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.



MUST READ SFF: The Minaverse, by Jill Domschot

  • by Gitabushi

I always have problems with reviews, I think. How do I make the book/movie/TV show sound interesting without giving too much away?  Do I talk about the writing style?  The characters?  What I find unique and/or worthwhile about it?

For me, there is no greater pleasure than having a story unfold for me.

On the other hand, I enjoy enough seeing how something difficult is pulled off that I don’t usually mind spoilers.

In any case, I’m going to try to walk the line here.

Flat-out: I think you should read The Minaverse, by Jill Domschot.


I know Jill through Twitter, through a loose collection of SF&F fans, readers, and gamers.  I don’t know her well.  She doesn’t owe me money, nor do I owe her money. We aren’t related. We wouldn’t recognize each other if we walked past each other on the street. I get nothing for plugging this book.

She was struggling with a blurb for her book, and I like to help and am usually a pretty good wordsmith, so I helped improve it.  To say thanks, she let me read an advanced copy of the book I just helped write the blurb for.

I’m very glad she did, because I really enjoyed this story.

As I started reading the book, I made little mental notes of the feedback I was going to give her: the character that was unlikeable, the times she told us instead of showing us, etc.

But starting almost immediately in Chapter 4, I forgot all that.  The story figuratively took off, and none of the criticisms mattered. I lost myself in the book and just enjoyed it.

The Minaverse is a semi-framed story.  The protagonist, Stephanie, wants to interview her famous grandfather and turn it into a biography that will provide her some career success.  That is the frame for the story of Oso Benat.  His narrative starts in Chapter 4, and that’s where I became entranced.

I say it is semi-framed, because Ono’s partner also gets a few chapters for his viewpoint.  And by the end, the life story fades away like a desert river moving underground, and Stephanie’s story becomes the main narrative.

And it works.

This book has several strong elements. I like how she really tried to provide a plausible development for human-like androids.  She skewers current society with an acerbic wit by showing where some of the trends we see today are leading. She provides some touching insight into love, (mis)communication, ego, ambition, loyalty, and even faith. Her characters are distinct and memorable, and each has their own voice.

The important thing, however, is it fulfills one of the prime themes and duties of good SF&F: it explores what it means to be human, and does it well.

It’s not a perfect book.  It breaks some rules.  But every time I tried to think about how it could be fixed, I realized that “fixing” it would mean messing with what was actually working.  I urged her to publish it as is (and I think she did).

Look, I’ve made it through some slogs before, but this is an easy read.  The book pulls you along by the force of its magnetic personalities, the challenges Jill sets up for them, and how they resolve them.

I highly recommend this book.  It’s a bargain. I think Jill may be one of the bright new voices of SF&F. Go buy it now.


Dilvish, the Damned: more “not Tolkien”

One of the things I enjoy most about old Appendix N work (and similarly classic and formational SFF) is that there’s so much “not Tolkien” fantasy to masticate. Don’t get me wrong – I love me some JRR hobbits and trolls, but I’ve gotten kind of worn out on today’s brand of knock-off Gandalfs and Legolas clones. Even when they’re Dark-Legolas.


So how about an Elfin hero who’s not so Elfy?

He’s got the green Elf-boots (TM) that assure he always magically lands on his feet, and seem to give him a vague sneaking bonus of some kind, but he doesn’t tote a longbow, thank God. Nor does he dual-wield any kind of fighting implements – no, he seems plenty comfortable with plain, old cold steel.

He doesn’t hear the whispers of the trees, nor does he charm animals, unless you count his companion/mount Black, the metal demon horse. And he doesn’t know any spells of protection or healing, but he does know a few incantations in the tongue of the underworld that can level cities.


Dilvish, the Damned is an interesting sort of protagonist, consorting with or banishing demons as called for in a given situation. Driven by a deep thirst for revenge against the Saruman-type who banished him to Hell, he still holds to his own strict moral code, which includes assisting the weak and needy when able, and killing only those who deserve it when it can’t be avoided. In the introductory stories, we see him racing, out of a sense of personal obligation, to save a city from conquest. Later on he helps various other unfortunates who just happen to be in his path. He doles out both death and mercy. Dilvish is no saint, but he’s clearly no villain, either.

My favorite parts of Dilvish, the Damned were the stories of gods and fantastical creatures with somewhat less-than-common spin. One story is about a meeting with a werewolf, whom Dilvish pities and would rather not slay. Now there are a lot of popular associations when it comes to werewolves – weakness to silver, the full moon, transformation. But all this story really focuses on is the unrelenting hunger of the beast. It struck me in a positive way.

Another tale includes the recounting of a deicide committed by an ancestor of Dilvish. Excellent dying words here:


I’ve become a big fan of short stories, and the episodic, yet continuing nature of Dilvish’s adventures scratches an itch. Although I really wish I knew what happened to that sweet invisible sword he picks up in one story and seems to lose sometime before the next. But alas, leaving some things unsaid or unexplained can be an effective storytelling technique.

The most disappointing part of the Dilvish stories has been Zelazny’s uneven writing, which is perhaps unsurprising for story written over the span of decades. Sometimes the writing is quite good and characters use archaic yet unstilted manners of speech (see above).

At other times the writing slips into a more…contemporary flavor.


This can be all the more jarring when the two writing/speaking styles intermingle in the same story. If you can get past this, however, the writing is pretty solid, even if not every story is a home run.

Dilvish, the Damned was a pleasant surprise for me. I enjoyed Zelazny’s Amber stories, but for whatever reason I was expecting a “hero” somewhere between Cugel and Elric. While Dilvish certainly falls short of the traditional Christian champion of yore, we do instead have a flawed but noble hero to cheer for.

He is named both “Damned” and “Deliverer” by characters in his world, and he indeed presents us with another (though lighter) shade of gray. But Zelazny still delivers us a hero, free of grimdark nihilism, and with enough uniqueness for me to recommend picking this one up if you get the chance. 4.5/5.




Thoughts on Artificial Intelligence, Androids, and the Robot Apocalypse

  • by Gitabushi

This is yet another slapped-together post, partly because I have some half-formed ideas I want to explore in public, and partly because I haven’t written anything for the blog for awhile and PCBushi is growing increasingly abusive in my DMs.

Assertion: Human-like androids are not science fiction, they are fantasy.

Science Fiction, whether Hard or Soft, requires at least a hand-wave explanation of what technology got us there.  Science Fiction is supposed to be an investigation of what could happen or what could have happened.  Fantasy is more the creation of a fully-impossible universe to explore some concepts.  Every Artificially-Intelligent and Indistinguishable-From-Humans android in fiction pretty much just appears on-stage, fully formed, without even much of a handwave.

Whoops!  Let me back up.

Assertion: The divisions between Fantasy, Hard Science Fiction, and Soft Science Fiction only matter if you read SFF to think.

If all you want is entertainment, or if the book is written only to entertain, then any classification or sorting attempt is likely to fail, is unnecessary, and probably a bad idea.

Okay, back to the narrative thread.

There are some works that sort of swerve close, at times, in trying to explain How We Got There.  “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert Heinlein posits a computer system that “became aware” due to the number of synapses reaching a critical point…but then just adds in a “and something else unknown must have happened” for a few plot reasons I won’t share.  The Terminator movie series did explain that the earlier Terminators were just rubber-skinned metal skeletons, but managed to make actual flesh-cloaked cyborgs to defeat detection.  Okay, maybe.

I’m fairly well-read, but there are plenty of holes in my reading. No one can read anything, and I haven’t been fond of nearly anything I’ve encountered that was written since, say, 2005.

The one exception to the preceding paragraph is also the best handling of human-like androids that I’ve seen, to date: Jill Domschot’s “The Minaverse” (which should have a mark (diacritic?) above the “a” that I don’t have the ability to add).  She spends more than a few pages explaining how her human-like, intelligent androids were developed.  It’s necessary to the plot, and well done.  It’s more than a handwave, too.

Okay, so I’ve got a strong exception to my assertion…but I maintain the assertion, because I don’t expect anyone else will treat human-like AI androids like science fiction.

The reason is because we *are* still so far away from human-like robots that it is still just magic.  Even the most scientifically-knowledgeable writer cannot look at current technology and chart a reasonable path of scientific development to get there.

Arthur C. Clarke stated that any sufficiently-advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I think the reverse is exploited by human-like AI: any magic is indistinguishable from advanced technology.

Bonus Assertion: Climate Change/AGW and other Leftist Scientastic views exploit this by adding a veneer of scientific gobblydegook to their political articles of faith.

On the other hand, I don’t actually fault movies like AI, Ex Machina, Blade Runner, Terminator, and others I can’t think of right now: Each posits artificially-intelligent robots that are impossibly indistinguishable from humans…but they do it for a purpose: they want to explore the nature of humanity: what if there were alien intelligences that could walk among us, unknown. How would they be aware of us? What would they think of us?  Would we be able to notice?  What would our relationship be with them?  How would they treat us, and how would we treat them?

These are important questions, and I can understand they didn’t want to waste time explaining how we got there, or risk destroying the willing suspension of disbelief in the viewer with an explanation that may not work for everyone.

Assertion: The Turing Test does not actually indicate Artificial Intelligence. It actually indicates shortfalls in human intuition and skepticism.

The Turing Test is: can a computer or other artificial device mimic a human in interaction so well that a human will not recognize it is a machine?

Supposedly an artificial intelligence already passed the test…but only by pretending to be a young boy speaking English as a second language.  To me, that’s cheating enough to mean they didn’t pass.

Still, that’s a fascinating glimpse into how first and second language abilities impact our ability to communicate effectively, eh?

But that test says nothing about artificial intelligence. It’s all about the human perception of it.

To be artificially intelligent, a computer must be self-aware.  It must have an intent in communication, and possibly in survival of self, and almost certainly must have an ability to learn and synthesize new knowledge from various information inputs.

One book that handled this fairly well is “The Two Faces of Tomorrow”, by James P. Hogan.  Also a good read.


What are your thoughts?  Am I wrong about indistinguishable-from-human robots? What books have you read that have handled artificial intelligence deftly?

If I ever learn to write a novel, I do plan on writing a multi-work path of how the separate paths of artificial intelligence and human-like robots develop and merge, as part of a Future History of a Robot Apocalypse.  Maybe.  I have a lot of plans.


Make yourself useful, mage!

Yesterday Cirsova shared some thoughts on Twitter about a recent post over at Walker’s Retreat (which was in turn a reaction to a post at Dyvers blog).

This led to an interesting thread, if you’re of the sort who delights in this kind of raw nerdom.



A frequent criticism of D&D 3.5e, which is probably a middling version of the game in many senses (and yet like ice cream, each person has a favorite flavor), is that it’s too easy to get bogged down in rules and mechanics. Still, I think it gives a judicious and experienced DM the tools for a rather rich and dynamic game. A handyman may have a 50-piece ratchet/socket set in his toolbox; doesn’t mean he’s got to use it!

I must confess, I’ve never played a magic user. The only game I ever played in as a player gave me a taste of the charisma rogue, which I very much enjoyed.

The comparisons I can draw here are limited. A magic user may be standing in the doorway with his hands in his, uh, robe pockets as his party desperately fights off the goblin raiding party until he’s saved their bacon by expending a precious lightning bolt spell on the ogre boss that’s just rolled up on the exhausted heroes. As a silver-tongued rogue type, at least you’ve still got backstab, and hopefully enough HP and dexterity to help out on the front line for a round or two without getting insta-killed. You may not be a power-hitter, but you can at least do something useful most turns, whether it be culling a damaged bogie or firing off an arrow or two. Hey, at least I got you a flanking bonus!!

Anyway, when we consult our handy actuarial table of action types, we see that a magic user can…actually not really do much at all! My references above to aiding another or intimidating were actually useless advice in this context as they require melee range!

Unfortunately, without magical items or scrolls or maybe potions of some sort, a magic user’s not really got any recourse. Especially if he’s trying to sincerely roleplay his character.

What is one to do?

One branch of the conversation, which kind of circles back to Dyvers’ original post:


And I think that really may be the best solution – sprinkle in some magical goodies for your magic users to hold on to. But it’s up to the DM to anticipate and implement. If you return to some D&D’s source material, namely Dying Earth, you’ve got all manner of magical items for magic users to play around with between casting spells. Remember that in Vance’s stories, most wizards could only memorize a handful of incantations. While spells certainly accounted for an important portion of their overall power, perhaps equally important were the relics and magical artifacts that they were able to accumulate.

These gadgets can range in power, from extremely powerful to amusingly benign – think of Cugel’s “tube of blue concentrate,” which due to its mysterious nature elicited some degree of fear despite maybe just being a can of blue spray paint. These kinds of curios can be a real boon for a DM who doesn’t want to wantonly dish out wands of magic missile or other damage-dealing items, as they provide players with a great chance to get creative and do some quality roleplaying.


It’s also a thought for you fantasy writers. Instead of going with a vanilla wizard character who chants spells and draws runes, why not a codger with a bag full of doodads and magical junk?




PC Koshinbun: Beast Master, Conan, and Luke as Mary Sue

Another day, another roundup. Here’re some recent consumables for y’all:

  • Cirsova’s got a piece about Otto Skorzeny, a diabolical, brilliant, intriguing member of the SS upon whom some great villains could be based.







  • Clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson recently engaged in a “debate” with Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News. Almost painful to watch in how one-sided this is.








History of the hypospray

I’ve been reading Jack Vance’s The Narrow Land lately. When it comes to imaginative SFF and, uh, breadth of word choice, I just can’t find a better author. Seriously the guy was a grandmaster and it’s criminal that he’s not more well known. I obviously can’t gush enough about him.


At any rate, I was making my way through the book’s second entry, “The Masquerade on Dicantropus,” when something jumped out at me.

“Hypo-spray”? Weren’t those ubiquitous in the Star Treks?


It doesn’t really surprise me anymore when I discover threads in modern(ish) works that lead back to older stories and writers, but it is rather cool.

My interest piqued, I did a little Googling. And I was informed by Wikipedia that the hypospray is actually a real (though flawed) thing. In reality, “jet injectors” haven’t made it because the risk of contamination from the transfer of blood and other biological material hasn’t been eliminated. But the technology of injecting a high-pressure jet of liquid through the skin without a needle is a real thing, and it goes back quite a while. Amazing, the things I don’t know.

According to Wiki, the first of such injections were accidentally administered in the 19th century by factory grease guns.

“Hmmm…Hey Henry, come over here a sec, I wanna try something.”

The first recorded use of the tech in SFF appears to have occurred in a 1947 radio episode of The Shadow. Amazingly, that seems to have been the same year that the first “hypospray” was introduce for clinical evaluation.

Script writer Herb Baumgartner must have been up on his reading to have known about this promising, new, up-and-coming technology, and I think that’s a good lesson for aspiring writers of any kind – lots of cool ideas to be harvested and cultivated from things that are going on in the world around us.

Wikipedia credits Vance with having mentioned the devices in his 1956 novel To Live Forever, but the short noted above was actually written in 1951 (unless the “hypo” bit was edited in for the Narrow Land collection).

Then Asimov mentioned such a device in The Naked Sun (which I’ve read, but apparently missed this).

Either way, the concept was well-established before Star Trek got to it, and yet the Roddenberry legacy was the first employer to come to mind for me. Kind of reminds me of how Star Wars has eclipsed anything and anyone before it to have used laser swords.