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Greg Egan and Stephen Baxter: SF's New Hard Men

By TheophileEscargot in Media
Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 08:19:16 AM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

Up until the 1990's, "hard", technologically accurate science fiction was in decline. These two writers reversed the trend. This article summarizes who they are, what they've written and how they fit into the SF genre.

Old traditions die hard. The hard SF brigade polished its boots, brushed its epaulettes, checked the charge in its lasers, and came out fighting. -- Brian Aldiss, Trillion Year Spree.
In its glory days of the 1940's and 1950's science fiction had led the way for real science. The use of geostationary orbit, sometimes known as a "Clarke" orbit, was discovered by hard SF writer Arthur C. Clarke. In World War Two the foremost hard SF magazine was raided by the FBI after describing an "atomic" bomb with suspicious accuracy. Hard SF was ahead of real life.

Then real life caught up. Science overtook SF in ways that it had never predicted. Computers got smaller, not bigger. Human space exploration fell back, not because of radiation or hostile aliens, but because of budget cuts and public apathy. Female writers made scathing remarks about SF housewives sitting at home all day, waiting to press the "make dinner" button at 5PM. Hard SF writers failed to keep up with cutting-edge science: Quantum Electodynamics, Grand Unified Theories, string theory were closed books to them. Worse, they had lost the habit of using even 1940's era science. Instead of dealing with relativity, they invented "hyperspace", while quantum theory was largely ignored or explained away. By the 1990's, most hard SF seemed hopelessly backward compared to the real science being popularised by Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Weinberg, Stephen Jay Gould and others.

It was then, in the darkest hours of hard SF, that they came to the rescue. Blazing out of the interstellar darkness came Stephen Baxter and Greg Egan, hard SF writers of a new generation. Baxter and Egan were different. They had absorbed the hard SF of the golden age with their mother's milk. Moreover they each had taken first degrees in mathematics, so were capable of a deep understanding of contemporary science. Baxter took a doctorate in aeronautical engineering, while Egan worked as programmer: Egan and Baxter understood technology as well as science.

Stephen Baxter
Baxter's first novel, Raft was about a group of travellers trapped in a universe where the force of gravity is a million times stronger than our own. This first novel was weak in characterisation, even by hard SF standards, but worked through its premise in intriguing detail.

He then moved on to his "Xeelee sequence", a set of books comprising a future history of the Universe, vaster in scope than anyone save Olaf Stapledon had succeeded with before. These books: the novels Timelike Infinity, Flux, Ring and the story collection Vacuum Diagrams are wonderfully large scale, presenting a future in which the human race plays only a minor part compared with the all-powerful Xeelee. This future is also determined by real cosmology and real Physics: the characters concerning themselves with the real destiny of the Universe. Between Xeelee books Baxter dealt with alternate history, producing the novels Anti-Ice, where the discovery of an anti-matter meteorite takes Victorian Britain into the space age, and The Time Ships, a sequel to H.G. Well's The Time Machine.

In the mid-nineties Baxter consciously changed direction, producing more contemporary work, smaller in scale. Both the quality of his prose and the realism of his characters had improved hugely from his early books. This period produced the novel Voyage, an alternate history of the space programme, where the Apollo missions were succeeded by a manned mission to Mars; at the cost of the unmanned missions which have given us so much knowledge of the solar system in this timestream. Voyage is fascinating nuts-and-bolts SF, and also appears to be in part an exorcism of ghosts. As an adolescent SF fan Baxter was almost personally traumatized by the decline of manned space flight, but as an adult he has grown to favour unmanned exploration. Also noteworthy are the Mammoth books Longtusk, Icebones and Silverhair; targeted at "young adults", set in a world where mammoths never become extinct and eventually become part of a Mars terraforming programme; and the apocalyptic novel Moonseed. Baxter's recent books include the three Manifold books: Space, Origin and Time; another large-scale sequence, dealing with explanations for the Fermi paradox of why we appear to be alone in the Universe; but focussing more on a single principal character than did the Xeelee sequence.

Greg Egan
Greg Egan's first novel, An Unusual Angle was a high-school novel with SF elements, published in 1983. For the next decade, Egan concentrated on short stories while working full time as a programmer. During this period he became one of the greatest SF short-story writers ever. The short story form allows his ideas to be displayed to their best effect, his compact writing style balancing the elements of idea and plot perfectly. Bob Shaw, the SF writer legendary for never getting a rejection slip, once drew an analogy for a SF stories; where the idea is a jewel, and the plot is a machine for displaying the jewel to its full advantage. Egan became a master of the technique of SF short story writing, exploring the impact of and idea to its full extent; as well as becoming a powerhouse of idea generation.

Egan's short stories include "Learning To Be Me", a thought-provoking item about an immortality device, "the jewel" inserted in the skull to retain the memories and personality of the user, later to be implanted in an artificial body. The story discusses what happens when in one case, the jewel goes out of synch with the real person; and which is the "real" person anyway. "The Hundred Light-Year Diary" shows the implications of a world where everyone knows their personal future. "Axiomatic" describes a near-future where anyone can alter their mind or personality, inhaling a new religion or sexual orientation as a small powder of nanomachines. Egan has released several collections of short stories, including Axiomatic and Luminous.

Egan has written six more recent novels. Quarantine deals with the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory, in a plot wherein the Earth is quarantined by an unknown force. Permutation City deals with virtual realities and the theme of immortality, which is recurrent in Egan's work. These two novels suffer somewhat by comparison with Egan's short stories: the pacing and characterisation are less adequate in the longer form. Distress seems to be a conscious attempt to develop conventional novelistic skills.

Diaspora is the first of his novels to live up to the promise of his short stories. The scope of this novel starts relatively small, but expands constantly to tremendous levels, while maintaining the reader's sympathy for the characters. This is a mind-expanding novel which brings together Egan's themes of AI, immortality, and cosmology: probably his best book so far. Teranesia is a fascinating novel featuring evolutionary theory and genetics. This is one of my favourites, although its human scale put off some of the more hardcore fans. Schild's Ladder is his most recent novel, perceptively reviewed here on K5.

Egan is also notable for extending his fiction to the real world. He has co-authored a scientific paper entitled General Relativity and Quantum Cosmology published in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity.

While Egan and Baxter's work is reminiscent of Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein, it's misleading to see them as simply golden age writers with updated science. Both have been influenced by developments in the real world. The books of Egan and Baxter often relate to the real world in the present day, even when the settings are apparently very distant. For instance, Baxter has described his Victorian-set novel Anti-Ice as

...a 1990s novel about 1990s concerns. Victorian Britain, armed with ICBMs and spaceships, is the only superpower, and has to decide whether to intervene in its neighbours' messy disputes -- just as the West faces similar dilemmas now.
Egan has also shown that he is not oblivious to the possibilities of SF as a medium for social exploration.
SF ought to be the ideal place to invent new possibilities for human interaction, but there's a lot of conservatism even in SF. In Distress, the main character falls in love with an asexual person, someone who's chosen to have no gender at all. One reviewer in an SF magazine fell over laughing at the very idea of this. He literally couldn't conceive of two people being in love without some form of genital friction.
Developments in the SF genre have also influenced their work. Egan has also said (ibid):
A lot of cyberpunk said, in effect: "Computers are interesting because cool, cynical men (or occasionally women) in mirrorshades do dangerous things with them." If that really is the most interesting thing you can imagine about a computer, you shouldn't be writing SF.
Both Egan and Baxter have built upon the SF legacy. Egan seeks to extend the ideas of cyberpunk into more general territory, seriously considering the impact of virtual reality upon the human race in his books. Similarly, both Egan and Baxter explicitly reject the concept of "transcendence", in which the human race passes into states that are considered to be beyond contemporary understanding. While their books may be hard to understand, there is nothing there that is intended to be impossible to understand.

The poor level of characterisation, and the unskilled depiction of human relationships in hard SF has often been criticized. This criticism is traditionally answered by an appeal to the demands of the genre. In C.S. Lewis's essay "On Science Fiction" included here he makes the famous remark:

Gulliver is a commonplace little man and Alice a commonplace little girl. To tell how odd things struck odd people is an oddity too much.
The critic Kingsley Amis has made similar remarks in the introduction to the Spectrum 1 collection:
[In SF] Many of the particular criteria of literary merit are inapplicable, or work with modified application...
...The character must be sympathetic enough to follow with interest, but he must be unparticularized, lightened at least enough to avoid distracting from the main issue.
These objections are valid to a degree, but can too easily be made excuses for work that is just plain bad. Earlier hard SF produced characters that were mere mouthpieces for technical jargon or the unadorned opinions of the writer. Brian Aldiss pointed out: "Heinlein's chief protagonists rarely learn from their experiences. They are the know-alls who tell others."

Egan and Baxter are superior to the older generation in that their characters do take a fuller role in the narrative. In Baxter's Voyage the focus is at least as much on the protagonist's battles with NASA bureaucracy as with the technical requirements of a manned mission to Mars. In Egan's Teranesia the relationships of the characters are an integral part of the story.

Egan and Baxter thus do not represent a simple reversion to the science-based SF of the "golden age". Instead they are essentially part of a new sub-genre of hard SF; one deal with human issues, and sometimes work on metaphorical levels, as well as dealing with scientific and technological ideas that are interesting on a contemporary basis.

Both authors have significant web presences. Greg Egan's homepage has Java Applets illustrating the physics and mathematics of his scenarios, a lengthy Egan bibliography, collected interviews, and a number of Egan's works online. Greg Egan has been much discussed on K5, particularly in the comments to this K5 story.

Baxter's page is The Baxterium and holds a Baxter biography, Baxter bibliography and interview, and some of Baxter's works online. He also has interviews online for Locus and Infinity Plus. His ideas have been discussed on K5 in a time travel story.


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Egan vs. Baxter?
o Egan is best 20%
o Baxter is best 7%
o Both equally brilliant at hard SF 7%
o Both equally dreadful at hard SF 5%
o I hate all hard SF 3%
o Never read 'em 54%

Votes: 53
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Trillion Year Spree
o discovered by
o raided by the FBI
o Raft
o Olaf Stapledon
o Timelike Infinity
o Flux
o Ring
o Vacuum Diagrams
o Anti-Ice
o The Time Ships
o Voyage
o Longtusk
o Icebones
o Silverhair
o Moonseed
o Space
o Origin
o Time
o An Unusual Angle
o Bob Shaw
o Axiomatic
o Luminous
o Quarantine
o Permutatio n City
o Distress
o Diaspora
o Teranesia
o Schild's Ladder
o reviewed here on K5
o General Relativity and Quantum Cosmology
o Classical and Quantum Gravity
o described
o shown
o ibid
o included here
o Spectrum 1
o pointed out
o Greg Egan's homepage
o Java Applets
o Egan bibliography
o collected interviews
o Egan's works online
o much discussed
o this K5 story
o The Baxterium
o Baxter biography
o Baxter bibliography
o interview
o Baxter's works online
o Locus
o Infinity Plus
o time travel story
o Also by TheophileEscargot

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Greg Egan and Stephen Baxter: SF's New Hard Men | 102 comments (92 topical, 10 editorial, 0 hidden)
So how does "Titan" fit in? (4.00 / 3) (#3)
by yanisa on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 04:20:39 AM EST

I've only read "Titan" by Baxter and it turned me off his other works.. It's not mentioned in the review, so does that mean that his other works are noticably better (i.e. less boring and with an ending that's not deus-ex-machina)?

As for Egan, I've read Distress (based on a K5 recommendation in comments to "Many worlds" story) and found it a bit hard to read. The imagination is there, the science is there, but the fiction part could, in my opinion, use some polishing.

Anyway, my bid for a good modern SF writer: Iain M. Banks and his Culture novels.


I think this line's mostly filler

Mixed feelings about Titan (5.00 / 1) (#5)
by TheophileEscargot on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 04:48:11 AM EST

I liked the first half, with the engineering stuff; but I was really put off by the ending. Won't give it away but I thought it was just... silly. I suspect many people would find that one depressing: though I quite liked the dark pessemism of it all.

I deliberately didn't go through all the books exhaustively, just ones I thought were important. I haven't read all their books, so don't read too much into something being omitted!

Also, I've linked to complete bibliographies, so I don't see the point of duplicating them here. I didn't want to make it too boring for non-fans by going through each book in depth.
Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]

Culture Novels.. (3.00 / 1) (#7)
by kimpton on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 05:06:48 AM EST

yeh. The Culture novels are very good - not exactly hard science though.

My votes go for Greg Bear's Slant and Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash - these aren't necessarily hard science fiction either - but contain excellent and exciting descriptions of future technology...

[ Parent ]
Egan - too much science, not enough fiction (4.00 / 2) (#27)
by jonathan_ingram on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 11:04:57 AM EST

Whenever I've read Greg Egan's work, I've been stunned by the detail of the science, and disappointed in the plot and characterisation. It feels like someone is trying to give you a physics tutorial by the back door, by slapping on a completely inane plot.

I agree with you on Iain Banks - I'd prefer it if there was *less* SF in his books, because the rest of the material tends to be very interesting. The best writing transcends these narrow genre classifications.
-- Jon
[ Parent ]

I tend to disagree (none / 0) (#55)
by khallow on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 06:26:33 PM EST

IMHO, the plot for Quarantine is amazing and Distress isn't so bad either. While some people characterize Distress as having better hard science, I'd actually reverse that. Even the "quarantine" has better hard science than the distress. Maybe it helped that I had an idea early on where Egan was going with both of the novels.

Also his willingness to break new ground was pretty refreshing.

[ Parent ]

I tend to agree (none / 0) (#61)
by agapow on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 03:25:46 AM EST

Egan's stuff is very clever - overawing. But it increasingly seems that the plot and characterization of the novel is being buried by the exposition of the clever science, the "jewel" if you will. A good example of this is "Distress" where the first quarter of the novel is window dressing, irrelevant to the rest of the plot and there just to showcase some cool setpieces. A friend of mine once joked about the obligatory moment in an Egan novel where the characters all sit down and ponder the epistomological basis of their own reality ... Having said that, I highly recommend his work, especially the short stories and "Quarantine". And thankfully he's an Australian author that doesn't find it necessary to hide his nationality or huddle in the ghetto of Australian fandom. For those who read Baxter's "Raft", his later work does get a lot better.

[ Parent ]
Titan and other Baxter novels (none / 0) (#58)
by nusuth on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 08:09:49 PM EST

I guess I read all novels by Baxter, and IMHO Titan ranks just after Moonseed and Manifold: Time. If my taste is any indication, you shouldn't read any other novels by Baxter. Try his short fiction though, it is much more entertaining.

A useful guide may be that if you like Brin's short fiction (his long fiction -especially uplift series- suck, except Earth, which is fine) you will probably love Baxter. If you don't, you probably won't like Baxter either.

Under no circumstances attempt to read Raft. It is one of the most boring pieces of SF ever written (yeah, I did read Zelanzy and Herbert.)

[ Parent ]

Fill in the holes (4.50 / 8) (#4)
by khallow on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 04:47:34 AM EST

I'm dubious about the "dark age" of hard science fiction. A lot of the old science fiction (eg, Asimov) was pretty fluffy in places. He had the robot novels with the keen bizarre logic of the three laws of robotics. Then he had telepathic powers and psychohistory. Heinlein too wrote a lot of not so hard science fiction. Clarke by far was the purest of the three.

Here's some other authors that wrote hard science (that I can think of off the top of my head). In the 50's and 60's there was Fred Hoyle ("the Black Cloud", "Molecule Men", "Rockets from Orion", etc) an astronomer. I believe there was a Gunn, also an astronomy who wrote some hard sci fi during this period. And while a lot of his work wasn't "hard sci fi", Poul Anderson wrote a number in this genre - recent examples include "Boat of a Million Years" and "A Harvest of Stars". His "Time Patrol", while not true hard sci fi, does do a decent job of looking at the dilemmas of time travel (an ever popular subject).

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle have some of the best hard sci fi of the 60's and 70's (yes, compare say "A Mote in God's Eye" to say "A Moon is a Hard Mistress", or "A Gift from Earth" or "Oath of Fealty" to a number of Asimov's robot detective novels).

A missing factor I see is Michael Crichton. He really spans the modern and "golden age" era. When you look at a selection of his works (book/movies): "Andromeda Strain", "Sphere", "Jurassic Park", even "Rising Sun", or the abyssmal "Congo" you definitely see the guy carrying the flame. He is distinct in that a lot of his stuff actually gets to the screen (everything I mentioned and then some).

So there's a bunch of authors just through 1980 right there.

Getting into the current times, you have some holdovers from the golden era. In particular, Charles Sheffield writes incredible stories. If you read no other Sheffield, read "Between the Strokes of Night". In fact, if you read only one hard science fiction book ever, read this one. Ignore all the rest. I'm not saying its the best written or has the biggest ideas or the latest technology, I'm just saying it's done the job right.

Finally, Gregory Benford deserves a mention. His books are missing something (haven't quite figured it out), but they're creative and hold well against the current big two Baxter and Egan.The two I've read are "Cosm" and "Eater". The later is better IMHO.

So to sumarize. The golden age wasn't that golden, the dark age not that dark.

Maybe that ADD test was right. I'm sure picking some arguments today! :)

Others (3.66 / 3) (#10)
by TheophileEscargot on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 05:31:56 AM EST

Lots of names came up in the comments to the draft versions. Robert L. Forward, Robert Reed, Greg Bear, Mike Resnick, Charles Sheffield, James P. Hogan, Frederick/Frederik/Frederich Pohl, David Brin, Ken MacLeod, Iain Banks... and more.

I didn't think any of them really fit in sufficiently well tho. They all seemed to be either of a different generation or not really hard enough or too traditional in their work. Gregory Benford I think comes closest, since he was a working physicist as well as an SF writer.

Golden ages and dark ages are always going to be pretty subjective. They say the golden age is always that period when the reader was a teenager! Critics like Aldiss do seem to have detected a tiredness to hard SF over the same period though...
Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]

Golden Age (none / 0) (#32)
by /dev/niall on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 12:14:46 PM EST

Golden ages and dark ages are always going to be pretty subjective. They say the golden age is always that period when the reader was a teenager!

I hear that. Invariably I end up throwing new purchases into a box, never to be read again, while the dog-eared tomes of youth are enjoyed again and again... and again... and again...

Drives my wife nuts. ;) "But... didn't you just read that a few months ago!?"

-- 报告人对动物
[ Parent ]

Adages (5.00 / 1) (#47)
by ucblockhead on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 03:43:01 PM EST

The quote I heard was "The Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve".
This is k5. We're all tools - duxup
[ Parent ]
Huh? (none / 0) (#54)
by khallow on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 06:13:41 PM EST

If you can drop Benford, Sheffield, and Bear, then who really does hard sci fi? Answer: nobody. BTW, Sheffield is a practicing astronomer. He's just in private industry. Egan does a pretty decent job with his hard science, and Baxter, well, I've got to read his stories to say. But the more I hear about him, the less "hard" most of his science fiction seems to get. I know, "read the books." Yea yea yea. ;)

But I don't consider "steam-punk" to be hard sci fi. Lemme put it this way. Michael Moorcock of "Elric and his pet sword, Stormbringer" wrote a really cool series of alternate history novels back in the 70's or 80's: let's see "The Land Leviathan", "Steel Czar", and something else in the "Nomad of Time" series. That has all the zeplins, really nasty biological weapons, nuclear bombs, land leviathans (of course), and weird Chinese conspiracies a growing boy needs. Not to neglect the "nomad" hero angsting in the midst of it all. :-)

[ Parent ]

Not dropped from hard SF... (none / 0) (#67)
by TheophileEscargot on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 08:00:29 AM EST

...just not allowed into the article. They didn't really fit into the Egan-Baxter axis for the reasons I mentioned.
Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]
oh ok. (5.00 / 1) (#71)
by khallow on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 02:22:39 PM EST

BUZZT! BUZZT! Step down to Defcon 5.

[ Parent ]
MacLeod (none / 0) (#102)
by Merekat on Tue Mar 19, 2002 at 06:44:05 AM EST

is definitely not hard enough in one sense. Although he has a definite science/technology background, I always feel that the culture is far more important than the tech in his books. It's the main reason I enjoy them so much.
I've always had the greatest respect for other peoples crack-pot beliefs.
- Sam the Eagle, The Muppet Show
[ Parent ]
Michael Crichton... (4.00 / 2) (#19)
by maroberts on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 08:42:00 AM EST

..I always wonder wheteher to put Micheal Crichton into the SF slot, due to the fact he does not tend to make the future portrayed in the novels that far ahead from the present day, and the science contained in his novels is never that far fetched from that of the current day.

To me he seems to be a (science) fiction writer who wants to play safely. There's a decided lack of adventure in the science of Crightons novels [having said that I enjoy the books, but the science contained within them is not a great leap of the imagination that other authors may go for.].

The greatest trick the Devil pulled was to convince the world he didn't exist -- Verbil Kint, The Usual Suspects
[ Parent ]
Sci-fi != future (4.00 / 2) (#26)
by jabber on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 10:56:49 AM EST

Even though traditionally Science Fiction projects into the future, it doesn't necessarily have to. There are some brilliant novels out there, with The Difference Engine standing out brightly, that are actually analyses of an alternate history based on a scientific event that didn't take place in reality.

[TINK5C] |"Is K5 my kapusta intellectual teddy bear?"| "Yes"
[ Parent ]

near tech is risky (none / 0) (#53)
by khallow on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 05:51:40 PM EST

You can have risky near tech. I think both "Andromeda Strain" and "Sphere" go interesting places. However, the really risky stuff is to make near term predictions. Jules Verne did this in "The Master of the World" and of course "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea". No external props, no bug-eyed monsters, no far future stuff that can't ever be proven wrong.

The movie "2001" (Stanley Kubrick and Authur C. Clarke). "Blood Music" by Greg Bear and "Turing Machine" (I think that's the name). Forget the author of the last book. And there's my personal favorite Charles Sheffield with his book "Between the Strokes of Night". You haven't read this yet? I told you to! :P

[ Parent ]

Congo (none / 0) (#20)
by wiredog on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 08:46:23 AM EST

The movie is terrible. The novel, on the other hand, is pretty good. Well, the tech is, anyway. My father is in the remote sensing field, and he says that the tech was right, at least for the time.

An interesting Chrichton novel is "Eaters of the Dead", a re-telling of Beowulf.

Peoples Front To Reunite Gondwanaland: "Stop the Laurasian Separatist Movement!"
[ Parent ]

Known Space stories by Niven (none / 0) (#24)
by wiredog on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 10:39:38 AM EST

Very good in the hard SF genre. The science is often real and, where invented, is consistent. Niven's not doing much in the Known Space series because of the consistency of the inventions. Once you've invented humans with a gene for good luck, it's kind of hard to come up with new conflicts. They'll just luck their way out of them.

Some of his essays are great. Read "Man of Steel, Women of Kleenex" which is about wht Superman can't get laid. And what would happen if he did go completely off the rails and screwed Lois Lane.

Peoples Front To Reunite Gondwanaland: "Stop the Laurasian Separatist Movement!"
[ Parent ]

Lucky Humans (none / 0) (#31)
by /dev/niall on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 12:11:36 PM EST

Hence "Safe at any speed". ;)
-- 报告人对动物
[ Parent ]
Niven, and to a lesser degree, Pournelle (none / 0) (#30)
by /dev/niall on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 12:10:58 PM EST

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle have some of the best hard sci fi of the 60's and 70's (yes, compare say "A Mote in God's Eye" to say "A Moon is a Hard Mistress", or "A Gift from Earth" or "Oath of Fealty" to a number of Asimov's robot detective novels).

I don't know about that.

Disclaimer: Larry Niven is tied for my "all-time favorite author" with Roger Zelazny.

Taking Known Space: How do hyperdrives work? General Products hulls? What about the Ringworld, a structure so badly designed in the first novel that even I as a 14 year old found all sorts of problems with it. Of course, they were all magnificantly explained away in subsequent novels.

I don't think Niven is any "harder" than Asimov, it's just that he is a better writer by several orders of magnitude. His universe(s) are believable because he makes us believe.

-- 报告人对动物
[ Parent ]

Niven and Known Space (4.00 / 1) (#62)
by yanisa on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 04:59:17 AM EST

GP hulls are explained in "Flatlander": "A General Products hull is an artificially generated molecule with interatomic bonds artificially strengthened by a small power plant. The strengthened molecular bonds are proof against any kind of impact and heat into the hundreds of thousands of degrees."

As for hyperdrive, I have no idea. Besides, in the first part of TKS, there is no hyperdrive (Gil the Arm series, Protector).

Yes, Ringworld design is stupid. I find the idea of many small Ringworlds, proposed in RW2, even stupider (wouldn't they be _much_ closer to the sun?). The book is fun to read, though - but I agree, can't be taken as "hard" SF.

Did you like The Integral Trees / The Smoke Ring? Highly imaginative, as well.


I think this line's mostly filler
[ Parent ]

Clarification (none / 0) (#63)
by yanisa on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 05:10:16 AM EST

Read explained as "explained", i.e. the author tells us how it's supposed to work, but we can't build it based on the explanation.

Is this the dividing line between SF and hard SF? The difference between "the transporters scan the molecular structure and rebuild it elsewhere" and "the road surface rests on revolving pylons which make it move, the different tracks move with different speed"?


I think this line's mostly filler
[ Parent ]

Smoke Ring (none / 0) (#68)
by /dev/niall on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 10:54:26 AM EST

Did you like The Integral Trees / The Smoke Ring? Highly imaginative, as well.

Actually, they were the last Niven books (well, besides the last few releases) I read. I had heard that they weren't all that good. Then I remember reading a bit (in Neutron Star or Playgrounds of the Mind) where Niven revealed (to me anyway, since I hadn't read the Smoke Ring novels yet) that the Smoke Ring civilization was descended from the same state that sent Corbell to the stars in "A World Out of Time" (which I loved). They were fantastic! Very different, very engaging. The societies were completely believable, but since I've never lived in such an environment I'll have to assume I'm easy to win over. Gotta go dig them up now and read them again.

I'd be hard pressed to pick my favorite Niven; so many great characters in consistant universes.

-- 报告人对动物
[ Parent ]

Integrate (none / 0) (#73)
by A Trickster Imp on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 02:45:10 PM EST

I liked the Integral Trees, but the sequel became The Life and Times of Some Boring Floating People.

[ Parent ]
Kim Stanley Robinson (4.66 / 3) (#40)
by mbrubeck on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 01:01:27 PM EST

Kim Stanley Robinson was writing great hard SF before the 1990s, and is still writing it today. His science is good, and he's also a great literary talent and occasionally an interesting social theorist. If you've only read the Mars trilogy, I strongly recommend Icehenge and his collected short fiction as good introductions to his work. His "Three Californias" novels and the more recent Antarctica are good, though a bit heavy on political theory, which some readers will like and others won't. A Memory of Whiteness is a solid piece of far-future SF.

[ Parent ]
Thank you. (none / 0) (#43)
by freebird on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 03:01:56 PM EST

Yes, I think Kim Stanley Robinson has written some of the best hard sci-fi of the last, well, ever. Perhaps he doesn't get called a "Hard Man" (which is prolly just as well...) because there is a LOT more to his stuff than just the science.

But nevertheless, his science is VERY solid. There's an almost overwhelming amount of it in the Mars trilogy, and everything I've ever known about already or checked into has been dead accurate. In fact, I have it on pretty good authority that at least one university geology lecture was inspired by his 'long run-out landslide' chapter...

Where he really shines is in the blending of 'hard' and 'soft'. Lots of folks can give you a good, technical play-by-play description of building a neat tented environment on mars - very few can then paint a soulful, beautiful picture of what it's like to grow up in one.

[ Parent ]

Not really hard SF (5.00 / 1) (#46)
by ucblockhead on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 03:42:10 PM EST

The Mars Trilogy is really the only SF he's done that is "hard". In most of his other novels, the science is very much secondary.
This is k5. We're all tools - duxup
[ Parent ]
I was recently asked (none / 0) (#57)
by whojgalt on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 08:09:28 PM EST

what was my favorite book (aside from the typcial ones in the context in which I was asked), and the first thing that popped into my mind was "A Memory of Whiteness" even though I hadn't read it for at least 10 years.

Robinson is one of the best SF writers out there. Except for "R/G/B Mars", his SF is not as "hard" as some, in the sense of being about the science. But his characterizations are superb. And he is the only author I have ever seen in any genre who can write about music so that you actually believe you can hear it. There's a lot of it in "Whiteness", and a brief but exceptional passage in one of the "Mars's", "Green", I think it was.

If you can't see it from the car, it's not really scenery.
Any code more than six months old was written by an idiot.
[ Parent ]

A Memory of Whiteness (none / 0) (#101)
by Dacta on Mon Mar 18, 2002 at 10:20:26 PM EST

I always find KSR hard to get into. I enjoyed the Mars trilogy, and I really liked Antartica, but A Memory of Whiteness frustrates me. I've been reading it for years (literally), but I always find something better to read and never finish it. It's a pretty short book, too, so I don't know why.. (I read Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky in 2 days, so it's not like I read slowly).

Anyone else have this problem?

[ Parent ]
No! Not Crichton (4.00 / 1) (#60)
by MikeyNg on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 02:48:41 AM EST

Sorry, Crichton just plain doesn't cut it as a "hard" SF writer in my book. I usually find his science flawed, and these are mostly due to a lack of research rather than a new theory or experiment coming along. Don't misunderstand me - his stories are usually entertaining, but they'd be more borderline as fantasy than Sci-Fi. Well, ok, as far as my snobbish opinion goes.... But you would really do yourself a disservice by trying to follow any of Crichton's "science" to the letter.

Where the wind blows, the tumbleweed goes.

[ Parent ]
Excellent. (3.00 / 5) (#6)
by kimpton on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 04:50:40 AM EST

Excellent article. Just wish I had the time to follow all the links :-) (and read all the books)

"Hard Men?" (2.62 / 8) (#12)
by RobotSlave on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 05:50:15 AM EST

And they wonder why there aren't more women in IT.

Trollor me bad (none / 0) (#18)
by axxeman on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 08:35:35 AM EST

Yes, IT, koz, yknow, that's what we're discussing here and all.

Not yet. Don't come before we have finished humping...
[ Parent ]

Science Fiction and Literature (3.25 / 4) (#13)
by Hopfrog on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 06:41:24 AM EST

One of my favourite shows on TV is one were some people sit around on a table and discuss literature. It amazes me each time exactly what they can find in the book that makes it a good work or not a good work. They are trained to do this.

I, however, do not appreciate the fine subtilities. For me, what makes or breaks a book is wether it is interesting. Goethe might be called one of the the greatest writers ever, but I still prefer reading Stephen King.

In this same way, Isaac Asimov is mostly criticized in literary circles. His characters are too flat, he doesn't pay attention to enviroment details, etc. But he is still one of the most read Sci. Fi. writers. Why? Because he writes interesting books.

And to come to the article, it doesn't really matter if they call space HyperSpace. It doesn't really matter if they never understood Hawking's theories, and used them in their books.

What matters to me, is if they can write a boook that will keep me reading it.


SF as a medium for social exploration (4.25 / 4) (#17)
by wiredog on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 08:22:06 AM EST

That's nothing new. H.G. Wells' work was entirely social commentary, in an SF milleu. Jules Verne was a hard SF writer who put social commentary into his work.

Peoples Front To Reunite Gondwanaland: "Stop the Laurasian Separatist Movement!"
SF is about money, not space. (4.37 / 8) (#21)
by eann on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 10:00:32 AM EST

I have to admit I've never read anything by either of these authors. The scifi section at my nearby megachain bookstore is far too daunting to pick something by someone I've never heard of, just so I can shell out at least $7 for what will, odds better than not, suck. If they had a smaller selection I'd like it better, because it'd be more likely that it was quality work. The only thing I like less than reading about someone else's D&D game is reading about someone else's D&D game set in space with different props.

But in general, it sounds like you're equating scifi with stories about space travel (and associated extra-atmospheric tasks). Cyberpunk is dismissed in a single offhand comment, but this really doesn't give credit to Stephenson, Sterling, even our own beloved technoparanoiac. Card pulled a Deus ex (Alien) Machina a few times, but it's obvious he thought about relativity and social situations. Even Piers Anthony thought of exodentistry. And to be fair, most of the things I've read by Asimov and Clarke and others from the "golden age" quite often just waved their hands at the science involved without even bothering to try to explain it. Go back and read the entire Foundations series, and tell me how interstellar travel works in real time. It's not there. Science couldn't explain it when he wrote it, and it can't explain it now.

While many of your criticisms of scifi in general are valid, it is not by using updated science that scifi will "redeem" itself. Superstrings may be wrong--it's just the way we currently understand things; any scifi that tries to use that idea will look quaint and dated in 20 years. It doesn't matter whether scifi explores space or terrestrial nanomachines or reverts to the same things that Wells and Verne thought interesting (name anything other than SeaQuest that has been set underwater in the last 10 years). What we really care about are the characters--ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances (or vice versa). We're bored with it because we keep seeing the same "extraordinary" circumstances over and over again. Baxter and Egan seem to have the right idea, at least from your descriptions, but it's not because they're scientists.

The core of it is just the signal to noise ratio. Scifi is no longer art; it's big business now. What you miss about the "golden age" is that Harlan Ellison or Ray Bradbury could say more in a short story than most modern "authors" do in a full-length novel (or screenplay).

Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men. —MLK

$email =~ s/0/o/; # The K5 cabal is out to get you.

The article is focussed on 'hard' SF (4.00 / 1) (#23)
by TheophileEscargot on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 10:34:33 AM EST

it sounds like you're equating scifi with stories about space travel
The article is focussed mainly on "hard SF". That's why it's titled "SF's new hard men", and uses the phrase "hard SF" thirteen times ;-)
Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]
Well, yeah. (none / 0) (#29)
by eann on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 12:05:39 PM EST

I noticed that you kept using that term. But you never defined it. Maybe I'm too far removed from the world of literary criticism, but I didn't see the distinction you were trying to make with it. In the contexts you were using it, it didn't sound like you meant it was difficult to read, nor were you making an effective analogy to "hard rock" and "soft rock". I can kindasorta see a precedence pun--(hard science) fiction instead of hard (science fiction)--but that really does nothing to exclude terrestrial nanotech, biotech, and some of the other stuff that seems to have been dismissed. One could argue that it even includes Michael Crichton, and I'm sure we don't want to do that. :)

So, tell us. What is "hard" scifi, and why is it worthy of a distiction from non-hard scifi when we're talking about the sorry state of things? Is it more broken, or more fixable?

Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men. —MLK

$email =~ s/0/o/; # The K5 cabal is out to get you.

[ Parent ]
Hard SF (4.60 / 5) (#34)
by TheophileEscargot on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 12:38:02 PM EST

Well, the first sentence deliberately explained it
Up until the 1990's, "hard", technologically accurate science fiction was in decline.
"Hard SF" is a very common phrase in SF fandom. It's a sub-genre of Science Fiction that aims to be scientifically and technically accurate. As always, you can argue endlessly about which books are "hard" enough fit into the sub-genre.

Hard SF is not the only kind worth reading, just one that I decided to focus on for this article; since Egan and Baxter definitely write within the "hard SF" sub-genre. If you don't like hard SF, my last Culture story was a brief summary of the Children's Fantasy sub-genre.

You can't really provide a critical analysis of any work without considering what kind of work it is. In the Kingsley Amis article he writes:

A painting cannot be called just an incompetent bas-relief, even though a blind man might fairly point out that the latter 'has an extra dimension'.
Hard SF is neither more nor less broken than any other sub-genre; but a hard SF book has to be judged by hard SF standards.
Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]
Don't do that! (none / 0) (#100)
by Cuchulainn on Mon Mar 18, 2002 at 02:17:01 PM EST

In a comment from a piece on sci-fi (hard or otherwise), saying "my last Culture story" with a capital "C" means something entirely different!! But then I am also a Banks fan...
If so don't worry about it, stuff you eat when you're drunk doesn't count, just like stuff you say and people you sleep with. - Little Pest
[ Parent ]
Quick, rough guide (4.66 / 3) (#36)
by gordonjcp on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 12:47:40 PM EST

Hard sci-fi is stuff that's scientifically plausible. That is, it needn't be set in the far future, and tends to (in many cases) assume fairly rigidly defined things.

For example, most of Isaac Asimov's work is hard sci-fi. A lot of his concepts are simple extensions of more-or-less ordinary life. No wierd, many-limbed creatures, just people.
Take the "Thiotimoline" stories - in a preface to "The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline", he describes a curious compound with the odd property of dissolving moments *before* it is placed in water. The background to the story was that he was working in real life with highly soluble salts, and it occured to him that if the stuff was any more soluble, it would dissolve before it went near the water! The piece was written up as a mock scientific paper, and remains one of his most well-known early works.

By a similar argument, you could say that E. E. 'Doc' Smith's Lensman series is not hard sci-fi, although extremely good. In this lengthy series of books, we meet all kinds of alien life, from gigantic semi-lizards to sentient unicellular life forms. Also, the tale does rely on a "deus ex machina" in the form of the Arisians, otherworldly psychic beings that give each Lensman his "Lens", a device that allowed them to communicate telepathically.
Ok, not very quick...

Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he'll bore you rigid with fishing stories for the rest of your life.

[ Parent ]
Hard Sci-fi (4.50 / 4) (#37)
by davidduncanscott on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 12:51:42 PM EST

isn't analagous to hard rock. It might be defined as science fiction that pays attention to science.

Yes, Niven invoked near-magic in the General Products hull, stasis, and a few other things, but he knew that, and he was consistent with them. He made mistakes (although not all that many), but by and large he cared enough to do it right. A number of his stories revolve around issues of physics, like the tidal effects in Neutron Star.

By contrast, Star Trek simply doesn't care. It's pretty obvious that nobody over there ever considered things like what to do with the different velocities of a ship in orbit around a planet and a body suddenly transported to the surface (somewhere in there, large amounts of energy have to be absorbed as Kirk loses a relative velocity of hundreds of miles per hour -- or else the Captain is a thin film on the far wall.) It's not so much whether these things are handled correctly, but whether they're even addressed. Gene Rodenberry, George Lucas, and Edgar Rice Burroughs all tell ripping good yarns, but ships banking through a vacuum don't make any more sense then "uranium rifles" or an Earthman successfully reproducing with an egg-laying Martian princess (nothing less than royalty for John Carter.)

[ Parent ]

"Beloved Technoparanoiac"? & other (4.00 / 2) (#35)
by johnny on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 12:43:57 PM EST

Why thanks!

Back on topic: I enjoyed Theophiles's well-written & informative article. The polemics leave me a little cold, but I do like learning about this stuff.

Over the past two years or so (since accidentally writing an SF novel) I've been enjoying learning about this genre, of which I was pretty damn near a total ignoramus. Right now I'm reading Jeanne Cavelos's Babylon 5 "Passing of the Technomages" and Melissa Scotts's "The Shapes of their Hearts." Neither is high literature, but both are quite enjoyable in their own ways.

What's fun for me is the community of SF: the playful yet earnest scholarship of the fans, and the accessibility of the authors. I'm reading Scott & Cavelos, for example, because I met them when we were on some panels together at Vericon , and I liked them & what they had to say about this genre.

yr frn,
Get your free download of prizewinning novels Acts of the Apostles and Cheap Complex Devices.
[ Parent ]

The community (5.00 / 1) (#39)
by wiredog on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 12:58:11 PM EST

Read "Bimbos of the Death Sun".

Peoples Front To Reunite Gondwanaland: "Stop the Laurasian Separatist Movement!"
[ Parent ]
Cheap Complex Devices? (none / 0) (#44)
by Pseudoephedrine on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 03:21:05 PM EST

Very nice website, man. And good luck with your book, at that. Personally, I'm curious if any distributors in Canada have picked up Cheap Complex Devices? Is it available through Amazon? It sounds like a fascinating read.

"We who have passed through their hands feel suffocated when we think of that legion, which is stripped bare of human ideals" -Alexander Solzhenitsyn
[ Parent ]
coming soon (none / 0) (#49)
by johnny on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 05:01:06 PM EST

Cheap Complex Devices is not available anywhere yet (in its entirety, anyway). I expect it to be out by end of April. If you would like to get on my "notify" list, please send me a note a the wetmachine address.

yr frn,
Get your free download of prizewinning novels Acts of the Apostles and Cheap Complex Devices.
[ Parent ]
Signal to noise ratio (4.50 / 2) (#59)
by bodrius on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 08:45:37 PM EST

Scifi has for a long time suffered from a very low signal to noise ratio.

Personally, I haven't bought scifi books at a bookstore in a long time because I cringe everytime I have to go through hundreds of "Star Trek" novels and cheap D&D-like Tolkien ripoffs looking for an actual story. I used to when I was a kid, but now I realize I either have less time, less tolerance for trashy novels, and am less willing to spend money on such a risk.

Sadly, the state of the SF scene is not better, quality-wise, than the softcore erotica scene ruled by the peers of Danielle Steele.

It doesn't help that much of the good SF is also plain bad literature, apparently excusing authors from ever learning how to write fiction. The excuse may be abused by "hard SF" authors, where the story is supposed to focus on the scientific ideas, but it's just a cheap way to escape responsability for a lack of skill.

Many authors from the "golden age" should have never been allowed to touch a typewriter until they took some basic English courses at least. These are the authors many readers hate to love; Asimov, like Stephen King, was a writer whose books we loved IN SPITE of his writing, because somehow his ideas were sufficiently novel/interesting to excuse the B-movie presentation. And Asimov's strong point was not the "hard SF" detailed scientific speculation.

"Sci-Fi", like "fantasy" will never redeem itself because it is composed mainly of three groups, in order or importance:
- Those who manufacture cheap templates of a space opera story, usually to make money on a established brand.
- Those who excuse the lack of quality on their work by pointing to either the current demographic and/or past successful authors share the same failings.
Some of us (readers) can describe incompetent writing as having "Asimovian dialogues and character complexity", yet we still hold the "Foundation"s as the pinnacle of SF.
- Those who actually write decent books, but are drowned in the first two. Sometimes, they end up migrating out of SF, or even pretending they were never there in the first place.

Unfortunately, the only way I see of keeping your sanity and still realize that SF has some literary worth is to look for that last group and buy their books directly. It is practically impossible to find them on the bookstore, undifferentiated from the piles of garbage. We depend on reviews like these to point out good authors, and then following those authors through either bookstores or online stores.
Freedom is the freedom to say 2+2=4, everything else follows...
[ Parent ]
Spiritual journeys and Cyberpunk (5.00 / 2) (#22)
by Sanityman on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 10:30:40 AM EST

Sorry I missed the chance of voting on such an excellent piece. (And a mention of CS Lewis on the Front Page! ;o)

I was particularly interested in the interview you mentioned with Egan where he appeared to rubbish the idea of cyberpunk, and go on to say:

...there ought to be a serious attempt to describe the future as well
SF has always interested me more in terms of social/philosophical rather than technological exploration, although it irritates when the author indulges in crass pseudoscience (Peter Hamilton, stand on your chair). I think CS Lewis says something similar in the essay "On Sciece Fiction" - the real journey in SF should not be a physical but a spiritual one (quoting from memory). Shouldn't SF be about more than technological projection?

I'm also a bit dismayed to hear him trashing cyberpunk, which fired a technically non-lethal subsonic beanbag jelly at the rump of a decaying 80's SF scene. I can't help feeling he missed the point: cyberpunk was about future-shock, not computer crime [Interesting historical link: The Cheap Truth, an underground hardcopy 'zine from the start of the movement].


If you don't see the fnords, they can't eat you.
"You can't spray cheese whiz™ on the body of Christ!"

Cyberpunk (5.00 / 3) (#25)
by TheophileEscargot on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 10:48:37 AM EST

Well, fortunately it managed to scrape in without your vote ;-)

Egan doesn't rubbish cyberpunk entirely. In the same interview he says:

I don't want to lump all the things that were classified as "cyberpunk" together, because some of them were wonderful, and some of them stank. I think Bruce Sterling and Pat Cadigan wrote a lot of good books in the '80s, and they're still writing good books, and I don't care which ones are or aren't "cyberpunk".
I think he's got a good point tho. Cyberpunk rapidly deteriorated into empty techno-thriller territory, endlessly recycling the same cliches, which were never that convincing anyway. Why the hell does dying in cyberspace kill you in real life? Why doesn't someone write code to close the connection before frying your brain? Haven't these hotshot superprogrammers heard of basic error-handling? And don't get me started on those godawful "metaphorical" battles where people use swords or wahtever to fight metaphorical battles which mysteriously work exactly like real life battles.

Neal Stephenson in particular gets to me. What was that book where in the virtual reality playground of the super-rich, people get around by sitting patiently in virtual railway carriages, but the heroes have virtual motorbikes? If I'm paying through the nose for a virtual reality I want to be instantaneously beamed to my destination, dammit, not sit around for hours in a train!
Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]

Neil Stephenson... (none / 0) (#28)
by cyberdruid on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 11:10:18 AM EST

...writes absurd comedy, not really serious SF. I'll admit that I have only read "Snow Crash" (prefer others, especially Egan - "Permutation city" kicks ass ;). Judging from that book, however, he just tries to make intentional parody on all modern SciFi. It isn't supposed to feel real. It is supposed to make you smile at the exaggerated absurdness of it all. I mean, the main character is a combined samurai, hacker, concert manager and pizzaboy for the maffia.
At least that was my impression.

[ Parent ]
Stephenson's other works (5.00 / 2) (#41)
by mbrubeck on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 01:20:05 PM EST

There's a fair amount of variety in Stephenson's work. The Big U and Snow Crash are definitely humor pieces. The latter in particular is essentially a spoof on Neuromancer, though it is of course a great story in its own right.

Interface (co-authored under pen-name Stephen Bury) and Zodiac are more towards hard, near-future SF in the classic mold, though Stephenson's thriller elements play a big role too. The Diamond Age is a solid technology-based SF novel.

Cryptonomicon could also fit in the hard SF category, though its historical and near-present-day settings may lead some people not to classify it as scient fiction at all. By the way, all of these novels get my highest recommendation. They're not without weaknesses, but if nothing else they're damn fun to read, and in my opinion, good examples of top-notch sci-fi.

[ Parent ]

Exactly (3.50 / 2) (#50)
by sauril on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 05:21:35 PM EST

Snow Crash is a loving parody wrapped in a great story.

The main character's name is "Hiro Protagonist" fercryinoutloud...

[ Parent ]

Ever sat through a Bertold Brecht play? (none / 0) (#65)
by TheophileEscargot on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 07:53:02 AM EST

I've been forced to. Urghhh.

Brecht used "alienation techniques" like that the whole time: the point being to constantly remind the audience that the content isn't real. The problem is once you've seen it a couple of times, the gimmick gets old quick. At least Brecht had reasons for doing it: the plays were intended as explicit propaganda, not as a story to lose yourself in. Stephenson just seems to use alienation at random for the hell of it.

Not your comment, but the comment above: where does this damn idea come from that if it's humour you don't have to bother with even superficial internal consistency? Good SF comedy creates a universe that is itself funny. Look at Douglas Adam's marketing-driven universe of talking doors and everything-o-matics. Look at Robert Sheckley's work, or Terry Pratchett's Discworld, which is utterly believable in a Dickensian kind of way. It's a massive cop-out to say: "I'm attempting to be funny so it's OK if my characters are cardboard and my world is a random collection of cliches".
Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]

In defense of SC (4.50 / 2) (#70)
by yanisa on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 02:12:44 PM EST

I've read Snow Crash several times and each and every time it's managed to enthrall me. Forget Metaverse; we each have our own ideas about virtual reality and I found Stephenson's vision as plausible as, say, Gibson's. I disagree with your appraisal of the world, though. Stephenson took existing trends and extrapolated an extremely ironic and entertaining world which, to me, was quite believable. Much more believable than the one in The Diamond Age, for example - although there were a few aspects of that one I very plausible, like the feed of basic elements for the nanoforges that is just like today's bandwidth.

I'm not a critic/lit major, just someone that's read a lot of SF and F. I can and will usually spot holes in the storyline, changes of premises and 1D characters. To my layman's eyes, SC had no such large faults. That's not to say that there are none - they just aren't as big as you're portraying them.

Summary: SC may not be the optimal SF book, but someone who has not read Stephenson/SC yet should definitely check it out and decide for himself. I'm not trying to persuade you or accuse you of being wrong, I just think the book is good enough to deserve arguments from both sides.


I think this line's mostly filler
[ Parent ]

Let's not (1.50 / 2) (#78)
by medham on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 05:04:06 PM EST

Insult a great man so wantonly here. Brecht's plays are mordant, and the V-effekt stuff is often discussed, little understood. It's no longer possible for you as a 21C whatever you are to appreciate Brecht's plays in the historical context in which they were written.

Saying that Stephenson, a creative hack, uses "alienation effects" in the Brechtian sense is just plain offensive.

The real 'medham' has userid 6831.
[ Parent ]

Wanton insult (3.50 / 2) (#79)
by CodeWright on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 05:20:43 PM EST

Given the truism you expect us to accept, namely given that we are all 21C whatever-we-are, then, ergo, it is is no longer possible for us to appreciate Brecht' plays in historical context -- you imply that nothing may be appreciated.

Alternatively, since you seem to have been able to "appreciate" Brecht's mundane spew, one can only assume that it is done with a 21C sensibility. So, TheophileEscargot must have, likewise, "appreciated" Brecht's miserable morass with his own 21C perspective (as "Urrrggh").

[ Parent ]
Slowly now (1.00 / 1) (#81)
by medham on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 05:25:40 PM EST

The "V-effekt" is historically contigent. History mediates our response to it, and we cannot recover the original. What Brecht was reacting against no longer exists. If you know something about 20C drama (and before), you can understand this to a degree.

The real 'medham' has userid 6831.
[ Parent ]

Poor boy (3.00 / 2) (#82)
by CodeWright on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 05:45:43 PM EST

That argument only holds water if you subscribe to a relativist perception of history as a dynamically interpretive medium. See Lefkowitz or Schlesinger for a rebuttal of same.

Your lack of sophistication is a sad tribute to the deterioration of public schooling.

[ Parent ]
Schlesinger? (1.00 / 1) (#83)
by medham on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 05:51:01 PM EST

The bow-tied Camelot sychophant?

I pioneered the "plebian" thing, btw. Come up with something original.

The real 'medham' has userid 6831.
[ Parent ]

i wasn't trolling (none / 0) (#86)
by CodeWright on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 06:23:36 PM EST

For public consumption. I was just returning your tactic back on you (to show you how tired it was).

You certainly didn't pioneer the plebeian thing:

Are you such a young sprout that you are unfamiliar with the shenanigans of ArchimedesPlutonium and alt.syntax.tactical?

[ Parent ]
Medham's... (5.00 / 2) (#84)
by TheophileEscargot on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 05:52:23 PM EST

...just a troll, he doesn't believe this stuff for a moment: check out his comments and diaries. He'll keep droning on indefinitely tho. These kids seem to have very high boredom thresholds: who says attention spans are decreasing?
Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]
Look here (none / 0) (#85)
by medham on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 06:13:45 PM EST

I believe exactly what I wrote about Brecht, I'm certainly older and better-read than you, and nothing in my comments contradicts what I've said there. Nor, in fact, have I ever trolled here.

This article was weakened considerably by your refusal to incorporate my suggestions, btw.

The real 'medham' has userid 6831.
[ Parent ]

stubborninity (none / 0) (#87)
by ucblockhead on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 11:58:26 PM EST

It is pretty amazing how long you can keep him going, isn't it?
This is k5. We're all tools - duxup
[ Parent ]
Threshold (none / 0) (#92)
by medham on Wed Mar 13, 2002 at 12:39:07 PM EST

I really enjoy this: I am accused of "trolling," or contributing "noise" to a discussion, but those who follow the threads in which I'm allegedly doing this and post self-congratulatory asides to an imaginary claque are all "signal."

The real 'medham' has userid 6831.
[ Parent ]

I don't recall (none / 0) (#93)
by CodeWright on Wed Mar 13, 2002 at 04:48:22 PM EST

Making a statement that could be construed as a value judgement comparing your discussion contributions to my own, much less in a fashion which would describe one as "signal" and the other as "noise".

[ Parent ]
I know (none / 0) (#94)
by CodeWright on Wed Mar 13, 2002 at 04:52:01 PM EST

I'm just baiting the troll.

[ Parent ]
Bertolt Brecht = COMMUNISM (none / 0) (#80)
by TheophileEscargot on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 05:20:56 PM EST

Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]
Pick what you read (5.00 / 1) (#42)
by epepke on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 01:48:39 PM EST

You can pick what you read and get what you want out of SF; the only hard part is finding it. If you don't like the hard SF, read something else. I like Baxter and have never read Egan but probably will after this. Hard SF is satisfying in a certain kind of way. I am also a heretic and entertain warm thoughts for Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury, which few hard SF afficionados will ever admit to.

The problem with cyberpunk is that it had a tendency to eclipse everything else. There were other things going on at the time, but I don't see much writing a la Lucius Shepard, for example, any more. Connie Willis, also from that time, is still around, and although she has more awards than anybody, surprisingly few people have heard about her. For a while there, if you weren't writing cyberpunk, you weren't selling, period.

The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett

[ Parent ]
I'm with you there (none / 0) (#64)
by Sanityman on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 06:24:05 AM EST

Cyberpunk certainly wasn't ever the be-all and end-all. Mind you, a lot of things happened in the 80's which, whilst we've moved on, are still fun and valid in their own right (YMMV :o) I respect Egan's opinion that there were good elements in the movement, whilst suspecting that he means different ones than I do.

I'm certainly not being forced to read hard SF, but coming from a scientific background, I always felt I ought to appreciate it more than I do. My problem is that, for me, ideas aren't more important than characterisation or emotional involvement; I find Clarke dry and Crichton unreadable. I suspect that the best hard SF manages to combine all these elements, which is why I was interested in Theophile Escargot's article. It's always nice to stretch the boundaries :o)


If you don't see the fnords, they can't eat you.
"You can't spray cheese whiz™ on the body of Christ!"

[ Parent ]
Try some others (5.00 / 1) (#69)
by epepke on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 11:14:19 AM EST

Again, I'm hardly a "hard-SF only" person, but here are some authors I've been enjoying recently. I offer them for what they're worth, only because I personally find it difficult to find good authors :

  • Gregory Benford
    He seems to get the consistency of the science better than most (well, usually). What he excels at is the anthropology of science. The interaction and politics are (sometimes rather unpleasantly) reminiscent of my memories of academia. At his best, the motivations and joys of science come through pretty well.
  • Greg Bear
    Bear does pretty well with the science and gets the characters well. The only recent book I've read of his that disappointed me was Vitals, which would otherwise be very good as the first half of a book.
  • David Brin
    Brin is variable. He has definite chicken-little qualities and has a tendency to throw a bunch of stories together and call them a novel. However, he does have an appreciation for the importance of myth, which helps.
  • Rudy Rucker
    I can usually take him only in small doses; a lot of what he writes seems to scream "I'm a flipped-out freak! Booga booga!" White Light, though, is a rather good Carrollesque treatment of transfinite numbers. Some of the ideas in Software were interesting, though he tended to lose it in the sequels.
  • Tim Powers
    Not really hard at all, but he does some interesting things with extrapolation of a society from one "what if."

There are also some of the collaborations that Clarke has done with Baxter, Gentry Lee, and others; somewhat more humanistic than Clarke's usual writing but still maintaining reasonable science.

I agree with you about Crichton. Everything I've read of his comes across to me as a screenplay. This is probably why he's gotten so many movie deals, but the strategy seems to me a bit weasely.

The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett

[ Parent ]
David Weber (none / 0) (#74)
by A Trickster Imp on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 02:55:38 PM EST

David Weber, in "In Death Ground" and the sequel "The Shiva Option" has a fairly advanced galactic war going on. The weaponry is all realistic, and the only soft SF are wormholes to get from star to star (giving some interesting tactical and strategic problems) and gravity generators to allow fast acceleration sublight.

As an analogy of the story, imagine a new continent with "only" WWII technology is discovered, and they attack modern day Hawaii with 48 aircraft carriers and 74 battleships, and suddenly nothing was left of the modern day US fleet between them and the west coast. Take that into outer space and have the race be an inconceivably alien bug race that has an anthill mentality where there is only them and prey.

It's sort of what Starship Troopers would have been if written from the bigger picture, and the bugs were a lot tougher and more ruthless.

[ Parent ]
Benford (none / 0) (#77)
by ucblockhead on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 03:58:39 PM EST

Benford's a working scientist, by the way.
This is k5. We're all tools - duxup
[ Parent ]
Thanks! (none / 0) (#91)
by Sanityman on Wed Mar 13, 2002 at 08:46:54 AM EST

I already know and love Tim Powers (not hard, but so much fun!). Think I should give Brin a go. Thanks for the recommendations.


If you don't see the fnords, they can't eat you.
"You can't spray cheese whiz™ on the body of Christ!"

[ Parent ]
Start with Diaspora (4.00 / 1) (#45)
by Voivod on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 03:31:35 PM EST

Anyone looking for a great hard sci fi book from one of these authors should definitially try Egan's Diaspora. This book blew my mind. It's about the fractured branching of the human race as we take control of our evolutionary tree, AI culture, and a race for a kind of ascention into higher consciousness. It has a lot of new things to say, and did a good job of balancing the hard sci fi with an interesting storyline.

The book begins with a newborn AI being dropped into a kind of "newbie" IRC channel where mature AIs lurk for the amusement of watching them train up their genetic programming. Also, yesterday's anouncement that a nova damaged life on early millions of years ago makes this book timely, as that is a central plotline...

Distress is another great Egan book, especially if you like Sterling or Stephenson. On the other hand, both Permutation City and Quarantine had problems with weak storylines and pop-physics, so I wouldn't recommend either of them to start with.

P.S. Did anyone else get sucked into reading Wheelers by Stewart & Cohen? The marketing was all "hard sci fi" credentials but good god was that book horrible. The characters were paper cutouts and plotline was a bad short story drawn out to hundreds of pages. A Vernor Vinge novel has more interesting ideas on each PAGE than this book had in its entirely. Avoid it.

the not-so-golden age (4.00 / 1) (#48)
by zengerkin on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 04:53:29 PM EST

What about Bear, Bensford, Haldeman or Sterling? I think it would be easier to argue that while some good hard scifi was written before 1960, the bulk of it was written after.

I find most of Clarke and Asimov unreadable (I loved the Foundation trilogy but that's about it). Heinlein i can read as nostalgia, but if I try to take him seriosly I can't get past the cardboard characters and bad dialog.

If the golden age of hard science fiction is based soley on the works these three writers, it wasn't a particularly golden age at all.

good points (none / 0) (#51)
by khallow on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 05:29:13 PM EST

Greg Bear is a fence straddler. He wrote both "The Forge of God" and "Psychlone". The former is hard sci fi at its best, while the latter is science fluff. I guess I can forgive him... :)

On the other hand, the other three are pretty good choices, IMHO.

[ Parent ]

Nice stories (none / 0) (#72)
by A Trickster Imp on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 02:33:02 PM EST

Forge of God was rather depressing, if an interesting story.

The sequel, Anvil of Stars, contains, towards the end, probably the most advanced technology I've seen in any SF this side of Deus Ex Machina like Vger or the Organians. Think what the aliens in Contact could do if they got mad.

[ Parent ]
What about... (none / 0) (#75)
by mirleid on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 03:19:52 PM EST

...Ray Bradbury and A.E. Van Vogt?

I really love Bradbury's "Martian Chronicles" and Van Vogt's "Slan"...

Although I guess that most people would not label either of these as "hard" SF...

Chickens don't give milk
[ Parent ]
Correction To Egan's Paper (4.66 / 3) (#52)
by thalford on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 05:32:24 PM EST

Egan's paper is entitled: "An efficient algorithm for the Riemannian 10j symbols" The preprint is posted in the section "General Relativity and Quantum Cosmology" on the lanl preprint server. I was part of that research so I thought I'd point out the correction. TH

Doh! Messed that one up (3.00 / 1) (#66)
by TheophileEscargot on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 07:59:16 AM EST

Sorry. Still, maybe you can add this to your citations count ;-)

BTW: What's the story behind the research?

Did the co-authors object to working with a sci-fi writer? Or did Egan just attach a name through having a relatively small input? How thoroughly does he really understand the subject?
Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]

Egan's contribution (5.00 / 2) (#88)
by thalford on Wed Mar 13, 2002 at 01:34:05 AM EST

From what I understood, Egan's contributions were quite important. Egan (a programmer by training) and Christensen (a pure mathematics professor) worked together on:
a. reformulating a previously ugly problem in an elegant way that lent itself well to computation; and,
b. writing code to carry out the calculations.

As for the rest of us, I don't think we were in a position to object to working with a sci fi author because we were undergraduates at the time! As for working with non academics in general, I think that working with people who are interested in a problem is more important than working with those who happen to be full time members of the academia.

Finally, understanding the subject...well, I think that John Baez (another spin foam researcher, his column 'This Week in Mathematical Physics' is a great source of info about this sort of stuff...I have some relevant columns linked at my page) estimated that about 100 people on the planet really grasp the spin foam model of quantum gravity. Graduate level group theory is required along with a whole lot of quantum mechanics. I can proudly say I'm not one of those hundred. I did however understand the parts of the problem that I solved in that I understood their motivation and importance in qualitative terms, and the details of the problem in more quantitative terms. I would imagine that anyone without sufficient background would fall in the same boat as me.

[ Parent ]
That's a relief (3.00 / 1) (#90)
by TheophileEscargot on Wed Mar 13, 2002 at 04:21:51 AM EST

I feel less stupid now. Even with a reasonable scientific background I found the science in Schild's Ladder pretty heavy going.

They don't call this kind of SF "hard" for nothing ;-)

Yeah, I know it's only a novel: I'm not even trying to read the technical papers on it. My brain's probably seizing up in my old age...
Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]

Egan's newest (4.00 / 1) (#56)
by kindall on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 07:29:28 PM EST

Egan's newest novel is "Schild's Ladder." It's out in the UK already and will be published in the US in May, I think. I ordered it along with "Luminous" (a short story collection that isn't available in the US) from Amazon.co.uk and just got it last week. Something to look forward to for you Eganphiles...

Hard SF... (none / 0) (#76)
by mirleid on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 03:45:08 PM EST

...tends to bore the hell out of me, mostly because, as some other people pointed out, it tends to have too much science and not enough fiction (and plot or character development for that matter).

While I tend to prefer the stuff the much-slandered "cyberpunk" mob writes, I also like people like Frederick Pol (Heechee series), Fred Saberhagen (the Berserker series), Frank Herbert (Dune), Iain M. Banks (Culture stuff), David Brin (Uplift series), Peter F. Hamilton (Night's Dawn series), Richard Calder (Dead* series) and Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Pashazade really rules).

Having said that, and going back a "couple" :-) of years, does anybody remember people like Clifford D. Simak, A.E. Van Vogt, E. E. Smith, Ray Bradbury, Stefan Wul, Alfred Bester and the like? Or "Antibodies", the only novel by a guy named David J. Skal...

Chickens don't give milk
Vernor Vinge (4.00 / 1) (#89)
by yooden on Wed Mar 13, 2002 at 04:15:32 AM EST

I've read neither Egan nor Baxter, so I may be completely off about what 'hard' is. I wonder, however, why Vinge is only mentioned once in passing so far.

His 'Deepnes in the Sky' is about as SF as you can get, with space ships, laser beam across the sky, crawling aliens, the works. Yet, all he uses is technology only slightly beyond our reach now.

More important, there are not only great human characters, but also great alien ones. Vinge uses an ingenious hack to make the aliens both accessible and alien.

Above that, and as Voivod already said, he has more ideas on every page than most in whole books.

Re: Vernor Vinge (none / 0) (#95)
by gsl on Wed Mar 13, 2002 at 06:35:59 PM EST

While I like Vinge's work above both Baxter and Egan, I don't know that he qualifies as "Hard" SF in the same way as Baxter and Egan. There's an unrealness to the Zones (of Fire Upon The Deep etc) and the Bobbles (of The Peace War etc). It's all perfectly plausible and consistent if you accept his version of reality.

It's one thing to say "What would it be like if gravity was 1000 times stronger?" as in Baxter's Raft, which seems a reasonable extension of reality (to base a story on) and another thing to say "What if we could create spheres that isolate time?". They're both far-fetched but you could say the former is slightly less far-fetched than the latter. However if we round off to two decimal places, they're both equally unlikely.

On the other hand Vinge's been rather "visionary" with computers & networks, so perhaps in that respect his work is "hard". However, in FutD he basically uses a facsimile of the Usenet for galaxy-wide (Zone-wide?) group comms. As far as I'm concerned, it's not a weakness -- why bother trying to design a future network when there's a perfectly serviceable, sensible one that people can relate to?

Anyway, his work can't be classified as "hard" because he writes engaging characters and interesting plots.

My thoughts anyway...


[ Parent ]
Re: Vernor Vinge (none / 0) (#96)
by yooden on Thu Mar 14, 2002 at 07:20:32 AM EST

I agree that neither Fire nor Peace War are very hard, that's why I didn't mention them.

[ Parent ]
Deepness in the Sky (5.00 / 1) (#97)
by gsl on Thu Mar 14, 2002 at 05:03:46 PM EST

And you're right that Deepness has "hard" elements in it -- the whole interstellar travel at sub-light speeds that you need to get around in the Slow Zone, plus the zero-G engineering at the On/Off star.

The concept of the On/Off star, that makes life on the planet so unique, reminds me of Aldiss' Helliconia series, with a planet orbiting in a binary star system.


[ Parent ]
Vinge's "hardness" (none / 0) (#98)
by ucblockhead on Fri Mar 15, 2002 at 12:30:43 PM EST

There's a very good reason that Vinge's fiction is not "hard". His somewhat eccentric belief in the technological singularity means that he believes that the actual future holds the end of the human race in the next thirty years. That makes it a bit hard to write "accurate" fiction that far out. So he deliberately cheats by adding things ("The bobbles", "The Slow Zone") that "prevent" the singularity that he expects. These things are purely made up, pretty much pure fantasy, and serve no purpose other than to allow the story he wants to write. In other words, he's deliberately not writing hard SF.

(You could claim that one or two of his short stories, in particular, "True Names", is hard SF.)
This is k5. We're all tools - duxup
[ Parent ]

Deepness (none / 0) (#99)
by yooden on Sun Mar 17, 2002 at 11:10:14 AM EST

I talked about Deepness, which has no mention of the Slow Zone.

[ Parent ]
Greg Egan and Stephen Baxter: SF's New Hard Men | 102 comments (92 topical, 10 editorial, 0 hidden)
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