Things Have Been Too Peaceful Lately: Re-Igniting Hard SF vs Soft SF

  • by Gitabushi

I had a great conversation with PCBushi the other day about Pulp, and some of my problems with it. Learned some things from him, and they stewed in my brain until I ran across a blogpost that made it all crystalize into a thought process I want to share.

Here, let me write a story for you:

A big monster, with so much power he was invincible, attacked a little baby.  Just as the monster was about to smash the little baby, the little baby grew a big, yellow fist and smashed the monster. With just one impact, the invincible monster was pulverized into quantum-level particles.  The End.

Good SF Pulp story?


Why?  It has fighting! It has heroics! It has Science!

But it has no real plot.  There’s no real conflict. The characters don’t grow or change.

The baby was about to get destroyed: that’s conflict! It grew a big, yellow fist: that’s change!

Where did the monster come from? How was it invincible? A baby can’t suddenly grow a big, yellow fist, right? And how could the baby smash the monster if the monster was invincible?  How can you call this science fiction if the science is this bad?

It has quantum particles in it. That makes it science.

Wouldn’t it be a better story if you explained how the baby could suddenly grow the fist?

Are you trying to say Hard SF is better than Soft SF?!?  REEEE!!!!

Okay, that’s an exaggeration on all counts, for effect.

To me, some of the Pulp that is popular right now reminds me of that one-paragraph story.  Things happen because the author wants them to happen. There’s no feeling of conflict, no feeling of threat to the protagonist.

Yes, I know, in fiction, *everything* happens because the author wants it to.  But a good story makes you willingly suspend disbelief because the author has such a good grasp of human nature and the real world that all actions not only seem possible, but even likely.

A great author can develop a character so that at the key moment in the story, they experience a change of character that, as it happens, seems so obvious that you don’t question it at all, but can actually get choked up at the self-sacrifice for love, or the decision to stride into maturity, etc.

For example, Han was all about himself throughout the movie Star Wars.  He was cynical, crass, and dismissive.  He was in it for himself, and looking out for number one.  But at a point when the tension and drama of trying to stop the Death Star was at its highest, he experienced a significant character change, and risked his life to come save Luke, and with it, the Rebellion.

Now, Soft SF proponents have a point, that I just now realized while typing the previous paragraph: Never once do we see the Millennium Falcon threatened by the defense tower blasters, or Tie Fighters.  But the Millennium Falcon was bigger, and thus probably slower, than the snub fighters, and likely would have been the size/type of ship the Death Star’s defensive blasters were designed to engage.

But the point is: even though it happened because the author wanted it to, it was plausible enough to feel satisfying.  We *wanted* Han to have a heart of gold under everything, and it made sense that Leia’s regard would be important to him, and it was natural that surviving all the life-threatening adventures with Luke would create a bond between the two.

Hard SF is just another, deeper step of that vital aspect of making a story seem real. The better you model the real world, the fewer jarring aspects there are that will take your reader out of his willing suspension of disbelief.

The most important aspect of Chekhov’s Gun is that if you want to have a gun fired in the 3rd Act to resolve the issue, you’d damn well better make sure people see it in the first, but without drawing so much attention to it that they know the 3rd Act is going to hinge on the gun being fired.

So science matters. Read this:

Space Fighters, Not.

That’s really just the background for the article I read first:

Space Fighters, Reconsidered

I think these both are examples of aspects you must consider, as a writer, to make the story more enjoyable.  Consider this paragraph:

The basic fighter concept that emerges from this line of thought could be remarkably low tech. The cockpit might resemble the EVA pods in 2001; we are looking at one day habitability. Propulsion is probably chemfuel, with plenty of short term oompf and enough delta v for the sorts of missions we are undertaking.

See how the line of thought regarding space fighters actually helps you realize what a space fighter should like, and how it should perform?  If you include a space fighter in your story like the one described here, the reader will most likely think something like, “Huh. Never thought of that, but it makes perfect sense.” You’ve just increased their commitment to suspending disbelief, heightened their enjoyment, and gave them something to think about.  Win-win-win.  But you just need to make sure you don’t blow it with some other obvious science blunder.

And yet…and yet…

I enjoyed Star Wars.  Who didn’t?  But they blow away all sorts of science facts, not just Space Fighters. Their ships make sound, blasters are never explained (they aren’t lasers, because lasers are invisible absent some sort of dust or other aerosol that makes them visible), the light-sabers are even less scientific, and then you get the magic mumbo-jumbo of the force.

There are plenty of enjoyable Pulp stories that leave me satisfied, and plenty of Hard SF stories that suck because they screw up some science, and others that suck because they get the science right but the story is lifeless and dull.

So there is a balance.  A Hard SF Star Wars might not have been as much fun.  On the other hand, a harder SF Star Wars wouldn’t have been impossible, it just would have made the writers work harder, and likely be more creative.  And the resulting Hard SF Star Wars would have been praised not only for its enjoyment, but it’s ground-breaking vision of a truly possible future.

At some point, you should read “Heavy Time” and “Hellburner” by CJ Cherryh.  Or read the whole “Chanur” series, also by CJ Cherryh.  They aren’t perfectly hard science, because they have FTL travel and/or other aspects that don’t make sense according to current scientific understanding.
Cover Art of “Pride of Chanur” by Michael Whelan. Website:

However, she does develop extremely strict rules for her FTL travel, to the point that those limitations become plot development points. Her description of life in the asteroid belt also has verisimilitude because she addresses the scientific aspects of the impact of life in weightlessness. And her sense and description of interpersonal and political relationships are convincingly accurate.

I don’t really have a thesis conclusion.  I don’t actually want to express contempt for Soft SF or Pulp, because I enjoy both, when done well.  But on the balance, I think it takes greater skill to craft an enjoyable story using more Hard SF principles, and I do believe that the greater effort Hard SF requires results in a tighter, more believable story.

One final bonus thought: in a bureaucracy in which I previously worked, documents being sent to the organization’s commander had to be placed in color-coded folders. Issues that had to be resolved in less than a week were considered emergencies, and had to be in a red folder, regardless of topic. I selected the appropriate folder cover for the topic (I believe it was green, but it doesn’t matter) and submitted it.  It was rejected a few times for issues.  I missed proper punctuation once.  The next level thought a paragraph was unclear.  Yet another higher level thought the conclusion wasn’t supported by the evidence. I submitted the corrected copy 8 days before the decision was required.  Someone in the chain was not at work, so it got stuck at that level until the next day. And guess what?  At that next level, it was returned to me to resubmit in a red cover, because it was now less than seven days and was now an emergency issue.

The point of that anecdote?  The commander set up that chain to check attention to detail.  Did the proper punctuation make any difference to the content?  Heck, did the folder cover make any difference at all?  No.  But the notion was that if I missed punctuation, what else might I miss?   If I didn’t have the document in the right color cover, what else was I ignoring or being sloppy about?

I think it is the same with fiction.  If I get basic orbital mechanics wrong, how can the scientific aspect that drives the plot be trusted? If I screw up a gravitational effect, how can I be trusted to understand how humans think?

But, of course, you have to set the level of science hardness according to your intended goal, in the same way your painting’s detail should be just good enough to evoke the emotional reaction you want. The Mona Lisa doesn’t show any facial hair (most women have *some*) or even pores, but that doesn’t seem to really enjoy anyone’s enjoyment of it.

So to repeat: I don’t have any conclusion that Soft SF is bad, or Hard SF is good. I just had some more thoughts on what you should consider as you write SF (hard or soft) that I wanted to share, hopefully to spark a good conversation.

Have at it.  Let me know what you agree with, or disagree with, or general thoughts.



31 thoughts on “Things Have Been Too Peaceful Lately: Re-Igniting Hard SF vs Soft SF

  1. You raise some valid points. The main thing about a story is that it is told well enough for the reader to suspend disbelief. While I like the science to be plausible, I think having the people act like people is even more important.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Even in On Thud and Blunder, Anderson argued for believability over rigid adherence to the world. Internal consistency, rather than external.

        After reading a bit more criticism, I don’t think hard vs. soft SF is a useful metric any more. Too many varieties of each, for starters, and a fair bit of corruption of the original definitions has occurred. Maybe Asimov’s three kinds of science fiction–gadget, adventure, and social–might be more illuminating.

        Gadget: The focus of the story is the invention itself: How it comes to be invented, how it works, and / or what it is used for. The invention is the end result of the plot.

        Adventure: The invention is used as a dramatic prop. It may be the solution to a problem, or it may be causing the problem itself, but the main focus is on the caper and how the invention’s presence helps or hinders it.

        Social: The focus of the story is on how the presence of the invention affects people’s daily lives, whether for good or for ill. The chief distinction between this and the other two types is that the presence of the invention influences the plot rather than causing it or being the goal.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Okay, I am half-asleep and think I am understanding your post: hard sci-fi requires more work, and thus is likely to produce better/more creative stories. I disagree because a “well-written” story can still be boring as hell. Why do we watch and read fiction? To be entertained. The “good films/books” strike a balance between entertaining and well-written such that we don’t really notice the fine balance they strike. Go too far in either direction and you run into problems. I think (most people) also enjoy fiction on a fundamental level to learn something of themselves.

    I think a poorly-written Soft SF story is simply a poorly-written story. I have one basic requirement for telling a story: the plot and characters should make sense. What I mean by that is that I think characters should be making appropriate decisions based on their authority/rank/intelligence/personality. If the characters are acting like idiots (won’t get into specific movies but I have written about a few on my blog) the plot is expected to not make sense. Even when the characters make sense, you can still have dumb plots based purely on magical circumstance and luck that I also don’t like. This can apply to any book/movie, not just sci-fi.

    A hard sci fi SW actually wouldn’t be Star Wars: would you be able to suspend your disbelief when Luke is training to be the most powerful space magician ever if it was hard SF? SW could have done some things differently, but I’m glad it’s soft SF if for nothing else that it’s a good story and I wouldn’t want to see it get bogged down in nitty-gritty hard SF details and restrictions – it’s such a powerful human drama that people are drawn to it despite its flaws and fantasy setting.

    To your Mona Lisa point, if we are setting that as our “hard sci-fi” equivelant, we’ll set impressionism as our soft sci-fi equivelant. Lots of people enjoy impressionism which takes greater liberties with reality than the realistic style of the Mona Lisa. If the Mona Lisa had suffered from a poor understanding of human proportion, or color, then all of the realism wouldn’t have made a lick of difference and it would not be such a classic. Similarly impressionism depicts reality as big wads of colour but you are still required to understand basic realistic proportions – maybe the details are off but stepping away from it you get the “big picture” (figuratively).

    My point is that it’s not the style, it’s the storytelling, and (soft) concluding that realistic hard sci-fi can create better, more creative storytelling because the author has a firmer grasp of current scientific understanding and has more limitations is like saying that realistic painting styles are superior to impressionism because they are more bound by realistic details in the here and now. You can screw up in both styles, but both styles are also capable of masterpieces that move anyone who looks at them.

    (clearly, no author should be trashing the basic laws of physics *for no good reason*)

    Anyways, good questions and good post. I apologize if my comment seems a bit argumentative – I’m just groggy. :P

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Returning in the evening I see how you were using the Mona Lisa example, and I understand your point and it’s slightly different than what I was aiming at, but I still like my realism/impressionism example :P


    2. I certainly don’t want to say that Hard is better than Soft, or worse.
      But for some reason, when I try to explain what I like about Hard, it seems to make some Soft SF fans get upset; those same fans seem to get upset even with the word Soft, assuming it means inferior.
      I just think there *is* a difference, and it is worth understanding, so you can let your audience know what to expect. That’s all.

      Full disclosure: I don’t see why everyone calls the Jedi “space wizards.” Psionics is a perfectly acceptable scientific trope. Wizards have to use special physical/hand motions and/or special words (spells) to call up their power. The Jedi do it simply by will. That makes it more push-button, i.e., sciency.

      IMHO, of course

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I call them space magicians because they are manipulating something outside of the realm of scientific understanding and explanation (“search your feelings” is not scientific), and those force bugs which shall not be named don’t count :P but then, my understanding of what is hard might be different/shallower than other people out there.

        Fair enough, certainly there is a LOT of bad writing in soft science fiction because, like fantasty and other ficitonal formats, there isn’t a bar of science held up to vet the good from the bad, while hard scifi is grounded on a firmer, more realistic understanding of our world and so fewer people period do it. Those people are more dedicated, and thus are *likely* better writers in general but not a rule.

        Soft scifi is not a trigger for me – I write soft scifi and am proud of it. :P

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You aren’t the only ones that call the Jedi “space magicians/wizards”.

        I just don’t like it.

        For one thing, wizards don’t usually use swords.


      3. Well in the sciences, soft *is* inferior. Just look at the replication crisis affecting the social sciences. /sarc

        (I trained as a chemist. There’s a longstanding disdain towards those aspects of the humanities that try to clothe themselves in scientific respectability. This disdain has bled into the hard and soft SF discussion. Of course, it doesn’t help that some SFF writers tend to consider anything popular as a threat to proper science fiction in the mold of Campbell and his disciples, including ERB, Lovecraft, Star War, Star Trek, media tie-in novels, Tolkien, Heinlein, and even Asimov. Yeah I don’t understand the last two, either.)

        Honestly, Hard and Soft SF are getting to be pretty meaningless terms. Something like Anderson’s “Uncleftish Beholding”, an explanation of science in purely Germanic English, is properly soft SF, as it deals with linguistics and not physics or chemistry. But its pretty crunchy in how it adheres to the ruthless elimination of all non-Germanic loanwords. Likewise, men’s adventure and thriller novels often deal with 15 years into the future engineering, or the application of hard sciences. Some of these, such as those by Tom Clancy or Michael Chricton, have a stricter adherence to the real world than, say, James Bond or the very fluffy Destroyer. But the hard science fiction of the thriller that deals with technology and near-future science tends to get ignored in most hard SF discussions, even as they meet the guidelines.

        Liked by 3 people

      4. I can agree that Hard vs Soft is going to be somewhat objective if we can’t even agree on what Hard and Soft apply to.

        But while there may be some similarity to Hard and Soft science, I think that is only a cosmetic similarity.
        If someone explains the soft science behind their plot developments, as you describe with the languages, to me that is Hard Science Fiction, even if the science itself is soft.
        What makes it Hard is merely the attempt to explain the differences between current reality and the story.

        So by this system, you could actually have Hard fantasy, where they try to explain exactly how the magic works.
        I would say the Myth Adventure books could be considered Hard fantasy.
        The Master of Five Magics would also be Hard fantasy, as is David Brin’s The Practice Effect.


      5. “But while there may be some similarity to Hard and Soft science, I think that is only a cosmetic similarity.
        If someone explains the soft science behind their plot developments, as you describe with the languages, to me that is Hard Science Fiction, even if the science itself is soft.
        What makes it Hard is merely the attempt to explain the differences between current reality and the story.”

        Then you are using Hard and Soft in a different manner to how it has been used.

        Granted, it’s an easy mistake, and, like most things science fiction, “it is what we say it is when we point to it”, but the term soft science fiction originated with the birth of social science fiction, describing science fiction of the soft sciences.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. I don’t think that’s where Hard and Soft science fiction came from, any more than they came from Hard and Soft beds, or any more than Hard and Soft Decision Viterbi decoding comes from the Hard and Soft sciences.

        There are all sorts of problems with Wikipedia, but dividing science in Hard and Soft came a full decade later than the first use of the term for Hard science fiction.




        The earliest known citation for the term is in “1975: The Year in Science Fiction” by Peter Nicholls, in Nebula Awards Stories 11 (1976). He wrote “The same list reveals that an already established shift from hard sf (chemistry, physics, astronomy, technology) to soft sf (psychology, biology, anthropology, sociology, and even […] linguistics) is continuing more strongly than ever.”[4]


      8. Nope.
        “The term [hard science fiction] was first used in print in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller in a review of John W. Campbell’s Islands of Space in Astounding Science Fiction”


      9. Forgive the lack of clarity. The term in my previous post is “soft science fiction” not hard. And the quote supports the connection of the term soft science fiction to the soft sciences.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I want to know just when did soft sci-fi get redefined from “stuff by the likes of Ballard, Moorcock, and Disch” and redefined as “stuff I like that isn’t hard sci-fi.”

    Seriously, though, I love Doc Smith and ERB, but CJ Cherry’s kick-ass space opera is just as exciting and, as you wrote, a least a tad more logical. I’ve found her stuff, much of Poul Anderson’s, some of Gordon Dickson’s, more able to weather more frequent rereads.

    On the other hand, Sprague de Camp’s efforts to “logicalize” ERB and REH doesn’t hold up very well at all. Which, means, a nice balance is the way to go.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “The most important aspect of Chekhov’s Gun is that if you want to have a gun fired in the 3rd Act to resolve the issue, you’d damn well better make sure people see it in the first, but without drawing so much attention to it that they know the 3rd Act is going to hinge on the gun being fired.”

    That’s a common misconception. The problem? It’s backwards.

    Chekhov’s Gun isn’t about foreshadowing. It’s about keeping implicit promises to the reader.

    To properly reorder the OP quote: “The most important aspect of Chekhov’s Gun is that if you show people a gun in the first act, you’d damn well better fire it before the third act.”

    Also, hard SF does not exist.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Actually, I understand it the way you do.
      I was trying to be clever by pointing out the reverse is important, too, because it reduces the feeling of Deus Ex Machina.

      Guess I failed to make that clear, and I think where I messed up is by saying “The most important aspect”. I should have said, “the sometimes-ignored/forgotten aspect of Chekhov’s gun is the mirror image of the exhortation…”
      Sorry. I’ll try to be more careful in the future.


  5. The Hard/Soft dichotomy in SF is subjective. The “hardness” of a work of fiction is dependant on how much science the reader knows. I know that a lot of people accept as scientific things that I consider fantasy, and I’m sure the reverse is true. This is further complicated by the list of “freebies” that readers bring to a story–things which are known to be fantastic, but are accepted as “hard” because they are done so often. (FTL being the most common.)

    This is not to say that the distinction is meaningless. There are elements in music and art which are purely subjective but very important to discussions on the subject. You can get violent disagreement on the definition of “metal” as a musical term, but that doesn’t keep people from using that word in meaningful discussions.

    So I read “Hard SF” as “a story in which I am able to accept the story elements as plausible.” This may be a completely different set of story elements than what I consider “hard”.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I get what you are saying, but I disagree.

      It isn’t the ability of the reader to understand the science that makes the fiction Hard or Soft.

      Rather, what makes a story speculative fiction is that it posits *some* difference from the world as we know it. If that difference is magic, it is fantasy. If it is based on an advancement in scientific understanding or application, it is science fiction.

      If an attempt is made to *explain* those differences, it is Hard science fiction. If the new science is just accepted and/or lampshaded, it is Soft science fiction.

      The Martian is still hard science fiction, regardless of whether the reader/watcher understands hexidecimal-based communication.

      In contrast, Star Wars is Soft science fiction because it makes no attempt to explain *any* of the technology it introduces.

      And since, as Clarke said, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, the difference between Soft science fiction and fantasy is just a “skin” (to borrow from games terminology): if you press a button, its science fiction. If you wiggle your fingers and/or say special words to have the effect, it’s fantasy.

      I will have more thoughts on this later, I think.


      1. There’s something to part of that. Maybe it’s why I prefer the term “Science Fantasy” to “Soft SF,” though I don’t know that it’s any more complimentary (though I don’t personally register “Soft SF” or “Space Opera” as derogatory terms).

        Liked by 1 person

      2. But if Soft SF is Science Fantasy, what is Hard SF?
        If you just call it “science fiction”, then the people who don’t follow your terminology of Science Fantasy will be extremely confused when Forward’s Dragon’s Egg and ERB’s Barsoom are both called science fiction.


      3. It’s been vocalized before and by other people – I think these terms are somewhat useful for description purposes, but they’re certainly not comprehensive and sometimes they get in their own way. Not everything fits neatly into a box. That’s what other Nathan here was getting at, too, I think.

        It’s all speculative fiction. Beyond that there are all sorts of arguments to be made.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Like a Superhero?

        For the Jedi, I assumed it was Psionics, a mental ability using powers of the brain normal people haven’t unlocked, and current science hasn’t studied. That makes it “push button”, although the button is a brain synapse “pushed” via that person’s decision.

        As such, to me, Jedi powers are science, not magic.


      5. Okay, in my series The Book Of Lost Doors, I have things that are called Outsiders. They are entities with no material form who can communicate with some human beings, and influence humans by teaching them alien technologies.

        The main thing about the Outsiders is that they lie and they conceal their true identities. They claim to be whatever the human that they wish to influence is most likely to believe–so some people think they are aliens, others think they are angels, or devils, or ghosts.

        Now, I deliberately did not give a definite answer to what the Outsiders really are. I left it open. My readers can choose to see them as alien intelligences and the powers they grant humans as technological, in which case the books are Science Fiction. Or the reader can choose to see them as demons, and the powers they grant are magic, in which case the books are fantasy.

        I took my inspiration from C S Lewis’ Space Trilogy, in which he describes the non-material eldil as being outside of human concepts of natural and supernatural. They just are. (And, in fact, I use both eldil and macrobe [another term Lewis invented for the books] to describe Outsiders.)

        Liked by 1 person

      6. I heartily approve of letting your readers decide that for themselves. I like it when stories make me work for some of the payoffs, where you don’t always get answers, where things aren’t spoon fed to me. Not always, but sometimes.

        But what are they to you?


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