Literary Hard Science Fiction

Discussion in 'Science Fiction' started by Rosie Oliver, Oct 17, 2012.

  1. Fung Koo

    Fung Koo >:|Angry Beaver|:

    Joined:
    Oct 31, 2007
    Messages:
    2,407
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Against a Dark Background and The Algebraist (and possibly even Transition, if you go in for the Many Worlds) are Banks titles that are harder, if not hard boiled. Banks overall is certainly a more literary writer, though, but generally his concern has more to do with the sociological side than with the technological/scientific side.

    Transition is an interesting one, I think, since if we take it at face value, it's SF, and as far as adhering to theory goes, it's fairly hard. But if we assume the narrator is insane, then it's something different (do we call it "slipstream"?). Arguably one of Banks' best in a long time, IMO.
     
  2. Fung Koo

    Fung Koo >:|Angry Beaver|:

    Joined:
    Oct 31, 2007
    Messages:
    2,407
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Against a Dark Background and The Algebraist (and possibly even Transition, if you go in for the Many Worlds) are Banks titles that are harder, if not hard boiled. Banks overall is certainly a more literary writer, though, but generally his concern has more to do with the sociological side than with the technological/scientific side.

    Transition is an interesting one, I think, since if we take it at face value, it's SF, and as far as adhering to theory goes, it's fairly hard. But if we assume the narrator is insane, then it's something different (do we call it "slipstream"?). Arguably one of Banks' best in a long time, IMO.
     
  3. KatG

    KatG Fulgurous Staff Member

    Joined:
    Mar 22, 2003
    Messages:
    12,334
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    146
    But then where do we put Isaac Asimov's Foundation books? Asimov himself stated that he believed there would be no way faster than the speed of light, yet he used it as a device himself and did not condemn other hard SF writers using it in their works which we have traditionally called hard SF. If we're going to throw out FTL travel as speculatively possible but highly unlikely, we're throwing out an awful lot of books and books that use other similar devices that we have again traditionally called hard SF and that deal with questions of physics, biology and chemistry, etc. Do we throw out Clarke's aliens? Or Robert L. Forwards' ones? Who do you have left? I'm not championing Banks as hard SF. I said people debated about his works as hard SF or not, including The Algebraist, etc. For me, I would not call him a hard SF writer. But for me that definition is more of the traditional one -- stories dealing with hard SF questions, not necessarily only stories that have nothing speculative and unproven scientifically -- a definition that essentially means mundane SF, not what we've called hard SF. And then it gets even harder because something like Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake is mundane SF technically, but it's not really hard SF in my mind and I think in most people's minds.
     
  4. Rosie Oliver

    Rosie Oliver Registered User

    Joined:
    Jul 12, 2012
    Messages:
    98
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    And me too! Chartered Mathematician in the UK! Nice to e-meet you both...
     
  5. Rosie Oliver

    Rosie Oliver Registered User

    Joined:
    Jul 12, 2012
    Messages:
    98
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    It's interesting that this debate has focussed on what is hard science fiction, rather than what is literary hard science fiction.

    I also find it interesting that everyone's view of what constitutes hard science fiction is dependent (as KatG says) on what science they believe to be credible. My experience of science is that when young you are taught this can happen, that can't happen. You grow older, and perhaps a little wiser, and you nibble away at the limits of what you were taught can't happen. Then if you grow ancient like me, you suddenly realise that what science can attain is not limited by the laws of physics or whatever, but by the willingness of humans to believe they can make things happen.

    Which brings me to why science fiction is so important for our society. It makes us hope that we can do things better (faster, farther, whatever) in the future. Look at Star Trek's tricorder.... DARPA are busy trying to develop one, or at least one that goes some way towards being a Star Trek tricorder. The Romans could have had a steam engine - they had all the components, just never put them together for lack of imagination. And this is where hard science fiction should score with the public. Only it appears not to be. So why doesn't it? Well we have all these dystopias, steampunk, cyberpunk, spacepunk (sorry, a name coined for Ian Sales's stories by his friends... or is it enemies?) and military SF. Hard SF is finding it difficult to get a look in. And the reason has to be lack of imagination on the part of the hard science fiction writers.

    Why, you may well ask? Part of it is because of the lack of understanding of the philosophy that drives science. But another part is the acceptance of the apparent inevitable. The science that says it can't be done has been ingrained into our psyches. We writers need to question those assumptions, see where they fall down and write what could be there.

    But there is a catch. Because the worlds we write about are so weird in comparison to our own, we have to use every tool available to us, and that includes any literary device that helps to get reader buy-in. And remember words can describe things that no film or picture can transmit, which is why there will always be novels to be bought and avidly read. So to me the lack of literary hard science fiction is a symptom of the lack of imagination about we can do in the future.

    I find this very very sad.

    On one final note before I get off my soapbox... As for not being able to travel faster than light in the future, all I'm going to say is: "Your faith little is. Happen it will."
     
  6. ian_sales

    ian_sales Registered User

    Joined:
    May 24, 2012
    Messages:
    321
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    It is? Where did you see that?
     
  7. Rosie Oliver

    Rosie Oliver Registered User

    Joined:
    Jul 12, 2012
    Messages:
    98
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Should have been at Bristolcon, then you would've known...
     
  8. Seli

    Seli Registered User

    Joined:
    Mar 14, 2007
    Messages:
    316
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    To me the lack of easily identified 'literary hard SF' is more a sign that it is rare to find the people who combine the characteristics needed for 'literature' and 'hard sf'. It is not like the examples were more common in the past, when people might have been more imaginative or optimistic.

    It is probably easier to find examples of 'literary hard social SF', where the aspects seem to be closer together (Atwood, LeGuin, Orwell, and others mentioned before).

    But in the short story market Ted Chiang seems to be as close to literary hard SF as you get, with the caveat that his works usually explore other rulesets. Ken Liu might be an example as well. Clarkesworld seems to be a market that has a relatively high proportion of stories that could fit the label, for example a recent de Bodard, or Valente.
     
  9. KatG

    KatG Fulgurous Staff Member

    Joined:
    Mar 22, 2003
    Messages:
    12,334
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    146
    The reason we're doing the (old) debate on what is hard SF first is that before we can get to discuss how stylistic a work is and what merit we find it to have, we first have to determine whether we consider it to be a work of hard SF or not. And that calls into question what the parameters are that we can agree on, because that issue is charged emotionally with the essence of what science itself means to people, and further, with the cultural history of science fiction. These sub-categories we create and discuss are subject to change, but in science fiction, they emerge from the type of science involved in the story. (In fantasy, they arise from the setting largely.)

    And on that front, you seem to be going back and forth. You are stating that hard SF does not have to be limited to hard science premises. At the same time, you're stating that hard SF is a different beast from dystopias, steampunk, cyberpunk and military SF, etc., and having more difficulty than they are. Exactly how is it different then? Where are you going to put say Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness? And that is the issue -- as a sub-category, hard SF is one specific thing, a story that has a specific type of element, regardless of style and amount of action, but beyond that basic division, hard SF becomes this mutable, personal idea, ranging from the very narrow that does not even include mathematics apparently to three-quarters of the SF field. And so it becomes quite easy to claim that there is a lack of "literary" hard SF because anything you want can be called not hard SF or hard SF. Which then sets off others into paroxysms of "if you won't use my definition, then all the terms are meaningless!" Which is of course not the case -- no one has the power to declare terms meaningless. But there is this jockeying for what parameters a discussion can operate out of -- and further jockeying when we get to the adeptness of a writer with language and imagery.

    I don't think hard SF writers lack imagination at all, and many authors of hard SF works then also write other works ranging from sociological SF to fantasy stories and non-speculative works, so the label is not a branding iron. I don't think hard SF writers, contemplating hard science issues as they do, are particularly rigid about using only firmly established science and developing detailed rundowns of every science concept they use in a story either, nor that they ever have been. I don't think that there is a lack of stylistically strong authors in SF or in hard SF. I think there's a wide variety in style and thematic approach in SF, just as there is in other types of fiction. It's not the type of fiction that determines the stylistic abilities or thematic insight of the author, but instead the authors themselves and the meaning we find in their use of language and idea through the type of fiction.

    SF does not have to serve any particular function. It can -- it can be predictive, socially critical, scientifically instructive, moralistic, suspenseful, emotional or dramatic. It can be personal and tightly focused, or epic and sprawling. It's always curious, I think. It can be in very plain language, but plain language can be poetic. What we do know is that it is rare for literary award committees to like books about scientists, SF or no. It does occasionally happen, but not often. So a fictional book focused on issues of biology, chemistry and physics is seldom going to get patted on the head in the larger world. The preference is for writers concentrating on sociology and social commentary -- 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Yiddish Policemen's Union. That doesn't mean a lack of stylistic ability of some authors, or a lack of meaning in their work.

    So I don't know basically what you're looking for in terms of "hardness" of your SF, and I don't know that the many names bandied about here constitute a lack. It seems to me to be another variant on SF dying and that it should do more. We're very hard on SF.
     
  10. psikeyhackr

    psikeyhackr Live Long & Suffer

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2008
    Messages:
    2,926
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    46
    I don't think hard SF is a subgenre. I think whether or not a work is hard SF depends on how the science is treated in the story. So even if the science is psychology it can still be hard SF. So a military SF story can be hard SF or not. A cyberpunk story can be hard SF or not.

    Ender's Game was very interesting because of the psychology in the story. The physical sciences in the story was kind of handwavery but that is not what made it an interesting story. I would like the literary people to explain and categorize their valued literary characteristics even though that is not my primary interest.

    For me what matters is the story, then the science and lastly any literary characteristics. They can make the presentation of the story better or worse but that is it. Sometimes a writer seems more wrapped up in his writing than the story and that gets boring. Asimov was all about the story and not the writing, there just had to be writing to tell a story.

    psik
     
  11. Hitmouse

    Hitmouse Registered User

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2009
    Messages:
    300
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Pretty much what KatG said. I find it interesting quite how far we are able to tie ourselves in knots trying to agree on what defines a subgenre.

    Are the following, with a notable lack of Spaceships, FTL, etc. Hard SF?
    Greybeard Brian Aldiss
    The Drowned World JG Ballard
    On the Beach Neville Shute
    The Day of the Triffids John Wyndham

    Additionally, I am still unsure what defines literary SF, having had Dune dismissed as not literary. OK it may not be on the same level as Tolstoy, but it is some way above Star Wars. Where is the threshold? Are the books listed above literary?
     
  12. KatG

    KatG Fulgurous Staff Member

    Joined:
    Mar 22, 2003
    Messages:
    12,334
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    146
    Well that's the even longer discussion. Basically, as the word is being used in that sense, it means quality of form. That quality is judged on judged skill with language and structure, poetic effect of language, use of imagery, thematic depth, use of philosophy, adeptness at illustrating a specific set of principles of storycraft (a literary movement, the main definition for the word genre as opposed to the category definition we use for SFF,) and ability to illuminate culture and the human condition. Many books that were called trash in their day are then seen as deeper later on as cultural conventions change, but not necessarily by all. Their ability to reveal historical context may cause them to be eventually seen as more valuable. There are many who argue that no SF book can be really literary. (These tend to be the realists.)

    In the case of Dune, Herbert meets many of the aspects of the definition, but many feel his prose is too ham-fisted and melodramatic to be literary (skilled.) He is also not part of any particular movement, though he is in a sense New Wavish and comes close to Weird Tales. Historically, though, Dune has cultural import. It is a political philosophical thought experiment rather than a major action story, and it received a fair amount of literary acclaim when it first came out as a blending of political-cultural focus with mythic quest approaches, as well as wide resonance with readers. It tackled issues of its time, particularly psychological ones, native cultures ones, etc., and reflects cultural writing features of its time, but it also goes beyond that into mythic themes. It has been highly influential for many other stories including Star Wars. But Dune does not meet most of the criterias presented for hard SF. The science is not central, it is not dealing with a hard science issue and it is primarily concerned with sociological, psychological and political issues. It has aliens, which again for some disqualifies it from being hard SF. Dune is studied in universities and sometimes high schools, at least the first book, and is considered a seminal work of SF.
     
  13. KatG

    KatG Fulgurous Staff Member

    Joined:
    Mar 22, 2003
    Messages:
    12,334
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    146
    Forgot this part:

    Generally no, though some of Aldiss' work is. All of these are post-apocalypse novels. It is possible for a post-apocalypse story to be centered on hard science issues, but all of these are more focused on sociological and cultural issues. They're all quite good, though, although I felt Greybeard lagged a bit. But it's not that long a novel and its ideas are interesting.
     
  14. ian_sales

    ian_sales Registered User

    Joined:
    May 24, 2012
    Messages:
    321
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    There are no aliens in any of the Dune books. True, it's not literary - and it probably displays the worse of Herbert's writing (his prose is much better in The Santaroga Barrier, for example) - and it's certainly not hard sf.
     
  15. ian_sales

    ian_sales Registered User

    Joined:
    May 24, 2012
    Messages:
    321
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Not sure I'd classify any of Aldiss' novels as hard sf, not even Non-Stop.
     
  16. Fung Koo

    Fung Koo >:|Angry Beaver|:

    Joined:
    Oct 31, 2007
    Messages:
    2,407
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    There's a fundamental problem of definitions here, both with the Hard SF question, and with the definitions being thrown around for "Literary."

    This is describing the effect of a literary work, not what literary is.

    Character drama does not necessarily equate to literary. Postmodern and poststructural writing likewise does not necessarily equal literary.

    Literary also is not simply a synonym for "good writing." Literary style doesn't, of itself, operate for the purpose of resonance. That's just what happens when it has been done well.

    It's really not that long of a discussion... ;)

    That is what many stories described as "literary" have tended to do -- illuminating the human condition and culture -- but by no means is that all that Literary works do. And when done well, these literary works that reveal something of the human condition occupy a position of critical respect, overall, for the effective balance of form and function, and the level of artistry in the writing. But that's just "good writing" and it happens to be literary. They are not the same, and each can exist independently.

    Writing that enriches the subject is not what literary is about... all writing should do that, really.

    "Literary" in part means "Writerly" -- as in, the author dedicates significant attention to the craft of writing that goes into the telling of a story, arguably more attention than to the underlying story. Literary tends to be applied to prose, and as a writing style what we mean by literary is elevated, or impassioned, prose. Rather than writing basic prose -- sentence units that perform a function -- the literary writer often employs poetic techniques within the prose, resulting in a fair-use policy of things that break with conventional grammar. Sentence fragments are one example, or structurally you might have a 3 page footnote. Literary writing broadens the tool box beyond basic prose.

    Following from this, the story may be less plot driven and focused more on the writing itself. There's a push to make you aware of the fact that you're reading, that the author is pulling tricks on you, and trying to get you read something in a peculiar way. It draws attention to the fact that it's writing, rather than that it's a story. So you get this notion of "quality of form," true, in that the writing is about the writing and its form. Yes, that's a part of what makes a thing "literary," but "quality of form" implies the notion that "literary" equals "good writing," which simply isn't so. Every writer should be paying attention to the quality of form, but not every writer is trying to draw the reader's attention to the form.

    There's a necessary third condition. The first is stylistic and elevating prose to function more like poetry, the second is a focus on the writing itself rather than what is being written about (which you'll notice is directly related to the first condition), and the third is a demonstrated concern with other works of literature, or more broadly any work of a similar mode or medium.

    Literary fiction is fiction that demonstrates an awareness of and concern for including intertextual references to other works of fiction. This is also like the second condition -- a kind of meta-level exists in literary works, where there is always a sense that what you are reading is a construction and is using techniques, and also that you are reading a text that is talking about other texts that really exist in the real world, and therefore blurring the division between fiction and reality, while also reminding you that the author is a real person with real knowledge of real things.

    And, these three things interoperate on a sliding scale. You may have a lot of one and not as much of the other, but generally some amount of at least two have to be there. You may have all three in abundance, you may have relatively little of each. But in most respects, if a work doesn't employ slightly unconventional prose techniques, at some level make you aware of the techniques being used by the author on you, and doesn't in some way refer to other works of literature, then it ain't "literary."

    Hard SF is stories concerned characters/societies encountering a logical extension of a science or technology from anything measurable for which there is an empirically derived theory, plain and simple. The more conjecture and supposition is required to justify the imagined outcome (in other words, how much data is made up), the less Hard the SF. The only debate is how much of that conjecture and supposition you as the reader find acceptable, or if the author takes great pains to explicate the suppositions and justifies them with the best possible empirical data to support the hypothesis.

    Soft SF, by comparison, may be rigorous in its use of science, but the soft sciences are fundamentally interpretive -- that's why they're soft. They are science largely based on conjecture and supposition and interpreted from data that is not, strictly speaking, objective, though it may be empirical. Behavioural Psychology, at the physical level, is harder science than Social Psychology because it is simply testing the operations of the underlying biology (hard science) in slightly contrived scenarios. Sociology/Social Psych are entirely based on interpretation, and no matter how rigorous are ultimately dependent on how the observer chooses to categorize the data. The result is that Soft-Science Fiction has a lot of wiggle room for pure invention/conjecture/supposition -- it's theory, moreso than science.

    In that sense, all Hard SF meets the third condition of "literary" -- Hard SF is necessarily well versed in the science it uses, and makes reference to it. It doesn't often make references to other examples of its type of fiction, though it may. Soft SF may meet the condition if it uses actual science, but a lot of the time it doesn't. And Soft SF has a tendency toward secondary world building, which is less common in Hard SF, so has an inborn condition where it tends to avoid references to other real world examples of its ilk. SF, unlike non-S Fiction, has two paths to literaryness, in this sense, but has inbuilt genre conditions that sometimes preclude one or the other.

    What Hard SF often doesn't do is employ elevated prose and become writing-focused. The science tends to be the focus, though I think it might make sense, in the context of the genre, to be writing-focused in the sense that it's an extension of scientific writing and its genre conventions (yes, a lab report is a genre). Soft SF, on the other hand, may more easily be able to be writing-focused and employ elevated prose.

    So... out of all that...

    The only book I've read that I would comfortably describe as Literary Hard SF is Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon.

    I think the issue is that we know exactly what we can do in the future. We know what we should do, but right now there's not a lot of point in doing it.

    We know we will eventually get a station going on another body or two in the solar system, and we know we will need a bigger space station that could function as a hub and probably a space-space ship building/assembly yard to do it. But then what? Why go to all the incredibly huge effort to develop a populated solar system we can never really get out of? We have a perfectly good place to live right here!

    Unless we do discover some way to get up to near light speed, or to jump FTL styles, we're stuck here. But for now, that's just conjecture, so its Soft SF.

    *shrugs*
     
  17. psikeyhackr

    psikeyhackr Live Long & Suffer

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2008
    Messages:
    2,926
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    46
    918 pages

    It had a description of eating Capt. Crunch. It had Admiral Yamamoto being shot down by Lightnings in WWII.

    I read a little passed half way and finally thought, "What is the point of this?"

    They found the gold but were trying to figure out how to get it out of the jungle and I decided I didn't give a damn. To me it was writing for the sake of writing not writing to say something. Snow Crash was somewhat better. I finished it but I never recommend it.

    psik
     
  18. KatG

    KatG Fulgurous Staff Member

    Joined:
    Mar 22, 2003
    Messages:
    12,334
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    146
    I was counting the worms as alien life forms, because that's what the people who object to aliens do.

    Again, that's where the debating comes in. Aldiss' name pops up on lists of hard SF.

    Fung Koo -- This is why I'm more comfortable with the word stylist and stylistic, rather than literary. The reality is that while I have mostly adhered personally with your framing of the word, the larger world, including critics and award committees, does not. It is, however, what Christopher Priest was talking about re the Clarke Award nominees this year, although I disagree with his view of Stross' Rule 34 in that light.

    As for hard and soft (sociological) SF, yes and no. Empirical in the hard sciences sense, yes, but you are also strapping near future onto it -- mundane SF. That's not what typically hard SF has been considered and many works considered classics of hard SF would be likely disqualified. And again, there's the FTL problem.

    I don't think there would be many comfortable with that. Literary in the stylistic sense you were talking about re narrative, yes, although less so than some other works. But hard SF, no. Cryptonomicon is a cyberpunk epic, not a story interested in empirical science premises. It is interested far more in interpretive culture and almost magic realist connections in time. And I've had numerous people, including here, claim it isn't really SF at all. I disagree -- it's near future SF, but in no way would I call it hard SF. What Stephenson writes in many of his novels are thought experiments based greatly on quantum principles, and the particular ones he uses drift often into the highly speculative -- theory, not empiricism. He is more interested in philosophy than anything else.

    So you see, R.O., it's a can of worms. Giant Dune sized spice worms.
     
  19. Rosie Oliver

    Rosie Oliver Registered User

    Joined:
    Jul 12, 2012
    Messages:
    98
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    I was leaving the choice of writing means up to the the author as they can be so varied and are dependent on the topic the writing is portrayig.
     
  20. ian_sales

    ian_sales Registered User

    Joined:
    May 24, 2012
    Messages:
    321
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    It'll probably be for the Helliconia trilogy, which is one of his best-known works. But it's not really hard sf. and even White Mars, co-written with a mathematician, isn't really hard sf either.

    The problem is that some writers have written works which could be classified as hard sf, though it's not what they usually write. And other writers are classified as hard sf writers, even though not every book they've written is hard sf. So to call it Aldiss one because one trilogy, out of the many millions of books he's written, qualifies as hard sf is silly.