By Joshua A. Johnston
Anyone who has studied “speculative fiction” – that stuff that goes beyond the normal world we live in – knows that it has categories galore. Fantasy. Science fiction. Steampunk. Horror. Time-travel romance. Science fantasy.
Within genres, of course, are subgenres. Here I want to look at two broad categories of subgenre that exist within the genre we all know as science fiction.
Now, even trying to define science fiction can get pretty complicated, but let’s start with the basics. In general, science fiction’s imaginative worlds are characterized by technology, planets, or alien races that are beyond our own. Science fiction is often set in the future, although it doesn’t have to be.
Because of the nature of speculative fiction, the lines can blur between science fiction and other genres. Steampunk, for example, represents alternate worlds where some of the technology may be radically different, or even beyond, our own. Fantasy usually tackles worlds with lower technology and fantastical elements like magic or alchemy, but even there it depends – the Pern series by Anne McCaffrey, for example, contains elements of both science fiction and fantasy within the same chronology, and Brandon Sanderson intends the Misborn fantasy series to eventually include science fiction elements.
That all said, one of the most interesting dividing lines among science fiction is how they fall on the spectrum between the “hard” and “soft” sciences.
Hard Science Fiction
Hard science fiction is science fiction oriented around the “hard” sciences, or what you might call the natural sciences. The hard sciences include the “big three” that you may remember from school: biology, chemistry, and physics. Hard science fiction may include detailed alien physiology, complex nanotechnology, detailed explanations of exotic compounds or reactions, or expositions on quantum physics or force and motion as it relates to space travel.
The goal of hard science fiction, then, is to create worlds that are scientifically realistic. Hard sci-fi authors love science, research science, and love to talk (sometimes to death) science. Hard sci-fi authors are interesting because they operate within the limits of the world in which they write, so hard sci-fi from the 1960s looks very different than hard sci-fi from the 2010s. In many ways, going back and reading hard sci-fi from the 1940s is a history lesson in and of itself.
In a true hard sci-fi novel, the problems of the story are frequently rooted in science, and the solutions are, likewise, rooted in science. True hard sci-fi writers hate the writing trick known as deux ex machina, or the “god from the machine”: that’s the tactic of using unexplained fuzzy technology to save the day. A hard sci-fi writer, then, would scoff at the Star Trek method of “interpolating the counterfluxers” or other such random technobabble. For hard sci-fi, the solutions should be real science. Andy Weir’s The Martian, for example, is a case study in hard sci-fi, with each and every solution grounded in currently understood science. There is no flux capacitor to be found anywhere.
Hard sci-fi enjoys a rich history that seemed to blossom during the technological advances of the post-World War II era. Isaac Asimov’s Robot novels, which coined the term “robotics,” explore how Earth might function technologically in an overcrowded near-future. Arthur C. Clarke went into great detail (occasionally at the expense of character development) to craft detailed human technology and alien structures in novels like Rendezvous with Rama, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and their sequels. Michael Chricton, who wrote the likes of Jurassic Park, Congo, and Sphere, is another example.
Soft Science Fiction
Soft science fiction focuses mainly on the “soft,” or social, sciences. Social sciences include the likes of history, politics, economics, history, and psychology. Soft science fiction may contain complicated political structures, detailed economic systems, rich mythologies, or close-up character studies of antiheroes.
The goal of soft science fiction, therefore, is to create worlds that contain a rich society and culture. Soft sci-fi writers love to explain the machinations of public officials, or go deep into a complex philosophical problem. Soft science fiction, just as with hard science fiction, is apt to be reflective of the time in which it is written; a soft science fiction novel in the Cold War, for example, may reflect fears of that era that are not reflected in books written before or after that time.
As you would expect, the problems and solutions of soft science fiction are usually rooted in soft science. In a soft sci-fi novel, the problems are often political, such as evil empires, political intrigue, and ruthless leaders. The solutions to those problems may involve political counter-maneuvers, ally-building, or insurgent military actions. Soft sci-fi writers often love watching a shrewd character navigate a difficult situation with a well-sprung logical trap or a burst of fearless wit. The deux ex machina, which is the bane of hard sci-fi, may be less of a problem for soft sci-fi.
Soft science fiction is arguably older than hard science fiction, perhaps going back even to the 19th century with the likes of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. Edgar Rice Burroughs crafted a massive alien civilization – including history, politics, geography, and religion – in the Barsoom series that includes the John Carter trilogy. Many dystopian novels, including George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, and Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, are soft sci-fi. Frank Herbert’s Dune series may be one of the deepest soft science fiction stories in recent memory, with a fully realized galactic civilization.
Hard and Soft?
I find that a lot of science fiction operates on a spectrum between the two categories. Novels heavy on hard sci-fi tend to be lighter on soft, and vice versa. This is a result of a lot of factors, including the confines of space – both take considerable time to flesh out – and the expertise of the author. It’s just not easy to be an expert on both history and physics. Most often, sci-fi is liable to do a heavy serving of one and perhaps a dash of the other.
So when authors can do both with some depth, it’s quite the achievement. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, for example, is legendary because of its contributions to both. The same goes for Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game series, which are among the greatest sci-fi novels ever written.
So, the next time you pick up a work of science fiction, you might consider keeping an eye out for what part of the spectrum an author falls on. And if you’re thinking of writing science fiction, think hard about your own strengths. Are you all about the natural science … or the social science?
Joshua A. Johnston grew up reading the grand masters of science fiction and still devotes more time to their endless galaxies than he really should. You can find him online at www.joshuaajohnston.com. And don’t forget to check out his debut novel, Edge of Oblivion or two free short stories available at www.joshuaajohnston.com/short-stories!