Hard Science Fiction in a Nutshell: The Genre, Examples, & Tropes

POSTED ON Apr 26, 2023

Bella Rose Pope

Written by Bella Rose Pope

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Science fiction has always been a captivating genre that pushes the boundaries of our imagination, taking us on thrilling journeys to distant galaxies, alternate realities, and futuristic worlds. It’s also been responsible for some of the largest fan bases in the world, including Star Wars and Star Trek fandoms. 

Within the list of book genres lies science fiction. And within that broad spectrum, there exists a subgenre known as hard science fiction. It delves into the realm of scientific accuracy and feasibility a bit more than the pure storytelling nature of other sci-fi works. 

Let’s take a spacewalk into the wonders of hard science fiction, exploring its examples and tropes that make it a unique and thought-provoking genre, along with some insight into how you write it for yourself.

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What is Hard Science Fiction?

Hard science fiction is a subgenre of science fiction that uses scientific accuracy and plausibility. It often revolves around scientific concepts and theories, exploring their potential implications and consequences in a futuristic or speculative setting. 

Hard science fiction is grounded in real-world science and strives to adhere to the laws of physics, chemistry, and other scientific principles, creating a sense of realism and authenticity. It doesn’t rely on made-up technology and instead takes what we know about science today and expands on its potential in the future.

Compare this to the types of science fiction that invent new technologies that aren’t grounded in what we have today.

Examples of Hard Science Fiction to Understand the Differences

It’s easier to read books and gain an understand of not only what hard science fiction is, but how to do it well and in a way that that readers can comprehend.

Because not every sci-fi fan will have a strong grasp on real science, author of hard science fiction have to work to make their science both interesting and understandable. 

Here are some popular examples of hard science fiction:

  1. The Martian by Andy Weir: This bestselling novel, later adapted into a successful movie, follows the story of an astronaut stranded on Mars and his struggle to survive using his scientific knowledge and problem-solving skills. The novel is renowned for its detailed and accurate portrayal of the challenges of surviving on Mars, incorporating real scientific concepts such as botany, chemistry, and physics.
  2. Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke: This book explores the encounter of a massive alien spacecraft named Rama as it enters our solar system. The story focuses on the scientific investigation and exploration of the mysterious and enigmatic vessel, as well as the challenges and discoveries made by the human crew as they decipher its secrets.
  3. The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin: This award-winning Chinese science fiction novel is known for its intricate and scientifically grounded plot. It delves into the complexities of astrophysics, quantum mechanics, and other advanced scientific concepts as it weaves a tale of an impending alien invasion and the challenges humanity faces in defending against it.
  4. Anything by Alastair Reynolds: Prior to writing fiction and making a living from his books, this author worked for the European Space Research and Technology Centre (the equivalent of the U.S.'s NASA) and studied physics and astronomy at Newcastle University. His fiction is based in hard science from his experiences and most stories have backgrounds spanning millions of years in some cases.
  5. Neuromancer by William Gibson: Often credited with popularizing the cyberpunk genre, “Neuromancer” delves into the world of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and hacking. It explores the potential consequences of advanced technology on society and the human mind.
  6. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card: This novel follows a young boy named Ender Wiggin as he is trained at a military academy in space to fight against an alien race. The story delves into the physics of space travel and military strategy, while also exploring the psychological and ethical implications of warfare.
  7. Blindsight by Peter Watts: This novel explores the concept of consciousness through the eyes of a team of scientists investigating an alien presence in space. It delves into cutting-edge neuroscience and explores the nature of intelligence and perception.

Tropes of Hard Science Fiction to Remember When Writing Yours

Tropes are elements in fiction that are recognizable and recur across many stories. Most often, they’re beloved and readers are drawn to the scenarios presented.

If you’re writing your own novel in the hard scifi genre, here are some tropes to keep an eye out for:

1. Technological Innovation 

Hard science fiction often explores the potential advancements of technology and their societal impact. 

It delves into the scientific principles behind futuristic technologies, such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, or advanced propulsion systems, and their implications on human civilization. A trope you’ll often find in these books has to do with what new innovation came from a past invention and how it will integrate into the world.

2. Scientific Exploration 

Because this genre revolves around the exploration of uncharted territories, whether it's distant planets, alternate dimensions, or parallel universes, you’ll find a lot of stories focusing on the discovery of these things. 

The books will have plots that focus on the scientific methods and challenges of exploring the unknown, often drawing on real-world scientific theories and concepts.

Star Trek is an example of this trope used in action, though it’s not actually hard science fiction and is a soft form of sci-fi.

3. Problem-Solving with Advanced Knowledge 

Hard science fiction tends to focus on the intellectual and scientific prowess of its characters, who use their knowledge and problem-solving skills to overcome challenges and obstacles. 

It often highlights the importance of innovation and resourcefulness in the face of adversity, and how scientific thinking can be applied to overcome seemingly insurmountable problems. With this trop, you’ll often find stories of scientists needing to use new or existing science available to them in order to solve different problems.

4. Ethics and Consequences 

The ethical implications and consequences of scientific advancements is one of the most popular tropes in this genre—one we’re currently facing when it comes to AI in real life.

You’ll find a lot of stories diving into the potential moral dilemmas and societal impact of scientific breakthroughs, raising questions about the responsible use of technology and the ethical considerations that come with it. The reason it’s so popular is because it’s so tangible to us in real life.

Even social media is a hotly debated topic when it comes to technology and the ethical challenges. If you take that same idea and advance it by two thousand years, you can come up with something more hard sci-if.

Hard science fiction is a captivating and intellectually stimulating book genre that offers a unique blend of scientific accuracy and speculative storytelling. If you want to write hard science fiction, you’ll have to do a good deal of research in order to explore the wonders of scientific concepts and theories, so you can push the boundaries of your reader’s imagination.

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