Navel Oranges, Granny Smith and other Genre Beasts
I recently was in a conversation about genre because a book, I had reviewed, was criticized for having claimed to be hard science fiction: although it clearly wasn't. That latter is not my statement although I would agree that there are elements that would cause me to think it leans away from most people's view of what hard science fiction is.
The problem came when someone tried to compare the ease of identifying hard science fiction with how someone might identify a sonnet, which struck me as a somewhat inaccurate comparison as it seemed to be comparing apples to oranges. The reason I say this is that a sonnet might better be compared to perhaps determining if something is a novel or novella or short story; because it's a matter of specifics that must occur to be named such, with some small wiggle room for style as perhaps regarding the scheme of the rhyme in a sonnet, of which it is interesting to note when translating from Italian to English becomes an effort in futility to retain the rhyme scheme.
Whereas: Genre are a bit slipperier than all of that in that there really is yet no industry standard. This means that even within the industry there are differences of opinion as to what constitutes a specific genre and even all the way to identifying the elements of style and content. I would guess that the only real need for specific guidelines beyond this would come to those organizations giving out prestigious awards to authors: they certainly should define the scope as well as possible: to make the judge's job easier. The problem comes when those in contact with such organizations try to turn back upon the system and impose those ideals into a system that has not yet shown a desire to standardized itself.
The lack of standardization means that the publishers definitions might not be the same as the book sellers or librarians. And that from country to country there may be some wide differences. This is likely the source of the fuel to the fire of controversy over what should be hard science fiction. Going into a bookstore I would usually find all of science fiction under the heading of science fiction and sometimes included under the heading of science fiction fantasy which mean that all the sub-genre are mixed willy nilly and the reader has to sort through to discern which is what.
In the discussion mentioned above one complaint was that a self publisher should regulate themselves to be able to discern that they are not hard science fiction thus not proclaiming such and yet in the same breath this person suggested this responsibility to discern might easily be overlooked or not apply to a traditional publisher, which was so many ways wrong and backwards.
The next suggestion I was given was that Hard science fiction would be fiction that limits itself to the law of physics. To this I would have to have added :as we know it, if I were to agree. I don't agree because that is too narrow and again that is why we have the controversy. One problem even with physics is such things as the controversy of quantum entanglement as regards to the possibility of violating the speed of light limitations. The suggestion here is that we lack some understanding of physics to fully explain some observable phenomenon- where do we put such things in our view of hard science fiction, if we dare extrapolate?
If what we have today were actually the sum of all knowledge what physics has to offer I would guess that we'd live in a much different world.
But hard science fiction is not just physics its technology and economy and politics which in some way seems to fly in the face of reason because of the want to put those three into something called soft science fiction.
We have made it to the moon, a fact: unless you subscribe to a fringe element. We haven't gone back recently because of economic factors regarding the cost of current technology to get us there and the political and economic barriers of obtaining the funds: problems which are now being remedied by private concerns finally taking a step into the arena. So, even if a person were to take only what we have now and were to write about a universe where we were in constant motion between here and the moon there would have to be plausible explanations of all the factors to get us there or it would likely fail the test of some definitions of hard science fiction.
Let's consider the work of Arthur C. Clarke whom I always thought of as a hard science fiction writer if any would be. Yet when we look closely at 2001 Space Odyssey we see elements of the monolith and the race that made them and the ending of the book and we see some departure from what many claim hard science fiction must be. Not withstanding the disappointment; that we have a far reach yet to obtain the level of intelligence in AI's that HAL possessed.
Even other favorites such as Issac Asimov and his Foundation series do not fully qualify to some high standards of hard science fiction and it grieves me so.
I recently read a novel that might have taken a lot of its science elements and acronyms right from such accounts as Apollo 13's fateful voyage. The author added some inexplicable parallel universe device creating a novel to which we could always say is of a new genre to avoid the controversy of hard science fiction: since all we do need is a few more sub-genre to place on the steaming heap.
The bottom line seems to be that genre are meant as a means of creating a listing to assist the readers in locating the type of books that they enjoy. Unless or until they standardize, the practice will at best have limited success, but it should serve the purpose it was intended for , which is to get the book placed before the most likely readers of that type of book, or you would expect the industry leaders would have already moved to standardize.
If a writer intends to win an award, though, he may want to begin to consider obsessing about reaching those somewhat elusive standards for hard science fiction. This will likely lead to a lot of sweating of bullets and probably hinder the creative process and I would wish them a lot of luck.
Hard Science Fiction is at best a slippery beast that often gets relegated below Science Fiction which usually contains all of the myriad SF sub-genre if the venue allows. Sometimes I have found SF under Speculative Fiction and sometimes it has its own slot. Sometimes it is mixed not just with fantasy but paranormal, horror, and even suspense thrillers. It all depends on the shelf space and rightly so since the retail usage of genre is meant to exist as a marketing tool.
Perhaps on the day that I discover all those navel oranges in with my Granny Smiths and count them all as one in the same, I will say ah ha and I will have learned what hard science fiction really is.
As a matter of interest I've included these links on the subject. This is not an endorsement, agreement, or refutation: Just a random selection of sources.
Genre Fiction Rules
Genre categories agent query
Genre categories cuebon.com
Genre fiction categories WD
Library of Congress Genre Term List
Genre Category List
Dummies guide to genre lists
Big fat fiction genre lists
Hard vs Soft SF
Hard vs Soft SF@ asimovs.com
Hard sf on wiki
Genre fiction on wiki
Genre fiction vs literature