This blog is not entirely about space, but space travel is, shall we say, a prominent topic of discussion. I recently got an email from a reader who made what might be a controversial observation: "I like my starships with a little bit of swoosh."
So, how much swoosh is a starship allowed to make, and who decides? One of the first good things I heard about Firefly, before I'd seen any episodes, was that it had a silent rifle shot in space. This alone was reason enough to check out into the next episode. As it turned out, if I was looking for Realism [TM] I'd have been better off sticking with the World Series, which was then chasing Firefly around the TV schedule. So far as scientific and technical realism goes it was modest even by Hollywood standards, which is to say not at all.
All the same Firefly hooked me, the first TV scifi show to do so since Babylon 5. It did have another sort of realism that I like, and which is also rare in Hollywood scifi – a milieu set in an era clearly not our own, with differences of clothing, customs, even language. By comparison, I was never tempted to try Battlestar Galactica because even its admirers agreed that its space military was portrayed as an operational and cultural dead ringer for the present day USN.
But mostly Firefly pulled me in because while at bottom it was a shameless Bat Durston, it was a really good Bat Durston. Story trumps realism, and character trumps everything.
Rocketpunk Manifesto deals largely with hard SF and Realistic [TM] future space tech mainly because these things are an interesting mental game in their own right. Spacecraft behave in ways almost entirely unlike terrestrial vehicles. If you want to have, say, a space battle – and judging from my traffic, a good many of you do – it is interesting to explore how it might play out within the constraints of known physical laws and foreseeable technology for exploiting them.
Also, of course, barring a Huge Scientific Revolution, this is the way actual future spacecraft will behave. Science fiction, especially hard SF, has a close if somewhat uneasy relationship to futurology and what might really happen. So much so that retro-futurism – portrayals of the future as it used to be – has become an established SF subgenre. Thus steampunk, inspired by the early SF of a century ago, and at least potentially rocketpunk, inspired by that of 50 years ago.
Hard SF also has a somewhat uneasy relationship with the rest of science fiction, not to mention the rest of literature. In emphasizing technical realism it occupies roughly the same place in SF that police procedurals do in the mystery genre. But there's also a case, as Eric Raymond argues, that hard SF is in some sense the core of SF – as SFnal as it gets. Which also puts it at the heart of the SF literary ghetto. To the general public, 'scifi' still means, especially, spaceships – even though Hollywood has made two successful and highly regarded historical period pieces about space travel.
There is a whole wing of SF criticism that is not especially happy about this, and subgenres such as slipstream make a fairly deliberate effort to emphasize the weird, and blur the lines between SF and the rest of Romance, and for that matter between Romance itself and 'mainstream' – a branch of literature that oddly enough is far more essentially concerned with realism than hard SF is. But I think Raymond is right in some important way; hard SF typifies what distinguishes SF from its genre cousins.
That said, the, um, hard truth is that even most of hard SF is, in its heart of hearts, space opera. My posts on space warfare are the most popular I've done on this blog, and probably are what brought a good many of you here. From a Realistic [TM] perspective, space armadas or 'constellations' are none too likely – it is indicative that even though the Space Age began amid superpower rivalry and continued that way for a generation, neither side ever found reason to build and deploy space warcraft. But it makes for cool space opera.
And the dialogue between hard SF and the rest of SF – and the rest of Romance – can be a productive one. Any FTL setting is, almost definitionally, not really hard SF, since the whole setting relies on women chanting in Welsh. But plausible-sounding tech can play the same role in faking realism that convincing-looking swordplay does in a swashbuckler or fantasy story. For fans of non-hard SF – even space fighters – I hope that this blog will at least give you twists and variations to think about. But if you're reading this, you probably already guessed that.
Related links: The dialogue in action: my post on space fighters is still getting comments after nearly two years. And the temple of hard SF information, Atomic Rockets, is as richly ornamented with non-hard artwork (including the image above) as a Gothic cathedral. I discussed rocketpunk as such early on (surprise!), and later mulled the possibility of hard SF.