In 1980, Robert A. Heinlein wrote, “The most difficult speculation for a science fiction writer to undertake is to imagine correctly the *secondary* implications of a new factor. Many people correctly anticipated the coming of the horseless carriage... but I know of no writer, fiction or non-fiction, who saw ahead of time the vast change in the courting and mating habits of Americans which would result." (Expanded Universe, p. 326).

Heinlein and many others, from the SF Golden Age to now, have built brilliant stories out of trying to work out these secondary implications, but, like any science, the science of working out social implications goes faster and farther with specialist tools, not just those of STEM, but also of social science. After all, America’s courting habits did change with the advent of the automobile, and changed again with e-mail, and cell phones, but beyond secondary implications come tertiary implications, four steps, five, in chains of change in which, over centuries, there may or not be such a thing as courting, or Americans, or nationality as we know it at all.

Recently I had the pleasure of hearing a debate between two friends who had just heard that the first book of my Terra Ignota series (Too Like the Lightning) had surfaced briefly—like a breath-snatching dolphin—at the top of Amazon’s list of “hard science fiction.” “But it isn’t hard SF” was the thrust of the debate, since, while we hear about flying cars, the Moon base, and the 500-year Martian terraforming project, we don’t hear what fuel system keeps the cars flying at 10,000 km/hr, what the lunar domes are made of, or the chemical and geological details of Mars’s transformation.

The debate reminded me of a scene in Kerry Callen’s short but acclaimed comic Halo and Sprocket, when friends take Earth’s first sentient robot to see a local art show, and the robot expresses confusion at the descriptions of two paintings, one a nightscape, the other a collection of wiggly shapes. The first is labeled realistic, the second abstract, but—the robot argues—both are abstract since the stars in the painted sky aren’t in their real positions, but distributed chaotically as if depicting an incomprehensible universe with no physical laws to govern the magnitude and movements of celestial bodies.

The Will to Battle is the third book in Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota series. Credit: Tor Books

As someone who turns up for work each day to a building labeled “Social Sciences Research Center,” I see a lot of fiction like that nightscape, with enormous detail and precision in some elements—often engineering, physics, or chemistry in the case of classic hard SF—but only the vaguest sketchy suggestions of other structures. My books are like that too, but reversed, with enormous detail in the historical and social science questions of state formation, legal history, identity groups, linguistic development, and how these affect political events, but three books into the series I haven’t yet explained the engineering of my flying cars, not because I haven’t planned it out, but because it has never moved to the foreground of a narrative where social science questions reign supreme. Is it “hard SF”? It is if we are willing to call that nightscape realistic for its depictions of trees, branches, light, and darkness, but not if only astrophysics qualifies as accuracy.

Traditionally in science fiction, writers working with STEM-field predictions have been classified as “hard SF” and those working with social science predictions—people like Gene Wolfe, Samuel Delany, C.J. Cherryh, Thomas M. Disch, Raphael Carter, and Ursula Le Guin—have been defined more as “soft SF.” But there's no good reason to maintain that kind of prejudice. Just as Ted Chiang looks beyond the secondary consequences of artificial intelligence, Lois McMaster Bujold looks beyond the secondary consequences of reproductive technology. There's no need to dismiss it as “soft” when it is done rigorously. We don't have to hand-wave our social sciences like Star Trek or Frank Herbert.

If we broaden science to include social sciences, then my series aims at an extreme realism in one science that we usually let remain as soft as that made-up star field: history. I don’t mean historical details, names, and dates—many admirable historical fiction writers work wonders with those—I mean the mechanisms of history, my effort to depict nature and technical processes, not of antimatter engines or Martian atmosphere, but of historical change over time.

I do this in a few ways. One is by focusing on the way historical institutions tend to develop through accumulation and reuse. In many modern made-up worlds—whether fantasies or futures—the default origin of a political era tends to be revolution or founding: an old regime was destroyed, and founders (whether wise or cruel) conceived as if from a blank slate a new empire or republic, which cast out the old and established the new.

The American and French revolutions dominate in the background of these narratives—little wonder, since SF has been an American-dominated genre for many decades. But when I look at real historical cases, so many more involve continuity and reuse: a new power rises and marries the old dynasty, absorbs the old aristocracy, hybridizes, turns the old elected senate into an administrative wing, derives strength from earlier elites and legitimacy from earlier structures rather than building from nothing. If flexible political ingredients such as the Spanish monarchy filled enormously different roles in 1550 vs. 1850 vs. 1950, why shouldn’t said monarchy still exist in my 25th century, filling yet another function in a new political world?

Another way I use history is that I look at this future’s relationship with its own past. Every historical period—including our own—has reframed its past, dividing it into parts, praising or blaming, imitating or distancing, magnifying past eras it is proud of, crafting a narrative of its rise and legitimacy. Capitol buildings are covered in murals celebrating stories that current regimes are uncomfortable with or tell very differently, and the lines we draw between ancient and medieval, between modern and what lies before, as well as our judgments about which historical leaders were great and which terrible, are every bit as certain to change in the next centuries as our vehicles and computers.

So, much as the Italian Renaissance was explosively transformed by its obsession with classical antiquity, my 25th century is obsessed with the French Enlightenment, and that cultural fascination is itself one of the drivers of the changes chronicled in the books, every bit as much as economics or national rivalry.

Perhaps my most visible focus on historical change is in how my narration reproduces the alienating voice of another time. The narrator through whose histories we access the events of 2454 is a product of his century and, like the authors of the historical documents I spend my days researching, makes assumptions about his readers, their background knowledge, likes, dislikes, stereotypes and likely moral judgments about the actors and events he describes. And like the authors of my real historical documents, he’s wrong, because, like them, he imagines himself writing for the sensibilities of his own time period, but is actually being read by people from a very different time, with very different minds.

One of the greatest challenges of telling real history, whether as fiction or nonfiction, is that people often don’t find the historical figures’ choices plausible, can’t believe people would act, or kill, or die, for such causes. Some writers of historical fiction solve this by introducing hidden secondary motives that feel more plausible—he didn’t destroy himself for abstract honor, it was really for love—but others take on the harder task of getting across enough of the alien mindset of the past for the reader to see how deep the belief in honor was, and come to believe a person truly would behave that way.

This kind of intellectual immersion history—whether fiction or nonfiction—has always been my favorite, so in moving forward 400 years instead of backward I decided to maintain that same challenge, and try to depict how people in our future will not share our values and assumptions, just as we don’t share the values and assumptions of the past.

And if that is an arena of speculation that excites you, then a huge range of detailed new starscapes are waiting for you in the expanding genre of hard social science fiction.