What Is Hard Science Fiction? Top 10 Examples

Discover what is hard sci-fi or hard science fiction in our guide with reading recommendations.

There is a common misconception that all science fiction novels are fantastical, but that is not the case. As the best science fiction authors know, a hard science fiction novel is rooted in this physical universe. While it may bend the rules, it is rooted in what is possible as it looks far into the future. Most hard science fiction novels focus on taking the current rules of our universe and projecting them forward, imagining what Earth (or another solar system) might look like in the distant or near future. Concepts such as time travel, faster-than-light speed, and interstellar spaceships are common themes among hard science fiction works.

If you want to learn more about what defines hard science fiction, take a look at a few key points below. 

What are the Defining Characteristics of Hard Science Fiction?

Hard science fiction stories are defined by speculative fiction that exists within the physical laws of our universe. That means that hard science fiction short stories and novels should be defined by scientific accuracy. For this reason, a tremendous amount of research typically goes into their accuracy. Even though hard science fiction stories will stretch the laws of our universe to some extent, they still pay homage to them.

Hard science fiction stories need to be based on critical elements of math, engineering, physics, computer science, chemistry, biology, and other fields. Then, it must take our current state of technology, use the laws of the fields mentioned above, and project what the future might look like. 

For example, an astronaut who goes into space and returns to earth will probably notice the differences between the zero-gravity environment of space and the single-g environment of Earth. The laws in the real world should still apply to hard science fiction stories, even if they include light speed, hyperspace, and wormholes. While interstellar world-building will probably take place in hard science fiction novels and movies, world-building still has to follow the laws of our universe. 

What Is the Difference Between Hard Science Fiction and Soft Science Fiction?

What is hard science fiction?
All science used in hard science fiction stories must be based on proven facts

It is also essential to look at the differences between hard science fiction stories and the subgenre of soft sci-fi. To recap some of the elements of hard science fiction mentioned above, key characteristics include:

  • Technology and science have to be integral to the plot.
  • All science used in hard science fiction stories must be based on proven facts. Any technology that is used has to be theoretically possible.
  • Hard science fiction usually openly discusses the laws of various fields, including physics and math.
  • Any scientific advancements should rationally explain how civilization got to that point. It should not include any fantastical elements.

On the other hand, some of the critical elements of soft science fiction include:

  • The relationships between characters and the cultures of their worlds typically take precedence over the science in the story.
  • Even though science may appear realistic, it is typically based on facts or ideas that do not necessarily apply to our world.
  • The story tends to focus more on politics and psychology instead of futuristic technology.
  • There might be an element of dystopia, scientific fantasy, alternative history, or a bit of a “soap opera” feel to the story, such as Star Wars.

The boundaries of hard science fiction and soft science fiction are not necessarily set in stone. There might be some debate regarding how different rocks are classified, but these are generally the rules that apply to hard science fiction and soft science fiction.

What Are the Top Reasons To Read Hard Science Fiction?

There are several common reasons why people decide to read hard science fiction. They include:

1. Escapism

One of the biggest reasons people read science fiction is to escape from the real world. If you have a rough week, you may want to go to a completely different reality. One of the quickest ways is to pick up a science fiction book and dive into the pages. Reading science fiction can be a healthy way to deal with your stress.

2. Imagine the Future

Another reason to read science fiction is that it is a great way to imagine the future. Many of the significant advancements of the human race have been driven by people who dared to imagine the impossible and make it a reality. If you want to get your imagination going, you should pick up a science fiction book. This is a great way to ask “what if” and read through a few hypothetical answers by checking out alternate realities.

3. Go on an Awesome Adventure

Of course, you can go on a fantastic adventure if you decide to read a science fiction book. Many of the stories found within its pages are exhilarating. If you are looking for an adrenaline rush but don’t necessarily want to go to an amusement park, consider picking up a science fiction book. 

4. Heed the Warnings

In many cases, science fiction books will depict the future, showing what might be. For example, works of science fiction often discuss artificial intelligence taking over human civilization, robots running wild, and human beings losing their sense of individual spirit. Many dystopian novels fall under science fiction, so another reason to read science fiction books is to look at a few dire warnings.

While everyone has their reasons for doing so, these are a few of the most common reasons people decide to read science fiction novels.

If you love science fiction, you’ll love our round-up of the best Edgar Rice Burroughs books.

The Top Examples of Hard Science Fiction

If you are interested in hard science fiction, some of the books you may want to read include:

1. The Sentinel, by Arthur C. Clarke, 1951

The Sentinel, by Arthur C Clark, is a classic in hard science fiction. This is a short story that tackles topics such as space travel, the abilities of a futuristic starship, artificial intelligence, alien life forms, and a wide variety of other topics that have formed the foundation of the modern genre of science fiction that we know and love today. In addition, this story was the foundation for the classic movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was directed by Stanley Kubrick. 

2. The Martian, by Andy Weir, 2012

The Martian, by Andy Weir, has quickly become a staple of the hard science fiction genre. It was Weir’s first book, and it focuses on an astronaut who has been stranded on Mars. The book describes how the astronaut uses basic scientific principles, including biology, chemistry, and physics, to survive until a rescue mission can reach him. His comrades have taken off without him, and they do not realize that he was not only left behind but is also still alive. The popular book also became the foundation of a blockbuster movie. 

3. Foundation, by Isaac Asimov, 1951

The book Foundation, by Isaac Asimov, was the first in a long-running series that has become one of the pillars of science fiction. The series takes place in a distant future, but it still has its roots in psychology, holographs, physics, mathematics, and other subjects most are familiar with. The series focuses on the ability of the human race to predict and tackle a wide variety of issues. The popular book series was also recently turned into a TV series of the same name. 

4. Mission of Gravity, by Hal Clement, 1953

Mission of Gravity is a famous hard science fiction novel on a fictional planet called Macklin, shaped like a disk. Even though human life cannot survive on this planet, some probes have encountered aliens. The book describes the makeup of this alien world, but he keeps the story rooted in the laws of physics and science that govern our universe. The book explores how humans and aliens tackle a wide variety of unique issues on this planet. 

5. Ringworld, by Larry Niven, 1973

Ringworld is a novel by Larry Niven that focuses entirely on alien races who live on artificial worlds. Even though the book does not focus a lot of attention on the human race, it does take the laws of science and Newtonian physics that govern our world and apply them to fictional, artificial planets set in another universe. The story discusses many challenges that human life might encounter in the future, and it talks about how aliens might go about solving them. 

6. Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson, 1992

Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson, is the first book in the trilogy that bears the same name. The story focuses on a futuristic setting where Earth is no longer inhabitable. As a result, humans have to leave Earth and try to colonize Mars. The book starts by discussing some of the basic principles of astrophysics that will be applied to the Mars journey before diving into complicated geopolitical issues that have gotten the human race to this point. Then, the story builds from there throughout three thrilling books.

7. Shild’s Ladder, by Greg Egan, 2002

Shild’s Ladder, by Greg Egan, is a science fiction story based on the life of Alfred Shild, a real-life mathematician. His focus was on differential geometry, and Egan took many of his principles and applied them to a thrilling science fiction novel. Even though it might be a bit thick for someone who doesn’t have much experience reading science fiction, it is still an exciting way to take mathematical principles and apply them to the near future

8. Tau Zero, by Poul Anderson, 1970

Tau Zero, by Poul Anderson, is a thrilling scientific novel that focuses on the abilities of a near-light speed vehicle that eventually loses control. While there are a lot of scientists who doubt the ability of people to travel at anything close to the speed of light, Anderson uses his book to explain how people might be able to obtain this capability and what it might mean for the human race. This is a roller-coaster ride that no reader will soon forget. 

9. Dragon’s Egg, by Robert L. Forward, 1980

Dragon’s Egg is a hard science fiction book praised by some of the genre’s titans, such as Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, because of its imagination and how it introduces extraterrestrial life. The book focuses on unforgettable adventures around neutron stars, space travel, and futuristic concepts still grounded in the laws of physics and chemistry that govern our world. It is a thrilling adventure that provides a great introduction to the genre for people who might not have read science fiction novels before. 

10. A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge, 1992

A Fire Upon the Deep is a dystopian novel that focuses on futuristic wars among alien races. The book tackles exciting concepts such as astrophysics, artificial intelligence, and futuristic military technology. The book can also be seen as a window into what life might be like for humans in the future if we do not find a way to resolve our problems peacefully. The book also looks at psychology and how it might be applied to problems between warring factions. 

Ultimately, these are just a few of the numerous classics in hard science fiction that you may want to explore. It is a great way to imagine the future and learn about our universe’s scientific laws.