In my Qwillery interview
last month, one of the questions was "Is Belt Three
hard SF?", and that question made me pause. Despite having written the novel, I wasn't sure if it qualified. It seemed like a bold claim: to say that a novel is hard SF is to invite criticism of its scientific details from people who know more science than I do. Unlike some hard SF writers, I'm not a scientist; I'm never going to be able to write the kind of hard sf that takes a bleeding-edge scientific theory and wraps a story around it. On the other hand, I love hard SF, and I think (I hope!) my book will appeal to hard SF fans. In the interview I equivocated and said it had a hard-SF sensibility, without actually giving a yes or no answer, and I've been thinking about it ever since.
Why even attempt to write hard SF as a non-scientist? Partly this was a stylistic choice for this particular novel. I wanted the space-based setting of Belt Three
to feel like a difficult and unnatural place for people to live, and the hand-wave technologies one finds in soft SF--artificial gravity, faster-than-light drives, etc.--tend to remove the difficulties of real-life space travel. That's appropriate if those difficulties would be a distraction from the story you're trying to tell, but in the case of Belt Three
the difficulties were a part of my world-building.
Even if I'd included artificial gravity and FTL drives, though, I'd want to put them in a basically realistic universe. A character travelling to a city by magic carpet is a sign of a fantasy story; the character getting there and finding a seaport when the real city is inland is a sign the writer didn't do the research. I tried to treat space as if it were a foreign city I was setting my story in. It's OK to invent a new side-street or asteroid if the plot requires it, but the overall setting should be something a native would recognise.
I decided to trust the mental image of space I'd built up from being a child fascinated by popular science books, then research specific details as I needed them. Can you use a solar sail to move closer to the sun? Yes, hence references in my novel to "tacking against orbit". Can you fire a conventional gun in a vacuum? Yes, probably, and certainly hand-guns designed in a space-dwelling setting could be built to be vacuum-safe. If the Earth were blown up and the pieces formed an asteroid belt, how dense would this belt be? According to back-of-the-envelope calculations I made when I started writing, it would be much denser than the real asteroid belt--so dense that, occasionally, you'd be able to see two asteroids at once with the naked eye!
I don't claim that I've got every detail right in Belt Three
. Although I think I've got my solar sail ship moving basically correctly, it may not be plausible for a solar sail to move a ship that large; and sometimes I fall back on being vague about distances and travel times rather than risking being wrong. I think, though, that these sorts of liberties are the SF equivalent of adding a fictional side-street to an otherwise accurate city. So I've decided to pin my colours to the mast and say that Belt Three
is a work of hard science fiction, and I invite hard SF readers to check it out.