On Writing SF:

There are about seventy million definitions for science fiction floating around out there, but my own personal feeling on the matter is that SF, and most particularly "hard" SF, is the exploration of the possible. It illuminates our own world and culture and circumstances by showing us how very different things could be. This is a broad umbrella, with lots of room underneath, but I'll narrow my definition by saying that SF, when done properly, violates the known laws of physics and human behavior only in carefully controlled ways.

It's okay, for example, to say "what if the speed of light were only ten meters per second," and present some cockamamie reason why that might be so, and then explore the consequences in a logically extrapolated way. It's okay to hypothesize a faster-than-light star drive, or a faster-than-light communication device, because for all we know, such devices and phenomena might in fact be possible, and understanding the implications can be a worthwhile and entertaining exercise.

It is NOT okay to simply disregard the speed of light, and let your ships and missiles and radio signals go as fast as they like, for no good reason. That's cheating. Soft SF is often cited as the place where human passions and frailties are explored, without the "distraction" of technical gee-whiz or real-world verisimilitude cluttering up the page. Full moons rising in the daytime, magic ships that can turn a microgram of antimatter into a trillion megatons of kinetic energy, radars that can detect objects approaching faster than light... All this and more can be excused if science is "not the point" of the story, right?

No way. Ursula K. Leguin's novel, THE DISPOSSESSED, is for my money one of the finest explorations of human largesse and avarice and fear-of-change ever written, in or out of science fiction, and she doesn't have to violate the bloody laws of physics to do it. Her Hainish Ekumen scenario is not really all that believable, when you get right down to it, but everything in it is based on or extrapolated from known science. Bypassing the usual standards of "hard" science fiction, the scenario is at least possible, and that small fact makes all the difference in the world, because if it isn't possible, why should we care what happens?

In this sense, SF is almost exactly analogous to historical fiction. We know that certain things did or did not happen, that certain details are or are not accurate. Audiences are clever, knowlegeable, and demanding, so the dilligent author, who must fit his story into the cracks of known history or known science or both, has two options: be vague with the details, or be specific and correct with them. Both methods have yielded fine works, and in fact most good fiction employs a lot of both. But the third option of "making stuff up, who's gonna know?" produces almost exclusively drek. Let's face it: whether you paint over them or bring them out in loving relief, technical and historical and geographical and allusional details are hard work. That's as it should be.

Yes, it's important to get the characters right. What good is a story whose participants don't feel or act like real people? Ditto the story: it's got to flow believably, or it's pointless. But the soft-on-science crowd in SF, be they self-righteous or merely slipshod, are pushing an escapism that's equally absurd and, in the long run, equally meaningless.

Be not fooled.

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