Sep 14 2011 2:31pm

A Moral Argument for Hard Science Fiction

The spring and summer of 2011 seem to have been dominated by uprisings of all sorts, and governments who appeared to be deeply confused about how the technology enabling them works. From the response to Wikileaks to the Arab Spring to the U.K. riots to the shutdown of mobile phone service in certain San Franscisco transit stations, the authoritarian response to civic protest is little more than hapless, n00bish button-mashing. Who do I blame for these FAILs? Not the button-mashers. Me, I blame Hackers.

I don’t mean actual hackers. I mean Hackers, the 1995 piece of bad William Gibson fanfic about kids who save their haxx0r reputations with rollerblades and holograms. And with it, I’d like to blame all other depictions of hacking as easy, technology as simple, and science as the work of solitary geniuses awaiting quick flashes of divine inspiration.

Often, when we talk about the politics of representation in media, we’re discussing how one group of people is depicted in comparison to another, and the fairness (or lack thereof) in that depiction. We talk about systemic privilege, and cultural bias, and how these things influence the contemporary myths with which we frame our identities. We do this because stories are important: they shine a light down pathways we might someday choose to take.

For example, when I about five years old, I had a crush on Matthew Broderick’s character in War Games. But I didn’t want to be with him, I wanted to be him. I wanted to sneak around military bases buried deep in the Rockies. I wanted to ferret out reclusive, misanthropic scientists and fly kites with them. I wanted to be what Broderick’s character was: a smart-mouthed genius hacker with enough 1337 sk1llz to not only start global thermonuclear war, but also end it.

Around ten years later, I had a crush on Robert Redford’s character in Sneakers. And while I found Redford dead sexy, I also wanted his character’s life: my own tiger team of pro hackers, a downtown loft, and enough 1337 social engineering sk1llz to not only thumb my nose at National Security Agents, but also pwn them.

In both cases, I thought hacking was really cool — but not because it involved rollerblades or techno or Angelina Jolie. I thought hacking was cool because it looked extremely hard to do, but if you got it right there could be sweeping social change. You could liquidate the Republican Party’s assets and donate them to Greenpeace. You could get the United States military to reconsider automating nuclear weapons. To me, these seemed like epic feats of heroism, accomplished with the aid of humble communication technologies. Those technologies weren’t magic, and that was the whole point. If it were easy, it would have been done already.

All too often in fiction, we choose to batter our science and technology in a thick coating of McGuffin and then deep-fry it in a vat of boiling handwavium. But just as we should avoid an ignorant depiction of human beings whenever possible, we should also avoid ignorant depictions of science and technology — because how we discuss science and technology is inherently political.

This would still be true even if scientific research in university labs weren’t largely dependent on government grants, or if governments didn’t regulate telecommunications or food inspection or drug approval, or if criminal codes weren’t constantly being rewritten to account for how people use technology. In democracies, the people elect representatives to make decisions about those matters. And the people are influenced by the “debate” about the use of Twitter during disasters, or anthropogenic climate change, or embryonic stem cell research, or the MMR vaccine, or oil drilling in national forests. In turn, that “debate” is influenced by popular culture, and fictional depictions of science and technology — even the ludicrous ones where James Franco cures Alzheimer’s and Natalie Portman models a functional wormhole with Arthur C. Clarke quotations.

I know, I know. You know that could never happen. But are midichlorians any more ridiculous than the idea of “curing” homosexuality? Is “clean coal” any more likely to fix air pollution than unobtanium? Are the “ethical governor” patches on the predators circling Kabul any less fallible than one of Susan Calvin’s patients? Who’s really writing the science fiction, here?

Real science is hard. It’s also slow. It’s done by large, disparate teams of people who have resigned themselves to lives of constant petition, who proceed on the simple faith that even if this experiment (years in the framing and doing and writing) fails, the failure itself is a contribution to the global pool of knowledge. Depicting it as anything less shortchanges not only the ugly but meaningful grind of scientfic progress, but also the people who push it forward day-in, day-out.

Holograms? No. Rollerblades? No. Password: Swordfish? No. Bad Chinese food? Yes. Too many hours spent with intelligent but irritating friends? Yes. Working for days before understanding how to solve the problem? Yes. That’s what science and hacking have in common. And I suspect that if more of our leaders (and more importantly, their policy advisors and constituents) understood that, our world would look different. Because then they’d know: a killswitch can’t stop the signal. You can’t shut down curiosity. People do science not because it is easy, but because it is hard, and as Kennedy observed, “because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer, foresight consultant, and anime fan. She recently completed a design thesis on the future of border security. Her first novel vN will be available next summer.

Richard Fife
1. R.Fife
*raises fist in solidarity*

Live Free or Die Hard made me want to cry and scream at the same time. I've also heard a very real argument against CSI for being irresponsible Sci-Fi. Yes, CSI, where you get DNA tests back in 5 minutes and can enhance 3 mega-pix images to read liscense plates that are a half mile away. Apparently, shows like this are making it harder and harder for juries to convinct people because they want "more evidence".

On a slightly different note, I also despise how Hollywood typically runs a very anti-intellectualism motif with sci-fi. The "good" hacker or scientist that wins the day is always the exception, and it is a giant organization of evil hackers or scientists that caused this mess in the first place, along with the idiot public for having trusted technology. GAR! /rant.
Scot Taylor
2. flapdragon
So, just how far do you propose we take this? As I see it, if taken to its logical conclusion, your proposal eliminates SF altogether by not allowing anything beyond what's currently been proven. You couldn't even write a story about, say, the discovery of the Higgs boson. By arguing for a "pure" science fiction you eliminate any possibility of SF standing for "speculative fiction" instead. In case you haven't noticed, SF encompasses FAR more than mere "scientifiction"; science is almost entirely sidelined in such classics as Dune, A Scanner Darkly, and Doomsday Book.

I also disagree with the notion that fiction of *any* type needs to uphold any particular brand of morality, ethics, or (gak) politics. If "how we discuss science and technology is inherently political," so is *everything* we discuss; as Aristotle purportedly said "man is by nature a political animal."

If you don't like how Hollywood handles SF, do what I do: Ignore its output. If you don't like how a particular author handles her or his subject matter, no one is forcing you to read that.

You seem to have a peculiar notion that ALL scientific progress, no matter how it comes about (BTW, all of your romanticizing about teams pulling all-nighters over Chinese takeout pretty much falls apart in the face of, say, Einstein and Hawking performing their thought experiments), is ultimately for the good. You're right about one thing: "You can’t shut down curiosity." Just remember that scientific "curiosity" brought us medical atrocities by Axis scientists during WWII as well as images from the Hubble.

Altogether, I find this post pointless and counterproductive. As a writer, feel free to write the kind of SF you like, but don't you dare impose your "pure" vision on me as a reader or a writer.
Doctor Thanatos
3. Doctor Thanatos
Or as the village constable might say:

"These scientists say they're working for us, but what they really want is to rule the world!'

Let the great unwashed wallow in their fantasy that scientists are either socially maladapted freedom fighters or tools of shadowy sinister quasi-governmental bodies badly lacking in ethical review boards; I notice that when they leave the IMAX to drive in their computer assisted cars using their smartphones and GPS's, they don't complain about corporate R&D departments...
Richard Fife
4. R.Fife
@2 Flapdragon
Honestly, as a writer, my response is to write engaging Sci-Fi (and Fantasy, or more to the point, stories) that put a more realistic spin on things. As much as I hate the term "the conversation", it exists for Sci-Fi as much as for anything else that has a "conversation", and if Hollywood wants to push with crappy Sci-Fi, then those of us that recognize it as such should not just ignore it, but answer back with better Sci-Fi. That, I think, is the heart of Madeline's post and "Moral Argument for Hard Science Fiction". Free speech is what it is, and people can put out what you want, but if the best they have is fantasy magic masquerading as sci-fi, then they will call that good sci-fi.

Of course, the challenge is making good sci-fi entertaining as well. Sadly, the idea of "we have this technology that is easy and magical" drives a plot better than "we have to work for days on a mind-numbing problem". Granted, those could have interesting character stories as the team interacts and works, but it becomes much more internalized and threatens to lose the layman audience in technobabble that only a small fraction of the population would be able to follow. As a thought exercise, how do you make an action flick like Live Free or Die Hard have good Sci-Fi?
Madeline Ashby
5. MadelineAshby
@Flapdragon: Oh no, not at all. I love Dune as much as the next reader, if not more. But one of the things I love so much about it is that even the fictional science is rigourous. It takes years of experimentation for Liet Kynes to make any change to the surface of Arrakis. Even then, he does it after careful experimentation. The same is true of the Bene Gesserit's bloodlines. They make mistakes in which variables to change, and those mistakes have consequences. Oddly, most of this happens because neither has access to the kind of computation that was wiped out in the Butlerian Jihad. Without access to Mentats, and with only some hallucinogens to light the way, it's a miracle they survived as long as they did.In that fictional universe as well as this real one, political change has an influence on what innovations take place.

And thought experiments are just that. Thought experiments. They're inspirational, and our lives would be diminished had they never taken place. In that way, they're really not so different from SF. But it takes big teams of full-time scientists to pick up those ideas and really run with them, and that work is not easy. It took seventy years to find the Bose-Einstein condensate, and fifteen years after that, we saw the first photon produced by one. This stuff takes time, and I think prefer to be honest about that.
Michael Burke
6. Ludon
Are you complaining about the stories being told or are you complaining about how the public at large chooses to interpret those stories and how other parties use (exploit) those interpretations for political/financial/social gain?

Fiction at its base is lying. Go read the first paragraph of Mark Twain's Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn. In telling fiction, the storyteller is telling us about things that didn't happen - or havent happened yet. The skill of the storyteller is measured in how believable they make their lies. Remember. The best lies are based in someway on a truth. And, people relate to fiction if it says something they believe - whether it's true or not. Typing this reminds me of something I once saw in the real world. Someone had placed a sign on a wall saying "Listen to Rush Limbaugh. He'll tell you the truth." and someone had written below that text "HIS TRUTH IS A LIE". Wanting to stay away from politics, I'll just say that everyone holds different things dear as truths and therefore they have different tastes in fiction.That is why writers who you don't like can be so successful.

I liked this movie when I first saw it in the same way that I like other bad movies like Turk 182, Hudson Hawk, Wrong Is Right and The President's Analyst. Every so often I think that Hackers couldn't have been made in today's world but then I listen to news stories and I begin to think that it could have been.
Noneo Yourbusiness
7. Longtimefan
I blame Tron.

Fun Movie, terrible explaination of how computers work.

But all together a fun movie.
Doctor Thanatos
8. N. Mamatas
Amazingly, once again an author locates a moral imperative to produce (and presumably, distribute) exactly the kind of story she already writes. What a lucky coincidence.
Madeline Ashby
9. MadelineAshby
Wow, Nick! I had no idea you'd read anything of mine. Thank you so much. I'm always beating myself up for writing stuff that's too soft. If anything, this post was a reminder to myself to work harder, do more research, and be more accurate. But if you think I'm doing a stand-up job already, far be it from me to disagree. :)

And you're totally right about finding a moral imperative. It's a hangup from Jesuit school, I guess. (Well, Jesuit school and design school. You hear enough lectures on social responsibility and cultural change, inevitably something sticks.) Also it's nice to have an answer at family occasions and conventions when people ask me what I write and why. I find myself explaining why I write about stuff like Quiverfull families and the Foxconn suicides, and my answer usually incorporates points from this post.
Doctor Thanatos
10. Petar Belic
If I'm going to read science fiction, I prefer it 'Hard'. Otherwise it seems to veer into fanatasy and I like to keep my genres seperate. To me science fiction without a firm grounding in at least plausible science feels a bit like cheating. Science fiction from writers like Greg Egan tends to exercise my brain which I enjoy - following up current research, seeing applications of current science in future extrapolations really make the experience much more enjoyable for me. I certainly feel as if I'm in the minority though. That's okay though - I don't read for other people!
Bruce Meyer
11. dominsions
Hard science is hard work, no doubt about it. It has taken millenium for our society to achieve its scientific progress. But the same could be said for other disciplines as well. J.R. Tolkein had to carefully craft his Middle-Earth world. J.K. Rowling had to painstakingly develop her wizarding society. The character of a romantic hero or heroine must be scrupulously built up to be worthy. It's like that old saying: Success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.
Doctor Thanatos
12. RandolphF
Bravo. It's funny; I made similar remarks over on Book View Cafe a few days ago.

No idea what to do about the problem. The everyday practice of science is not dramatic, it just isn't. And even the great transformative discoveries take more time to make and more time to sink in than most authors are willing to allow. (Happy exception: Ursula K. Leguin.) By setting out a future different from the present, science fiction leapfrogs the slowness of science. The changes have already happened and there is no need to show the slow process of discovery and implementation.

Um..."history is the trade secret of science fiction" means something in this context but right now I am too tired to think it through. Maybe some Toreans will have some ideas when I look in again tomorrow.
john mullen
13. johntheirishmongol
While I like hard scifi, I don't want it to be overexplanitory. Tell me your space ship goes FTL, but don't give me 20 pages of physics to explain how. Tell me about a positronic brain and what it does, but not how it is made, of what materials, how many ergs of energy it uses and the processing time. I certainly prefer it to the various forms of cyberpunk that I have read.

I have to say that I am glad that you couldn't hack the things you wanted, because they were rediculous. It is a good thing that there are protections and arrests for those that attempt it.
Doctor Thanatos
14. Stephen J.
Be as rigorous as possible in your fiction's science, otherwise people will think less well of scientists in reality, to the likely political detriment of us all? It's a plausible thesis, but I'm not sure it's a viable one.

First, people whose SF'nal tastes incline to the strict over the fudge-y are likely already convinced of science's and scientists' virtues, and people whose tastes *aren't* so inclined aren't likely to change them by being told their tastes are immoral. Good salesmanship requires knowing how to preach to those not already in the choir.

Second, starting with the presumption your audience is vulnerable to confusing fiction with reality may be defensible statistically, in that there are always some who do it, but it strikes me as very dicey to extrapolate that to individuals, or (at farthest extension) to enact policy based on assuming that most people's judgement can't be trusted.

Finally, it seems a questionable jump to imply that fair and accurate representation of science as a *process* and *state of knowledge* is synonymous with positive representation of *scientists as people*, or automatic validation of whatever policies particular scientists or scientific groups may espouse. In my experience, people dismiss particular "scientific" claims or proposals not because of what they don't understand about the *science* but because of what they *do* understand about *people* -- both those making the proposal and those who'll be affected by it. Human eugenics, once upon a time, was considered the cutting edge of science, and it was rejected well before it was scientifically disproven -- and not because its arguments were simplified or dramatized for entertainment value.

Arguing for truth because knowledge is preferable to ignorance is always moral. Arguing that authors shouldn't indulge in unrealistic or fantastic depictions in entertainment, for fear the audience can't be trusted to tell the difference, strikes me as condescending at best and disquietingly authoritarian at worst.
Doctor Thanatos
15. N. Mamatas
I read your story in Shine, Madeline. It wasn't too bad.

The problem with your moral argument is that it assumes that soft SF is somehow persuasive and that hard SF would be as persuasive. That is, you're making a utilitarian argument—if people read hard SF, they wouldn't be such damn simpletons and a world with fewer simpletons is good—disguised as a deontological one. (We have a duty to get things right and valorize unsexy nerds.)

I agree with Stephen J. that there's a lack of evidence. Here's a datum: my father-in-law graduated from Cambridge with an MA in zoology, moved on to Glasgow for his PhD in developmental biology, and then emigrated and spent the last pair of decades working his way up to research fellow for a major corporation. He's widely published, a polyglot, argues with young-Earth creationists in the middle of the street, etc. His own father was a nuclear physicist. (His grandfather was a famous imagist poet and translator.)

His favorite TV show is Fringe. He also likes the new Thundercats cartoon, and that Clone Wars cartoon from a few years ago was another special favorite of his. He reads tons of SF...almost indiscriminately, actually. Hard stuff, soft stuff, etc. He's very familiar with the tedium of gutting endless rats in the name of science (or at least in the name of profitable pharmaceuticals), but he doesn't necessarily read to valorize his own existence and career. He doesn't get upset when authors get science or the work of scientists wrong. Why would he? He doesn't read SF to be entranced by descriptions of his own working life, though he dedicates most of his time and energy just to that thing!

I love hard SF too, and publish as much as I can via Haikasoru, but not for educational purposes. I publish it because there is a drama in scientific conundrums, in puzzling out solutions to seemingly impossible problems and events. That's the reason why hard SF is read, more often than not. Not to wag fingers at simpletons.
Doctor Thanatos
16. Ericthetolle
Funny, I thought the moral imperative of hard science fiction was to reassure poorly socialized white males that they are the top of the evolutionary ladder, and oppressed by the dummkopfs around them. And if only they could be free of the domination of bureaucracy, taxes, and the society of marching morons, their natural superiority would come to light, and they too would be successful and oversexed..

But at least it's not fantasy where the "if only" is"if only we went back to feudalism.
Tara Mitchell
17. Jaxicat
I understant that science usually is a slow process and lots of hard work however that may or may not be the type of story I am interested in reading depending on what I am in the mood for. I really don't think that people who are totally ignorant of science are reading very much anyway.

I'm perfectly comfortable with my fiction having loose morals,.
René Walling
18. cybernetic_nomad
Eugenics is not science, it is a process to apply sciencific principles (genetics) to achieve was is an end desired by some people and is thus a moral and political process.

The person with a genetic defect who chooses not to have children because they don't want their descendants to suffer the same problems is applying the same science as some of the less shining examples of humanity previously mentioned.

The difference is in the morality and politics not the science.

Science is amoral and apolitical.

People, including scientists, are moral and political animals.

Therefore the chosen use of a scientific principle will be moral and political.
Doctor Thanatos
19. linger
I agree with this article, but I think it might go down better if you calld it a "Normative Argument for Hard Science Fiction."

>I'm perfectly comfortable with my fiction having loose morals,.

This reminds me of The Republic, where Socrates talks about how corrupt and disharmious art leads to corrupt and disharmonius minds. I'm ok with it depicting immorality, but from the authorial viewpoint, I don't think it should be glorifying immorality.
Doctor Thanatos
20. N. Mamatas
Glorifying immorality is awesome.
Doctor Thanatos
21. Seamus1602
Though it may anger some, I personally consider all spec fiction to be one genre. Perhaps I'm not as big a fan of sci fi (or Hard sci fi) as others, but I've always subscribed to the statement of Arther C Clarke, that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Such a belief makes any SF story fantasy, IMO.

So it doesn't bug me at all that Hackers is, at best, pseudo-hacking or that other Hard sci fi principles are dumbed down for mass viewing audiences. It's not interesting for me to read how scientific sci fi is, it's interesting to me to read interesting stories, regardless of their actual scientific accuracy.

I say all this as someone who is more a fan of prototypical fantasy than sci fi. My favorites SF books/series are: Dune (1st book only), Foundation (only read the original trilogy/ten stories), and Ender's Quartet (I love Ender's Game but hold a special place in my heart for the later trilogy). So, make of my opinions what you will.
Doctor Thanatos
22. Bob Roberts
The thesis for your post is that Sci-Fi should show, or have its basis in reality, which would require research, etc. to make it so.

Then you describe a democracy as:

"In democracies, the people elect representatives to make decisions about those matters."

That's a Republic. I think your argument would be better stated if you didn't have an epic fail in your post.
Doctor Thanatos
23. James Aach
I've read a lot of science fiction / thriller fiction set in today's world or the near future where I found the "science" and "technology" described to be rather silly. (For work set in the distant future - who knows? ) I've also found that sci/tech is typically used as a prop for storytelling, rather than being an integral part of it.

I tried my own hand at writing some fiction, based on my background in nuclear power, procuding a novel that describes how this wacky technology actually works. Readers seem to like "Rad Decision" (just google the title for a free online version) but the book-producing community remained unenthusiastic. Even since Fukushima, an event with striking simularities to that in my book (same reactor type, same initial cause), there has been indifference. Awhile back I discussed my adventures in the essay "Combining fiction and science: My hot ticket to publication (not)" at -- including why I think it is so difficult to interest mainstream publishers in real science and technology in a fictional format.

I don't even want to contemplate what it is like in Hollywood on this score.

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