Book List, Books

18 Hard Science Fiction Books

We determined in discussions at the Mad Genius Club post on Saturday that defining what a ‘hard science’ story is, and isn’t… is nebulous. I’d been told that aliens and faster-than- light travel were off limits for this style of story telling. I was delighted to learn that not everyone feels that way. Beginning on the easiest setting, wikipedia defines it:

Hard science fiction is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy or technical detail, or on both. The term was first used in print in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller in a review of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Islands of Space in Astounding Science Fiction.
Saturday, we never really got into discussion on relevance, as the conversation revolved around defining this. Some would have it that you shouldn’t try to define it – science fiction is science fiction. For me, with the heart of a librarian (no, not in a jar on my desk. That could scare the children) I want to be able to help people find what they are looking for. If they want a story that doesn’t rely on the science, on the rivets showing, as it were, then they don’t need to define and divide the genre into sub-genres. But generally speaking, there is such a vast flood of information, it helps to funnel things down a bit so you aren’t trying to drink from the firehose and getting your lips ripped off.
I asked the same question in two places:  I’m looking for author names and titles of *good* Hard SF books written in the Twenty-First Century. Ones that have action, and well-rounded characters (and no, I’m not talking about how she fills out her spacesuit).
I haven’t read all of the recommendations I got back. I will make a note with the ones I have read. Are they all “Hard?” I will leave that up to my readers to decide.
  1. My top pick in recent years: Andy Weir’s The Martian *not trying to show off my geek cred, but I read this before it hit big, and I knew it was good. I’ve been recommending it for a couple of years now, and I won’t stop soon. This qualifies as diamond-hard (ie only the tech we have right now, with minor extrapolation) science fiction. 
  2. Troy Rising series by John Ringo, begins with Live Free or Die *highly recommended, this one does have aliens, but it begins with real-world science, mega lasers, and asteroids. Also, it’s a rollicking fun story through the whole series. 
  3. Von Neumann’s War by Travis Taylor and John RIngo *lots of technical details, which you expect from an author with more than one doctorate to his name.
  4. Back to the Moon by Travis S. Taylor & Les Brad Johnson *I would consider this one Hard SF, and it is not a dense read, unlike many of the subgenre. 
  5. Mars, Inc. by Ben Bova *look at the author’s name. Need I say more? 
  6. Charles Stross Saturn’s Children and Neptune’s Brood *I haven’t read these. Stross is not to my taste, but I know many enjoy his work, so I won’t leave them off the list. 
  7. Dave Freer’s Slow Train to Arcturus *highly recommend this one, well-developed study of a generation ship, aliens and plausible space travel.
  8. and I quote: Most stuff by Alistair Reynolds
  9. Alastair Reynolds’ Pushing Ice
  10. Catherine Asaro’s  Primary Inversion
  11. Jack Mc Devitt’s Moonfall
  12. Greg Egan’s Schild’s Ladder
  13. The Quiet War by Paul J. McAuley
  14. Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee Sequence! *some of this series falls before my line, but it was mentioned by several people. 
  15. Shipstar by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven
  16. Sunstorm by Clarke and Baxter
  17. Peter Watt’s Starfish
  18. Boundary by Ryk Spoor and Eric Flint

mother anthonyI want to leave you with Martin Shoemaker, who had a long conversation with me on facebook about this topic. He is much more of an expert than I am, and is himself a writer of Hard SF. I really appreciated his input, and although I believe most of his work is short-form, I’ll send you to his Amazon page for that. I will also comment that short-form is perhaps the best way to read the hardest of science fiction, where you can marry action, character, and technical detail without becoming overwhelmed by the scientific data.

I would be a hypocrite if I said it wasn’t rare. One of the primary reasons I’m writing today is I couldn’t find enough Hard SF to satisfy my cravings, so I started writing my own. But since then, I’ve found more of it, especially in Analog.


I recommend Allan Steele’s work… It looks like Steele’s Coyote books started in 2002. They veered into wilder science as they went along, but they started as a very hard SF colonization story.  And some of his Near Space stuff is 21st century. Roughly half of Bova’s Grand Tour books came out in the 21st century. Niven & Barnes’s Moon Maze Game was 2011.


Larry Niven’s Known Space raises a definitional question. I believe that Hard SF remains Hard SF when you add one implausible fact to it (roughly the Campbell rule). I also believe it remains Hard SF as a series develops, adding a new implausible fact every story, as long as you maintain ruthless consistency with the facts that you have “discovered”. So by that line of thinking, Known Space counts, even though it has become full blown space opera as it developed. So how do you draw the line? Is there a point where a series stops being Hard SF because there are too many changes?


My personal definition goes back to ruthless consistency: don’t break the rules; when you break them, break as few as possible; have a reason why you break them; make the break plausible; and that becomes a new rule, so don’t break the rules.


And that cyclical definition is why Known Space meets my personal definition. Niven is a master of ruthless consistency, even in his fantasy.


Of course, you mentioned the Baen Memorial contest. Every year they select a Hard SF story to publish, as well as honoring a second and a third (full disclosure: including one of mine). You can find the winning stories on the Baen site, and many of the runners up have been published elsewhere. I believe Baen Books is still planning a collected edition for the ten year anniversary. They actually select ten Finalists every year, so many of the non-placing Finalists are out in the world somewhere.

3 thoughts on “18 Hard Science Fiction Books

  1. I suspect that the terms “hard” and “soft” science existed before Campbell simply appended “science fiction” to those terms and one might perhaps be stretching the matter crediting Campbell with more than stretching it to the science fiction from all ready existing definitions educationally of “hard” and “soft” science.

    Hard = physics, chemistry etc.
    Soft = Humanities…

    1. Actually to clarify, “hard Science” and “Soft Science” was defined by the Universities and I suspect Campbell isn’t going out side that and just adding the “fiction” to it. Slightly different but important I think.

      1. Of course the writers of sci fi wish to think up the next idea that becomes real. Left that out how silly. Thanks for the cool list!

Comments are closed.