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An Author’s Blog

Hard v Soft SF

· by Brett · Read in about 6 min · (1117 Words)

I posted about Star Trek: Discovery episode 3, Context is for Kings, the other day, and one of the things I like is that the show continues to subvert the technobabble of Star Trek with a bit more of an infusion of magic and the uncanny. The science of the new invention they are working on in this episode, for example, is described as a mix or energy and organics, exploiting an invisible web that unites the galaxy. It got me thinking about a distinction that exists within science fiction between hard and soft sci fi. It’s a distinction similar to that of high and low fantasy.

There is a reddit thread that discusses it. In fantasy, high fantasy is the area of the genre with magic and elves, while low fantasy has less magic, fewer elves, and more realism. Similarly, in science fiction, soft science fiction might have energy beings, telekinesis, and telepathy while hard science fiction does without such things. It is typically set in the near future, using practical technology and real, current physics. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Soft science fiction is more fantastical, probably set further in the far-future, with made-up-physics such as anti-gravity motors and FTL engines. Star Wars, with its mystical elements, such as the force, is the prime example of this.

This is not a dichotomy, it’s more of a continuum, with most sci fi somewhere in the middle. Star Trek, for example, is not a particularly hard sci-fi show. Because of budget constraints, they didn’t have the budget to simulate the weightlessness of space, or the time to have shuttle journeys to and from a planet’s surface every week. So instead we have anti-gravity systems that stick the crew to the deck and a teleporter to get up and down to a planet’s surface quickly. These things are assumed to have a technological explanation, but it is really just a bunch of made-up, pretty-much impossible physics.

There is actually a scale of hardness in sci fi: the Mohs Scale. According to this scale:

Level 1 is work that is unambiguously set in the genre of Science Fiction, but scientific it is not. Devices gain new powers as the plot demands, and science takes the place of magic, like Star Wars and superhero comics set in the future like the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Level 2 is where the science is magical but dealt with in a fairly consistent fashion despite its lack of correspondence with reality. Works like Star Trek fall into this category.

Level 3 is where the author aims to justify their creations with real and invented natural laws. Battlestar Galactica falls in this class.

Level 4 is where the author invents one or two counterfactual physical laws. Often this means stories that include only a single fantastical device, such as FTL travel, but for which the device is not a major element of the plot. Many Hal Clement novels fall within this category.

Level 5 is where the science of the tale is genuine speculative science or engineering, and the goal of the author is to make as few errors with respect to known fact as possible. The Martian falls into this class.

Level 6, the highest level of hardness, is where science is at the level of real life, now, which means the story may not really be science fiction at all.

The term, hard SF, is in pretty common usage, but nobody talks in the same way about soft SF. Such stories are more likely to be called Space Opera. There are a lot of fans out there for all the different levels of science-fiction hardness, from hard to space opera, though I suspect there is a certain amount of fetishization of a writer being able to successfully pull off sci-fi at the harder end of the Mohs Scale. An author needs to know a lot of science to confidently sit their book at this end of the spectrum, and there are a lot of readers out there looking for mistakes and inconsistencies.

A couple of years ago, did some research into how prevalent hard sci-fi was in the work being produced that year. They were looking at the health of hard science fiction, to investigate claims including:

No one is writing good hard-SF stories anymore. Hard SF has no variety and keeps reusing old ideas. Only men write hard SF.

They found all these claims to be false. They defined hard SF as a story where the science must be accurate enough that an educated layman does not have to suspend disbelief, which is roughly equivalent to the Mohs Scale levels 4 and up.

They defined soft SF as a story that’s not fantasy but which has things like time travel, AIs with emotions, psionic abilities, etc. This is roughly equivalent to levels 3 and below.

They drew the line between soft SF and fantasy using George R.R. Martin’s “furniture” rule. If there is no magic, no witches, no demons, then it is soft SF, not fantasy. Hard SF accounted for over a quarter of the stories they read that year, which didn’t surprise me. Hard SF is alive and well, though it is outweighed slightly by Space Opera.

The last question I was wondering about is where my own book, Galaxy Dog falls on the hardness scale. I would say, based on the telepathic links that the alien technology in the book is able to instate, coupled with anti-gravity motors, FTL engines and virtually instantaneous communication across a galactic empire, that Galaxy Dog rates a massive Level 2 on the scale. The science bears no relation to the technology, or even the theories, we have available to us now, but I do try to think about the implications of the tech I put in the book in a consistent way.

Galaxy Dog (Dark Galaxy)

The fist sci-fi book I ever wrote, and still the one that sells the best, is Galaxy Dog. It is the first book in the Dark Galaxy series and it is a story of adventure, spaceships, and rebellion across a galactic empire. A small group of friends, one woman, one man, and one robot incite a revolt and take on the might of the Tarazet Deep Space Navy. They find an immensely powerful alien spaceship so, even though the rebellion is extremely outnumbered, they still stand a chance. Galaxy Dog combines the action of military sci-fi with the heart of space opera. There are robots, aliens, space battles, and all the good things that make sci-fi so enjoyable. Galaxy Dog is available from Amazon right now, so just click the Amazon link and download a copy.