounds and rock and bank like fighters in the air, hide spaceships in meteorite fields, and of course any story where the worldbuilding is completely broken: Travelling At The Speed Of Plot, Imperial Academy Markmanship, plot-dependent technological capability (i.e. sometimes the armour can be pierced, sometimes the code can be broken, sometimes the stealth ship can be detected, for no other reason than “the plot needs it”), plot-dependent policy (last episode we ran, this episode we shoot on sight, next episode we will try to negotiate, even if it’s exactly the same first contact situation every time).

    Don’t get me wrong, such counter examples can still be wonderful stories, see Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, etc. One of my favorite science fiction tv shows is the short-lived (one season of seven episodes, in 1965, you see any pattern?) German “Raumpatrouille”, which suffers from worldbuilding that is ridiculously bad, as in no-thought-ever-went-into-it-because-they-hired-writers-who-did-not-even-like-science-fiction bad, but is still wonderful with charming characters and whedonesque dialogue (written by German authors, who would have thought that’s even possible).

    Instead of arguing about the definition of Hard Science Fiction, it is better to use it as a name for a pattern, for a set of expectations about the content, form and style of the story.

    Which is exactly what the casters did. (They are that smart.)

  2. Great cast, folks. Mary’s dragon sound effects were the best. I’m much more into fantasy than I am into sci-fi. Ender’s Game was the apex of my reading, but I have gone into some other SF before and there are some out there that I found delightful. Useful cast. Thanks.

  3. Thanks for doing this podcast. I really related to Brandon’s comments about liking hard science fiction that appropriately challenges the reader yet successfully explains the science at work.

    The Stan Shmidt reference by Eric and the breakdown of thirds was also really insightful, and what a great prompt! It reminds me of Chuck Lukacs’ ‘Fantasy Genesis’ book for sketching new creatures using RPG dice and a a salad bar list of physical traits.

  4. No Throckmorton, no hard science. No boredom, no hard science. No science pidgin, no hard science. Why not call it like it is, light science?

    Throckmorton is a character in physics story problems.
    Science pidgin is the inscrutable language scientists use in the comments section of nature.com.

  5. @ ‘nother Mike
    What do you mean, “soft audio”? Listening to these guys, I find the impact anything but “soft”!

    Dan is scary. (Living in Germany for some time is unlikely to mellow him.)

    And ever since the “Roguishness” podcast, I dream of a situation where Mary would call ME an asshole. Not that I would ever accost her … or anyone else …

  6. Hard science fiction doesn’t require a degree, but it should not violate known or theorized science. If it isn’t possible, it’s not science, it’s fantasy. So…the writer has to study at least long enough to recognized the rational thinkers in the field.

  7. ‘If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible he is almost certainly right, but if he says that it is impossible he is very probably wrong.’

    — Arthur C. Clarke

  8. So can you not just do speculative fiction, that’s neither science fiction or fantasy?

    I prefer classic Cyberpunk , largely because you really don’t have to worry about techno info-dumps.

    Maybe I’m more of a Magic Realism reader and never knew it, but I prefer speculation without plot intrusion.

  9. @sarah? Just my opinion, but sure. Speculative fiction, hard science fiction, space opera, fantasy, epic fantasy, high fantasy, urban fantasy, magical realism, you name it, there’s probably someone doing it, and if not, you should still feel free to tackle it! I think these survey podcasts taking a close look at one or another genre or sub genre are intended to provide a quick grounding, so if you’re interested, you know what some of the basics are, and might want to look further. But they don’t mean other genres aren’t equally good for reading or writing, just that here’s one to look at. Incidentally, I think in almost every genre, the preferred approach is to minimize info dumps. Even if some authors do seem to get away with fairly hefty chunks of stuff scattered in their tales.

  10. What kind of SF is it, where it’s not so much how to realistically travel around the sun, but rather how one realistically copes with a societal issue in a limited controlled setting like a school or academy? I like playing with characters memories, but the actual synapse function doesn’t interest me.

    I ended up giving up SF, when I found my stuff isn’t science enough.:/ Though this current story way different from what I’m used to, I switched over to MG Fantasy by accident.

    I love your quick overviews.^^

  11. Sarah, you might want to check the podcast in the last series about social science fiction with Joel Shepherd, which sounds like exactly what you’re looking for.

Comments are closed.