I Miss Hard Science Fiction: A Rant

Honestly, I don’t even know if I wanna post this, but it’s something that’s bothered me for a couple of years and I wanted to get off my chest. If you’re familiar with my other rants, you’d know that I had very different tastes back when I was a teenager. I was SO edgy, I did things that not even edgy kids did. For music, I only listened to classic rock. For movies, I only watched old movies; from classics like Dead Poets Society to freaking Spellbound (which is a boring slog that’s only any good in the climax). And for books… I read hard science fiction. 

Hard? Haha, like a—

I know it’s a euphemism, but hard science fiction is a genre. Think of popular science fiction like Star Wars. Epic battles, witty dialogue, memorable characters, spectacular spectacle… Now, think of the opposite of all that; think of Star Wars’ rival older cousin, Star Trek. Slow pacing, tons of dialogue, tackling some very difficult ethical issues… That is hard science fiction. 

As implied by the title, hard science fiction is meant to read like a history book of the future. And also implied by the title, it’s difficult. Perhaps more difficult than any genre to comprehend. They really pour everything into trying to make their worlds as immersive as possible, and it’s a damn undertaking. Tolkein was impressive enough with his Middle Earth. But hard SF authors had to do the same thing, only with multiple star systems, each with as much history as Middle Earth itself. Most adults would have a hard time reading it, and as a teenager, well… Results varied.

Greg Bear

Okay, so, technically, my first hard SF novel was Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But, well, that one is just technically a satire and definitely not meant to read like a future history (right?). However, when I first bought it, I saw some books by a Greg Bear next to it. And, well, after finishing Hitchhiker’s (and almost having my brain fall out), I tried out some good ol’ Bear. You saw the last two words of the previous passage, right?

The first novel of his I read was called Darwin’s Radio. The premise was simple.: Sscientists discover ancient cave drawings (or something) that show that mankind has been slowly evolving into a new species. There was a lot of dialogue, a lot of which was just buildup to the revelation that mankind has been evolving in the first place (oops, spoilers).

As expected, racism is the immediate public response (side note: one of my most distinct memories is Bear actually writing in dialogue from a certain someone who I can’t name because he was a celebrity until people realized he was a rapist. But it’s still funny how it makes the novel dated due to whom Bear chose). This isn’t “racism” as we know it today; unlike people with other ethnicities, this is a legit new species. And another curveball is that mankind had a decent basis to become racist. Due to how evolution and natural selection works, Homo sapien was essentially going to go extinct due to this new species, and thus they respond in fear, which is expressed in the form of racism. 

I remember being both bored and engaged with the novel at the same time. It was weird, but I loved it. There was also a sequel, Darwin’s Children, but all I remember is that there’s some kind of concentration camp for kids of the new species and it’s supposed to make us, the readers, angry that they’re being treated that way. One big issue with both novels is that they had incredibly loose endings. To this day, I have no idea if Bear wrote a third book (or if he even still writes). 

The Bear doesn’t stop there! I was hooked enough on his writing prowess to read a rather thick standalone novel: The City at the End of Time. This book went places. What I remember most is that there were these people who had these emblems and had to stop… something from happening. It was nonsense for the sake of nonsense, from the objects getting folded and crumpled into incomprehensible shapes, to cats guiding some guy through some weird castle. Beautifully written, but with no purpose nor meaning. After this, I would read several pretty lackluster standalones from Bear, and then…

I read Queen of Angels. A lot of positive reviews consider this his best novel, and I definitely agree. It had two different plots going on at once. Half of the book focused on this old guy (that I remember picturing as Jerry Stiller for some reason) who was supposed to investigate a murder, which would eventually involve entering the accused’s consciousness, and the other half was about some other guy who had to help an A.I. attain sentience. It was an amazing mess, with themes focusing on mental health and what constituted as being sane in the first place. It iconically ends with an entire page of I’s spelling out a giant capital I. Hilariously enough, it’s actually part one (or even part two) of a four-book series, and I didn’t know that because it ended so loosely, like all of Bear’s other books. I have not read Queen of Angel’s sequels to this day.

Kevin J. Anderson and Stephen Baxter

I was mixed towards Greg Bear. Afterwards, I would try to read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and fail spectacularly. It was too large in scope for me to handle, and I have always wanted to re-attempt at reading it to completion someday. However, after having given up the ghost with Foundation at the time, Kevin J. Anderson and Stephen Baxter would help hook me on hard SF.

Anderson writes books closer to Star Wars in pacing and action, but with more hard SF scope and mind-bending concepts. His epic series, Saga of the Seven Suns, was the first long book series I was able to read to completion (yes, before Harry Potter), and I remember it being great. I also read the much more recent sequel trilogy, Saga of Shadows, but I don’t recall it being as good.

If Anderson was the weak attack that staggered me, Stephen Baxter was the heavy finishing blow. I only read two novels from him, but they were bangers. I forgot their names, but I definitely didn’t forget what they were about. In one, the main character is trying to find his missing ex (or something), and stumbles upon a secret cult of women who have lived underground for so long that they evolved into an entirely different species. The other one is supposed to have been that book’s sequel, even though it’s set about a million years in the future, and involves some guy who needs to fight aliens… of some kind. Baxter wrote a lot of wild stuff, but my library decided not to stock them. He would’ve become one of my favorites if I had more access to his bibliography.

Alastair Reynolds and Peter F. Hamilton

Now I was getting into the good stuff! I recall Alastair Reynolds and Peter F. Hamilton being real good at incorporating crazy ideas in ways that were relatively easy to comprehend thanks to their writing prowess. Their novels felt like narratives, and not history books. 

My library had a lot of stuff from Reynolds in particular, so I was more familiar with his works. He was definitely the more imaginative of the two authors discussed in this section. To list off a few examples, Reynolds’ novels include but are not limited to: a disease that fuses people with nearby machines, a mad scientist plan of reversing a planet’s rotation, someone getting cut into 150 individual pieces while still being alive (sort of like Law in One Piece), and some alien race’s simulation of an alternate 1950s where WWII never happened, which was also infested with mutant five-year-olds for some reason. 

Peter F. Hamilton is a guy who thinks big. He’s written a lot of books set in various eras of his fictional Commonwealth world. I mainly read the Void Trilogy. It was… complicated, but I remember it being about this guy who dreamt of a parallel dimension where some wizard boy is supposed to do… something. There was also some android girl being chased by an assassin, maybe? I always wanted to read his gigantic Night’s Dawn Trilogy. But since I have this blog, and that series is about 4,000 pages in total, I think I will not be able to fulfill that desire.

Kim Stanley Robinson

Things got iffy again with Kim Stanley Robinson. From a literary standpoint, his books are absolutely phenomenal (at least out of the ones I read). They are among the most realistic-feeling science fiction novels I’ve experienced. He’s most known for the Mars trilogy, which is an incredibly well-thought out epic showcasing mankind’s colonization of Mars. It felt so real it was like reading an actual history book from the future.

But given what I think about realism, Robinson’s books didn’t do it for me. They were so real, so human, so grounded in reality, that I couldn’t get emotionally invested. I just don’t like people very much, and the characters all felt like people. Also, the hypothetical politics regarding things like preserving the natural beauty of Mars, to a parallel of the United States declaring independence from Britain, felt so real that I hated them as much as regular politics. If you can get into this guy’s stuff, then you’re a lucky duck.

Ending on a Great Note

I read one or two books by several people for a while, all with varying degrees of success. The last hard SF media I’d consume would be the best of all of those previously discussed. It was written by Cixin Liu, a Chinese SF author. I know, controversial little China.

Yep, I’m talking about the Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy, better known by the individual novels: The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End. THIS was a thing! Remembrance of Earth’s Past is a simple first contact story, but with none of the tropes and all of the innovation. It begins when a Famicom-style adventure game is released, and is meant to test people on how to solve the titular Three-Body Problem. Those who solve it are roped into a secret first contact cover-up that ends up being publicly revealed anyway (I forgot exactly how). I will be spoiling the rest of the trilogy from here!

It starts off slow, but gets REAL crazy. In the second volume, the aliens have more-or-less announced their presence, and the government—in desperation—assigns five random people, offering all the resources that can be provided to stop the aliens. These people cannot actually communicate what they come up with, or else the aliens will know. Almost every single person comes up with something unethical, like destroying or brainwashing humanity along with the aliens. The one guy who spends most of his money on a summer home with his girlfriend (I think he actually bought the girlfriend too I.I.R.C.) comes up with the best solution. The basis for the solution is the Dark Forest theory, which I think deserves to be recognized as the best hard SF theory since Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. From what I recall, the Dark Forest states that all civilizations are hunters in a dark forest; they try to keep themselves hidden, and indiscriminately pick off any sign of life they see. In galactic terms, this means that aliens will not attempt first contact in the grandiose way you see in movies; no, they will fire a probe and end it stealthily. No peace, no war. The guy’s solution is a thing that will alert other aliens to Earth’s existence, which will scare off the current aliens, but doom mankind.

It’s cynical, and if you’ve read a lot of my blog, you’d know how I feel about cynicism. However, Liu does cynicism in a way that’s almost beautiful, and Death’s End shows it. It does start off confusing at first, because its main protagonist is a diplomat sent to the aliens during the events of The Three-Body Problem. All this time, he’s been schmoozing the aliens. But in the meantime, the aliens have pulled a 2112 and assumed control over humanity. A butt-ton of the human race gets killed off (by androids or something), and it’s at this point that the Dark Forest Flaregun thing is used. After a series of reality-bending events, we learn that the weapons that various alien civilizations have been using on each other have been slowly reducing the universe to nothing, one dimension at a time. Again, it’s cynical, but beautiful. This is hard SF at its finest. You should be able to see why I miss this genre so much. 

But… Do I Really Miss It?

I’ve been thinking of getting back into hard SF. But at the same time, I don’t know if I can. Since finishing Liu’s books, I have become fully immersed in the otaku world of manga and light novels, while also focusing on kids’ and teens’ literature in general. 

As an example, I already made an attempt to return to the genre as recently as 2019. I read the self-titled opener of Peter F. Hamilton’s newest series, Salvation, only a few months after it came out. I did not like it. It started out with your usual premise: aliens send spies to live among humans, yadda-yadda-yadda, and some ship crashes in Antarctica or something. I know that setup is a thing, but Salvation is 99% the backstories of the main characters with 1% alien intrigue, and only two of the characters’ stories are actually plot relevant I.I.R.C.! The reviews on GoodReads were smarter than usual, and they mostly checked out positive. As such, I blamed myself. I was dumbed down by otaku culture, and could no longer enjoy hard SF. I no doubt would have loved it if I had read it as a teen, but ironically, I didn’t love it as an adult.

The way I look at things from a writing perspective has changed. I attribute long bits of dialogue as infodumping, for example. I’ll criticize lack of action, too. Also, ever since reading stuff like Monogatari, I probably would attribute any themes explored in hard SF as pretentious bullcrap. But most importantly, I have realized that those books contained an excessive amount of… sex. People say ecchi is bad, but there’s entire markets here in the good ol’ US of A that revolve around sex. I hate confessing this, but, er… this is how I first learned about the process. It wasn’t like watching “that video” in health class, but it was pretty close. I recalled not being disgusted as much as confused.

But there is one glimmer of hope, that I probably shouldn’t bother hoping for, and that is the impossible union of hard SF scope with the youth and accessibility of children’s media. As far as I know, it has been attempted thrice. The first time is the famous Time Quintet, starting with the iconic A Wrinkle in Time. It’s kind of… something. While the application of hard science is good enough, it has some of the usual bullcrap. The main protagonist, Charles Wallace, is one of those “special-for-no-reason” characters, and good ol’ nakama power ends up winning the day. Other than that, there’s the usual ham-fisted commentaries against Communism that show that the author grew up during the Red Scare. I think the series has aged relatively poorly, overall.

However, the glimmer of hope shown once more in two obscure and modern series, the first of which is called Randoms. It was a trilogy that started off like a typical wish-fulfilment fantasy, but ends up going into Star Wars Episode I-levels of space politics. I was very interested, but a lot of very arbitrary and forced drama scenes would come up starting in the second book and make me really livid. I actually haven’t finished the series, but since book three is the shortest, I might just push myself for the sake of discussing it in more detail.

There was also hope in The Chronicle of the Dark Star Trilogy. I read this one to completion only a few months before starting this blog. It had scope, it had hard science, it had youth, it had ethical quandaries; this one was a winner! It handled the ideas of time travel and multiple universes in ways that made it easy for kids to grasp. It only had two problems, the first of which was that the main protagonist was just as special as Charles Wallace (the characters literally say stuff like “Wow, you’re the only human who can time travel without exploding!” and it never gets explained). I also did not like how the series resolved. In the final book, the plot basically becomes a Star Trek episode, where the characters find this weird thing, and endlessly discuss how weird the thing is. In the climax, it ends up being almost a clone of the climax of Wrinkle. And similar to that, the main character ham-fists those American values of “individuality is more important than survival of the whole race!”, and leaves no room for debate nor interpretation. And of course, everything ends happily for all those involved. This could’ve been something to raise ethical debates, but like in The Giver and Arc of a Scythe, it reinforces the same viewpoints that readers have grown to understand instead of making them question those viewpoints. I know of no other hard SF series for young’uns, and if there are any, tell me in the comments!

In conclusion, I—to this day—have no idea if I want to try hard SF ever again. It takes me all of my free time just to keep up with manga and light novels, even after I get more gung-ho with DNF’ing stuff. This is something that will haunt me to my dying day, that’s for sure. In any case, if you’ve made it here, you’re amazing! If you’d like, leave a comment on your sci-fi experiences and tell me if there’s anything in this ballpark you’d recommend.