I put out a call on Twitter tonight for recommendations of "hard" sci-fi from the Golden Age (by which I meant "stuff from before I was born" but which apparently means 1938-1946 (with plenty of caveats). A few people chimed in, including very helpfully Paul Weimer and Fred Keische. Tweets are below for anyone interested in building a reading list.
First, though, an explanation. It's not infrequent these days to hear a narrative something like: "back in the good old days, science fiction was 'hard' sci-fi about science stuff. It wasn't about feelings and it wasn't about politics, it was about science!" Often rebutted by people pointing out first that much of that "hard" science fiction was poorly written and not engaging (people are more interesting than chunks of metal!) and also that by accepting and writing within a particular context, authors are writing politically - if all of your scientists are white men, you're writing a political story that says women and people of color can't be scientists. (You're also valuing empirical physical sciences at the expense of others, which reinforces another political and social narrative, etc). I'll have a separate post on creativity and overarching narratives, but my problem was much more basic: when I think of older science fiction writers, I think of Asimov (in particular the Foundation series), Heinlein, and Larry Niven (Ringworld) being the only thing I've read & remembered. None of these authors are particularly writing about hard sciences, and certainly not to the exclusion of politics or at the least sketchy psychology. I needed an education.
One of the great joys of Twitter is that there are smart and generous people on it. Not only Paul and Fred replied. I got book recommendations from Tim Akers, Kate Elliott and Ethan Jewett. Fred pointed me to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which is far too much rabbit hole for me, but looks delightful. Paul gently let me know that by throwing around the term "Golden Age" I was confusing. I got a lot of book and author recommendations, and I'm excited to familiarize myself with a genre I don't know well.
Preliminary reading list (bold indicates those I'm most interested in), then the full Twitter exchange -
Hal Clement's Heavy Planet (a re-read in large part because I own it)
Larry Niven's Ringworld (again, a re-read I own)
Arthur C. Clarke's The Other Side of the Sky (a first read, but I own it. Not sure if it fits the bill)
Hoyle The Black Cloud
Clarke Rendevous with Rama
Paul McAuley Quiet War
Older "Hard" Sci-Fi Recs