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.


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.


“50 Games Like” Website

Interesting.  I found a website that specializes in finding games similar to other games.  So if you finish one, you can look for other, similar games.

To be honest, I’m struggling to find a way to explain that doesn’t involve just repeating the title, and I probably don’t need to do that.

Here’s the website, with a sample game searched.

Interestingly, you can’t use the search bar they provide.  All it will do is return a list of games and the overall rating.  I checked the original versus a game searched using their search bar, and the difference is, the search bar goes to a URL that includes “/games-search/” whereas what you really want is the URL that includes “/games-like”. Moreover, the search bar has the game name as “game%20name”, but when it is actually searching for games like what you want, it does the search using “game-name”.

So ignore the search bar.  Go up to the URL bar and type in the name of the game you want, but with dashes instead of spaces.

I hope that is clear.  If not, poke around until you figure it out, or ask me to clarify.


Writing: Three Elements

  • by Gitabushi

Here are three elements of writing I haven’t seen discussed much before, but are currently at the forefront of my mind.

  1. Tropes. You are writing within a genre. As Daddy Warpig said, genre can be defined by a collection of tropes. You don’t need (or want!) all of them, but you need enough of them to set some parameters for your reader. Your task is then to balance your use of tropes (formulas) against innovation.  Too many tropes, and your work will seem hackneyed, derivative, and boring, and your reader will no longer be willing to Suspend Disbelief.  Too much innovation, and your reader will feel jarred, cheated, and will no longer be wiling to suspend disbelief. I’m still trying to work on how to know if you’ve over- or under-used tropes.
  2. Willing Suspension of Disbelief. Get it from your readers. With it, and you can have plot holes, weak dialogue, unrealistic character actions, etc. But plot holes, weak dialogue, unrealistic character actions, etc., destroy your readers’ willingness to Suspend Disbelief.  Make it easier for them to Suspend and stay Suspended: perfect your craft.
  3. Provide a satisfying ending to everything you write. Make every work be self-contained. Even if you plan on writing a trilogy, make each book have its own arc that resolves most of the issues.  See “Chuck” or “The Man in the High Castle” (not until the end of the 2nd season, but we’ll grant them this one) for excellent examples of how to do this.




MUST WATCH SFF Television Show: Chuck

  • by Gitabushi


tl;dr: “Chuck” is quite simply the best television show in recent history. Maybe in television history, but that is a little more subjective.

Okay, let’s get into it: I hate incomplete stories. Hate hate hate hate.

I know stories are fiction.  But once I suspend my disbelief to start to enjoy a story, I want it to end.  In the interest of extending this introduction, let me point out that I hated the ending of Wayne’s World, because giving multiple possible endings left me feeling like it didn’t actually end at all.  And I hated reading The Princess Bride, too, because of the book ending subverting the typical fairy tale storybook tropes.  Bah.  Bah, I say!

But I understand that the television business is a rough world.  You have a great premise, but you can’t pay writers until you have a contract.  So you often don’t know for sure how closely the actual filming will stay with the originally-planned storyline, even during the first season. And since subsequent seasons aren’t a sure thing unless the series gets renewed, future storylines aren’t even planned out, and maybe not even considered.

One way to keep your television series on the air is to, just like in writing, raise the stakes.

You already have the premise. People are hooked. Now start complicating things. They are invested in the characters, so put the characters through hell. Set up cliffhangers, particularly about the most popular characters. Leave your audience begging for resolution.

But don’t make it so complicated your audience gives up and ratings plummet.

You can add more and more spinning plates. Kick the resolution down the road.  Tomorrow will take care of itself.

The problem with this short-term thinking?  Sometimes stories never get finished. When things get too complicated, there is no satisfying way to wrap up all the issues, the audience leaves, and the show gets cancelled.  It happened with the X-Files (I’m *so* happy I never started with that). It happened, to an extent, with Lost. It is happening with Game of Thrones, although George R. R. Martin has apparently given an outline to the showrunners so they can finish the story that he can’t seem to.

These sorts of things leave me unsatisfied.

The way to resolve it is to have story arcs. Each episode should be self-contained, for the most part, with an arc that completes at the end of the episode. The season should also have a story arc that wraps up the issues introduced at the beginning of the season and were developed throughout that year.  And then you have an overall series arc, bookended with a resolution.

“Chuck” did those things.  It might have been by accident; I certainly don’t think “Chuck” was able to hire writers significantly better than anyone else in Hollywood. It might have been because they were always hovering at the brink of cancellation, so they felt less at liberty to introduce elements that couldn’t be resolved within one season.

In any case, “Chuck” is a true rarity in American television: a story-based show with nested arcs that actually wraps things up tightly.

The show starts with Chuck having failed at life, having been thrown out of Stanford, dumped by his girl, working at a Big Box store that is beneath his abilities, and lonely. It ends with him accomplished, having developed his many different talents and abilities, retained his humanity despite difficult circumstances, and with the love of his life by his side.

It even bookends locations, (sorta). It doesn’t end at the same location it begins, but the final scene of the last show is at the same location as the final scene of the first show, and for similar reasons.  It was actually masterfully done.

The fact that “Chuck” completes the story is reason enough to watch it.  Writers should study it for structure, characterization, foreshadowing, etc.

But that isn’t all “Chuck” is.

It is a science fiction story: a guy has a supercomputer downloaded into his brain. It’s a comedy: there are some great laugh-out-loud moments. It’s a love story. It’s one of the better assembly-cast works out there: the side characters add so much depth and interest to the story, to include Casey, Morgan, Jeffster, Captain Awesome, and others. It’s a character-growth story: all the characters grow and develop throughout the series.

Another reason to watch is just all the little Easter Eggs and references to past works. There are references to Dune, Spies Like Us, The Terminator, Die Hard, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Charade, and more.

And the Guest Stars! Scott Bakula, Linda Hamilton, Brandon Routh, Summer Glau, Kristin Kreuk, Dolph Lundgren, Richard Chamberlain, Tony Hale, Chevy Chase, Robert Englund, Carrie-Anne Moss, Reginald VelJohnson (in a Die-Hard-ish episode), Bruce Boxleitner, Christopher Lloyd, Morgan Fairchild, Robin Givens, Rachel Bilson, Gary Cole, Nicole Richie, Armand Assante, John Larroquette, Steve Austin, James Hong, “Louis Litt” from “Suits”, Robert Patrick, Fred Willard, Craig Kilborn, Cheryl Ladd, Michael Clarke Duncan, Andy Richter, Mark Hamill…

Okay, now even I’m getting bored of the list.

I was also impressed by how the show surprised me at times. Chuck was a bumbling dork in the first few episodes, but even very early on, the writers were actually able to have some surprisingly good problem resolutions, where Chuck did something intelligent and innovative to solve a problem that didn’t involve his Intersect ability, but merely his native cleverness.  The resolution in the circumstances I’m thinking of were foreshadowed earlier in the episode, but perfectly set up: they seemed like throwaway humor points, yet Chuck was able to apply them perfectly to win the day.  Little moments of skillful writing like that go a long way to earning my Willful Suspension of Disbelief at other moments.

And it does need your Willful Suspension of Disbelief.  It isn’t a perfect show, and it isn’t a perfect series.  It’s merely the best one humanity has ever produced to date.  But that still isn’t perfect.

Still, I urge you to stream it, or better yet, purchase the entire collection from Amazon.  It’s worth it. It’s a great show.

Don’t believe me? Read this review:

Chuck is the most entertaining show on TV. It’s shot well and the writing is smart and quick. The acting is superb from the extras to the main characters.The story is dramatic and visionary where the character dynamics can be turned on a dime. Love and romance, an agent searching for a good fight, an average guy tossed into the world of espionage; this show has it all.

You will laugh and cry, rejoice and be frustrated because of character depth and great acting. All the characters are lovable and relatable.

NBC has found a hero in Chuck, who as a typical guy, inspires us to be better. The creed of the show is to take care of your family and friends. Simply Chuck calls to do right even in tough times.

It’s certainly a show that will keep you on your toes throughout. Without a doubt this is the best show I’ve ever seen.

At first I was skeptical but after two or three episodes I was hooked because its funny and exciting with a great story to it. I implore you to take a chance on Chuck, trust me its worth it. Regardless of anything else there is nothing else on TV like it.

And no, that wasn’t me that wrote it.  But it captures the show perfectly.


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.