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How Do You Like Your Science Fiction? Ten Authors Weigh In On ‘Hard’ vs. ‘Soft’ SF

23 January 2016

From Tor.com:

With The Martian a big-screen success and Star Wars: The Force Awakens blowing box office doors off their hinges, articles like this one from NPR have begun appearing all over, encouraging SF authors and readers to “Get Real.” Meanwhile, debates about whether one movie or another is scientific enough are cropping up in various corners of the internet.

. . . .

So is a deeper, harder line being drawn in the sand about “hard” science fiction than usual? Or are we discovering that perhaps there’s a whole lot more sand available with regards to how imaginative and future-looking fiction can develop, and even entertaining the possibility that these developments could become blueprints for future-fact?

I asked ten science fiction authors about their definitions of “hard” and “soft” science fiction, and how they see science fiction (hard, soft, and otherwise) in today’s terms.

. . . .

Nancy Kress

“Hard SF” and “soft SF” are really both misnomers (although useful in their way). Hard SF has several varieties, starting with really hard, which does not deviate in any way from known scientific principles in inventing the future; this is also called by some “mundane SF.” However, even the hardest SF involves some speculation or else it would not be science fiction.

High-viscosity SF takes some guesses about where current science might go IF certain discoveries are made (such as, for instance, identifying exactly which genes control things like intelligence, plus the ability to manipulate them). Or, alternately, it starts with one implausibility but develops everything else realistically from there (as in Andy Weir’s The Martian, with its huge-velocity windstorm on Mars). From there you go along a continuum toward things that, with our current level of knowledge, do not seem possible, such as faster-than-light travel. At some point along that continuum, high-viscosity SF becomes science fantasy, and then fantasy, when magic is involved. But the critical point is that it IS a continuum, and where a given innovation belongs on it is always a matter of dispute. This is good, because otherwise half the panels at SF cons would have nothing to argue about.

I would define “soft SF” as stories in which SF tropes are used as metaphors rather than literals. For example, aliens that don’t differ from us much in what they can breathe, drink, eat, or how their tech functions. They have no delineated alien planet in the story, because they are meant to represent “the other,” not a specific scientifically plausible creature from an exosolar environment. This seems to me a perfectly valid form of science fiction (see my story “People Like Us”), but it is definitely not “hard SF,” no matter how much fanciful handwaving the author does. Nor are clones who are telepathic or evil just because they’re clones (it’s delayed twinning, is all) or nanotech that can create magical effects (as in the dreadful movie Transcendence).

. . . .

Elizabeth Bear

I feel like the purported hard/soft SF divide is one of those false dichotomies that humans love so much—like white/black, male/female, and so forth. The thing is, it’s really arbitrary. I write everything from fairy tales to fairly crunchy sciency SF, and I think the habit of shoving all of this stuff into increasingly tiny boxes that really amount to marketing categories is kind of a waste of time. There’s no intrinsic moral element that makes a rigorously extrapolated near-future cascading disaster story (like The Martian) “better” than an equally critically hailed and popular sociological extrapolation. Is anybody going to argue, for example, that 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale aren’t worthy books because they are about societies in crisis rather than technology?

I love hard—or rigorously extrapolated physical—science fiction, for what it’s worth. My list of favorite books includes Peter Watts, Tricia Sullivan, and Robert L. Forward. But it’s not new, and it’s not dying out. It’s always been a percentage of the field (though Analog still has the biggest readership of any English-language SF magazine, I believe) and it’s still a vibrant presence in our midst, given writers like Kim Stanley Robinson and James L. Cambias, for example. It’s hard to write, and hard to write well, mind, and Andy Weir kind of knocked it out of the park.

My own pocket definition of SF is that it’s the literature of testing concepts to destruction: space travel, societies, ideologies. At its best, that’s what science fiction does that most other literary forms do not. (Most of them—the ones with a literary bent, at least–are about testing people (in the form of people-shaped objects called “characters”) to destruction. Science fiction does it on a scale up to and including entire galaxies, which is kind of cool. Drawing little boxes around one bit of it and saying, “This is the real thing here,” is both basically pointless and basically a kind of classism. It’s the Apollonian/Dionysian divide again, just like the obsession of certain aspects of SF with separating the mind from the meat.

(Spoiler: you can’t: you are your mind, and your mind is a bunch of physical and chemical and electrical processes in some meat. You might be able to SIMULATE some of those processes elsewhere, but it seems to me entirely unlikely that anybody will ever “upload a person,” excepting the unlikely proposition that we somehow find an actual soul somewhere and figure out how to stick it in a soul bottle for later use.)

Anyway, I kind of think it’s a boring and contrived argument, is what I’m saying here.

. . . .

Michael Swanwick

I go with what Algis Budrys said, that hard science fiction is not a subgenre but a flavor, and that that flavor is toughness. It doesn’t matter how good your science is, if you don’t understand this you’ll never get street cred for your hard SF story. You not only have to have a problem, but your main character must strive to solve it in the right way—with determination, a touch of stoicism, and the consciousness that the universe is not on his or her side. You can throw in a little speech about the universe wanting to kill your protagonist, if you like, but only Larry Niven has been able to pull that off and make the reader like it.

Link to the rest at Tor.com


33 Comments to “How Do You Like Your Science Fiction? Ten Authors Weigh In On ‘Hard’ vs. ‘Soft’ SF”

  1. 1. Character 2. Story 3. Everything else

  2. How do I like my sci-fi?

    Well written, engaging, with a minimum of pure “hand-wavium” and that costs what I can afford or is available at the library. I’ve left both soft and hard sci-fi unfinished, or nibbled and put back on the library shelf, for being dull and/or demanding too much “trust me and don’t think too hard about [thing].”

  3. I’m not sure I completely agree with Kress’s take on “hard vs soft” SF. Yes, it is a continuum. And yes, it is a fuzzy border (or neutral zone) but her inclusion of SF tropes as metaphor goes a wee bit further than I would. I’m firmly in the “the science or SF element has to be integral to the story camp”. Using SF elements as metaphor is to close to the “SF is just a setting” camp for my taste.

    I tend to go with the more traditional definitions of hard vs soft where Hard SF builds stories around the quantifiable sciences (STEM disciplines, essentially) and Soft SF around the observational sciences (psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc). Some of the most memorable stories I can list are based on sociological theories and one of my favorite authors mined 50’s era anthropological concepts for some intriguing stories.

    When I feel like classifying a story in those terms, Hard vs Soft, I start by finding out what science or concept drives the story. If the science or principle can be engineered, it is Hard SF. If not, it is soft. And if the science is just decor or a narrative tool then it isn’t SF.

    Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t enjoy the story.
    (SF isn’t the only genre I read and enjoy.)
    But Science Fiction needs science as much as it needs story.

    • “And if the science is just decor or a narrative tool then it isn’t SF.”

      Agreed. It’s sci-fi.

      Luke Ranchwalker can jump on his X-wing pony and chase down the lichen rustlers out on the north forty of the Horse Head Nebula. (Not that I didn’t enjoy episodes IV, V, and VI.)


      • Even that is a stretch.

        Star Wars is by any critical analysis a fantasy set in space (it uses all the tropes of fantasy but recasts them in the trappings of SF–or SciFi if you’re an Ackerman Follower) and the clearest example that fantasy need not be earth bound.

        Swords and Sorcery in disguise. Which is sad because so many try to force fantasy into a handful of straightjackets (Tolkien, medievalist, Lovecraftian, vamps & weres) when fantasy is meant to roam free and go wherever the story needs to go as long as it is self-consistent.

        Instead of hiding behind the mantle of SF, STAR WARS should celebrate its nature and flaunt its fantasy proudly. Calling it fantasy in no way diminishes its value. If anything, it liberates it from the need to handwave midichlorians or whatever to explain the magic of the force.

        Nowhere does it say that fantasy can’t encompass technological toys or even scientific principles; it just doesn’t need to be constrained by plausibility, like SF. And in at least one subgenre, fantasy does exactly that: superheroes.

        A guy that can run (and react) faster than light? Another that compresses his atoms and retains his fullsize mass for punching but can be carried by an ant? Shapeshifters. Magicians. Water breathers. Pure fantasy all of it and nobody is offended by the implausibility of it all.

        Star Wars should drop the pretense and just come out of the closet.

        • Science fantasy and planetary romances. I love those genres; and love that they’re coming back on Kindle. And I agree with the definition you used of Hard vs. Soft SF. I don’t think the question usually comes up except for when people think Soft SF isn’t “real” SF. But I’ve figured out that those are often the “mundane SF” people and their stories don’t tend to move me.

          The only weakness with Soft SF for me is when the author thinks it means they don’t have to think too deeply about the societies they’re designing. “I’ll just shove my half-baked ideas in here and it’ll be okay because it’s ‘soft’ SF.”

          • That applies to half-baked Hard SF too.
            I’ve seen a few stories that start out “hard” and end up pure fantasy. And not necessarily good fantasy, since fantasy requires self-consistency.

            SF of any flavor requires discipline to stay focused and play by the rules. Getting it right is not trivial.

          • Science fantasy, yay!

            I always thought Star Wars fell into the space opera subgenre. I think it’s one of the best space operas.

            I don’t care what SF is labeled as – so long as I can lose myself in *the story* and get a true sensawunder – that’s what works for me (unless it has a silly ending – I hate silly endings).

            • Whatever Star Wars is or isn’t is quibbling, really. It is undoubtedly part of the SF&F spectrum.
              The real annoyances are the stories and shows that *aren’t* even vaguely part of the field but use the trappings as decor…and do it poorly and sloppily.

              That reflects badly on people who do the hard work of getting it right.

              • Decades ago the rant between science fiction and sci-fi went something like…if science isn’t integral to the story it’s not science fiction. Some writers and readers started using the term speculative fiction to distance themselves from the purists.

                If my memory serves, sci-fi was a negative label.

                Personally, if the story holds me, well enough.


                • Sci-fi originated as a despective term coined by Forrest Ackerman in the 50’s to describe poorly conceived or executed stories that still managed to get to market, usually on TV or movies.

  4. When I grew up I read a lot of Sci-Fi, and most of it was hard Sci-Fi. Therefore I like the hard Sci-Fi genre. I want to know why, and how. But aside from hard or soft, what makes Sci-Fi Sci-Fi? It is not the level of scientific details, the location, the aliens or the rockets, but the unexpected idea, or realm or circumstances the story presents. Fantasy does that, but it is bound within the Earth realm, even if you use magic, which is about the only way to push out of the envelope. In Sci-Fi there is no envelope, no box, but you have to make it credible by using sciences, or a lot out of the box creativity. Take the Martian, which I read and like, although the wind storm was unrealistic, the story would have been a banal story, if Andy Weir would not have used scientific explanations. Just like any other genre, there is good Sci-Fi and then there is warmed over crop. And this is my subjective opinion, not necessarily a Sci-Fi law.

  5. I dont mind hand-wavium but I do hate stupid mistakes. An example. A SF author included space elevators in his book but because he thought it would be cool, he picked New Mexico as the anchor point. Now, space elevators are viable as a possibility in the future but basing a space elevator north or south of the equator is not. A paper was written on this possibility and it pretty interesting but to summarize, its a stupid idea. The tether is under a far greater strain and it would have to be dropped down over the equator and then hauled or dragged north thousands of miles all while resisting the enormous tension. Then, once it is in place it climbs into the sky at a great curving angle. So… the author did a great job in using a tether but then ruined it by not applying common sense.

    Another great example by a well known SF author… ringo…cough! was to have a huge hollow asteroid which he turned into a movable battle station. He had handwavium reactionless thrusters… I’m ok with that… to rotate the hollow rock. But, to increase their leverage he mounted them on pillars but extending inward into the hollow space rather then outward from the sphere. This is not how leverage works and it caused quite a forum exchange about the subject.

    If your going to make the effort, then follow through on it and do it right. There are enough readers out there who do know and will call you on it.

    This is similar to any technical area writers include in their works. You better know your stuff. I about throw the book away when I see an author write something like “He loaded another bullet into the shotgun” GAAAAH! Shotguns use shells! not bullets! The concept works for Hard science. Do your best to get it right when the subject has the science worked out already.

    • If your going to make the effort, then follow through on it and do it right. There are enough readers out there who do know and will call you on it.

      I suspect there are more who don’t give a rip.

      • Exactly.
        The biggest annoyance is the sheer sloppiness and disrespect to the field and those working in it.

  6. The coolest science in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is, in retrospect, the gravity well that makes the story possible.

    But Heinlein didn’t stop there – and I still mourn Mike. Plus everything he threw in, from attitudes about women to penal colonies to Revolutionary history. That is one amazing piece of storytelling.

    • And a crime nobody has made a TV series out of it but they keep remaking the old monkey movies or bad corporatist dystopias.


  7. I don’t have a problem with SF elements where the technology is not (yet) possible. It used to be that heavier-than-air flight wasn’t possible. And thrust in vacuum (get your minds out of the gutter) was declared impossible as well.

    Science should be, as stated above, so key to the story that if removed there would be no story. Also consistent. For story purposes, it’s best that there be a cost, or restriction to your handwavium. But “what if” and gedanken-experiments have long been a tool of *actual* scientists, so why not in fiction?

    There was one story element in a Stirling book –“Dies the Fire”, I think. It had a sudden alien forcefield-dohicky preventing all power above a certain limit, and thus airplanes falling out of the sky. Literally, like all of a sudden dropping like a rock. Yet in the same book the characters use hang gliders. Aerodynamics doesn’t change with engine power! You can glide an aircraft! Gaaaaaahhhhhh….. (If you are in a helicopter, though, you are screwed.)

    • (If you are in a helicopter, though, you are screwed.)

      Flying a helicopter is like f**king sheep: it’s fun and it feels good, but it’s not the kind of thing you talk about in polite society.

    • Thrust changes with engine power. The lower the thrust, the less airflow over the wing generated. When that reaches a point where it can no longer maintain lift, plane crashes. Huge airplanes don’t glide well. Give a brick enough thrust and the right angle and it will fly. Try putting 300 people on a hand glider, no matter how big it is, and its going to be a short trip.

      Add in the fact that most modern airplanes are fly by wire, and the back up system is a small air turbine that provides at best limited hyrdaulic and electrical power, sudden loss of power can, and often is, catastrophic. The few incident out there of large aircraft losing power and gliding in for landing are quite rare.

      You lose power in a helicopter, you disengage the gears to the main rotor, and airflow over the blades provides some lift, you can autorotate down to a hard landing.

      Your in a 777 flying at 38000 feet over the Atlantic and lose all power, to everything, in an instant, you aren’t gliding far.


      • Your in a 777 flying at 38000 feet over the Atlantic and lose all power, to everything, in an instant, you aren’t gliding far.

        Depends on what you mean by ‘far’. An airliner will typically glide 50-100 miles from operating altitude at optimal glide speed.

        According to Wikipedia, TS236 apparently glided 120km to a safe landing after losing both engines over the Atlantic, and had to do S-turns to lose altitude fast enough to land.

        • Precisely. There are multiple incidents of “dead” aircraft gliding to a safe landing, like the Sulleberger Hudson water landing due to suicide attack geese, and the airliner that ran out of fuel due to pilot idiocy (but said idiot pilots had enough skill to dead-stick the thing down intact).

          Losing power only affects lift. Forward momentum is still conserved, and even a full airliner can glide for quite a while. It does not come to a screeching halt midair and plummet like Wil E. Coyote after looking down 😀

          • There was some TV show awhile back where that was the opening scene. Plans falling straight down, no arc of forward momentum. I couldn’t watch much after that.

            • REVOLUTION.
              It made it to a second season. Barely.
              Not a third.
              A lot of shows just make it up as they go along instead of having an attainable roadmap for the entire series. This is particularly noticeable in genre shows. Biggest culprit: EARTH FINAL CONFLICT. The last two seasons… Brr.
              Runner up: ANDROMEDA.

    • Aerodynamics doesn’t change with engine power!

      Agree. But the engine power is a factor in the application of aerodynamics. Increase or decrease engine power, and we get different results.

  8. Just write whatever f**king book you want to write. Everything else is noise.

  9. Elizabeth Bear, “My own pocket definition of SF is that it’s the literature of testing concepts to destruction: space travel, societies, ideologies. At its best, that’s what science fiction does that most other literary forms do not. ”


  10. I don’t agree with this, but Ron Moore of DS9 and Battlestar Galactica said that the only thing different about science fiction is the setting. That would inaccurately rule out all sorts of stories, but it’s an interesting claim.

    • Well, Moore is in the TV business. And he is very good at it. But in his business visual spectacle trumps idea. Properly so.
      No way would he ever do a story about a space war that occurs entirely off screen as Asimov did over and over.

      What he seeks is good human drama. He’s not aiming for SF. But occasionally a meaningful idea squeezes in by accident and out comes something like THE MEASURE OF A MAN. But that was probably Melinda Snodgrass being sneaky. 😉
      (And she only lasted one year in his world.)

    • From what I saw of Battlestar Galactica, it just seemed like a soap opera set in space. So I’m not surprised he just thinks of it as a different setting.

  11. “…one of those false dichotomies that humans love so much—like…male/female…”

    Okay, we get it, you’re an idiot.

  12. There is nothing sillier than a bunch of soft sf writers, the kind who wouldn’t be caught dead reading Analog, presuming to define hard sf.

    Mundane sf, btw, is best defined as “Space is haaaard! Thinking of extrapolation is haaard! Let’s tell everyone that the future will be just like now, and then let’s bore the reader to death!”

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