In this post I discuss the attitude of a writer of science fiction towards science and what effect this can have on the SF itself.
The attitude of a hard SF author should evidently be scientific as a commenter on a recent post about making use of science in SF mentioned:
The actual science invoked and the amount that is presented are of much lesser importance than this attitude towards knowledge, an attitude that considers all other ways of knowing the world of lesser, or even negligible importance.
When taken to the extreme, this evidently leads to scientism. Nevertheless, there is also room for another angle: ultimately, even if an example of SF employs sci-fantasy tropes, the scientific mindset criterion can still be fulfilled.
We should restrain ourselves from calling this hard SF, though.
Why? Because hard science needs to be represented in the SF in some manner and quantity…
As the commenter says:
A hard sci-fi author takes the science seriously. By that I mean they accept that the way science gathers evidence makes that evidence uniquely compelling, and the fact that scientific theories have requirements on them for internal and external consistency (i.e logical consistency and consistency with all known evidence) makes them powerful explanations of reality in a way that no other explanations can be.
Fair enough. But is he talking about actual science of fantasy science? I guess “the science” probably answers that question…
Although it technically works just the same for both, hard SF fans require there to be a decent amount of overlap between the way things operate in the world of science outside the story and the world of science represented in the story.
But representing science isn’t enough as the commenter indicated above: most hard SF fans would want both the scientific mindset and the representation of actual science to be evidenced at some level … at least beyond a particular threshold that each individual finds subjectively compelling.
For example, if there are plenty of hard SF tropes in the world building and the technology, but the mindset is anti-technology and anti-science and anti-progress in significant ways, and spirituality and mythology win out in the end over science, for example, then there’s going to be a glaring problem, right?
You would be hard pressed to find hard SF fans that wouldn’t be able to peg that out pretty quickly and recoil from it with revulsion and emphatic annoyance and disdain, right?
Prometheus is a recent Massenmedian example of this problem: it may superficially look technoscientific and progressive … but, up close, it’s more than just a cautionary tale about our use of science and technology: at it’s core, it contains a whole load of anti-technoscience mixed with dominating fantasy-religious mythology, etc.
Which is more important: a scientific mindset or scientific tropes?
You can go too far with a scientific mindset until the narrative is suffering from scientism and technological determinism. (‘Scientism,’ after all, is a negative quality by definition.) It’s not always the case that science is the most important thing, right?
But, can you go too far with the sci-fantasy tropes when there is a strong scientific mindset present? Well, you can upset people and make it unbelievable for them if they depend on a strong representation of scientific reality in their science fiction.
The question comes down to our understanding of fiction and the difference between scientific reality and scientific fantasy.
The important thing for a scientific attitude in an SF story, whether it’s clearly articulated and explained throughout or only parts of it are explained while the rest is taken for granted … like the latter isn’t what SF does routinely … is that the progress of science and technology and the very idea of science are made use of in the text and are provided a positive role. (I’m not talking about a totalised scientistic role, of course.)
It’s probably obvious from this that the scientific attitude/mindset isn’t in itself hard SF. On the contrary, it’s the epitome of soft SF: it’s about the psychological and the sociological components associated with the practice of science and the use of technology in a narrative context.
So, what I’m saying is that good hard SF depends in part on an important soft SF complement.
But does this soft SF scientific mindset depend on a hard SF sci-trope compliment?
No, they’re not symmetrical situations … as I’ve tried to demonstrate above: a fantasy science within a fantasy reality in which all manner of ‘actually’ unsubstantiated and impossible things are not only possible but ‘real’ … is, well, not only possible but manageable in a creative context … as long as the writer can cope. But what’s new there?
Evidently, hard SF fans aren’t going to like it because they need both compliments present; they’ll just pick it apart for being sci-trope fantasy and may not even engage seriously enough and for long enough to work out whether the scientific mindset is evidenced or not.
Fair enough. But, if they took the time and had the patience, I’d bet that they’d feel more cheated and disappointed, on average, by ‘hard SF’ that’s ultimately undermined by attitude transgressions.
Anyway, how many hard SF fans realise they depend on soft SF for hard SF satisfaction?