William Highsmith’s “Qubit Slip” is the hardest story in the Thoughtcrime Experiments anthology, according to the editors, and I buy that. It’s hard enough to satisfy my own pretty stringent definition of hard SF (without the science, there is no story; the story extrapolates current science in a reasonable way; the story makes a reasonable effort to explain the technical details of the science).
The premise is that, after quantum computers have been installed in critical infrastructure such as air traffic control and waste management, they suddenly and inexplicably stop working correctly. The main character (and his love interest) have to solve the problem:
Bob noticed the news feed video screen. “Look, it’s that guy again, that jackass from GWU.”
“Oh, him,” said Sal. “He prances around at every news service in town that will give him ten seconds to trash us.”
“He trashes well. Hey, who’s that guy in the back?” Bob planted a finger on the screen on a figure in a ball cap, trench coat and sunglasses. “See his sign? ’Are Zeilenger bit spaces clumpy?’”
“What if they are?” said Sal. “Whatever they are.”
“Um, if quantum bit spaces are clumpy then we’re screwed. Our quantum microprocessors assume bit spaces are nice and regular. Get him for me, Sal.”
“Yeah. That’s why he’s hanging on the news hog’s coattails.” Bob peeked out the window. “Never mind, crowd’s gone. It’s a ten-minute bike ride. See ya.”
This is a classic SF plotline, but I don’t get tired of it. If you’re a writer and you’ve never tried a story like this, I highly recommend it. The rigor needed for good classic hard SF will serve you well no matter what else you’re writing. My own experiment with this is still in progress (it’s that painful edit I’ve mentioned periodically). I find, however, that it’s changed the way I look at anything I write. It’s important to build a coherent world and make coherent claims about it. Nothing has made me more sensitive to this principle than writing and reading hard SF. Since I’ve had this thought, I’ve been really attracted to fantasy stories written with this sort of rigorous world-building sensibility.
Incidentally, I noticed that Thoughtcrime Experiments now has a link up for ordering a printed copy of the anthology, for about $5. I’ve ordered mine, and you should, too. I think it’s important to support efforts like this, and I’d like to see these editors take on a project like this again in the future.