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Writing hard or soft science fiction

September 10th, 2011 Matt Leave a comment Go to comments
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Science fiction does not sell as well as fantasy. Theories abound as to why this might be. One such theory is that science fiction is assumed to be hard. That means both difficult and hard as in ‘hard science fiction’. But what is hard Sci-Fi versus the soft variety, and is there a way to write that appeals to readers of both? I investificate.

I don’t normally do genre-specific pieces on the blog, but Sci-Fi is what I’m writing at the moment, and this is an interesting problem and set of ideas. If you’re not into Sci-Fi, you may get something out of this anyway, if not, um… sorry?

Some definitions

Firstly, let’s see if we can’t untangle this hard vs. soft business. Now, I thought I had a pretty solid idea what this was but it turns out it’s a little more complicated than that (isn’t everything?)

Robby the Robot

Was there a time when Robby was considered "hard sci-fi"? Probably not.

Looking around it became clear my definition of hard and soft science fiction was not everybody’s definition. So, I’m going to whistle through a few:

About science vs about people

Okay, so definition number one has two angles I guess. Maybe this is two definitions really – you decide! Angle one is that the story focuses either on the science or on people.

Hard – the science is the star. The story will likely focus on a particular technology, and how that works determines how the story unfolds. Take that technology away and the story would not exist.

Soft – the story is about people, perhaps focusing on the relationships in a group, or one character’s emotional journey. Here the Sci-Fi setting serves as a background or tool with which to bring these things to light.

Angle two takes a more technical approach. Hard is about the hard sciences (engineering, physics, chemistry etc.) whereas soft is about (you guessed it) the soft sciences, such as psychology, anthropology and the like.

You can see that the second angle deals with similar topics through a more scientific lens (sort of).

Technically dense vs sparcity of technical details

This is fairly self explanatory. Hard is full of technical details in this definition, whereas soft provides fewer details. You can also see that the definitions are not mutually exclusive. In fact, following the first definition would almost certainly mean following the second automatically.

Scientifically accurate vs concessions to drama/convenience

if you’re a Sci-Fi fan this is normally the definition that puts you in one camp or another. On the one hand (hard) you have thoroughly researched, accurate pieces based on what we know about the rules of the universe. This doesn’t mean the writer can’t make up new technologies, but they must be able to convincingly justify them, and they can’t break what we know to be immutable laws of physics.

Soft on the other hand allows rule-breaking for the purposes of story-telling and flavour. How would the crew of Battlestar Galactica and the fleet have gotten anywhere without their faster than light drives? How less exciting would the dog fights have been without sound in space?

The seal of the Twelve Colonies from Battlestar Galactica

Granted, Battlestar did more than most Sci-Fi series to get actual science into the show (I’m talking about the more recent reboot – I don’t know about the seventies show). It’s therefore a good expression of this tension between the desire to have believable, accurate science, and the desire to tell a story that necessarily breaks some rules.

Fiction about science vs fictional science

This is my own definition, and is loosely how I thought about hard vs. soft Sci-fi before I looked into it. It’s two interpretations of the phrase “science fiction”, where hard is fiction about science, and soft is where the “science” in the story is fictional (i.e. inaccurate or just plain made up). See what I did there?

The writing/readership problem

It’s been a running topic on the Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing podcast (them again), for a few episodes (try going back from episode #130 I think). Sales of science fiction works are as nothing compared to sales of fantasy (I’m exaggerating slightly, but it’s a big difference). What’s the deal?

There are some interesting discussions around this on the podcast, so (again) I highly recommend it, especially if you’re into science fiction or fantasy novels. They go through a few possibilities as to why this might be, but one of them is that science fiction is assumed to be “difficult”.

Clearly there is an assumption that all Sci-Fi is hard Sci-fi then. And for definitions we can look to the technical one as being responsible for the turn off.

Of course, such an assumption doesn’t really ring true. Whereas I can certainly think of novels where the technical aspects might put people off (Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy springs to mind. Although, I could not say that it is just about science. It is also about the characters, and about politics. Again we see something that doesn’t strictly fit all the definitions), they certainly don’t represent all science fiction, and I doubt they even represent most of it.

But here’s the thing – if you do want to include accurate science in your Sci-Fi piece, how do you do it in such a way that doesn’t turn off some readers?

Is there a middle ground

We have moved away a little from genre definitions and into writing styles, but the two are not unrelated. Hard Sci-Fi tends to be dense with technical details. This can create a more hard going, “drier” text. Soft Sci-Fi, free from the need to justify it’s technology, is likely to have more “free-flowing” text, and a livelier style. You are more likely to get a “page turner” with soft Sci-Fi.

Having said all that, nothing’s that simple. Just as hard-to-soft Sci-fi is a spectrum whatever definition you choose (we’ve already seen the mix with Battlestar), there is a range of writing styles across the board. Whereas I’d argue the rules above are broadly true, it does not necessarily follow that a hard Sci-Fi novel will be written in a specific style and a soft one in another.

Something I’m trying to do with a current work in progress is to provide accurate science without putting off readers by being too technical. Part of how I do this is to be deliberately sparse on the details. I just describe what’s there, but spend as little time as I can on how it works (unless this is crucial to the story).

My theory is that different groups of readers will react in the following ways:

  • Science Fiction aficionados will recognise aspects of what I’m describing and will already be familiar with the technology and how it works within the story.
  • People who are interested in science, but have not come across the particular tech I’m describing will have enough information to go and look it up.
  • Readers who aren’t interested in technical detail won’t get much of it, but they get enough that they can recognise what the technology does. Or maybe they don’t need to know what it does, which is fine because if it’s not important to the story they don’t care.

So, example. A typical science fiction trope that’s based in real science is the use of ring constructions on ships or space stations. The spinning rings create centrifugal force that behaves like gravity and “sticks” things to the inside edge of the ring.

This is very familiar to most people who have read Sci-Fi or seen science fiction films, so I only feel it necessary to mention that the ship is arranged in rings and can leave it at that (actually, I don’t mention it directly to the reader. A character mentions to another that something is in “C ring”. Show, don’t tell, people!)

However, an opportunity did arise to include a hint at how this system works, whilst including some other symbolism for good measure, so I took it:

He span the ring on his desk. The spin was different here and he couldn’t quite get used to it. Walking in the slightly higher gravity felt natural now, and he threw a ball without thinking about it. But something in the spin was off. He imagined the forces tiny life might be feeling on the inner surface, squashed against it by the faux gravity. He watched it wobble and flatten. Then he picked it up and slipped it on to his left hand.

I’m never explicit about the relationship between this and the way the ship is arranged, I leave that to the reader. But I think it’s a rather nice way of getting a concept across without getting technical or stopping the “action” to explain things. It’s a small detail but I was quite pleased with myself.

All this to say that I think there is a middle ground and that it relies heavily on showing and not telling. It’s The Writer’s Way. I couldn’t tell you if misconceptions about the genre are what’s keeping readers away, but I’m not sorry I’m writing science fiction (the ideas I have determine the genre, not the marketplace). While I am I will strive for that middle ground. Because I believe it’s better writing anyway.

Useful Links

  • Adventures in Sci Fi Publishing
  • Epic Journeys: Fantasy Makes a Comeback, SF Searches for a Renaissance. Article discussing the popularity of fantasy and sci-fi. A great read.
  • What is Science Fiction: Hard versus soft ScF. Part of Richard Treitel’s site, which I gatehr is a bit old now, but still a good discussion on definitions.
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  • Craig

    I’ve always viewed the hard/soft science fiction scale as that of Scientifically accurate vs concessions for drama convenience.  But obviously there are many ways to look at this.  ‘Hard’ Sci-fi can obviously be very technical.  I’m thinking massive space stations…  Actually, no, I’m going to go with more ‘solid’ scientific concepts (giant gravity rings, dyson spheres, massive deep space objects) vs less solid concepts (basically magic in space).  Basically ‘science fiction’ vs ‘science fantasy’.  I’m not just saying this because I’m a fan, but I would class Neal Asher as ‘hard’ sci fi, despite many tropes that dont fit within the ‘scientifically accurate’ arena (gravity plating, ‘underspace’ travel, giant technologically advanced space crabs), whereas science fantasy, as we all know, is star wars, with all that ‘force’ crap and laser swords.

    But it is a difficult thing to classify.  Of the many projects I’m working on, I’ve ranged from the ‘traditionally’ hard sci fi (as in scientifically accurate) – cyberpunk (which lets face it, isn’t even science fiction anymore, because we’re living in it) to the ‘less hard’ sci fi (space opera, though – with a few exceptions – I try to keep it all as scientifically plausable as I can.)  And thats the thing I guess, isn’t it?  As long as you make it scientifically plausable, then it is acceptable.  FTL travel is obviously the biggy in terms of space opera, but I like to think in details of how alien eco systems work too.  How different species might have evolved, and try not to have whole planets consisting of one society made up of a single people defined by one societal characteristic (I’m looking at you, Star Trek!)

    • http://getmewriting.com Matt Roberts

      Indeed – for all we know, only having one major intelligent species on the planet could be unlikely. After all, we only have one datapoint to look at at the moment, and there could very easily have been more than one species of human no Earth.

      I wonder what that would have been like?