‘Hard Science Fiction’ by David G Hartwell
There’s no messing about with that title. Unfortunately, the introduction itself is less direct – there is a short introduction to the introduction – and I actually fell asleep during my first attempt. Here goes round two.
As with the other two introductions, there are so many assertions to rebut that it is hard to know where to start. Take, for example, the three paragraph pre-introduction which pre-empts discussion of what hard SF is with discussion of its component parts:
When we read a work of fiction, we test its details against our experience of the nuances and gestures of everyday life… When we read a work of sf, we also test it against our scientific and technical knowledge… The attitude that underpins science fiction is that there is a reality beyond appearances which is knowable through science. (30)
The first sentence is unobjectionable (even if that isn’t the way I would have phrased it), the second sentence I merely disagree with, the third sentence I simply don’t understand. That is to say, if it means anything that I can understand it to say then there is no point saying it.
Then we are into the introduction proper – ‘The Pleasures And Problems Of Hard SF’ – which immediately makes a surprising admission:
This anthology presents examples of the way science functions in science fiction throughout the history and development of the genre… focusing primarily upon the type known as “hard science fiction”. (30)
Putting aside the fact that it is strange that Hartwell feels he needs those quote marks, you will note that the anthology will only focus primarily, not exclusively, on hard SF. This is, let us not forget, a book subtitled “The Evolution Of Hard SF”; what other purpose can it serve?
Returning to the pre-introduction, Hartwell seems to genuinely believe science fiction can simply be cleaved in half into science and fiction. Wondering at the fact The Ascent Of Wonder is the first science fiction anthology to concentrate on hard SF, he muses at the possible reasons:
Perhaps this is because there is a general prejudice among readers who never read science fiction against science in general – science is not fun for them to read – and so it has been traditional for anthologists to emphasize the fictional fun. But not only is the science in science fiction the foundation of science-fictional delights and entertainments, it is in fact chief among those delights. We believe that this needs to be said strongly now (30)
Who is “we”? As a point of housekeeping, Cramer has already had her introduction and – although I would have preferred a joint introduction from the editors (and Benford’s sole contribution to be fictional) – Hartwell is writing as an individual here. As a wider point, Hartwell’s facts aren’t my facts. And just look at that absolutely barking first sentence: people who don’t read SF are prejudiced against science! Not only is it absurd but he seems to have instantly forgotten he was discussing anthologies aimed at SF readers. Christ, I’m only on the first page of the introduction, I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.
Hartwell embarks on a string of assertions about hard SF which seek not to define it but to highlight its characteristics. Thus we get the oxymoronic suggestion that “Hard sf relies, at some point in the story, on expository prose rather than literary prose, prose aimed at describing the nature of its particular reality.” (31) Because, of course, literary prose would never do that. A remarkable number of his characteristics are, like this one, generally seen as types of bad writing. This doesn’t strike him as a criticism though, he is safe in his binary; hard SF is about science, not fiction. Hartwell soon returns to the idea that if people don’t like hard SF it is not because it is badly written but because of their scientific illiteracy:
one must be able to summon up a basic knowledge of the scientific laws and principles by which our contemporary world is believed to operate. Sad to say, this last condition prevents enjoyment of the work by many otherwise educated and experienced readers (32)
There are eight more pages of this but I’ve made myself depressed and I’ve given myself a crick in the neck from typing those quotes so I am going to stop now before I do myself any further physical or mental damage.