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.
I 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?
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?
One 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.
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?
© 2014, Anya. All rights reserved.