The Ascent of Wonder
Hard science fiction is a subgenre within science fiction that has real science at its core. Many works of science fiction could be adapted easily into mainstream fiction with the elimination of a few gimmicks, or perhaps with a change in locale from a distant planet or a spaceship to a contemporary city or an office. Hard science fiction is different—the science is integral to the plot; without it, there is no story.
Hartwell and Cramer’s collection offers some of the classic stories within hard science fiction. Three introductory essays discuss the concept behind this volume: Noted science fiction author Gregory Benford describes what constitutes the subgenre of hard science fiction; Kathryn Cramer discusses the use of science in science fiction; and Hartwell, in the longest introduction, discusses how the subgenre has taken shape. He notes that hard science fiction tends to focus on ordinary people coping with unusual environments or situations rather than unusual people resolving personal conflicts.
This volume includes stories by many of the most famous writers of science fiction. Although the focus is on the last several decades, selections reach back to H. G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe, even including a rare venture into science fiction by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The situations presented display the inventiveness of the authors. As examples, Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore offer toys that arrive from the future, Gene Wolfe presents a scientist who creates an anti-universe, Kate Wilhelm speculates on the possibility that intelligence can be transferred through blood transfusions, C. M. Kornbluth writes of a dishwasher who is a mathematical genius and teaches himself atomic physics, and Joan Vinge presents a story of a chimpanzee, wired to a computer, that learns everything stored in the computer’s memory. Every story offers a fresh perspective; even the older stories, in which the “speculative science” is now history, are interesting in hindsight for their ideas on how writers of the time thought science might develop. Each story, read alone, is valuable; the collection as a whole and its introductions offer an excellent introduction to the field of hard science fiction.