Blindsight and Hard SF

So for a nontrivial chunk of the past 48 hours, I have been trying to write something coherent about Peter Watts’ latest novel, Blindsight. It’s a very good book, and there’s an interesting discussion of its central thesis here — though if you want to pick up a copy it’d probably be best to act sooner rather than later, since Blindsight‘s publication seems to be attended by the sort of fiasco that afflicted the first edition of The Separation. Writing about it is proving difficult, though, and that’s partly because it’s hard to summarise (as a review inevitably must) without compromising the intelligence and rigour of Watts’ story, and partly because one of the things I want to talk about, at least in passing, is what it means to say the book is “hard sf” — which it clearly is — and why the hardness of the sf is part of the reason the book succeeds. And I can’t quite find a way to say it.

So here, for your consideration, are some extracts of other peoples’ opinions about hard sf. We start with Peter Nicholls, in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993):

Item of sf terminology used by sf FANDOM and readers; it has sometimes overlapped in meaning with “hardcore sf”, often used in the 1960s and 1970s to mean the kind of sf that repeats the themes and (to a degree) the style of the GENRE SF written during the so-called GOLDEN AGE OF SF. Though still sometimes used in a way that implies the element of nostalgia associated with “hardcore sf”, the term “hard sf” now seems to refer to something rather simpler, as summarized by Allen STEELE (in “Hard Again” in NEW YORK REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION, June 1992): “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 thing to say here is that from a cold start I would have said that hard sf is one of the least political of sf’s subgenres, and certainly not predisposed to right-wing ideology; the prototypical hard sf writers in my mind, as a reader who came to sf in the UK in the 1990s, are Stephen Baxter and Greg Egan, with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy sitting as the prototypical example of political hard sf. Anyway, Nicholls continues:

The commonly used distinction between hard and SOFT SCIENCES runs parallel to that between hard and SOFT SF. […] But it is possible to write a kind of hard sf about almost anything, as can be exemplified by Brian M. STABLEFORD’s rationalizing treatment of vampires in The Empire of Fear (1988). Hard sf should not, however, wilfully ignore or break known scientific principles […] 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.

I basically agree with this. I have no idea whether, say, Ted Chiang considers his work to be hard sf, but I usually think of most of it as such, because even though the central ideas are often fantastical, the rigor with which their consequences are extrapolated seems characteristic of hard sf to me. But it’s not something that tells me much about the value of hard sf as a literary form; the reasons it’s written, the reasons it works.

(As an aside, vampires do seem to come in for the hard-sf treatment rather a lot; Blindsight also features them, and off the top of my head there’s also Octavia Butler’s Fledgling, Scott Westerfeld’s Peeps (I gather, though I haven’t read it), and Joe Ahearne’s 1990s tv series Ultraviolet, somewhat.)

Onward, then, to a datapoint from Gary K. Wolfe’s review of The Ascent of Wonder (ed. David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, 1994):

The debate over what is and isn’t hard sf probably dates back at least to Jules Verne’s famous put-down of H.G. Wells (“he invents”), but in recent years — with sf seeming to drift all over the literary map — it’s become the focus for arguments over the nature of sf in general. Neither the 1983 Eaton conference on hard sf (and the 1986 critical book derived from it) nor the special hard-sf issue of Science Fiction Studies in 1993 seemed able to arrive at any sort of consensus definition, and yet most science fiction readers would still argue that they know hard sf when they see it.

I include this mostly because it led me to the mentioned issue of SFS. The only substantive part of that online is the introduction, by David N. Samuelson, which says some things that I think have the ring of truth about them:

Barely recognizing the existence of hard SF, however, let alone its generating power, scholars and critics largely fail to deal with either the science or the rhetoric. Relatively ignorant of science, most of us are uncomfortable with it. Those who study SF prefer to deal with Delany and Dick, Le Guin and Lem, whose fictions are more congenial to literary concerns with subtle and plurisignifying characterization, structure, and style. It is perhaps no coincidence that literary critics, as specialists under fire both from outside and inside their own discipline, also favor SF which at least implies the decline of Western civilization. While I share many of their interests, I see attempts to restrict SF to these unrepresentative examples as reductionist and short-sighted.

Picking the flowers that smell sweetest inevitably severs them from their roots, ignoring not only the soil but also the fertilizers that enabled them to grow and blossom. Hard SF does not lack semiotic interest, but its codes and conventions differ from those most of us as critics are trained to understand and appreciate. Style tends to be more direct and limited in signification, characterization more deterministic, standards of judgment for behavior more relativistic.

This, of course, starts to take us in the direction of an “sf exceptionalism” argument: sf that isn’t doing what regular fiction does, and that should therefore not be judged (at least, not be judged entirely) by the same standards. To borrow an image from Blindsight, whenever this comes up I feel like a vampire looking at a Necker cube, in that I think I can see both sides of the argument at once. It seems utterly foolish not to recognise that a story like Baxter’s Ring is addressing concerns that can’t be wholly grasped with what we might call “standard” literary approaches; but at the same time, I’m quite comfortable with the idea that a book like Gwyneth Jones’ Life will acquit itself well whatever yardsticks you measure it by.

I don’t have a copy of The Ascent of Wonder, but I do have a copy of The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, 2003), which includes an essay by Kathryn Cramer which quotes (presumably accurately) Hartwell’s criteria for recognising hard sf:

(1) Hard sf is about the beauty of truth … about the emotional experience of describing and confronting what is scientifically true. (2) Hard sf feels authentic to the experienced reader when the way things work in the story is scientifically plausible. (3) Hard sf relies, at some point in the story, on expository prose rather than literary prose, prose aimed at describing the nature of its particular reality. (4) Hard sf relies on scientific knowledge external to the story. (5) Hard sf achieves its characteristic affect essentially through informing, by being, in fact, didactic. (188)

This is starting to home in on the question of how hard sf actually works, although it’s worth noting that it only does so when you take all the criteria in combination; quite a large set of non-sf novels could be said to be “about the emotional experience of describing and confronting what is scientifically true”, for instance. Cramer also takes a historical perspective, and again talks about the intersection of politics and hard sf; I rather resented statements such as “And the hard sf attitude can be stripped of its scientific underpinnings until what remains is fetisihism — a love of hardware for its own sake — and the hard-nosed Ayn Rand voice that we now identify as libertarian,” although she does also cite David Pringle and Colin Greenland’s 1984 call for “radical hard sf”. I’m not saying that science isn’t a political enterprise, but I can’t see a useful description of hard sf that includes any particular political perspective; it’s surely an add-on.

Onwards! Hartwell and Cramer followed up The Ascent of Wonder with the 2002 anthology The Hard SF Renaissance, reviewing which John Clute commented on the alienating effect of the subgenre, harking back somewhat to the SFS introduction above:

There does seem to be something about problem tales that whiffs of favoritism. A hard-SF story tends to be constructed as a test of its protagonist’s ability to solve some life-threatening problem in a physical environment that has been constructed to offer a solution. To survive such a story is to win. So given the fact that hard-SF writers tend to create really smart characters they agree with and congratulate, the stories they write, these tales whose heroes are winners, tend to read as being boastful. It is a kind of cronyism. It is what makes the beauties and ardors of the best hard SF so difficult for “outsiders” to appreciate, because outsiders (I include myself) tend to feel — perhaps when they do not understand the physics of a hard-SF story, or when they sense that the author has skewed his universe to generate an outcome possible only in a universe so skewed — that they have been failed by the tale, that they have been Disappeared from the author’s world.

Compare this to Hartwell’s criterion 4 above — “Hard sf relies on scientific knowledge external to the story”. Well: to a greater or lesser extent, a lot of it does. Is this a bad thing? I’m not sure it is; to be blunt, the sort of scientific knowledge assumed is usually the sort of thing I would expect most vaguely intelligent adult readers to be familiar with, and if they aren’t I’m not sure it’s the fault of the story. (Which is not to say, of course, that there isn’t hard sf that explains itself badly or insufficiently; but I don’t think it’s so common as to account for the “outsider” position. But then, I’m an insider, so I would say that.) And again, to a certain extent I’m left with the sense that everyone else has read a different body of hard sf than I have; it’s not clear to me, for instance, in what sense most Stephen Baxter or Greg Egan protagonists “win”, since I tend to think of hard sf stories as being about seeking-after-knowledge rather than surviving, and quite often the former trumps the latter.

But from later in the review, this I agree with wholeheartedly:

It is almost an Emperor’s Clothes sort of thing: It is as though everybody in the field pretends not to notice how really depressed most hard SF is, how seriously lacking in affect are most of its protagonists, how lassitudinous are the worlds these protagonists inhabit and transform. Almost every single inhabitant of the modern American hard-SF story seems to be suffering from gray-out, from a subacute depressive condition escapable only through occasional spasms of problem-solving.

If only because it’s one of the things Blindsight addresses most thoroughly. Somewhere in its characters’ ancestral lineage there are Shapers and Mechanists — or Forged; I was reminded quite strongly of the Voyager Lonestar Isol from Justina Robson’s Natural History, whose mind is adapted for deep-space travel in ways that make her, in our terms, insane. The logic is the same in both books, which is that, in terms of what we know about space, and what we know about humans, space does not make a good or natural venue for human stories; and since space ain’t gonna change, we have to.

Lastly, we come to James Gunn on “The Readers of Science Fiction” (from Speculations on Speculation, 2005), who says some things I agree with absolutely:

The insistence that emotion derives from the intellectual in science fiction often confuses the discussion, as if the heart and the mind actually were the location of the humours attributed to them rather than part of a gestalt. An emotional response often is irrational, but a rational response is not always dispassionate. As an example we need only think of Archimedes shouting, “Eureka!” and leaping from his bath to streak the streets of Syracuse. (82)

Although he is also far more bullish about the question of reader-response than I could be:

“The Cold Equations” could have been told only as science fiction, not because the point of the story is science fiction but because every other situation retains an element of hope for rescue. In a contemporary lifeboat story or a story about wagon trains crossing the plains, the sacrifice of an innocent stowaway to save the lives of the remainder brings up images of the Donner party: the point of those stories would be the survivors’ lack of faith and their love of life above honor. Science fiction gave Godwin an unparalleled opportunity to purify the situation in such a way that there was no hope left for last-minute salvation, no possible sight of land or rescue ship, no company of soldiers to ride over the hill. The girl is to blame for her own predicament, her innocence is irrelevant, the universe doesn’t care about her motives, and the others would be as guilty as she if they compounded her fatal mistake by dying with her. The reader who does not understand this has not read the story correctly. The intellectual perception that the girl must die produces the emotional response the reader gets from the story. Perhaps the point of the story is science-fictional after all; where else would such a point be made; by what other audience would it be understood? And considered satisfying? (83-4)

Where does this leave me with Blindsight? Well, I’m still not sure, which is one reason I’ve been writing this post rather than my review. I think part of it is exactly that it doesn’t have the sense of being rigged that Clute talks about above. It has the sense of starting from a set of axioms and inexorably plotting out the consequences; the remorselessness of the possible (hey, I like that) — which I guess takes me back to the adherence to “scientific spirit” that Nicholls describes, or, to frame it in other terms, Blindsight is a book that admits fewer of the conveniences of stories. I don’t know whether I could describe it as “honest”, but it is resolutely not consolatory; and that’s always a powerful thing to read.

8 thoughts on “Blindsight and Hard SF

  1. I wish I had your curious ability to procrastinate from writing tasks by simply writing something else … :)

    At the risk of beating a drum that everyone already recognises as being my favourite, I think this is one of those problems of subjective definition. I’ve always favoured the Bob Shaw definition of ‘hard sf’, which (to paraphrase) says that a hard sf story must have a plot that depends on a novum for its development (e.g. anything by Greg Egan) – the ‘science’ must be at the core, as opposed to being the stage set/window dressing for a story that would work in any other genre with a little tweaking (a la Star Wars). But then I’ve probably only favoured that definition because it was the first one I came across …

    I think maybe it’s a mistake to think of hard sf as being a black-or-white descriptor; perhaps better to think of it as one of a number of analogue sliders on a mixing desk, one flavour among a few others. The end result is determined by the relative proportions of the components. Or something like that.

    I’ll shut up now!

  2. I agree that it’s impossible to pin down what hard sf is — I think we can say, or at least argue about, whether or not any given story is hard sf, but I don’t think we can come up with a rule that will capture all of hard sf to more than abouut three peoples’ satisfaction.

    But I’m not worrying at the what so much as at the why. Hard sf has a special place in my heart. I mean, I wouldn’t want to do without The Sparrow, but there’s a buzz I get from, say, a Greg Egan story, that … well, perhaps it seems rarer, and therefore not better, but more precious. But while I can talk about what I love about The Sparrow, I’m finding it much harder to pin down what I get from hard sf — at least in terms that go beyond personal enjoyment and geekiness. My sense is that a book like Blindsight is interesting as literature because of its hardness, and therefore should be interesting to anyone who reads, not just people who like hard sf; and I want to be able to make that case.

    Clear as mud? Yes, I thought so …

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  4. I wanted to write and agree with you wholeheartedly that the introduction of some sort of political stance into the definition of ‘Hard SF’ is irrelevant and misleading. I believe the esteemed Katherine Cramer is being mislead by the flamboyant political opinions of Hard SF writers from the Campbell era, such as Robert Heinlein, but overlooking that political opinions of other writers, equally famous, such as Asimov and Clarke or AE Van Vogt.

    A certain degree of “rugged individualism” or “Yankee ingenuity” tends to come across in Hard SF stories, but this is true in some but not all cases; and a characteristic like “individualism” is a character trait, not an conclusion of political economics.

    I would direct your attention to the reader-driven nature of defining Hard SF, or defining any genre. The subgenre exists because the readers have identified something which makes them seek out stories of a certain mood and atmosphere. The difficulty we have is defining to anyone’s satisfaction what that atmosphere is. It is like defining a family resemblance: you can see everyone in the Smith family has a certain cast of features, but it is hard to put into words.

    My own definition (for what SF author does not dabble with his own definitions?) is that SF is “Hard” when the illusion of reality of the invented science in the work is bolstered by real science, or something in the spirit and approach of real science: and the science plays so crucial a role in the tale that the tale cannot be told without it.

    Jules Verne makes a cannon shot to the moon seem realistic, even though we know such a thing is fantastic, by adding what we really do know about ballistics and astronomy to the mix. He places his moon-cannon in Florida for the same reasons in real life NASA launched from Florida: there the science is so realistic it is actually real.

    I call it an illusion because story-telling, ultimately, is like casting a magic spell. If the spell does not work, the illusion is shattered, and the reader can no longer suspend his disbelief. In the case of Hard SF the illusion depends on the reader’s interest in, or familiarity with, real science.

    Soft SF can rely on less plausible science, because science is not the emphasis, the humanities or some other discipline, like anthropology is. Character development means more than problem-solving in these stories.

    Ray Bradbury’s FAHRENHEIT 451 is a fine example of a ‘soft’ SF book. The robot dogs or giant wall TV’s are not needed to tell the story. The science is peripheral. The solution to the problem of book-burning, that a devoted cadre memorize the texts, is not a hard science solution. The book is really about Montag’s rebellion against conformity of a intellectually deadened society. Contrariwise, Larry Nivens’ NEUTRON STAR is ‘hard’ SF. The story cannot be told without telling real astronomy, what causes tides. The props like hyperdrive and invulnerable spaceship hulls are not scientifically realistic, but they are scientific in atmosphere, and so their use does not break the illusion of realism, as, say, a witch on the broomstick would do.

    Let me mention in passing the THE COLD EQUATIONS is famous because it took the Campbellian premise of real science seriously, but did not add the Campbellian premise of can-do Yankee optimism. The problem is not solved and the girl dies. All other Hard SF stories are like chess problems; The Cold Equations are a checkmate. The enjoyment of a chess problems story or checkmate story cannot be had except by someone who admires the rules of chess.

    If I may press this analogy one step further, even if Hard SF invents a new chessman, a knight that captures like a pawn, let us say, the enjoyment of the story depends on using that chessman according to the rules, displaying an appreciation, shared by the reader, for the cool intellectual pleasure of the game.

  5. John: thanks for the comment.

    agree with you wholeheartedly that the introduction of some sort of political stance into the definition of ‘Hard SF’ is irrelevant and misleading.

    It’s one of those “correlation does not imply causality” things, I think.

    I like this:

    the enjoyment of the story depends on using that chessman according to the rules, displaying an appreciation, shared by the reader, for the cool intellectual pleasure of the game.

    I think perhaps what I want to say about Blindsight is that it makes the game interesting and makes it matter even if you don’t know the rules and don’t follow the tournaments.

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