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.
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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.
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“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).
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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.
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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