What is “Difficult SF?” It’s not just “hard,” as in Hard Science Fiction, though that too. Difficult SF likes just as much rigor with regard to the interior and exterior lives of its characters as with its science and world-building.
Difficult SF believes in facts–not the scientific facts that dry up and blow away with time and deeper knowledge, but the facts of life on Earth. More than a half billion people in China alone bear one of the top ten Chinese family names. Unless you posit racially-discriminatory designer viruses or an eternally-isolated kingdom, your characters should bear those names, as well as the most popular names from India and elsewhere. And I hesitate to mention that half the world’s population are women, but you could read many books and miss that detail.
Difficult SF is factually and emotionally plausible. Perhaps that’s why it’s difficult: life leaves us in the middle of our journeys, with mysteries unsolved and paths lost in the forest. There’s no way short of an NP-complete search to walk all those paths, and even the most epic tale will drop half its plot lines on the floor if it’s true to life. Even so, Difficult SF aspires to satisfying endings. It’s a lot to ask, but Difficult SF walks a tough line and isn’t afraid to stumble.
Difficult SF isn’t afraid to fly, either, which is why it’s not Mundane SF. In fact, Difficult SF reaches to include all of Speculative Fiction: high and urban fantasy, horror, space opera, and more. If the characters’ lives remain emotionally plausible and the worlds behave with internal consistency, they can hold up the funhouse mirrors of fantasy worlds and alien species to our own without loss of the rigor that Difficult SF aspires to. Therein lies the sense of wonder that Difficult SF will not relinquish: so often we are aliens to ourselves–how much more alien a mind can we imagine? The more different, the more wonderful!
Difficult SF believes in itself as a literature of possibilities and impossibilities. And it does mean literature: sinuous prose, striking metaphor. Which isn’t to say Difficult SF can’t have fun, even if it does have a tendency to “ha ha only serious” jokes and self-referential humor. It’s also not afraid of puns, wordplay, or scatology. Shakespeare’s full of dirty bits, and nobody dares deny it’s literature. If I can’t laugh at fart jokes, I don’t want to be part of your manifesto.
Difficult SF isn’t afraid of the second person or the future tense. Sentence fragments? Fine.
Difficult SF sometimes aspires to third-person oracular, the ten thousand foot view, where all the people and their problems look small, but this is a pose, a distancing. That’s how frightened people behave. Just the same, we find first-person plural a tempting mask, but usually it’s best to speak as oneself. In one’s own voice.
So here I am. I’m not describing a movement, just trying to lay out a productive artistic direction for myself. Maybe it’s a path that others wish to follow. Maybe not. Regardless, I’ve personified Difficult SF, turned it into somebody I can describe, perhaps converse with. (Difficult SF isn’t afraid to end a sentence with a preposition.)
If this were a manifesto, I’d add a capstone here: a grand summation, a call to action. Instead, I’ll walk away, whistling a tune, a strange smile on my face. If you don’t understand, if you’re sure I’m walking the wrong direction, that’s all right. I’m not trying to be difficult; I just can’t help it.
[2016-05-13: I’ve added a couple of followup posts here and here.]