Hard Science Fiction is Mapping our Future – But Are We Ready to Go?

Here at Hieroglyph, we do our best to abide by Neal Stephenson’s 3H rule: no holocausts, no hackers, and no hyperspace.

It’s a good guideline for the work that goes on here. After all, how can we learn to make a better future when we’re burdened with hopeless dystopias, magical-but-unrealizable dream technologies, and only ad hoc improvements to our existing systems and machines?

Hieroglyph is about not just dreaming big, but also dreaming plausibly, a sentiment that was recently championed on NPR’s All Things Considered. In his piece, Steve Paulson details the recent popularity of “hard science fiction” by authors like Neal Stephenson, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Andy Weir (The Martian). Paulson argues that these “hard” stories aren’t even imaginary: the science is sound, and with a few (okay, a few hundred) billion dollars in the coffers, we’re an interplanetary species.

But not so fast. Kim Stanley Robinson posits at the end of the article:

This idea of a utopia happening on another planet is a story space you go into. I mean, I love Mars and I’m interested in Mars. But we don’t need to go anywhere, because this planet is our one and only home.”

Frankly, this is a surprising to hear. We enjoy science fiction because it provides a speculative and exciting escape, but books by Robinson and his contemporaries also do more. With its adherence to scientific accuracy and rigorous details, hard science fiction does the heavy lifting of dreaming about the future, establishing a steady foundation on which our ideas about humanity can be imagined and built upon.  To many, these aren’t just entertaining stories, but also explicit nudges toward any number of possible outcomes for our species. 

Home is wherever humanity goes next, and yes, we might stay Earth bound for the rest of our existence. However, if we’re dreaming big, the technology is near, Congress keeps feeling generous toward the space program, and popular fiction continues to prime the wills of would-be space travelers, we might need to add another ‘H’ to the Hieroglyph ruleset:

No homesickness.






3 responses to “Hard Science Fiction is Mapping our Future – But Are We Ready to Go?”

  1. Graham Storrs Avatar
    Graham Storrs

    I’m a big fan of hard sci-fi. I like the notion of plausibility in tales of the future. However, I also have an uneasiness about writers insisting on only those technologies that can reasonably be extrapolated from our current understanding. The reality is that new physics does happen from time to time (and new chemistry and biology, etc.) and may well be happening at an accelerated rate in the future. It’s a kind of hubris to assume that, because we can’t see how to achieve FTL travel now, we won’t be able to in a hundred or two hundred years. Not allowing for new physics in the future is just as bad a mistake as allowing for it.

    1. Bob Beard Avatar
      Bob Beard

      Thanks, Graham!

  2. Giulio Prisco Avatar
    Giulio Prisco

    History shows that when we think no new physics will ever happen, new physics usually begins happening soon. So perhaps we should celebrate skepticism as a good omen. I don’t see FTL happening anytime soon, but I don’t rule the possibility out.

    Re “we don’t need to go anywhere, because this planet is our one and only home.” – Try saying that to a teen who can’t wait to leave home. Say: “You don’t need to go anywhere, because Mom and Dad’s place is your one and only home.” Then wait for deserved insults. We should be like that teen.

    I wrote an article about Robinson’s Aurora, titled “Yes, Mr. Robinson, We Can Go To The Stars.”: