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The Hard SF Renaissance
edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer
Tor Books, 960 pages

The Hard SF Renaissance
David G. Hartwell
David G. Hartwell is an editor at Tor Books, as well as being a highly-respected author in his own right. He wrote Age of Wonders (1984), and has been editor/anthologizer of such works as The Dark Descent, Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment, Northern Stars (with Glenn Grant), and the annual volume, Year's Best SF.

David Hartwell Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Year's Best SF 5
The Golden Age of Best SF Collections: A Chronicle
SF Site Review: Northern Suns
SF Site Review: Northern Stars
SF Site Review: Year's Best SF 3
SF Site Review: The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF
The New York Review of Science Fiction

Kathryn Cramer
Kathryn Cramer is co-editor (with David G. Hartwell) of Spirits of Christmas (1989) and Walls of Fear (1990). Her story, "The End of Everything" (1990), appeared in Asimov's SF magazine.

Kathryn Cramer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
Wonderbook: The Magazine for Curious Readers

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson


Thoughts on the Development of Science Fiction, Part 2

The Hard SF Renaissance is a formal follow-up to David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's 1994 anthology, The Ascent of Wonder. The Ascent of Wonder was an historical anthology, tracing the development of science fiction by focusing on hard SF, which the editors argued "is somehow the core and center of the SF field." But by their own admission, from the 60s through the end of the 80s, hard SF was not the most fashionable part of the science fiction world. The Hard SF Renaissance is an attempt to document the revival of hard SF in the 90s, and an argument that hard SF remains central to the future of science fiction. It also gives us an opportunity to examine just how much the writing of hard science fiction has changed since the New Wave of the 60s. As discussed in a previous review of the 35th Anniversary Edition of Dangerous Visions, the New Wave writers sought to use stylistic innovations and literary standards from both mainstream and avante-garde literature and incorporate them in science fiction. In The Hard SF Renaissance, we can see just how much those innovations and standards have affected the "core" of the field, and whether that effect is what Hartwell and Cramer mean when they talk about a renaissance in hard science fiction.

Hard science fiction has been in existence as a sub-genre of SF at least since the time of John W. Campbell, Jr., the term itself was coined by P. Schuyler Miller in 1957. By the 60s, hard science fiction had come to be identified with speculation in the "hard' sciences; physics, chemistry, astronomy, and others that could be expressed mathematically. When the New Wave attacked all that was conventional in SF writing, hard SF was the bastion of writers who were conservative in both their politics and their writing styles. By the late 80s, that split was readily discernible to steady readers of SF. There were Analog writers and there were Asimov's writers, and the Asimov's writers would often read not all that differently from what you might find in an adventurous mainstream literary magazine, whereas stories in Analog, while always more readily definable as SF, could be limited by an adherence to SF's traditional prose style. That there could exist a hard science fiction that combined the best techniques of SF with the style and characterization standards of mainstream literature was an ideal held onto by a minority of readers and writers.

But the possibility had always been there. Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination (1956), several stories by Frederik Pohl, especially "The Gold At The Starbow's End" (1972) and the novel Gateway (1977), and others had shown that you could have it all; in-depth characterization and a prose style that owed little or nothing to the days of pulp SF, combined with the kind of speculation and sense-of-wonder that keeps us all coming back for more.

By the late 70s, a growing dissatisfaction with the stylistic limitations of most hard SF led to an actual literary movement. In Interzone #8, David Pringle and Colin Greenland published an editorial calling for the writing of "radical hard SF," "fiction which takes its inspiration from science, and uses the language of science in a creative way". Bruce Sterling took up the charge in his fanzine Cheap Truth, and proclaimed the birth of the Movement, which the rest of the world would later know as cyberpunk. The battle to reform hard SF was on.

The cyberpunks had their influence. The work of Greg Bear and Gregory Benford in the 80s definitely showed a willingness to combine experiments in style with speculations in science. Cyberpunk, though, did not wholly succeed in its goal of re-inventing the style and substance of hard SF. Instead, the cyberpunks great accomplishment was not so much in changing hard SF as in expanding its scope. Cyberpunk, in essence, gave the aspiring SF writer a whole new set of working assumptions to start from. The cyberpunk world quickly became a realm that could be invoked with a few well-chosen words and the right attitude. Most important for this discussion, cyberpunk was set at least partially in the realm of hard science, and the cyberpunk writers were able to both invoke the traditions of hard SF and present them in a new light. They might not have changed the way all hard SF was written, but their work directly led to a loosening of the definitional boundaries that had grown up around hard SF, and they laid the groundwork for what was to happen next.

What happened next was SF's own British Invasion. After a decade in which American writers, whether cyberpunks, humanists, or eco-feminists had dominated the field, a new generation of writers began to appear on the scene. Many of them British, they wrote as if they had taken the phrase "radical hard SF" to heart. Writers such as Paul J. McAuley, Ian McDonald, Stephen Baxter, and the Australian Greg Egan began to write stories that used literary techniques and strong characters not in place of speculative content, but in order to present that speculation more convincingly. It is at this point that The Hard SF Renaissance takes up the story.

The Hard SF Renaissance contains forty-one stories written by thirty-seven authors. The stories were all originally published no earlier than 1987, and provide a good snapshot of the art of the science fiction writer at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Just on its own terms, outside of its relationship to past SF anthologies, The Hard SF Renaissance argues for the continued health of the hard SF story. There may not be any entirely new ideas, but Bruce Sterling's "Taklamakan" and Greg Egan's "Reasons to be Cheerful" show that new knowledge can bring the benefit of looking at old problems in new ways. There are also wonders of space yet to be explored, as detailed in Paul McAuley's "Reef" and Robert Reed's "Marrow". Suffice it to say that The Hard SF Renaissance is amply rewarding for anyone looking for lot of good stories that all meet the "I-know-it-when-I-see-it" definition of SF. The most telling criticism to be made by anyone just picking the book up would be to note the few number of women writers included. There's only three: Joan Slonczewski, Nancy Kress, and Sarah Zettel. The under-representation is probably an indication that hard SF continues to be more male-centered than SF in general, it could also be a matter of length. Linda Nagata, Tricia Sullivan, and Kathleen Ann Goonan, to name just three, all produced work in the 90s that qualifies as hard SF, but all three concentrated on novels, and may simply not have had stories available that fit the anthology.

The editors present The Hard SF Renaissance as more than just a collection of stories, however. It's an attempt to document and present the argument that hard SF has been undergoing a true artistic flowering, and for the continuing importance of hard SF for the entire field. That argument rests on hard SF's avowed goal of debating scientific ideas. If science fiction as an art is at all concerned with the ideas and methods of science, then stories that base their art expressly on how they deal with those ideas and methods is always going to be important and central to the art of writing science fiction.

The argument for a renaissance in hard SF, though, rests at least as much in how these stories are told as in what they have to say. The gate that Dangerous Visions and the New Wave opened in the 60s had now found its way into hard SF.

Well, yes, and no. There is not a lot of literary experimentation in The Hard SF Renaissance. The two closest examples are probably Ted Chiang's "Understand", and "The Griffin's Egg", by Michael Swanwick. More indicative of changing standards of style in hard SF is Joe Haldeman's "For White Hill", where an elegant prose mixes with just enough hard fact and speculation to create a deeply melancholic view of love at the end of the world. And the inclusion of stories by Arthur C. Clarke and Hal Clement could be used to argue that in terms of style, not much has changed. "The Hammer of God", and "Exchange Rate" are fine stories, but their authors' prose remain true to the era in which they learned their craft.

The one area in which these stories clearly differ from hard SF of the past is in the amount of effort that is put into characterisation. Though there are stories here where, as in old-time hard SF, the main "character' is a scientific puzzle or problem to be solved, the vast majority establish at least one character substantial enough to be memorable in his, her, or its own right. To someone who hadn't read SF since the early 60s, it could very well be that the improvement in characterization would be the most noticeable change in hard SF from then until now.

That said, there are a couple of things that tend to get missed in the on-going critical discussion regarding hard SF and its place in the field. That discussion, as literary debates tend to do, has focused mainly on the evolution of literary styles and values in hard SF. This overlooks the effect of scientific developments on the field. This is, after all, science fiction, and it cannot be simply a coincidence that the addition of corrective lenses to the Hubbel Space Telescope and the almost daily flood of observations that called into question some basic tenets of cosmological theory coincided with the re-birth of SF that engaged the universe on a grand scale. Two writers included in The Hard SF Renaissance illustrate the point. Stephen Baxter's alternate universes explore ideas similar to Lee Smolin's in The Life of The Cosmos (1997). Alastair Reynolds is a professional astronomer whose bleakly gothic spaceships encounter neutron stars turned into computers but remain bound by the speed of light. Other writers, no doubt, are already at work on stories inspired by the latest speculations on The Big Rip and Brane Theory.

The second point has to do with the evaluation of prose style. One consequence of using mainstream literary values to judge science fiction is the denigration of techniques and styles that are unique to SF. Consider this, for example, from "Wang's Carpets" by Greg Egan (included in The Hard SF Renaissance):

Herman said, "I've been monitoring our rather modest stellar observatory's data stream—my antidote to Vegan parochialism. Odd things are going on around Sirius. We're seeing electron-positron annihilation gamma rays, gravity waves...and some unexplained hot spots on Sirius B." He turned to Karpal and asked innocently, "What do you think those robots are up to? There's a rumor that they're planning to drag the white dwarf out of orbit and use it as part of a giant spaceship."

"I never listen to rumors." Karpal always presented as a faithful reproduction of his old human-shaped Gleisner body and his mind, Paolo gathered, always took the form of a physiological model, even though he was five generations removed from flesh. Leaving his people and coming into C-Z must have taken considerable courage; they'd never welcome him back.

It's easy to gloss over this kind of writing, treat it the way Star Trek writers do, leaving a blank spot in their script and just writing in "technobabble here". Readers of Egan know that there is more going on here. The characters in the story are post-human, the references to "Gleisner body" and "physiological model", in the context of Egan's universe, are very revealing of the character, Karpal, being described. Herman is morally opposed to engineering on a cosmic scale, "electro-positron annihilation gamma rays" are evidence that someone is doing just that.

If we are going to have a critical theory of radical hard SF, it must be able to appreciate not only stylistic innovations brought into SF from the outside, but also champion the techniques that have been developed within. In the excerpt from "Wang's Carpets", Egan's technical and scientific language works to a double purpose, it contributes to the story's world-building and adds to characterization. The writing of hard SF requires the use of techniques and tropes invented by science fiction writers themselves. Arguing for the artistic merit of such technically-flavored language can only add support to the contention that hard SF is central to the field.

There has been talk over the last year by some critics and reviewers that science fiction has fallen into a bit of a funk, that there are no literary movements being advanced, that perhaps SF's traditional creativity has played itself out. The Hard SF Renaissance provides plenty of examples that writers are still finding inspiration from developing sciences, what the critics may be feeling is that there are no obvious stylistic innovations left to explore. The challenge for SF writers today is not so much to re-invent the field as it is to show how well it can be done. By integrating standards and ideas about style and characterisation from both mainstream amd avante-garde literature, SF writers in general and hard SF writers in particular are doing just that.

Copyright © 2003 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson recently experienced the horror of living over a week without his computer. Who says it isn't a science fiction world? His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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