|On Books by Norman Spinrad
As someone who has been writing a column and contributed fiction to Asimov’s for pretty close to as long as it has been in existence, I congratulate the magazine for having survived three decades of the literary history of science fiction, and playing a central part in it. I pay homage to the successive editorial staffs, and particularly the present one, valiantly carrying forth the tradition and the mission in a good deal less than easy times. Live long and prosper. Or at least live long.
By now, surely every reader of this column and most people at all interested in the “genre” know that prose science fiction as opposed to “SF” is in dire straits. It’s being squeezed from one side by the abundance of films, TV shows, video games, and so forth purveying its tropes, images, and thematic material to wider audiences than any book is likely to reach, and on the other by the former fantasy tail that has long since come to wag the “SF” genre publishing dog.
Writers of science fiction in general who have no real interest in switching to fantasy are struggling to survive as fantasy dominates the lists of SF publishers, the SF racks in the stores, and sales. Those publishers who care are struggling to keep it alive by trying to locate and reach or create a readership to replace aging diehard fans and kids who read less and less of anything at all in order to keep it commercially viable.
Thus far the results are not in, an optimist might say, because the packaging, marketing, and publicity modalities have not yet been discovered, or if they have, not yet employed. For after all, the turning to the writing of science fiction by so-called “mainstream writers” with at least commercial success would seem to indicate that the demographics are there, especially since much of their stuff, while perhaps better written than most of what “science fiction writers” turn out, is pretty pallid and primitive by thematic, extrapolative, speculative, and scientifically knowledgeable standards.
But what of “hard science fiction”? The truth is that hard science fiction has just about always been a minority taste even among science fiction readers. Others have had and may still have more stringent definitions than I, involving a certain snobbishness by devotees of the “hard” physical sciences such as physics, chemistry, and astronomy directed against such “soft” sciences as biology, psychology, and ecology, but I prefer a more inclusive definition.
As far as I’m concerned, hard science fiction has a primary restrictive definition and a secondary prescriptive definition.
Restrictively, hard science fiction must take care not to violate the currently known laws of mass-energy; if it doesn’t, it’s not hard science fiction.
Prescriptively, it should be fiction in which technological change, or a scientific or technological question or speculation is central or at least important to the thematic point, the dramatic thrust, the action of the story, the personal lives of its characters, and ideally all of them.
I think that’s a pretty inclusive definition of the literary sub-genre. But just how wide and numerous is even the current maximum potential readership that might want to read such stuff and enjoy it if it did?
Think about it. Those with no interest in science and technology per se, or even the impact of science and technology on culture and consciousness, are not about to be interested in reading hard science fiction or enjoy it if they happen upon it by accident, and the scientifically illiterate aren’t even going to be able to understand it.
In a society where the distinction between astronomy and astrology is probably blurry in more minds than not, where more people give credence to the existence of angels than to the evolutionary process, where very few viewers see anything wrong in spacecraft executing banking turns in a vacuum, where school systems and textbook publishers find themselves forced to give equal time to “creationism,” and where the teaching of science in primary and secondary schools is itself in steep decline, surely the potential readership for hard science fiction must be dwindling even faster than that for science fiction in general.
So can “hard science fiction” survive? And if so, what does it have to become in order to survive? Does its survival really matter to anyone but a dwindling coterie of hardcore devotees? And just what do we now mean by hard SF? Has it mutated? Is this a good thing or a bad thing, or both?
by Mary Rosenblum
The first two novels we will consider here, Blindsight by Peter Watts and Horizons by Mary Rosenblum, surely answer the first question in the affirmative, since at least they exist and have been published.
Blindsight takes place on a spaceship out beyond Pluto on a mission to make first contact with aliens, at least in the present tense front story. Horizons takes place mostly on a space station. Neither of them presents events that would seem to violate the presently known laws of mass-energy, and there are technical and/or scientific questions intimately involved with the stories told by both.
So it would not only be difficult but Talmudically pointless to attempt to concoct a definition of “hard science fiction” narrow enough to exclude both of these novels. Though I suppose there might still be geeky fannish dinosaurs who would exclude the Rosenblum on the grounds that it is centered on space technology rather than space “science” and squishy biology rather than macho physics.
But Horizons certainly does not violate the restrictive definition of hard science fiction. Much more of it than not takes place in an orbital space station of the sort that has become a consensus artifact of the fictional future; a city in space whose culture (or cultures) is diverging from those of the Earth, more or less self-contained and autarchic except for some vital significant exceptions, growing its own food supply hydroponically. It is mostly reached from the planetary surface by space elevator, and spins about an axis to supply various degrees of artificial gravity to its different levels.
Okay, maybe I have a little dinosaur in me, too. Problems of material strength and mass aside, connecting the ground to an orbital station via cable would mean whipping the thing around through the whole atmosphere daily to meteorological results few who utilize this fictional device care to contemplate. And of course it could only work at all going to a station in geosynchronous orbit. “Spin gravity” is not gravity at all, but centrifugal force emulating gravity, as the astronaut Wally Shirra once pointed out to me in sarcastic good humor. Meaning that your head is moving at a different speed than your feet, meaning unless the moment-arm is a score or so miles long, the coriolus forces are going to have you puking your guts out.
These two cavils are admittedly nit-picking, but just the sorts of nits that hardcore devotees of hard science fiction enjoy picking. It’s part of the game. But on the other hand, these minor scientific faux pas are on a level sufficiently allowable for Rosenblum’s artificial space station gravity and its ground-to-space-transportation system to be acceptable in a hard science fiction novel. They have been used many times before, as necessary literary license, for science has long since learned that humans cannot really thrive in zero-g indefinitely.
Or can they?
And if they can, will they really be “human”?
Which is where I would argue that Horizons fulfills at least my prescriptive definition of hard science fiction. Children born and raised in the zero-g hub have some fairly drastic phenotype adaptations to living without gravity, and this “mutation” is spreading to other levels of the space station. But is it a mutation?
Apparently not, because their DNA does not differ from the human norm. Rosenblum does not go into it too perilously deeply, but the idea is that under these altered environmental conditions the same genotype is expressing a different phenotype. Is this scientifically possible? Is this an alternate mode of speciation? Is this speciation at all?
It’s an arguable and therefore interesting scientific question. Think of how movement north by homo sapiens out of Africa into less sunny climes resulted in reduced melanin concentrations in the skin. Adaptation by mutation and natural selection or by the same genes expressing an adapted phenotype? Or is that just a more sophisticated version of discredited Lysenkoism? And if it is a form of politically incorrect Lysenkoism, does that necessarily render it scientifically impossible?
This is the sort of hard science fictional speculation that would have easily made sufficient material for a short story or even a novelette in John W. Campbell’s Astounding, but even then it would have needed at least some sort of action or at least adversarial plot to become the McGuffin of a hard science fiction novel.
In the end, it does prove to be the scientific and thematic McGuffin of Horizons, but these days, blowing up a short story centered on a scientific conundrum into a hard science fiction novel with action loops and an obstructing villain or two will not do. A modernor if you prefer post-modernhard science fiction novel must do more than that to attract and hold anything but a miniscule readership.
It must be not so much a hard science fiction novel as something else that also satisfies the parameters of hard science fiction. Horizons does this successfully, at least in literary terms, by being a political thriller, a spy novel of sorts, and one with characterological and moral depths, even a business novel in a way, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
The novel is set in a future where there are still nations and plenty of national chauvinism and racism, but kept more or less in check and overseen by a World Council with far bigger teeth than the present United Nations. There are several habitat stations, or Platforms as they are called in Horizons, politically semi-autonomous up to a certain point, in thrall to Earthside governments or corporate interests beyond it, or to what amount to tongs of a sort. For this is a future in which East Asia in general and greater China in particular are not only in the ascendancy but have gone somewhat economically, politically, and culturally retro.
The main protagonist, Ahni Huang, is both a scion (scioness?) of one of the most powerful of these neo-tongs and an experienced operative loaded with various nano-enhancements, a natural choice therefore to be sent by her father to the Platform where her brother was murdered, find out who dunnit and why, and take the appropriate vengeance.
There she falls in with and eventually in love with Dane, master of the zero-g hydroponic farmstead, secretly sheltering a clan of the beings? people? mutants? humans? adapted to life without gravity.
Which of the above they really areor, more to the point, as which of the above will baseline humans treat themis the core of a story with complex machinations by a complex cast of well-rendered characters, a revolutionary independence movement by the citizens of the Platforms, considerable equally well-rendered action hugger-mugger, and a difficult moral question that Mary Rosenblum may answer to her own satisfaction, and that of more readers than notmyself includedbut probably not everyone.
Whether these descendants of baseline humans have adapted to permanent life in zero gravity by genetic mutation or adaptive alternate phenotype expression ends up being emotionally irrelevant. For one way or the other, they are better adapted to life beyond the planetary surface, and therefore they are either the future of space-going homo sapiens or our successor species. Rosenblum leads the reader to the politically correct emotional response of acceptance, but one wonders whether homo erectus or neanderthalus would have felt particularly welcoming of the advent of homo sapiens if they understood we would succeed them.
Horizons, then is a successful example, at least in literary terms, of how old-fashioned hard science fiction must adapt to the current environment if it is to escape the tar pits to live long and prosper. Fortunately this evolution seems not to be particularly threatening to the previous literary phenotype thereof. For what we have here is a novel that fulfills the positive prescriptions for true hard science fiction while becoming something more that it must evolve into in order to survive commercially.
Hard science fiction plus.
Plus what doesn’t really matter.
In Horizons, Mary Rosenblum adds a complex thriller-type political plot, a revolution, a family feud of sorts, a love story of sorts, and so forth, to a thematic core that probably would have sold a novelette to John W. Campbell. He might not have agreed with Rosenblum’s thematic conclusion, but he certainly would have enjoyed arguing about it, as would his readers.
But this is not the Golden Age of Astounding, or even the Space Age of Analog. And like it or notand given what it says about the declining state of interest in and understanding of scientific matters and the true moral questions they raise, I certainly do notenthusiastic readers for hard science fiction without a plus have themselves become an endangered species. It’s an open question whether there are still enough of them around for such stuff to remain commercially publishable.
I do not really count myself a passionate and adamant defender of pur sang hard science fiction. But I certainly know that even such science fiction without additional crowd-pleasing elements can be literarily serious, well-written, exciting, and enjoyable to those intellectually equipped to enjoy it and with the inclination to do so, even if only occasionally.
An elite literature for an elite readership.
Politically incorrect or not, there, I’ve said it, and like it or not, it’s become true.
Yet I would contend that not only does such a literature deserve to survive, but if it is in the process of becoming commercially unpublishable in this culture, it’s a very ominous sign for a lot more than science fiction publishing. It casts doubt on the continuation of the upwardly evolving scientific and technological dynamic that has kept so-called “Western Civilization” from ossifying like most every other civilization that has arisen on this planet.
by Peter Watts
Certainly at the very least something of real intellectual and literary value would be lost if there were not enough potential readers around to make something like Peter Watts’ Blindsight publishable, and therefore in the end writeable. And what such a loss would indicate about the state of the cultural union would be much, much worse.
In Blindsight, the mysterious appearance and then disappearance of a multitude of fiery objects in the skies of a future Earth, followed by the detection by an AI probe of a large alien artifact out beyond Pluto, causes the powers-that-be to send a manned mission out there to find out what’s what and take appropriate destructive action should it prove prudently necessary.
It’s a long way, a voyage of years, and what is sent is a small crew in suspended animation. A military type. A single human body containing deliberately created multiple personalities to serve as a linguist and cultural anthropologist, among other things. A cyborgly enhanced biologist. For a dictatorial team leader whose will must be obeyed, a vampire, whose genotype was resurrected from extinction by “paleogenetics.”
And Siri Keeton, a man half of whose brain has been removed and replaced by circuitry for medical reasons, who is the novel’s first person narrator, and whose role in the mission is to be just that for the leadership back on Eartha supposedly neutral and detached observer sending back straight reportage of a strange kind, a kind of scientific interpreter who supposedly doesn’t exactly have to understand what he’s interpreting.
That’s the set-up, and the rest of the novel consists of this team’s confrontation with the alien object they find and its creators and denizens. A classic first contact novel. And certainly meant as hard science fiction by the author, since Watts, at least by his own lights, and quite convincingly by mine, has worked all this out with such scientific rigor, or at least speculative scientific rigor, that he appends seventeen pages of “notes and references” to the novel almost as if it were being submitted to a scientific journal. It can’t get much more hard science fiction than that.
Siri Keeton’s voice, which Watts adopts for his narrationwhich is to say this narrator’s consciousnessis sophisticated, ironic, and interestingly alien in and of itself. The backstory of a failed love affair that he tells is illuminating, the interactions of this strange crew with its enigmatic vampire captain are fraught with tension, its other group dynamics are well-rendered, and there’s plenty of physical action when they reach the alien artifact.
But the dramatic core of Blindsight, the plot-engine, remains a series of scientific questions, speculations, and discoveries. First concern- ing the physical nature of the huge habitat they discover, then the problem of penetrating it, followed by their encounters and conflicts with the lifeforms within it, the explication of their truly weird biology, and finally the revelation of just how alien these creatures and their “civilization” really are on a level more profound than that of any other fictional aliens I, at least, have ever encountered.
Since this revelation is the thematic and dramatic climax of the novel, I will try not to reveal too much here, except to say that it delves very deeply indeed into the differences among intelligence, sentience, and consciousness, which of them is evolutionarily necessary for the arising of what, and that Watts’ science fictional answers are so fascinatingly counter-intuitive that he seeks to justify them in “notes and references” as a scientist even though he does a fine job of it as a fiction writer in the body of the novel.
Clearly, then, Peter Watts’ all-but declared literary ambition is to be a first class hard science fiction writer on the sophisticated literary level of Gregory Benford or Arthur C. Clarke. And with Starfish, Maelstrom, Behemoth, and now Blindsight, he demonstrates that he can achieve it.
But whether he or anyone else can build a commercially viable career on novels in which, however well-written and characterologically interesting, the speculative science is not only front and center, but provides the dramatic and thematic capper, is more questionable.
I consider myself a fairly scientifically sophisticated reader, and I found Blindsight challenging on that level. Challenging, but, in the end, fascinating and rewarding. The question is whether there are enough readers left out there who find that sort of experience actually enjoyable to continue to keep such fiction commercially publishable.
On the other hand, there do seem to be two species of hard science fiction arising that are actually trendy
that is, if you consider nanotechnology and the virtual realities created in the cybersphere actual science. I’ve said that I prefer an inclusive definition of hard science fiction, so I suppose that I do, but with caveats.
My definition of hard SF requires that it not violate the known laws of mass and energy, and there I have some problems with some of the literary uses to which the concept of “nanotechnology” has been put.
Sure, you can create tiny little machines, but when you get them down to the molecular level, with their manipulators on the atomic level, how do they manipulate individual atoms without running afoul of quantum effects? And how can you possibly coordinate zillions of them to produce the sort of magic goo that can turn shit into shinola and dirt into spaceships? Where can there be sufficient data storage in the individual molecular-scale units to store the instructions to coordinate them?
I don’t think it’s even theoretically possible. I think this sort of nanotech is the literary equivalent of a magic wand. Literarily acceptable and quite useful, but hard science it ain’t.
But when it comes to virtual realities, one cannot argue that they have even the potential for violating the laws of mass and energy, since their existence is by definition virtualthat is, outside the “real world,” the physical universe in which such laws apply. And the fictional technology that creates them is already almost here in primitive form, lacking only the development of means of inputting full artificial sensory datasmell, feel, taste, kinesthetics, as well as sight and sounddirectly into the relevant brain centers. And, indeed, this sort of thing has already been demonstrated on an experimental level.
However, there’s something a little fishy about the way virtual realities are so often used on a literary level. Writing about them, about their effects on consciousness and culture, is one thing, and can even be the material for hard science fiction. But setting a story entirely or almost entirely within virtual reality without dealing in a consequential way with the dichotomy between virtual existence and corporeal existence is really just using it as a frame for fantasy, a doorway into anything.
Not that there’s anything literarily wrong with fantasy or surrealism, far from it. But what’s the point in tarting it up as “science fiction,” let alone “hard science fiction”?
by David Louis Edelman
David Louis Edelman’s Infoquake is certainly science fiction by any remotely rational definition. It is certainly trendy, combining nanotechnology and sophisticated molecular level biology to create “bio/logics,” a technology that not only cures and prevents diseases but allows one to program mood and mental state more or less at will. This in a future where corporeal and virtual realities are totally intertwined in quotidian day-to-day existence, and something called MultiReal is apparently going to allow people to choose what happens in base reality itself in the sequels.
And yes, there will be sequels. The cover forthrightly proclaims that Infoquake is “Volume I of the Jump 225 Trilogy.” Whatever that is going to turn out to be, it will probably continue the story of Natch. Natch is the main protagonist, if not what one could call the hero, of Infoquake; a driven, unprincipled yet somehow charming rogue, a corporate climber, and entrepreneur of a company that both creates and markets trendy bio/logics in a media and advertising shark pond speeded up like a combination of the Internet, TV, the Niel-sens, and the stock market on methedrene.
Perhaps his main minions, assistants, flunkiesJara the marketer and Horvil the geeky wizard bio/logics programmerwill tag along through the next two volumes as well in this high-speed, high-spirited tale of high-powered and low-minded capitalist skullduggery, corporate and media warfare, and virtual reality manipulation. It’s the sort of thing that would make a perfect serial for Wired magazine, given the nature of its ad base, if it ever decided to publish fiction.
Infoquake is certainly proceeding along several trendy vectors, not only in the microcosm of science fiction but in the macrocosm of the culture at large, which the former might follow in order to survive in the latter.
Literarily and commercially, the question of whether or not such a novel could be considered “hard science fiction of the post-modern kind” is ridiculously irrelevant. But to what extent this sort of technological extrapolation can be considered “science” at all seems centrally germane to the more important question of whether science fiction that fulfills the restrictive and perhaps even prescriptive definitions of hard science fiction can survive in a culture that does consider it science by mutating along the virtual reality vector.
This question might be moot if Edelman himself were just blowing rubber science smoke and mirrors. Instead, he is actually trying to make bio/logics and MultiReal seem scientifically credible in the manner of a hard science fiction writer and doing a pretty good job of it, at least when it comes to bio/logics.
Edelman seems to have convincing and convincingly detailed knowledge of the physiology and biochemistry of the human nervous system down to the molecular level. And cares about making his fictional combination of molecular biology and nanotech credible to the point where the hard science credibility of the former makes the questionable nature of the latter seem more credible even to a nanotech skeptic like me. And after all, let’s not kid ourselves too far, that’s really the nature of the hard science fiction game; otherwise it wouldn’t be hard science fiction.
“MultiReal,” on the other hand, is something else again. And what it really is, or rather apparently is going to become in the sequels, is not that clear in Infoquake, where its mass marketing as a vague concept and subsequent launch as a rather vague product is the climax of the novel.
As near as I can make out, the idea is that if one has a means of running virtual reality simulations of all possible variations of a situation or action before it takes placesay, trying to throw a football downfield into the hands of a receiver, for exampleone could then feed in all possible variations of all interacting elements of the starting conditions. This would enable one to know which combination would produce the exact desired result before you threw the football and have your throwing arm programmed accordingly by your bio/ logics. And voilá, the football lands in the receiver’s hands perfectly.
Edelman produces some reasonably cogent mathematical explication to make this seem to go down smoothly, while declaring that it somehow will put an end to the tyranny of causality. But how this is really going to work out is something even Natch, who is marketing it, doesn’t really fathom at the end of Infoquake. This is an amusing point, but it is also somehow disturbing.
Infoquake is billed as the first novel in the “Jump 225” trilogy. But after you finish it you have no idea at all of what that is going to mean, any more than of what MultiReal is going to mean in literary terms. I suspect that it may turn out to be a “doorway into anything”superpowers conjured up at will out of the bits and bytes, infinite replay of actions in order to come up with the desired resultin other words, magic.
I have no quarrel at all with the use of magic as a literary device in fantasy or surrealist fiction, where it has produced masterpieces. Magic masquerading as science and/or technology is another matter, and a graver one. And the better the masquerade, the more successful on a literary level, the more disturbing the transliterary consequences.
SPEARS OF GOD
by Howard V. Hendrix
Del Rey, $14.95
Case in point: Spears of God by Howard V. Hendrix. The publisher bills this novel as a near-future thriller. And that is indeed what it is, and an exceedingly complex one, so complex that on a spy-versus-spy level it is almost impossible to summarize, which is not necessarily a flaw in this sort of thing.
But thriller or not, it is also unequivocally a science fiction novel, with a scientific discipline and conundrum being the central McGuffin of the whole complex story. The science here is meteoritics. This is a branch not of astronomy but of geologythe study not quite that of meteors, but of meteorites, the rocks themselves after they have fallen to Earth. And science can’t get any harder than that.
Well, in Spears of God, yes and no.
Hendrix goes to literally enormous length and almost literally exhaustive detail to, uh, ground this novel in the mineralogy of meteorites. Readers of this novel will learn more about the physical nature of the variations of meteorites not only than they wanted to know butin my case, at leastthan they thought was to be known. It’s complete, it’s impressive, and it seems obsessive to the point of becoming mind-numbing.
But while Spears of God is about meteorites, the mineralogy of meteorites, though it may take up thousands of words, is not at all what the novel is really about.
In this near-future worldand the action takes place in the United States, Arabia, South Americavarious agencies are collecting meteorites, and not always by legal or moral means. Why? That is the mystery that runs the plot engine of at least the first half of the book.
Two meteoriticists and sometime lovers in the process of searching for a special meteorite sacred to a perhaps legendary tribe atop an isolated mesa in South America find that it has been snatched by an act of genocide. They rescue four young survivors with arcane psychic powers linked to a fungus linked to the meteorite.
A general running a project to create enhanced supersoldiers is after them, the meteorite, and the fungus. There’s the ex-lover of the male member of the couple that found the children involved. A man crazed by the death of his daughter at the hands of terrorists in Israel. The head of the National Security Agency. A bewilderingly complex cast of characters.
It takes almost as long for the speculative threads underlying the plot to weave together. This is not necessarily a bad thing in a post-modern hard science fiction novel whose additional “plus” is such a thriller plot and structure, if they interweave and finally come together in the manner of a musical fugue. Structurally, Hendrix more or less pulls it off here; you learn enough of what this is more or less all about to more or less keep your interest in the multiple storylines going until they come together. And the plot lines have enough internal interest to keep you plowing through the heavy doses of scientific explication.The plot is all over the place, or rather the multiple plot lines, meaning both the planet and the Byzantine machinations that take an overlong time to converge. It takes maybe three quarters of the book for it all to begin to coalesce into a climax that brings it all together in an attempt by one of the several conflicting sides to steal the black meteorite embedded in the Ka’aba in Mecca and another to destroy the Ka’aba in order to provoke a nuclear war. . . .
If that is what it really is.
Hendrix clearly knows his meteorites on a technical scientific level, and inflicts overlarge and overabundant expository lumps on the reader to demonstrate it. At first this seems like simply a hard science fiction writer too in love with his own scientific eruditionand indeed, maybe it is that, too. Hendrix also seems to know a lot about brain chemistry, fungal botany, and psychopharmacology, and lays all that on with a bit too heavy-handed a trowel, too. I happen to be not entirely unversed in these subjects, and what he lays on there seems to be the real deal, too.
However. . . .
In much the same mode and with much the same excess, Hendrix demonstrates, or seeks to demonstrate, that meteorites have been associated with mystical visions, the birth of religions, and so forth, all over the world since time immemorial. Okay, he seems to have done his homework here, too, and that such “stars fallen to the earth” would generate religious beliefs and mystical visions seems credible cultural anthropology. But for me at least this begins a slow slide down a slippery slope.
For Hendrix also applies this exhaustive, and somewhat exhausting to read, “scientific” explication to psychic and paranormal powers associated with meteorites, generated by meteorites, generated by galactic trans-spermial material brought to Earth by meteorites to bring about some sort of evolutionary quantum leap into a transcendent apotheosis. . . .
And this apotheosis arrives not only as a deus ex machina at the climax of the convergent complex series of thriller plotlines. Not only is it what brings that climax about, but it is the climax of the action plot, and well . . .
Well, revealing any more would be going too far.
Now don’t get me wrong. It would be the height of hypocrisy for the author of The Void Captain’s Tale, Child of Fortune, and He Walked Among Us to piss and moan about Howard Hendrix or anyone else dragging transcendental or psychedelically visionary matters into a science fiction novel or even centering such a novel on them, even making them the thematic apotheosis of one. That’s not what disturbs me about Spears of God.
What disturbs me about Spears of God is that Hendrix therein not only expounds his expository lumps concerning telepathy, paranormal psychic powers, mystic psychedelic experiences, and so forth in the same prose style and “scientifically erudite” manner as the geology of meteorites, real psychopharmacology, fungal botany, cultural anthropology, and molecular brain biochemistry. And he also seems to be using this equivalency as a literary device to create the illusion that they all have the same scientific legitimacy, exist on the same reality level, and that none of it violates the known laws of mass and energy of the universe in which the readers find themselves.
And it just isn’t true.
I know I’m going to catch hell for saying it. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it, and better someone with no pretension to credentials as a rigorous hard science fiction writer who has certainly used such elements literarily in works he would not deny are truly science fiction than someone more easily put down as a fanatic defender of a lost cause.
“Science fiction,” sure, why not? Faster-than-light spaceships, slans, warp-drives running on orgasm, time travel, gods from the machines, so why not telepathy, telekinesis, the triumph of the will over time and space, whatever, as long as it’s written with sufficient literary skill and panache to suspend disbelief for the duration of a well-told and entertaining tale.
For the duration of a well-told and entertaining tale.
But as something wrapping itself in the literary cloak of hard science fiction, using the hoary and even clunky literary techniques of hard science fiction to further blur the distinction between true science and rubber science, between true scientific speculation and high-grade bullshit in the minds of readers in a culture where such distinctions are in danger enough of disappearing already does that culture a serious disservice.
It could be argued, and it probably will be, perhaps even by Howard Hendrix himself, that it is precisely the loss of this distinction, the general ignorance of and indifference to what the laws of mass and energy in the real world really are, the sheer unpopularity of the scientific method as a means of testing imaginative hypothesis against the cold equations, that forces anyone who would write anything even in the general aesthetic mode of hard science fiction to resort to such means to reach a potential readership of a sufficient size for it to be commercially viable.
And on the evidence, this seems all too true, and I suspect that this sort of intellectual compromise is one direction so-called hard science fiction is going to be taking in order to survive at all. So I can hardly blame Howard Hendrix or anyone else for taking it, as long as they really know what they are doing and why.
But such intellectual compromise with demographic reality is a vicious circle, a negative feedback loop. Writers with a hard science fiction bent are forced by cultural and therefore publishing circumstance to compromise the intellectual rigor of a literary mode whose signature is intellectual rigor. This in turn contributes at least in some small way to the cultural circumstance that produces that very unfortunate necessity.
Is promoting this cultural confusion on scientific matters really the only way something like “hard science fiction” can survive?
Time will tell.
Peter Watts, Mary Rosenblum, and even David Louis Edelman seem to be pursuing alternate strategies. There are nine and sixty ways of composing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right.
But that doesn’t mean that all the results will be commercially viable.
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"On Books" by Norman Spinrad, copyright © 2007, with permission of the author.