Hard SF v Soft SF

  • by Gitabushi

So apparently there exists some heartburn within Speculative Fiction circles about Hard SF versus Soft SF.

Perhaps Hard SF writers and fans are a little too smug about the scientific aspect of their designated works.

Perhaps Soft SF writers and fans are a little sensitive about having to live with the connotation of being “soft”.

Some, like the esteemed PCBushi (The Couch: “…esteemed by who?” Me: “Whom.” The Couch: “Fine.  …esteemed by whom?”  Me: “Dunno, but there’s gotta be someone who esteems him. It just stands to reason.” The Couch: [shrug] “It’s your fantasy conversation sequence. Also, you probably owe Jonah Goldberg royalties.”) say that labels are unimportant, and only confuse the issue.  He has somewhat of a point, in that there is no reason to entrench ourselves into hostile, opposing camps. We all love Speculative Fiction, and the categories shouldn’t be limits.

For instance, I really enjoy Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, who are some of the best Hard SF writers in the business.  But my favorite author is CJ Cherryh, who writes Soft SF.

Still, I think the category is helpful.

Let’s say you want to watch a Rom-Com on Netflix.  I’d say you need to review the life choices that brought you to that point, but wouldn’t you want movies grouped into some sort of category to help you find what you want?

But, you say (and,  yes, please say this out loud.  Google is listening through your mic, and it will eventually get back to me), why would it matter? Is anyone ever really in the mood for Hard SF rather than Soft SF, or vice versa?

Okay, that’s a good argument, too.  Yes, I’m padding the length of this blogpost.

So let’s look at a deeper argument.

This is a picture of a robot, so that: 1) PCBushi won’t bitch at me about my lack of pictures, and 2) so I can use the robots category tag

We have grown accustomed to certain aspects of Western Fiction (Aside: if you think these things are universal, try reading Asian fiction).  One aspect is that the story should signal what type of story it is from the beginning, by setting up the problem.

In a character story, the story begins when it becomes obvious the main character needs to make a change, and ends when that change finally occurs.  In a milieu story, it begins when the main character is transported to the new world. A milieu story can end in different ways (by fully exploring the world, by the character returning to the “normal” world, by covering the issues the author wanted to cover in their compare/contrast effort), but if the character never goes anywhere, never explores the new world, and works on changing their character, you’d feel disappointed.  An Event story begins by establishing the normal life of characters, then introducing the Event, then showing the impact of the Event on everyone’s life (like a Stephen King novel or Niven/Pournell’s “Lucifer’s Hammer”). An Idea story starts when the idea is introduced, and then ends when the idea is fully explored.

You can tell what kind of story you are reading from the first few pages.  If you can’t, you probably won’t keep reading.  And if the book doesn’t fulfill the expectations you have when reading, you’ll be dissatisfied with the book and either stop reading, or never recommend it and perhaps never purchase the author’s book again.

For all that I don’t really like ERB, I admit he has top-notch milieu skills. The story of a Princess of Mars certainly brings John Carter through a wide span of territory, encountering different societies and people.

And this is the reason I find Jack Vance disappointing.  In Cugil’s Saga, he clearly intends to write a milieu story, but I can’t see why he chose what he did.  It doesn’t seem to have much application to our human, earthly lives, and it almost seems like the only point is to show off Vance’s imagination.

But I digress. Again.

Larry Niven likes milieu stories.  He’s pretty good at them.  He doesn’t do much character development, really.  He also combines Milieu stories with Idea stories.  One of his most common Ideas is that when given an opportunity, sub-groups of people will seize the opportunity to make themselves Elite and exploit their monopoly over a scarce vital resource to enforce their status.  And a Milieu story is a great way to explore the entire society of all the various ways an Elite Caste can come about and maintain itself.

In Larry Niven’s “Destiny’s Road,” he posits a partially terraformed world that restricts mobility due to geography and native flora/fauna threats.  Add to that a dearth of natural appearance of a vital nutrient, without which you are permanently brain damaged.  The Elite manage to control the harvesting and dissemination of that nutrient.  The Hero goes on an unintended journey, and, well, I don’t want to ruin the story with spoilers.  The point is, there are scientific elements behind many of the world’s aspects.  The plot is driven by the scarcity of the nutrient and the main character’s dilemma, as well as the Elite control of technology spread.  A writer could have written the same story as a Soft SF novel, but it wouldn’t have been the same…and quite probably wouldn’t be anywhere near as good.  Niven makes a scientific assumption, and then *rigorously* applies it. That means that certain choices are closed, but other choices are open.  It helps the reader suspend disbelief…this is a story that *could* happen, based on our current understanding of science.

Or perhaps a better example is the Ringworld Series.  He posited an artificial world, made by technology much greater than we have, but still feasible, that actually uses planetary material volumes more efficiently, giving the inhabitants the right amount of heat, day/night cycles, but nearly endless room to expand.  It was written during the era of real fear of overcrowding and insufficient resources on the earth, before we proved that human ingenuity provides enough resources that we can pack several billion more people on the planet. It was also in response to a scientist’s theoretical exploration of constructing more efficient land space, called a Dyson Sphere.

But I digress. Again.

The point is that Niven thought of every possible thing he could, and then wrote the novel, and many aspects of the novel were dictated by the science and math behind his imagined world.  Then readers wrote in with complaints, questions, and scientific holes.

Niven’s response?

He wrote another book answering some of the objections and challenges.  This spurred more challenges, complaints (and some readers suggestions on how to resolve issues).  Result: another novel.

All Hard SF.

What about Soft SF?

Two of my favorite series are CJ Cherryh’s Merchanter Alliance books and Lois McMasters-Bujold Miles Vorkosigan books.

There is little verifiable science behind either of their series.

However, once they posit things (like Cherryh’s method FTL travel, or Bujold’s high-tech handweapons), they rigorously apply the rules to add to the drama.  I can’t consider them Hard SF, but once they built their world, they applied the rules of Hard SF to add verisimilitude.  Their books would certainly be the poorer for having an “anything goes” attitude.

Since the focus of Cherryh’s and Bujold’s books isn’t the exploration of technology, the resolution to the problems usually don’t involve their non-scientific technology.  The tech can provide limits and add tension (as in Cherryh’s FTL travel depends on destructible ship attributes, and imposes costs), but they are never the crux the way they are in a Hard SF story.

Or another comparison:

Terminator is Hard SF. With the exception of Time Travel, everything described is within the realm of plausible future technology.  The focus is on how the technology itself is advanced enough that it is a threat to the protagonist and, eventually, the entire human race. And in the end, the Terminator is defeated by current technology. Compare that with Predator, which is Soft SF.  No attempt is ever made to explain the technology we see. No attempt is made to fill any plot holes possibly created by the technology we see.  The focus isn’t on the technology at all, it is on the struggle between two beings.  Aliens is also Soft SF, because while there is high technology present, it is all incidental. The focus is on the interaction between the people, and the impact of alien rapaciousness.

I think most would agree that the stories use the Hardness and Softness of their science fiction effectively and appropriately, and the stories are better because of it.

I think we need both kinds of stories.  I think Hard SF already borrows from Soft SF in that sometimes the Hard SF writer fudges over scientific details.  I’ve seen some compelling explanations that a lack of the rare nutrient wouldn’t impact humans the way Niven described in “Destiny’s Road.”  And that’s okay.  And I already showed how two writers borrow from Hard SF’s discipline after they created their Soft SF Universes.

So all this is to say that I don’t think there should be this opposition between Hard SF and Soft SF camps.  I’d like to write Hard SF, because I like the way they come up with fascinating worlds, more compelling in their application of science than something just made up from imagination. But I don’t have the education to do it.  So I will write Soft SF, but I wont’ feel inferior for that.  It just means I’ll develop my stories more like Cherryh and Bujold than Niven.

I still think we need the separation and designation of sub-genres, however. Just as I think there is a need for the separation of Science Fiction from Fantasy.  One is not better than the other.  A few more of my favorite writers are Steven Brust, Emma Bull, and Fred Saberhagen, who are all known mainly for their Fantasy stories.  Brust included some science fiction explanatory hand-waves  in the backstory of his world (the races are all genetic experiments by a race of super-high-tech aliens), but I think that may be more just playing with the trope of “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, because there are too many non-scientific aspects of Brust in the form of Gods, souls, reincarnation, etc.  Cherryh and Bujold have also written some excellent Fantasy.

Still, Fantasy is developed differently than Science Fiction.  It has different tropes, and different payoffs.

We need the designation of genres and sub-genres to help us, both as writers and readers.

We should stop fighting and learn to appreciate the differences.



26 thoughts on “Hard SF v Soft SF

  1. Well said.

    For the record, I’m not opposed to labels and genre tags. I think they’re useful communication tools, but I think they’re more helpful for readers and critics in describing a particular work, or for merchants trying to organize books so that consumers can find what they’re looking for.

    What I do object to are labels that are incomprehensible, like the various “color” terms floating around in some corners of the internet right now: “blue SF,” “red SF,” “pink slime.” I mean, they’re useful for the few dozen people who employ them right now, so that’s cool for them. But when they toss then out in conversation without any explanation and expect the rest of us casuals to know what they’re talking about – that isn’t particularly helpful. If these terms come to enjoy more widespread use and we can all use them and generally understand one another, fine. Right now I find them more of a hindrance to communication than an aid.

    The latest episode (as of this comment) of Geek Gab featuring John C. Wright and Jeffro had a very interesting dust-up right in the last minutes. Jeffro, as you may know, holds to his “don’t read anything after 1980” philosophy and is very vocal in his disdain for hard SF and the Campbellian writers. JCW, meanwhile, says that “hard SF” is a flavor, an element, and isn’t inherently good or bad to a story. He thinks that people who look down on a particular genre like “hard SF” or “pulp” are snobs. Wooo boy! I would have loved to see that line of conversation continue between the two, but alas the episode was time-constrained.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I mean, it’s probably not as nuts as “don’t read anything before 1980.” I honestly think it’s largely just marketing on his part and not a hard and fast philosophy. Otherwise he wouldn’t be a fan of Schuyler Hernstrom.


  2. Well said, indeed. If find the whole conflict a little silly. Personally, as much as I love a good pulp sf romp, it’s books like FIRE UPON THE DEEP or rigorous space opera by the like of Poul Anderson or CJ Cherryh that I remember most strongly and return to most frequently.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There is also the issue that the Hard SF/Soft SF distinction depends entirely on how much science you understand. People keep bringing up Larry Niven’s “Ringworld”–it’s a book I really enjoyed, but it’s pure fantasy. In the first few pages he introduces teleportation and immortality with no attempt to justify either of them. They’re magic and we’re expected to accept them as such. He writes very consistent and mathematically sound magic, but very little of it is even remotely plausible as science.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. There is logic and mathematical reasoning behind the Ring. That alone doesn’t make it science. If there were such a thing as a “stasis field” then it makes sense that it could be used to construct a “variable sword”. If materials existed that could take the stresses of rotating at 770 meters per second, then those materials could be used to construct a Ringworld. But he begins with positing things that don’t exist and that current science cannot explain.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thinking about this more, I have to disagree.
        First, immortality is now within predictable science, and the method he posits (at least in World Out of Time) is plausible: ridding the body of senescent cells.
        Teleportation isn’t possible by our current understanding of science, but there are some interesting things being done with the instantaneous transfer of information over distance (which is teleportation) via pairing of quantum particles. Still a long step to teleportation of objects, but “any sufficiently advanced technology…” yadda yadda yadda.
        And, as you note, he rigorously thinks out scientific/engineering applications for the one truly fantastical element (stasis fields).

        Or to take another Hard SF story as an example, the reality that a Langston Field doesn’t exist doesn’t diminish the fact that Niven/Pournelle used consistent math calculations to govern how the Fields operated under thermodynamic stress in Mote in God’s Eye.

        After all, this is science *fiction*, not science fact. Surely you can see a difference between how Larry Niven approached “Ringworld” than how ERB approached “A Princess of Mars,” or even between how Niven approached “Ringworld” and Cherryh approached her FTL travel. That difference is the difference between Hard SF and Soft SF.

        The differences are real, and spectacular.


      3. Well, I haven’t read any Cherryh, so I can’t comment on that. But I think that “A Princess Of Mars” is as hard or harder than Ringworld. ERB’s Barsoom is logical and well constructed, given what science believed about Mars at the time. The Barsoomian technology is reasonable, of one is willing to posit material levitation and light sensitive explosives (the only two instances of superscience I can think of right off hand). The migratory nature of the Green Martians, the Red Martians withdrawal into the increasingly rare fertile areas, the military consequences of the available technology, are all reasonable responses to the posited initial conditions.


      4. I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a moment (and I’m I really am, given how fervently I’ve defended ERB to Gita). While Burroughs did include a fair amount of scientifically plausible concepts, there were also big, glaring fantasy elements to fill in the gaps: the astral projection that provides for John Carter’s transport to Mars, for one. Also Carter’s vaguely explained immortality.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’d put those as Ultra-Hard.
    There is a bigger gulf between Known Space and Bujold’s Vorkosigan universe than between Known Space and Forward’s “Dragon’s Egg.”
    As I just said in another comment, it is still Science *Fiction*, after all, not Science *Fact*.

    Does Forward get kicked out of the Hard SF genre because the Cheela don’t actually exist?
    Was Pournelle a Hard SF hypocrite because he refused to collaborate in Known Space but wrote “Janissaries” (70s-era Army unit transferred to another planet by a Flying Saucer)?

    I would say no.


  5. “So all this is to say that I don’t think there should be this opposition between Hard SF and Soft SF camps.”

    Then maybe the Sperglords who originated the term “Hard SF” should’ve come up with something that didn’t automatically put their preferred type of SF on a higher plane. It’s a value judgement encapsulated in two words. Maybe we should just call it “Plain Grey SF”, which is what much of it is. You say there shouldn’t be opposition then nonchalantly toss around a term that automatically ranks one below another.

    “It doesn’t seem to have much application to our human, earthly lives, and it almost seems like the only point is to show off…”

    That could so easily describe such a large percentage of “Hard”/Plain Grey SF it’s almost pathetic. BTW, you needed to insert at least 3 or 4 more “seems” into that sentence.

    “Surely you can see a difference between how Larry Niven approached “Ringworld” than how ERB approached “A Princess of Mars.”

    One thing I’m sure of is that you haven’t spent any time looking into how the science in APoM maps onto the state of science in 1912. All the handwaving you do for Niven can be done for Burroughs as well.

    Bravo. Yeah, you’ve totally settled it, Gita. You don’t even appear to have read much of the recent conversations in the whole debate. You just “know” somehow. How scientific. RINGWORLD is full of crap science. At the time when ERB wrote APoM, his science — except for Carter’s astral travel — was as plausible as RINGWORLD’s when *it* was written. Right now, faster-than-light travel that even remotely resembles that in RINGWORLD is about as plausible as astral travel.

    BTW, Cherryh said there shouldn’t be any little bitchy divides between SF and Fantasy. Maybe you didn’t get the memo.


    1. Why do you insist “Hard” is on a higher plane than “Soft”?

      But feel free to return anytime to continue venting on me whatever emotional problems you are having in the rest of your life. I don’t mind.


    2. Steady on, here. I’ve had many back and forths with Gita about genre and preference, but he’s never put forth Hard SF as superior.

      There are plenty of forums around in which a particular genre is regarded with animus or disdain. I assure you there is no such snobbery exhibited by any of we Bushis.

      I know it’s easy to get worked up when you perceive someone putting down your jam, but no barbs needed here!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly.
        The whole point of the post is that Hard SF is not superior in any way, just a different approach to story construction.
        I don’t see how anyone could actually read what I wrote and think I support the idea that Hard SF is superior.


      2. It’s the word hard. If it is a masculine subject hard is better than soft. Rock hard abs are better than a soft flabby belly. Hard men are better than soft sissified city folk. Hard sciences are better than soft sciences. So on and so forth.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Boy, this rock-hard bread sure is good. And why everyone doesn’t use a hard pillow just seems strange.
        I understand their *can* be good/bad connotations to Hard/Soft, but you don’t have to accept them.
        I think it was Churchill that said, “An insult is like a drink; you have to accept it for it to accept you.”
        Not only do I not restrict myself to liking only one of the two, I never saw any reason to think either Hard or Soft was superior just by being Hard or Soft.
        That’s the point of the article: to try to convince other people to reject any “value” aspect associate with Hard/Soft SF, and just enjoy what you want to enjoy without shame or smugness.


  6. A spectrum runs from hardest SF that’s already in the text books (The Martian), through current science speculation (Interstellar), and eventually gets all the way to science fantasy … like Star Trek where your phaser/tricorder/scanner might as well be Harry Potter’s wand and alien species interbreed—which is less scientific than me making it with a sea horse. How much reality is necessary to pull one into a story and how much imagination does one require/can one stand to enjoy a tale?

    I’m more distressed by the current trend of ‘wish fulfillment’ and super powers where issues are resolved by turning a dial or discovering one’s brilliant/magic/alien/blessed parentage. For example, your character’s abilities come from having Darth Vader or a Vulcan for a parent. The general population now thinks this is what SF/Sci-Fi is — a silly genre. It has led some authors to label their work as action thrillers rather than SF to get a better market.

    Liked by 2 people

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