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What Is 'Hard' Science Fiction?

The rule of thumb for a writer of "hard" science fiction is that the writer is free to use anything his or her imagination can invent and depict -- so long as no one can show that it contradicts the tenets of known science.
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Many people associate science fiction with the fanciful, even the fantastic. Yet, to my mind, science fiction is not only the most breathtaking genre of modern literature, it is the most realistic.

I'm speaking of what is commonly called "hard" science fiction, stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so central to the tale that if you took out the science or technology, the story would collapse.

Think of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Take out the scientific element and there's no story left.

"Hard" science fiction is based on reality, the real world, as science has discovered and explained it. But it goes a step farther, beyond the known and into realms that have not been discovered and explained -- yet.

The rule of thumb for a writer of "hard" science fiction is that the writer is free to use anything his or her imagination can invent and depict -- so long as no one can show that it contradicts the tenets of known science.

The scope of "hard" science fiction is truly breathtaking: the entire universe and all of the past, present and future are the canvas on which we work.

All other forms of fiction are set in the here and now, on the Earth, where the sky is blue and there is solid ground beneath your feet. Science fiction tales, however, can take us to other worlds, other times.

In my own work, for example, I have taken my readers on a Grand Tour that shows how the human race might expand through the solar system and beyond. I have written stories about the biomedical breakthroughs that have the promise of making us forever young -- or killing billions. I've set my characters at the walls of embattled Troy and across the endless steppes of Genghis Khan's invincible Mongol armies. I've even done a tale about the end of the entire universe.

If the purpose of good fiction is to test the human heart in crucibles of fire, science fiction allows us to make the fire hotter, the test more grueling -- and more interesting.

I've been writing "hard" science fiction all my life. I often tell people that I write historical novels that haven't happened yet. But they will, just give 'em time. Several of my earlier novels have already become history. We have flown to the Moon and built space stations in orbit. We have invented virtual reality technology, digital books, stem cell therapies. Perhaps we have accomplished sex in zero gravity, although no one has yet admitted it.

The point is, "hard" science fiction examines the world as it really is, and projects what it might be like in ten, a hundred, a thousand years from now.

If you think of human history as a vast migration of billions of people over the landscape of time, then the "hard" science fiction writers are the scouts who go on ahead of the main body and send back reports about what's up there: where there are badlands and treacherous swamps, where there are sunny glades and beautiful, well-watered forests.

If you want to see what your future might be like, read "hard" science fiction. It's fun!

Which brings me to the anthology that Eric Choi and I co-edited, Carbide Tipped Pens. It's an ideal way to dip your toe into "hard" science fiction, in case you've never tried it before. And if you're a steady reader of "the hard stuff," Carbide Tipped Pens offers a solid array of seventeen stories by writers from all around the world.

Among the tales in this anthology are stories about the end of the world -- literally -- and the love of a father for his infant daughter. A world where lethal allergic reactions can be conquered by tattoos that stimulate one's immune system. A world in which desperately need supplies for a Mars expedition are blasted off the Earth and sent Marsward by a nuclear explosion. A world where the digital computer was invented by a Chinese sage twenty-two centuries ago, but the knowledge was deliberately destroyed.

There's even a droll story about baseball players extending their careers into their fifties and beyond by using modern stem cell treatments and other biomedical breakthroughs.

And one about recreating the mind of William Shakespeare in a digital computer. And another one...

Well, you get the idea. Seventeen tales of "hard" science fiction. Seventeen glimpses of possible tomorrows. Seventeen stories about what it is -- and someday will be -- to be human.