In Genre: HARD SCIENCE-FICTIONby RJ Grady
In Genre: HARD SCIENCE-FICTIONby RJ Grady
In Genre: HARD SCIENCE-FICTION
by RJ Grady
What Genre Are We In?
Hard Science-Fiction is the genre, primarily literary, of amazing science, depicted in a realistic fashion. The genre goes back as far as Jules Verne, whose vision of submersible ships and a mysterious energy source in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea anticipated submarines, atomic power, and even the discovery of gigantic deep sea organisms. Two important milestones were Hugo Gernsbeck's Amazing Stories, which helped shape the science-fiction genre as a whole, and John Campbell's position as editor of Astounding, in which role he insisted on hard science in his stories, and fostered many important writers, including Asimov and Heinlein.
The stories differ from many other sorts of stories in that the central drama is usually solved through logic, often known scientific lore, or sometimes just an examination of the facts by realistic-seeming characters. In Hard SF, scientists act like scientists, engineers act like engineers, and police officers act like police officers. One classic version is basically a dramatization of the scientific method. A scientist makes a momentous observation. He devises an experiment. His results are amazing. Initially, experts in his field reject his radical theories, but soon, all but a few conservative diehards must accept his discoveries. Finally, his recognized work is used to achieve some monumental success or salvation. Another is the "what-if" story, simply an examination of the effects, especially the social effects, of advances in human knowledge. Finally, some Hard SF resembles space opera in many respects, excepts its scrupulous avoidance of rubber science. Many adventure stories reside in the Hard SF milieu.
Related genres include technological thrillers (such as The Hunt for Red October, various crossover SF (such as the super-cop meets cyberpunk satire Robocop), and science wonder stories in general. Characters range in competence level, from the "Joe average" survivors of germ warfare to world-famous scientists to clever engineers facing extraordinary situations. The morality varies, but almost universally, hard science-fiction is fiercely humanist in some fashion, without overt sentimentalism.
The Cold Equations
Hard SF generally begins with the Earth. The reason is elementary: to be plausible, stories have to begin with what we know, and we know our Earth and solar system better than any wholly imagined one. The more unknown factors relied upon, the less reliable the prediction. Hard SF does not strictly aim to predict the future, rather, to present a realistic outcome. For instance, "retro" SF can remain hard science-fiction long after many of the assumptions in the story have been disproven. It simply fails to be prophetic. Any science-fiction that looks decades into the future, speculating about miraculous advances in science, has little chance to prophesy. It can, however, look at its subject with clarity, reason, and most of all, informed curiosity. Some examples of things generally unanticipated by early science-fiction include the uninhabitability of Venus, the power and unibiquitousness of computers, and the synthesis of of human hormones by bacteria. Heinlein's protagonists adventured on a wet Venus, relied on slide-rules, and suffered from various medical maladies now easily curable. Nonetheless, his stories often relied on what was considered the best science of the time. In other words, hard SF does not require a fearful perfectionism, just honest intent.
The setting is often Earth, it may be the solar system, or it may be a far-flung group of space colonies. The time could be a few years from now, or a few decades. Anything a hundred years or more into the future is necessarily a "wonder story," because the science of such an era is simply unimaginable. We can predict that a hundred years from now, people will still need houses, but we cannot begin to predict what utilities and ammenities they will take for granted. The farther into the future you go, and the more advanced the science and society, the less it becomes a matter of "hard" or "soft" science, and more a matter of imaginative speculation.
Many Hard SF stories reject FTL travel, portable energy weapons, and aliens. Simply, such notions are implausible extrapolations of what we currently have knowledge of. On the other hand, with sufficient advances in technology, and powerful enough space flight, all three are possible. I will present four specific concepts as they relate to the hard stuff. They are Space Travel, Weapons, Aliens, and the Gizmo.
We have already conquered interplanetary space travel and are in the middle of perfecting it. For amusement, watch old SF movies and listen to the narrator speak of mankind journeying into space "in the late years of the 20th century." We have satellites orbiting the Earth at all times, providing millions of ordinary people with television and telephone services through microwave beams, radio, and laser technology. It is reasonable to suppose that future engineers will make intrasolar travel easier by a magnitude. The furthest pessimism does not keep us from mining the asteroids or sending probes into the dust of the very fringes of the Solar System, eventually.
It is also possible we may one day visit the nearby stars. The literary handicap is that we currently don't know how we would go about that. With staggering amounts of energy, the nearest stars are decades, even centuries away. Einsten's relativity informs us that lightspeed is the maximum acceleration possible, and that approaching it requires ever-increasing magnitudes of power. Even at 99 percent of the speed of light, the nearest star would take five years to reach. Various mechanisms for overcoming this include cryogenically frozen astronauts, "generation ships" that house entire ecosystems and societies, or simply waiting until the human lifespan has been artificially enhanced to centuries. The disadvantages of all these methods are twofold. First, any sort of "galatic empire" or even a government of the local cluster would be unfeasible, because of the centuries involved in communication. Second, relativity leads to comparitively short "trips" for the travelers compared to their starting point and destination. Even a long-lived human could see civilizations rise and fall in the subjective decades it took to travel to a near star and back. For that reason, even hard SF sometimes employs highly speculative conepts that permit Faster Than Light (FTL) travel.
There are a number of notions concerning how FTL travel might be possible. The first supposes there are particles we have not yet detected that travel faster than light. Such "tachyons" are theoretically possible, but if they did exist, detecting them, much less hitching a ride on them, presents great difficulties considering the medium (a form of particle so subtle it does not affect the passage of single photons or even quarks). This concept is increasingly disparaged, but remains not-disproved. A more currently popular idea takes advantage of cutting edge physics (being cutting edge, and therefore fuzzier). It is possible for a vessel to take advantage of highly unusual astronomical phenomena such as black holes, superstrings, or cosmic wormholes to "slip through" space by traveling across its folds. As a logical extension, some SF posits the artificial creation of wormwholes or folds. The advantage to this notion is plausibility. Disadvantages include the highly advanced science required, the staggering levels of energy involved, and some unresolved questions about the effects of traveling through wormholes (many models baldly suggest it's possible to go back in time if you cross the right fold, and that introduces problems such as paradoxes, time travel, and really odd navigation errors). In short, in hard SF, FTL travel relies on some as-yet-undiscovered principle by which we can cheat relativistic effects. In human history, there has generally never been an engineering dilemma that defies human ingenuity forever, and I like to imagine this one is no exception. But it remains, at present, a great hurdle in interstellar exploration.
Fans of space opera love their weapons. Stepping into a SF mind-set, many weapons require re-thinking. Depending on the setting, some just won't belong. Lasers in space opera are sizzling rays or bolts of light. In real life, lasers are invisible except when dispersed, are easily countered by aerosol sprays, and require very high energy outputs to produce some of the awesomer lasers (such as superhot x-ray-lasers, or grasers, gamma ray lasers, that can penetrate mundane atmosphere without the usual problems of smoke or mist). Many space opera weapons are plausible enough. For instance, the "blaster pistol" is easily conceived as a device that hurls ionized or magnetic bursts of radiation. Such a weapon would even make a satisfying impact on hit. Even a "lightsaber" is plausible as superhot plasma contained in a force field, or perhaps an exotic device created by a rapdily rotating conductor core. What remains, then, is the question of why someone would create such a weapon. For long-range, large-scale weapons, lasers make a lot of sense; enough energy is nearly irresistible. Nonetheless, for sheer havoc, it's hard to beat a hunk of matter hurled at the highest speed possible through science. Lightsabers and even "micromolecular" or "vibro" weapons don't seem to have much practical value as military weapons, although they could be assembled from tools. The greatest strength of truly advanced weapons is computerization, examined with some seriousness by GURPS Transhuman Space. A laser might be cool, but a robotic machine gun is deadly, a gauss-propeled smart needle is accurate, and a computerized "taser suit" is several degrees more useful than any sword, however vorpal. It is not hard to imagine that in near decades, any given military weapon will practically be a killer robot at your disposal. Another issue Hard SF must face that space opera ignores are weapons of mass destruction. Nuclear weapons and rocket-propeled planetoids are easily capable of rendering planets uninhabitable (using currently available technology and common items you can find around your own planet). Therefore, interstellar warfare will be a matter of paranoia and rapid genocide, unless exotic defenses, such as advanced point defenses, nanobot interceptors, or extraordinary "force fields" are employed.
Aliens can be summarized pretty quickly in hard SF. There aren't many. First of all, without FTL travel, you cannot practically have more than one or two alien species (and even that's pushing it). If you do use FTL travel, that changes. Now dozens or perhaps thousands of species can interact. The possiblity of life can be summarized by Drake's Equation (expressed by Drake in 1961):
N = R* fp ne fl fi fc L
N is the number of interstellar civilizations whose electromagnetic emissions we can detect. R* is the rate suitable stars are formed. F sub p is the fraction with suitable planets. N sub e is the number of planets per system with the suitable environment for life. F sub l is the fraction that actually produce life, while f sub i is the fraction of those on which intelligent life actually appears. F sub c are the fraction of civilizations that release detectable emissions into space. L is the length of time they do so.
Even with very low probabilities in each case, this equation produces anywhere from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of civilizations waiting to be discovered. It's likely the number is at the lower end, since we don't seem to be overrun with tourists. Once upon a time, the conditions for planets and the conditions for life were often considered remote, but we've learned Sol-sized stars with Earth-like planets are common, and the materials necessary for life are ubiquitous and have been confirmed as being present in some nearby planets. Recent research shows that if you add heat or electricity to the ingredients and wait, the building blocks of life appear quickly and reliably. Therefore, R* through N sub e are likely rather favorable. After that, things get down to guesswork. We don't know how often life appears, or why, given the right organic compounds. We don't know how likely it is for intelligent life to appear (on Earth, our only empircal exmaple, there is only one effective tool-using species, and a handful of creatures with advanced language). We imagine, but do not know, that most civilizations go through a radio-emitting period, like ours, as their communication network emerges. But what if their technologicy is much different? Or what if technological civilizations only take a few centuries, on average, to stop "polluting" space with inefficient methods of communications? We don't know. L is the slipperiest part of the equation. Even if f sub i is very low, that is, intelligent life is one in a million on living worlds, we can predict that we are not alone. But we don't really know what happens to intelligent civilizations in a million years or so. If they keep on advancing and exploring, we would undoubtedly have already been reached, even at sub-light speeds, by our neighbors by now. We can therefore intuit that civilizations usually mature out of space exploration after some thousands of years, that we are (improbably) one of the first kids on our block to make it into space, or that most civilizations eventually become extinct in less than astronomical time periods. The latter is the potentially most depressing notion. So far, the evidence suggests that intelligent life does not grant immortality of any kind.
Another consideration where aliens are concerned is their nature. If they are intelligent, do they think like us? Likely not, although certain forms of communication, like pictograms and math, should be useful as a bridge between two vastly different ways of thinking. Their society? Built on different pressures, nurtured on a different planet, their society likely has vastly alien values, although it should possess traits that translate into survival and success. Even gross physiology will likely appear strange. Human beings, jellyfish, dolphins, and octopi are all natives on Earth, and yet each has a completely unique physical and genetic structure. Alien half-breeds, as popularized in Star Trek, would be impossible. You would have more luck mating with a tulip; at least the tulip likely shares a common ancestor with you in some fragments of its DNA. Alien diseases and parasites are improbable, except for biochemical plagues consisting of simple viroids, prions, and other small, versatile bits of protein, DNA, and RNA. Mad cow from space is remotely possible; neck-biting alien worms would be possible only in the fraction of ecosystems that, through happenstance, are populated by organisms with genetic and cellular structures similar to Earth life. "People with animal heads" are to be avoided except as a starting point. Even supposing aliens have hair, skin pores, or elbows is assuming too much. On the other hand, aliens should not be alien just to be alien; any peculiarity should have some kind of functional purpose. For instance, having three right arms and two left ones is certainly alien, but such asymmetry is less believable than an even number (for bilateral symmetry) or some kind of radial arrangement, although Earth animals often have mild asymmetric traits (like a human being's heart position, or a crab's primary claw). Life on Earth loves mathematics, and it's reasonable to suppose that alien life, like Earth life, will often resemble graceful mathematical structures such as the fractals that form the basis of tree branches. Can aliens breathe Earth air? Unlikely, but certainly possible. In a realistic setting with many alien species, some, but not most, would likely find Earth air breathable, unless it turns out we're the real weirdoes.
A last concept I will treat is the Gizmo. This is a super-scientific, or perhaps pseudo-scientific, invention that exists for dramatic reasons. FTL often takes this form. But you could also have a plausible near-future setting in which someone happens to stumble upon a way to convert matter almost purely into energy, or invents time travel, or happens upon an ancient alien artifact. In this case, we are asked to suspend our disbelief in one specific matter, for a specific dramatic reason. We can accept that a given piece of technology is possible, even though we cannot currently describe how such a thing would work, as long as it is treated in a sensible fashion. For instance, if Picard can be recreated from a "transporter pattern," we know that it is possible to clone an endless number of Picards, each as competent as the last, so long as a mass approximately his weight is supplied. A Hard SF setting must, at the least, explain why this does not happen, otherwise it must suppose that it will. A Hard SF treatment of the Star Trek transporter might explore the phenomenon of entire planets populated by one person, or "theft" of personnel by stealing their transporter pattern and bringing them to life as prisoners. Even if human cloning is illegal, why wouldn't the Federation create a few hundred copies of Data? When people die, why don't their relatives have them resurrected from transporter logs? Many Hard SF stories are based around a Gizmo, others incorporate a few Gizmoes to set the stage for a story.
In real life, one technology builds on another, so radical advances in one area, outstripping other technologies, may not seem realistic. On the other hand, many technologies are the work of genius, rather than an evolution in a technology, and would not have arisen when they did without the actions of a specific, talented individual. Einsten's relativity changed everything, but his work could have been anticipated with known facts decades earlier, or it could have languished for decades more while other scientists pieced together the puzzle. It all came together when it did because of Einstein's personal inspiration. The gripping hand is, measuring one technology against a different advancement is a guessing game. A few decades ago, people imagined flying cars, but thought computers would always click and buzz and spit out yards of printer tape. From the perspective of the 1950s, personal transportation is compartively retarded (you can drive a '57 Chevy today and not miss much compared to your fellow drivers) while computers are wildly "advanced" (for five dollars, any schoolkid can purchase a computer watch that keeps perfect time and can be used to set an alarm, and an accountant has a computer on his desk with thirty times the RAM of the computer that put the Space Shuttle into space). From a certain standpoint, computer technology and synthetic insulin are two Gizmoes of the 1990s.
Is This Game-Able?
Yes, Hard SF is game-able. It's certainly no less game-able than modern police detectives, spy thrillers, or historical settings. Realism is not anti-fun-ism. It's fun, sometimes, to approach a genre with knowledge and thoroughness. Rather than plumbing the corners of a character's soul, take some time to explore the nature of our universe. However, if you go shopping at the game store, you won't see a lot of Hard SF on the shelves. Space Opera dominates the cinema as well as the gaming table, while the literature has been largely overrun by Genre SF, or at the highbrow end, by surrealist science-fiction. There are many reasons for this, but primarily, Genre SF, that is, science-fiction with lazy underpinnings, has blurred science-fiction and science-fantasy, and adventure fiction sells. Also, space opera is a mass market phenomenon, but hard science-fiction has always been a (strong) niche field.
The first hurdle when gaming Hard SF is the science. If you didn't pay attention in high school, it's about time you started reading popular science magazines if you want to game this genre. At least the GM has to. It's not necessary for all the players to be science wizzes, especially if they are playing non-scientist characters. But the genre, like a historical setting or a modern police story, requires rigor.
If you've never contemplated it before, I can suggest no better introduction to Hard SF than to run a campaign based on a space colony (whether on a moon of Jupiter or around a distant star). The settlers can be cryogenically frozen pilgrims, or the descendents of a generation ship, or two hundred year old Magellans if you eschew FTL travel, or early navigators if you are using some form of FTL travel. Dealing with vacuum, an alien planetary system, terraforming and/or contending with local life forms, politics, isolation, and above all, discovery, are a great setting for an RPG. Another simple intro is to adopt a modern genre, such as cop thriller, political intrigue, or heroic medicine, and move the characters to the future (and perhaps another planet). Tell the story as you would, but do not ignore the ramifications of technology. For instance, imagine a murder case that pioneers investigation into whether someone murdered their clone, or was murdered by him... a vast personal fortune hinges on the verdict. Another idea is the "day after tomorrow" story in which something happens... aliens arrive, plague strikes, or someone launches The Bomb. Our recognizable, ordinary world faces something new and amazing.
The biggest challenge is to avoid presenting a solution on a silver platter. The PCs must have a chance to make a difference. If the solutions are too obvious, it doesn't feel like the struggle of reason against stupidity and brutal nature. On the other hand, it can be dangerous to expect players to intuit solutions to complex mysteries, or to assembe bits of scientific lore correctly. Any Hard SF campaign begins with a design of how events occur and how the PCs traverse from one challenge to the next. The drama arises from the situation; each sessions should resemble a courtroom drama or a played-up science-documentary as facts slowly emerge, and everyone, friend and foe alike, grasps the consequences. Rather than Earth-shaking power, the power PCs in Hard SF possess is the power to make the right decision when it counts. Like Einstein, Robert Goddard, Thomas Edison, or Louis Pasteur, they were there.
The chief method of creating Hard SF is to avoid fuzziness. Don't say "power station" or "fuel cells." Instead, determine what, exactly, the colony uses for electricity. If force fields exist, how do they work? A little hand-waving is okay, but the two watchwords are believable, and consistent. Knowing the colony uses "a fission reactor and advanced state chemical storage batteries" for electricity lends an air of believability, and when we know someone has dumped the coolant and let it go hot, that is consistent with what we know. If force fields work by generating gravity, we know that gravity generators are extremely powerful and portable. To be consistent and believable, we need a rationale. "Phantom matter" or manipulations of sub-quanta are believable. "Gravity waves" are not, because we know gravity is not a radiated energy but a property of matter. You can't put gravity in a can. Some kind of exotic matter might possess an unusually powerful well of gravity, and theoretical physics indulges any number of fantasies. We can allow technology to generate gravity, if we allow science in the setting to reshape the fundamental structure of matter. But talking about "gravity waves" is a step back into the science of the 17th century.
Hard SF upholds the power of rational thought. That means that thinking people, educated and otherwise, are heroic, and dullards and reactionaries are villains. It means we see both extremes of human nature: our ability to outfox what Nature intended for us, and our tendency to bring about our own ruin through inadequately controlled primitive instincts.
Anderson, Poul. Harvest of Stars.
Asimov, Isaac. David Starr: Space Ranger.
Bear, Greg. Darwin's Radio.
Blish, James. The Seedling Stars.
Heinlein, Robert A. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
Pohl, Frederik. Gateway.
Niven, Larry; Pournelle, Jerry. The Mote in God's Eye.
Silverberg, Robert (ed). The Science-Fiction Hall of Fame.
Card, Orson Scott. How to Write Science-Fiction and Fantasy.
Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Apollo 13 (1995)
Deep Impact (1998)
Because of the small hard SF niche in gaming books, generic games lead the way.
GURPS (Steve Jackson Games)
Star Hero (Hero Games/DOJ)
SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence They're listening. Drake's Equation is featured prominently here.
Lightsaber Physics Semi-serious discussion of how a real lightsaber might work.
The Bits Box
Heroic researchers who overcome the bullish stupidity of their adminstrative superiors, lessons in astronomy, terraforming, fifth columnists, millionaire eccentrics with plans for humanity's future, emergent AIs, first contact, man's inhumanity to man, ingenious solutions to the practical problems of technology, the reactionary masses, society's strength lying in strong personal relationships, old friends who are now luminaries in their field, ordinary researchers who do something plucky and unexpected when it most needs to be done, amazing inventions, "I'm sorry, I can't do that, Dave," alien artifacts with a message (and a motive), "the gripping hand is," laws of acceleration, the Secretary-General of the Terran government, theocracies and fringe cults, assassins, reader identification characters, the charm of mankind's hubris, and the superiority of reason over fear.