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Transcript for Episode 9.2

Writing Excuses 9.2: Hard Science Fiction with Eric James Stone


Key Points: What is hard science fiction? Wikipedia talks about science fiction with an emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy. Howard suggested that a portion of the reveal, the plot, is based on science that the reader has brought with them. Asimov and Analog say if you remove the science, the story breaks. Why do people read it? Because of the extrapolation from current scientific knowledge, the feeling of reality, to explore possible futures, for thought experiments. Also to learn. Do you have to be a scientist to write hard science fiction? No, but you probably need to read science fact articles and do your research. Have we reached the limits of what we can discover? Stan Schmidt suggested that when projecting technologies, about one third are linear growth, better, faster, smaller. About one third are new combinations of stuff. And about one third are things that we didn’t even see coming.

[Mary] Season nine, episode two.
[Brandon] Is Writing Excuses, hard science fiction with Eric James Stone.
[Howard] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Mary] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And the part of Dan this week will be played by an Australian dragon with laryngitis.
[Wheezing] I have a… [Cough. Cough. Choke.]

[Brandon] Once again we invite Eric James Stone onto our completely serious and Hugo award-winning podcast. Thank you for joining us.
[Eric] Thanks for having me.
[Brandon] So. Hard science fiction. Eric, you and Howard both write hard science fiction. I’m scared by hard science fiction. So I’m going to pass a lot of this to you. But first, let’s define it. What do we mean by hard science fiction?
[Mary] Well, according to Wikipedia, hard science fiction is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy, or on both.
[Brandon] Oh. That sounded Hugo award-winning right there.
[Howard] You know what? I have a slightly different definition.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Howard] Hard science fiction is science fiction in which a portion of the reveal, a portion of what needs to happen, is going to be based on science that the reader may be expected to have brought with them.
[Mary] Oh, wow. Boy, yeah, that’s nowhere near my…
[Brandon] See, I kind of use Asimov’s definition, which is… Hard science fiction is the science fiction in which if you remove the science, you no longer have a story.
[Mary] See, I don’t go there because I think that is true of any science fiction.
[Eric] Right. You can remove bad science from the story and…
[Mary] Yeah.
[Eric] Yeah, that’s the definition that Analog magazine uses for science fiction. They say they’re looking for science fiction. They don’t say they’re looking for hard science fiction, they say they’re looking for science fiction. But basically they say it’s where if you remove the science, then the story wouldn’t work. But they are also looking for the science to be correct or at least plausible.
[Brandon] Right. Analog is the big… They have a reputation of publishing science fiction with accurate science in it. They would be the hard science fiction magazine. But as you say, it’s not necessary… It’s not all they do. But if there’s… The science has got to be good for them.
[Eric] Generally, yes.
[Mary] Some people also say that science fiction is based on the so-called hard sciences as opposed to the soft sciences. By that, they means science fiction that is chemically, electrically, physics… That one of those mechanical sciences…
[Brandon] Yeah. Plays a fundamental role.
[Mary] As opposed to the psychology, social sciences…
[Eric] Right. Well, now the thing is I think you can write hard science fiction about what we consider today to be soft sciences.
[Brandon] Right. We did a podcast on that. We actually did.
[Mary] Right. I agree with you completely. But just be aware that when you are talking about it, this is one of those definitions, folks, that not everybody agrees on [as you know]
[Howard] Oh, we’ve probably hacked half of you off at this point.
[Mary] I expect to see a lot of comments going, “Oh, no. Hard science fiction is really this!” “This hard science fiction is delicious.”

[Brandon] All right. So. Maybe we can define it, because this is a podcast for writers, not… We’re not in the business of defining things, only in so much as it helps us become better writers to connect with our audience. So let’s talk about something… Hard science fiction, what’s the appeal? Why are people reading this as opposed to another subgenre… Of science fiction?
[Howard] Let me give you an example of one of my favorite hard science fiction stories. Short story by Larry Niven called Neutron Star, in which he posits an indestructible hull material. Which in terms of hard science fiction, it doesn’t work very well. I mean, he throws out a fun explanation for it. We have a traveler who is going to go look at a neutron star. The reason he’s going is because the last crew who took this indestructible hull ended up pasted into the ends of the ship. The people who made the ship are trying to figure out what it was that reached through the impervious hull and killed the inhabitants of the ship. As it happens, on a close pass to a neutron star, the ship will experience tidal forces where the center of gravity of the ship is going to move… Well, the whole ship is going to move around the star. In the center of gravity of the ship, you’ll experience weightlessness. But at either of the ends, the gravity will be so great, the tidal forces will be so great, that you’d be crushed. That’s the discovery that our hero makes. During the course of this story, the story really is about what the tides would be like around a neutron star. Then there is a reveal at the end of the story where the traveler says to the folks who made the ship, “I’ve figured out something about your planet.” “What have you figured…” Because their planet was a mystery, nobody knows where it was. “I’ve figured out that you don’t have any moons. Because if you had moons, you know all about tides.” Which was a fun little reveal. As I read it, I remember thinking, “Oh, yeah.” Because I know that our moon creates tides. That’s why I brought up the definition that I did. I had to have that basic understanding of tides. The way tides were then treated in the book had to be spot on, so that the story would work. But it was hard science fiction that had a magic material in it.
[Brandon] Why do you read hard science fiction, Eric?
[Eric] I read hard science fiction because I like reading science fact and extrapolating from it, and I like reading what other people have extrapolated from our current scientific knowledge. So in that sense, it feels more real to me than something where they’ve just made up…
[cough, cough]
[Eric] Science… Even science…
[Eric] That I know… That contradicts what I know.
[Eric] That…
[Brandon] Who would do that?
[Howard] [garbled – see?]
[Mary] [cough, cough]
[Howard] The stuff that you know, you brought that into the story with you, and you want the story to adhere to that. When Brandon or maybe some other author creates an intricate magic system that violates what you think you know about metals… Brandon does a pretty good job of explaining what those metals are are so that you can reset your expectations…
[Brandon] Right. But I write a blend of fantasy which has kind of like one toe in science fiction. There’s plenty of fantasy that doesn’t, and that’s just fine. We’re talking about the science fiction, though, the hard science fiction. You enjoy science fact, and so something that’s steeped in the science fact and is not violating your knowledge of science fact is interesting to you, is fun to you. When you say, “Oh, I’ll bet it would do this,” and then it does in the story, because you bring your knowledge to it.
[Mary] I think it’s also a way to explore… It’s a way to explore our own possible future and to kind of model and map where we want to go. I remember reading a fact article, a piece of journalism where they were talking about how people were now starting to think about ethics for robotics, and that no one had really… This was a brand-new area that no one had thought about before. I’m like, “Have you read no science fiction ever, because we have already done this.”
[Brandon] Well, famously, Arthur C Clarke…
[Howard] The word robot originated with that research, or that thought experiment.
[Brandon] Who posited geosynchronous orbits and then it happened. So that’s fun.
[Howard] I recently read Arctic Rising by Tobias Buckell which has…
[Mary] [inaudible]
[Howard] Yeah. I love that story which is… Which takes the sciences of climate change and takes a lot of cultural and economic research into account. The story opens with an airship patrolling the Arctic. I remember blogging about it and saying that I loved it. Somebody said, “Oh, crap. It’s got airships in it. That’s just fake because airships are dumb.” Then just recently, like two days ago, CNN ran an article about a company partnering with Iceland to build airships to make runs through the Arctic to change cargo routes. I remember looking at that and thinking, “Ha! Tobias Buckell was right, and airships make sense.”

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Our book of the week this week is going to be done by Howard.
[Howard] Yes. Oh, boy. Two summers ago, I was at Deep South Con, and Gregory Benford was talking about this book that he was writing with Larry Niven called Bowl of Heaven. He started drawing on the whiteboard this space construct that he was all excited about. I remember looking at that and thinking, “Wow. This really is how the hard science fiction author pitches his material to the hard science fiction audience. I want the book.” It wasn’t out yet. Then at Conjecture, I bought a copy and got it signed by Larry Niven. It’s a wonderful, wonderful story about space travelers… Human colonists who run across an artifact that is huge and traveling through space and is essentially a star with a bowl built around part of it. The bowl is shining mirrors on the star to create a jet of plasma that allows the thing to travel. So it’s a spaceship…
[Brandon] Built out of a star.
[Howard] It’s a spaceship built out of a star.
[Brandon] That’s awesome.
[Howard] Yeah. It’s wonderful. It’s a great story. You can find it on audible. will allow you to start a 30-day free trial membership and you can pick up A Bowl of Heaven for free, and there is a sequel coming out I think in April called Ship Star, also by Niven and Benford.

[Brandon] Awesome. Now, one of the things about hard science fiction, and we’re getting at a little bit of this in the podcast, people say… Well, they ask, “Do you have to be an astrophysicist to write hard science fiction?”
[Eric] Well, a few years ago, I was having lunch with the editor of Analog, and a few other authors, and he asked me, “Now, Eric, you’ve got a degree in engineering or some sort of science?” I said, “Well, yes. My degree is in science. Political science.”
[Eric] But at that point, I’d sold him several stories and he had gotten the impression that I must have a technical degree of some sort. Now I do work in a technical field with computer programming. But my scientific knowledge comes mainly from just reading hard science fiction and from reading science fact articles. I love New Scientist magazine. It’s absolutely great. It’s written at kind of an easy enough level that most people can understand it.
[Brandon] Right. An educated but not specialist level.
[Eric] Now, Scientific American, I think, tends to be written a little… At a little more advanced level.
[Brandon] My favorite hard science fiction stories are the ones that challenge me as a reader, but also can explain it in a way that I, as someone who doesn’t read a lot of it, still gets it and enjoys it. Like one that I enjoyed was Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. He’s often hailed as one of the great science/hard science fiction writers right now. Scientist/hard science fiction writers. It’s about what hap… The realistic trying to… Realistically try to terraform Mars. By what they knew in the late 90s and saying, “Could we do this?” I understood all of the science in that. But it was very complicated, just built piece by piece upon itself so by the end I understood exactly what they were doing and why. He was able to explain that really well for me.
[Eric] Yeah. One of my favorite hard science fiction novels that I’ve read recently is A Deepness in the Sky By Vernor Vinge where he goes into great detail about the aliens and their life cycle around a variable star that… They have winters that last 80 years or something like that so they go into hibernation and then come out. He goes into details about that, but it’s all explained in such a way that you can understand what’s going on, but it’s… He’s done a good job of figuring out how life would have to be to survive on a planet surrounding… Going around such a star.
[Brandon] To… Go ahead, Mary.
[Mary] I was going to say that one of my favorite authors for hard science fiction is Nancy Kress. Like her Dogs, which is a wonderful book, is basically what happens if a pathogen gets out. That’s the… And how does the population react to that? As were talking, one of the things that I’m hearing in all of the different examples we’re talking about is that in a lot of ways, what we’re talking about is a thought experiment. That’s a science-based what if.
[Brandon] Right.
[Eric] Yeah.
[Howard] My favorite hard science fiction stories will be that sort of thought experiment with really, really good characters woven through it because that’s… Fundamentally, I think that’s how we engage with a story.
[Mary] Yeah, narrative.
[Brandon] That’s what I liked about A Fire upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. I enjoy the characters in those books. For me, the nice thing those books… We’re getting on a tangent, but those books, they mix hard science with a lot of kind of almost fantastical science, like you mentioned before.

[Eric] One of the things I was talking about with Stan Schmidt, the editor of Analog, a couple of years ago was the idea of mundane science fiction, which is kind of a…
[Howard] [garbled] robots?
[Eric] A movement… Mundane science fiction basically says we’re not going to get AIs that are hyper-intelligent…
[Howard] Oh. Okay.
[Eric] We’re not going to get faster than light travel, pretty much human history is going to be limited to maybe colonizing the planets in our own solar system, but it’s not going to be a flashy future. We’re going to focus more inward as resources get more limited and stuff like that. Stan Schmidt said that… To think that we have pretty much reached the limits or can see the limits of what we can discover is… That’s pure fantasy.
[Mary] Yeah.
[Eric] And that when you’re projecting out technologies into the future, you can kind of linearly project about a third of things to continue getting better and faster and smaller. Then you can say about a third of things will be new combinations of stuff that we didn’t have before, like a cell phone now, it’s a computer as well and things like that. Then there will be another kind of third of things that we didn’t even see coming. That’s where you as an author can come up with some pretty cool things in order to give it that wow factor.

[Brandon] Excellent. Let’s go ahead and wrap this up. I think this has been a very useful podcast. Like many of our survey podcasts, this is to give you an understanding of the genre and why people read it. It is still, despite what people say… People like to say hard science fiction is dead. It has never died.
[Mary] Oh, good heavens, no.
[Brandon] It remains a strong and solid genre, and it is beloved by many of the editors in the business. It sometimes doesn’t get the flashy attention of space opera and fantasy. But when it’s done well, it tends to be some of the most immortal stories, and some of the most perennial sellers… The best perennial sellers? Tend to be these books that will get these things right. So I recommend that you look into it if you have any interest in the sciences.

[Brandon] Eric, would you be willing to give us a writing prompt?

[Eric] Yes. Think of a way to combine two technologies that currently are not combined and write a story that involves the combination of those two technologies.
[Brandon] Awesome. That’s a very good writing prompt.
[Howard] iPhone and Android.
[Brandon] Adit and Dan Wells. This has been Writing…
[Brandon] Excuses.
[K-ch! ca… cha… cha]
[Brandon] You’re out of excuses. Really. Now go write.