How Science Feels

THE OUTSIDE isn't actually hard SF, but people keep calling it that for some reason.

Every once in a while someone mistakes THE OUTSIDE for hard science fiction. This isn't malicious and it isn't even detrimental to me; it just means the book gets listed on a hard SF bookshelf on Goodreads or someone asks me how I researched a part of the book that I did no research for whatsoever. But it makes me think about what gives a book the feel of hard SF, even when the actual science in it is nonsense.

And, to be clear, the actual science in THE OUTSIDE is nonsense. I start Yasira out as a working scientist, doing physics, but she's in the 28th century and all the physics words and concepts are completely made up. I nod to actual physics concepts like time dilation and vacuum energy but the things that are going on with them in the Shien Reactor are a total handwave, complete with made-up units of measurement and made-up names for made-up equations with which the characters desperately try to explain to themselves the cosmic horror that is slowly unfolding before their eyes.

Then, of course, the cosmic horror finishes unfolding and pure unscientific hell breaks loose.

The AI Gods of THE OUTSIDE, as I've explained elsewhere, are also not hard SF. They're not based in any substantive, evidence-based critique of the way AI permeates society today and the places it might lead. They're pure pulp SF tropes built to serve an allegory about religion - the literally mechanistic spirituality of control, rewards, and punishments, contrasted with the wild and unknowable (but even more dangerous) mysticism of the Outside itself.

So what is it about THE OUTSIDE that people mistake for hard SF?

To be clear about terms, I define "hard science fiction" as fiction where at least one of the plot's central elements is an extrapolation based on an actual science thing from real life, which the author has carefully researched.

But like most genres there's more to hard SF than just its basic definition. Stories that are written to fit that definition come with a culturally-determined set of tropes, stylistic conventions, and reader expectations. Hard SF readers might expect a story to have characters who are scientists, to explain its science in detail, to focus more on physics than on "softer" sciences like biology or linguistics, and to use a dense writing style with a lot of technical terms. (People who hate hard SF also expect it to do those things - it’s often one of the reasons why they hate it!)

Lo and behold, THE OUTSIDE opens with a set of characters who are physicists, spends time trying to explain what the physicists are doing at their physics job, and uses a dense writing style with a lot of technical terms.

I guess I can see how everybody got confused!

In real life, I'm a computer scientist, and I wrote THE OUTSIDE while I was in grad school. So I was able to convincingly write about the daily work of a research scientist - collaborating and comparing notes with other scientists, poring over the details of really technical documents, weighing different explanations for the observations you see, trying to fit equations to some perplexing new data.

I also did sneak some real life computer science into THE OUTSIDE, not in the fanciful descriptions of the AI and cyborgs, but in little things like user interfaces. I loved describing the contrast between the clunky, old-fashioned computer systems that mortals are allowed to work with and the flashier interfaces that Yasira gets to work with once she's working for the angels. There's a scene in the first half of the book where Yasira is working out how to search for the kinds of signals she wants in a large database of sensor readings, carefully modifying her search query a little at a time and watching the results pingpong between "30 million results found" and nothing. That's an example of a scene with more realism about how computers work, even though the computers are better at parsing natural language queries than the computers we have in real life. I fully expected someone to tell me that it was boring and that I should take it back out, but no one did, and I’m a menace who can’t be stopped.

My background in cognitive science also influenced the way I describe the angels' cyborg minds, but I played very fast and loose with those ideas and didn't look up a lot of specific things.

I saved the intensive research for parts of the book that felt more thematically central, and I was more worried about getting right - especially the themes of mysticism and psychological trauma.

THE FALLEN, book two in the series, doesn't seem to run into this issue as much - probably because, by the time we get to THE FALLEN, the characters aren't really doing much science anymore. They're doing mutual aid and community organizing instead. So I haven’t seen anyone calling THE FALLEN hard SF, but for all I know, maybe someone has.

What do you think? If you enjoy hard SF, what appeals more to you - the actual science, or the feelings and stylistic flourishes that go with it?

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