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The Expansion of Nerddom and the Decline of Hard Sci-fi

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I was pondering this today, and as many people know nerd/geek culture has expanded massively in the current era. People are way more likely to identify as either than they were in decades past, and the literary domains of the nerd - fantasy and sci-fi have been mainstream.

But, at the same time, hard sci-fi, a once proud and influential genre, has nearly died out to fantasy in Nerddom.

Previously, I had subscribed to the idea that as science has gone far beyond what the average joe can understand, hard-sci-fi's appeal has dropped. But, average joe never identified as a nerd. Among people identifying as nerds (whether self-identifying, or being called such by bullies), I think hard scifi has also lost ground.

So, what I'm thinking is - what if Hard Sci-fi has declined in popularity inside Nerddom, because most people who identify as nerds are actually stupid? The Nerd-master-race has become diluted by inferior specimens, and our literary tradition suffers for it!

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Roman? Is that you?

Gawd, I miss that show. I'd like to propose an alternate theory: most of my "hard" scifi reading is going back to pick up classics, because there's not much I pick up lately that just looks that good. I don't think I realized how little straight-up, speculative stuff I wasn't reading until The Wind-Up Girl, and then I remembered - oh, right, that's how it's done. Most of what I was reading had at least some element of fantasy to it as well, but I wasn't aware of that shift. And part of it is that writers who I might have counted on earlier (I'm thinking Gibson and Stephenson) to be "harder" went different places, exploring steampunk or writing historical fiction.

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I think the following article is relevant to this discussion:

http://bookclubs.barnesandnoble.com/t5/Explorations-The-BN-SciFi-and/Seasons-of-Wither-Is-Science-Fiction-Dead/ba-p/621692

Even though it's about sci-fi's general decline among all readers, I believe some of its points also apply to nerds regarding hard sci-fi. In particular, even for nerds, the future is no longer something bright and shiny to be looked forward to, but something scary and full of uncertainty - if not technologically, then economically and socially. Nerds, no matter how smart and knowledgeable they might be, can be as much at risk of seeing their jobs exported to some asian country as anyone else.

Thus, consciously nor not, they might desire to seek escape from their precarious present and future in fantasy, a genre long associated with heroic individuals who can make a lasting difference for good (and who don't have to worry about their next job performance report and/or greedy shareholders demanding ever-increasing profits).

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Hard sci-fi was never popular to begin with. And the reason for that IMO is the vast majority of it is just bad literature with paper thin characters who give lectures to each other, mediocre writing style and underdeveloped plots.

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When was hard science fiction ever popular? A lot of the works that get slapped with the label are as soft as most fantasy.

At the moment in books that could be considered hard/mundane science fiction we have K.J. Parker doing well, and of course Charles Stross, a lot of the British 'space opera' writers seem to be as hard as a lot of the classical authors.

Engineering science fiction / big dumb object fiction seem to be a bit less common, but that might be the result of people being more aware of the limits and possibilities even in our world.

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I wasn't reading until The Wind-Up Girl

Isn't this the book that has lab-genes + girl == submissive sex worker? I don't think of that as "hard science".

I think the time when world building - whether "hard SF" (can we get examples? definition?) or "magic system" - could carry a novel are just fading?

In any case, a lot of incredibly smart people in the sciences don't even read SFF from what I've seen. The biggest hard SF fans I know aren't even in the sciences.

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Isn't this the book that has lab-genes + girl == submissive sex worker? I don't think of that as "hard science".

I think the time when world building - whether "hard SF" (can we get examples? definition?) or "magic system" - could carry a novel are just fading?

In any case, a lot of incredibly smart people in the sciences don't even read SFF from what I've seen. The biggest hard SF fans I know aren't even in the sciences.

That's a good point. I tend to think of hard scifi as speculative, with no elements that can be explained by hand-waving or mystical elements (mystical for me includes alt history, but not possible futures). So, in that respect, I guess there is some hand-waving re: genes in The Wind-Up Girl, but it doesn't seem implausible to the me as a layperson.

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Is FTL allowed in Hard SF? Because I think that's part of what confuses me.

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For me factual errors, that throw me out of the suspension of disbelieve, are just as bad as other flaws.

Dear author, explain how your spaceship works (hard SF) or don't (soft sf), but don't explain it in a way that makes me cringe.

"write about what you know" is a good rule. leave out the rest if you can't be bothered with research.

JRRM writes mediaeval war fiction, yet doesn't seem to like writing battles (or maybe doesn't feel confident), so he leaves them out. No problem. This is how you do it.

(but apparently jrrm writes about swordfighting without having done proper research. My uncle -who does mediaeval swordfighting - can complain about this for hours)

I don't mind soft SF, I just hate bad books. (and hard SF that gets the tech right and the humans wrong is just as flawed)

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Is FTL allowed in Hard SF? Because I think that's part of what confuses me.

It can be, so long as it's apparent FTL not actual FTL.

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What's Hard SF?

The SF encyclopedia:

"Hard sf is the form of imaginative literature that uses either established or carefully extrapolated science as its backbone." Steele goes on to regret the association in many readers' minds of hard sf with "a particular political territory – usually located somewhere on the far right", an association which, while certainly sometimes justifiable, has cultural origins that cannot easily be elucidated. The commonly used distinction between hard and Soft Sciences runs parallel to that between hard and Soft SF.

...

While a rigorous definition of "hard sf" may be impossible, perhaps the most important thing about it is, not that it should include real science in any great detail, but that it should respect the scientific spirit; it should seek to provide natural rather than supernatural or transcendental explanations for the events and phenomena it describes.

Huh, I'd never heard of this rightwing association before. Personally, I'd say Hard SF is the kind primarily concerned with technological/scientific questions and exptrapolations, rather than with social onces - the hard/soft sciences distinction.

The Windup Girl seems like a solid example of very SOFT SF to me - the technology and extrapolation are not made up (climate change, genetics*, biology, epidemology, etc) but they're all by-the-way factors of the stuff the book is actually interested in exploring, which is economics, imperialism, government, social upheaval, class, gender, etc. The actual nature of the science doesn't matter all that much, (though it matters some) what matters is the effects it can bring to bear on the story, a chance to explore these questions that come over from the social sciences. (Other examples - Left Hand of Darkness, Morgan's Black Man and Market Forces, 1984, some of Stephenson's books, like Snow Crash and Diamond Age in particular, Ryman's Air, and just to be contrary, I think the City and the City is totally Soft SF.)

HARD SF actually cares about the technological/scientific question to some degree in it's own right. (I guess it's impossible to do so entirely, because then you just have a speculative scientific paper, but somewhat.) Like Blood Music by Greg Bear, where theres characters and stuff, but it's all about messing with the far fetched scientific theory about sentience he's put together there, or Anathem with it's multiple dimension stuff, or Clarke's Fountains of Paradise, which is all about building a space elevator. I think a lot of Clarke and Heinlein and so on is actually slightly dodgy on this front - yes, theres a space elevator, but it's also about hubris and fear and the social impacts of the space elevator. And Red Mars also has a space elevator and terraforming and things, but it's also all about colonization and social evolution and whatever. So most hard SF is, i'd say, about science but with people all around. I guess it's why these are novels and not science articles.

So...I think there might be a bit less of both of these, of SF as speculation, social or scientific, rather it's just a backdrop for whatever adventuring the characters are doing, and the SF elements are somewhat regarded as the worldbuilding in fantasy - plausible, cool, original, whatever, but not as a focus in and of themselves, but as an effective backdrop for the story.

(Hm, I guess I can see the argument that Soft SF is rather progressive, because the notion that society can change, and given a different praxis people will be different is to some degree inherently progressive. I don't see that this therefore makes Hard SF a political opposite though. Anyway, in this day and age, embracing the scientific method is also a left wing trait. Actually, where are the SF novels that take on global warming, creationism and anti-stem cell stuff, from the scientific, rather than social pov? WHERE?)

*let's say. I think the titular character is dodgy as all hell, but sticking to the cards the book was dealt.

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I'm skimming because I have to leave 5 mins ago, but no way in hell is wind up girl hard scifi. No. No no no. Neither is Star Trek, whoch I see people in other places mention as hard sci fi. Just NO. The only thing I can think of thats close is those Mars books by Kim I cant think of the exact name Robinson? 300 pages about atmosphere processors.

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Well there many subgenres of SF and dividing them all between hard and soft SF makes as little sense as dividing all politics into right and left wings. You could, for example, plot various SF on a continuum with multiple axes such as (x-axis) scientific plausibility to scientific implausibility; (y-axis) sociopolitical conventionality to socialpolitical unconventionality; (z-axis) highly narrative to highly expository. Any number of axes as long as its more than one. Everything with scientific plausibility is hard-sf, but those with scientific plausibility and interesting sociopolitical aspects to it I'd think of as good hard-sf.

Personally I found hard-sf like Bear's Moving Mars, which imagined physics so advanced it was essentially magic, to be deadly dull, and I'm suspicious whether it really is hard-sf, though Bear is a hard-sf writer. But Robinson's Red / Green / Blue Mars series was one of my favourite SF series I've read, and I'd consider it one of the hardest SF available. But I'd also consider Brave New World (for its time) and 1984 hard-sf too.

Dragonriders of Pern -- soft SF, because genetically engineered dragons imprinting on humans and made to breath fire, while plausible, the telepathy and teleportation, is implausible. Its in the subgenre of planetary romance, not known for plausibility, but fun. Yet not all planetary romances need be implausible.

I haven't read Wind-Up Girl yet, but sounds like its hard-sf to me.

As to the original question, Nerddom is fandom. Nerddom has embraced anything that allows it to agglomerate a community around it. That's been mostly softer-SF, fantasy and horror. Not being much of a gamer, I'm only guessing there is some hard-sf games that have communities surrounding them. I don't know, is Mass Effect and the like plausible sf?

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I'm skimming because I have to leave 5 mins ago, but no way in hell is wind up girl hard scifi. No. No no no. Neither is Star Trek, whoch I see people in other places mention as hard sci fi. Just NO. The only thing I can think of thats close is those Mars books by Kim I cant think of the exact name Robinson? 300 pages about atmosphere processors.

That's Kim Stanley Robinson.

I've run across the theory that the "cutting edge" of "hard" science is now simply so mathematical and so far above the comprehension level of the average reader, even a smart one with a college degree, that it's really difficult to write fiction about it which is readable and scientifically accurate at the same time.

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I wouldn't mind seeing some hard science fiction for stuff like the political consequences of artificial wombs, new kinds of military drones, etc. Stuff that's around the bend.

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I'd argue that that's exactly Social SF. It's the use of the term "political consequences" that gives it away :dunno: (I don't agree with Space Champion's classification - merely having plausible science doesn't make a book genuinely hard SF, though I agree a multi axial system could be interesting. )

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I wouldn't mind seeing some hard science fiction for stuff like the political consequences of artificial wombs, new kinds of military drones, etc. Stuff that's around the bend.

Bujold has uterine replicators as a key plot point in Barrayar.

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I hear Revelation Space described as hard scifi a lot, not sure If I agree with that though.

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The trilogy does end up having quite a bit about alien life and evolution and technological progress and that sort of thing, though it's really muddled, IIRC. I think it gets a fair shake at being in the general direction, at least, of the hard SF corner. (by my logic, anyway.)

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