When Guardian Columnists Say Dumb Things

Several e-mails today from people who want me to put a hammer to the Guardian’s Stuart Jeffries for this statement yesterday:

This is a golden age for British science fiction, chiefly thanks to a wave of writers who are tackling an area their American rivals tend to leave well alone – far-future set, space-operatic, hard sci-fi. Americans tend to set their sci-fi in soft (ie, scientifically unsupported) near futures. Wimps.

Leaving aside whether this is a golden age for British science fiction (which as it happens is a statement I tend to agree with), this is in fact a fairly ignorant statement by Jeffries. Dear Mr. Jeffries: Meet Elizabeth Moon. Meet David Weber. Meet Jack Campbell. Meet Robert Buettner. Meet Sandra McDonald. And unless memory fails me, there might be at least one other American writer out there who has written a series of best-selling, award-nominated, highly-acclaimed books generally considered space-operatic, not to mention scientifically supported. His name escapes me at the moment. Perhaps it will come to me.

The point, however, is that none of these writers are exactly toiling under a rock; nearly all of these authors has at least flirting acquaintance with best seller lists and some measure of acclaim. They’re not difficult to find. Some of them might even be sold in the UK. Yes, I’m aware that military science fiction (which most of the above write) is not synonymous with Space Opera. But the two sub-genres overlap rather a bit, and these writers write in the overlap (also, not everything written by the above is straight on MilSF, Drake’s recent trilogy being an example).

Also, I really would like Stuart Jeffries to go up to Elizabeth Moon and call her a wimp. I like imagining all the things Moon, a former lieutenant in the US Marines, a sometime paramedic and a woman who raised a child with autism, could oh-so-easily do to him. When she’s done with him, maybe he can say the same thing to McDonald, eight years in the Navy, or Buettner, who was in military intelligence, or Hemry, who also spent years in the Navy.

Mind you, I’m well aware Jeffries was trying for a bit of snark, and of course I love me some snark. But snark works better when it’s not completely couched in ignorance. Try again, Mr. Jeffries; try better.

198 thoughts on “When Guardian Columnists Say Dumb Things

  1. Hear-hear!

    I am all for acknowledging a surge in quality SF from across the pond. But Americans don’t write hard SF space opera? Puh-lease.

    Dr. Phil

  2. And unless memory fails me, there might be at least one other American writer out there who has written a series of best-selling, award-nominated, highly-acclaimed books generally considered space-operatic, not to mention scientifically supported. His name escapes me at the moment.

    You must be thinking of Tobias Buckell. I can’t think who else you would be refering to. ;-)

    But then, Toby was born in Grenada and his mother is British, so Mr. Jeffries would probalbly try to claim him as a Brit.

  3. There’s no “American rivals”. It’s just people publishing in the genre. Yes, there’s a certain flavor to some British F/SF, but it’s in no way (that I know of) in competition with American published books.

    No one thinks “Oh god, if that person buys a China Mieville book, they might not buy Paolo Bacigalupi, because all of the drive to read cool spec fic with leftist social commentary will have vanished!”. I’m pretty sure that Alastair Reynolds and Gollancz aren’t thinking “Hah, that will show those laggard yanks” about the £1,000,000 contract he got either.

    Rivals? What nonsense.

  4. Josh Jasper @4: I agree, “rivals” was a poor word choice. I think he likely meant to say “counterparts”, but got so caught up in his own snark that “rivals” came out instead.

  5. Right, I’m setting up the popcorn machine and the beer keg, I want to see Scalzi-pwnage. Since I’m pretty sure we’re about to see flailing from Mr. Jeffries.

    *begins assembly*

  6. His name escapes me at the moment

    For God’s sake, it’s John Scalzi. I can’t believe no one got that. You, most of all, John. I mean, it’s just embarrassing.

  7. Hell hath no fury…

    Who knew that American Sci-Fi writers were a cabal of military bad-asses?

    Something new every day.

  8. Speaking of dumb things, you seriously just compared Sandra McDonald, Robert Buettner and Jack Campbell to Alastair Reynolds, Paul McAuley, Iain Banks, etc.

    That absolutely is nonsense, with regards to quality.

    Our Military SF authors can beat up your journo is a pretty defensive response. :)

    America has a bunch of popular military SF writers, certainly. You do not have an Alastair Reynolds at this point in time.

    Your nationalistic whinge there also missed a couple of people you could perhaps put in that company : – Sean Williams and Greg Egan. I’ll also raise your Sandra McDonald with a Marianne de Pierres.

    Hope you aren’t going to claim that David Weber is producing epoch spanning future histories, either.

    Maybe you could have come up with John C. Wright and Vernor Vinge for example, if you thought about it for a bit.

    You are hence both guilty of geographic blinders, in this instance.

    You might not like it, but the UK types are better than your lot currently, hands down.

  9. Try again, Mr. Jeffries; try better.

    Six words to sum up the smack down. Well done, Mr. Scalzi.

  10. Blue Tyson:

    “Speaking of dumb things, you seriously just compared Sandra McDonald, Robert Buettner and Jack Campbell to Alastair Reynolds, Paul McAuley, Iain Banks, etc.”

    Speaking of even dumber things, you’ve just made an assumption on data not in evidence. Which is to say the subject under discussion is subgenre, not presumed literary quality. Mr. Jefferies said Americans aren’t writing futuristic space opera very much; I’ve pointed out that they are (I didn’t even get into all the media tie-in stuff, which is pretty much space opera down the line).

    Your desire to get into a pissing match as to who has the better writers is pretty juvenile and stupid, especially when the only person attempting the pissing match is you.

    Try reading what is actually there, rather than what you think is there.

  11. Seems to me Jeffries is just pot-stirring.

    Something you yourself are pretty good at, JS. (smirk)

    I also have to wonder if Jeffries has read John Barnes’ A Million Open Doors and its several — very nice — sequels?

  12. Hm. I must remember to tell Lois McMaster Bujold that she’s been writing in a “soft (ie, scientifically unsupported) near future.” Then run (and then wash my mouth out for even saying it.).

  13. AGGH! The strength of my Anglophilia is bashing up against my repulsion towards assumptions and generalisations! It hurts, it hurts!

    I think I’m with Scalzi though, nonetheless…

  14. One more plug.

    It’s an older series, and some of the science bounces a little, but Alan Cole and his sadly-deceased writing buddy Chris Bunch — both nominated for Pultizers for the fantastic A Reckoning For Kings — did some excellent far-future Operatic-Miltaristic stuff in the STEN series.

    Bunch was a Ranger in Vietnam, BTW.

  15. Brad R. Torgersen:

    “Seems to me Jeffries is just pot-stirring.”

    Oh, sure, as noted in the entry. But when one stirs a pot, it helps if the pot isn’t a bit cracked.

  16. He didn’t say the Americans were better, Blue Brit. He said that they were as good and doing exactly what Jeffries said they weren’t doing. Nor was he attempting to list every American writer doing it. You may disagree with the “as good” part, and think the British writers rule, but it was still an inaccurate, ignorant thing for the journalist to say about the American market. And the snark about beatings was Scalzi showing Jeffries how snark is actually done. When are people writing about the genres going to get that you can distinguish a writer as exceptional without trashing other writers in the process? The playground behavior gets a bit wearying to the rest of us.

  17. Britain gave us Warhammer 40K.

    Any hard, coherent space opera/MilSF coming from Britain is merely trying to climb out of the crater that Warhammer 40K produced when it dropped from orbit to fight space communist goat men with chainsaw swords.

  18. Blue Tyson – You might not like it, but the UK types are better than your lot currently, hands down.

    Serious genre critics in the UK like John Clute, Farah Mendelson, Graham Sleight and Niall Harrison seem to avoid instigating useless nationalistic pissing matches over literary dick sizes. If you ever want to be taken seriously, I’d suggest loosing the chip on your shoulder.

  19. I think both the US and the Uk have much to answer for on the cheesy end of science fiction, Kevin S. The real question is: Does any of it “top” Perry Rhodan?

  20. I’d think that Lionel Fanthorpe is the real UK motherlode of cheese. The US has strong competition with L. Ron Hubbard, though.

  21. Actually, I believe your post here is attempting a pissing match. :) As probably was said journo. With all the wimps and dumb things and ignorance accusations etc.

    As for sub-genre qualifications :-

    Far future, hard SF space opera? I believe were his criteria. New Space Opera if you like.

    All 3 of these? Weber, no. McDonald, no. Moon? No. Haven’t read a whole Buettner yet, so dunno, maybe, but perhaps unlikely. etc.

    These are not the same thing (MilSF) and as I suggested, there were better counterexamples there for you. Michael Flynn, maybe if you like.

    He didn’t mention your Remics or William Kings etc, after all.

  22. Blue Tyson:

    “Actually, I believe your post here is attempting a pissing match.”

    Then you’ve misread it again, Blue Tyson. It’s not a pissing match when you correct ignorance. You’d do well to stop trying to make it into one.

  23. Blue -

    Try “I like the UK types better” instead of making your self out to be the arbiter of what’s good or not. Then you won’t be trying (and failing) to start a pissing match.

  24. Yup, I can’t really disagree that there are American writers who are writing space opera, hard SF and that, but this was a comment piece in relation to Alastair Reynolds’ big contract. It reads to me more like a bit of a chest thumping exercise along the lines of ‘look all you Guardianistas who wouldn’t pick up a SF book in a million years, we’re doing some good stuff here, you should read it’ rather than ‘Go team GB, those American writers are wimps’

    Bear in mind that it’s rare as hen’s teeth to get anything more than a tiny paragraph review of SF in the guardian.

  25. The real question is: Does any of it “top” Perry Rhodan?

    Heh…that brings back memories. Perry Rhodan was my first exposure to book-shaped SF when I was in elementary school. Gigantic block of Space Cheese it may be, but it got me hungry for more.

    I remember spending hours reading the collected tomes (with “holographic” pictures on the covers), and then hours looking at the starship blueprints that were on the insides of every cover. Good times for a nine-year-old whose head was in space most of the time anyway.

  26. 24.

    Josh, you mistake me for a UK ‘serious genre critic’. I am neither the former, nor the latter. Just a blog commenter, in this case.

    I don’t personally give a you know what about UK and US wedding tackle sizes. Hunt, no dog. I’ll give you some Canadians, too, if you like.

    A journo having wonky classifications (e.g. Liz Williams instead of say, Stephen Baxter) about something he is not an expert in is not too surprising. The host should be better at it, I would I have thought.

    25

    Yes, there is certainly UK and US stuff space opera stuff cheesier than Perry Rhodan. Not that I am claiming to have read all 2-3000 of them, of course!

  27. @John #25: I’ve never actually heard of Perry Rhodan. I’m curious now! If anything can be more whacked out 151 proof Grade B Dark insane-o swill than 40K I’d love to read it!

  28. I’ll pray for your soul, Kevin S.

    Blue Tyson:

    “The host should be better at it, I would I have thought.”

    Your alleging he isn’t is not evidence that he is, however; merely that your definition of what qualifies is slightly different than his.

    In any event, as myself and others have noted, you appear to be determined to having a pissing match no one else wants to have. That sort of thing tends to end up with you standing around in your own piss.

  29. 33.

    “Bear in mind that it’s rare as hen’s teeth to get anything more than a tiny paragraph review of SF in the guardian.”

    So perhaps why he put stuff in to annoy Scalzis, so get publicity, and maybe more articles if prove popular?

  30. Blue Tyson:

    “So perhaps why he put stuff in to annoy Scalzis”

    Rather more likely he did it because he thought he knew what he was talking about and didn’t. Journalists don’t like to attract attention by being manifestly wrong.

  31. 37

    Warhammer 40K would be a good pick for cheesier than Perry Rhodan.

    Lionel Fanthrope was mentioned.

    Lots of stuff by Kenneth Bulmer, E. C. Tubb (F.A.T.E. etc.)

    Spaceways, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon.

  32. 41

    You’d hope so. :) However, the wimp thing (and I think he was talking writing, not the ability to kill and maim with hands and weapons) – not exactly aiming for by the book article writing?

  33. “So perhaps why he put stuff in to annoy Scalzis, so get publicity, and maybe more articles if prove popular?”

    Wow. That’s grade-A, Limbaugh-quality tinfoil-hat schtick! Are you absolutely sure you’re a Brit?

  34. Johnny, I have to agree, calling David Weber a wimp seems… foolish. I mean, look at poor Joe Buckley, he ‘killed’ him, repeatedly, and he’s a friend! What could he do to an enemy?

  35. 44

    Yeah, I’m very Brit. Think you missed some of the earlier.

    I’m sure no-one would ever dream of writing silly stuff to get page views, aluminium coated or not.

  36. I don’t think there’s any question Jeffries wrote to get attention. However, I suspect he was going more for a “rah, rah, go UK!” sort of attention than “I’m making an ass of myself” sort of attention.

  37. Dan Simmons. (Who, in my opinion, is far too underrated in sci-fi circles since winning the Hugo for Hyperion)

    And you’re not so bad yourself, John. :)

  38. thanks I downloaded an Elizabeth Moon book to my Kindle, i’ll start reading it in a couple days when I finish my current book. woohoo!

    You know I spend more and read more than before now that I have this. It is really great.

  39. I’m expecting an anti-wimp movement…

    Dear Guardian…

    Please find enclosed one review copy of John Sclz’s ‘Very definitely the last colony’. As you may be aware John is a black belt in Dimac and has been known to rip a bear’s head off just to see down its neck.

    We hope you like the book… for your sake…

  40. If you want Bestselling authors with epic sci-fi space operas, try Kevin J. Anderson’s “Saga of the Seven Suns” series.

    This sounds more like sour grapes to me. He seems to have something against American sci-fi authors that goes beyond common sense, and a little too much national pride sprinkled in for him to be unbiased.

  41. You also left out Karl Schroeder author of the Virga series and Permanence among others. Space opera and far future.

  42. @John #38

    Thank you, good sir, but I fear I’m too far-gone for saving.

    @ Blue #42

    Oh, I’m familiar with Flash Gordon thanks to a certain movie I think all of us have seen. How anyone could think it wasn’t totally awesome is a mystery to me.

  43. Your nationalistic whinge there

    I think the nationalistic twittery was in the original article to which Scalzi was referring, don’t you?

  44. ATTN Stuart Jeffries
    You’ve obviously never read the greatest sci-fi space opera ever written, Alpha Centauri in E Minor (1977). It’s considered the quintessential space opera on this side of the pond, and in the entire cosmos for that matter, excluding Upsilon Andromedae, of course. Damn hair follicle-eating ingrates. They even made an Oscar-winning movie of the classic book, the screenplay pretty much word-to-word. The movie is entitled The Cat from Outer Space (1978). Perhaps you’ve seen it, hmm!? Like the book it was spawned from, it is now a cult classic in the most literate sci-fi community. I’d like to elaborate more on the author but I’m afraid it’s time for you to go stand in the rain. Run along now. Hmm, with all the hard sf you Brits are supposedly writing about, you’d think you’d be able to toss together a spaceship by now. Fifty-odd years years later, and you’ve still to step foot on the moon. Good heavens, dear boy . . . stop puttering about in the shed and get building.

  45. Nope,
    The “yay, Canada” was a tentitive wave of the flag … and then Mr. Beeler mentioned Karl Schroeder (Canadian).

  46. Charlie Stross is a great British author who writes some awesome far-future set, space-operatic, hard sci-fi.

    There.

    Dan Simmons is a great American author who writes some awesome far-future set, space-operatic, hard sci-fi.

    Alistair Reynolds …

    John Scalzi …

    Ian M. Banks …

    Vernor Vinge …

    Richard Morgan …

    Bruce Sterling (not as far future) …

  47. “Singularity Sky is a fascinating space opera that immediately grabs and keeps the attention of the reader . . . an ingenious concept. Charles Stross is a very creative and innovative storyteller.” –Midwest Book Review

    Er, I’m assuming that’s Midwest London.

  48. On a semi-related note, Ginjer Buchanan, editor in chief at Ace and Roc publishing divisions, made a comment recently that she was getting too many Urban Fantasy submissions and not enough of the Military SF/Space Opera. Maybe the US needs more quality Spacebuckling Adventure!

    Odyssey Workshop: Which subgenres do you see way too much of? Which subgenres do you not see enough of?

    Ginjer Buchanan: These days, we have a deluge of Urban Fantasy. As to what we don’t see enough of—I guess I’d say military sf. It works well for us in mass market.

    Link: http://odysseyworkshop.livejournal.com/15187.html

  49. What was it Bob Wilson once said? “English literature in the 20th century… there is none.”

    Hey, nice to see you guys back.

  50. So, what exactly is the definition of ‘space opera’? What makes a book space opera?

    Man, I’ve heard so many new terms since checking out this blog! (and found so many new authors, too – my checking account now hates me…) For me, books have always been like art – I don’t have a clue what the various ‘styles’ are, but I know what I like!

  51. He pretty much lost me by the phrase “American rivals.” If there is any ‘rivalry’, it’s utterly one-sided–the attitude of most American geek types (or, at least, the ones I hang with) towards British authors is more along the lines of “Wow, you’re British? That’s so COOL!”

    Dear British peeps–you already won the War of Cool when you gave the world The Beatles and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It’s okay. You can relax now.

  52. Though it does not necessarily count as far future space opera, American Writer Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy has to be the hardest of the hard science supported science fiction books in recent memory in my opinion.

  53. I have to put in a word for my favorite American hard s.f. writer:
    C. J. Cherryh.
    She’s been writing for over 30 years, and earlier this year came out with a new sequel to her Hugo-award winning Cyteen titled Regenesis.
    I’m pretty sure that the Foreigner series (10 books so far) and the Chanur series (5) are space opera.
    Among many others.

  54. Sorry John, you’re books are great fun, but they’re really, really not hard sci-fi. Thou shalt not exceed the speed of light, and all that.

    But then, neither are the Brits he’s mentioned (at least the ones I’ve read), and most hard sci fi is necessarily written with at least some proximity to the present, lest one by necessity begin pulling things from one’s ass.

  55. It’s all a function of visibility, which is tied to marketing or lack thereof. Charlie Stross asked me once why I wasn’t included in the “new space opera” discussion. Well, gee, it might’ve been ’cause I wasn’t Scottish…

    But right now the British are being touted for their space opera and American genre fiction more and more seems headed to Elf-land. There’s a lot of good American space opera and hard SF being published, but it’s prominence is eclipsed by thud and blunder magickal schlock.

    Marketing.

  56. Michael Kirkland:

    “Thou shalt not exceed the speed of light, and all that.”

    I defy you to find an example of a ship in my books traveling faster than the speed of light.

  57. Charlie? Are you still here? Shouldn’t you be meeting up with Ian Banks to form the Scottish singularity-sci-fi writer equivalent of Voltron?

    Been reading Wireless, and John is right. You do write EVERYTHING.

  58. While I love Dan Simmons’ writings (Hyperion esp.), I don’t think they qualify as “Hard” SF unless someone’s switched the labels around while I wasn’t looking?

  59. Oh, yeah, Cherryh. Space opera, characterization, multi-book plotting, worldbuilding, alienbuilding… Honestly, she’s in a class by herself in several categories.

    I understand why the Hugos tend to skip her these days, but there have been several years that her most recent thing exceeded a couple or three of the best novel nominees. She probably deserves at least 3 or 4 more nominations than she’s gotten in the last 25 years.

  60. #74 Apparently some people consider a ship ceasing to exist in one place and a coincidentally similar ship appearing in a place separated by a space-like interval, from the ‘initial’ location to be ‘exceeding the speed of light’.

    Silly, I know, and I wonder how they wrap their heads around part of the actual universe receding from us at a velocity greater than the speed of light.

  61. Physics can’t be cromulent. The word “physics” could have been at some point, but the concept the word points to cannot, since concepts cannot be cromulent under the current definition of the word.

  62. @the most excellent Mr. Scalzi (83).

    Nuh-uh! That’d be you doing that.

    (I’d be up for further exploration of ironic Cohenisms, but I’m late for my squee.)

  63. I always thought Scalzi’s stuff was space rock musical. Not so much opera.

    Seriously, what is the definition of space opera?

  64. @John:

    Your ships are still reaching their destinations faster than the light reflected off of them at departure.

    There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact you absolutely have to if you want space opera, and I likes me my space opera.

    It’s *far* better than “a wizard did it” or “reversing the tachyon flow in the forward deflector”, but you’re still fitting the science to your story rather than the other way around.

  65. From Wikipedia:

    Space opera is a subgenre of speculative fiction or science fiction that emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in space, generally involving conflict between opponents possessing powerful (and sometimes quite fanciful) technologies and abilities.

  66. Hi John,
    whilst the line in the article is clearly inaccurate I feel I must point to the related interview with Alastair Reynolds where Mr. Reynolds says “”I don’t know why, but American sci-fi writers seem to focus on the near-future, which has given us Brits a clear run at the most fascinating,” says the slippered Reynolds as we settle in his living room. ” http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jul/13/alastair-reynolds-science-fiction Therefore all Mr. Jefferies was doing was paraphrasing what his interviewee had said in order to justify a summary of some British SF writers.

  67. To muddy the waters further, I’ll toss in Peter Watt’s name, since ‘Blindsight’ has to be one of the hardest of hard-scifi books published in the last decade. And he’s Canadian….

  68. Michael Kirkland:

    “Your ships are still reaching their destinations faster than the light reflected off of them at departure.”

    No they’re not. They’re arriving in a similar but different universe those particular ships have never been in before. It’s not the same thing. They’re arriving before light reflected off similar but different ships would arrive, but again, not the same thing.

    Really, I don’t know why I bother doing the work of making my space travel rigorously acceptable under current scientific speculation if people are just going to ignore the work.

    Rajesh:

    “Therefore all Mr. Jefferies was doing was paraphrasing what his interviewee had said in order to justify a summary of some British SF writers.”

    Then it’s bad journalism on his part to present the statement as fact without checking it out first (or alternately, to present it as his own statement rather than someone else’s).

  69. The depressing thing about this is while I find the Guardian editorially uncongenial (I’m a Tory, the Guarniad most definitely is not), I’d argue it does have the best book pages in the UK — which may be damnation with faint praise, but that’s a whole other rant. But sorry to say this, but the only kind of SciFi that gets taken as seriously as ‘literary’ fiction is the “not really” variety. You know, The Children of Men, Oryx and Crake, The Plot Against America, Tge Road anything by J.G. Ballard isn’t really dirty genre fiction because they’re written by real writers.

    I’d also suggest military SF by Americans is beneath the notice of The Guarniad because you might catch horrible neo-con cooties off the trash, and decide to “liberate” Wales. Or something.

  70. I certainly don’t mind that you’re doing it, John – making epic galaxy-spanning sublight space travel stories is a challenge that few have even tried to play with – but dude. Come on.

    The number of writers who really understand the physics and math for how you can possibly get from point A to point B faster than c in the intervening normal space is as far as I can tell approximately three to five, and only one of those (who is no longer with us) tried to write anything like a single complete book operating within the actual mathematical and physics implications of what we believe is going on, so far. And that book was frankly quite insane – Bob Forward’s imagination was quite wonderful, but some stuff just doesn’t work well as fiction. (1)

    FTL as practiced by every science fiction book minus epsilon is a MacGuffin. I approve of the conceit in the name of making the universe interesting. I support your continuing to write about it. But, Cromulent, my ass.

    (go back to scribbling story concepts and character sketches for my slower-than-light galactic space opera saga)

    1. A number of authors have worked around the edges of the math/physics in an interesting and credible way – with some quite interesting looks into the implications of all that, such as Stross’ Eschaton universe and the impact of causality going poof (You didn’t write yourself into a corner, Charlie, honest. It’s not dead. It’s not even pining for the Fjords! The answer is obvious, if you start at the end and work backwards!). But even there, they are treating large chunks of the FTL issue as magic.

  71. Ah, the many-worlds interpretation…

    This particular strain of science-fictioners interpreting many-worlds in that manner has been described by actual bleeding edge quantum physics scientists (with actual senses of humor) as “Infinite improbability writing”.

    It’s a considerably higher quality of technobabble (fine single malt) compared to Warp Nacelles (Thunderbird), but it’s still technobabble. And I suspect you know that, even if you’re standing on a point for the sake of argument. (Who woulda guessed it – alpha geek behavior!)

    I am certainly glad that you prefer higher quality drink, but it’s still that trough.

  72. *sighs and wades into the swamp*
    So far as I am aware, could well be wrong here, how the OMW ships travel doesn’t violate the Many Worlds Interpretation because I don’t believe the relativistic concepts of simultaneity have been addressed with respect to that theory. As I understand it, the “hard” science fiction label applies if it doesn’t violate physics as we currently understand it.

  73. George William Herbert:

    “The number of writers who really understand the physics and math for how you can possibly get from point A to point B faster than c in the intervening normal space is as far as I can tell approximately three to five”

    Fortunately, since none of the ships in the OMW universe actually do this, I don’t have to be one of those three to five.

    People’s inability to accept that how I’m getting ships around the universe(s) is not actually a faster than light drive isn’t really my problem. However, as I personally believe FTL isn’t possible, generally speaking I try to arrange it so we can travel the universe without it, without also unduly breaking what we know of the current understanding of the universe.

    I certainly don’t have a problem acknowledging handwaving after a certain point (it’s why it’s called science fiction), but I’d prefer if people acknowledged it’s not in the direction of taking a physical object and pushing it faster than the speed of light. Which is by most accepted definitions what faster than light travel entails.

    Also, I wonder who it was that made the imperial decree that hard SF must confine itself only to what we know about the current universe, as opposed to interesting speculation branching off from what we know, because I would like to tell them to fuck right off. Interesting speculation is perfectly fine hard SF.

  74. The number of writers who really understand the physics and math for how you can possibly get from point A to point B faster than c in the intervening normal space is as far as I can tell approximately three to five…

    And so on.

    This is why I rarely bother with science fiction any more. You can’t read a book and talk about it without some bore turning it into a status game of My Book Learnings Make Me Smart And Virtuous.

    You know what would make science fiction interesting? The end of science fiction fandom.

  75. Harry @97 -

    I have no problem with writers using handwavium FTL. I encourage it. As I mentioned – the one attempt at speculative fiction that stuck very closely to known physics and FTL was close to unreadable. I read lots of science fiction – honest. I want writers to write more of it. I will keep buying hardbacks of it. I write it on and off. It enables settings that have plenty of fertile ground for the breeding of good plots and interesting characters.

    I am just saying that it’s handwavium, and not real physics, and that trying to dress up your handwavium with a veneer of real physics is not something I appreciate, personally.

    Trek throws a bunch of babble at the wall and invents new words, to the degree it’s ludicrous, but make no claims as to any degree of actual correspondence with real physics.

  76. @John:

    My suspension of disbelief greatly appreciates you crafting a plausible explanation of how your characters are zooming around the universe, but as GWH said, it’s still just a MacGuffin. A fancy and clever MacGuffin that doesn’t pee on the rug, but a MacGuffin nonetheless.

    I like interesting speculation branching off from what we know. It’s fun.

    I also like interesting speculation within what we know, but perhaps can’t afford or get through the politics of.

    I also like cookies. Your books are not cookies.

  77. John @96

    Speculation is the point. Speculation is why I buy your books. Speculation creates possibility – and ground for plot and character. It even gives me some hope that we’ll find a way to travel out to the stars for real, some day.

    But speculation wrapped in a couple of valid physics terms is still speculation. I buy writers MacGuffins in good fiction, there’s a reason for them, but they are what they are.

    If you start buying into the veneer around the MacGuffin, you are not doing anyone any favors. There are a lot of Trek merchandising opportunities down that road, sure, but it doesn’t make anyone a better writer.

    I am perfectly happy for writers not to try to explain their physics / FTL MacGuffins. The drive moves you from point A to point B with the following requirements and side effects (…). There are some exceptions to the “don’t explain” – The in-universe skip detectors in OMW were an interesting exploration of side effects by characters who clearly didn’t understand them and weren’t trying to apply excess technobabble to do so, for example. But trying to explain in the real world usually falls flat.

    They’re in-fictional-universe conceits; don’t mistake them for real-world, and I’m happy as a clam.

  78. Last time I checked Canada was part of America along with the rest of North and South America.

  79. Our host @91:

    No they’re not. They’re arriving in a similar but different universe those particular ships have never been in before. It’s not the same thing. They’re arriving before light reflected off similar but different ships would arrive, but again, not the same thing.

    I had a group of students analyze OMW and three other SF novels with regard to Einstein’s special relativity considerations in space travel.

    They found that Heinlein ignored the matter entirely, Card was straightforward, and Haldeman made their brain hurt. One student (an admirable fledgling of the nerd tribe) wrote of OMW, “Scalzi pulled a ‘Kobayashi Maru’ and avoided the whole mess.” :-)

  80. George William Herbert:

    “I am just saying that it’s handwavium, and not real physics, and that trying to dress up your handwavium with a veneer of real physics is not something I appreciate, personally.”

    GWH, it appears you’re saying that you like science fiction up to the point science fiction does the thing that makes it science fiction, i.e., dressing up handwavium (which other people might call “interesting extrapolation”) with physics. Which is a bit like saying you enjoy porn but don’t appreciate the actors fornicating.

    But, you know, whatever. Henceforth, you may assume that all my ships get about the universe through the use of fluffy warp bunnies, whose very cuteness twists the fabric of space and time. That should keep you happy.

    Michael Kirkland:

    “It’s still just a MacGuffin.”

    Actually, it’s not a MacGuffin, any more than the cars that the characters used to get around in Pulp Fiction were MacGuffins (the suitcase was the MacGuffin there). It certainly is a tool however. That said, the objection was not that there was a tool being used, but that the tool violated a definition of the subgenre. I disagreed (actually, I noted I was using a different tool entirely).

    Jeff Beeler:

    Using a definition of “America” that no one uses except to point out the Americas have more than one country in them, and which almost certainly was not the use offered by Mr. Jeffries, is silly. Karl is brilliant and I love his work to death, but as a Canadian he was not being referred to.

  81. Erm, wait a sec…

    This is a golden age for British science fiction, chiefly thanks to a wave of writers who are tackling an area their American rivals tend to leave well alone – far-future set, space-operatic, hard sci-fi. Americans tend to set their sci-fi in soft (ie, scientifically unsupported) near futures. Wimps.

    far-future, space-operatic, hard sci-fi => golden age?

    soft, scientifically unsupported, near futures => Wimps?

    What. the. Fuck?

    I get that folks are rushing to prove that there are American authors who are writing “far-future, space-operatic, hard sci-fi”, but the subjective assignment to that sub-genre is bullshit.

    This clueless asshole might just as well come out and said “science fiction = good. Fantasy = bad” and then tried to assert that all the Brits are writing SF and all the yanks are writing fantasy. Yeah, his stats are wrong, and one could go on about listing off a bunch of yanks who write science fiction.

    But that’s really not the issue.

    The issue is this guy slipped in his own subjective judgement about which subgenres are “good” and which are “bad”. Who the hell died and made this guy Elvis? How did he get to decree that hard-sf is good and soft-sf is bad?

    What the man seems to have completely missed is that his own personal taste for one particular sub-genre over another does not an objective statement make. But then maybe he realized it wouldn’t have been very much fun to say, something like, “This is the Golden Age of British SF because I love far-future, space-operatic, hard sci-fi and all the brits are writing far-future, space-operatic, hard sci-fi.” Yeah, doesn’t quite fly when you spell it out like that.

    put another way, Ray Bradbury isn’t “Golden”?

    Seriously?

    Subgenres have squat to do with quality. I’ve read good fantasy and crappy fantasy. I’ve read good hard sf and lousy hard sf.

    This guy needs his head examined.

  82. John: all my ships get about the universe through the use of fluffy warp bunnies, whose very cuteness twists the fabric of space and time

    Don’t kid around about that shit, man, warp bunnies’ll rip your gaddamn throat out just as much as they’ll twitch their nose.

    I’ve seen it. It isn’t pretty.

  83. Well, that’s the thing about warp bunnies, isn’t it, GregLondon. They beguile you with their adorability, and the next thing you know you’re floating in the cold space just outside the gravity well of Proxima Centauri with your trachea missing.

  84. The only reason we haven’t mounted an armada to wipe the fluffy bastards out of existence, is that we need the sumbitches. They’re like the gawdamn Guild in Dune. They’re the only ones who can warp space.

    But warp bunnies are why I always keep my weirding module handy.

  85. Harry Connolly @ #97

    This is why I rarely bother with science fiction any more. You can’t read a book and talk about it without some bore turning it into a status game of My Book Learnings Make Me Smart And Virtuous.

    I spend the better part of last weekend doing just what you said you can’t do with some serious fans and leading lights in the biz. Admittedly, you’ll eventually run into comic-book-guy from The Simpsons in SF fandom, but it’s not as bad as you make it out to be.

    Also, Child Of Fire was awesome. I hope it does well enough for a long run.

  86. Jeffries’ ‘wimp’ comment was simply silly, but there is a real pont about difference in scale. The military SF in the work of such writers as Moon, Weber, and that other guy no-one can remember is all at the same sort of scale as contemporary military actions. Banks, Asher and Reynolds are using a different kind of setting and larger scale.

    What Jeffries doesn’t seem to know about are the US authors who also write at that scale – I’m thinking particularly of David Brin’s Uplift sequence which ends with the death and rebirth of entire galaxies.

  87. @John

    We don’t really care how the characters in a Travolta movie get around their city, and similarly we don’t really care how Flash Gordon gets around his universe in a space opera.

    A plausible explanation certainly adds to a space opera, just as period appropriate cars add to the experience of a Travolta flick. But the characters are going to be zipping around the universe/city regardless, and if Travolta wants a 1979 car in a 1978 story, it’ll happen.

    And that’s fine. You want to tell a certain story and that requires the audience pay no attention to the wizard bumping the characters past the speed of light (or into another universe). Dress the curtains up nicely, and we’ll follow you. You don’t need to convince us the curtains aren’t there.

    Sometimes it’s nice to have stories without wizards. That doesn’t mean they’re “better” or that you’re a wimp for not writing them.

  88. Michael@113:

    I genuinely don’t understand the attitude you and GWH have with the “speculative” or “science” part of SF. Yes, not every science fiction author has to come up with plausible explanations for how their futuristic technology works but I appreciate when they do because it gives me something to think about. Otherwise, it’s just fantasy with robots and lasers.

    I like Star Trek and Star Wars as much as the next geek but you may not have noticed that the topic of discussion is hard SF. It’s difficult to have hard SF without, you know, the ‘hard’ part. Yes, the explanations that authors come up with are probably wrong or incomplete but you seem to be saying that it’s better to not even try.

    I mean, every sci-fi author could just have FTL drives with no explanation whatsoever but that just means every author will end up with ships that are all suspiciously the same because none of them put any thought into how they work.

  89. Oh dear, and I went to work. I’d better get to THIS work. *fires up the popcorn machine and starts opening the bags*

  90. and not real physics

    Dude, real physics is handwavium. It’s handwavium that fits the observable universe, but it gets rewritten more often than most fiction novels. Don’t confuse *our* interpretation of how the universe works with how the universe works. It may really be turtles all the way down.

    Given that, getting sniffy about the fiction section of science fiction is just doubly silly.

  91. Also, as the owner of a certifiable fluffy warp bunny, I’d like to say, the whole twisting of the space-time fabric has absolutely no effect on the waste production of said warp bunny. You’re still shoveling dirty buttons.

  92. @Vincent:

    There’s nothing wrong with fantasy with robots and lasers. All scifi (hard or not) is that to some extent.

    Coming up with plausible explanations for the standard scifi tropes certainly makes it more engaging, but that’s not hard scifi; hard scifi starts with plausible extrapolation and *then* fits a story into those boundaries. “Soft” scifi (for lack of a better term) comes up with plausible explanations for the tropes that the author decided to use from the get go.

    Interstellar travel within human lifetimes (whether you dance around the light speed limit or not) blows well past those boundaries.

    But it can still make for good scifi. Just not hard scifi.

  93. “Interesting speculation is perfectly fine hard SF.”

    Word.

    On a side note: Yeesh. Somebody get a freaking mop, ’cause there’s piss everywhere! Can I go watch Rio Bravo now?

  94. The funny thing is that a year ago, the Guardian was leading the death knell on SF, claiming that it couldn’t keep up with real technology and was thus no longer relevant or likely to survive. And now, it’s a golden age of British SF? Make up your minds, London journalists!

    The other funny thing is of course many pundits in the U.S. bitch about how far future, space opera and military SF isn’t real, hard SF, how it is in fact anathema to hard SF and will likely destroy SF any time now. And now space opera is hard SF, and hard SF about genetics, environmental disasters and space elevators is wimpy “soft” SF? “Soft” SF traditionally was sociological SF, which happens in near future, far future, and sometimes military SF, and deals with cultures, sociology and psychology. And sociological SF is great SF and appears on both sides of the pond too.

    I will say this: I am currently reading Old Man’s War and it is definitely SF, Asimov, Heinlein and Niven would not feel the boy was out of place, and if killer planetary mold is not in the far future, I’m deeply concerned.

  95. And unless memory fails me, there might be at least one other American writer out there who has written a series of best-selling, award-nominated, highly-acclaimed books generally considered space-operatic, not to mention scientifically supported. His name escapes me at the moment. Perhaps it will come to me.

    Jack McDevitt?

  96. Who says it has to be military to be space opera? I’d pay to watch Sharon Lee take this guy on.

    Not that I’m dissing the military stuff – I enjoy that too or I wouldn’t be reading Scalzi. :)

    Scotch anyone? :) Or would you rather have chocolate?

  97. Since the space-opera angle seems to be well covered I’d like to mention the ‘hard’ sf angle:

    Zoe’s Tale
    Little Brother
    Anathem

    Three of this year’s Hugo nominee’s from this side of the pond. I haven’t read ‘Anathem’ yet but I believe soft sf is an anathema to Stephenson. Little Brother is near future, hard sf. ‘Zoe’s Tale’ (the author’s name escapes me now), far future, hard sf.

    I think Mr. Jeffries was just being an ignorant shit disturber. Of course given the length of this thread I believe we can count the shit as thoroughly disturbed and his hit count way up.

  98. Josh Jasper @ 111, are you suggesting that the internet is giving me a skewed perspective? Maybe I should go outside and investigate this “sunshine” that everyone keeps talking about.

    And thank you for your kind words about my book.

  99. Michael@117:

    Your definition of hard SF seems a bit narrow as that would only allow for stories set in our immediate future. That would mean that interstellar travel stories by your definition can’t be hard SF. In that case Jeffries and Scalzi are arguing over nothing as there would be no such thing as hard SF space operas.

    I think there are certainly degrees of plausibility that separate hard and soft science fiction. For example, we can’t create wormholes but I would still consider a story that has wormholes used for travel hard SF if the author doesn’t violate our present understanding of physics. Scalzi’s skip drive is further on the continuum and ‘red matter’ is way down the line.

    Anyway, that’s my definition. More of a continuum than a binary.

  100. So, the argument goes that Scalzi uses FTL ships when he says he doesn’t, and that whichever explanation he uses means he isn’t writing ‘hard’ SF.

    And yet there are real physicists proposing and expanding on real physical ways in which Trekian warp drive could be done. We aren’t there yet (obviously), but wouldn’t having real, hard science behind the idea make any SF based on it somewhat ‘hard’ SF?

  101. And if you believe in a coming Singularity, then in the far future –or maybe just forty or so years from now– “hard SF” won’t mean what it does today. Right? I mean, enhanced chickens may be able to read our thoughts by then. Who knows what interstellar possibilities will arise.

    We still probably won’t have flying cars, though.

  102. Y’know, much as I agree-I’d also like echo Greg London @105.

    The soft sciences aren’t exactly for wimps. Just ask Aldiss, LeGuin or Robinson.

    And I’m still trying to decide if ‘Anathem’ falls into one category or the other or is the perfect blend of the two.

  103. Jason@128: enhanced chickens may be able to read our thoughts by then.

    If it isn’t warp bunnies, it’s friggen Bene Gesserit chickens.

    I will not fear, fear is the fryolator.

  104. Aoede: space opera is about as far from hard SF as you can get.

    Yeah, this guy is wrong in at least three different dimensions.

    far-future set, space-operatic, hard sci-fi

    Hard SF can either mean (1) a story that is scientifically plausible based on what we know of physics today (i.e. we don’t think we can go faster than light, so a hard SF story would not go faster than light) or (2) a story that uses completely implausible science, but the science is somehow an important part of the story (forexample, the science in “Fire Upon The Deep” is completely nuts by our current understanding of physics, but science in FUTD is a critical component in the plot. the fast/slow parts of the universe tie directly into how the story is resolved)

    So, by “far-future, space opera”, it would seem that this guy is talking about definition (2).

    Except:

    Americans tend to set their sci-fi in soft (ie, scientifically unsupported) near futures.

    So, he’s saying here that hard SF is (1) scientifically plausible.

    The guy’s own definitions conflict within a sentence of each other.

    Me, I’m more of a (2) kind of guy for defining hard SF. If the science is completely gobbly-gook, but the operation of science in the story is important to the story, then it’s hard SF.

    Fire Upon the Deep being a perfect example. The science is junk as far as real physics goes. But it is presented in a consistent manner and part of the draw of the story is revealing to teh reader how these rules all interact with each other and the effects they have. The ending of FUtD hinged critically on how the “science” in FUtD had been explained up to that point and how it operated.

    Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” didn’t give a damn how rockets fly, only how teh availability of rockets to mars changes people. It ends with the father introducing the son to the martians. It was all about how humans change in the face of technology.

  105. Let us not forget David Drake. True, Hammer’s Slammers are quintessential military SF, his RCN series is definitely Space Operatic (intentionally so, at least based on his self voiced intros to the Audible.com renditions of his RCN books).

    And regarding the wonderful Lois Bujold, it is frightening how well her books have aged, given that she started getting published at the dawn of the internet age when 80486s were the mighty processors of desktop.

  106. I guess my response to this is who cares. It is like arguing about your favorite sports team or the best food in town.

    I for one am just happy to have so much to read.

    Jeffries is probably mad because we stole Gaiman from them. Maybe we could make him feel a little better if we lend them Scalzi for a year.

  107. There is something pleasant in this blog and how its author neither abandons the battlements when the trolls edge from the shadows come nightfall nor ceases to use the effective weaponry in doing so.

    Much respect Mr. Scalzi.

  108. From the flap:

    Stephen Baxter is a trained engineer with a mathematics degree from Cambridge University and a doctorate in aeroengineering research from Southampton University.

    There’s a nifty picture of baxter sitting in the space shuttle as well.

    I get the impression that Stuart Jeffries prefers his science fiction from the minds of writers with science degrees from ivy league schools, and that Stephen Baxter should have won the Arthur C. Clarke a few times over. I mean, isn’t there a running joke about in Britain’s sf community. Arthur C. Clarke was the quintessential writer of science fiction, educated in both science and fiction. He came up with the idea of geosynchronous orbit and whatnot. There was actually real hard cutting-edge science in Clarke’s writings. A novel-length posting wouldn’t scratch the surface of Clarke’s real contributions to the sciences, to fiction, and their offspring, the time-traveling whipper snapper that is science fiction, of what the Americans now “Syfy.” Somehow I don’t think Clarke would approve of the corporate no-minded neo-branding of the genre. But that’s just me, a hardcore science fiction reader with honors degrees in both English Literature and Religion.

    University life: I absolutely loved listening to cranky old professors go off on tangents in front the class, a hundred malleable impressionable minds (I would elaborate on the other half of the class: the hungover, stoned, et cetera, because they inevitably drifted downstream to the retail stores). It’s what I miss most about university, the access to such people, the chance opportunity of seeing when have an epiphany right there in front of you and go off on some bizarre tangent, blowing minds. I took a first-year course astrophysics course, knowing the real studying began in the upper-year courses, smaller more intimate classrooms etc. First-year courses in psychology, astrophysics, etc. was really all about rote learning, memorization. That said, I think there can be something said for sf writers who spent years in science lecture halls, classrooms, labs, and science libraries. Because if the thought-provoking experiences I had in the English/Religion/Philosophy classroom are any indication, science majors have access to some pretty cool stuff. And it’s crammed into their heads for four-plus years . . .
    . . . waiting to complete its caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation . . .
    emerge as winged science fiction writers.

  109. I agree mostly with the thoughts of people about a narrow definition of ‘hard sci-fi’ (e.g., definition 1 from GregLondon above) and find I cannot stand to read ‘hard sci-fi’ because it so reminds me of all we do not know about science and the natural universe..

    For instance, it is easy to pick out errors that seem to violate current laws of physics; even I, with my last physics class happily in high school (it was sort of advanced, I guess, for the 1990s), find some elements ridiculous.

    However, the far future novels they refer to mostly deal with definition 2, where, and I would amend it slightly, they try and describe the science behind the effects seen. They may be wrong. They may be right and we may be wrong. I don’t care.

    I know most about biologic science, and most of what is described as far-future medical technology is just magic. However, go the extra effort to make the magic seem based on a set of human biologic principles: awesome.

  110. Oh, yeah, Cherryh. Space opera, characterization, multi-book plotting, worldbuilding, alienbuilding… Honestly, she’s in a class by herself in several categories.

    I’m particularly fond of Downbelow Station, which really is a lot of interpersonal politics and human drama cleverly disguised as hard-sf-space-warfare, so people who are afraid reading anything less hardcore than Foundation will make their wedding tackle fall off could still read and enjoy it.

  111. The Why’s I Read

    I read John Scalzi because he’s a damn fine storyteller. I like him. He’s a role model for generation Xers, aspiring sff writers, and human beings in general. I read Old Man’s War in two sittings. Rarely does a storyteller pull me into his book with such ease. He’s a writer.
    I read John C. Wright because of hype around The Golden Age. I took me the better part of a month to read it, in a multitude of setting, and never page to page. I read the first fifty pages, then the last ten, then the middle forty, then twenty here and there until it felt like I got the gist of what he was trying to convey. I’m now reading Orphans of Chaos. Though I can’t tune into Wright’s frequency, I appreciate him immensely. He’s the Rafflesia flower in science fiction.
    I read Neal Stephenson because I secretly want to be him. I wish I’d written Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. They’re masterpieces.
    I read William Gibson because I secretly wanted to be him. Next to Clifford D. Simak and Alfred Bester, Gibson was the most influential sf writer in my life.
    I read Stephen Baxter sometimes, though not at the beach. I read him late at night.
    I read Kim Stanley Robinson, though in the comfort of my reading chair. I read his books on the subway and/or cafes, where I can skip entire pages of long-winded exposition.
    I read Heinlein because I had to.
    I read John Varley because I also wanted to be him. Steel Beach blew my mind back in 92’, along with the whole Grunge music scene. I was one of the first sf books I read after graduating from university.
    I read Jay Lake because of his fledgling writing style.
    I read China Mieville because he’s just out there.
    I read Dory Doctorow because of the hype. He’s the master of self-promotion. For a guy with limited writing skills, he certainly has nicked a nice wedge for himself in the sf community. He does fabulous interviews, though.
    The bottom line, I don’t think the hard sf writers are good storytellers. I think they extrapolate on the mysteries of science quite well, perhaps pulling out an eloquent paragraph every other hundred pages. I just don’t think it’s good fiction. Being a scientist does not a science fiction writer make. Such scientific inquiries should be categorized with the works of Sagan’s Cosmos and Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and Darling’s Deep Time.

  112. I read fiction and it usually comes with labels. I have read enough over the years that I could care less how the story is classified. I don’t really care where the author lives either.

    What I do care about? Is it a good story. Simple as that, you either pull me into the world or you don’t. I really don’t get caught up in the FTL thing or is it hard or soft or space opera. To me, that is like missing the forest for the trees.

    When people ask me what books I am reading, I say hey, I just read this great story about..by this author…I do not say, oh I am reading this hard SF book by this British author…etc. Or any other kind of label you may use. It is, in the end, about good story.

    So in the end, the Brits have The Beatles and we have Asimov et al. Let’s call it a draw.

  113. This thread has been hugely entertaining to read. My sense is that most of Mr. Jefferies’ write-up was meant as a tongue-in-cheek build-up to his interview with Mr. Reynolds. But that “Wimps.” part was unnecessarily insulting. Regardless of how high Mr. Jefferies’ opinion might be of his country’s notable Sci-Fi writers, such a comment conveys a negative comparison to the value or quality of SciFi writers from other countries. It’s not a zero-sum game. I don’t think it was intentional, but I think it was damned stupid. If you’re going to write on a subject on a public forum, be cognizant of the realm in which you write.

    Also, since I read this post this morning, I’ve not been able to dislodge the vision of someone calling Elizabeth Moon a wimp to her face, out of my head. Damn you, Scalzi!

  114. Also, since I read this post this morning, I’ve not been able to dislodge the vision of someone calling Elizabeth Moon a wimp to her face, out of my head.

    But the redoubtable Ms Moon is just a harmless old lady. She says so herself, frequently. (Never mind the swords or the fencing, she’s harmless, honest.)

  115. @133 I find that Bene Gesserit chicken is actually best served in a nice Thai Curry…well spiced.

    Ba-Dum-BUM!!!

    Meh, I tried.

    Anyway, On Topic, I still don’t understand what makes science fiction “hard”. It is simply a matter of Rigor? As in, people make a pretense of caring about the scientific rationalization of their fiction? Because of course it’s all a matter of degrees, innit?

    Star trek made up “scienticious” words so it’s not hard enough, but Neal Stepehenson makes up ENTIRE REALITIES and there ain’t nothing soft about that man’s fiction…so where’s the line?

  116. Jim, “Wrath of Khan” was soft SF. It was about the personalities of Khan and Kirk clashing, Captain Ahab, the chase for the white whale. That they were in space ships was irrelevant.

    From the TV series, The City on the Edge of Forever involved time travel and how people can affect timelines, but all that was really irrelevant. The point of that episode was when Kirk holds back Bones. The point was when Spock says “He knows, Doctor. He knows.”

    Hard SF is where the technology and science are almost like another character that the audience cares about. The Matrix was hard SF because the physical matrix that people were held in was an integral component to the story.

    You didn’t care about the time machine in “City on teh Edge of FOrever”, you cared about what time travel forced the characters to face. In The Matrix, you care about the matrix itself, it’s almost like another antagonist alongside Agent Smith. And the resolution of the Matrix revolved around how the matrix itself actually worked, neo learns how to hack inside in the matrix, stop bullets, fly.

    As for the “line”, well, definitions are useful when talking about the centers fo things. When you start focusing on the boundaries, you can get into language debates that don’t actually teach you much.

  117. Hmm. So, a lot of the space-opera written in the US currently is also military SF. I wonder if we should be concerned or fatalistic about that…

  118. hugh57 @145 scrobe:

    Fluffy Warp Bunnies rip out people’s tracheae? That must be why in space no one can hear you scream.

    The popular aphorism has been corrupted: the original version read “In space, no one can hear fluffy warp bunnies scream.

    “Or anything else below a megaton proximity explosion or radar scan.¹”
    ____
    ¹ Benford & Brin in Heart of the Comet described a passing radar sweep as producing a clicking sound in the inner ear. Never tried it myself, esp. not in vacuum. Don’t plan to try it, TYVM.

  119. GregLondon writes in @149:

    You didn’t care about the time machine in “City on teh Edge of FOrever”

    We totally care about the time machine. Because, like, it’s the Grauniad of Forever.

    *groan*

  120. Gee, if you use Bob Tucker’s original definition of “Space Opera” you could almost agree with some of what Jeffries says…their hacks are hackier than our hacks! But how does that make for a “Golden Age?”

  121. Strangely, the Guardian website has published another interview of Alastair Reynolds, by one Richard Lea.

    It is a lot more informative, a lot less pedantic and has no plot spoilers, as opposed to the newspaper article, whose author actually confessed he hadn’t read any of A. Reynolds’s books before setting off to interview him (and he’s getting paid for that!).

    Definitely the one to read. The link is here:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jun/23/alastair-reynolds-1m-contract-science-fiction

  122. About that ‘hard SF is what we know’ thing:

    In their study, Changsuk Noh, M.J. Collett, and H.J. Carmichael from the University of Auckland in New Zealand, along with A. Chia from Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, and Hyunchul Nha from Texas A & M University at Qatar in Dohar, Qatar, have proposed a scheme for teleporting a beam of light, including its fluctuations over time. They hope to show that it’s possible that a physical object (e.g. a quantum field) in one location could emerge at another location in the same quantum state, so that any conceivable measurement would yield the same result in both locations. In contrast, previous teleportation schemes do not seriously consider reproducing certain elements, such as temporal fluctuations.

    http://www.physorg.com/news166779852.html

  123. John@104 writes:
    GWH, it appears you’re saying that you like science fiction up to the point science fiction does the thing that makes it science fiction, i.e., dressing up handwavium (which other people might call “interesting extrapolation”) with physics. Which is a bit like saying you enjoy porn but don’t appreciate the actors fornicating.

    But, you know, whatever. Henceforth, you may assume that all my ships get about the universe through the use of fluffy warp bunnies, whose very cuteness twists the fabric of space and time. That should keep you happy.

    No, you’re misunderstanding.

    What you do in the book is fine by me, whether that’s laser pumped lightsails, skip drive, Trek’s warp drive, or neutronium-enhanced fluffy warp bunnies (Pissed-off PETA members already queueing up and all…).

    When you start believing out here that the handwavium is possibly real, I have a problem with it.

    I should mention now in context, I am a part time aerospace engineer, I own a (very small and not profitable) business in that field, and have been the lead designer for bids for major NASA and commercial space projects such as the COTS space station logistics, a competitor for the Pluto probe mission, and a couple of NASA and DOD launch vehicles. I know most of the alt.space industry folks quite well, many of the people who do research for the now former NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (lightsails, antimatter propulsion, beanstalks, and real scientific looks into warp drives and the like where they cross into possibly being reality).

    Everyone I know in the field loves speculative fiction. We also spend quite a bit of time explaining to everyone else “No, just because writer X said something at a convention about how their technology Y could be real, doesn’t make it so.”

    Don’t buy your own hype. MacGuffins are in-universe constructs. Keep ‘em there. Taking a NIAC paper on Abucierre type warp drives, wormholes, the various quantum teleportation stuff, any of that sort of thing as a starting point for a in-universe MacGuffin is great. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a MacGuffin. Those lose physical meaning right at the edge of the last page, no matter how many fanboys and girls and authors earnestly want to believe

  124. “I still don’t understand what makes science fiction “hard”. It is simply a matter of Rigor? ”

    No, originally, it just meant that you wrote a story about physics, mathematics, chemistry or biology — the “hard” sciences. It didn’t matter if you wrote about far planets or the Earth, if you had scientists dealing with hard science problems, you had a hard SF story, whether it was a black hole or a new brain treatment. But now “hard” has become a synonym for authentic, pure SF as opposed to posers. Which is dumb.

    Many scientists went into their professions because they were inspired by SF stories about the possibilities of science, not because the stories were scientifically rigorous doctoral theses. Certainly accuracy is more desirable than not, but speculation based on yet unproven scientific theories is not unscientific. It’s hypothesizing a model. And purity tests suck. SF has the opportunity to explore all aspects of science. To say that one branch of science, one approach, or one setting or plot is the be all and end all seems to me to entirely miss the point of science fiction.

    Are you saying that Jeffiries hadn’t even read Reynolds before doing the article? There’s a golden age of British SF, but he hasn’t read any of it? No wonder he hadn’t heard of the American writers.

  125. GWH: Seems to me that you want science fiction to ignore the science part of the fiction. You object to “a veneer of real physics” but that seems absurd. Should instead the internal science of the fiction be ignored? In a technical rich story line like interstellar military action? Even WWII fiction, written contemporaneously, waxed on some length about the various technical parts in play, but you want the science fiction equivalent of that to ignore it? I don’t understand your objection. I do appreciate it when unnecessary personal “buffing” takes place. I have some degrees that don’t have anything to do with this debate, should I mention them in passing?

    “But that doesn’t mean it’s not a MacGuffin. Those lose physical meaning right at the edge of the last page, no matter how many fanboys and girls and authors earnestly want to believe…” Wow, you’ll certainly convince the readers here that you are correct by being overtly insulting, adding to your earlier mere patronizing.

  126. George William Herbert:

    “When you start believing out here that the handwavium is possibly real, I have a problem with it.”

    And again, I’m wondering why you’re having such a problem with the “fiction” part of science fiction, GWH.

    I don’t think the issue is whether or not skip drives are real, because quite obviously they are not. It’s not even an issue of whether they are possible; they might be, they might not be, but even if they are there would almost certainly be a whole lot of work to get from the intentionally vague description of the skip drive that I’ve formulated to something practical. Someone else can work on it if they want.

    The issue is whether at this point in time something like a skip drive is disallowed by our current understanding of the universe. To the best of my knowledge — and my knowledge is not inconsiderable — they are not. “Not disallowed” does not mean “real” or “possible,” it means “not disallowed,” which for what I do is good enough. The skip drive is based on our current understanding of the universe, unlike, say, a faster than light drive. Doesn’t mean it actually exists. I’m unaware of suggesting otherwise, and confused as to why you seem to think this is an issue.

    Your “don’t confuse this with the real world” admonition, aside from being rather more annoyingly condescending than I certainly hope you intended it to be, is also unnecessary and more than a little silly. Yes, I’m aware I’m writing fiction, thanks; I don’t need you to tell me.

    Also, you’re still using the word “MacGuffin” incorrectly.

  127. I just want everyone to know, I started reading about Quantum superposition on Wiki, and you have blown my mind.

    Thanks.

  128. Still giggling over “fluffy warp bunnies”

    “Captain! That last strike damaged the pellet feed! We’re losing field containment!”
    “Pink alert! Eject the warp hutch!”
    “It’s… too late. Captain, look at the vid feed from engineering.”
    [blood everywhere. corpses floating with their throats torn out]
    “Where are they now?!”
    “They’re warp bunnies, Captain, they could be… anywhere.”

  129. (Pissed-off PETA members already queueing up and all…)

    Cool- an alternative to the warp bunniy drive!

  130. See, some good…. er, ok, something comes out of every discussion… oh, hell. This is the meme equivalent of having calculated e backwards the wrong way without a summoning grid protection circle up, isn’t it.

  131. I think the most amusing thing about this whole discussion has been the strange assumption that The Grauniad has ever been a vehicle for journalism.

  132. Wow, what an odd turn this conversation took.

    I think y’all are just using the term “hard sf” in subtly different ways. If “not definitively ruled out by current physics” is your criterion, then sure, Skip drive is in. But that’s not how I’ve understood “hard sf” in 20+ years of SF fandom. (I could just be thick, of course. Not ruling that out.)

    My understanding is that hard SF is constrained from postulating scientific breakthroughs. Engineering breakthroughs, sure! Technological improvements by the bucketful! But no fair predicting the outcome of a convenient Kuhnian revolution. (Uhm, does invoking Kuhn count as the Aristotle thing from the other post? If so, sorry, I’m really not a pompous windbag – I just play one on the ‘net…)

    What constitutes a “breakthrough” is subject to debate, of course. But the simple fact that something isn’t proven to be impossible isn’t good enough – again, as I’ve understood the term – to be included in “hard sf”.

    Spinning black holes as time machines? Stephen Hawking may have written about it, but that doesn’t make it hard sf.

    The universe is a hologram? Sure! Feel free to use the fact that the amount of information containable in a space is constrained by surface area instead of volume. But if your story involves finding our universe’s projector, I’d say you’ve just left the realm of hard sf.

    A Skip drive requires a vast change in our understanding of how the universe works. It would take a breakthrough just to get us to the point where we could talk in concrete terms about what sort of breakthroughs it would take to let us build one.

    So by that definition, OMW is not hard sf. It’s definitely “firm sf”, though.

    To cross the atomically-thin but vast gulf separating fiction from reality and talk about the actual plausibility of something like the Skip drive, I think anything that even *seems* to get people from point A to point B faster than light emanating from point A can get to point B would violate causality. Even if we could figure out how the heck to skip to another universe, I suspect we’d find something else stopping us from using that capability to do pseudo-FTL. History teaches us that every time we think we’ve found a loophole in relativity, reality’s second string comes off the bench to close it:

    Warp drive could totally work! . . . if you can generate negative quantities of energy in ginormous magnitudes..

    Quantum entanglement sends information faster than c! … except QM keeps us from extracting so much as a single bit of that information without additional info, transmitted the slow way.

    And so on. So I suspect that skip drives, like their actual-FTL brethren and time machines, are right out.

  133. bla bla bla…I’m not scared of the gyrene. And as for the others, well…if they’re big there is always the 1911.

  134. British SF? Someone ought to have mentioned Peter F. Hamilton here. Don’t know if his work counts as ‘space opera’, but it is cool.

  135. @149, That’s that kind of clear, meaningful answer that I should have expected from a man of your talents…the discovery of warp bunnies is clearly just the beginning for you, young man.

    Bunnies, Be Ambitious!

  136. Scalzi @165: My warp bunny’s name is Dayna. If, you know…you ever DO write that story about them and you find some of them need names…

    And actually, the scenario put forth by mensley @162 is not disallowed–rabbits need constant food due to how their digestive tracts work, 8 hours without and bunbun is almost certainly a goner. A ruthless warp bunny with a malfunctioning pellet feed would certainly find food anywhere it could…mine personally expresses displeasure with her pellet feed by eating the furniture loudly, but she’s small yet.

  137. @176 Are you confusing it with MILFsf? I did enjoy the ‘Tumescent SF’ definition from the Making Light discussion.

  138. “… the Flocculent PLOT drive makes use of the Para-Lagomorphic Osculational Topology effect predicted by the discovery of non-associative charm-asymmetry scattering and was first developed into a successful bio-technology by the McDonald-Disney Corporation in the early 22nd century…”

  139. (Pissed-off PETA members already queueing up and all…)

    actually, the scenario put forth by mensley @162 is not disallowed–rabbits need constant food due to how their digestive tracts work, 8 hours without and bunbun is almost certainly a goner

    Which is why it’s a good thing those PETA members are lining up. Feeding all those warp bunnies ain’t cheap, and they’re not begans.

  140. 171: So you’re saying that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, with its hyperspace jumps and psychohistory predictions, isn’t hard SF, even though I’ve heard it called that all my life? Because those aren’t engineering breakthroughs either. Or are you saying this is purely a battle between the Newtonian physicists and the quantum mechanics physicists? It sounds more like a “anything we think is good is hard SF and anything we don’t like as speculation isn’t” argument.

  141. As I was catching up on the details of the conversation, and saw the warp bunnies part my very first thought was oh..oh..oh.. I hope Scalzi writes a story about Warp Bunnies! Imagine my excitement when I read he was “Gonna have to”. I’m telling you right now the no one would EVER again question whether Americans wrote the best hard sf. It would finally validate hard sf as classic literature.

  142. I’m really amused about how many people here think they have T3h One True Version of what “Hard SF” is.

    Next up, can we define “cyberpunk”, “high” and “low” fantasy, “steampunk” and the for bonus round, “slipstream”. Winner gets to decide what makes a story “punk” or not.

  143. KatG@183: maybe that’s the Guardian’s take on it, but it’s certainly not mine, nor do I think that’s the take of any of the other folks arguing about this. I love OMW. I think it is outstanding Science Fiction. I just wouldn’t call it hard SF. As I said, it’s firm. Hardish.

    And no, I would not call Foundation hard SF, either. Those who do must be using the other definition mentioned above (which I hadn’t encountered until this thread): SF where the science itself is central to the plot, almost a character of its own. Again, that’s not what I mean by “hard”.

    As I said, I could be completely off-base, but if so, I’ve got some company.

    But there are a couple things “hard” definitely does not mean when applied to SF:
    - “good”. Sturgeon’s Law applies to hard SF equally as well as to soft. I like ‘em both, personally, though I’ve met folks who just can’t turn off their physicist brain enough to enjoy the softer stuff. Their loss.
    - “serious”. You can clearly have deadly serious stories about people zipping around the galaxy at transluminal speeds, taking trips to the past, and all that jazz; most of Star Trek and Star Wars are serious. You can also have lighthearded fiction that happens to take place in a world grounded in hard sf, but if you’re writing broad comedy you probably won’t sweat the physics too much.

  144. ‘SF where the science is central to the plot’ is Asimov’s own defintion.

    There is potential for infinite confusion here because not only do the two definitions not coincide; I think they actually pull in opposite directions. Science is more likely to be central to the plot if it’s odd science (like, say, psychohistory); if it’s just the normal science we’re all used to, it doesn’t need to be foregrounded in the same way. (No doubt exceptions exist. Also it’s perfectly easy for SF to be hard in neither sense – using scientifically implausible things, like warp drives, but just as background.)

    I think it’s striking that Little Brother was mentioned above as an example of hard SF (in the ‘conforms with real world science’ sense, I think), when some people think it’s not SF at all – the world where it’s set is too like the one we live in (in scientific respects, anyway).

  145. Based on the definitions I’ve seen floating around, I’d like to make the following observations:

    1) If Hard SF if defined as the fiction adheres to core scientific (mostly physics-based) principles that we know and can prove now, then very few people (no one?) who write about the far future adhere to this definition. Those of you who argue Hard SF should be defined this way: I am interpreting your statements globally, but feel that this is a fairly consistent definition. It seems to me that if you can’t prove it in the lab or pretty darn convincingly in theory, it shouldn’t be included in Hard SF, according to these definitions.

    2) If ‘science central to the plot’ is used, then some far future would be considered Hard SF.

    3) There is a middle ground here, which is that if you don’t violate known principles (at least at the time), either group should acknowledge that. I prefer these kinds of books, myself. Better knowledge of science by the author usually leads to more interesting descriptions, if they also are a gifted writer.

    4) In fact, I want to propose:
    if you write a far future SF novel about something that then is proven as not only not completely impossible but maybe potentially feasible during your lifetime, you get the ‘Inspissating SF’ prize.

  146. Well, since Julia @ 175 pointed out that the science may be there, and Fish @184 noted that it’s now a matter of National Pride, the question before us is: What do we need to do to support John in his statement that, “The hell of it is, now I’m gonna have to write a story featuring fluffy warp bunnies?

  147. I propose a new set of definitions for “hard SF” and
    “soft SF”.
    Hard SF = science fiction that is hard to understand.
    Soft SF = science fiction that is easy to understand.
    Thus it all becomes subjective, one man’s Hard SF could easily be the next man’s Soft SF.
    ;)

  148. fellow-ohioan @ 191: I’ve found a more practical definition to be:
    Hard SF = SF I’m willing to buy in Hard cover
    Soft SF = SF I’m willing to wait to by in Soft cover

    This is, of course, subjective as well.

    I loves me some physics and mathematics and engineering and biology and chemistry and sociology and … And I loves me some really excellent well-written fiction. And I adore it when the fiction seem to pay attention to the science, but I don’t require it. I’m a fan of good storytelling first and foremost.

    Although there’s something to be said for the very old joke that “Hard SF” is what produces emotional tumescence in the scientifically-minded reader :)

  149. 186: “As I said, I could be completely off-base, but if so, I’ve got some company.”

    I’ve got some company too. :) Your definition is a relatively new one. Traditionally in SF, it’s been, as 188 pointed out:

    ‘SF where the science is central to the plot’ is Asimov’s own defintion.

    Your definition sounds a bit like Mundane SF philosophy, which says far future SF is essentially fantasy, not SF at all. But your definition allows for a Kraftomatic mattress firmness adjustment that is probably going to make for a lot of arguments as to just how “firm” a particular story is. Essentially, depending on the individual person’s criteria, the author either passes the purity test of hardness or does not. Whereas the traditional definition of the sub-category — a story centrally about hard sciences — is quite simple and does not require a subjective benchtest.

    That’s not me saying you shouldn’t use your definition. But it’s definitely too narrow a viewpoint of SF types for me to embrace.

    185: Noooo! Not slipstream! Anything but that!

  150. KatG@194: You seem to be conflating two different definitions still:

    “‘SF where the science is central to the plot’ is Asimov’s own defintion. ”

    vs

    “a story centrally about hard sciences”

    Asimov’s definition is not restricted to the “hard” sciences, and indeed I would not put psychohistory in that camp.

    In any case, it appears that “hard SF” is not a very useful label, since it has too many definitions. Trying to define it is probably futile, along the lines Josh@185 indicated. Which is fine by me. I don’t have a horse in this race.

    Someone pointed out that if you’re lumping SF stories into categories based on real-world plausibility, OMW probably goes in the “not” category. Our esteemed host protested, so I joined my voice in support of the original point. The clever relativity-sidestepping gimmick behind the Skip drive doesn’t necessarily get you a buy into the “plausible” club. No matter what’s “really” happening behind the scenes, it quacks like FTL travel. Ergo, not, by that particular definition, hard SF.

    And yes, some would argue that FTL travel takes you out of SF entirely and into fantasy, but I see no value in such a stance. If Star Wars is fantasy (which many would say it is, though I note that it is shelved with the SF), it’s because of the Force, not the jaunting about in hyperspace.

  151. Psychic, empathetic 6 legged treecats are the very definition of hard Scifi.

    How DARE they. Next they’ll be mocking the literary brilliance of Twillight.

    THIS WILL NOT STAND>!!

  152. 195: “Asimov’s definition is not restricted to the “hard” sciences, and indeed I would not put psychohistory in that camp.

    In any case, it appears that “hard SF” is not a very useful label, since it has too many definitions.”

    I stand corrected. :) Myself, I wouldn’t put Old Man’s War in the hard SF category, but in military SF. But others may disagree. It certainly, however, is set in the far future, etc., as are many other SF novels by American authors. I think the British authors are great, but they certainly haven’t cornered the market.

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