Hi, I’m Travis Perry–yeah, I know there’s a short bio of me with this article, but I think I’d like to introduce myself in a different way. Most of you have most likely seen at least an article or two I’ve written here for Speculative Faith. What you may not realize is how much I like so-called “hard” science fiction. Which has lead me to ask, “Where are the hard science fiction writers who are Christians?” Please allow me to explain the question:
Hard science fiction, in case you didn’t know, is the name for sci fi that treats the laws of physics as if they really matter. Hard science fiction tries to explore things that really could happen in the future, as opposed to space opera, which is really about telling an exciting story with space as a backdrop.
Star Wars is of course classic space opera, widely considered science fiction by most people, but you could just as well call it space fantasy. Not because it would be impossible to make a sword based on highly heated plasma (to pick just one example), but if you managed to to make such a machine and held it anywhere near your face (as Luke Skywalker often did), you’d burn your face off. (Though Darth Vader’s face mask would presumably provide some heat protection, so he’d be okay, I guess 🙂 .) Star Wars light sabers don’t exist because they could work, but because they parallel real swords. There’s something cool about imagining sword fighting returning in a new, sort of space-magic way.
Just because I prefer hard science fiction doesn’t mean I don’t ever like space opera, by the way. I’ve enjoyed Star Wars. Please note that Star Trek is also basically space opera, however, Star Trek at times plays with ideas that relate to real physics. We could maybe call Star Trek “hard science fiction-flavored space opera.” (Ditto for Dr. Who, though Who has somewhat less of the flavor of scientific plausibility than Star Trek.)
Superhero stories are another kind of fantasy. Getting bit by a radioactive (or bio-engineered) spider would kill you, not make you into a superhero. The Incredible Hulk might grow larger in rage, but his own body cannot simply get bigger to become the Hulk, not from a hard science fiction point of view, because the law of conservation of matter would apply so as he got bigger, so his body would become less dense. The Hulk, even if very strong, would have the body consistency of the Stay Puft marshmallow man (from Ghostbusters). (For Hulk to get bigger and weigh more, he’d have to steal mass from another dimension or something. But where does that extra mass go when he turns smaller again?)
Plus wearing Iron Man’s metal suit would not spare him from g-force damage from hard impacts. Or saying a yellow sun gives Superman the power to fly doesn’t even have a hypothetical explanation, but if it did, wouldn’t he have less power at night? Etc. Etc.
I personally prefer fantasy to be forthrightly set in another world or dimension with magical creatures over pseudo science, though I have a little bit of tolerance for pseudo science. One thing I especially like about epic fantasy is the way such stories can contrast the struggle between good and evil in a way that some people may complain is not realistic, since so few villains or heroes in the real world are so wholly good or bad. But by showing the baddest possible bad, an epic fantasy story can comment on what evil actually is, what the nature of true wickedness is–and of course the nature of goodness as well, illuminating moral truth in a way a more realistic story often fails to do. (E.g. no one can turn the power of evil into good, proclaims The Lord of the Rings–the best good can do is put away evil, first by resisting it, then by appealing to the type of destructive event seen at Mount Doom, liberation coming through the hero’s self-sacrifice.)
My favorite space opera and superhero stories also feature strong contrasts between good and evil. In fact, a common criticism of mine concerning superhero stories is they far too often fail to show either convincing villains or sufficiently evil villains.
So having said all that, how is it that I can and do like stories that aren’t hard sci-fi, yet still say I really like it? What’s the reason I like hard science fiction at all?
I used to be one of those dinosaur book readers as a small child and I followed it up by reading about outer space and rockets and history and many things. While fantasy has its appeal, the real universe is cool–things that have really happened in human history and the history of the universe are fascinating. God is painting on a canvas of actual events and through the laws of nature, if we have the eyes to see his working through the real world.
So I read science first and then checked out the “science fiction” section of my middle school library because it had the word “science” in it. Seriously. I immediately ran into stories (from the 50s) that talked about exploration of the moon and other planets. For me at that time, what was interesting about all this was the idea it could really happen–that maybe someday I would get to see another world, that maybe I would walk on Mars myself. These story worlds, these projections onto other planets were inherently more interesting than whatever was going on with the characters–though of course the characters could be interesting, too.
I found myself liking stories driven by ideas that at least seemed very plausible. For example, what if there was a story in which scientists used modern DNA techniques to bring dinosaurs back, so they live today? Of course, I’m laughing as I write that–this idea has already been done in Jurassic Park and its many sequels, a story much more fascinating because of the ideas behind it than because of any of its characters. Though I suppose the characters were at least somewhat engaging, too. Especially Malcolm.
In fact, virtually every Michael Crichton story qualifies as hard science fiction, even the novel he wrote set in the dark ages (Eaters of the Dead) made into the movie The Thirteenth Warrior, in which Crichton in effect sent the closest thing to a scientific observer of the era (the Arab character), into the world of Vikings. And then established a credible scientific explanation for the type of monster known as “Grendel” in Beowulf.
Ideas that are not fully “hard” have influenced science fiction beyond what you may realize. The novel series Dune has a very medieval feel to it–lots of personal combat, though with knives instead of swords. But why do they fight with knives?–because personal shield technology is so common in the story world that guns are largely useless. The idea of personal shields may not work as far as the technology involved would be concerned, but the story gives a real reason why knife fighting is a thing in a way that makes internal sense to the story. There are many examples of this sort of thing in the history of science fiction.
In films, hard science fiction shows itself in realistic pondering of the effects of genetics testing and engineering on human society in Gattaca. This kind of story that realistically looks at future technology and its effects on society with implications that could easily been religious and which would seem to be a natural zone for Christian authors to engage. But I don’t see much sign that we are.
Hard science fiction is also in many other (but not all) dystopian tales, military science fiction (Starship Troopers is probably the most famous example in film), and in cyberpunk stories or LitRPG tales like Ready Player One (since they are based on actual computer technology or tech-coming-soon). Space opera and superhero tales gather greater box office sales, but stories with more of a “science” quotient in their science fiction represent a major segment of speculative fiction sales in print and in films worldwide.
So hard science fiction or stories that trend that direction are a major, worldwide thing. Yet among those Christian friends writing speculative fiction with Christian themes (or at least not in complete opposition to a Christian world view), how many are writing hard science fiction or even leaning that direction? I know of two, Kerry Nietz, who often writes cyberpunk and in general incorporates hard science fiction ideas in his stories and Steve Rzasa writing things that at times are probably space opera, at times hard sci fi. And Lelia Rose Foreman, who almost always sticks to scientific plausibility, including showing realistic shifts in language and culture. (I suppose I might constitute a fourth such writer, especially in anthologies I’ve published and contributed stories to like Medieval Mars and Victorian Venus or Andrea J. Graham’s WebSurfer antho). And…surely I must be missing somebody, right?
Yeah, I know there has to be others. And I actually do know some short story writers also veering in the direction of hard science fiction. But not many. At the primary conference focused on speculative fiction writers “of faith,” Realm Makers, science fiction of any kind is very much outnumbered by fantasy. And among the science fiction that’s there, most is space opera– the selection of hard science fiction is pretty small, comparatively speaking.
And that brings me back to the question I used to title this post. Where are the Christians writing hard science fiction? Why does my intuitive sense of proportions sense that the percentage of hard sci fi types is much lower among Christians than in the speculative fiction world overall? Am I even correct about that? And if I am correct, what do you think is the cause of this phenomenon?
And who did I forget to mention among Christian authors writing hard science fiction? Let me know in the comments below.