Hard science fiction

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Photograph of a man sitting in a chair.
Arthur C. Clarke, one of the most significant writers of hard science fiction.
Black and white photograph of a man, in the foreground, sitting at a table.
Poul Anderson, author of Tau Zero, "Kyrie" and others.

Hard science fiction is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy or technical detail or both.[1][2] The term was first used in print in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller in a review of John W. Campbell, Jr.'s Islands of Space in Astounding Science Fiction.[3][4][5] The complementary term soft science fiction, formed by analogy to hard science fiction,[6] first appeared in the late 1970s. The term is formed by analogy to the popular distinction between the "hard" (natural) and "soft" (social) sciences. Science fiction critic Gary Westfahl argues that neither term is part of a rigorous taxonomy; instead they are approximate ways of characterizing stories that reviewers and commentators have found useful.[7]

Stories revolving around scientific and technical consistency were written as early as the 1870s with the publication of Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1870 and Around the World in 80 Days in 1873, among other stories. The attention to detail in Verne's work became an inspiration for many future scientists and explorers, although Verne himself denied writing as a scientist or seriously predicting machines and technology of the future.

Today, the term "soft science fiction" is also often used to refer to science fiction stories which lack any scientific focus or rigorous adherence to known science. The categorization "hard science fiction" represents a position on a broad continuum—ranging from "softer" to "harder".[7]

Scientific rigor

Photograph of a man sitting at a table.
Carl Sagan, astronomer and adviser to NASA, also wrote the hard science fiction novel Contact.

The heart of the "hard SF" designation is the relationship of the science content and attitude to the rest of the narrative, and (for some readers, at least) the "hardness" or rigor of the science itself.[8] One requirement for hard SF is procedural or intentional: a story should try to be accurate, logical, credible and rigorous in its use of current scientific and technical knowledge about which technology, phenomena, scenarios and situations that are practically and/or theoretically possible. For example, the development of concrete proposals for spaceships, space stations, space missions, and a US space program in the 1950s and 1960s influenced a widespread proliferation of "hard" space stories.[9] One prime example of technology in science fiction is Isaac Asimov's exploration of logic using sentient robots with well defined technology as a vehicle to demonstrate how his now legendary Three Laws of Robotics[10][better source needed] as well as his penchant for extrapolating science of the time to use in his novels and short stories in a futuristic setting that seemed very plausible not only at the time but are still considered inspiration for current R&D as well as in science. As a scientist he was meticulous in his inventions of new technology. Later discoveries do not necessarily invalidate the label of hard SF, as evidenced by P. Schuyler Miller, who called Arthur C. Clarke's 1961 novel A Fall of Moondust hard SF,[3] and the designation remains valid even though a crucial plot element, the existence of deep pockets of "moondust" in lunar craters, is now known to be incorrect.

There is a degree of flexibility in how far from "real science" a story can stray before it leaves the realm of hard SF.[11] Some authors scrupulously avoid such technology as faster-than-light travel, while others accept such notions (sometimes referred to as "enabling devices", since they allow the story to take place)[12] but focus on realistically depicting the worlds that such a technology might make possible. In this view, a story's scientific "hardness" is less a matter of the absolute accuracy of the science content than of the rigor and consistency with which the various ideas and possibilities are worked out.[11]

Readers of "hard SF" often try to find inaccuracies in stories, a process which Gary Westfahl says writers call "the game". For example, a group at MIT concluded that the planet Mesklin in Hal Clement's 1953 novel Mission of Gravity would have had a sharp edge at the equator, and a Florida high-school class calculated that in Larry Niven's 1970 novel Ringworld the topsoil would have slid into the seas in a few thousand years.[7] The same book famously featured a devastating inaccuracy: the eponymous Ringworld is not (in) a stable orbit and would crash into the sun without active stabilization. Niven fixed these errors in his sequel The Ringworld Engineers, and noted them in the foreword.

In film

Soft science fiction film makers tend to extend to outer-space certain physics that are associated with life on Earth's surface, primarily to make scenes more spectacular or recognizable to the audience. Examples are:

  • Presence of gravity without use of an artificial gravity system. Convincingly simulating weightlessness may have a considerable adverse effect on film production costs.
  • A spaceship's engines generating sound as the ship passes by the camera angle in outer-space,[13] even with Doppler effect.
  • Explosions in outer-space generating sound.[13]
  • Pieces of explosion debris generating sound as they pass by the camera angle in outer-space.
  • Spaceships following non-linear paths in outer-space (very much like airplanes conduct coordinated flight in Earth's atmosphere), without any visible thrusting activity.
  • Spaceship occupants enduring without any visible effort the enormous g-forces that are bound to be generated by a spaceship's extreme maneuvering (e.g. in a dogfight situation).
  • Astronauts preferring the agonizing death by hypercapnia over the painless death by hypoxia, given that the latter can be easily achieved by slowly releasing the spaceship's atmosphere into outer-space.
  • Use of time travel as a plot device, especially backward time travel.
  • Laser beams travelling slowly enough across the frame to be seen moving from emitter to target, in reality the beam would be moving at the speed of light and would therefore be seen as a line from source to target constantly illuminated from the moment the laser is turned on until the moment it is turned off.
  • Laser beams in space being visible at all, a beam in an atmosphere could be observed as described above as a line between the source and target but in vacuum where there are no dust particles or air molecules to scatter the beam's light it would not be visible from the sides, only from the target looking directly down the beam to the emitter.
  • Spacecraft which suffer engine failures are often depicted as "falling" or coming to a stop, in reality any craft in deep or orbital space will simply continue along its trajectory from before the engines ceased function. A similar error occurs when the "range" of a spacecraft is discussed in fiction, in reality spacecraft do not have ranges (maximum distance that can be covered) they have maximum Delta-vs (the greatest velocity change that can be achieved before the propellant runs out).

Hard science fiction films try to avoid such artistic license.

Representative works

Photograph of a man sitting in a chair.
Larry Niven, author of Ringworld, "Inconstant Moon", "The Hole Man" and others.

Arranged chronologically by publication year.

Short stories



Anime / Manga

Visual novels


  • Ringworld: The Graphic Novel, Part One (2014) & Part Two (2015)
  • The Forever War, Vol. 1: Private Mandella (1990); Lieutenant Mandella (2020-2203) (No. 2) (1991); (No. 3) (1992)
  • Robot (The Sanatorium of Dr. Vliperdius/Mortal Engines); Timof Comics (based upon stories by Stanislaw Lem) (2013)

See also


  1. The short story "Surface Tension" has also been described as an exemplar of soft science fiction. (McGuirk, Carol (1992). "The 'New' Romancers". In Slusser, George Edgar; Shippey, T. A. Fiction 2000. University of Georgia Press. pp. 109–125. ISBN 9780820314495.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>)


  1. Nicholls, Peter (1993). "Hard SF". In Clute, John; Nicholls, Peter. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Wolfe, Gary K. (1986). "Hard Science Fiction". Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy: A Glossary and Guide to Scholarship.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 "hard science fiction n." Science fiction citations. Jesse's word. 2005-07-25. Retrieved 2007-10-07. Earliest cite: P. Schuyler Miller in Astounding Science Fiction ... he called A Fall of Moondust "hard" science fiction<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Hartwell, David G.; Cramer, Kathryn (2002). "Introduction: New People, New Places, New Politics". The Hard SF Renaissance. New York: Tor. ISBN 0-312-87635-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Westfahl, Gary (1996-02-28). "Introduction". Cosmic Engineers: A Study of Hard Science Fiction (Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy). Greenwood Press. p. 2. ISBN 0-313-29727-4. Retrieved 2007-10-07. hard science fiction ... the term was first used by P. Schuyler Miller in 1957<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "soft science fiction n." Science fiction citations. Jesse's word. 2005-07-25. Retrieved 2007-10-07. Soft science fiction, probably a back-formation from Hard Science Fiction<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>)
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Westfahl, Gary (2008-06-09). "Hard Science Fiction". In Seed, David. A Companion to Science Fiction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub. pp. 195–198. ISBN 9781405112185. Retrieved 2013-02-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Samuelson, David N. (July 1993). "Modes of Extrapolation: The Formulas of Hard Science Fiction". Science Fiction Studies. 20. part 2 (60). Retrieved 2007-10-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Westfahl, Gary (July 1993). "The Closely Reasoned Technological Story: The Critical History of Hard Science Fiction". Science Fiction Studies. 20 (2): 141–142.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Three Laws of Robotics
  11. 11.0 11.1 Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  12. Chiang, T. (April 15, 2009). "Time travel is one of the trickiest SF/F tropes to use well". Retrieved 2009-04-28.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. 13.0 13.1 http://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/sci-fi10.htm
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 14.4 14.5 14.6 Hartwell, David G.; Cramer, Kathryn, eds. (1994). The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF. New York: Published by Tom Doherty Associates, Inc. ISBN 978-0-312-85509-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Evidence (short story)
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 Hartwell, David G.; Cramer, Kathryn (2002). The Hard SF Renaissance. New York: Tor. ISBN 0-312-87635-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Foundation series#Original stories
  18. Aylott, Chris. "The Humans Were Flat but the Cheela Were Charming in 'Dragon's Egg'". Retrieved 2009-01-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Some editions also include a preface by Larry Niven, admitting that "I couldn't have written it; it required too much real physics"
  19. Alyott, Chris (2000-06-20). "The Vanishing Martian". SPACE.com. Archived from the original on 2000-08-18. Retrieved 2008-07-20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Horton, Richard R. (1997-02-21). "Blue Mars review". Retrieved 2008-07-20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. Bulletin of Science, technology and Science
  22. Schild's Ladder by Greg Egan
  23. in which the author discusses his love of hard science fiction and the importance of scientific accuracy to the narrative.
  24. https://vndb.org/v1377

Further reading

External links

de:Science-Fiction#Hard Science-Fiction