Hard and Soft Snobbery

Abraham Merrit is one of the foundational authors of speculative fiction, and it is a shame that he is not well remembered. I blame a deliberate effort of John W Cambell Jr and his protegees to undermine the fame of pulp authors in order to glolrify the more nuts-and-bolts fiction following the model of Jules Verne or Buck Rogers.

Now, I like Hard SF or Tech SF as much as the next fan of Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Niven, Pournelle, Baxter, &c., but I also like the pulps and their freedom from strict genre restraints, and I hate snobbery in all its forms.

There is no wrong way to have fun.

I particularly dislike Hard SF snobbery from fans whose favoritate authors most famous books, FOUNDATION, STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, or AGAINST THE FALL OF NIGHT, routinely contain psionic and magical elements such as accurate prophacy of future events, superhumans with psychic power, humans angels, mind reading robots, faster than light drive, time travel, and other things that as about as “Hard SF” as a genii from a lamp.

I have written Hard SF — trying to imagine how a galactic or even intergalactic community could operate without faster than light unicorns drive takes some imagination, believe you me — and I have written pulp. I find pulp harder to write, since it takes more discipline regarding plot and pacing.

The difference is more one of structured versus improvizational use of the imagination than it is of better and worse. Pulp fiction is like jazz — within its highly structured limits, there is wide freedom for individualism, improvization, riffs and inversions of themes. It is governed by the Rule of Cool. You can have anything, including Space Princess or dinosaurs lumbering through the hothouse swamps of Venus, provided it is cool.

Hard SF is more like classical music. Hard SF has a structured limitation on settings and props, that is, the make-believe technology must have a figleaf of versimilitude as something that could plausibly grow out of the modern day undersanding of physics and technology. You can get away with magic if you call it psionics and say it is non-supernatural phenomenon. You can get away with faster than light drive because if you mumble something about hyperspace or inertialess drive or quantum tunnelling and say that it is a non-supernatural phenomenon. You can even get away with Time Travel. Because otherwise the Ghost of Christmas Morlock cannot show you the final fate of mankind.

The basic limit of Hard SF is the writer cannot violate no known facts of science: Venus is a sulferic hell with a temperature to melt lead, for example, and if the daughter of a monarch of Mars is going to look like a nubile maiden from Europe or India, except with bright red skin, there had bettter be some explanation involving parallel evolution or mutual interplanetary ancestors.

Now, working within these limits is fun, and it is fun to do research and get all the details of travel times and distances to nearby stars correct, or to make sure that what you are saying about higher mathematics or exotic matter properties or Einsteinian frame-dragging effects of rotating black holes is correct according to the latest theory.

But it is also fun to write about a nubile space princess being saved from an evil dinosaur of Venus.

Usually, when snobs disparage one or the other, they compare the finest in their favored genre with a trashy or obnoxious example hand-picked from the other. But comparing best with best, I do not see anything so wonderful in ‘Nuetron Star’ by Larry Niven or THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir, to rob any wonder from ‘Queen of the Black Coast’ by Robert E. Howard or THE MOON POOL by A Merrit, nor do I think fans of Howard or Merrit have any right to disparage fans of Niven or Weir.

Each genre is shooting for an different audience (or the same audience craving something different that day) that has different expectations to satisfy: that is what defines a genre, if anything does.

Would I consider STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND to be hard sf? Glad you asked. The book poses a typically trenchant science fictional question: is a creature, born a Man, but raised and educated by Martians, is he a Man or a Martian? The answer offered by this book, of course, is neither: he is the archangel Michael. Or perhaps, since Mike the Martian sexaully conquers a harem of women, he is one of the fallen angels mentioned in passing in Genesis, fathers of the Nephilim, who “saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.”

Heinlein never penned a sequel where the bastard children of Mike the Martian, six-fingered giants educated in Martian psionic arts by the ghost of their dead patriarch, overthrow and trample all other religions, shatter the corrupt federation with kinetic bombardments from the moon, to erect a worldwide theocratic state under the Church of Nine Worlds devoted to the worship of The Beast. But that would have been more theologically accurate than his “Thou art God” houey.

A book where humans evolve into angels is not just not Hard SF, it is not Hard Theology. As in science fiction, we can divide the genre of angels stories into “hard” and “soft.” Where angels follow heretic ideas or popular misconceptions (such as Clarance in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) is “soft”. Where they are portrayed accurately as Thomas Aquinas described (the Eldil in CS Lewis’ Planetary Trilogy), is “hard.”

Now, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is one of my favorite films. I would not change it for the world. I mean no disrespect by calling it “soft” any more than I would offer disrespect to A. Merritt or HP Lovecraft or Robert E Howard or Jack Vance by calling them writers of wierd fiction.

This leaves a question unanswered: are there any books that treat with angels and other divine things in a theologically well-researched fashion? Did anyone write “Hard Theo” aside from Charles Williams and CS Lewis? Does Dante count?