I consider myself primarily a writer of science fiction, and most of what I read is science fiction as well. In the science fiction camp, there are many ways to categorize the genre – military, space opera, alien, humanist, social, and many others – but one polarized model frequently comes to the fore: hard and soft science fiction. Like any polarity, I believe that categorizing science fiction into one of these two categories is a disservice to the genre, but yet it still tends to be done. To be fair, most people will acknowledge that there is a “spectrum” of science fiction “hardness,” and that most science fiction plots, worlds, and characters are a mix of soft and hard. Yet, even so, this does mean that certain science fiction universes and plots are classified as “hard” or “soft” depending on which side they tend to fall on more often.
Still, despite the polarization doing the genre a disservice, the terms “hard” and “soft” are still useful in describing many works of science fiction. For those unfamiliar with the terms, “hard” science fiction is science fiction that tries to get its science right and present a realistic world based on solid scientific principles. Examples of hard science fiction authors include Iain Banks and Arthur C. Clarke. “Soft” science fiction is science fiction that does not necessarily adhere to the principles of scientific realism, and is not based upon proven science fiction principles. Both types of science fiction have their flaws and their benefits, and both add their own unique contribution to the collective science fiction consciousness.
Yet, I often see soft science fiction derided by hard science fiction authors as not “real” science fiction, or as “weak” science fiction, or as “fantasy” and not science fiction at all. I hate to break it to people like this, but science fiction is fantasy. It is speculative fantasy, and the key to defining science fiction, in my opinion, is the word “speculative.” Science fiction plots and worlds generally start with the question “what if?” and then go on from there. The biggest difference between hard and soft science fiction is how they approach the answer.
For example, say that a hard science fiction writer and a soft science fiction writer both ask the question “What if humanity was able to somehow travel faster than the speed of light?” (a common enough question in the science fiction world). A hard science fiction author would frame his answer in terms of how humanity would have managed to achieve this, and tends to focus on how that technology can be directly applied to situations, and how exactly it functions.
A soft science fiction writer would approach the question differently, and instead of asking “how,” would ask what effects will this technology have on society? Like I mentioned above, all science fiction mixes up both of these things, but what makes a story “hard” or “soft” is which answering style is focused on.
Let’s take another example. The question: “What if humanity found sentient extraterrestrial life?” A hard science fiction author might answer that question by describing the difficulties in opening communication with that alien species, technological differences, and the sheer improbability of finding another sentient lifeform. A soft science fiction author might answer that question by examining what would happen were the two societies to merge, how extraterrestrial intelligence would change life on home, and how the human race would change. Again, the two classifications are in no way mutually exclusive; it’s the focus that defines “hard” and “soft.”
So, in a nutshell, what do I think the difference between hard and soft science fiction is? Hard science fiction is science fiction that emphasizes the how (things would work), and soft science fiction is science fiction that emphasizes the what (things would happen). Hard science fiction plots tend to examine science, and soft science fiction tends to examine society. To draw another comparison, hard science fiction is like science, and soft science fiction is like the humanities. They both offer invaluable contributions to the picture of science fiction as a whole, and I don’t think either can be ignored, or one valued more than the other. They both have their place on the science fiction spectrum.
Of course, being a soft science fiction author myself, I know that soft science fiction is, naturally, better.
Any thoughts from other authors – hard, soft, or non science fiction – are more than welcome.