Hard Enough

Faster than light travel is not scientific. Fight me.

Time travel? Not scientific.

The list of science fiction tropes and the list of tropes deemed not scientific enough to count as science fiction are pretty much identical lists. So the question becomes: whose science fiction is science fiction? Whose is hard science fiction? Whose science is science enough?

As a woman writing a range of science fiction and fantasy, some of which is very much hard SF, I’ve used my physics degree quite a lot. I use partial differential equations more than you’d think. Not, I hasten to clarify, to calculate orbits, materials coefficients, or any of the other things that might seem sufficiently hard and science-filled. No. I use differential equations when people ask me questions like, “Why don’t women write science fiction?” by which they usually mean, “Why don’t women write properly hard science fiction that could in no way be mistaken for fantasy?”

When male fans are looking right at you—right at me and my literally dozens of publications in Analog and Nature and anthologies with titles like Science Fiction By Scientists—and asking if women don’t write science fiction because we don’t have the science background, my differential equations are such an easy thing to resort to. They are a shield. A carapace I have grown.

And I have done that. On three occasions I recall—and I may be forgetting more, they blur together—I have challenged audience members who made that kind of assertion, that women don’t write science fiction, that women don’t write hard science fiction—to a contest of differential equations. I have even offered to go first.

Try me. I have been hardened. I am hard enough.

They never take me up on it, so I get to exist as a hard science fiction writer. I am sciencier than they are. I win.

The problem is, they’re not the only ones who lose.

The January 11, 2018, issue of Nature featured a Pew Research poll stating that half of women in STEM jobs say they’ve been discriminated against at work based on their gender, compared to 41 percent in other fields. Sixty-two percent of Black people in STEM jobs say the same about racial discrimination, compared to 50 percent of Black people in other jobs. They didn’t give numbers for non-binary people, for example, or for Latinx people, or Native, Indigenous, or First Nations people, or any of a number of other ways people can be marginalized.

But that’s only one place to even start looking at what’s wrong with who we consider most eligible to write hard science fiction. Another is the very basics of who’s working in STEM. The census tells us that six percent of STEM workers are Black, compared to eleven percent of the workforce overall in the US. Makes sense, when you look at that kind of discrimination in the workplace. Makes sense, when you think about the kind of discrimination that precedes it.

Obviously numbers worldwide vary. But most of the SF published in the Anglophone world is written by people working in the Anglophone world. And we have a major problem in the STEM fields here, with access in the first place and with status issues and harassment for the people who do get in. And the more we buy into this divide as to who has the credentials to write hard SF, the more we’re reinforcing the idea that it’s… the usual suspects. That statistically, it’s going to be straight cis white men.

The images of science that we see in fiction reinforce the images in our heads of who gets to be a scientist. And study after study has shown that the images we’re shown and the images we come up with are, statistically on average, white men with messy hair. (The messy hair part, I confess, is kind of true.) And it loops back into who writes science fiction about science and scientists—and back into what kind of scientist characters they’re likely to portray.

All this would be bad enough if hard science fiction actually required differential equations. But I’ve written a bunch of it and read even more, and I promise, no differential equations were harmed in the making of this fiction. Or rather—they probably were harmed, at least emotionally, if they got a good look at what they were being asked to do, because they certainly weren’t being used to meticulously construct the fiction.

But isn’t it all about science? Isn’t that the definition? Well, sort of. In parts. Hard science fiction is playing with science. Romping with science. Acting like a goofy kid about science. And hard science fiction fans are really great at remembering that—until there’s somebody around who might be counting something as hard science fiction that isn’t hard enough.

Oops.

So how else do we do this? How do we do this better? How do I stop having conversations with smart, talented writers who tell me that they don’t know enough science to write hard science fiction, theirs is just about this family on Mars that finds a funny rock? Theirs is just about zoology? Theirs is just about this stuff they’re really interested about with grass botany? On some level, as long as they write the story, it doesn’t matter if they don’t want to arm-wrestle for the label. Write the story, play with the science, find the joy. Love your parrots, your fungus, your funny aliens yearning to breathe methane.

But for those of us on the inside—those of us who have the credentials to say, yes, I have done Rutherford scattering, I have run a scanning tunneling microscope and looked at the structural relationship of atoms of the substance I chose to put in there, I’ve done all that, I’m a card-carrying science nerd, here’s my card, I am carrying it—I don’t think it’s enough to shrug it off on other people’s behalves. To say that it doesn’t matter for them. It’s on us, working from the inside, to say, actually, this isn’t why. I have these credentials, and they’re not the engine of my hard science fiction. I’ve tinkered with the thing. I know what makes it go. This isn’t it.

And to say, hey, I’ve done science, I know science, and… botany is science too. Zoology is science too. Psychology is science too. So if hard science fiction is the stuff that’s science speculation, guess who I would like to sponsor for the club.

Hard science fiction is like playing with blocks. It doesn’t have to meet the building codes in your neighborhood. It just has to not fall over long enough to make something cool. With a versatile set of blocks you can make touching, thought-provoking art—and watching someone with an architecture degree play with blocks can be astonishing. But that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones who can accomplish anything worth looking at. And they’re almost never the ones shouldering everyone else aside and telling them not to try.

In practice, hard science fiction is almost always a comparative term. Harder than this. Harder than that. When someone is starting a genre war, arguing that Star Trek counts and Star Wars doesn’t, they can easily get smacked down by a Greg Egan fan telling them what “real” “hard” SF looks like. But where does that get anybody, creatively? How does that bring in more diverse voices that have historically been shut out?

Isn’t it more fun to have more friends—different friends—to play with science toys with you? Isn’t it better for fiction, for science fiction, and for hard science fiction, to shrug and say, come on in, the water’s fine? and incidentally if you want to write hard SF about hydrology, you don’t need a degree, just do some research and have fun speculating?

From the squishy speculating insides of this physics carapace, I can promise you: that’s what it’s really all about.

Marissa Lingen

Marissa Lingen is among the top science fiction and fantasy writers in the world who were named after fruit. She has many opinions on Moomintrolls. She has been known to cross international borders in search of rare tisanes. Her personal relationships with bodies of water are intense though eccentric. She lives atop the oldest bedrock in the US with two large men and one small dog, where she writes, if not daily, frequently.

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