Soft and Hard SF: The Balancing Act Between Storytelling and Science-telling

No matter how vital the science is to the story (imagined science or real, hard or soft), it is still, in the end, a story. Science should be a tool that supports the narrative invisibly; not a crutch that the plot leans on as it hobbles along. Science should enhance the story — not replace it.

A few days ago, I picked up a time-travel adventure book. Of all the sci-fi out there, I think that’s my favourite subgenre. I love combining the science and society of the future with the romanticism of the past; I love the spaceships and the spears; the manners and the monsters; I love a major historical or literary character tumbled into the mess; I love the fish-out-of-water moments; and I especially love the kinds of stories that point out the weaknesses in our contemporary lives. (I can program a PVR, drive a car, and speak three languages. But I cannot make fire without a match.)

The story had all the right ingredients to catch my attention and hold onto it with a white-knuckled grip. However, I was having trouble getting into it, because unfortunately, it also had pages and pages of science exposition.

You know the kind I mean: a moment when all the action grinds to a halt so that the author can pontificate on every little detail of the science that should be taking place, instead of just letting it take place. Where (s)he has to jam every anecdote and theory, the entire history of the speculative technology, into a big long wad while the story itself is shunted to the side. Where the author has to show off how clever (s)he is and doesn’t want to waste all the research (s)he did.

I do not flip past long sections of stuff that bores me. To me, it is part of the unspoken social contract of the author-reader relationship. But it was painful. It was a lecture, couched as exposition, couched as conversation. I got through it and the action resumed; I got back to the characters with whom I was enjoying spending my time … only to be back at another lecture in ten pages.

Something in my wordcraft-loving soul curdles when I see books like this. Writing workshops the world over make their money on teaching authors of all stripes the values of plot, narrative, character development, etc. No matter how vital the science is to the story (imagined science or real, hard or soft), it is still, in the end, a story. Science should be a tool that supports the narrative invisibly; not a crutch that the plot leans on as it hobbles along. Science should enhance the story — not replace it.

I paused my reading and tweeted:

Am reading a hard SF book for the first time in ages. All the science is fascinating, but ruining the story. Feel like I’m back in university.

I got a few of the expected glib replies about facts ruining my fiction, but then I got this response:

I like the science stuff in books. Soft sci-fi bugs me. I feel like those authors should just go ahead and write fantasy. It was one of the highlights of my life when I recognized the quantum equations Greg Bear threw into Moving Mars.

That got me thinking: Just what is the division between Soft Science Fiction and Hard Science Fiction? How is it defined, and more interestingly, why is one often privileged above the other?

I advocate for dividing them where the academy does:

Soft SF: A story in which the main stream of science is of the “soft” disciplines: philosophy, sociology, anthropology, economy, ecology, etc.

Hard SF: A story in which the main stream of science is of the “hard” disciplines: physics, mathematics, engineering, biology, chemistry, etc.

That seems nice, clean, and fair. Yet as the tweet above demonstrates, that’s not always how fans engage in the distinction.

Often the hard/soft divide is not so much about the flavour of the science involved as it is about how real the science is. By this metric, “hard” science fiction is grounded in things that are possible, or at least plausible, according to our current understanding of science. When people say that “soft” science fiction might as well be fantasy, they mean that the speculative element is so unrealistic as to be magic dressed up in technological trappings. (The statement also is unfair to fantasy, which is a hugely important and vital genre. Dismissing it as “just elves and dragons,” as some do, is disingenuous. Fantasy is about a lot of the same things as soft SF: culture, society, religion, evolution, human reaction, emotion, but it is set in a world where magic is the enabling plot factor, instead of either real or imaginary science.)

The two axes, the type of science and the rigour of it, tend to get muddled, which leads many fans to see it this way: hard = realistic = good. And soft = unrealistic = bad.

And yet, as my example with the book I’m reading now demonstrates, hard sci-fi can be poorly written. And there is plenty of well-loved sci-fi out there that is far closer to techno-fantasy than most hard sci-fi, and is numbered among the masterworks of the genre.

For examples, we need look no further than three classic science fiction franchises: Star Trek, Star Wars, and Stargate. They have created fully fleshed universes where character is just as important as physics — an appealing blend of aspects of both hard and soft sciences with the ingredients of a well-told story. They also blend realism and unrealism: Some of the technology is plausible, and some is blatantly unrealistic. For example, faster-than light speed might be possible eventually, but using crystals as a fuel source? Cutting with lasers is possible, but light sabers can’t ever exist because light does not just stop when the beam has reached a certain length. And while wormholes as a conduit of travel are plausible, that humans could use them without a ship is plain ridiculous.

Sometimes the “hardness” of the science is de-emphasized for a story that is authentic according to social sciences. Do you watch Star Trek because the science is accurate and interesting, or because you think the captains are compelling, intriguing characters, and the social and military systems of the Federation are fascinating? In the end, the science part of Star Trek is what enables the narrative and is the centre of many of the episode plots. But the story lies in the characters and the setting. The “soft” stuff.

Triptych is undoubtedly soft SF by my definition. It’s anthropology and sociology. It’s about the impact of future technologies and predictions of the cultural shifts that will occur because of them. That’s science fiction, without mistake. But I admit that I played fast and loose with physics and astrophysics when I destroyed the alien’s planet and explained the time travel. Why? Because they were plot devices, not the point of the plot itself, and I felt comfortable with saying it happened and moving on, rather than explaining how. The science is just as important in my book as the science would be in, say, a book set on a rebellious sentient spacecraft that can only be stopped by poisoning it with old batteries. But I choose to focus the story on the people rather than the gizmos.

In the end, science fiction readers are people who enjoy engaging their imaginations while also engaging in a discussion with an author about the possible. Science fiction mindfully and critically works with allegory, futurism, prediction, and revisionism. It allows us, as I like to put it, to talk about now and us by setting it then with them.

As writers, we can be academics and scientists, but we must also be storytellers. To create a whole story, a good story, a writer must use a little of all three elements — soft SF, hard SF, and storytelling, just as printers require three colours to paint their images. The relative realism of the science shouldn’t be the sole factor in deciding whether the book is subjectively good or not — that’s for the writing to prove. Don’t forget, “science” is only half of the name of the genre.

J.M. Frey is the author of Triptych (Dragon Moon Press, 2011), a novel about intergalactic culture shock, accidental time travel, and learning to love in the face of violent intolerance.

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