Rock Hard Sci-Fi - Can it be done? Has it?

Not looking for porn of any kind.

“Hard Sci-Fi” refers to science fiction that violates the laws of nature as we know them as little as possible, showing restraint in the use of impossible technologies (e.g. Heisenberg compensators), new fictional elements (e.g. dilithium crystals), etc.

I’m thinking along the lines of really hard sci-fi. Sci-Fi that relies only on what we know about the natural world, and invents nothing presently thought to be impossible or wildly improbable. No warp drives allowed.

The closest thing I can think of right now was the movie Gattaca. Perhaps the only element in that film I couldn’t quite swallow was the insta-sequencers that could identify individuals as quickly as one could swipe a credit card. To do DNA fingerprinting using sequence analysis, one must probably scan through millions of base pairs, at least, to aquire information on enough polymorphisms to get reasonable confidence to identify one individual out of millions or billions in the database.

Perhaps the best technology we have now would still take several hours to generate sufficient data, in no small part because many copies of DNA must be synthesized, and that takes time. DNA polymerases can only polymerize so fast (many tens of nucleotides per second, at most), and it’s tough to imagine a purely chemical method that could work faster. It’s possible some sort of nano-technological thingy could grab individual chromosomes and pass a strand of DNA past the tip of an atomic force microscope, maybe, to read each base, but I really doubt tens of thousands of bases a second is a physically possible rate with such an apparatus. I’m not sure if anything can read molecular structure accurately on those scales at such speeds, but maybe I’m wrong.

Anyway, besides that criticism (which I don’t claim to be certain about), I couldn’t see any reason to otherwise have strong doubts about any other plot elements or Gattaca’s basic premise: That births could some day be screened for some traits, and engineered for others, to create an artificially selected and somewhat enhanced class of human being largely free of congentical defects or other “flaws”, be they serious or superficial. I’m pretty sure the brutal “operation” to extend Ethan Hawke’s legs to make him taller could probably work. We already have examples of polydactyly; so maybe getting those extra fingers to actually work wouldn’t be too much of a stretch, and hence the 12-fingered pianist isn’t quite such a stretch. Yeah, the overall vision of the future is pretty damn pessimistic and dystopian, but given our history of class struggles, that these genetic enhancements could lead to the creation a new form of biological caste system seems not too implausible. I give the flick an A- for science, and a B for being a pretty good movie anyway.

So, what’s your pick for “hardest and best sci-fi” and, do you think it could get any harder and still be interesting?

Cryptonomicon? Set in WW2 and the present day, and so not using any exotic or impossible technology.

Well IMO Sci-Fi without a heaping helping of “Fi” isn’t really “Sci-Fi”, so your definition is kind of self excluding. I think movies that are mostly hard would be a better target.

Spielberg’s “AI” didn’t really press any “super crazy impossible” envelopes until the retro-ending with the super-bots.

“Mad Max” - Dystopic Future - nothing impossible there

“2001” - All space travel is relatively conventional except for the Monolith stuff

Ridley Scott “Blade Runner” - Main topics re genetically engineered life increasingly within the realm of possibility - even if the (not shown) space exploration via star gates is taken into account.

“Soylent Green” - was that sci-fi?

“Silent Running” - Nothing technologically outlandish

Interestingly the original “Robocop” - nothing “crazy impossible” there - concepts are valid extensions of possible technology

“The Mariner” - another Dystopic future- Other than the improbability of super fast human mutations (ie his webbed toes and swimming ability after a few hundred years of water living) all the technology was relatively conventional.

Well, Red Planet fell fairly neatly into that category, with stuff that is a logical extension of current technologies (maybe one or two generations of refinement from where we are now).

I didn’t like the clumsy mechanic of simply opening a fuel valve on the Soviet Probe’s return module and taking “approximately a gallon” of rocket fuel out in a rock collection pan. But that’s a story element, not a technological one.

Mission to Mars was similar until it went all woo-woo with the Ancestral Aliens. I liked how they found the leak with the Dr. Pepper.

But really hard sci-fi and Hollywierd just don’t seem to mix all that well.

We have that now; it’s used as a “treatment” for dwarfism. I thought that Gattaca (despite being one of my favorite movies) was pretty flawed scientifically because there’s no way someone could decontaminate themselves of all their skin flakes and body fluids well enough to pass the many, many daily tests they were all subjected to. Not to mention that there’s no way someone could “recontaminate” themselves with someone else’s skin flakes/fluids/hair well enough so that they drop the right amount of body substances all the time. We lose a lot of stuff off of us every day; what Jude Law provided in his daily scrapings wouldn’t be the half of what Ethan Hawke would need to shed skin like a “normal” person. I did like the movie though, and think the formation of an overclass of genetically tampered people and an underclass of non-GMOs is quite likely if we continue playing with genes as we have been.

The first thing I thought of was Jurassic Park (book, not movie, and forget everything after the first third of the book); I think it’s quite feasible that we might someday clone dinosaurs, and in fact dinosaur genes (though incomplete) have been found encased in certain fossils. Although I think a bird would make a better animal to splice the genes into than a frog, esp given the fact that dinosaurs may have been warm-blooded, esp the smaller ones that we would be more likely to clone.

Yeah, but, what an ending…

I always thought of Mad Max as primarily an action flick, but, yeah, it’s essentially sci-fi.

Well, the “Monolith stuff” is what the whole film is about…the evolution of humans, the beacon buried on the Moon, the Jupiter stargate…all some sort of higher-dimensional technology. And then David Bowman gets transformed into a being of pure energy. This story was super-hard where it tried to be hard, but damn wooly where it didn’t…

Blade Runner. How could I have not include it it? I should be pistol-whipped by a Replicant. I almost wish they’d done away with the whole “shoulder of Orion” pulp and just had them mining on Mars or some asteroid. The interstellar space travel was almost completely ancillary to the story of the Replicants anyway. Anywhere “off world” would have done fine.

Yeah, nothing too outlandish about SG, and not a bad flick. I suppose if food was really short, recycling decrepit bodies for food makes some sense.

I dunno. Maybe. I liked Robocop, but mostly for its satirical elements. But you’re right, nothing too fi in the sci as to completely break laws of physics.

I never saw these two. Netflix to the rescue!

Sad to say I’ve never even heard of that. Must look it up!

Interesting. Didn’t know that.

On dinosaur blood: No reproducible findings of readable authetic DNA has been recovered from anything even remotely that old. It’s very likely it’s impossible for DNA to remain stable over even a fraction of that amount of time, even in a completely chemically inert substrate, due to the natural decay of radioatictive elements in the environment. All findings thus far have been shown to be completely unreproducible when unexplained, or contamination when explained. We’ve got some relatively short amino acid sequences from dinosaur proteins, but that’s not remotely enough to recreate a genome. Also, there’s no way in hell cloning a few dinosaur genes into a frog’s egg is going to give you a dinosaur. No way.

As for the Gattaca subterfuge: I think so long as your ersatz ezfoliates were some degree greater in abundance than your authentic sheddings, it would swamp most detection methods, or at least force the computers to acknowledge the presence of two samples. Given the throughput, it’s not unreasonable that data from the “contaminating” sample might be discarded (as, say, leftovers from a previously screened individual).

I don’t think we’re limited to motion pictures so I’ll mention a Role Playing Game called Blue Planet. There are some fantastical elements but nothing like FTL travel, tractor beams, or phasers. Humans have access to another solar system via a worm hole that’s on the outskirts of our solar system. Colonization is expensive but it’s fuled by a desire to mine the planet of a new and valuable substance, basically it’s a gold rush. None of the technology posessed by humans seems particularly outrageous but there are some “uplifted” animals such as killer whales and dolphins who have near human intelligence and are considered full citizens.


I’ll take a short issue with your idea that Gattaca level analysis is not specific enough. I can easily envision an on-chip PCR strategy with several million allele specific oligonucleotides and a real-time analysis strategy that takes no more than a few minutes. The problem is getting enough template, which would probably require either a largish tissue sample or a few rounds of linear amplication, which may increase the time required. But certainly it could be done in under an hour. We are not talking about sequencing genomes here, just looking for polymorphisms, which can be found using a number of strategies besides direct sequencing.

That said, there is a large range of dystopian sci-fi/fiction that doesn’t particularly require any breaks of the laws of nature. 1984, Brave New World, some of William Gibson’s stuff, Stand on Zanzibar, all of those nuclear war books (Canticle for Leibowitz, Warday, Alas Babylon) etc. Whether you want to consider them sci-fi is another story.

I feel a little silly writing this because I’ve never read any of this guy’s work, but Allan Steele is known for writing the sort of ultra-hard SF the OP is interested in. Most of his books are about Solar System exploration in the very near future using technology that already exists or is easily extrapolated from extant tech. His most recent books are about interstellar exploration, and I think also feature only plausible technology.

Something like Red Mars is considered Sci-Fi, but it’s basically just current space travel + 20 years. It’s probably unrealistic simply because they don’t invent much new technology.

I haven’t heard of that, though I have heard of the Orion’s Arm project. I don’t know much about either, but thanks for the pointer!

Didn’t Niven & Pournelle do some short story about a spaceship powered by exploding nuclear bombs, that was actually based on some real world studies done on the topic by the military?

Here we go - Project Orion

Yes, you should. :wink: Classic hard-core sci-fi. The only problem I have is when the flying cars take off you see those little puffs of smoke coming out of the bottom of the cars. Is that supposed to be propulsion? Or just some sort of exhaust? Hopefully it’s just exhaust of some kind.

Silent Running is another classic, and pretty darn good, but they seemed to be using artificial gravity, which these days, stands out a bit.

How far is Ghost in the Shell from “hard” sci-fi? (Probably too much for the OP, but at least it doesn’t have Ewoks. :smiley: )

On the other extreme, how about…Steampunk? (Some of it, at least. The Difference Engine, for example, seems promising so far.)

Perhaps you’re right. Some level of amplification would be necessary, I think, because otherwise you’d have to get a large sample and then indiscriminantly blast the DNA to bits, somehow getting enough fragments of the right size (you’ve got to add fluorescent dye chemically somehwere in there, too) with the right sequence to stick to the oligos on your array. You’d have to have pretty much every possible polymorphism for a large number of loci to tackle a population of millions or billions, so that’s going to be one complicated array with a lot sequence overlap, and so hybridization needs to be accurate for perhaps scores or hundreds of small sequence differences within much bigger fragments. Mismatch discrimination wouldn’t be a trivial concern. Perhaps not impossible, though! Anyhow, there’s just no way it could be done in a couple of seconds, or even minutes. An hour? I could be convinced of that, maybe, but not prick! zzzt! bing!

Steven Baxter (Timelike Infinity, Voyage, Vacuum Diagrams) tends toward a pretty rigourous use of physics. He does utilize some ideas such as hyperdrives based on compactified dimenions, supersymmetry drives, wormholes, space-like paths through time, and quantum inseperability communications that are based on highly speculative physical models, but he adheres to the current understanding of these concepts and only arm-waves when it comes to the technological implementation of them. He’s written a few novels, such as Voyage, which are alternate history treatments of existing technology (in this particular case, on an expanded Apollo effort to explore Mars).

2001: A Space Oddessy, as others have mentioned, was an excellent prognostication by Clarke, and in fact the most fantastical element (aside from the Monolith) is the indistinguishable-from-sentient HAL 9000 computer. Although we don’t have Moonbases, Pan Am Star Clippers, and nuclear-propelled spacecraft, that is more a lack of political resolve and economic viability than technological limitation.

For the most part, though, the appeal of science fiction is invoking ideas and technologies that challenge the way we think about ourselves and the world. A science fiction story about, say, the next generation Intel chip or the WiMAX communication standard just isn’t all that revolutionary.


I’m thinking of his Coyote stuff, and while the technology may be plausible, I’m not so sure the world-building is. (I’ve not read the books, but seeing as how the books are basically nothing but a republishing of everything that appeared in Asimov’s, that’s not a problem.) As for how hard it is, try the third review (currently) on Amazon. In my opinion, for this series at least, Steele’s only interested in writing sociological stories in a science fiction setting.

Wow! Great stuff pouring in! Thanks everybody! I’ve read all posts above, but now must sleep on it. It’ll be interesting to see what other ideas people have if this thread stays alive a bit longer. It’s been a long time since I’ve been an active consumer of sci-fi, and have had a hankering of late…g’night!