I was inspired by Linda Nagata’s thoughtful article to write this one. Hard SF can be a hard sell. Of all the multifarious and diverse aspects of Science Fiction, Hard Science Fiction is the one most likely to get non-readers recoiling in horror. It’s the SF sub-genre most parodied, most vilified and most misunderstood.
Which is a shame because, as with most things, the best of it is superb. Hard SF discusses, foregrounds and takes seriously an aspect of modern life that is shamefully neglected in literary fiction: science and technology. If these feature in literary fiction today, it’s superficially or with, at best, a jaundiced eye.
As has been my wont with these recommended reading lists, I’ll foolishly venture a definition: Hard SF is the branch of Science Fiction where accurate representations or extrapolations of science and technology are vital to the story. It has many overlaps with Space Opera and other SF sub-genres, but fuzziness like that is part of the glory of genre definitions.
Ringworld – Larry Niven (1970)
One of the great Hard SF adventures, this rattling good yarn takes the notion of the alien artefact and runs with it, imagining an artificially constructed world that rings a sun. The world is nearly two million kilometres wide and has a diameter roughly that of Earth’s orbit around our sun. It’s a jaw-dropping conceit, and it’s just the backdrop for shipwreck story of monumental proportions. Great fun.
Red Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson (1993)
The first of a trilogy, this book is a rigorous exploration of exploration, where humanity is opening up Mars for colonisation. The technical, engineering challenges are foregrounded, but the ecological and the political are by no means ignored. Absorbing and ultimately moving.
Permutation City – Greg Egan (1994)
Australia’s own Greg Egan . It doesn’t get much harder than this, with quantum ontology, artificial intelligence and simulated reality just part of this onslaught of cutting edge concepts. It’s philosophical, abstract and dense. Tasty stuff.
Revelation Space – Alastair Reynolds (2000)
Space, with all of its unlimited possibilities. Lots of nanotechnology, human modification, and heavy spaceship engineering doesn’t overpower the character exploration and interaction, which is sharp and profound in this far future world.
Up Against It – MJ Locke (2011)
More nanotech in a society in our asteroid belt. The everyday difficulties of living in such a hostile environment are presented with verve and panache, with a rogue Artificial Intelligence thrown in for good measure. This is extrapolation of the best kind. It’s careful but creative with its prognostications and never forgets the importance of a strong narrative.