A new article on Tor features ten science fiction authors trying to define what is hard and what is soft science fiction. I’m going to cut to the chase: There are so many different ways of defining SF, in terms of science, in terms of fiction, in terms of storytelling, in terms of quality, etc, etc, that when you put all of those things together… they pretty much all come out grey in the wash. And I’ve done plenty of washing, myself.
I, too, have spent plenty of time trying to define hard and soft SF, mostly in an effort to categorize my own novels. And I finally understand that I’ve been blowing a lot of smoke over the years. When you compare some of my definitions with those by noted SF authors, it’s clear that none of it makes much of a difference in the end. Science fiction is science fiction—it’s all entertainment, at the end of the day—and it’s really kind of pointless to try to put books, magazines, TV shows or movies on some sort of “hardness” scale.
Every science fiction production starts with some scientific premise, and extrapolates into the unknown from that. Some extrapolations might be more likely than others… but they are all unknown. And frequently they intentionally bend the rules, in order to make a more entertaining story. So, is Michael Crichton’s Sphere, for example, less likely to someday happen than Jurassic Park? Maybe. But they are still both science fiction, and as one story is more entertaining to one person than to another, it’s pointless to put one story over the other.
It’s been suggested that the debates between hard and soft were originally attempts by different authors to distinguish themselves above other authors, either by trying to suggest they knew science better, or that they knew storytelling better. Most of the arguments regarding SF seem to break down to that: Better science; or better story.
But unproven science is unproven science. And stories appeal differently to different people. Like I said: A wash. And I’m taking this to heart. Where, in the past, I examined and nit-picked and tried to put stories on scales of hardness or softness—including my own—from now on, I concede that there’s no point. Science fiction is science fiction. And really, the only thing that’s important is the quality of the story.
Mind you, there may be levels of SF that should really be classified as fantasy (Star Wars does come to mind: When you get right down to it, science or scientific speculation has absolutely nothing to do with the story). But in essence, a story is a story, whether it utilizes believable science or realistic scientific speculation or not.
And sure, I may prefer SF stories that feature more plausible uses of science. But you know what? I still enjoy the hell out of The Fifth Element, Big Hero 6 and Farscape. They are as much science fiction as 2001, Star Trek and The Martian.
In other words, it may be an orchid, it may be spinach, or it may be crabgrass… but they’re all plants.
See the article on Tor.