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Letters from Proxima Thule

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Long Hard SF Against the Wall
modern lit
catvalente

We spill a lot of ink on where the dividing line between fantasy and science fiction is these days. I think about it a lot myself. And then I think about a conversation Peter Watts and I had at the pre-Hugos cocktail party (where they have food but you're too nervous to eat it) and I think in that exchange is possibly the answer--at least to the difference between hard SF and soft SF/fantasy. (I do maintain that if you are male, you get a +8 to your Hard SF stat, where a female writer gets a -8.)

I hope Peter won't mind my reproducing the dialogue--I thought it was brilliant and hilarious.

So there I was, talking to Watts, having just finished Blindsight and hearted the hardcore vampire biology in it, and he asked me what I was working on and I proceded to do what I've been doing a lot lately, which is to say, geeking out about Prester John. And I got into the part where there's these awesome medieval beasties that were sort of allegorical and sort of not and my main character is a blemmy.

Peter: What's a blemmy?
Me: They don't have heads but instead their face is in their chests. Eyes, er, in the chest area, nose in belly, mouth in navel.
Peter: *looks slightly upset by this information* But...but...how would they handle thermal regulation?
Me: Um...

And there, I think, you have it.

That's perfect.

I agree with you on the -8 to your HardSF stat if you are female. I just wish that weren't also true in the nonfiction scientific community.

I have a sore throat and this made me LOL and hurt myself. Excellent!

Judging from several recent exchanges in blogs of the speculative fiction community, it also seems to be common currency that "women don't write space opera and/or hard SF" (huge numbers of counterexamples notwithstanding), forcing women who do write space opera and/or hard SF to do so under male pseudonyms, thereby keeping the comfy assumptions and divisions intact.

Of course, hard SF is mostly sciency and its relation to science is the same as truthiness to truth. On a larger issue, subgenre divisions harm SF/F because most of the boundaries are arbitrary and encourage lazy shorthand. However, I also think that the exploring mindset encouraged by science is necessary to write good SF/F: SF Goes McDonald's: Less Taste, More Gristle

Athena Andreadis

Do you have any recs for hard SF by women?

Bwahahaha, that's brilliant.

(Also, I think your answer to all such subsequent queries should be -- and you have to look at the person hard, with a serious expression, and say -- nanites.)

You win for this comment. All SF handwaving should involve nanites.

...you know, yeah, that pretty much covers it.

(also, you are SO RIGHT about the +8 to Hard SF for males...)

That conversation sums it up nicely. I used to write hard sf. And one of my proudest scenes involved thermal regulation--of a starship. But there comes a point when you have to stop tying yourself up in knots over it and remember that it’s only fiction.

Sorry. I didn't mean to be anonymous. Now I have an LJ account. :-)

I do maintain that if you are male, you get a +8 to your Hard SF stat, where a female writer gets a -8.

Yes, this.

(I do maintain that if you are male, you get a +8 to your Hard SF stat, where a female writer gets a -8.)

So wait... who gets the default stat of 0?

I was going to suggest a bodiless computer that writes stories through an exceptionally good natural language processor, but on second thought that would probably be at *least* a +8.

Me: They don't have heads but instead their face is in their chests. Eyes, er, in the chest area, nose in belly, mouth in navel.
Peter: *looks slightly upset by this information* But...but...how would they handle thermal regulation?


Radiating (foldable) fin on back of body? Try to clothe them and they may die of heatstroke?

Palm/feet-heavy sweat glands, making for an unpleasant handshake but efficient heat control. They could pant, too--these faces are big, so a major artery under the tongue or in the "cheeks" to carry heat to the mouth to be cooled should be sufficient, particularly since both are located in the trunk.

Really, I think most "hard" SF is the pet of a single discipline. A biologist might make alien life as realistic as possible, and as engaging, but if questioned on their alien cultures without an anthropology degree-level research, the hand starts waving as rapidly and effusively as with any other genre.

Honestly, that conversation kind of sums up for me why I'm not that interested in reading or writing hard SF. Perhaps it's because I'm a literary scholar, and therefore have no illusions whatsoever about the "reality" of literature, but my answer to that is "It doesn't matter, because they're not real." Words on a page are not reality and do not have to pretend to be reality; in fact, the beauty of art is that it is not reality, in my opinion, and thus it can convey meaning in ways that are not limited by realistic concerns. I am not very interested in realism, is what it comes down to, whether it's a 600-page novel obsessed with the psychological realism of a young man's sentimental journey, or a novel obsessed with the physics of faster-than-light travel. This is not to say I won't read realism; it means that the realism in question has to have something other than realism in order for it to be interesting to me, some kind of mitigating quality. Perhaps, as in the work of Anthony Trollope, it has a dry and witty narrator (clearly not realistic, as real life has no narrator at all, let alone a dry and witty one). Perhaps, as in the work of SJ Rozan, the realism is in the service of conveying the experience of my beloved city, which always fascinates me, and a suspenseful murder mystery. But there's a reason why there's very little realism on my bookshelves, and it's the same reason why there's very little hard SF.

Simple, most of the heat exchange is handled by the nose... it's heavily vascular, and although a blemmy's brain is roughly the same size as humans, the nose is obviously larger.

Personally, my definition of the difference between SF and Fantasy, is that SF tends to try to explain how something works, and Fantasy doesn't.

Of course, Clark's axiom always applies as well.

Thank, you and Mr Watts have made my day. Me and my husband are still laughing.

Ahahaha, awesome.

I too heart Peter's vampires, and the man himself. One of my favourite bits about Aussiecon was that this is guy with the reputation for writing the most grim and depressing stuff out there, and every time I saw him he couldn't stop smiling!

I tend to think of the consolatory/challenging axis myself, but there are fantasy novels that are anything but comfortable and backwards looking (your good self for example), and sf that challenges nothing at all (the subset of steampunk Charlie Stross raves at - and it is a subset). It does tend to be true that the challenging stuff is the stuff I like.

That was a good conversation.

Oh, crap. I just realized this raises a huge issue for my Green Door setting [1]: the Mock Spiders are land-dwelling cephalopods [2] and I bet however cephalopods deal with temperature issues under water doesn't work on land. Oh well, la la la; their existence argues that there's a solution in story, even if I don't know what it is.

1: Eisenhower-era USA finds a wormhole endpoint, the other end of which is on Earth +250 million years. Among other things, the average EQ on Earth on the other side of Green Door is much higher than it is now so the Americans find themselves dealing with a number of species that are smarter than they are, if technologically backward, and also stable time loops of the "Nixon always dies in South America" type.

2: No weirder than coconut crabs. People with arachnophobia or related phobias should not Google that term.

Natural categories are fuzzy, idiosyncratic, things. There are as at least as many definitions of the science fiction | fantasy distinction as there are fans of either in the world.

I'd decided to think of you as a writer of "hard fantasy", and thought myself quite clever for coming up with the term until I realized it was a real term being used by all sorts of people in all sorts of ways, so I suppose that doesn't end up clarifying anything.

Whatever it is, though, that you write, it's beautiful and fantastic.