Things Have Been Too Peaceful Lately: Re-Igniting Hard SF vs Soft SF

  • by Gitabushi

I had a great conversation with PCBushi the other day about Pulp, and some of my problems with it. Learned some things from him, and they stewed in my brain until I ran across a blogpost that made it all crystalize into a thought process I want to share.

Here, let me write a story for you:

A big monster, with so much power he was invincible, attacked a little baby.  Just as the monster was about to smash the little baby, the little baby grew a big, yellow fist and smashed the monster. With just one impact, the invincible monster was pulverized into quantum-level particles.  The End.

Good SF Pulp story?


Why?  It has fighting! It has heroics! It has Science!

But it has no real plot.  There’s no real conflict. The characters don’t grow or change.

The baby was about to get destroyed: that’s conflict! It grew a big, yellow fist: that’s change!

Where did the monster come from? How was it invincible? A baby can’t suddenly grow a big, yellow fist, right? And how could the baby smash the monster if the monster was invincible?  How can you call this science fiction if the science is this bad?

It has quantum particles in it. That makes it science.

Wouldn’t it be a better story if you explained how the baby could suddenly grow the fist?

Are you trying to say Hard SF is better than Soft SF?!?  REEEE!!!!

Okay, that’s an exaggeration on all counts, for effect.

To me, some of the Pulp that is popular right now reminds me of that one-paragraph story.  Things happen because the author wants them to happen. There’s no feeling of conflict, no feeling of threat to the protagonist.

Yes, I know, in fiction, *everything* happens because the author wants it to.  But a good story makes you willingly suspend disbelief because the author has such a good grasp of human nature and the real world that all actions not only seem possible, but even likely.

A great author can develop a character so that at the key moment in the story, they experience a change of character that, as it happens, seems so obvious that you don’t question it at all, but can actually get choked up at the self-sacrifice for love, or the decision to stride into maturity, etc.

For example, Han was all about himself throughout the movie Star Wars.  He was cynical, crass, and dismissive.  He was in it for himself, and looking out for number one.  But at a point when the tension and drama of trying to stop the Death Star was at its highest, he experienced a significant character change, and risked his life to come save Luke, and with it, the Rebellion.

Now, Soft SF proponents have a point, that I just now realized while typing the previous paragraph: Never once do we see the Millennium Falcon threatened by the defense tower blasters, or Tie Fighters.  But the Millennium Falcon was bigger, and thus probably slower, than the snub fighters, and likely would have been the size/type of ship the Death Star’s defensive blasters were designed to engage.

But the point is: even though it happened because the author wanted it to, it was plausible enough to feel satisfying.  We *wanted* Han to have a heart of gold under everything, and it made sense that Leia’s regard would be important to him, and it was natural that surviving all the life-threatening adventures with Luke would create a bond between the two.

Hard SF is just another, deeper step of that vital aspect of making a story seem real. The better you model the real world, the fewer jarring aspects there are that will take your reader out of his willing suspension of disbelief.

The most important aspect of Chekhov’s Gun is that if you want to have a gun fired in the 3rd Act to resolve the issue, you’d damn well better make sure people see it in the first, but without drawing so much attention to it that they know the 3rd Act is going to hinge on the gun being fired.

So science matters. Read this:

Space Fighters, Not.

That’s really just the background for the article I read first:

Space Fighters, Reconsidered

I think these both are examples of aspects you must consider, as a writer, to make the story more enjoyable.  Consider this paragraph:

The basic fighter concept that emerges from this line of thought could be remarkably low tech. The cockpit might resemble the EVA pods in 2001; we are looking at one day habitability. Propulsion is probably chemfuel, with plenty of short term oompf and enough delta v for the sorts of missions we are undertaking.

See how the line of thought regarding space fighters actually helps you realize what a space fighter should like, and how it should perform?  If you include a space fighter in your story like the one described here, the reader will most likely think something like, “Huh. Never thought of that, but it makes perfect sense.” You’ve just increased their commitment to suspending disbelief, heightened their enjoyment, and gave them something to think about.  Win-win-win.  But you just need to make sure you don’t blow it with some other obvious science blunder.

And yet…and yet…

I enjoyed Star Wars.  Who didn’t?  But they blow away all sorts of science facts, not just Space Fighters. Their ships make sound, blasters are never explained (they aren’t lasers, because lasers are invisible absent some sort of dust or other aerosol that makes them visible), the light-sabers are even less scientific, and then you get the magic mumbo-jumbo of the force.

There are plenty of enjoyable Pulp stories that leave me satisfied, and plenty of Hard SF stories that suck because they screw up some science, and others that suck because they get the science right but the story is lifeless and dull.

So there is a balance.  A Hard SF Star Wars might not have been as much fun.  On the other hand, a harder SF Star Wars wouldn’t have been impossible, it just would have made the writers work harder, and likely be more creative.  And the resulting Hard SF Star Wars would have been praised not only for its enjoyment, but it’s ground-breaking vision of a truly possible future.

At some point, you should read “Heavy Time” and “Hellburner” by CJ Cherryh.  Or read the whole “Chanur” series, also by CJ Cherryh.  They aren’t perfectly hard science, because they have FTL travel and/or other aspects that don’t make sense according to current scientific understanding.
Cover Art of “Pride of Chanur” by Michael Whelan. Website:

However, she does develop extremely strict rules for her FTL travel, to the point that those limitations become plot development points. Her description of life in the asteroid belt also has verisimilitude because she addresses the scientific aspects of the impact of life in weightlessness. And her sense and description of interpersonal and political relationships are convincingly accurate.

I don’t really have a thesis conclusion.  I don’t actually want to express contempt for Soft SF or Pulp, because I enjoy both, when done well.  But on the balance, I think it takes greater skill to craft an enjoyable story using more Hard SF principles, and I do believe that the greater effort Hard SF requires results in a tighter, more believable story.

One final bonus thought: in a bureaucracy in which I previously worked, documents being sent to the organization’s commander had to be placed in color-coded folders. Issues that had to be resolved in less than a week were considered emergencies, and had to be in a red folder, regardless of topic. I selected the appropriate folder cover for the topic (I believe it was green, but it doesn’t matter) and submitted it.  It was rejected a few times for issues.  I missed proper punctuation once.  The next level thought a paragraph was unclear.  Yet another higher level thought the conclusion wasn’t supported by the evidence. I submitted the corrected copy 8 days before the decision was required.  Someone in the chain was not at work, so it got stuck at that level until the next day. And guess what?  At that next level, it was returned to me to resubmit in a red cover, because it was now less than seven days and was now an emergency issue.

The point of that anecdote?  The commander set up that chain to check attention to detail.  Did the proper punctuation make any difference to the content?  Heck, did the folder cover make any difference at all?  No.  But the notion was that if I missed punctuation, what else might I miss?   If I didn’t have the document in the right color cover, what else was I ignoring or being sloppy about?

I think it is the same with fiction.  If I get basic orbital mechanics wrong, how can the scientific aspect that drives the plot be trusted? If I screw up a gravitational effect, how can I be trusted to understand how humans think?

But, of course, you have to set the level of science hardness according to your intended goal, in the same way your painting’s detail should be just good enough to evoke the emotional reaction you want. The Mona Lisa doesn’t show any facial hair (most women have *some*) or even pores, but that doesn’t seem to really enjoy anyone’s enjoyment of it.

So to repeat: I don’t have any conclusion that Soft SF is bad, or Hard SF is good. I just had some more thoughts on what you should consider as you write SF (hard or soft) that I wanted to share, hopefully to spark a good conversation.

Have at it.  Let me know what you agree with, or disagree with, or general thoughts.



Must Read, er, Book!

  • by Gitabushi

At one point, I estimated that about 40% of my political opinion came from Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit.  He’s pretty smart, he’s a Law Perfessor, he’s a libertarian, he’s a musician with synesthesia.  Not exactly dumb.

Another 20% came from Jim Geraghty.  Maybe another 10% came from Jonah Goldberg.

What I mean is, they summed up conservative thought in a pithy sentence that condensed a bunch of concepts into an easily-applied touchpoint.

For example, Glenn Reynolds is credited for Reynold’s Law:

“Subsidizing the markers of status doesn’t produce the character traits that result in that status; it undermines them.”

He also was the first place I saw that explained some of the confusing policy decisions from government as “Less opportunity for graft.”  Which makes perfect sense, when you think about it.

Geraghty and Goldberg have fallen in my esteem.  I think neither really grasped the Trump phenomenon.  At the very least, neither grasped it as well as Glenn Reynolds did.

And, full disclosure, I was NeverTrump until about 3 November.  I really considered voting for Hillary Clinton, I hated Trump that much.  But I have been pleasantly surprised…much of the explanation for that is here:

All of this is to explain why I really think you should purchase and read his latest book:

The Judiciary’s Class War


Full disclosure: I don’t think I’ve *ever* finished a non-fiction book before.  I usually get the idea of what they are saying, get bored, and stop.

Not this book.

It *is* pretty short, but it is chock full of ideas.  I found it stimulating my thought throughout, whether in the introduction, thesis, explanation, application, or conclusion.

It really explains the Front Row vs Back Row mentality that characterizes the current political realignment.  If you want to be ready for what happens next, you should read this book.

I think it well worth your time, and well worth your money.




Human Society Needs Another Frontier, Now

  • by Gitabushi

A few days ago I wrote an article about needing a frontier.  I was mainly thinking about it from the angle of liberty. But the more I thought about it, the more aspects of needing a frontier occurred to me.

Depiction of a Moon Colony by NASA/SAIC/Pat Rawlings, via Wikipedia Commons

We need a frontier because as civilization grows, society calcifies.  Systems are put in place to add predictability and safety for the benefit of the middle class, but they systems are also reinforcing: if you are in the Elite, it is easy to tweak the system so that your children and future descendants remain in the Elite.  If you are among the poor or poorly educated, you are likely to remain poor or poorly educated, because the system that rewards middle class skills and insulates the Elites from challengers simultaneously (and inadvertently) builds roadblocks from the poor/poorly educated from recognizing the value of the work needed to gain middle class skills.

A civilized society without a frontier is a society where if you do the right things, at the right time, in the right way, you should end up with the level of comfort and wealth you want.  The problem is that once the system of achieving that broadly-acceptable level of wealth and comfort are identified, everyone follows that system, and not everyone can achieve it. Those left behind grow resentful that they did everything they were told and didn’t get their promised reward. Those who did obtain their reward have little sympathy for those they competed against.  And the Elite, insulated by the insider connections necessary to become Elite, don’t give a crap.  They farm the middle class for their wealth and assuage their guilt by dropping crumbs to the lowest economic class while simultaneously haranguing the middle class for not giving up identical objective amounts to help the poor.

Or look at it from an intelligence perspective.

Simply put, someone with 120 IQ is going to be able to recognize the more subtle requirements of a system of success than someone with 100 IQ. So the marginally intelligent get ahead with less effort than the average intelligent.  Then those with 80 IQ, just as numerous as those with 120 IQ, have a significantly greater uphill slope to battle up just to do as well as someone with average intelligence.

Is it any wonder they feel resentment?

The American Dream is that if you work hard, delay gratification, and make decently-good decisions, you will live in comfort and relative wealth, and be relatively free from worry.

Just a little over a generation ago, this dream was achieved by uneducated factory workers making an hourly wage.

Now many families have to have both mother and father work just to make ends meet, and in the midst of fabulous material wealth, they justifiably have to fear whether they can afford to educate their children to reach the same levels of success, or whether they can afford relatively basic health care.

But in a frontier, you don’t need education.  You don’t need connections.  You merely need to be willing to risk, and willing to work.

In a frontier, the conservative principles of hard work, good decisions, and delayed gratification really *do* pay off. Frontiers create First Generation Elite: people who went into the frontier when risk was greatest, worked hard, and made it bit.

In a frontier, society isn’t calcified.  To survive in a frontier, you can’t just sit back and wait for the govt to take care of you, you have to learn to make good decisions, or you fail, or even die.

Okay, this stupid thing is all first draft, so I realize I’m not presenting this in a very logical or organized manner.

The point is that a Frontier absorbs and rewards labor that gets left behind in a non-frontier society.  It rewards those willing to risk, rather than rewarding the risk-averse like a non-frontier society does. A frontier literally teaches the sorts of skills and attitudes necessary for a strong, healthy society of strong, determined, and ambitious people.  A frontier doesn’t just allow people to choose the level of government intervention in daily lives they prefer, it increases overall liberty in general.  A frontier stimulates innovation, diligence, hard work, self-sacrifice.  It provides an environment that values *all* human strengths, not just the ones that a calcified bureaucratic society prizes.

One thing I’ve noted before is how the Left sees humans as liabilities: people have to be given jobs, people need to be shielded from difficult truths, etc.  The Right sees people as assets: ingenious, hard working, mature enough to handle bad news and requiring bad news to be able to make good decisions, etc.

The thing is, maybe the Left creates and strengthens the type of bureaucratic, urbanized system where people are liabilities.

A frontier lets liabilities become assets once again.

We need New Frontiers.

Explore the ocean.
Colonize the moon.
Terraform Mars.
Launch generation ships for the nearest Earth-like solar systems.


The World Needs Another Frontier, Badly

– By Gitabushi

It is a common refrain among conservatives and science fiction fans that we need a new frontier.  I’m not above advocating what is already popular, but I think I can add some depth to the argument.

Science fiction fans want a new frontier because we were attracted to speculative fiction for the exploration of new ideas, new societies, and new worlds.  The Earth’s surface has been extensively explored. I would never claim we understand everything about the Earth, but there are few places that haven’t been thoroughly explored, categorized, and claimed.  But consider colonizing the moon!  Or terra-forming and settling Mars!  Or learning to live safely and profitably underneath the ocean’s surface!

For the Science Fiction fan, exploration, claiming, and settling new frontiers is a no-brainer: it’s what we do. We do it because it’s there. No other reason is needed.

For the conservative, however, and particularly for the libertarian, the idea of a new frontier is attractive because of the lure of liberty and freedom.  When man sets foot in new territory, civilized society, with all its laws and restrictions and control, can exert only a weak influence at best.  The Statists are constantly seeking to extend their control over ever-more-minute details of the everyday lives of citizenry: surveillance, taxes, restrictions, more taxes, nudges, property taxes, Sanitized by the Government for Your Protection, stealth taxes, corruption, etc.  Civilization is wonderful, but where civilization goes, Statism follows, and the infringements on liberty are incessant and pervasive.

I think there are additional reasons we need a new frontier, and we need it badly, and we need it as soon as possible.

I mentioned previously that where civilization goes, Statism follows.  But it is more than that. Systems and structure grow organically.  Interests and assets become entrenched.  The Left is decrying the collection of  wealth in the hands of the few, and always complaining how difficult it is for the unskilled and poorly educated to earn a living wage.

This is exactly why we need a new frontier.

Think for a moment, if you will, of the individuals who have an IQ of 80-90.  Just saying “that person has an IQ of 90” sounds like you are calling them stupid, doesn’t it?  How can someone with an IQ of 90 succeed in a world that is increasingly information- and knowledge-based?  And a person with an IQ of 80 is even more constrained by their limited intelligence.

But those with an IQ of 90 are just as numerous as individuals with an IQ of 110.

Sure, in the United States, it is still possible to work hard with diligent attention to detail and succeed.  Even more so if you can acquire a strong grasp of human nature and cultivate good judgment of character.

But those opportunities are dwindling.

The Elite protect their own.  With greater wealth, they are able to give their children more experiences. With greater status, they are able to give their children more opportunities.  That doesn’t guarantee any success, of course, any more than the lack of wealthy experiences and opportunities damns a child to failure.  A child’s future success still depends mostly on the child themselves, as they learn and grow and seek knowledge and ability. Parents can teach their values, schools can teach information, but it is always up to the individual to accept, grasp, mull, and apply the values and information into knowledge, life skills, and success.

However, I think no one has much heart to argue that the paths for lower-IQ individuals who start with a lower economic class base are fewer than just a few decades ago, and will continue to disappear in the future.

A new frontier multiplies those paths and opportunities.

First, wealth flows to those who risk and work hard.  Leaving civilization is a risk. Leaving, you risk death itself, but also encounters with the lawless that are beyond the reach of civilized law. Being a pioneer means investing yourself into risk, and the returns from exploring new frontiers are correspondingly rich.  You can actually *own* your territory without property taxes. With zero or minimal taxation, you can actually *own* the fruits of your labor.

Second, frontiers require labor.  Intelligence is absolutely required, as well…but a strong back and willing hands go farther in a frontier.  Remember, your earnings are not based on the value you provide (although the value you provide to your employer caps your earnings), but are based on how much it would take to replace you with someone equally skilled. Earnings for trades and other manual labor stagnate and sag in a civilized, established, knowledge-based economy because there are so many other people that can replace you.  There’s always someone else willing to work for just a little bit less, and the learning curve for the job isn’t that high.

But in a frontier, the risks reduce the ranks of those willing. Labor is always at a premium in a frontier.

Opening a new frontier should appeal to all people, regardless of political affiliation, ideology, or societal view.  If you want new worlds to explore, you want a new frontier. If you crave liberty, you want a new frontier. And if you care about the poor, the poorly-educated, the less-intelligent, the ones who did not do well in the genetic lottery, the downtrodden, those left behind, etc., then you should be clamoring the loudest for a new frontier, because it is the best way to provide new opportunity and new wealth to those currently experiencing extensive obstacles in our stratified, calcifying society.


MUST READ SFF: The Minaverse, by Jill Domschot

  • by Gitabushi

I always have problems with reviews, I think. How do I make the book/movie/TV show sound interesting without giving too much away?  Do I talk about the writing style?  The characters?  What I find unique and/or worthwhile about it?

For me, there is no greater pleasure than having a story unfold for me.

On the other hand, I enjoy enough seeing how something difficult is pulled off that I don’t usually mind spoilers.

In any case, I’m going to try to walk the line here.

Flat-out: I think you should read The Minaverse, by Jill Domschot.


I know Jill through Twitter, through a loose collection of SF&F fans, readers, and gamers.  I don’t know her well.  She doesn’t owe me money, nor do I owe her money. We aren’t related. We wouldn’t recognize each other if we walked past each other on the street. I get nothing for plugging this book.

She was struggling with a blurb for her book, and I like to help and am usually a pretty good wordsmith, so I helped improve it.  To say thanks, she let me read an advanced copy of the book I just helped write the blurb for.

I’m very glad she did, because I really enjoyed this story.

As I started reading the book, I made little mental notes of the feedback I was going to give her: the character that was unlikeable, the times she told us instead of showing us, etc.

But starting almost immediately in Chapter 4, I forgot all that.  The story figuratively took off, and none of the criticisms mattered. I lost myself in the book and just enjoyed it.

The Minaverse is a semi-framed story.  The protagonist, Stephanie, wants to interview her famous grandfather and turn it into a biography that will provide her some career success.  That is the frame for the story of Oso Benat.  His narrative starts in Chapter 4, and that’s where I became entranced.

I say it is semi-framed, because Ono’s partner also gets a few chapters for his viewpoint.  And by the end, the life story fades away like a desert river moving underground, and Stephanie’s story becomes the main narrative.

And it works.

This book has several strong elements. I like how she really tried to provide a plausible development for human-like androids.  She skewers current society with an acerbic wit by showing where some of the trends we see today are leading. She provides some touching insight into love, (mis)communication, ego, ambition, loyalty, and even faith. Her characters are distinct and memorable, and each has their own voice.

The important thing, however, is it fulfills one of the prime themes and duties of good SF&F: it explores what it means to be human, and does it well.

It’s not a perfect book.  It breaks some rules.  But every time I tried to think about how it could be fixed, I realized that “fixing” it would mean messing with what was actually working.  I urged her to publish it as is (and I think she did).

Look, I’ve made it through some slogs before, but this is an easy read.  The book pulls you along by the force of its magnetic personalities, the challenges Jill sets up for them, and how they resolve them.

I highly recommend this book.  It’s a bargain. I think Jill may be one of the bright new voices of SF&F. Go buy it now.



Guitar Lust: B-Way Guitars’ Mercury Head

  • by Gitabushi

Back in 2012, on the guitar brand fan forum I used to frequent, one of the members posted an announcement that he was starting a line of guitars.  He designed the guitar himself, contracted a builder to make the bodies and necks and paint the bodies, and then did the finishing work himself.  He showed his prototype, and his first build, and posted some clips.  They looked interesting, and sounded great.

Here’s the story of how he got started.

That was it for two years.  He wasn’t exactly pumping out a huge volume of guitars.

In mid-2014, he posted pictures of his next build, which (IIRC, were his #3 and #4 production guitars). I had saved up some money in my guitar fund and wanted to purchase a premium guitar brand new, and I chose his.

Here is my guitar.

I had a great time discussing the build with Ben. We went through so many iterations talking about the pickups.  I ended up choosing P-Rails, flipped from the recommended configuration to get a little extra twang by moving the rails farther away from each other, one closer to the bridge for brightness, and the other closer to the neck for sweetness.  Then a 3-way switch to select bridge pickup, neck pickup, or both, and a 2nd 3-way switch to select P-90, rail, or both (in series/humbucking) I didn’t feel like I needed parallel wiring, nor was I worried about being able to pair the P-90 in one position with the rail in the other.  It would have made the wiring and switching too complicated. I have 9 distinct, awesome tones.

Well, he’s kept up the furious pace of guitar building he set early, and production guitar #8 or #9 is up for sale (depending on when you read this, it might not be for sale any more). I’m not sure if the fraternal twin is still being prepped or has already been sold.


My guitar sounds wonderful.  The neck joint is very solid and tight, and I believe that increases tone and sustain. It is wonderfully ergonomic, making it easy to play. The fit and finish is flawless. You look at it, and pick it up, and it just feels like a luxury guitar.  Mine is worth every penny.  It is a guitar I can never sell, for various reasons.

I feel really proud to have one of the few B-Way Mercury Head guitars.  It is truly a prized possession, the jewel of my collection, and a great guitar to play.

Do what you have to to get one.

Here’s a gallery of guitars and guitar builds on the B-Way website.

The red one you see in that gallery?  It was purchased by Walter Becker of Steely Dan, and was one of his backup guitars, on stage with him in live performances.

Not too shabby!


Now Ima Retweet Her! (Parody Lyrics)

  • by Gitabushi

With apologies to the Monkees and Neil Diamond.

To the tune of “I’m a Believer”

I thought #FF love was just a fairy tale
Meant for someone else but not for me.
Fame was out to get me
That’s the way it seemed.
Follower count haunted all my dreams.

Then I saw her meme, now Ima retweet her
Not a trace of shame in my mind.
Gonna troll, mmmmm, I’m a retweeter!
I couldn’t delete her if I tried.

I thought retweets were more or less a givin’ thing,
Seems the more I gave the less I got.
What’s the use in tryin’?
Likes is all you get.
When I needed sharing I got sh*t.

Then I saw her meme, now Ima retweet her
Not a trace of shame in my mind.
Gotta troll, mmmmm, I’m a retweeter!
I couldn’t delete her if I tried.

Previous entries:

“Ebola’s Back”, a Parody Lyrics Post

Berkeley, California

Tax the Rains

Oh, Cthulhu