review of The Ascent of Wonder edited by Hartwell & Cramer, first published in Vector 182, Spring 1995
In the late 1950s, P. Schuyler Miller coined the term ‘hard sf’ in his book review column in Astounding. It is a term that has never been adequately defined (much like ‘science fiction’) but it is generally recognised to be that branch of sf built around the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology) as opposed to the ‘soft’ sciences that were then creeping into sf (psychology, sociology). The term arose out of John W. Campbell’s Astounding, and is most closely associated with Campbellian writers, Asimov, Heinlein, Clement, Clarke, and their natural descendants, Niven, Varley, Forward, Sheffield, Benford, Brin. By the time the term was coined, what it represented was already under threat. Astounding was declining in influence as The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and a coterie of writers and editors such as Pohl, Kornbluth, Bester, Knight and Merril introduced newer and more varied literary styles and devices into the genre. The New Wave of the 1960s didn’t actually sweep away hard SF, but it did nudge it into a backwater where, with occasional eruptions, it has remained ever since. There are still devoted readers of Analog, there are still works which are identifiably hard sf and which have a significant impact on the genre (the most recent has probably been Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy), but even that has changed beyond anything that Campbell might recognise as hard sf.
Through it all, the nature, the identity of hard sf has hardly been questioned. We know what it is, or we assume we do. But in the last couple of years David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer have orchestrated a debate about hard sf in the pages of The New York Review of Science Fiction, and that debate has finally engendered a massive anthology, The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF. The three introductions, by Hartwell, Cramer and Gregory Benford, were all rehearsed in the pages of the New York Review; many of the stories featured (especially Tom Godwin’s ‘The Cold Equations’) have been discussed there at length. As a result this huge volume must he seen as providing some definitive prospectus on the nature, character and constitution of hard sf.
It is a labour of love, a massive enterprise, bringing together key science fiction texts from the last 150 years. Whatever the criticisms that must follow, the book stands or falls by the value of these stories. And the value is high. Here are sixty-seven stories from fifty-seven writers, good stories that are not widely anthologised (John M. Ford’s ‘Chromatic Aberration’ (1994), Hilbert Schenck’s ‘The Morphology of the Kirkham Wreck’ (1978), Michael F. Flynn’s ‘Mammy Morgan Played the Organ; Her Daddy Beat the Drum’ (1990)), and classics that belong in the library of every SF fan (Rudyard Kipling’s ‘With the Night Mail’ (1905), Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore’s ‘Mimsy Were the Borogoves’ (1943), Tom Godwin’s ‘The Cold Equations' (1954)). There are stories not worth the effort of reprinting, where the writing limps, the ideas crumble before your eyes, stories which demonstrate why sf was consigned to the ghetto for so long (Raymond Z. Gallun’s ‘Davy Jones’ Ambassador’ (1935), Raymond F. Jones’s ‘The Person from Porlock’ (1947) and (to prove it isn’t connected with being called Raymond) Jules Verne’s ‘In the Year 2889’ (1889)); but in such a monumental anthology, they are mercifully few. In short, this is an excellent collection of good science fiction.
Here, then, as the subtitle advises us, we will find the stars of the hard sf firmament: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, J.G. Ballard and Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree, Jr and Gene Wolfe ...
Therein lies the problem. We are presented with a radically different view of hard sf than any we might have felt comfortable with before By my count, for instance, fewer than half the stories are what I would describe as hard sf. Under the guise of the word ‘evolution’ they have brought together stories that predate hard sf and stories that have emerged, changed, from it; there are stories that contradict and argue with hard sf, and stories that appear to have nothing whatever to do with the subject. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see how they bring hard sf forward, if only because, publishing economies being what they are, we are unlikely to see a similar such enterprise for some time, which means that this characterisation of hard sf is going to stand unchallenged as the hard sf canon.
It is, of course, all a matter of definition. At one point in his introduction David Hartwell says: ‘Devoted readers of hard SF know the real thing when they see it.’ This is a deliberate echo of Damon Knight’s famous and (intentionally) inadequate definition of science fiction as ‘what we point to when we say it,’ and it seems, if anything, an admission of failure, for Hartwell has already accepted that readers of hard sf will not recognise it in the works of Le Guin or Ballard. If this is how he has to define his subject, then despite the title this is no collection of hard sf.
The three introductions are interesting. Benford provides the perspective of a working scientist and writer of hard sf while Cramer gives us an historical lit. crit. approach: both assume that we know what hard sf is. It is, therefore, left to Hartwell in his main introduction and in the individual story introductions, which appear to be mostly his work, to provide the agenda for the anthology, to define hard sf and place the disparate stories within that definition. Unfortunately, he presents no one coherent argument, but a series of conflicting perspectives.
At one point, ‘Hard SF is about the beauty of truth’; a position amplified by Cramer who says: ‘Hard science fiction is about the aesthetics of knowledge ... at its core [it is] beyond questions of optimism and pessimism, beyond questions of technology arid application. Hard SF recognises wonder as the finest human emotion.’ Yet this romantic view sits ill with Hartwell’s later claim that ‘Hard SF embodies the fantasies of empowerment of the scientific and technological culture of the modern era and validates its faith in scientific knowledge as dominant over other ways of knowing.’
Again Hartwell claims that ‘SF readers... expect to be surprised at some point by a sudden perception of connection to things they know or observe in daily life. If the revelation is of the inner life, as in... “Flowers for Algernon”, then the story is not hard SF; if the revelation is of the functioning of the laws of nature, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s “Transit of Earth” or Isaac Asimov’s “Waterclap” then the story is hard SF.’ Elsewhere he points out that ‘Generally the central characters of hard science fiction are winners (the competent man, the engineer, the scientist, the good soldier, the man who transcends his circumstances, the inventor ...).’ These would seem reasonable enough, were it not for Hartwell’s repeated attempts to recruit Ballard into the ranks of the hard sf writers, despite the fact that all Ballard’s fiction hinges upon revelations of inner life and his central characters tend to be losers, anti-heroes, figures lost within the sweep of events. He maintains that: ‘The implied argument of the Ballardian stream of hard SF, written in reaction to the main tradition, is: Campbellian hard SF said that if you know, you may survive; Ballard says, knowing is not enough to survive.’ This argument drives a coach and horses through both the two previous attempts to put a frame around hard sf. However much Hartwell may puff Ballard’s scientific background (he was medically trained), this is still to change the nature of hard sf and of the argument. If hard sf is so fluid in intent, in style, in content, then we are hardly dealing with one clearly defined subset of science fiction, we are dealing with a number of subsets which may share some characteristics, and which may huddle close to each other, but they are not the same thing. The argument works if we are talking about the core of science fiction, it is a multiform genre after all, but it has to fail if Hartwell is presenting just one branch, one aspect of sf which stands central to sf but is somehow clearly distinct from all its other forms.
Trying to pull all these statements and counter-statements together we are left, therefore, with no straightforward, easily graspable account of what hard sf actually is, as opposed to sf in general. But do the stories help?
It we assume that hard sf is as various as all of sf then, taking Hartwell’s finger-pointing definition, there is still a heartland which all readers readily recognise as hard sf, and which is probably congruent with what Hartwell further defines as ‘Campbellian hard SF.’ Such stories might show a common characteristic which will help to provide a measure of hard sf for the rest of the anthology. Perhaps the archetypal hard SF story is Tom Godwin’s ‘The Cold Equations’ in which a girl stowaway has to die because her weight would add to the fuel consumption of the landing craft just enough to make it burn up on re-entry and destroy the precious cargo of medicines. We can leave aside for the moment the countless calculations which show that if Godwin had really wanted to save the girl, he could have done so. What hard sf is doing here is presenting a set of implacable rules that are dictated by the very nature of the universe; the little man in the face of a huge galaxy must come to terms with those rules or die. Philip Latham’s ‘The Xi Effect’ (1950) presents a similar argument: scientists discover that the universe is shrinking but wavelengths remain constant, so gradually the different means of communication are taken away from mankind until even the visible spectrum slips away into blackness. Again we see how cold and unmoving the universe is out there, how man is humbled before a power as mighty as former generations would have imagined God. (And there is a strong religious, or at least transcendental, element running through hard sf, which I will come to later.)
Of course not all hard sf leads to inevitable tragedy By understanding the physics, the chemistry or the maths, the competent man can comprehend the rules and see the way to salvation. In ‘Down and Out on Ellfive Prime’ by Dean Ing (1979) one minor accident on a space station leads, step by inexorable step, to the point where the entire station is threatened with destruction. But the competent administrator joins forces with an engineer who is living with the down and outs in the interstices of the station, and disaster is averted. The scientific and technical knowledge of the engineer raises him from the lowest in society to his true worth. ‘The Hole Man’ by Larry Niven (1973) shows a different way in which the scientific man will triumph through his knowledge, in this case using a quantum black hole as a murder weapon. Quantum black holes may be a discarded notion nowadays, but that is not important; what matters is the central understanding of some scientific ‘truth.’ Hard sf is hard in the sense of being rigid, unbending. The key hard sf stories involve rules that are not made by man, rules that cannot be broken. Hard sf is often portrayed as being right wing (and the apparently more liberal attitudes of the editors of this anthology makes for some awkward moments in the individual story introductions) but the political angle in ‘The Cold Equations,’ for example, revolves not, as is popularly supposed, around the fact that the victim is a girl (though hard sf is overwhelmingly male in its authors, its heroes, its characters) but around the harsh law that everyone must obey. As soon as you introduce character, or manmade rules, you introduce ambiguity; so much hard sf, particularly early in its history, is schematic in formula and cardboard in its characters. When Hal Clement says he doesn’t need human villains because the universe is opponent enough, he is saying that his hard sf is about men coming up against the rules of the universe. Those rules are neat and predictable (this sf is not about change), so a human opponent would upset the apple-cart by introducing the possibility, nay the necessity, for change, development, other interpretations.
A right-wing political stance may, therefore, be a defining characteristic of hard sf. Even when a story or a writer attempts a more liberal stance, as James Blish did in ‘Beep’ (1954) it comes up against the inflexibility of the rules and ends up, at best, as libertarian. In ‘Beep’ there is, in effect, an elite who rule the world on the strength of privileged, if partial, knowledge of the future. They try to rule by liberal principles, but there is still an elite, there are still all-powerful, secretive masters, and there are still rigid codes which must be obeyed.
When the authors deny the rigidity and inevitability of the rules, when they admit human frailty and fault, when they entertain ambiguity, then you get a story which, however much it follows scientific notions and principles, cannot be hard sf. Which is why writers like Ballard, with ‘Prima Belladonna’ (1956) and ‘Cage of Sand’ (1963), are out of place in this anthology. The dead astronauts endlessly circling Earth in ‘Cage of Sand’ are there as a sign of failure, are liable to burn up (as one of them does), are open to misinterpretation, and are generally symbols to highlight the frailty and ambiguity of the human watchers coming to terms with their own failures amid the Martian sands of Florida. So much does Ballard deny inevitability that the very landscape of the story is in constant flux. Similarly, H.G. Wells may have exulted that the tank warfare of the First World War was engendered by his story ‘The Land Ironclads’ (1903) but, a poor example of his work though it is, the story itself is one of defeat, not victory. And Wells, with his abiding interest in Darwinian evolution and social criticism which imply a focus on change, even the desirability of change, in his work, was no hard sf writer.
So how does this approach to hard sf sit with the more borderline inclusions in this anthology? Anne McCaffrey has always insisted that her dragon stories and novels are science fiction, not fantasy, and that certainly holds true of their progenitor, ‘Weyr Search’ (1967), even though the world-building is confined to a brief scene-setting introduction. The story itself is straight, old-fashioned medieval fantasy of lords and heroes and a quest for the saviour. What betrays the hard sf antecedents is the strict, rule-driven attitude of the story. After centuries in which the Threads have not returned to Pern, human society has not evolved, has not changed one jot. Within the scheme of things it cannot be allowed to change, to develop new weapons, new defences. Salvation can only come by strict adherence to the old, implacable, unchanging rules; rigid, unquestioning obedience is good, ignoring the law leads only and inevitably to death. Certainly there is an element of sf in ‘Weyr Search,’ certainly the underlying political attitudes of the story reflect the attitudes of hard sf – but that doesn’t mean the story actually is hard sf.
When you consider Bob Shaw’s ‘Light of Other Days’ (1966) you come up against another problem with the editors’ selection policy. This is a genuine classic of the genre, a simple story of slow glass in which the passage of light through glass is slowed to a matter of years, so city dwellers use it to give themselves windows showing the unspoilt landscape where the glass was ‘farmed.’ So far, so hard sf. But what makes this a story is the recognition that light passes both ways through glass, and the slow-glass farmer uses it to gaze into his home to glimpse his wife and child who have since been killed, with the added unstated poignancy that there has to be a known, predictable ending to the vision. The question that must be considered is: how much is this a hard sf story, and how much a sad little tale about love and loss which happens to employ a science-fictional device to set it on its way? In this case the answer is probably a bit of both, and in so far as the anthology represents the spectrum of hard sf the story belongs here. But there are other instances in which the presence of sf devices bulks far too large in the editors’ perceptions of whether the story is hard sf or not.
In the introduction to Gene Wolfe’s ‘Procreation’ (1984), for instance, we are told that his acclaimed novel, The Fifth Head of Cerberus, was ‘set on an alien planet, featured robots, colonists, a mysterious alien race. But it was constructed with so much sophisticated literary ambiguity that it was not apprehended as hard SF.’ This is a curious notion, for it suggests yet another definition of hard sf, as that which uses certain devices from a prescribed list (and judging from the stories in the anthology, that list includes time travel, robots, computers, space ships, alien worlds and many more devices which are readily associated with sf of any stripe). A similar point is made in the introduction to the second Wolfe story, ‘All the Hues of Hell’ (1987): ‘his stories rarely have the overt affect of hard SF. It is therefore often a challenge to the reader to perceive the scientific ideas of which the characters in the text are unaware.’ This seems to suggest that if you search a story hard enough, if you ignore the literary characteristics in order to discover some sf device or scientific notion buried however deep in the text, then that story automatically qualifies as hard sf.
But does the paraphernalia of sf qualify a story as hard sf? George Turner’s ‘In a Petri Dish Upstairs’ (1978) might seem like hard sf if devices are what count: there is, after all, an orbital space station. However, the main focus of the story is about the way the two societies have grown apart; in orbit people are uncouth, forward-looking, aggressive and unpleasant; on Earth they are over-sophisticated, double-dealing supporters of the status quo. The result is not so much hard sf as a comedy of manners, very like a Henry James story of gauche Americans and their cultured European cousins, but with a nasty twist. A genuinely hard sf version of the same sort of story, Robert A. Heinlein’s ‘It’s Great to be Back’ (1947), has less actual hardware than the Turner story yet its attitude is totally different. Would-be lunar colonists return to Earth thinking themselves unsuited to the Moon, but as they encounter Earth society they realise how well they have actually adapted to the Moon. The story is full of the rightness, the inevitability, of the outward urge, the step into space. There is none of the doubt, the unsettled ambiguity about the future in space as well as on Earth that is expressed in the Turner story. It is more than paraphernalia, therefore, which makes a story hard sf.
‘Heat of Fusion’ by John M. Ford (1984) is, according to the introduction, interested more in ‘the metaphorical and emotional reverberations of the scientist’s work:’ it tells of a scientist dying as a result of an accident which killed most of his colleagues. The location, the nature of their research and the details of the accident are all hidden amid suggestions and hints, but as he thinks back over the causes of the accident the scientist comes to understand the characters and drives of his colleagues. Yet, ‘the underlying belief in the power of science (physics) and scientists (physicists) is still here.’ We seem to be moving towards yet another definition of hard sf: any story in which scientists do science. Certainly that is what we must gather from the introduction to Theodore Sturgeon’s ‘Occam’s Scalpel’ (1971) which ‘is on the edge of being not SF at all ... yet it more centrally concerns science than a majority of Sturgeon’s genre works: it is about scientists …’ It is, in fact, about model-makers and businessmen: when the world’s most powerful businessman dies, his corpse is presented to his chosen successor as being that of an alien invader in order to change the course of the business to more ecologically friendly directions. There are no aliens, there are no scientists, this is not even a science fiction story, let alone hard sf. But if we are to believe that the presence of a scientist is enough to render a story hard sf, then we may presume that, for example, John Banville’s historical novels Kepler and Doctor Copernicus are hard sf. Perhaps it is not even necessary to be sf in order to be hard sf?
In fact, the belief in science, the exploration of ‘metaphorical and emotional reverberations’ of scientific endeavour, are common currency in the domain of science fiction, but are not congruent with the rule-driven practicalities of hard sf. If you want to show man’s place within the strictures of a vast and unbending universe, as hard sf does, then you cannot do so by metaphor, which opens other meanings, other possibilities. The editors are much nearer the mark in their introduction to Robert L. Forward’s ‘The Singing Diamond’ (1979) when they say: ‘The wonderful ideas are the whole point, the foreground interest for the hard SF reader. The fiction exists to display them.’ Nothing here about metaphor, or hiding the science beneath Wolfe’s ‘sophisticated literary ambiguity.’
To often, in fact, the editors seem to change their notion of hard sf in order to fit another story into the picture. In the introduction to Frederik Pohl’s ‘Day Million’ (1966), for instance, they ask directly: ‘What’s so hard about it? The attitude is right ... It is written for the reader who understands the hopelessness of a universe without physical constraints.’ This is understandable: rules, physical constraints, are the be-all and end-all of the hard sf universe, so that a universe without them would be hopeless to the hard SF reader. Except that this description of ‘Day Million’ must refer to a completely different story than the one printed here. The attitude is satirical, which hard sf almost never is (except in stories such as James P. Hogan’s ‘Making Light’ (1981) which crudely satirises those who do not subscribe to the hard sf belief). ‘Day Million’ is not about ‘hopelessness;’ rather, it deliberately confronts modern attitudes with an overtly fanciful future in order to challenge those attitudes. It is sexually, socially and politically liberal. In directly addressing the reader and foregrounding the fictionality of the story, it uses postmodern techniques in contrast to hard sf, which Hartwell is at pains to point out is resolutely modernist in manner. ‘Day Million’ may be the best thing that Pohl has ever written, and it can be described in all sorts of ways, but it is not hard sf.
This attempt to bend stories to the will of hard sf is highlighted in one of the rare but significant factual errors in the book. Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Author of the Acacia Seeds’ (1974) is described as anthropological notes by an intelligent ant. In fact, the first part of the story features a translation of a possibly rebellious statement by an ant, but the translator is a human anthropologist (a soft scientist) and the piece is just one extract from an academic journal. (It is significant, also, that the story is not given its full title, ‘The Author of the Acacia Seeds and Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics,’ either in the contents list, at the head of the story or even in the copyright notices, so removing the sense that the story is, at least in part, parody.) The revised view of the story makes it more alien and allows the ‘science’ to be considered less ‘soft,’ so making it fit more nearly into the hard sf category.
The alien, the other, is important in hard sf, even if the story does not take us off Earth or introduce any character other than human. Much of the direction of hard sf, a positive step forward into the future, man taking his place on the universal stage, has a transcendental element. The brave, the competent, the knowledgeable, the archetypal hard sf hero is the man most able to understand the rigorous laws of nature, and in so doing find a way around. And this way transforms us into beings greater than we are. This may be simply the better society of competent people on the Moon in Heinlein’s ‘It’s Great to be Back’ or the Stapledonian progress of our progeny in Isaac Asimov’s ‘The Last Question’ (1956), or the literal transformation in Clifford D. Simak’s ‘Desertion’ (1944). In this story, a human base on Jupiter has been unable to survey the planet because the human explorers sent out in the shape of the native inhabitants have all failed to return. Finally the station commander and his dog undergo the transformation and step out onto the surface of Jupiter to discover a glory that was unimaginable to their merely human (or canine) senses.
It is a religious awe at the majesty of what the future holds for us if we obey the commandments, the rules of the universe, which crops up time and again in hard sf. As Edgar Allan Poe’s protagonist says in ‘A Descent into the Maelström’ (1841), ‘how foolish it was in me to flunk of so paltry a consideration as my own individual life, in view of so wonderful a manifestation of God’s power.’ Substitute science or the universe for ‘God’ and you have the sensibility of much hard sf. Where religion actually features in the story it is either belittled, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Star’ (1955) or shown as the only recourse for humanity unable to face the enormity of the universe, as in Poul Anderson’s ‘Kyrie’ (1969).
‘The Star’ tells of an expedition to a one-time supernova where the explorers find evidence of a flourishing civilization destroyed when the sun exploded. The astrophysicist, a Jesuit, works out that the supernova was the Star of Bethlehem. How could God allow one advanced civilization to be destroyed to herald the birth of his religion on Earth, is the question posed by the story. And the implicit answer is that God is as nothing beside the raw nature of the universe. Much the same response is implicit in Ian Watson’s ‘The Very Slow Time Machine’ (1978) in which religion is explicitly linked with madness. A time traveller appears in a laboratory, and it becomes obvious that he is living backwards through time to the point of his appearance. He is also progressing steadily and inexorably into insanity, which the observers from outside his time frame know all too well, but this doesn’t stop them making the time traveller the focus for a new religion. Religion does not mix with a hard sf universe that has wonders enough of its own, though in ‘Kyrie’ religion can at least provide consolation when those wonders prove too awesome. A young woman on a ship exploring the effects of a nova, that manifestation of the glory of the universe, is telepathically linked to an alien space creature who provides a deeper and more understanding relationship than she has ever achieved with other humans. The alien disappears into the black hole at the heart of the nova, and because of the time dilation effects she is permanently telepathically plugged in to his endless dying scream. She ends up in a religious retreat on the Moon.
When a writer is genuinely religious, as Wolfe is in ‘All the Hues of Hell,’ in which a survey ship scoops up dark matter and a creature which may be a devil, this is not just another manifestation of the same theme. For Wolfe is expressing the importance of religion, of belief in general, in its effect on his very human characters. This affirmation of religion goes directly against the hard sf position, for it cannot conform with the hard sf substitution of science for religion.
But is Wolfe in dialogue with hard sf? This collection is, after all, subtitled ‘The Evolution of Hard SF,’ and its intent must therefore be taken to include the fiction from which hard sf emerged and that into which it developed or which it influenced. Benford, in his introduction, makes an important point about the development of ideas: ‘Like other subgenres of fantastic literature, hard SF works in part because it is an ongoing discussion ... Genre readers immerse themselves in a system of thought, so that each fresh book or story is a further exploration of that system, mental play illuminated by all the reader has discovered before ... With learned genre competency come the pleasures of cross-talk the books speak to each other in an ongoing debate over big issues, such as our place in creation, the nature of consensus reality, etc ... Hard SF mirrors science itself in the importance of cross-talk.’ This is picked up in a number of the story introductions, especially to those writers not normally associated with hard sf, such as Ballard, Le Guin and Wolfe, which talk of them being in dialogue with or opposition to hard sf. It is a valid point, but it is unfortunately too broad a point to work without greater rigour than is employed here. For all sf is in constant dialogue as ideas, themes, devices are picked up from various sources and carried forward in different directions. In Wolfe’s ‘Procreation,’ for instance, the children who wander into the dying of a different universe are witnessing a scene which carries echoes of the final moments of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, while Watson’s ‘The Very Slow Time Machine’ echoes that same novel in a very different way.
To trace influences, therefore, and show them to be specifically hard sf in character or intent requires something more than the vague linking of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter' (1844) with J.G. Ballard’s ‘Prima Belladonna:’ ‘This Faustian-Gothic strain, with its echoes of the sublime, is persistent in twentieth-century science fiction ... and re-emerges, full-blown, in the early work of J.G. Ballard.’ It is especially galling since the editors have not established the hard sf credentials of either story (so they have not established the evolutionary development into or out of the subgenre), have not pinpointed the precise points of influence, and then separate the stories by some 250 pages.
In fact, the evolutionary theme seems to have had no influence whatsoever on the organisation of this book. None of the stories is dated (except in a copyright listing which is incomplete – Poe, Hawthorne, Verne, Wells and Kipling are all missing – and inaccurate – ‘Prima Belladonna’ has a copyright date of 1971 though it was one of Ballard’s first published stories). The stories are divided into three sections though no reason is given for the division and no link is apparent between the stories in any of the groupings; nor does the order in which stories are printed do anything to provide a thematic or a chronological sequence. The first four stories, for example, are Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘Nine Lives’ (1969), Bob Shaw’s ‘Light of Other Days,’ Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ and Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Star’; an order which follows no logic whatsoever. And though Kathryn Cramer, in an Appendix, provides a thematic grouping of the stories, this does not include all the stories in the collection, but does include others (‘Nightfall’ by Isaac Asimov) which are not published here. To derive any evolutionary pattern from this collection, the reader needs to do a lot more work than the editors have done.
The reader must also contend with stories which are not only not hard sf, they are not sf at all. Poe’s ‘A Descent into the Maelström’ shows a pattern of problem-solving which does indeed seem like the precursor of hard sf’s heroic competence, while Sturgeon’s ‘Occam’s Scalpel’ (1971) reflects sf sensibilities that do throw an interesting sidelight on the subgenre. But other stories, such as John M. Ford’s ‘Chromatic Aberration,’ seem to have no part to play in this anthology whatsoever. It is, as the introduction makes clear, a form of magic realism which tells of a revolution in the old, brutal, military sense so complete that the new order can even dictate that colour is different. The introduction tries to justify its inclusion with some froth about paradigm shifts as proposed by Thomas S. Kuhn, the philosopher of science, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. But that is not what the story is about. A brief nod is tossed in that direction to set up the narrative, but in the series of vignettes that introduce the new colours the strength and point of the story is the persistence of human nature, the way that the change of political order, even the change of perception, doesn’t alter the essential love, duplicity, heroism and cruelty of mankind. This does not come close to sf in character, and in affect (a word drastically and ludicrously over-used in the introductions) it runs directly counter to everything that is hard sf.
Yet while we are presented with a host of stories (Cordwainer Smith’s ‘No, No, Not Rogov!’ (1959), Bruce Sterling’s ‘The Beautiful and the Sublime’ (1986), James Tiptree Jr’s ‘The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats’ (1976)) which are at best tangential to hard sf, or even (Ford’s ‘Chromatic Aberration,’ Ballard’s ‘Prima Belladonna’) irrelevant to it, much that is central to hard sf is absent. There are no stories by A.E. Van Vogt (despite repeated references to the notion that ‘fans are slans’) or L. Sprague de Camp, nothing by Ben Bova or John Varley. Heinlein and Clement, two of the central figures in any reckoning of hard sf, are represented by only one story apiece (as opposed to two apiece by Ballard, Le Guin, Ford and Wolfe), while a leading contemporary hard sf writer, Michael F. Flynn, is represented only by one atypical ghost story, ‘Mammy Morgan Played the Organ; Her Daddy Beat the Drum,’ which imposes a periodicity on ghostly appearances but otherwise features none of the typical, rule-driven hard sf characteristics.
In other words, if this collection is to be seen as in any way definitive, then the definition of hard sf has undergone a sea change. The way it stands, Ascent of Wonder suggests that hard sf evolved out of sf in general, at its height was distinguished by its use of typical sf devices, and has evolved back into sf. There is little here, in other words, to say that hard sf is in any way different from any other form of science fiction. This reads like a collection of hard sf put together by people who don’t really like hard sf and are therefore looking for excuses to include stories they do like but which aren’t really hard sf.
How hard is sf? If this collection is anything to go by, not very.