hard sf, anyone?

Posted by Marie on Monday, June 22, 2009 in , ,
The Compleat McAndrew – Charles Sheffield
Fiction, Science Fiction; ISBN 0-671-57857-X; Baen, New York: 2000.

This is an anthology of hard science fiction (sf) stories. Hard science fiction is defined in Wikipedia as "characterized by an emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy, or on both". Charles Sheffield's definition of what isn't hard sf is better: "if you take the science and scientific speculation away from a story, and not do it serious injury, then it was not hard sf to begin with". What I like about this definition are two things - first is the stressing of the importance of the scientific mumbo-jumbo in the story, and second is that it isn't all truly grounded to reality, it may even be all just speculation, but the important thing is that it is believable and consistent to the current scientific knowledge of that time.

The book is a compilation of (mis)adventures of a physicist, Arthur Morton McAndrew and his long-suffering companion, the spaceship captain Jeanie Roker. If that sounds fun, I assure you that it is, unless you're a novice hard sf fan (I'm not even talking about those who aren't sf reader). Even the author (a true-to-life mathematician and physicist) had unapologetically stated in the Appendix that the stories the hardest sf that he had ever wrote. That is what makes the book both appealing and unappealing; people would either like it or hate it - no fence sitting.

I liked the stories but I have to admit that it has flaws. Hard sf books may ground themselves to real science, but they are still work of fictions - hence they still need to appeal to readers. I think Sheffield knows this, which is why his better stories are his later ones (they were written when he had quit his scientific profession and wholeheartedly became a writer); unfortunately, this realization had been a bit too late. I also noticed that he was often deliberately ambiguous and obfuscating, which I did not like, considering there are other sf authors that didn't need to trick the reader to force them to his viewpoint.

Finally, although his scientific grounding may be neat, some of his story development were illogical and a few characterization illogical - perhaps so that his characters will do or be in a more fantastic (hence interesting) position in otherwise boring and mostly procedural stories.

But still, all in all, I did like them, even if they are not representative of the hard sf genre. I give the book 3 out of 5 stars.



"... the important thing is that it is 'believable and consistent to the current scientific knowledge of that time'."

Precisely my problem with sf, hard or soft, is the challenge it poses to realism despite its speculative nature. We know that the current scientific knowledge is as yet incomplete. In fact, we know that we do not completely know all the scientific laws, and that this knowledge (that we don't know everything) is the complete truth that we can grasp for the moment. Enter sf and we have an experimental genre that is dependent on conventional realism and at the same time, independent of its laws. It bends the rules of fiction haphazardly, it distorts them without being accountable of its own plot lines. It gives itself a blameless quality and hides behind the fabric of science that is put forward as unassailable when in fact it cannot be proven for all time.

Sorry for the mini-rant. *_*

No problem. I like your rant. :)

The relationship between SF and real science is that of a symbiosis more than anything else. Science will always be incomplete. Scientists need dreamers who will inspire and challenge them to look beyond the limit and to ask the essential question, "What if?". This challenge doesn't need to be antagonistic; just as SF doesn't need to be so scared that it forcibly limit itself to reality.

So don't be angry if it "bends the rule of fiction haphazardly". It needs to do that, to push people of science to become dreamers themselves. Why without SF, we won't have the idea of geostationary satellites (c/o Arthur C. Clarke), robotic laws (c/o Isaac Asimov) or even of cyberspace (c/o William Gibson).

Just my two cents. ;-)

I must be missing a lot 'cause I have never read these authors. Allow me to add Borges (HTML), Frank Herbert (planetary colonization), Jules Verne (submarine), Huxley (GMO), H.G Wells (time machine), and Carl Sagan (ET).

The thing with speculation is that it’s a hit-and-miss. The scientific details cannot be questioned because they hide behind fiction.True metaphysical theoreticians (Borges, etc.) are rare. I’m always for “literary sf,” those books who were not even aware that they belong to such category. These are the works that go beyond utilitarian speculation to tell of skeptic (read: comic) hidden dimensions. From authors who grapple with their responsible creations and balance them out with irresponsible creativity and verve. *_*

I'm a bit surprised... Jorge Luis Borges was the one who proposed the idea of the HTML format? Maybe except for H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, none of those the ideas exposed by those other authors had were truly original.

I'm not sure what you mean by "metaphysical theoreticians", but you might want to try Ursula LeGuin, Philip K. Dick, Doris Lessing, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and those other 'soft' science fiction writers for works that go beyond utilitarian speculations. ;-)

Borges's stories of labyrinths and forking paths are now thought of as anticipating web surfing.

"Metaphysical theoreticians," erm, it's just a coined phrase. But I guess you're right that they describe soft sf. *_*

I love Ray Bradbury's stories; after all these years they still haunt me.

Hi Marie! I'm not a huge fan of hard SF myself, but the last hard SF novel that I've read was one of my best reads recently -- Christopher Priest's Inverted World.

I haven't read Christopher Priest, thanks for the heads up, Peter! :)

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