The Long Hard Summer

June 19th, 2009 by Editor B

I’ve been in a book club for eight years now. We read science fiction and meet on the second Saturday of each month at Octavia Books. It’s a lot of fun. We select our books by a simple method which was established by our club’s founder, the late Scott Speake. Each person takes a turn selecting three books on a theme. Given the current size of our group, two years or more may elapse between turns. But at last my time has come again.

For my theme, I chose hard sf. This is often labeled a subgenre but might best be understood as a tendency or continuum within speculative fiction. A lot of people don’t like the term for a variety of reasons, many of which I consider legitimate. The label conjures up a kind of macho mystique which isn’t very helpful. But I do think the concept has some value in understanding the history and breadth of “our special literature,” as Poul Anderson calls it.

The “hardness” of any given fiction can be understood in two different ways: 1) how seriously the story takes its science, or 2) just how “hard” that science is, physics being “harder” than psychology, for example. Thus hard sf will rarely feature people zipping around the universe at speeds faster than light.

(A brief digression. Explicating the above concept has led to some interesting conversations. When we took my boss out to Drago’s for her birthday, we talked about this in the context of two very popular and iconic franchises. I opined that Star Trek is an example of “soft” sf, while Star Wars is not sf at all, but a fairy tale with sf trappings. That’s not a dis to either, but I’m willing to defend this distinction extensively over beers to anyone who cares to foot the tab.)

After making my choices, I was surprised to discover an entry in an old journal of mine, from ’85 or ’86. I was living in Sweden at the time, and my parents had sent me a care package containing the novel Sentenced to Prism by Allen Dean Foster. “Hard sf,” I complained. “It figures.” I preferred New Wave stuff then; I still do, but I’m at a point now where I take a bit more interest in hard sf, as I discovered when we read Blood Music.

Which leads me to the following three selections. We already discussed the first book in June, but please feel free to join us for books two and three as the summer gets hotter.

Title: Mission of Gravity
Author: Hal Clement
Published: 1953

The only way you can get Mission of Gravity is in the anthology Heavy Planet, a print-on-demand book which is only available thanks to the efforts of the New England Science Fiction Association.

I chose this book because it’s an undisputed hard sf classic. The story concerns a huge planet which spins very fast on its axis; gravity is three times Earth normal at the equator but something like 700 times at the poles. There are some humans visiting, but they are offstage or peripheral for the most part, with the main players being the small centipede-like natives who are perfectly at home in gravity that would crush us. One might assume such creatures would be very strange and alien, but in Clement’s story they play out like humans in disguise. That seemed rather unlikely to me, but this is not a work of great psychological depth. Indeed, many traditional literary elements such as character and style are somewhat underdeveloped; the plot chugs along and unfolds at a steady pace, but it’s all in service to something else, namely, speculation on high-gravity physics. Clement’s reverence for the scientific method is palpable.

This is one of the geekiest books I’ve ever read. (Slide rules are deployed with reckless abandon.) It’s somewhat quaint, rather strange, even charming in its way. While I can’t recommend the novel solely on its merits, I have no reservations recommending it to anyone interested in the history of science fiction. It’s a seminal work. It represents an early effort to distinguish science fiction as something more than adventure fiction with ray guns, something more than space opera. Clement injects a healthy dose of intellectual rigor into the genre. I especially enjoyed his essay “Whirligig World” (included in this volume) which is about the process of writing Mission of Gravity and reveals some of his underlying motives.

Title: Beggars in Spain
Author: Nancy Kress
Published: 1993

By way of contrast, I chose Beggars in Spain for the book we’ll discuss in July. It’s set in the near future, on Earth, and revolves around genetic engineering rather than planetary physics. It’s also of considerably more recent vintage and written by a woman, both of which might serve to counter Clement’s perspective (masculine, 50s). I am only a few chapters in, so I can’t comment on the book as a whole, but so far it is engaging and nicely paced. Indeed, she wastes no time in unfolding the main premise: What if we could flip a few genetic switches and make babies who don’t need to sleep? From such simple speculations can great sf grow. There are less-than-subtle hints of Randian philosophy, which could grow tiresome, but this story won both a Nebula and a Hugo, so I figure it’s gotta be at least a decent read. My advice: Buy it, read it, and join us to talk about it on July 11th. You could do worse.

Title: Revelation Space
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Published: 2000

Our August selection brings us into the new millennium. I haven’t even cracked the cover yet, and I’m not sure what it’s about. I actually wanted something by Greg Egan, who is probably the primary exponent of hard sf writing today, but his most recent novel seems to have underwhelmed reviewers, and his better recent work is out of print already, sad to say. But Alastair Reynolds is supposed to be pretty good, pretty hard, and a scientist to boot.


It’s my hope that by reading these three books I’ll not only visit some strange and interesting imaginary futures, but that I will broaden and deepen my appreciation for speculative fiction. It’s my belief that sf is simply the most interesting and relevant literature of our day, and understanding hard sf is key to understanding the genre as a whole. Let the hard times roll!

6 Responses to “The Long Hard Summer”

  1. Cade Roux Says:

    Alastair Reynolds rocks!

  2. Michelle S. Says:

    Great post! I’m not too into science fiction but I have heard of the hard sf sub-genre from English classes I took in college. I am a new resident to the area, but I have been wanting to join a book club, but I’m more into romance or mystery — do you know if Octavia Books is host to other book clubs?

  3. Editor B Says:

    Michelle: Yes, I believe they have another club that meets on the third Saturday of each month. On at least one occasion we’ve had a mix-up where someone came expecting to discuss “normal” books but ended up sitting with us. Once we talked for a good ten minutes before our visitor realized she was in the wrong group, talking about a different book.

  4. Jack Schick Says:

    Heavy Planet– I’ll have to go look for it online for print-down access?
    Interesting-I’m collecting all the Heinlein I can find. He hits the theme of
    Gravity Wells and how important the strategic control of our moon Luna will be
    to any who would dominate militarily. He goes into a lot of the Science which
    underlays his novels in the anthology “Expanded Universe”. He compares his earlier predictions with follow-up evaluations from 1965 and 1980. I haven’t
    raised my eyes up to any of these more contemporary writers. Thanks for the
    posting. We are today receiving news about the unmanned missions to Luna
    happening Now, and the New Mexico Spaceport is pushing to make orbital
    tourist flights available as soon as possible.
    …..You may find it interesting, (but who’s got the time?)…to check out
    Wal Thornhill and Kronia.com….some of the catastrophic scientists say that
    the Orthodoxy, the Tenured Mafia of Physics, are deliberately lying and
    restricting access to original research, because observably the “red-shift” Doppler effect is false and has been built up into Gospel which shall tolerate
    no deeper investigation. Researchers are being denied access to telescopes
    and computers, because we have a Big Spanish Inquisition happening in the
    so-called Sciences.

  5. Anne Says:

    Geeky stats: While I was playing with the reading list, I counted: You and I have each picked five times in eight years, and everyone else who’s been around for a while has picked three times.

  6. Frank Schiavo Says:

    And in MORE geeky stat news our most read author, up to this point, is Octavia Butler with four titles followed by Larry Niven and Issac Asimov each clocking in with three titles. How is that for cool, Octavia Butler read a lot at Octavia Books…

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