Galaxy crossing science fiction space operas are pure fantasy. Sure, we call them science fiction because they have spaceships and plasma rifles, but there is little science in even the most hard sci-fi stories. The term “hard science fiction” is rather new. When Arthur C. Clarke was writing his novels and fashioning one of the most influential movies of all time, science fiction was still just science fiction. In fact, Sir Arthur’s definition of fantasy and science fiction had nothing to do with dragons or spaceships, but human desires and fears.
Science fiction is something that COULD happen – but usually you wouldn’t want it to. Fantasy is something that COULDN’T happen – though often you only wish that it could.Arthur C. Clarke
When I see a new book or book series promoted as hard science fiction, my gut reaction is that it must be boring. My gut is usually right. Endless exposition on the construction of generational ships, or faster-than-light travel speculation is text ignoring the characters I came to engage. I complained about this dull speculative writing in my review of the Arthur C. Clarke’s work. His masterpieces are his short stories, where limited space forced him to focus on the story’s beat and character development. Anything longer, (Rendezvous with Rama, anyone?) and things became sleepy.
The problem with science fiction is that you can’t have a planet hopping adventure unless you can transport your mortal characters across immortal distances. As a writer of “hard science fiction,” you have three choices: hibernation, warp drive, or a generational ship.
The third option, a generational ship, is the most likely option for human beings to travel the stars. But who wants to read about a hundred years of travel before you get to the center of the story’s action.
For a good story, the second option is the best and does not have to be a warp-drive. Worm holes, space folds, hyperspace, and gap drives are all good options. Hard science fiction ruins it, however, by exploring the time paradox of your hero crossing the galaxy in a few hours, while a loved one and human civilization perishes from old age.
The last is the compromise option. Put your characters in to a deep cryogenic sleep, a generational-type ship crosses the expanse, and your characters wake up to carry-on. Seems a safe bet, but I argue it is the worst option. In my review of Children of Time, I shared how it can go wrong.
This article from universal-sci.com discusses human hibernation and how a deep torpor might be useful for crossing the distance from Earth to Mars. It does not draw any conclusions, but one fact is obvious. No matter how deep you sleep, you age. Which means hibernation is the worst option for a hard science fiction story. Not only did you put your heroes to sleep (boring), they died on the trip to save the world.
Stop with the hibernation chambers already. Sleepy people don’t read books.
There is some good hard science fiction available. All of it ignores the galaxy for our local planetary system. Ben Bova’s twenty-five book The Grand Tour is worth your time, and a study in how to do it. If you can get past the fact that the key to Mark Watney’s rescue, Mars’s thin atmosphere, makes the storm that stranded him impossible, The Martian is excellent.