TT: Hard vs. Soft SF

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back and join me in talking about Andre Norton.  Then come back and take a look at the hard and soft sides of SF.

JANE: Well, Alan, last time we tangented off our tangent and had a great discussion about how one of the ways that SF is at its best is when it takes a look at the implications of technological developments for the future.

Hard vs. Soft

Hard vs. Soft

I’d really like to tangent back to our original topic, which was taking a look at some of the definitions that get tossed around fast and loose when SF readers get together.

Obviously, the first big division is “hard” vs “soft” SF.

The definition I’ve heard most often is that  “hard” SF is based on the “hard” sciences: physics, chemistry, biology, and the like.  Soft SF also includes the “soft” sciences: sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics, and their kin.  In other words, soft sciences contain elements that can’t be proven in a lab – although they may be based on material found in labs.

What do you think?

ALAN: I think that’s a very good place to start from. Perhaps we could discuss some specific stories to see just how it works.

JANE: How about some examples of “hard” science fiction?

ALAN: Greg Egan and Stephen Baxter are often considered to be the archetypal hard SF writers but I find many of their stories all but unreadable. Egan’s stories often seem to read like dry  transcriptions  of pages from a physics research journal and Baxter tends towards incoherence as he tries to explain something esoteric on the fringes of knowledge.

Interestingly, when Baxter collaborates with other authors, they seem to have a calming effect on his prose. He’s written a series of novels with Arthur C. Clarke which I thoroughly enjoyed and he’s currently writing a series with Terry Pratchett which holds great promise.

Mind you, when hard SF is done properly there’s nothing to beat it. Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity is, as far as I am concerned, the best hard SF novel that has ever been written. It is just superb.

JANE: Those are all good suggestions.  Let me take the lead on “soft” science fiction.

Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein both wrote a lot of stories dealing with the possible evolution of human culture.

In fact, despite the fact that Asimov is often listed as the “A” in the “A, B, C” of  “hard SF,”  I’d argue that much of Asimov’s best known  material – up to and including the Robot stories – are “soft” SF in that they deal with the cultural implications of technological developments rather than developing the technology itself.

ALAN: You’ll get no argument from me about that. I completely agree with you.

JANE: Okay, your turn…

ALAN: Top of my list would be The Disposessed by Ursula le Guin. But other firm favourites would be Bradbury’s Martian stories, Frank Herbert’s Dune novels and Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. In the interests of fairness, I probably ought to point out that these are also some of my favourite books ever!

JANE: I’ve read all of those and agree they are seminal and show the great variety available.  Stranger in a Strange Land was given to me when I was a fifteen year-old Catholic school girl.  I’ve lost track of the number of ideas I was first introduced to in that book!  And, no, I don’t just mean the ones about sex!

Another great Heinlein contribution are his “Future History” stories – especially those dealing with the “Crazy Years.”

Jack Williamson’s stories about the Humanoids are wonderful and frightening explorations of the question of what happens when humanity chooses to surrender a certain amount of personal freedom for safety.  I can’t think about his story “With Folded Hands” without getting the chills.

ALAN: It is noticeable that stories like these often play fast and loose with the hard sciences in order give an underlying structure to the narrative logic. That’s where the willing suspension of disbelief comes in. When the story is strong enough, nobody really minds.

So, for example, Ursula le Guin’s marvelous books, which are full of  “soft” speculations simply couldn’t work without the completely ridiculous instant communication device that she calls an ansible. Nevertheless they are brilliant “fables of a technological age” because of the way that the ansible sews all the plot threads together. By no stretch of the imagination could they be considered to be hard SF, but they are undeniably science fiction – I don’t think the stories could be told outside of the SF framework

It’s my feeling, and I suspect you agree, that most of SF’s really memorable stories are soft.  I think that’s where the genre’s greatest strengths lie.

JANE:  I’m with you on that.  Stories of technological speculation too often become dated or, as we discussed last week, do such a good time of providing warnings as to the implications of certain technological developments that those negative developments never happen.

ALAN: And they can also sometimes be somewhat dull when the scientific aspects become the whole point of the story and the characters are just cardboard actors whose only purpose seems to be to explain esoterica to each other. Someone coined the phrase “wiring diagrams with dialogue” to describe these kinds of things.

JANE: Now, there’s a form of “soft” SF that often masquerades as “hard” SF…  With that teaser, I’ll leave it for next time.

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3 Responses to “TT: Hard vs. Soft SF”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Good points. Having tried my hand at very hard science fiction, I get the point about cardboard characters. It’s difficult not to do. I certainly wanted to show how the world affected the characters, but that made them seem very passive. Part of that is that I needed to spend relatively more time on the world than I would, had I set the story in 2012.

    Then again, many scientists do lead very boring, arid lives, especially by the standards of adventure fiction. To pick one very obvious example, Indiana Jones never does real archeology, and he’s a bit hyperactive even for a pot hunter. This doesn’t mean archeologists don’t do a lot of cool stuff (and I, for one, appreciate reading their papers!). Still, it’s hard to make archeologists the stars of adventure stories without taking them away from their digs.

    • janelindskold Says:

      You picked archeologists on purpose, didn’t you?

      I assure you, the one I’m married to is a perfect action hero. He’s at his desk across from mine and I can see his eyes moving as he works on editing a report.

      You have a good point, though… When a book must focus on “hard” science details, there needs to be a lot of explanation and talk… Some of the humanity gets lost.

      Or the characters are made so quirky and weird that the science colored by these portrayals. Or a lot of extra nonsense is put in to make the frame more interesting. A serious challenge either way.

  2. Paul Says:

    I guess the old Astounding magazine was seen as being home to mostly “hard” SF (contrasted with the later Galaxy, which came later and catered more to the “soft” sciences). And yet Campbell published Randall Garrett’s stories about magic. And Astounding’s successor, Analog, published Bud Webster’s “flying saucer” stories. Plus, a lot of the “hard” SF used technology later shown to be incorrect. Bradbury’s Mars stories would seem to be “hard” SF (space travel, rocketry, planetary exploration) but certainly weren’t (his Mars was more like Oz, and could be whatever his story needed). Is time travel “hard” SF if it uses a machine, and not if its protagonist walks into another dimension in a cave or somewhere? I’ll bet we could poke holes in any example of hard or soft SF.

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