A New Miniseries – ‘Boldly Going:’

Four Subgenres Of Science Fiction – Episode1 – Hard Science Fiction

218 views

Science fiction has as many subgenres as rock and roll.

I bet many of us have puzzled over (or improved upon) the chalkboard diagram that Dewey Finn prepared to educate his Horace Green Preparatory School students on the history of rock in the movie School of Rock

Well, you could do the same with science fiction literature.

The infographic below by Ward Shelley is still incomplete, but perhaps the best illustration of how many tentacles science fiction contains.

(Click and hover) /
(upscaled image here)

Just like I may love punk and have no affection at all for Southern rock, everybody has their own sci-fi tastes.

I’m writing this series to exalt some sci-fi subgenres that I love, and the authors / works who exemplify them. I won’t be getting into military science fiction or cyberpunk, or alternate history, or alien invasion, or many other types. Maybe they’re not my bag, or maybe I haven’t tried them out yet.

But I would like to focus on four science fiction subgenres that are the cat’s pajamas – the bees knees – in my humble opinion:

  • Hard science fiction          
  • Space Opera
  • Science fiction comedy
  • Hopepunk

I chose Andy Weir’s The Martian as the exemplar of hard sci-fi.

In his comments on The Martian, Weir admitted only one thing in the novel was not 100% scientifically solid – the windstorm that led to astronaut Mark Watney being presumed dead was not realistic.

While wind velocities on Mars do indeed get very high, the much thinner air of the Mars atmosphere would not result in a force strong enough to cause an antenna to impale a human.

Besides that, every little detail of the novel is scientifically sound and based on current technology that exists now and our current understanding of science.

By the way, if you’ve watched the movie and haven’t read the book, I really encourage it. As much shit as Matt Damon got in, the literary Mark Watney went through so much more trouble and solved many more problems. And Andy Weir explains these problems in enough detail to let you know this is reality-based, but not so much that it gets bogged down in jargon or specialized knowledge you have to bring to the book.

(My quibbles with the film: mainly the whitewashing of some characters.)

(Mindy Park is clearly meant to be Korean, so Mackenzie Davis is poorly cast in that role. Similarly, Vincent Kapoor is clearly South Asian, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is also miscast.)

But what is it about hard science fiction that I find appealing?

  • It may be set in the future, but it’s a future I can actually imagine happening. This is something we could actually do, without any leaps into imaginary science, like warp drives or teleportation or time travel.
  • It leans into problem-solving. I’m an engineer IRL, so I love it when we can solve a seemingly intractable problem elegantly. And when someone lays out a step-by-step, totally plausible path forward to that solution, it’s frankly damn exciting!
  • These hard sci-fi works often take a much greater leap in imagining more benevolent political and social forces at work. I can totally imagine that we have the resources, technology, intellect and vision to colonize Mars. But I have a much harder time imagining us getting over our current political squabbles and coming together to take on such a monumental task. But I can dream, can’t I?

Along with The Martian, I have a few other books (or typical for sci-fi – book series’) to recommend if you’d like to explore the hard sci-fi world:

Mars Trilogy – Kim Stanley Robinson

Imagine if you will… 100 of the best and brightest individuals spend a year training in Antarctica, then embark on what will likely be a one-way trip to Mars to start a settlement there.

Gradually, more people arrive, and the colonists are able to expand from a cluster of tiny modular buildings to a small city to even larger scale colonization. The Mars Trilogy books are not about the journey, but the people, politics and philosophies of the Mars population.

The main friction is between two factions. There are the Greens, who want to completely terraform Mars until it has a fully inhabitable environment like that of Earth (and as you may surmise from the titles of the books, they are pretty successful). Then there are the Reds, who believe there is value in keeping Mars in its original pristine state. There are also conflicts between those who want to maintain strong ties to Earth and those who want Mars to be fully independent. People born on Mars experience physiological changes and form a culture that’s distinct from Earth cultures.

In the backdrop of this are the various scientific processes in play to keep the colonists alive and to terraform the planet.

  • How do you warm the atmosphere sufficiently that humans can tolerate it?
  • How do you take the frozen water in the polar ice caps and make it readily available to the settlements?
  • How do you get life to take root in the changing Mars environment?

The technological and scientific details are all well-considered and plausible. Some efforts don’t work at all, while others work much better than planned. Some work great, then turning them off becomes the hard part. The end result by the close of the trilogy – a Mars teeming with water and life – may seem too impossible, but if you follow along, every step of the way it makes sense. That’s the magic of this series – it makes you believe something so seemingly grand could actually happen within a couple hundred years.

I have kind of a love / hate relationship with the works of Kim Stanley Robinson.

He’s always grounded in reality and will send us into the near-to intermediate-future in ways that are thoroughly scientifically plausible.

But his characters are not particularly well-drawn, and the story seems to serve the science, rather than the science serving the story. The result can come off a bit preachy, if well-constructed.

I’ve read a lot of his works, so if you like his style, you should also check out Aurora or The Ministry for the Future.

If you’re into climate fiction, you should check out his Science in the Capital trilogy as well.


Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

This one starts with an unexplained or unexplainable event (the sudden shattering of our moon), and builds from there in a very hard sci-fi manner.

Scientists soon realize that the fractured moon will gradually break into more pieces… and those pieces will start raining down on the Earth, rendering our planet’s surface superheated and uninhabitable in about two years. The race is on to get as many people and resources as possible into orbit to allow the human race to survive.

Now, imagine the decisions that have to be made – how do you decide who is allowed to survive?

  • Who decides?
  • What technology, resources and equipment do you get into space while you can? How do you get it there?
  • How do you make a sort of orbiting colony consisting of multiple vessels, which will soon only have each other to rely on?

The author pulls no punches in the cold, practical and brutal decisions we have to make about the things and people we have to sacrifice. But it’s all grounded in science – today’s science and technology, not some imaginary future technology.

Stephenson also doesn’t shy away from less-than-ideal politics interfering in a mission that’s both scientific and military in nature. And the story is largely told from the perspective of the astronauts who are already in space, or those about to become astronauts. It’s not as much about the misery of the 99.99999% of humanity who’s going to die, it’s about the preparations and decisions the 0.00001% have to make, and the efforts of many on Earth who will almost certainly die, but who want to help anyway.

Then the day comes. Earth dies and those in orbit just have each other. But of course old habits about exerting control and jockeying for power persist…

This was the first Neal Stephenson novel that I read, and it absolutely blew me away. One of my favorite books of all time. Not everything he writes is hard sci-fi – he’s got a pretty wide-ranging style.

Possibly his most famous novel, Snow Crash, is cyberpunk.

My other favorite Neal Stephenson novel, Anathem, is more of an alternate history.

His Crypto series (Cryptonomicon, Reamde and Fall; or, Dodge in Hell) are techno-thrillers.

I am not such a fan of his more recent work – Termination Shock is hard sci-fi, but it didn’t really get me like most of his earlier works. I’d recommend Snow Crash, Anathem or Cryptonomicon in a heartbeat, but Seveneves would be my starting point if you haven’t read Neal Stephenson before.

As much as I love hard science fiction, it sometimes leaves me wanting more.

Maybe the characters aren’t as well fleshed-out as I would prefer. Maybe it can get dry – being so rigid in scientific accuracy that it lacks imagination.

I tried to read Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem, a beloved hard sci-fi novel, but I had to abandon it. I found it to be so enamored of its ideas that it forgot to make compelling characters or an interesting story. Your mileage may vary.

The next three chapters will be on other subgenres of science fiction that I love:

  • Space opera
  • Sci-fi comedy
  • Hopepunk

Let me know what your favorite hard sci-fi books are in the comments.

I look forward to engaging with you in future chapters to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to BOLDLY GO… (yeah, yeah, yeah… you get the picture,)

Let the author know that you liked their article with a “Green Thumb” Upvote! 

8

Thank You For Your Vote!

Sorry You have Already Voted!

Subscribe
Notify of
34 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
rollerboogie
Member
Famed Member
rollerboogie
Offline
April 2, 2024 5:26 am

I have read very few Science Fiction books. One I did like was Solaris by Polish author Stanisław Lem. I saw the Soderbergh movie and though it was hard to stay engaged in it, I was intrigued by some aspects of it. This encouraged me to read the book, which was totally different and explored themes that the movie seemed to miss. I really loved it. Not sure where it would fall in terms of the four categories.

The science part of hard science fiction will always be over my head, so I wouldn’t know when something is accurate or not. I liked the movie version of The Martian, but I felt many of the choices of disco music he was forced to listen to over and over again were lazy and too obvious. I actually came up with an alternate disco soundtrack that I thought had a better chance of not having Mark Watney say that it sucked, though I think the writers were purposely trying to drag Melissa’s taste in music, so maybe not.

Last edited 22 days ago by rollerboogie
Phylum of Alexandria
Member
Famed Member
April 2, 2024 7:21 am
Reply to  rollerboogie

I haven’t read Solaris, so I can’t speak to the quality of any adaptation, but Tarkovsky’s Solaris is better than Soderbergh’s.

rollerboogie
Member
Famed Member
rollerboogie
Offline
April 2, 2024 8:50 am

Haven’t seen the Tarkovsky but that seems to be the general consensus

rollerboogie
Member
Famed Member
rollerboogie
Offline
April 2, 2024 12:29 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

That works

cappiethedog
Member
Famed Member
cappiethedog
Offline
April 2, 2024 6:30 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

Tarkovsky partly disowns Solaris. The producer forced him to use special effects. He felt like a sellout. Stalker has no special effects. Alex Garland’s Annihilation is Stalker-like and a lot of fun. And loads of CGI.

Phylum of Alexandria
Member
Famed Member
April 2, 2024 7:33 am

Very cool! I haven’t read a huge amount of sci-fi material. Some of it would fall into the nebulous “weird/eldritch” terrain shared with horror. A fair amount was dystopian, and mostly of the postmodern variety.

I’m not sure if I would dig reading a hard sci-fi book, but I like those types of films (including The Martian). I’ve spent so much time reading research articles and books for work that I have come to prefer reading fiction that’s resoundingly distinct from the mental sphere of my job.

When you are looking for excellent fiction, what do you tend to prioritize: plot machinations, character, setting (and world building), themes, or lovely prose? And would you put scientific thoughtfulness into “setting,” or does that deserve its own dimension of evaluation?

JJ Live At Leeds
Member
Famed Member
April 2, 2024 9:12 am

Like the other comments so far, I haven’t read that much science fiction. I’m more likely to watch it. Enjoyed The Martian, 2001: A Space Odyssey is epic and there’s been plenty others. When it comes to the likes of Star Trek / Star Wars I’m not interested though.

Once I get to the end of your series I may need to rethink why that is. There’s a Scottish writer; Iain Banks who wrote a mix of fiction, of which I’ve read just about all of it, and published science fiction as Iain M Banks, of which I’ve read none. I seem to have some innate prejudice against it that doesn’t apply when faced with the visual spectacle.

Hard science fiction doesn’t sound as appealing to me but I’ve a feeling that future episodes may encourage me more to take a look. My favourite science fiction book has already been mentioned and falls in the comedy category but I do enjoy some dystopia. I imagine there’s plenty of that on offer within sci-fi realms.

mt58
Admin
Famed Member
mt58
Offline
April 2, 2024 11:40 am
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

 🙏 

lovethisconcept
Member
Famed Member
April 2, 2024 11:50 am

I have read quite a bit of science fiction over the years, including at least a bit of all of the types that you mentioned.

What is your opinion of “The Big Three” sci-fi authors? They have all been classified as “hard” science fiction writers. Do you agree? Do you enjoy their work?

lovethisconcept
Member
Famed Member
April 2, 2024 2:37 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

I have read a ton of Asimov. I’m not sure that I think he is a good writer, but he had some fascinating ideas. You started at a good place, as I think his short fiction is his better work. He tends to emphasize science and plot at the expense of character development, which works much better in a short story.

His earliest work lacked female characters almost entirely, a lack that he tried, not entirely successfully, to correct a bit in his later work.
Some of his stories had virtually no science in them. They took place in societies that had evolved much more scientifically than ours (especially in the 50’s and 60’s when many of these stories were written), but the technology is taken for granted without being really described. I have put links for a couple of these. “The Feeling of Power” has an added introduction which is not clearly separated from the beginning of the story. The actual story begins with “Jehan Shuman”.
These are very short and can be read in a very few minutes.

https://www.bartlettschools.org/pdf/TheFunTheyHad.pdf

https://ia803006.us.archive.org/6/items/TheFeelingOfPower/The%20Feeling%20of%20Power.pdf

Last edited 22 days ago by lovethisconcept
Virgindog
Member
Famed Member
Virgindog
Online Now
April 2, 2024 12:21 pm

I haven’t read a whole lot of sci-fi but I truly love Douglas Adams. I guess the comedy aspect is more important to me than the science side. I’m looking forward to Part 3 but now you have me interested in Weir and Stephenson. Well done, Pauly.

Virgindog
Member
Famed Member
Virgindog
Online Now
April 2, 2024 1:08 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

That’s great!

lovethisconcept
Member
Famed Member
April 2, 2024 3:13 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

I love Douglas Adams. One of the funniest writers ever, although I did think that the HGTTU got weaker as it went on. Still, even lesser Adams is pretty dang good.

cappiethedog
Member
Famed Member
cappiethedog
Offline
April 2, 2024 2:36 pm

Do you think writers who specialize, not just dabble, in science fiction resent “literary” novelists who crossover into the condescending categorization of genre fiction, and end-up with the lion’s share of critical acclaim from the gatekeepers of literature?

I’m definitely going to check-out Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. Our science fiction class was assigned The Wild Shore. Being raised on Star Wars, that was an eye-opener. Nothing particularly exciting happens. Years later, I thought of The Wild Shore while watching Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

The one contemporary writer our professor encouraged us to read was China Mieville. He assigned King Rat.

I dropped out of the class. Never got the chance to write a paper about magic realism. I did the readings. Science fiction theory states that anything that can’t happen in the physical world is by definition “science fiction”. I got into an argument in the bathroom and lost my confidence. A student archly asked “doesn’t it need a science component to it?”

Hooray for books!

cappiethedog
Member
Famed Member
cappiethedog
Offline
April 2, 2024 6:19 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

The NYT finally recognized a “genre” novelist when they cited Neal Stephenson’s Fall as a “notable book” in 2019.

Wow. That’s a good class. I have to check out The Damned and Phase IV. Bertrand Tavernier directed ‘Round Midnight. You wouldn’t think he’d helm a science fiction movie. I just watched Death Watch, starring Harvey Keitel and Harry Dean Stanton on The Criterion Channel two days ago. Clearly, inspired by Paddy Chayefsky’s Network. Somehow, it feels more like his film than Sidney Lumet.

After “diegesis” and “Brechtian distanciation”, my favorite term is “speculative fiction”. People can make an argument for Network as being a work of science fiction.

Alternate universe(or history), as to being science fiction, is often debated. A good example of this subset(or not) is Colson Whitehead’s debut novel The Intuitionist. In this world, the most important people in society are elevator inspectors.

For some, unfortunately, science is fiction. Flat-earthers are fascinating people, its leaders, especially. I was watching one of them recently. So intense, so resolute in his belief that he’s right. I don’t think it’s some sort of cash-grab or calculated ploy for fame.

cappiethedog
Member
Famed Member
cappiethedog
Offline
April 2, 2024 7:19 pm
Reply to  cappiethedog

Oh, crap. Disregard final two paragraphs. I’m writing about something you didn’t cover yet. Much apologies, Pauly.

cappiethedog
Member
Famed Member
cappiethedog
Offline
April 5, 2024 1:06 am
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

Phase IV was just added to The Criterion Channel. It’s under the heading Surreal Nature Films. Looking forward to watching it.

Finally, somebody brought up Caitlyn Clark. I felt so bad for the LSU guard defending Clark. She looked absolutely dazed in the press conference. Like the announcer said, put somebody else on her. There’s no reason anybody should be defending a shot from twenty-eight-feet-plus. Just mesmerizing stuff. And she’s not a ball hog. She’s not like James Harden: Pass me the ball, I’m open.

Clark has her NIL contract. Why leave?

Low4
Member
Famed Member
Low4
Online Now
April 3, 2024 6:20 pm

Throughout my teens I read only science fiction (and Tolkien), but college killed my interest in reading for more than a decade, and by the time I got back I had move over more to mysteries and detective fiction. I do still read the occasional science fiction book, especially if they’re a free download from BookBub.

I was wondering if Robinson is even science fiction, because somehow his novels have never felt like that to me. It’s also interesting to me that you did not touch on the classic Big 3, all of whom I love in the 70s.

Interesting stuff.

Low4
Member
Famed Member
Low4
Online Now
April 4, 2024 1:21 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

You’re right, it’s certainly fiction from a different time and a different perspective.

Not sure where the Beatles come into it, but I think what I make of it is that you don’t give a crap about them. (That seemed pretty clear.)

blu_cheez
Member
Famed Member
blu_cheez
Offline
April 3, 2024 7:11 pm

I felt the same way when I started the “3-body problem” books, but I’d recommend that you stick them out – they get really wild (in a good way). I’m super interested to see if the Netflix show decides to go where the books did.

thegue
Member
Famed Member
thegue
Offline
April 5, 2024 6:31 am

I’m sorry I missed the main discussion for this series!

I’m not a huge sci-fi guy, but I think I’d lean towards hard science fiction.

1. My absolute favorite science fiction author was Greg Bear. Eon blew me away (I really wonder how it wasn’t turned into a miniseries), and I wound up buying about 10 of his novels, the last being Darwin’s Radio. The one thing that amazed me about Bear is how he created about 5 different alternate universes for different books – too often, an author finds success in 1, then stays within it.
2. Isaac Asimov was my favorite HISTORY writer when I was in middle school (The Dark Ages was fantastic, The Middle East: 10,000 years of history great, as were both of his books on The Romans)… so imagine my surprise when I learned he was a science fiction author FIRST!

I loved The Foundation series, and wasn’t surprised at all that it essentially retold the history books above, set in the galaxy.

3. I’m interested in learning more about the other genres of science fiction, though I’m not sure I’d ever become a fan. Of all the authors/ books above, where should I start? (P.S. I saw the 80s Dune and was underimpressed)

34
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x