Hard SF : About The Genre : SF, Science, Entertainment & Issues

SF, Science, Entertainment & Issues

The 2007 Douglas Adams Memorial Debate dealt with such questions as:

Although I was unable to go to the debate (it was in another country, etc.), those are interesting questions of importance. Here are some thoughts on these matters.

Hard SF And Issues

I would like to think there is nothing inherent in hard SF that prevents it from dealing with issues. Certainly, as long as hard SF can deal with issues it has the advantage of accurate science to guide what are realistic options for those issues and which avenues are infeasible [to the best understanding of current science].

SF has dealt with a variety of issues over the years. Insofar as absolute scientific accuracy on all points is a rare accomplishment, there may be few or no SF books that have both total accuracy and substantial handling of issues. But this seems to me to be two separate questions. If we took an SF book that dealt with issues and had a team of scientists correct any scientific / technical inaccuracies, the issues would not magically vanish from the text. The two are compatible, even if not frequently found together.

If one is less obsessive about which books are "hard SF", I'm sure one would find some books in the genre already dealing with issues.

There will always be a smaller number of authors and books that can skillfully combine different disciplines - whether it's scientific accuracy and social issues, or a complete knowledge of all sports and investment strategies. Nevertheless, combining hard SF and issues is possible and can offer much to the world.


To me, scientific accuracy is a virtue, and so is dealing with pressing issues. But various virtues are not always completely compatible. For instance total honesty is not always the same as total kindness. Scientific inaccuracy on matters significant to an issue being dealt with can impact making your point on the issue. But too much scientific detail and precision in expressing accurate science can cause many readers' eyes to glaze over. (In the US less than 80% of students graduate high school today, and a lot who do graduate are weak in the sciences.)

An author would need to consider his audience. Some write for better educated readers with a stronger scientific foundation. Some write for something closer to the average citizen. Writing for this broader group, an author doesn't have to limit the book to only science facts the readers already know, but there is a limit in how much more, expressed in what manner, will be absorbed.

Can Hard SF Be Entertaining?

Well, certainly for some readers. There are many readers who desire a total escape from reality in (for instance) stories of medieval kingdoms mixed with wizards and dragons. Others don't go so far, but don't want to be bound by physical laws affecting FTL or other convenient imaginings.

What's entertaining to one person isn't entertaining to everyone. If a person's idea of entertainment is a story that's one long, fast-paced chase scene, they probably won't want to listen to an explanation of the science. That doesn't mean the story can't be free of scientific inaccuracies - just that you can't explain this to that reader. Some kinds of stories, such as this one, don't invite the usual "hard SF" approach, but isn't inconsistent with being able to stick to valid science.

Both in terms of writers and readers, there are limits to their scientific backgrounds and their ability to connect some of the pieces of scientific knowledge they do have. So the author may be deciding to ignore science for some purpose or simply be unsuccessfully attempting to be scientific. The reader might like science, but be unaware when inaccuracies occur. It's not an easy trick to combine accurate science, science the reader can appreciate and entertainment. It's definitely easier among a particular group of writers and readers inclined to hard SF. In a sense, that's good news for writers. If everyone read the same genre and style the world would only need about 3000 books to provide a lifetime of reading. And then there wouldn't be much of a market for new books.

Is Being Accurate & Educational A Responsibility?

At very least, there is a limit to the level of scientific accuracy one can expect from authors. Most scientists could not maintain total accuracy outside their particular field. It would not be realistic to expect every writer to know or check every detail in every field of study. On the other hand, I would say it makes sense for an author to try to balance the sense of scientific realism he tries to convey with the scientific accuracy in the story. Some stories aren't written in a way that would make readers take inaccurate science seriously, others are. If you don't want to do the work to keep your writing accurate, perhaps you shouldn't write in ways that make readers believe it is accurate.

Ideally, I'd like authors and publishers who are indifferent to scientific accuracy to voluntarily categorize their works as "speculative fiction" or something other than "science fiction". But that's not likely to happen. Although it may be hard to define exactly where the border belongs, it seems there must be some point where a work of fiction does not belong in a certain genre. There should be some extent of historical inaccuracy after which a novel shouldn't be called "historical fiction", a point at which a book about a hardware store on the frontier doesn't fit being called a "western" and so forth. It may not be realistic to expect scientific accuracy from a romance novel, but we can appeal for consistency between genre and content.

It would be asking more of authors to expect them to not only be accurate but to do so in a manner to be educational. The least unreasonable thing we can request is that authors try not to be counter-educational. That is, not going beyond having inaccuracies and, in effect, teaching inaccuracies. Some writers choose to explain how entirely unscientific technologies operate, rather than merely including those technologies. That will mislead some readers to believe real science is being described.

Humanity has entered a period of time where there are a variety of threats to our survival, and science will be a necessary element for us to come through to a better time. Scientific accuracy and education are highly desirable at this time. Any writer who is willing and able to meet this challenge will be leaving more than his words to posterity.

Does Real Science Matter If Ideas Are Discussed?

When we consider SF raising social issues and other matters for discussion, we are faced with defining SF. Certain types of books, such as utopian and anti-utopian novels, have often been classified as SF. In these kinds of books, any technology mentioned is probably overshadowed by the social questions dealt with and the book's intellectual focus is likely to make any scientific details less memorable.

When the issue has a more scientific nature, the scientific details are likely to be more prominent and crucial to the topic.

If there is a serious issue in need of action, it would be advantageous if writers chose to deal with it in a constructive way - but there's only so much we can do about what they write. An author might decide global warming is in the minds of many people and decide he could sell books by writing a book involving it, although the writer was really indifferent to the issue. This is probably not a person we are going to influence much about science content.

On the other hand, a writer whose intention is to use SF to champion fixing global warming can be influenced on science content. He can be convinced faulty science could weaken the impact of his book. But he may also choose to "dumb down" the science in order to avoid alienating a broader audience. I wish the average best-seller reader would not be put off by a reasonably full explanation of global warming, but I doubt that is the case. So this will probably have to be taken into account by those wanting to raise such issues beyond more-educated reading circles. Writing for audiences with limited science capacity doesn't have to mean "inaccurate," but it would have to be simplified and briefer.

Is SF Good For Public Debate?

Certainly, to some degree. People who won't pick up a non-fiction book on an issue may read a novel that makes him think about the issue. Still, simply knowing a book is "SF" [or any special genre] will make many readers less inclined to read it. I'm under the impression you can get a wider part of the population to see an "SF" movie. This may reflect a combination of more people being willing to invest 2 hours to see a movie than to spend more time reading, and the generally "softer" or mixed-genre style of commercial films.

A book that isn't well defined into any genre may have an opportunity for reaching more people, but is the average person who reads average books looking for thought-provoking stories dealing with issues? Not all SF sub-genres are oriented to exploring possibilities or ideas. However, generally speaking, SF is a genre that often explores alternatives. By its nature of dealing with other times and places it has an advantage in envisioning different paths, potential consequences and new technologies. An SF book won't reach some people, but it will certainly be directed at a group looking for ideas and futures.

By many people's definition, a story that takes place after the current date is SF. Therefore, a story that attempts to present possible future consequences of an issue may be considered SF. In this sense, discussion of coming events can only be dealt with in "SF". In discussing some issues it may not be possible to avoid being labeled SF whether that is advantageous or not.

Fiction does have its limits in delving into issues. Fiction can introduce issues to layers of the population who don't read the non-fiction on the subject. Fiction can also play a role in "winning the hearts" of those layers. But this certainly doesn't replace the need for the non-fiction. Each has a role in public debate.