Taboos in Science Fiction 1: Spec fiction “hardness” ratings.

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Sci-Fi Taboos
I found a GREAT series of blog articles about Sci-Fi world building Taboos, by Brian Knack. I have used some of these and broken many of these in creating my “Galactic” setting and writing CERES 2525 within it. As we fly through them I will comment on my writing concepts that work with or against these Taboos.
First up, Brian poses the Taboo that “Sci-Fi is supposed to be realistic, plausible, and convincing.” The presumption is, this helps the reader (viewer?) suspend their disbelief and enjoy the story. His response reflects my opinion:
“Science Fiction” is fiction. Leave me alone to write/tell/show my story here. You go write yours your way. If it is that “real” it’s not fiction, it’s a science documentary. I am writing a long series of action scenes and stories set in the future. I’m more concerned with the flow of the action, not a doctoral thesis level of detailing exactly how every bit of tech works in my setting.
It’s in there, I love science and speculating about the progress of science, space colonization, and future technology. But I am not writing science documentaries set in the real world. I’m writing heroic action set in the future. If anything, I feel I waxed a bit poetic in describing how to pull open quantum wormholes using exotic matter and Tesla-inspired harmonics.
There is a full spectrum of possibilities within the header “Sci-Fi,” from garbage “science” in name only up to reality with a fictional story told within our world. They can all coexist amiably, each with their own camps of followers, like cats, dogs, humans, and sugar gliders within the same happy household.
Just as Baskin Robbins offers 31 choices, these factions of Sci-Fi fans do not have to go to war against each other to enjoy their own preferred flavor of entertainment.
There may be perfectly fine fictional stories to be discovered around Houston’s Johnson Space Center. Sci-Fi author and friend Terry R. Hill, who works there, could go into conspiracy theory fiction, or murder mysteries, or place his version of “desperate housewives” into the setting of the real operations of NASA. (And with the right characters and plot those could all be written into best-seller book concepts.)
But if we merely transcribed the workings of real NASA operations it would be science documentary, not fiction. If we are enjoying a detective investigation set in a NASA facility it is likely not Sci-Fi, but a crime thriller set in a high-tech location. Add in NASA reverse engineering some Area 51 saucer technology and now you have Sci-Fi.
We must stray to some degree of speculation away from real science fact to make it a science fiction story. It would have to use “fake” science, the speculation, the invented, the unknown… which would then become not science based but imaginary. Maybe based on extrapolation, educated guesses, but still imagined.
There is a handy tool we Sci-Fi writers and reviewers use called Mohs scale of Sci-Fi hardness. (And yes, Grammar Nazis, that is correct without an apostrophe.) Mohs mineral hardness scale goes from 1 for talc to 10 for diamonds. This lends the concept and name to the scale for judging how hard, or real, your science is in your science fiction.

1) With a 1 for “Science in genre only”, works such as Futurama, the Star Wars films, and Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy scrape the bottom of made up, non-science randomness explaining whatever desired for the plot to advance. SW tech works because we pushed the button and fly through hyperspace because we need to for the epic saga storytelling to continue. Many level-1 works stray from Sci-Fi into sci-fantasy and space opera.
2) ST:TOS gets a 2 in the “World of Phlebotinum” class. The way Star Trek makes up bogus sciency-sounding words, technobabble, and bogus technology to solve their problems earns them this low rating. Asimov’s pinnacle work, the Foundation series, gets a 2. (Foundation is the only body of work ever to receive a Hugo Lifetime Achievement Award in Sci-Fi, and it is low on the sci.) Most of the Star Wars Extended Universe hangs out here or lower. Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy stands out among my favorites in the Sci-Fi genre.
3) “Physics Plus” tags BSG and Honor Harrington, Battletech and Andromeda, ST: TNG and Stargate. There is a greater effort to keep the invented science and in-universe “science” laws consistent. For me, Starship Troopers was a big influence from this category. Stargate’s, er, well, stargates, and a lot of BSG elements informed my worldbuilding. Rumor has it that Babylon 4 inhabited this space before it was teleported to the next lower plane, spurring construction of Bab 5. I especially admired the realistic star fighter maneuvering in Bab 5 and BSG. (though those maneuver thrusters would need ludicrous output and the ships built ultralight.)
4) In the “One Big Lie” category, science has one or few bogus science deviations that allow the universe to function the way it does for story purposes. Ironman, Jurassic Park, and Terminator fight for turf in this section. The Expanse may inhabit this open space? Firefly and Asimov’s Caves of Steel and Robots stories all contributed volumes to my worldbuilding in the back of my head.
5) “Speculative Science:” (not to be confused with “speculative fiction” which encompasses this whole list and other genres as well) The science here is as accurate as possible, possibly extrapolating known science and tech into future iterations. Ghost In the Shell, Gravity, most of Jules Verne’s works (in his time), and recently, The Martian are great examples. Neuromancer was a major inspiration for my Ceres stories worldbuilding. I created different ways for each of my sentient species to use mental linking to varied degrees and societal results thanks to Gibson being jacked into my head for so long.
6) We call this the “Real World.” Virtually equivalent with the recreation/documentary genre. Apollo 13 is a fantastic example of telling a real-life science drama with as little fiction as possible for the storytelling. Names weren’t even changed to protect the innocent, nor the guilty. Trouble is, you can’t make “real” up. It must happen first, otherwise you’re losing at least half a point to push your story into fiction. That old pesky question “What if…?”
As you may gather from my notes, I hoped to write Ceres 2525 into the 3+ range on Mohs scale. More than one beta reader has told me I hit that zone, though individual elements give their +1’s and -1’s and are always subject to interpretation. I would appreciate it if Ceres’ readers come to my Facebook page “Micheal Lee Nelson, Author” and interact with questions you may have and any interpretations and reviews.
Here is the “Taboo” article on Brian Knack’s blog. Go read it and subscribe to the goodness there.
Brian Knack’s Sci-Fi Taboos Article 1

Mohs scale of Sci-Fi Hardness, on tvtropes wiki

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  1. Micheal Lee Nelson

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