Author Topic: Hard science fiction  (Read 3411 times)  

Offline VisitasKeat

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Hard science fiction
« on: September 18, 2019, 11:58:14 pm »
Is hard science fiction more of science and less of fiction? If so, in what proportions?

Does an author need specialized skills in order to write hard science fiction?

Or, is it just for professionals like scientists and astronauts?

And finally, does this sub-genre sell on Amazon and what would be the word count for such a novel?





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    Offline alawston

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #1 on: September 19, 2019, 01:40:39 am »
    Is hard science fiction more of science and less of fiction? If so, in what proportions?

    Does an author need specialized skills in order to write hard science fiction?

    Or, is it just for professionals like scientists and astronauts?

    And finally, does this sub-genre sell on Amazon and what would be the word count for such a novel?


    Someone should make a chart of SF genres corresponding to strands from the MCU. Maybe they already have. But, vaguely:

    Hard SF: Iron Man
    Soft Science Fiction: Hulk
    Afrofuturism: Black Panther
    Science Fantasy: Thor
    Space Opera: Guardians of the Galaxy

    Hard SF is still very much fiction, but in general it's much more grounded in known scientific principles. When you contradict those principles, you have to come up with a plausible way of doing so. For example, if you write "the spaceship jumped to light-speed", you're going to have to have a think about how that's actually achieved, via hyperspace, or what-have-you, rather than just handwaving a 'lightspeed' engine or somesuch. Hard SF also deals with the development of new technologies, and how they might impact society and our way of life, so it's not just about understanding quantum theory or whatever, there's a lot of room for character work and philosophy.

    You don't necessarily need to be a career science specialist to write hard SF, but I'm not going to sugarcoat it, it probably helps. Fans expect scientific accuracy as far as reasonably possible (no one's going to have a go at you if you write something that's contradicted by some cutting-edge research that only three people in the world even understand), and they'll be brutal about any rookie errors that slip through. At the age of 21, I added a "deliberate mistake" to a charity short story, and Doctor Who fandom exploded at me.* And Doctor Who is, by and large, about as far from hard SF as it's possible to get. So if you don't have that basic science grounding yourself, you'll be needing to pay top dollar for a specialist editor who does. Or collaborate. Terry Pratchett always wanted to be a writer of hard SF, but was put off by the technical side of things, so towards the end of his life he teamed up with SF writer Stephen Baxter "to take care of the quantums" in his Long Earth series.

    The "hardness" of your hard SF can vary - you don't have to go into the same granular detail about the science of it all as say The Martian, but you need to be aware that's kind of what you're up against. So, yeah, it can sell.

    I have to be honest, I do think this is one of those genres where if you have to ask, you're pretty much already taking yourself out of the running.


    *20 years later, I'm still upset enough by the whole thing that I feel I need to add that the "mistake" was deliberate, it was a cheeky James Bond reference, and I was staggered that so many people got so angry about it. To the point that I didn't write any more SF of any kind for 15 years.


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    Offline Tobias Roote

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #2 on: September 19, 2019, 01:51:25 am »


     At the age of 21, I added a "deliberate mistake" to a charity short story, and Doctor Who fandom exploded at me.*

    *20 years later, I'm still upset enough by the whole thing that I feel I need to add that the "mistake" was deliberate, it was a cheeky James Bond reference, and I was staggered that so many people got so angry about it. To the point that I didn't write any more SF of any kind for 15 years.


    Dr Who fandom aren't known for their sense of humour. If they thought you were taking the mickey out of their 'cult figure' they would likely stomp on you hard. You might have got off lighter if you'd said it was a genuine mistake...
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    Offline VisitasKeat

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #3 on: September 19, 2019, 03:00:59 am »
    Someone should make a chart of SF genres corresponding to strands from the MCU. Maybe they already have. But, vaguely:

    Hard SF: Iron Man
    Soft Science Fiction: Hulk
    Afrofuturism: Black Panther
    Science Fantasy: Thor
    Space Opera: Guardians of the Galaxy

    Hard SF is still very much fiction, but in general it's much more grounded in known scientific principles. When you contradict those principles, you have to come up with a plausible way of doing so. For example, if you write "the spaceship jumped to light-speed", you're going to have to have a think about how that's actually achieved, via hyperspace, or what-have-you, rather than just handwaving a 'lightspeed' engine or somesuch. Hard SF also deals with the development of new technologies, and how they might impact society and our way of life, so it's not just about understanding quantum theory or whatever, there's a lot of room for character work and philosophy.

    You don't necessarily need to be a career science specialist to write hard SF, but I'm not going to sugarcoat it, it probably helps. Fans expect scientific accuracy as far as reasonably possible (no one's going to have a go at you if you write something that's contradicted by some cutting-edge research that only three people in the world even understand), and they'll be brutal about any rookie errors that slip through. At the age of 21, I added a "deliberate mistake" to a charity short story, and Doctor Who fandom exploded at me.* And Doctor Who is, by and large, about as far from hard SF as it's possible to get. So if you don't have that basic science grounding yourself, you'll be needing to pay top dollar for a specialist editor who does. Or collaborate. Terry Pratchett always wanted to be a writer of hard SF, but was put off by the technical side of things, so towards the end of his life he teamed up with SF writer Stephen Baxter "to take care of the quantums" in his Long Earth series.

    The "hardness" of your hard SF can vary - you don't have to go into the same granular detail about the science of it all as say The Martian, but you need to be aware that's kind of what you're up against. So, yeah, it can sell.

    I have to be honest, I do think this is one of those genres where if you have to ask, you're pretty much already taking yourself out of the running.


    *20 years later, I'm still upset enough by the whole thing that I feel I need to add that the "mistake" was deliberate, it was a cheeky James Bond reference, and I was staggered that so many people got so angry about it. To the point that I didn't write any more SF of any kind for 15 years.
    Thank you for being so brutally frank. I have to admit that I don't have a science or technical background but I do read sci-fi novels and scientific articles with great interest. So, if I get a grip on a science article, the nuts and bolts of a certain area of technology, then, perhaps, I can extrapolate and fictionalize it to my liking.

    I have included aliens (transgendered aliens) in my fantasy series but that would come under "Soft" science fiction. I'm also intrigued by the fact that alien-human language translation problem is solved by simply describing a translation machine. Example: the movie "Mars Attacks!" An actual description or a plausible theory by the author would end up being lauded as a breakthrough discovery and be scrutinized for further merit at Harvard and MIT. But has such a thing happened? Even with a successful novel like "The Martian"?   

    One of the reasons for asking this question, apart from that fact that I was thinking of taking a new pen for this, is the that fact that if some sub-genre is extremely tough to write but has a loyal readership that pays your bills, then, perhaps, it's worth the toil after all. Then, all one needs is the willingness to learn new and existing scientific developments. Maybe reading through free science article PDFs from the web will do.

    Offline Tobias Roote

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #4 on: September 19, 2019, 03:22:27 am »
    You can be incredibly realistic in science fiction to the point that you appear to know what you're talking about. It just takes time to construct the 'reality'.


    As a perfect example I described the in-depth actions of nanobots in my first series, not the first person to do so, not by a long shot. However, it was sufficiently sophisticated to elicit an emailed response from a scientist at NASA who wanted to know more about my theories. When I explained that it was 'pure' fiction he lost interest quickly. I realised then that if the theory of it all sounds plausible, then people will believe anything. I think that's an important lesson when writing SF. Be plausible.

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    Offline VisitasKeat

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #5 on: September 19, 2019, 03:44:31 am »
    You can be incredibly realistic in science fiction to the point that you appear to know what you're talking about. It just takes time to construct the 'reality'.


    As a perfect example I described the in-depth actions of nanobots in my first series, not the first person to do so, not by a long shot. However, it was sufficiently sophisticated to elicit an emailed response from a scientist at NASA who wanted to know more about my theories. When I explained that it was 'pure' fiction he lost interest quickly. I realised then that if the theory of it all sounds plausible, then people will believe anything. I think that's an important lesson when writing SF. Be plausible.

    Your bold, outspoken, and honest attitude seems to be your weakness! :D

    But seriously, it's amazing to learn that someone from NASA got interested by your theory! 8)

    Offline VisitasKeat

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #6 on: September 19, 2019, 03:47:44 am »
    Your bold, outspoken, and honest attitude seems to be your weakness! :D

    But seriously, it's amazing to learn that someone from NASA got interested by your theory! 8)

    Oh wait, if I were you, I would have converted that theory into a non-fiction article and emailed that!

    Offline Tobias Roote

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #7 on: September 19, 2019, 03:48:24 am »
    Your bold, outspoken, and honest attitude seems to be your weakness! :D



    There are worse weaknesses, I guess.  ;)  and I still have the email exchange archived somewhere.
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    Offline BryanArnesonAuthor

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #8 on: September 19, 2019, 07:00:45 am »
    Thank you for being so brutally frank. I have to admit that I don't have a science or technical background but I do read sci-fi novels and scientific articles with great interest. So, if I get a grip on a science article, the nuts and bolts of a certain area of technology, then, perhaps, I can extrapolate and fictionalize it to my liking.

    I have included aliens (transgendered aliens) in my fantasy series but that would come under "Soft" science fiction. I'm also intrigued by the fact that alien-human language translation problem is solved by simply describing a translation machine. Example: the movie "Mars Attacks!" An actual description or a plausible theory by the author would end up being lauded as a breakthrough discovery and be scrutinized for further merit at Harvard and MIT. But has such a thing happened? Even with a successful novel like "The Martian"?   

    One of the reasons for asking this question, apart from that fact that I was thinking of taking a new pen for this, is the that fact that if some sub-genre is extremely tough to write but has a loyal readership that pays your bills, then, perhaps, it's worth the toil after all. Then, all one needs is the willingness to learn new and existing scientific developments. Maybe reading through free science article PDFs from the web will do.

    RL scientists and sci-fi writer have a circular relationship. Most sci-fi writers won't be pioneers in a field unless they are researchers as a day job, but they can plant a seed in speculation for scientists to pursue. And of course, as science and technology progresses, the sci-fi writer has more to speculate on in their stories.

    If you want to write hard sci-fi then I would definitely recommend finding science/tech sites to read up on what's being pursued. Going back in history to read some of the crazy stuff we've done in the past can also be helpful. You mentioned deciphering alien languages. You may want to read up on this bonkers experiment from the 1960s where we tried to communicate with dolphins1 or the dramatic history of Alice Kober2 and the decipherment of the unknown languages of Linear A and Linear B3.

    At the end of the day, if you love doing the reading and research to support hard sci-fi then go for it! If it's a slog to come up with stuff rooted in reality, I might recommend sticking to soft sci-fi where your own creativity is not beholden to nit-pickers.

    1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Howe_Lovatt
    2 The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox
    3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linear_B
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    Offline Patty Jansen

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #9 on: September 19, 2019, 07:12:53 am »
    Having written (and sold, at a pro level) pretty intense hard SF, I can speak to this.

    A few random remarks, in no particular order:

    1. A lot of "hard SF" is a lot less hard than it looks
    2. You generally get one get-out-of-jail-free card, which most space-based hard SF writers spend on a FLT drive (otherwise the story would be awfully boring)
    3. Usually a story will have a well-developed core cool idea and a lot of the rest can be handwavuim.
    4. Handwavium is awesome, because the more detail you go into, the more flak you're going to cop from people who really know what they're talking about (as opposed to you only pretending to know what you're talking about)
    5. You don't need to be a scientist. Kim Stanley Robinson is a scholar of English. There are few stories that can't be nutted out with a combination of Google, some academic textbooks and maybe an expert, if you have one handy.
    6. Being a scientist helps. My hard SF tends to focus on biology because I know biology.
    7. It sells consistently and quite well if you hit the right spot.
    8. But yeah, if you have to ask, you're already a long way behind.
    9. Rather than asking, read a lot of it, and then if you think you can do it, go for it.

    Offline Jennifer R P

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #10 on: September 19, 2019, 07:55:56 am »
    I will say simply:

    If you are not a scientist but want to write hard SF?

    Make friends with scientists ;).

    Offline CaptnAndy

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #11 on: September 19, 2019, 09:57:08 am »
    Most of my stories don't have steam punk, fantasy, time travel, magic, elves or faeries. As a recovering engineer, I prefer hard science fiction, and I try keep my writing within that region. Where I have a faster than light (FTL) element, I don't bother detailing a detailed explanation, since most SF readers recognize FTL as a "normal" feature in Science Fiction.
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    Offline C. Gold

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #12 on: September 19, 2019, 11:05:33 am »
    Most people have no clue how their car works. I'd suspect most people on a starship wouldn't know either. So it's not unreasonable to hand wave stuff like that. I think what gets people most upset is when you ignore basic physics like momentum, inertia, acceleration, and how sound (or bodies) react in space. Sometimes it's the simple errors that rankle the most.

    Although, there was this one hard core military scifi book that received a novel of a scathing review going on and on about the errors in the weapon choices the author made. So there are some people out there who will pick apart anything you do and be quite detailed about it. The good news is that book seemed quite popular despite having that review. So my advice is to do what you can to research - especially read other popular hard scifi - and try not to make basic mistakes. But mostly have a good story so even if you do botch something, it doesn't matter because the story will still be entertaining.

    Offline Shane Lochlann Black

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #13 on: September 19, 2019, 03:31:57 pm »
    <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tfy-DSuc_Kk" target="_blank">http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tfy-DSuc_Kk</a> 

    Offline xcaliber

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #14 on: September 19, 2019, 04:31:58 pm »
    Philip K Dick would be soft sci-fi?

    Offline ShaneCarrow

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #15 on: September 19, 2019, 05:57:59 pm »
    I would argue Dick is hard sci-fi, but the sciences in question are psychology, sociology, politics and theology.

    Kim Stanley Robinson is probably the biggest name in hard science fiction today. And for my money, with the issues he writes about, the most important writer of science fiction and maybe even the most important writer of any fiction.

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    Offline xcaliber

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #16 on: September 19, 2019, 09:45:48 pm »
    Nice assessment - thank you!

    Offline JTriptych

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #17 on: September 20, 2019, 12:07:37 am »
    A great resource for hard sci-fi is the Atomic Rockets site. There's plenty of stuff and information on making your story scientifically plausible- they do the math so you dont have to. I actually based two of my books off of their articles.

    http://www.projectrho.com/public_html/rocket/index.php

    Be aware though, its also one hell of a reality check, because most of the popular sci-fi tropes out there (like starfighters, light sabers, stealth spacecraft, force fields, FTL, artificial gravity, etc.) are nothing more than fantasy and are completely implausible in the real world unless you choose to throw the science part of your story out the window. ;)
    « Last Edit: September 20, 2019, 12:27:55 am by JTriptych »

    Offline VisitasKeat

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #18 on: September 20, 2019, 02:58:04 am »
    After perusing your advice and suggested resources -- and many thanks to all of you for that -- I get the feeling that the reader at the end must be left puzzled as to whether the story was real or fictitious. Then that would be the ultimate testament for the science fiction to be considered as "hard".

    One way forward would be to list the tags/ideas (like what C. Gold mentioned: momentum, acceleration etc) and combine them the way you want for a "hard" feel.

    Here is a starter, but it is editable. So, feel free to edit, delete, and add to it.

    I'm using hyphen to separate tags. Hope you don't get a headache by reading this! Apologies in advance!

    Laws of Physics-Statics--Viscosity-Fluid Dynamics-Inclined Planes-Pulleys-Relative Velocity-Special Relativity-General Relativity-Twin Paradox-Speed of Light-Michelson Morley Experiment-Minkowski Spacetime-Fiber Optics-Refraction-Reflection-Momentum-Centre of Mass-Frames of Reference-Complex Plane-Relative Velocity-Gravitational Field With Uniform Density-Gravitational Field With Variable Density-Accelerating Gravitational Field-Thermodynamics-Entropy-Enthalpy-Gaussian Distribution-Cartesian Coordinates-Polar Coordinates-Vectors-Atomic Energy-Power Grid-Epidemic-Endemic-Pandemic-New Medicine Discovery-Bomb Construction-Bomb Diffusion-Rocket Sciences-NASA-Electro Magnetism-Electrical Circuits-Signal Systems-Computer Systems-Quantum Theory-Boolean Algebra-OR Gate-AND Gate-NOR Gate-XOR Gate-Wavelength-Amplitude-Projectile-Bullets-Types of Guns-Gun Powder-Nuclear Weapons-Dormant Volcanoes-Earthquake-Forest Fires-Tsunami-Global Warming-Garbage Disposal-Rare Plants and Herbs-Genetic Mutations and Shapeshifting-Bluetooth-Telepathy-Smart Homes-Artificial Intelligence-Robotics-R&D Labs-New Elements For Periodic Table-Dangerous Chemistry Equations-Mining-Unearthing Precious Metals-Historic Evidence-South Pole-Glaciers-Avalanche-Building Materials For Space Ship-Language Translation-Communication Systems-Sign Language Systems-Warships-Sophisticated Weaponry-Space Army Organization Structure







    Offline Tobias Roote

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #19 on: September 20, 2019, 03:12:40 am »
    I get the feeling that the reader at the end must be left puzzled as to whether the story was real or fictitious. Then that would be the ultimate testament for the science fiction to be considered as "hard".


    I think that goes for just about any book out there. None of us who read SF ever have any illusions as to whether something in a novel is 'real'. I think the word you're actually looking for is 'plausible' which I referred to in my earlier post.


    I've taken the liberty of copying the tags, thanks (y)
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    Offline alawston

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #20 on: September 20, 2019, 06:13:27 am »
    I think what gets people most upset is when you ignore basic physics like momentum, inertia, acceleration, and how sound (or bodies) react in space. Sometimes it's the simple errors that rankle the most.

    Yeah, that's what got me. I had the TARDIS fall out of a spaceship, and then a character jumped out after it and caught it up. The whole story was a Bond pastiche, and that particular scene was a nod to the infamous bit in Goldeneye where Bond does exactly the same thing. I even sought to imply (for the hard of humoured) that maybe the TARDIS - which is, after all, at least slightly sentient - slowed its descent to allow the character to catch up.

    The absolute kicker for me was when Peter Capaldi's Doctor did exactly the same thing in the 2015 episode Death in Heaven, and the same fans who'd had a go at me back in 2001 were now cheering. That was when I decided to ignore the backchat and just start writing SF again.

    It's probably just about doable to write hard SF based on whatever science education you already have, plus a few semesters at the University of Google as required. But you can find yourself in weird territory. When I wrote Rudy On Rails, which is essentially a cyberpunk comedy about a train that comes alive and makes Mom jokes, the one thing early readers all pounced on was an incredibly minor plot point about DNA data storage - which was quite literally the only solidly researched scientific detail in the whole book.


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    Offline Writer's Block

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #21 on: September 20, 2019, 09:01:50 am »
    I write hard scifi, and I sell a lot of books.

    Broadly speaking, the science needs to be plausible, or even theoretically plausible. So, no aliens, no faster than light, no beam me up Scotty - simply not plausible.

    Good examples are The Martian (although it does have a few glaring holes) and the movie Gravity (which you could argue is not actually science fiction since everything in it exists)

    The science needs to be part of the story. So, some new tech falls into the wrong hands and we're all gonna die - that sort of thing.

    There's a good market for it, I can attest to that. I'm a full-time author and I only just pop into the top 100 scifi authors on a good day.





    Offline Nev

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #22 on: September 20, 2019, 09:41:50 pm »
    I write hard scifi, and I sell a lot of books...There's a good market for it, I can attest to that. I'm a full-time author and I only just pop into the top 100 scifi authors on a good day.
    This rings too close to home. Two of my books hover in the top 10-30 in the category, but I never intended to end up in this sub-genre. Not even sure how my books got categorized as hard sci-fi in the first place. Think it must have been the first set of reviews where readers mentioned hard sci-fi that ended up pushing my series indelibly in this reader-demanding category. All I know is, I didn't intend to create stories that would make physicists drop pant-loads when I described space flight characteristics that defy the basics taught in high school. Yet, I've found the vast majority of readers seem to care more about the actual stories/characters/possibilities rather than nitpick the science. That said, I've beefed up my beta reader audience to include physicists so I at least know ahead of publishing where I'll take the body blows, and I'll course correct when changes don't detract too much from the story I want to tell (I'd rather write cool what-if stories than be bounded by pole-up-you-know-where scientists shouting me down). Just know if you dip a toe into hard sci-fi, intentionally or otherwise, you will meet readers who will bristle if the quality of science doesn't match the quality of the story.

    Offline Tobias Roote

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #23 on: September 20, 2019, 10:55:07 pm »
    Yet, I've found the vast majority of readers seem to care more about the actual stories/characters/possibilities rather than nitpick the science.


    In the end even the nitpickers will pay attention if the actual story grabs them. It's always been about the story and not the science. We're people and we like to read about people like us. The science is just a tool to carry the story. Using terms such as Hard SF and Space Opera is just a means of telling the reader what kind of scenery they will see on the journey.
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    Offline C. Gold

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    Re: Hard science fiction
    « Reply #24 on: September 20, 2019, 11:02:58 pm »
    Yeah, that's what got me. I had the TARDIS fall out of a spaceship, and then a character jumped out after it and caught it up. The whole story was a Bond pastiche, and that particular scene was a nod to the infamous bit in Goldeneye where Bond does exactly the same thing. I even sought to imply (for the hard of humoured) that maybe the TARDIS - which is, after all, at least slightly sentient - slowed its descent to allow the character to catch up.

    The absolute kicker for me was when Peter Capaldi's Doctor did exactly the same thing in the 2015 episode Death in Heaven, and the same fans who'd had a go at me back in 2001 were now cheering. That was when I decided to ignore the backchat and just start writing SF again.

    It's probably just about doable to write hard SF based on whatever science education you already have, plus a few semesters at the University of Google as required. But you can find yourself in weird territory. When I wrote Rudy On Rails, which is essentially a cyberpunk comedy about a train that comes alive and makes Mom jokes, the one thing early readers all pounced on was an incredibly minor plot point about DNA data storage - which was quite literally the only solidly researched scientific detail in the whole book.
    I never considered Doctor Who hard science fiction. I also suspect the readers who read your book weren't the same viewers who cheered when Capaldi's Doctor did the accelerated catch up. ;)

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