Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Hard Science Fiction in 2016

It has been eighteen months since we explored the Health of Hard Science Fiction in 2015 (Short Fiction), so we're overdue to take a look at 2016. This report divides into three sections:
These are hard SF stories that were recommended by at least one major reviewer and were not recommended against by RSR. We've separately included a list of "controversial stories," which were recommended by other reviewers but which RSR recommended against. The highlighted stories are available free online by clicking the title.

A recommendation is worth 2 points (RSR:5, SFRevu:5, GDozois:5, RHorton:5, SFEP, NClarke, JStrahan, LTilton, Hugo, Nebula, Readers, Sturgeon) except RSR:4, SFRevu:4, GDozois:4, and RHorton:4 which are worth 1 point.

Score: 13

The Visitor From Taured by Ian R. MacLeod  Time: 29m (Novelette)  IssueAsimov's 09|16
(Near-Future Hard SF) Lita learned Rob's obsession with alternate universes in college, but waning interest in science made it hard for him to explore it.

Score: 12 -> 6-7 Recommendations

Score: 11

Score: 10 -> 5 Recommendations

Prodigal by Gord Sellar  Time: 32m (Novelette)  IssueAnalog 12|16
(Near-Future SF) Benji was an ordinary terrier until his master decided to have him sentientized.

Score: 9

The Art Of Space Travel by Nina Allan  Time: 42m (Novelette) 07/27/16
(SF/Mainstream) The crew of the new Mars mission are coming to the hotel where Emily works, and her mom is starting to say strange things about her involvement with the last Mars mission.

Score: 8 -> 4-5 Recommendations

Number Nine Moon by Alex Irvine  Time: 26m (Novelette)  IssueF&SF 01.02|16
(Competence SF) In the 2080s, Humanity is abandoning Mars, and Steuby and his companions think they can make money by looting the abandoned settlements at the last minute.
(Hard SF) Davin is spending a year alone on Ekye to observe the local wildlife and, he hopes, to recover his lost creativity.

Score: 7

Score: 6 -> 3-4 Recommendations

Innumerable Glimmering Lights by Rich Larson  Time: 21m (ShortStory)  IssueClockwork Phoenix 5
(Hard SF) Four Warm Currents leads a project to drill through the ice at the Roof of the World to finally discover what’s on the other side, but the closer he gets, the more opposition there is.

Score: 5

Score: 4 -> 2-3 Recommendations

(Hard SF) At the height of diplomatic meetings, the toilets in the Station start to malfunction, even though diagnostics say nothing is wrong. So they call for an expert.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [4]  Recommended By: RSR:4 SFRevu:4 Readers
My Generations Shall Praise by Samantha Henderson  Time: 18m (ShortStory)  IssueInterzone 267
(SF) A woman on death row is offered a fortune for her children if she'll let another woman take over her body.
RedKing by Craig DeLancey  Time: 20m (ShortStory)  IssueLightspeed 70
(Hard SF) In an near future when everyone has brain implants, a computer virus can be a health issue. Especially when it turns users into killers.
The Mind Is Its Own Place by Carrie Vaughn  Time: 39m (Novelette)  IssueAsimov's 09|16
(Hard SF) Mitchell was a navigator on the Francis Drake, but something terrible happened. The doctors tell him he's losing his mind, but he doesn't believe them. If only he could remember what happened.
Vortex by Gregory Benford  Time: 22m (ShortStory)  IssueF&SF 01.02|16
(Hard SF) The Chinese Mars base asks old First-Expedition crew members Julia and Viktor for help with a problem involving Mars's only large native life form.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [3]  Recommended By: LTilton GDozois:5
White Dust by Nathan Hillstrom1  Time: 18m (ShortStory)  IssueAsimov's 01|16
(Hard SF) The transmitter sends copies of people to remote locations, but the copies don't want to do their jobs, and Margery is in trouble if she can't figure out why.

Score: 3

(Hard SF; Jackaroo) On the planet First Foot, the small town of Joe's Corner faces conflict over building a radio telescope close to local alien artifacts.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [4]  Recommended By: RSR:4 RHorton:5
The Battle Of Ceres by Karl Bunker  Time: 19m (ShortStory)  IssueAnalog 07.08|16
(Hard SF) Katrina and Jeff operate an asteroid mining station for the S.P.C. It's not bad work except that the mining companies are at war, using gravel as missiles.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [3]  Recommended By: RHorton:4 Readers

Score: 2 -> 1-2 Recommendations

Fieldwork by Shariann Lewitt  Time: 33m (Novelette)  IssueTo Shape the Dark 2016
(Hard SF) Anna’s grandmother died on Europa, and her mother was traumatized for life, but she’s determined to go there and finish the work they started.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [3]  Recommended By: GDozois:5
The Long Fall Up by William Ledbetter  Time: 25m (Novelette)  IssueF&SF 05.06|16
(Hard SF) A woman in a space ship illegally tries to bring a baby to term in zero-g to prove it can be done, and the space station management sends an enforcer to stop her.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [3]  Recommended By: Nebula
The Tenth Man by Bryony Pearce  Time: 17m (ShortStory)  IssueNow We Are Ten 2016
(SF Horror) Professor Macguire's work on multiple universes drove him insane, but Dean hopes to learn enough from him to finish his dissertation.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [4]  Recommended By: RSR:4 RHorton:4
Theories of Mind by Conor Powers-Smith  Time: 25m (Novelette)  IssueAnalog 01.02|16
(Hard SF) Fresh from Earth, Peter finds himself assigned to an unpromising part of the colony planet, and he finds the natives even harder to talk with than he'd expected.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [4]  Recommended By: RSR:4 SFRevu:4
Those Brighter Stars by Mercurio D. Rivera  Time: 20m (ShortStory)  IssueLightspeed 75
(Psionic SF) Ava recounts the visit of the "Needlers" to Earth and her part in the attempts to communicate with the aliens.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [3]  Recommended By: GDozois:5
Unauthorized Access by An Owomoyela  Time: 34m (Novelette)  IssueLightspeed 76
(Hacker SF) Fresh out of prison for hacking, Aedo gets a request to do an even bigger hack. But why does Energy Davison want to hack its own systems?

Score: 1

Afrofuturist 419 by Nnedi Okorafor  Time: 05m (ShortStory)  IssueClarkesworld 122
(SF Humor) Nigerian astronaut Abacha Tunde has been abandoned in space since 1990 and he would appreciate some help getting home.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [3]  Recommended By: SFRevu:4
Carnivores of Can't-Go-Home by Constance Cooper  Time: 27m (Novelette)  IssueTo Shape the Dark 2016
(SF Mystery) A professor and her student investigating carnivorous plants on a colony world find the bones of a teenager inside one of the plants.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [3]  Recommended By: GDozois:4
Chasing Ivory by Ted Kosmatka  Time: 08m (ShortStory)  IssueAsimov's 01|16
(Hard SF) Adia pursues a herd of resurrected mammoths in Alaska. She seems to admire them greatly, so why is she bringing a gun?
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [3]  Recommended By: GDozois:4
First Light At Mistaken Point by Kali Wallace  Time: 22m (ShortStory)  IssueClarkesworld 119
(Hard SF) Charlie's team has been out of touch with the Mars mission for a month. While she's attending her mother's funeral, a mysterious 47-second-long message arrives.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [3]  Recommended By: SFRevu:4
Induction by Thoraiya Dyer  Time: 24m (ShortStory)  IssueBridging Infinity 2016
(Near-Future SF) Christian returns to Anguilla to say goodbye before an attempt to raise it covers the island with lava.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [3]  Recommended By: GDozois:4
Six Degrees of Separation Freedom by Pat Cadigan  Time: 19m (ShortStory)  IssueBridging Infinity 2016
(Transhuman) Recruiting people to live in space is harder when they have to accept irreversable body modifications.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [3]  Recommended By: GDozois:4
Straight Lines by Naru Dames Sundar2  Time: 09m (ShortStory)  IssueMothership Zeta 3
(Hard SF) AIs are too expensive to discard, even after a major disaster, but how do you fix one that seems to have gone crazy?
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [3]  Recommended By: RHorton:4
The Opposite and the Adjacent by Liu Yang1  Time: 06m (ShortStory)  IssueClarkesworld 120
(Math SF) Explorers find a wrecked alien spaceship, a dead alien, and a logbook that suggests he came from a world with different laws of physics.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [3]  Recommended By: SFRevu:4

Controversial Stories

These stories earned recommendations from one or more reviewers and yet Rocket Stack Rank recommended against them. We know that readers have different preferences, which is why we link to reviews from other reviewers in the first place. By listing these "controversial" stories, we hope to make it easier for readers whose tastes are very different from ours to find reviewers who are more to their liking. We still encourage such readers to use RSR, of course; they just need to pay attention to the "Recommended By" lines and ignore the star ratings.

As above, a recommendation is worth 2 points (SFRevu:5, GDozois:5, RHorton:5, SFEP, NClarke, JStrahan, LTilton, Hugo, Nebula, Readers, Sturgeon) except SFRevu:4, GDozois:4, and RHorton:4 which are worth 1 point.

Score: 5

Those Shadows Laugh by Geoff Ryman  Time: 32m (Novelette)  IssueF&SF 09.10|16
(Near-Future SF) The secretive parthenogenetic women of Colinas Bravas usually don't allow outsiders into their country, but they invite Ms. Vargas to fix a genetic problem with their children.

Score: 4 -> 2-3 Recommendations

Score: 3

Exceptional Forces by Sean McMullen  Time: 20m (ShortStory)  IssueAsimov's 02|16
(Hard SF) A radio astronomer comes to a conference prepared to deliver a shattering paper, but fully expecting to die before he gets the chance.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [2]  Recommended By: GDozois:4 Readers
The Bridge of Dreams by Gregory Feeley  Time: 35m (Novelette)  IssueClarkesworld 115
(Hard SF) After centuries of solitude at his post on Pluto, Heimdallr has come to fear that humanity is extinct. Then he receives a summons from the inner solar system.

Score: 2 -> 1-2 Recommendations

A Tower for the Coming World by Maggie Clark  Time: 17m (ShortStory)  IssueClarkesworld 123
(SF) The destruction of the new Space Elevator puts human expansion into space at risk.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [2]  Recommended By: GDozois:5
Between Nine and Eleven by Adam Roberts  Time: 09m (ShortStory)  IssueCrises and Conflicts 2016
(Military SF) The war against the alien Trefoil was going well until they unleashed an unexpected weapon.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [2]  Recommended By: RHorton:5
Cold Comfort by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty  Time: 26m (Novelette)  IssueBridging Infinity 2016
(Climate Change) Maggie has a plan to reverse climate change by capturing methane up in the arctic and selling the carbon.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [2]  Recommended By: GDozois:5
(SF Robot) Karl is a robot exploring the sea floor. The exploring goes well, but reporting back has problems.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [2]  Recommended By: Readers
Rocket Surgery by Effie Seiberg  Time: 10m (ShortStory)  IssueAnalog 01.02|16
(Hard SF) The narrator recounts from prison what really went wrong with her team that attempted to build an AI bomb for the military.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [2]  Recommended By: Readers
Sixteen Questions for Kamala Chatterjee by Alastair Reynolds  Time: 14m (ShortStory)  IssueBridging Infinity 2016
(Far-Future SF) Kamala discovered an alien artifact inside the sun, and she spent her life finding a way to reach it.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [2]  Recommended By: GDozois:5
The Bewilderness of Lions by Ted Kosmatka  Time: 27m (Novelette)  IssueAsimov's 03|16
(Hard SF) Caitlin does data mining for a presidential campaign, but her analysis is resulting in unusually precise and downright strange predictions.

Score: 1

Black Orbit by Martin L. Shoemaker  Time: 32m (Novelette)  IssueAnalog 12|16
(Hard SF) Cynthia had the evidence to send the crooked Initiative officers to prison, but how to get it from Jupiter back to Earth?
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [1]  Recommended By: RHorton:4
Deep Waters Call Out To What Is Deeper Still by Sarah Frost  Time: 13m (ShortStory)  IssueAnalog 09|16
(SF) Pascal uses a mind link to control fish in a public aquarium. Pascal's big success has been a swordfish, but a bigger challenge beckons.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [2]  Recommended By: RHorton:4
Geologic by Ian Sales  Time: 10m (ShortStory)  IssueInterzone 262
(Hard SF) On 61 Virginis b, Keller endures the cold, the two gravities, and the poisonous air at 30-atmospheres to study the only alien artifact ever found by humans.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [2]  Recommended By: SFRevu:4
Hold The Moment by Marie Vibbert  Time: 12m (ShortStory)  IssueAnalog 06|16
(Hard SF) Daisy's efforts to build a stasis machine are failing, and she's failing as a mother too.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [1]  Recommended By: SFRevu:4
Monuments by Pamela Sargent  Time: 16m (ShortStory)  IssueBridging Infinity 2016
(Climate Change) An AI tries to carry out the last wishes of the last human governors to bring back snow and ice.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [2]  Recommended By: GDozois:4
One Man's Dignity by Mark Niemann-Ross  Time: 26m (Novelette)  IssueAnalog 11|16
(Solar System SF) Captain Jerwin has a space station to finish, but she finds time to worry about a crewman past retirement age who can't handle Earth gravity.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [1]  Recommended By: SFRevu:4
Starlings by Tyler Keevil  Time: 47m (Novelette)  IssueInterzone 264
(Hard SF) The Phoenix project aims to send a group of enhanced children to another star before Earth becomes uninhabitable. Their mothers have a hard time letting them go.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [2]  Recommended By: SFRevu:4
The Despoilers by Jack Skillingstead  Time: 10m (ShortStory)  IssueClarkesworld 120
(Hard SF) Seventeen-year-old Allegra's mad father has trapped them both on 51 PegasiD. They'll both die there unless she can find a way to get help.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [2]  Recommended By: SFRevu:4
The Farmboy by Albert E. Cowdrey  Time: 28m (Novelette)  IssueF&SF 11.12|16
(SF) The crew exploring planet Omega-Alpha are dismayed to see their spaceship take off, leaving them marooned.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [1]  Recommended By: SFRevu:4
The Knobby Giraffe by Rudy Rucker  Time: 11m (ShortStory)  IssueLightspeed 71
(Hard SF) Irit wants to do her Ph.D. thesis on quantum physics and the mind. She lost her girlfriend four months ago, but she thinks there may be a way to change reality.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [2]  Recommended By: RHorton:4
The Language of the Silent by Juliette Wade and Sheila Finch  Time: 32m (Novelette)  IssueF&SF 03.04|16
(Hard SF) En route to planet Enikiu, an accident ruptures Ifigenia's eardrums--a disaster for a translator. She can get them fixed on Earth, but first she explores Enikiu a little, with unexpected consequences.
Other Reviews  RSR Mini-Review [2]  Recommended By: SFRevu:4


For this analysis we wanted to answer the following questions:
  1. Is Hard SF really rare?
  2. Do reviewers dislike hard SF?
  3. Where is the best place to find it?
  4. When and where do hard SF stories take place?
  5. Are hard SF stories depressing?
If you can't wait, you can skip the analysis and jump straight to the conclusions.


Except where otherwise indicated, we have counted words, not stories. So in the charts below, a 40,000-word novella will count eight times as much as a 5,000-word short story.

Sources: Where Did the Stories Come From?

In 2016, Rocket Stack Rank read and reviewed 814 works of short science fiction and fantasy comprising 5,762,246 words. These included
  • Every story (598) in the eleven most important SFF magazines, of which
    • 252 were from the four print magazines.
    • 346 were from the seven main online magazines.
  • Every story (158) in eleven key SFF anthologies.
  • Twenty-eight stand-alone novellas, including all 24 from Tor.
  • Thirty stories from various other sources. Generally, these were stories that appeared in big "best of the year" anthologies, were nominated for awards, or otherwise got special attention.
Read our submission criteria to see how we picked these sources. We think they represent the vast majority of good original science fiction and fantasy published in 2016.

In terms of word counts, the breakdown is about one-third print magazines, one-third online magazines, one-sixth anthologies, one-sixth novellas, and a tiny amount from elsewhere.
To get an idea of what we might have omitted, have a look at all the SFWA-qualifying publications and the Semiprozine Directory

Quality: What is a "Good Story?"

We used the same definition that we did for evaluating SFF short-form editors: we took our recommendations together with those of six prolific reviewers of short science fiction and fantasy and we divided all works into three categories: Recommended, Ordinary, and Not Recommended. By this measure, 44% of all the stories RSR reviewed in 2016 were recommended. Again, this includes reviews from other sources; Rocket Stack Rank only recommends 18% of the stories we review.
When we look at Hard SF alone, this drops to 38% recommended, which is still quite a lot. Reviewers might be a little harder on Hard SF, but not much.

Genre Definitions

Hard SF

For 2015, we required that "the science must be accurate enough that an educated layman does not have to suspend disbelief for it." With the perspective of 18 months, we've decided that's too strict; by that definition, "I, Robot" wouldn't be hard SF, since "positronic brains" make no scientific sense. It also ruled out the possibility of there being bad hard SF due to incorrect science, since the old definition required good science for a story to be hard SF at all.

Instead, we've adopted the rule that in a hard SF story, details of the science/technology are key to the plot, and the story creates the impression that there is a scientific explanation for everything that happens. This allows us to class "I, Robot" as hard SF as well as identifying a class of bad hard SF where the poor science breaks suspension of disbelief.

Soft SF

This replaces our previous "situational SF" category. These are stories where the science/technology isn't central to the plot and generally isn't explained at all. Soft SF stories do create the impression that everything has a scientific explanation though; there are no appeals to the supernatural.

High Fantasy

Any story set in a secondary world that isn't derived from our world we classed as High Fantasy. This includes both Epic Fantasy, where great affairs of kings and queens are involved, and Sword and Sorcery, which focus on more ordinary individuals in such worlds. 

Low Fantasy

Stories with supernatural elements that are set in our world or in some variation on our world we classed as Low Fantasy. This includes Urban Fantasy, Slipstream, vampire and zombie stories, Cthulhu stories, and Steampunk. This is where we've put Alternate History as well.


Only a handful of stories didn't fit into one of these four categories, generally because they started off as SF but then introduced the supernatural later on.

Even with the different definitions, the division is remarkably similar to the numbers for 2015. We get 14% hard SF vs. 12% last year, and 57% total SF vs. 57% last year. With that caveat, it's safe to say that hard SF certainly doesn't seem to be dying.

Recommended Hard SF

From here on, except where stated otherwise, we'll only be discussing recommended hard SF, which means those hard SF stories which fell into the "recommended" quality category. There are 42 such stories, comprising 278,801 words--about the length of a giant novel like Seveneves

Genre Breakdown

There's not much difference in the genre breakdown for recommended stories, but we'll show it because it lets us answer two questions.
Second, we can directly compare this chart with last-year's chart, and we can see that, despite the definition change, the numbers are almost the same. If hard SF is dying, it isn't dying fast enough for us to notice a difference from one year to the next.


The sources for recommended hard SF are very different from the sources for speculative fiction in general. Roughly half comes from the old-fashioned print magazines and the rest is split between online magazines and anthologies.
When we look at the number of stories involved and compare that with last year's chart, we can see that there isn't actually a lot of change compared with 2015.

Analog and Asimov's ran more good hard SF stories than anyone else, although they swapped places this year. Everyone else had just one to three good hard SF stories for the year.


Of the eleven magazines, only nine published any recommended hard SF in 2016. (The other two were Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Apex.)
Analog and Asimov's accounted for almost half of all the recommended hard SF in 2016 that appeared in the eleven magazines we followed.


Two anthologies, To Shape the Dark and Bridging Infinity accounted for most of the good hard SF in the anthologies we reviewed in 2016. Science Fiction by Scientists came in a bit behind those two, and the three accounted for over 80% of recommended hard SF published in anthologies in 2016.


Not a single stand-alone novella was hard SF--recommended or not. A number were soft SF though.

Distribution in Time

Hard SF stories usually take place in the future, but it's interesting to look at how far in the future. Many stories give exact dates. Others imply a date range from the ages of the characters and events they've witnessed. Lacking any of that, we used clues like technological/social/environmental changes.

Here's the list:
  • Present: a story where one could imagine the events taking place as we speak. That means no technological, political, or environmental changes from today.
  • Near-future. Less than 100 years from now. Only changes within the range of what we see in scientific articles.
  • 100 to 500 years. Anything with routine interplanetary travel wound up in this bucket, lacking any specific dating. Likewise anything with deeply flooded major cities.
  • Over 500 years. Anything with interstellar colonies went here, provided they still remembered what Earth was, and provided humanity hadn't evolved at all.
  • Far Future. Any story where humanity had changed in nature either through evolution or engineering, or, which was so far in the future that humanity had forgotten where it came from.
  • Post-human. Stories set after the extinction of the human race.
Whenever a story covered multiple time periods, we labeled it according to when the majority of the action took place. We excluded two stories which involved no human beings at all for which it was impossible to make any estimate of date.
Near-future stories are surprisingly popular, but it's arguable that it's hard to write a convincing hard SF story that uses technology that hasn't even been thought of yet.

Distribution in Space

Just as interesting as when stories take place is where they take place. We divided the story locations into five categories:
  • Earth. (Includes low Earth orbit.)
  • Exoplanet. (Orbits another star.)
  • Solar Planet. (Planet or asteroid in our solar system. Includes the moon.)
  • Solar System. (Action takes place in transit within our solar system.)
  • Universe. (Action takes place in transit between stars.)
When a story involved more than one location, we picked the one where most of the story took place, if possible.
Over half of all hard SF takes place here on Earth. It's not in the chart, but two-thirds of stories set on Earth are within 100 years from now.

Surprisingly (to us, anyway) exoplanet stories are more popular than stories exploring our own solar system. 


People often complain that SF is gloomy these days, but that doesn't seem to hold true for the recommended hard SF stories. 
  • Optimistic means the story ends on a positive note. The good guys win.
  • Neutral means there was a mixed result. The good guys win, but at a heavy cost.
  • Pessimistic means the story ends on a negative note. The good guys lose.
We tracked humor and horror as well, but neither was common enough to include in the chart.
One caveat is that this is a little "neural-heavy" because it counted stories where the characters had a hard struggle but achieved a happy ending as neutral, not optimistic. The 2017 numbers will likely be more optimistic. The stat that only 1/5 of recommended hard SF stories are pessimistic is pretty solid though.


  1. Hard SF is about a sixth of all speculative fiction, so it's not rare.
  2. Reviewers recommend hard-SF stories at about the same rate that they recommend other stories, so there's no clear bias against hard SF.
  3. People who like hard SF should seriously consider subscribing to the print magazines and picking up two or three anthologies per year.
  4. About half of hard-SF stories take place here on Earth in the near future. The rest are all across time and space.
  5. Only about a fifth of hard-SF stories have a negative tone. There are more optimistic than pessimistic hard-SF stories.
In summary, we'll repeat our conclusion from last year: it's hard to tell whether hard SF is changing, but it certainly seems to be in much better health than some people think.

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