Friday, November 12, 2010

Hard sci-fi vs. soft sci-fi

Well, as you’ve probably noticed, I am a science fiction writer(duh), and I personally view myself as a “hard” sci-fi writer, but just what does that mean?
For most readers, the very concept is unknown. Even though you’ve probably read or consumed media from both sides of the genre, you don’t even realize that there is a classification.

For writers, however, understanding at the beginning of the project what you are making is key. Now I’ve discussed world building and character creation, but today we are going to tackle the difference between hard and soft science fiction.

In simplest terms, “Hard” sci-fi is where the author makes an attempt to explain how the various fictional technologies work, and tries to follow the laws of physics for the most part. There are varying degrees of hard, of course, but that is basically the difference. Storyline, character development, all the sort of stuff that is common to all fiction writing doesn’t factor in, it is science fiction, and the thing that makes it hard is the use of “hard” science! A prime example would be Starship Troopers, or just about anything by Robert Heinlein. The book, not the movies.

Soft sci-fi is basically fantasy with science-sounding buzzwords thrown in. They may talk of physics and science, but anyone who’s taken a few high school science classes can see that clearly the writer has not. This is ok, though; the original Star Wars trilogy was about as soft of science fiction as you can get. I could draw quite a few parallels between the Star Wars universe and the Spelljammer campaign setting from Dungeons and Dragons. The key difference? Star Wars uses words like “hyper drive”. (And don’t give me any of that “expanded universe” crap, to do so would demean us both.)

Most mainstream sci-fi that you see on TV or in movie theaters is soft. The reason? It’s written by Hollywood writers, usually working under a deadline. They may or may not have an English degree, they do not have a physics degree.

There is nothing wrong with soft sci-fi, let’s be absolutely clear about that. The original Star Wars movie re-defined cinema and brought about a return to the traditions of story-telling. It paved the way for countless fantastic movies and inspired an entire generation. It also helped win the Cold War against the Russians. U!S!A! U!S!A!

For a better concrete examplie, the book Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, won both a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award, essentially the two highest honors a work of science fiction can receive. The book is even required reading in the U.S. Marine Corps, how awesome is that? Now are you ready for this? Ender’s Game is soft-sci-fi.

Card is a fantastic storyteller, the world of Ender’s Game is full of fantastic depth and realism. But Card doesn’t go into a lot of detail about the exact nature of the technology his characters use. So he doesn’t do anything to challenge our suspension of disbelief, and he’s clearly got a basic understanding of physics going, but he doesn’t take the time to explain how things like the Ansible, or Dr. Device work. What he does do is depict a world where, in the age of faster-than-light propulsion, we are still launching people and supplies from Earth on chemical rockets. These are the factors that push Ender’s Game into the realm of soft.

And again, this is not a bad thing. Ender’s Game wasn’t about big ships blowing the crap out of each other. The massive war that takes place in the book is largely and afterthought to the central focus, and taking the time to talk about the technologies would really have detracted from it.

The Star Trek series is another fine example, which like Ender’s Game has won various Hugo Awards, it’s about as soft of sci-fi as they come(though it still uses Star Wars as a feather pillow).

So you do not have to be a hard science fiction writer to win awards, become famous, or be universally beloved. The majority of the sci-fi you have probably been exposed to in your life was all soft.

Good hard sci-fi is also harder to write. It takes research, considerable thought, and living with the ever-present fear that you will, in fact, make some stupid mistake that everyone with an advanced physics degree will laugh at. But that’s ok, to. Isaac Azimov, widely regarded as the master of hard science fiction, made all sorts of mistakes. It happens, and as science and technology advance, it’s only going to get worse. Something that seemed perfectly logical and reasonable 20 years ago might be ludicrous now, simply because our understanding of actual science has improved and we now know it’s impossible.

But focusing on the technical or scientific can be fun. You get to learn new things, and you have the smug superiority of knowing that your work will never show up on one of those lists of stupid sci-fi things that make fun of the soft-side of the genre.

I’m going to close with a brief update on the Course Books series, which at this point I am very close to completion of. The first and second volumes are already available, the third is coming soon, and the fourth and fifth are already written and just need editing!

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