The differences between hard SF and soft SF

I came across an informative blog post the other month that describes the differences between hard SF and soft SF. In this categorization, which is regarded as being prolific and authoritative, hard SF focuses on content from the hard sciences while soft SF focuses on the story, the characters and content from the social sciences. This may seem fair enough at first glance but is ultimately a bit odd as it's difficult to work out just how hard SF could manage without a significant role for story and characters or soft SF for that matter I know it's supposed to be a matter of emphasis, but still

Anyway, there's also a fair degree of hard SF elitism, by which hard SF fans, particularly critical readers, consider themselves to be defenders of what is and isn't SF and, worse than this, denigrate soft SF. They usually achieve this through focusing on the abuse of hard science in SF, which is then labelled soft SF or SFF. It's okay to defend the appropriate representation of science when it's elaborated on and used as a basis in narrative; it's only natural to get irritated when theories and concepts that you know well get misrepresented and essentially abused. But it's probably inappropriate to label SF that gets the science wrong, soft SF; instead, it should just be seen as being poorly managed science in narrative; the same applies to thrillers and crime fiction etc.

But when soft SF is devalued and denigrated for making use of fantasy science, or by just focusing on the ready-made technology and black-boxing scientific knowledge, it can get a bit much with defenders of correct hard SF stating that the story should be seen as science fantasy fiction (SFF) rather than SF, which evidently is another means of derisive hierarchisation. What this posturing does is evidently associate the term SF exclusively with hard SF.

In some ways I don't care as such people are kind of wacky. However, the elitist and presumptuous edge to it and the way that SF is constructed and restricted here is worth examining for the sake of clarification, extension and hopefully effective disruption.

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The hard SF fiend

Hard SF fiends tend to appreciate SF that has a fair amount of explicit scientific content, using the terms and concepts of the hard sciences accurately and elaborately. They find this satisfying. They also seem to enjoy checking to see if the science is represented properly as a gatekeeper activity.

It would be boring if this was all that hard SF was about, though. I mean, what kind of story would it be? Beyond the limits of the natural sciences and current knowledge and understanding, we need to explore creatively the possibilities that emerge from the specific aspects of science. The problem with this is that you end up focusing on speculation, which although it's supposed to be a central part of SF when defined as speculative fabulation, it's here that hard SF fiends love making harsh judgements about plausibility or a lack thereof.

You can already see that for some SF writers, appealing to the hard SF fiend has the potential of being no fun at all. Because they're the defenders of what's right and true and possible and probable, a writer who doesn't thoroughly identify with hard SF values and naturally so may well find that the reality imposed is too daunting, restrictive and full of fear and trepidation about treading on hard SF fiends toes.

But then, perhaps there's a case for arguing that all SF is really SFF mixed with soft SF in various ways; if it werent, hard SF would just be a peculiar documentary-like kind of storytelling; I've seen one of those SF documentary things, and I can tell you, if you haven't seen one, they are boring as hell!

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Posted in Photograph Post Date 01/05/2016






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