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The Hard Science Fiction Renaissance

I can imagine readers being a bit daunted by this book. The damn thing's a brick. It's bigger than a Stephen King novel, for god's sake. So let me start by answering the two core questions every review must answer: is this thing any good? And, is it worth my time and money?

The answer to both questions is a simple "Yes," even a resounding "Yes!" If you like hard science fiction, you'll love this book. It's got the old masters -- Clarke, Anderson, Pohl, Clement. It's got the newer masters -- Egan, Chiang, Reynolds, Vinge. It's got everyone in between. Buy it. Read it. Enjoy it.

If you think you don't like hard science fiction, you should still give this book a try. You won't necessarily like everything in it, but there is such a range that something is sure to appeal to you. What's more, it's good in a fairly straightforward fashion. I started counting all the awards won by the stories in the book, but I kept losing my place. Even if you don't like hard science fiction, I predict you'll find things to like in it.

And if you're interested in what science fiction is, and where it is going, you must buy this book. The Hard Science Fiction Renaissance will be more influential over science fiction's future than any two or three "Best of" volumes. Consider the editors, David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, and the various projects they've been involved in. The Hard Science Fiction Renaissance is, in many ways, a completion of the critical project begun in their 1994 volume The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF. Together, the books trace a specific history of science fiction, and argue for the centrality of hard science fiction. Actually, they do more than argue that hard SF is central to science fiction; they argue that hard SF is the best, most important part of science fiction, the source of the classic "sense of wonder" that defines it.

The Hard Science Fiction Renaissance contains forty stories by thirty-three authors (Baxter, Benford, Brin, Egan, McAuley, Robinson, and Sterling have two stories each). Some stories are as short as a page or two, such as David Brin's "Reality Check." Others stretch into the novella range. All of the stories were written in English, but the authors come from the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, and Arthur C. Clarke, of course, has long lived in Sri Lanka. Thirty of the authors are male; three female.

That each of the stories engages science seriously (and well) is a given for inclusion, but one of the first shared characteristics is how often the stories tackle several sciences at once, or engage the entire nature of science and knowledge, per se.

Two of the traditional complaints about hard science fiction are that the writing is bad, and that there are no characters. I'm pleased to announce that the first of these traditional accusations is false. There are individual stories that are heavy on exposition, and one or two that fall into the "As you know, Bob" dialogue trap. However, these are in the minority; the writing in most of these stories is clean and solid, and in some it soars to lyrical heights. (Benford, Anderson, Chiang, to name a few examples.) These stories also share an open and impressive love for the wonders of the physical universe.

I emphasize this because hard SF has long fought the stigma of being so focused on problems and solutions that it ignores just about everything else, especially aesthetic concerns. The stories don't make that mistake; these writers notice beauty, and many of their descriptive passages are beautiful in themselves. In some cases, this beauty comes from seeing the conventional under a different light, as in Kim Stanley Robinson's "Arthur Sternbach Brings the Curveball to Mars," with its loving descriptions of baseball on Mars. Other stories, such as Stephen Baxter's "Gossamer," blend an Enlightenment love for nature with a contemporary environmental awareness to produce striking meditations on natural beauty (in this case, on Pluto and Charon). Here, knowledge of the sciences is used to deepen humanity, and the appreciation of beauty that the humanities usually claim.

I mentioned a second traditional complaint about hard SF regarding weak characterization. This is, I have to admit, half true. There were several stories that I read and said to myself, "Wow, that's a great idea for a story," or "If there were characters in this story, I'd really be moved." At times, there are good reasons for the comparative lack of characterization. Some of the stories are extremely ambitious, and central to what they are trying to do is postulating a fundamental change in the human condition. The first two stories in the collection, Paul McAuley's "Gene Wars" and Greg Egan "Wang's Carpets," are good examples of this. Both clearly deemphasize traditional characterization for well-conceived reasons; humanity has changed. These stories lack traditional characters because of their specific, conscious, and focused ambition: they are tackling the concept of the post-human. Other stories, such as David Brin's "Reality Check," are thought experiments in which the reader is the main character, standing in for all of humanity. Nonetheless, some of the stories lack characters for less valid reasons, and that's a weakness.

Curiously, many of the stories also have what could be called binary characterization. In Allen Steele's "The Good Rat," humanity is divided into two categories: citizens, who are educated, and enjoy full protection under the law, and "rats," who relinquish those rights to serve as lab animals. In Paul Levinson's "The Mendelian Lamp Case," the detective main character is confronted with, as he says, good Amish and bad Amish. In at least a dozen other stories, the authors divide their characters into two clear and distinct groups, use the contrast between them to characterize each side, and use the need to bridge or come to terms with the gap between the categories as part of the plot's energy. That's a common enough fictional trope, but it points out another shared characterization: simplification.

Simplification is not in itself a flaw. In some cases, like Nancy Kress's "Beggars in Spain," it is clearly a conscious choice made for artistic ends. Kress posits a single genetic alteration, the removal of sleep, and uses it to craft a powerful fable of political science fiction about humanity's tendency to ostracize and persecute the different. However, sometimes the simplification doesn't work as well. Sometimes the simplification seemed to ignore the very real complexities in a situation. Allan Steele's "The Good Rat" struck me this way. I didn't believe in the hard and fast categories he was positing, and so the story, however well-executed, suffered.

Taken as a whole, the stories in this volume share at least two more striking characteristics: they deal with exploring new places, and they are front-loaded. The first characteristic should surprise no one. The travel narrative is an independent tributary feeding into the mainstream of science fiction. Showing readers the new is an old virtue in hard SF, and reading this collection, you catch glimpses of (more than one) Mars, Pluto, Charon, Orpheus (a planet off Vega), the inside of a wormhole, and various real, projected, and alternative time periods of Earth, to name but a few examples. Of necessity, then, the focus is on exploring the new, rather than exploring what it means.

The repeated front-loading aspect of these stories is a bit of a surprise; it can weaken individual stories, and does weaken the collection (and perhaps the hard SF movement). By front-loading, I mean two things. First, that the stories launch immediately into the problem -- into the great idea, the jazzy new thing. This means that the focus is, surprise surprise, on that new thing, rather than on the characters dealing with it. This is the case in Ted Chiang's "Understand." In their introduction, Hartwell and Cramer compare the story to "Flowers for Algernon." Thematically, there is a strong similarity: both stories deal with radical increases in intelligence caused by scientific/medical intervention, and both are told in the first person, from the perspective of the character undergoing this transformation. The increased intelligence of Chiang's transformed main character is stunningly convincing, and impressive in itself. However, unlike "Flowers for Algernon," I was completely unmoved by what he went through. In Charlie, Keyes's main character, readers were given several pages to learn pity for a man in great and undeserved pain, whose choice to augment his intelligence is a devil's bargain version of his power for self-improvement. The transformation of Chiang's character was accidental, and happened before we got a chance to sympathize with him, and so has relatively little meaning.

Second, by front-loading I mean that in the problem/solution model of the story, most of the effort is put into establishing the problem. Time after time, the solution is only sketched into being, as if it is the idea that matters, rather than its effects on the characters in the stories. This devalues the characters, and diminishes the power of the stories, making too many of them cerebral, rather than cerebral and emotional, as is the case for the best stories. "The Shoulders of Giants" is a good example of a story that avoids this problem. The characters who were cryogenically frozen in order to survive a trip to another star are psychologically crushed to find that their efforts are, in a way, wasted, because humanity has developed FTL drives, and have been on the "new" planet for six generations. That's the gimmick, but unlike many of the stories, which end too soon after similar shocking events, Robert J. Sawyer shows the characters adapting, creating a rousing homage to the pioneer spirit of scientific exploration.

The introduction to Gregory Benford's story "Matter's End" tells us that Benford was "first among hard science fiction writers to have mastered and integrated Modernist techniques of characterization and use of metaphor." That may well be true, and Hartwell would know; he has devoted a great deal of critical energy to determining the relationship between science fiction and literary modernism. However, Hartwell's comments may obscure some of the virtues of this collection, and of hard SF. The Benford story follows a Black American on his arrival in India, where he is to serve as an outside observer to Indian discoveries in particle physics. In this lovely, intricate story, Benford, without slipping into the sloppy New Agespeak that equates quantum physics with mysticism, somehow manages to craft a tale in which the two resonate with one another, so that all of the advances towards scientific truth are as symbolically charged as any step on the hero's journey. The final discovery is as lyrical as any Modernist poem, as Hartwell notes, but more impressive to me is the way Benford unites Modernismm with an older story structures, that of myth, in a purely naturalistic frame.

As mentioned above, Nancy Kress does something similar in "Beggars in Spain." She crafts a moral fable within a completely naturalistic frame, simplifying in order to examine, retaining all the power of a fable, and perhaps doubling it, because she grounds it in the possible. In the complex, multi-layered, "Genesis," Poul Anderson does both of these and more. As the title suggests, this story, in which disembodied posthuman intelligences return to Earth for a final crucial examination of their roots (and more), is a retelling of the Biblical creation story. At the same time, it contains aspects, as one might expect given Anderson's scholarship, traces of the Nordic sagas, especially the war of god against god. This story alone would be worth the collection. "Genesis" is honest, and tackles ethics and beauty simultaneously. Poul Anderson interweaves thoughts on poetry, love, memory, and physics, and all in a smoothly told story. I nearly wept as I read it, thinking about how much science fiction lost when Anderson died last year. My god, what a titan has left us.

Anderson's work in this collection wrestles with the issues at the heart of myths and sagas -- an element crucial to good hard SF. Sometimes, all of these narrative elements come together to form something new, as in James Patrick Kelly's "Think Like a Dinosaur" or Greg Egan's "Reasons to be Happy." In both of these stories, characters pass through a single transformative moment, like the dark night of the soul in mystical texts, or the hero's passage through the underworld in mythology. After this passage, literally everything in the world becomes meaningful, creating a new and surprising kind of imminence. To put it another way, sometimes hard SF does a better job of examining character than traditional literature, because it acknowledges how deeply character is shaped by our physical matrix -- meaning our bodies, of course, but also our molecular make-up, our quantum organization, and our presence in specific physical laws.

Before I give my final thoughts on this collection and what it means, I want to leave behind a theory, and draw attention to two of the oldest virtues for which hard science fiction is known and assure readers that they are still intact: fun and originality. Fun and originality should always intertwine in the hard SF story. Sometimes these authors aren't trying to craft a fully fleshed character; they are just sketching enough of a point of view into being for the reader to experience these grand, wild flights of intellect. I've mentioned Robinson's story about baseball on Mars; I could feel the pleasure he took in working out just how big an outfield would be, or just how far a well-hit ball would travel. Likewise, even as the characters in Stephen Baxter's "On the Orion Line" struggled for their lives in a zone of space with different physical laws, part of me was saying, "Dang! He's changing the laws of the universe! What chutzpah!" I could feel Charles Sheffield's tongue pressing affectionately into his cheek in "The Lady Vanishes," as he tried to find a realistic way to bring back Wells' invisible man.

I could go on and on, but half the fun of stories like these is diving in to see their wonders for yourself, so do, and have fun with fireflies that burn down houses, carpets that think, pressure suits that talk back, the planet of the dangerous bagels (seriously!) and dozens more wonderful inventions. I envy you the chance to read for the first time one of my favorite stories from the collection, David Langford's "Different Kinds of Darkness." For me, it is a perfect example of what a short science fiction story should be: a single daringly original concept for which Langford has fully and lovingly worked out the implications.

I opened with one set of simple questions and answers, and I'd like to close with a second set. Did Hartwell and Cramer convince me that hard SF was the core of science fiction? No. Is it the future of SF? No. So is this collection a failure, then? Not at all -- The Hard Science Fiction Renaissance revealed to me, a highly skeptical soft SF type, that hard SF writers write much better than I knew. It showed me that rather than being dead or moribund, hard SF has huge, untapped potential. It has its own aesthetic, and the rules for this beauty are not accidental or formed in reaction to the mainstream, but conscious and well-conceived. This collection showed me that hard SF is much closer to being the core and future of science fiction than I had thought. And to me, that sounds like The Hard Science Fiction Renaissance is certainly a success.


Copyright © 2003 Greg Beatty

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Greg Beatty attended Clarion West 2000. He supports his writing habit by teaching for the University of Phoenix Online. When he's not at his computer, he enjoys spending time with his girlfriend Kathleen. Greg's previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. For more information on his writing, visit his website.

Any rumors you've heard about Greg Beatty's time at Clarion West 2000 are probably true. Greg (email Greg) publishes everything from poetry about stars to reviews of books that don't exist. Greg Beatty lives in Bellingham, Washington, where he tries, unsuccessfully, to stay dry. Greg recently got married. You can read more by Greg in our Archives.
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