The Softer Side of Sci-Fi

So I sort of screwed up my blogging agenda for this past week.  I just had too much other stuff on my mind, and I guess I needed time to sort things out in my head.  Such is life!

At least it’s good stuff, for a change. Writing stuff. World-building stuff.  I’m not sure how much I want to reveal at this point; but since this is a Friday, and since we usually talk about the definitions of science or science-related terms on Fridays, I’ll tell you about one thing.  It has to do with the definition of science fiction.

Or to be more precise, it has to do with the definitions of hard and soft science fiction.  Hard science fiction tries to portray science as accurately as possible, while soft science fiction takes more creative liberties (sometimes a whole lot more creative liberties) with scientific facts.  Pretty much every work of science fiction lies somewhere along a spectrum between hard and soft Sci-Fi.  Or at least that’s what I always thought these terms meant.

But then a week ago, I read an article that seemed to be defining soft science fiction in a way that didn’t make much sense to me.  I can’t find that article now (thanks for trying, Google), but when I turned to my trusty copy of Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, I found that yes, indeed, soft science fiction (and by extension hard science fiction as well) can be defined in two very different, almost contradictory ways.

To quote from Brave New Words, soft science fiction may be defined as “science fiction that deals primarily with advancements in, or extrapolations based on, the soft sciences (e.g., anthropology, psychology, sociology, etc.).”  And hard science fiction is, therefore, science fiction dealing with the hard sciences, like astronomy, physics, or chemistry.

So instead of being two ends of a spectrum that encompasses all of science fiction, hard and soft science fiction are merely two subgenres among a host of other subgenres like cyberpunk, space opera, alternative history, etc….  And weirdly, according to these new (or at least new to me) definitions, soft Sci-Fi is just as concerned with scientific accuracy as hard Sci-Fi.  It’s merely a different branch of science that it’s trying to be accurate about.

Maybe this is old news to some of you, but for me this has been a huge revelation.  Redefining hard and soft science fiction has been a major factor in all the re-thinking, re-writing, and re-world-building I’ve been doing this week.  However, this is not the big, central idea that’s been on my mind.  It’s more like a satellite thought orbiting that big idea, and its gravitational perturbations are being felt.

I’m going to leave it at that for now, but I’m sure I’ll have more to say in the coming weeks and months.  My IWSG post this coming Wednesday should be interesting.

14 Responses to The Softer Side of Sci-Fi

  1. I think the term “soft science fiction” is actually used both ways. The first time I saw it used to refer to social sciences was Orson Scott Card’s description of it in his book on writing science fiction. What blurs the distinction is that often socially oriented science fiction isn’t strictly concerned with staying accurate to the hard sciences.

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      I definitely agree with that, that it’s used both ways. Brave New Words has both definitions listed. I just never heard of this other definition before, and I’m finding it to be a more useful way to categorize some of the science fiction novels I’ve read.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My anthropology prof used to show us episodes of Star Trek to illuminate certain concepts (think “Darmok”). He wanted to start a full class on the anthropology of science fiction. Up until then I didn’t think much of the lack of hard science in Star Trek.

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      That sounds like a really interesting class. I had a teacher who cited “The Trouble with Tribbles” as a prime example of how an invasive species can ruin the local ecosystem. I guess Star Trek was more of a space opera than anything else, but they still took some aspects of science seriously when it suited them.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I didn’t know that either, I thought they were just opposite ends of the scientific accuracy spectrum, with most things falling somewhere in between. I’ve really come to like “speculative fiction,” though, for things I find hard to pigeonhole.

    Liked by 2 people

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      I think the accuracy spectrum thing is an acceptable too. Certainly it seems like that’s the definition most people are familiar with. But it’s good to know when terms might be used in different ways, to avoid confusion.

      I like the term speculative fiction as well. It makes for a good catch-all term.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Kate Rauner says:

    This is news to me too. I thought “hard” meant the story stays close to real-life science and soft slids into fantasy. Keeping in mind that any sufficiently advanced technology will appear to be magic, there’s a lot of room for debate.

    I guess my Mars-colony books are “hard scifi” because the colony is on the “real” Mars (love the gaps in science to be filled with imagination!) and inhabited by “real” people. But I wonder if readers think “hard” means hard-to-understand or prepare-for-a-physics-lecture. I’ve always cringed at the term because of that.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. chemistken says:

    I’ve never heard of this “new” definition. As far as I know, “hard” science fiction always meant striving to be a closely accurate to science as possible, regardless of which science it is. I suspect that a lot of the people working in the so-called soft science disciplines will not be happy to have their field considered not “hard.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. dtkrippene says:

    I had to give a Science Fiction 101 talk to new writers thinking of jumping into the genre. After gleaning various reference sources, I found this definition.

    Hard science fiction is a subgenre characterized by an interest in scientific detail or accuracy, being the opposite of soft science fiction. Elders of this notable genre include Asminov and Clarke. Examples that are more recent include Kim Stanley Robinson (Mars Trilogy), Iain M. Banks (Consider Phlebas), and Neal Stephenson (Seveneves).

    Soft SF favors the less exact sciences, such as sociology, psychology, or anthropology. Robert Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land), Madeleine L’Engle (Wrinkle in Time), and Ursula K. Le Guin (Left Hand of Darkness) are notables in this genre. Hardcore fans sometimes consider soft sci-fi as unworthy, but it has a much higher fan base, due to a more character-driven premise. One of my favorites is Mary Doria Russell (The Sparrow).

    For a fun romp through “Worlds Without End” interpretation of all the subgenres, check out https://www.worldswithoutend.com/resources_sub-genres.asp

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      That sounds similar to the stuff I’ve been reading lately. Le Guin’s “Lathe of Heaven” popped into my head immediately as a good example of soft Sci-Fi, because the book takes psychology very seriously; physics, not so much. I wouldn’t have thought of Heinlein as a soft Sci-Fi writer, but I guess that makes sense. I’m still re-contextualizing the genre in my head after learning about this other definition.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Every time I scroll past this my the “softer side of sears” jingle plays in my head.

    Liked by 1 person

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