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"The Closely Reasoned Technological Story": The Critical History of Hard Science Fiction

Gary Westfahl
Science Fiction Studies
Vol. 20, No. 2 (Jul., 1993), pp. 157-175
Published by: SF-TH Inc
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4240246
Page Count: 19
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"The Closely Reasoned Technological Story": The Critical History of Hard Science Fiction
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Abstract

Several commentators in the 1950s visibly searched for a way to describe SF that was especially attentive to science. P. Schuyler Miller, book reviewer for Astounding/Analog, first used the term "hard science fiction" in November 1957 and used it more frequently in the 1960s. By the mid-1960s, other commentators were also using the term. Early references involved a relatively small number of writers who emphasized scientific accuracy and explanation, but in the 1970s and 1980s, the term expanded to include numerous writers not originally associated with hard SF. Hal Clement's "Whirligig World" states that the primary goal of hard science fiction is avoiding scientific errors and suggests four strategies for doing so. Two of these-using "gobbledygook" and speculating in areas where scientific knowledge is limited-are rejected; the other two lead to forms of hard SF: microcosmic hard SF, cautious predictions of near-future technology like Arthur C. Clarke's A Fall of Moondust, and macrocosmic hard sf, extravagant visions of alien environments like Larry Niven's Ringworld. When the characteristics of hard SF are understood, it is clear that while the principles behind hard SF were first articulated by Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell Jr, few if any writers before 1950 meet the standards of hard SF. Instead, hard SF should be seen as a development of the 1950s and 1960s, suggesting that versions of science-fiction history treating the 1930s and 1940s as eras of science-dominated SF may need to be rethought. Overall, examining the critical history of hard SF is valuable because it provides solid grounds for firmly and usefully establishing the parameters of hard SF.

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