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What is “Hardcore” Sci-fi?

What is Hard-core Sci-fi?

What does “hardcore” sci-fi really mean?

There has been a rise of straight-up science fiction stories showing up in the young adult age-range and I’m loving it. I still have a soft spot for all the dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories, but it’s cool to see more stories about space and technology raising hard philosophical questions aimed at the young adult reading audience. I’ve seen the description “hardcore” applied to more YA sci-fi books, though, and it got me thinking about whether I agreed with the reviewer and what “hardcore” sci-fi actually means when discussing book genres. Obviously this is going to be a completely subjective post because it’s my opinion and what I think of when I read the term “hardcore” sci-fi ;-). For other people’s opinion, you might take a gander at the Hard Core Sci-fi lists on Goodreads; it’s entertaining :D.

The Setting

Tin Star by Cecil CastellucciI do think that the setting plays a role in how hardcore a sci-fi story seems. Books that take place in outer space or mostly on a spaceship are more likely to fall into the hardcore category. However, I don’t think that’s a requirement. Futuristic stories that take place on our world but in the far future where technology has led to crazy changes still could be hardcore sci-fi to me. Do you think of hardcore sci-fi as always being off in space somewhere or can the story take place on futuristic Earth? 

The Technology

It does seem to be a requirement for me that hardcore sci-fi has a lot of description of new technologies. I need to be able to imagine all the awesome ways that things have changed, and this tends to be what separates dystopian/post-apocalyptic stories from hardcore sci-fi to me. If bad stuff has happened and the characters aren’t even able to get ahold of advanced technology, then I’m not sure I would classify that story as hardcore sci-fi.

What types of technology do I demand in my hardcore sci-fi stories? Well, the best kind is the kind I haven’t thought of yet. However, some of the more typical that spring to mind are:

  • Spaceships! I especially want some cool details about how the spaceships work and how human kind was able to improve them past what we currently have.
  • Everyday items revamped – It’s fun seeing new visions of tablets and smartphones cropping up in hardcore sci-fi stories since I’m hoping that the trend of previously science fiction technology becoming real continues :D. This is also a good way of spotting the older hardcore sci-fi since some of the everyday technology included in those stories have become realities.
  • Weird food – Most futuristic or space settings in books require food to have been tweaked a bit. Whether it’s dehydrated ice cream or cakes made out of protein packs, it’s fun to see how we are feeding ourselves given our current limitations in making nutritious food last.
  • Aliens – Fine, not a technology ;-). However, aliens are quite common in hardcore sci-fi since it seems really unlikely that there isn’t any other life out there. If space travel is mentioned, then aliens or some reason why we haven’t found aliens is kind of required in my mind for hardcore sci-fi. It’s just something that needs to be considered, ya know?

The Plot

Stranger in a Strange LandOne of my real deciding factors when it comes to hardcore sci-fi usually comes down to the focus of the plot. I’m generally of the opinion that the romance can’t be a real central element for a hardcore sci-fi story (this is where things get obviously subjective, haha). I really think that the plot needs to focus on the struggles of futuristic technology or the difficult philosophical questions that come with advancing technology in order for the story to be hardcore sci-fi.

I want to be forced to think about whether clones should be treated as individual humans, or how alien cultures might be so different from ours as to reflect some uncomfortable facts about our cultures.

Hardcore sci-fi plots also seem to be a bit slower at times than the more action-packed sci-fi, though I really don’t think it has to be the case. Sometimes the focus is so much on the interesting questions and descriptions of technology that the reader might find things boring. I do think that being hardcore sci-fi shouldn’t be an excuse to let the plot drag and that there is still a balance that an author should aim for.

The Science

Perhaps the most important thing for me when it comes to hardcore sci-fi is the science part of that description. Obviously these stories aren’t set in our world, so there is always going to be some handwaving when it comes to describing how things and the universe work. HOWEVER, for me to really consider a book hardcore sci-fi, the science has to be pretty spot on in agreement with what we currently know (or knew at the time if the book is older). Some common mistakes that keep a book from qualifying as hardcore sci-fi for me include:

  • Aliens that look human and can hybridize with humans/share our DNA without any explanation. HIGHLY UNLIKELY, as in impossible. If there is an explanation of how humans originated somewhere else or left Earth long ago and we’ve just forgotten, I’m happy. But it is completely nonsensical to assume aliens will be similar to humans, given that they evolved completely separately from us.
  • Space travel that is too easy. I’m just not satisfied with hopping in a spaceship and suddenly being a couple of galaxies over. I either need an explanation for how we’ve developed faster-than-light travel or space travel that is limited in distance due to the time that it takes.
  • Planets that we can magically survive on. I’ve been keeping an eye on the search for Earth-like planets because it’s exciting, but it’s also made it pretty clear that we’ll have a hard time surviving on most planets that we stumble upon. We are just such delicate creatures, requiring the perfect amount of chemicals in the air and the perfect amount of heat from the sun, etc. Terra-forming is cool though, again as long as it has some back-up explanation ;-).

Well, now that I’ve declared the requirements for the elite club of hardcore sci-fi, please don’t think I’m firm on any of this! I really want to hear about what you think of when you hear the term hardcore sci-fi and definitely all the things I forgot to discuss ;-).

I’m curious if this genre has a negative connotation to you or if you look for books that fall into this category?

Anya from On Starships and Dragonwings -Anya

© 2014, Anya. All rights reserved.


  1. People are always saying hardcore scifi and I did wonder what exactly they meant. I thought it was lots of scientific explanations and story lines that made you think about things. I don’t think a spaceship matters, it’s the way the story is told. I agree with you on technologies, I love seeing new things! Yes, it can’t be hardcore with a romance in the foreground. The whole they’re alien but look just like humans thing annoys me too. I’m glad I’m not the only one who likes explanations! Good discussion post! :)

    • I really like your definition, that’s definitely how I thought about it in part too. For some reason I imagine all the classic sci-fi being on spaceships, haha, I blame Star Trek ;-)

  2. Jenn @ A Glo-Worm Reads says:

    I’m enjoying reading more sci-fi in YA, but I haven’t yet read anything that I would classify as “hard core”. Ender’s Game being the exception because it’s not really new YA. And yes, I feel that YA has changed drastically over the last 5-10 years. Like I don’t even really remember there being that much of a YA section in the store when I was in high

    I would say that the more hardcore sci-fi YA is the ones that take place in space. They just more mesh with my idea of sci-fi.. which is to say, anything like Star Trek ;)

    • Haha, well YA itself is a new term since it used to just be “juvenile” fiction, not really sure why we needed the change, but it happened!

  3. Susan Gourley says:

    I pretty much agree with your definition. I think older ‘hard-core’ novels really skimped on character development and concentrated on technology, physics and chemistry. There is a bit of snobbishness in those old-style fans and writers and they don’t want anything other than their kind of story included under the term science fiction. I don’t think science fiction needs aliens or spaceships. There are so many avenues to explore and enjoy.

    • Yeah, the skimped character development definitely feels like part of the definition even though I then think the book won’t be enjoyable D: I do definitely hope that sci-fi continues to explore all sorts of cool avenues and perhaps this whole notion of “hardcore” sci-fi will just drift away into space ;-)

  4. I think like you said romance can’t be a central focus point for it to be hardcore sci fi which makes me think it would be hard for a YA to be considered hardcore SF because almost always romance IS such a big central focus because hey lets admit that its pretty much a central focus of many teen lives. I know it was for me. Books, anime and swooney eyes at whatever boy I was dating at the time. Oh so long ago

    I like that we’re seeing more heavily SF books in the YA genre – heck it really does seem to be a trend lately – which I’m loving. If its done well.

    Technology and Science definitely I think have to play a major role pretty much being a focus and permeate the entire book for it to be hardcore. I personally can’t normally stomach the hardcore stuff cause it overwhelms me a bit. When my friends hub saw me reading Satan’s Reach he was like “YOU”RE reading Hardcore SF I didn’t know that was your thing” and really its not. But then I think I’m still new enough to the SF genre that I can’t speak to whether it is for me I need to try more out to know.
    Pabkins recently posted…Review: Hang Wire by Adam ChristopherMy Profile

    • Truth, though I’m really hoping that more YA comes out without romance being the central focus since there are definitely teens not as interested in all that (perhaps more often the nerdy ones reading books?) and they should have characters that they can identify with as well :(.

      I still feel like I need to read more hardcore sf to really get a feel for whether I like it. It’s just hard since I apparently have this subconscious association with boring plot, but I’m hoping that that isn’t the case D:

      • I agree I probably need to give more hard SF a try. Like to me A Darkling Sea sounded like it was going to be hardcore SF – I don’t know if thats true but that was the gut reaction I had when I saw the cover and read the description (maybe because there was no actual character names in the description?) So that made me shy away a bit. What about you?

        I do hope more YA books come out without such a heavy romance focus. Hey Brandon Sanderson did that YA book The Rithmatist there was NO romance in it at all. But while I enjoyed it – it felt more like MIddle Grade to me instead of YA. If you read it let me know if you agree.
        Pabkins recently posted…Review: The Robe of Skulls by Vivian FrenchMy Profile

        • Yeah, I think I’d agree on that assessment of Darkling Sea. I’m not super thrilled with the description on Goodreads since it’s a bit confusing as well. At first I was nervous I think but then I figured, why not give it a try! It goes along with my whole goal of getting better read in that genre anyway :D

          Haha, I think Rithmatist is technically MG? Though I guess those lines are always a bit blurry, it definitely felt MG to me as well ;-).

          • Well the main character is what 15 or 16 so I think thats YA but I don’t know…once they get to that 15 mark yes I’d say that its really hard to tell. But hey if its shelved as MG that would be fitting.

            Though MG and YA have so much in common except usually i notice no romance. Hey Steelheart was most definitely YA you read that too right, and lookie loo there was that romance element.

            You’re so much more determined than I am. I just can’t force myself to read something if I’m not interested these days. I used to be able to. But now I read so much more that I just feel like I’m wasting valuable reading time if I’m not excited about it when I start.
            Pabkins recently posted…Review: The Robe of Skulls by Vivian FrenchMy Profile

          • Really? Huh for some reason I thought he was younger. I have a horrible memory for numbers so I pretty much just ignore them >.>

            I feel like MG has a bit more of a whimsical feel perhaps? I definitely read Steelheart :D I wasn’t thrilled with the romance thrown in, but I guess it makes sense given the context ;-).

            Haha, I wouldn’t say forced at all! I wasn’t sure, but I realized that I wasn’t sure because of associations of hardcore scifi equaling boring plot. I don’t want to judge the book based on that though, since Tor usually produces good stuff, so I figure I might as well give it a try. I can always DNF if I must!

  5. Anya,

    I was making a suggestion that would have taken things to a level far beyond what we know about genes and evolution: the underlying “gimme” in such a circumstance is that there is a deeper level of coding in the genes that we are presently unaware of, one that “nudges” evolution along in a particular, generalized direction given certain underlying conditions.

    I’m not suggesting that this is anywhere close to reality: what I am suggesting is if authors want to justify their all humanoid galaxy, this is one direction they might go in order to do as little hand-waving and to retain as much plausibility as possible.

    On the Sci Fi thing: Coined by SF’s number 1 Fan Forry Ackerman in the late 50s, it was reviled by fandom and authors almost universally: Ellison referred to is as “the sound of crickets F****ng”.

    For most of my formative years as a fan and reader, “Sci Fi” was only used by the uneducated in referencing the genre.

    Over the past two decades or so its usage has changed and it is now largely associated with media-based SF, while “SF” or “science fiction” is still most often used to refer to the literature.

    The definitions of words learned in our youth is difficult to transcend: I still remember having about twenty people YELL at me the first (and last time) I used the term “sci fi” at a convention. SKIFFY! SKIFFY! SKIFFY!

    Different eras, different strokes

    • I’m glad that we’ve gotten to the point where genre fans seem quite okay with the term, I didn’t realize that it had such a history!

      • Oh – I wasn’t implying that I and many other fans are “quite okay with the term”; we’ve come to grudging acceptance of this – yet another – intrusion of the mainstream into our fannish culture, as we’ve come to accept derivative works in film, tv and gaming getting the lion’s share of attention (as opposed to where it belongs – on the literature) and the conflation of and interest in pseudo-sciences with an interest in SF (go no further than SyFy to find “paranormal” crappola, though truth to tell that’s a mistake folks have been making since the 40s – lookup Ray Palmer & Shaver Mysteries or Campbell and Dianetics for examples).

        I also forgot to mention the historical antecedents: scientific romance, a term used in the 1800s/early 1900s to describe works such as Wells’ Time Machine, followed in 1926 by Gernsback’s coinage of “scientifiction” (scientific + fiction) which is hardly seen anymore except among fans of such and ultra-purists. You may see it sometimes abbreviated as “StF”.

        Then there’s “skiffy” – the word you get when you pronounce “sci fi” with a hard ‘c’. This term was coined by science fiction fans as a response to the introduction of sci fi, and is derogatory in nature. Sometimes we wonder if someone prefers their skiffy smooth or chunky….

        • Perhaps this is a generational thing since I’m definitely a fan and quite immersed in the sf/f culture (cons, clubs, etc) and have never encountered anyone who didn’t embrace the term sci-fi *shrugs*.

          • From Brian Aldiss’ Trillion Year Spree, winner of the Hugo Award for Best Related Work:

            “Throughout the book, as previously, we allow only the abbreviation ‘SF’. That down-market appellation ‘sci-fi’, sometimes heard on the lips of the would-be trendy in the media and elsewhere, is purposely avoided. We bow to the fact that much of what passes for science fiction these days is nearer fantasy. SF can, after all, be imagined to stand for science fantasy, as it can for speculative fiction (for those who are attached to that term).”

            No less than one of our SFWA Grand Masters.

            Anya – I’m not being critical of your experience, nor doubting your fannishness (unlike in years gone by, there is no longer only the one tru way to be a fan) but the seeming dichotomy intrigues me, as it would represent a new ‘stage’ in the evolution of fandom – a generation that has not had exposure to this aspect of the genre’s history. Up till now I have run into people who prefer sci-fi and were not aware that there used to be a problem with using it in fannish circles – but they were aware that others preferred “SF” for “some” reason. Your experience seems to suggest that, at least generationally, we’ve moved even beyond that state of affairs….

  6. “Hardcore Sci Fi” makes me think of execrably bad made-for-tv schlock – the advertising department is trying too hard.

    Sci Fi to me is still a term used by non-fans to describe what they don’t understand and by insiders to describe bad renditions of the genre. Hardcore to me suggests unreasonablness, inflexibility, etc.

    I prefer to see fiction classified by its highest taxonomic level (SF, fantasy, mystery, romance, western etc) and to leave the sub-sub-sub genre classifications to the author and the reader. I believe that doing so is the best way to insure that readers expose themselves to a wide range of authors and ideas, as opposed to finding and sticking with one or a few particular “strains”

    The humanoids in space thing? Depends upon how you want to posit the origins of life in the universe, doesn’t it? If you make the assumption that panspermia is the guiding principal, and take one further step and build in some direction/guidance to that panspermia, you can get to a universe (galaxy on a smaller scale) largely inhabited by intelligent, tool-using humanoids without too much hand waving. If you want your life forms to more closely resemble reality, then you probably ought to wait a couple of decades for more stats to come in….

    Hard SF should be characterized by a close association between what we currently know ad the extrapolations made and it should also stay within the bounds of the plausible.

    • Thank you for your thoughts. I must disagree on what sci-fi means to most fans, but that’s just from what I’ve seen and since I’m a fan who quite happily labels good books as sci-fi ;-).

      It certainly depends on the origins of life, but since I’m an evolutionary biologist, I will always have to ground those discussions in what we know is most likely based on our current knowledge. Even if extremophiles were able to make it to other planets and thrive (panspermia), it is very unlikely that they would evolve to humanoid forms in anyway similar to humans. They would be coded by DNA, sure, but they still wouldn’t look at all like humans in all likelihood, nor be hybrid-compatible ;-). That’s the fun of sci-fi though right? Taking what we currently know and positing the possible directions that could lead.

  7. sherry butcher says:

    I look for books from SiFi even the one that take place on Earth!

  8. Dragana @ Bookworm Dreams says:

    I think that hardcore sf novels can be set in space, other planets or on futuristic Earth. It’s not the setting that makes it hardcore for me, as you said, it’s how much society has advanced mostly in aspects of technology. I don’t mind if there is romance story but it should not be main aspect of the story. Spaceships and aliens are not mandatory but I want to get the feel that the technology described has scientific background. Good hardcore sf books IMHO are for example anything by Arthur C. Clarke.
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  9. Futuristic Earth or outer space. I think either one can work

    As far as “advanced technology” … yeah, I guess I expect technology of some sort, though maybe not necessarily super advanced. I don’t know. Would you count “Journey to the Center of the Earth” as hardcore sci-fi?

    I like sci-fi in general, but I think the connotations that come to mind when someone tells me a book is “hardcore sci-fi” depends more on the next part of the sentence- what comparables they name. For instance, if you tell me a book is hardcore sci-fi like “Ender’s Game,” I’m probably not going near it because I have seriously negative connotations for that title.
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  10. Thank you for pointing out some of the flaws of science fiction. On the human-alien love children, I think this really rocked my world when someone mentioned this problem and how it affected the Star Trek universe. Then it made sense.
    I want to bring up a point about surviving on other planets. Is it possible that, over a long period of time, that people can evolve to survive? For example, there are people who live in the desert, a land that seems to want to kill everything, but evolution produced animals and people that can withstand it. Living in the desert is not for everyone. Just tossing out thoughts.
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    • Haha, right?? I’m willing to give Star Trek the excuse of alien costumes are hard to make, but books don’t have that excuse!

      Oo, I’m excited about this discussion, it’s making my evolutionary biology brain work :D. So nit-picky thing first: humans are all pretty genetically similar so even though people who live in harsher environments seem really different, it’s generally just technology/culture/lifestyle that allows them to live there. The problem with humans adapting is that the changes have to be slow enough not to kill everyone to begin with. If a bunch of settlers landed on a hostile planet, they would have to be able to survive long enough to produce kids, otherwise they would just be wiped out right? They would also have to have differential survival on the planet, some people dying from the conditions and others being just a little bit more tolerant and then having lots of kids. Generally, I think that all the colonists would die right away on most of the exoplanets we’ve found, haha.

  11. Me too, same as Nathan. The correct term is “hard science fiction.” I’ve never seen “core” added to it before either. Hard SF usually refers to an emphasis on scientific accuracy and technical details. I honestly avoid hard SF because I’m more of a whimsical person and I don’t enjoy a lot of technical details (although I do like some).

  12. Weird, I have never added the ‘core’ when discussing it. For me I have always used the ‘hard’ label to describe sci-fi that is more depended on real life rules and less ‘magic’ through technology. They tend to be more plodding and less space adventure. If there are aliens they tend to be TOTALLY alien.

    Really, like Rinn said, it is a label I throw around but could never REALLY define, except by pointing to a book and saying ‘that’s hard scifi, that is not.”
    Nathan (@reviewbarn) recently posted…Sci-Fi Review: ‘God’s War’ by Kameron HurleyMy Profile

    • Haha, crap, I knew there would be something in the phrasing that would end up weird, I just couldn’t figure out what. I’ve been hearing both a lot (hence why hardcore was what sprang to mind when writing), so I don’t know if that is a change in the labels or what.

  13. I quite easily lump books into either soft or hardcore sci-fi, but explaining why is a little more difficult! To me, the majority of YA sci-fi that I’ve read so far tends to be soft. A typical example of hardcore sci-fi to me would something like The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons – completely new worlds, new techonology, new terminology thrown in (and often you have to work out what it is). Hardcore sci-fi tends to throw you in at the deep end, whereas soft sci-fi takes you by the hand and explains things a little more.

    I do often think that in space/on another planet = hardcore SF, but I suppose it depends on other factors too. Advanced technology, that is explained in detail (or at least attempted!) is quite a big factor – as is a more complex plot.

    You’re totally right about the humanoid aliens – and often it leads to romance stories (making them less ‘icky’ maybe? But there are romanceable aliens in the Mass Effect games and it’s not at all icky. Garrus is the best ;D).

    It doesn’t have a negative connotation to me at all – in fact it’s one of my favourite genres. I do struggle with the occasional book in the genre, but some of my absolute favourite books fit under hardcore sci-fi.
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    • I agree about YA tending towards the soft side of sci-fi, though there have been a couple that people keep calling hardcore and I was like, “really? I dunno…” hence the discussion :D

      Hehe, I figured you would be in the harcore sci-fi fan club ;-). It makes me sad when people say they aren’t as interested since it’s hardcore :(


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