- 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.
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.
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.