Cold Science Fiction

I read a lot of science fiction (SF) in my adolescent and teenage years, but I got bored with it in college, and stopped reading it. Actually, I didn't get bored, I got annoyed with it. At the time, I couldn't describe exactly what it was that was annoying me, but I felt that each SF novel I read was following a formula that had stopped entertaining me, and that SF had become a waste of my time.

In the past few years, I've started reading SF again. I've read new stories by new authors, and tried to catch up on some of the SF classics I should have read back in the 80's. A friend loaned me his copy of Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I looked forward to reading it, as I had heard it was one of the best SF novels ever written.

I hated it. This novel reminded me of everything that made me stop reading science fiction.

Lots of smart people do enjoy this book, so I spent some time thinking about what they see in it, and what it is that I find so repulsive.

Similar to the distinction between "hard" and "soft" SF, I see a distinction between "cold" and "warm" SF. These are the attributes of "cold" SF:

  • The plot is a set of intellectual puzzles. There is one big overarching puzzle ("How do we destroy the alien fleet?", "How can we get back to Earth", "Where did this strange artifact come from?"), and a series of little puzzles that the characters have to solve before solving the big puzzle.
  • The central characters exhibit no emotion. All behavior is logical.
  • The central characters have no goals other than solving the puzzles. The author may spend a whole chapter explaining how a character fixes the spaceship's FTL drive, but won't spend a paragraph telling us what that character's hopes or dreams are.
  • The characters don't have realistic conversations. They deliver lectures to one another. They may rarely express friendship and affection for one another, but those expressions are very formal and limited.
  • The characters have no doubts or fears. (That wouldn't be logical.) They might make mistakes, but when they do it is due to lack of information, not poor judgment.
  • There is no significant conflict between the main characters. They share the same goal, they cooperate easily, and they get along with one another. (Except when there is one character who secretly has another agenda. When the surprise is revealed, it is quickly dealt with.)
  • Ethical and moral questions have simple logical answers. If violence is necessary, it doesn't bother the characters. They kill for logical reasons, without hesitation or remorse. If a friend is lost, those remaining just move on after a quick tip-of-the-hat.

"Cold" SF is not necessarily bad. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is a prime example of "cold", in which sterile environments and spare dialogue build tension. And I do like "cold" short stories, like Asimov's robot stories. I understand the appeal.

Unfortunately for me, "cold" long-form SF is usually unsatisfying. Since the characters don't act like real people, I don't care about them or whether they solve their puzzles, and I don't care to slog through long books about them.

So obviously, I enjoy "warm" SF more than "cold". I like characters with irrational desires, doubts, and fears. I like characters who screw up and have to live with the consequences. I like characters who make me laugh. I like characters who disagree with one another. I like characters who can't find all the answers.

While I didn't enjoy reading The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, it did teach me something about myself. In that way, it was a good read.

© 2003-2023 Kristopher Johnson