Hard vs Soft SF

Over at tor.com, a post about Hard vs Soft SF. Fran Wilde asked a bunch of authors to weight in on these terms. Mostly they cooperated pretty well by sticking to the terms given; sometimes they jump the fences.

I agree with Elizabeth Bear, who says:

I feel like the purported hard/soft SF divide is one of those false dichotomies that humans love so much… The thing is, it’s really arbitrary. … I think the habit of shoving all of this stuff into increasingly tiny boxes that really amount to marketing categories is kind of a waste of time.

I think identifying the terms as marketing categories is key. Or rather, I think that “Hard SF” is fairly identifiable and a useful marketing category, in a know-it-when-I-see-it kind of way rather than as a firm definition. But “Soft SF” means way too many different things to different people and is a completely useless term, used mainly because people do like dichotomies and if you have “hard” then naturally you must have “soft.”

For years and years, I’ve been contrasting Hard SF with Sociological SF, neither of which includes science fantasy or space opera. I’ve been so, so pleased to see Sociological SF make a resurgence. For a while there it seemed to be CJ Cherryh and nobody, and now it seems like publishers are making more room for this category of SF, whether thanks to Ann Leckie or what I don’t know, but GOOD.

Sociological SF:

Famous and seminal: The Left Hand of Darkness, so I’m glad I finally read it.

The best ever: CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series, among many others of hers.

New and shiny: Ancillary Justice.

What other titles can you all think of for Sociological SF? Does A Darkling Sea by Cambias count, when that book is mostly interested in alien social systems? I would sort of say yes and sort of lean toward no on that one. A Darkling Sea is kind of on the boundary of Hard SF and Sociological SF.

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9 thoughts on “Hard vs Soft SF”

  1. I’ve generally understood hard and soft Sci-Fi as a distinction between stories that are scientifically plausible versus stories that are implausible, at least according to our current body of knowledge. The problem of course is that this distinction changes as science makes new discoveries. Many novels and movies that were based on solid science at the time now seem somewhat quaint or totally ridiculous.

  2. Yes, and not only is our understanding of science changing, but also I’d probably be willing to call some books that have FTL “hard” based on their tone and the way they treat other aspects of science. And so on. So the edges are going to be a bit fuzzy, probably, even for “hard” SF.

    But I strongly suspect that if you ask for ten examples of hard SF, most people would agree they were hard SF. Which I don’t think is the case for “soft.”

    What about The Golden Age Trilogy by John C Wright? It looks to me like he was actually really careful to extrapolate from known science and not include magical things like FTL, but it is so far, far future that a lot of the science is VERY extrapolative. Would you call that hard SF or sociological SF or what?

  3. I tend to go with a Mohs scale model, where there’s not a hard/soft binary but a range of harder and softer. Ranging from the talc-like softness of planetary romance or Star Wars’ sword-and-sorcery (air inside an asteroid? ships in orbit “sink” when hit?) to the diamond-hardness of Hal Clement on a good day (no ftl, no suspiciously human-looking aliens, science as close to real as the author’s slide rule can make it).

    Most is firmly in the middle ranges, with written SF averaging harder than most other media. Star Trek might be a 4, the Expanse a 6, Larry Niven an 8, Robert Forward a 9.

    (I don’t actually assign numbers. I just know that Trek’s particle-of-the-week doesn’t try to sweat the science nearly as much as Niven, where physics often sets the shape of the story.)

    This is mostly orthogonal to sociological vs sci-tech driven. The latter tends to be harder, but Heinlein tended to concentrate on the social effects of tech changes (while still calculating orbits on butcher paper), while the Jetsons had gadget-driven stories where the gadgets did whatever the plot requires.

    Cherryh’s (at least the pre-Foreigner stuff that I mostly know) is definitely harder than Trek (she worked out the entire chronology of sublight interstellar colonization down to ship schedules, even though it never made it into any book). And I believe she gave a lot of thought to her ftl system and (at least in Cyteen) just how Union azi work.

    LeGuin is more impressionistic. (Though I’d bet her anthropology is hard enough to scratch titanium. She certainly knows way too much for me to be able to catch her out.) And Leckie doesn’t feel particularly hard to me– Presger tech in particular is basically space magic, and even the Radch capabilities feel sort of arbitrary.

    (Granted, after a certain point along the Clarke’s Law progression, it does get hard to tell.)

  4. I’m not quite sure what your definition of Sociological SF is, or maybe where the limits of it are? If it’s about interacting with alien species, then I’d say the Julie Cerneda series Webshifters and Species Imperative may also fall into these categories.

    Please excuse my current lack of brain ^^, it’s almost time for the half-term reports over here.

  5. Poul Anderson wrote some sociological SF — it’s more often a subsidiary theme than dominant, but e.g. “No Truce With Kings” is a clear example.

    Although I hadn’t thought of it this way before, a fair amount of alternate history is kind of sociological SF — e.g. the entire 1632 series is a vast sociological experiment. And I’ve actually seen the Draka books described as sociological horror novels.

  6. Sociological horror sounds about right for the Draka stories!

    Estara, don’t ask me for a real definition with clean edges and everything! I knows it when I sees it. But I don’t mean just “interaction with an alien species” — not at all. I mean real thought put into an alien society or a future or alternate human society — I mean a story where exploring the society is a very important point, more than telling an adventure story against an exotic background.

    Mike, I agree that Leckie’s trilogy is not hard SF, though one might say she’s doing “hard sociology” — ie, taking the sociology seriously and making it a central aspect of her books. Radch tech is not hard, but their society, grimly repressive as it is, is hard.

  7. Bujold for sociological, all of it, sf and at least the Sharing Knife.
    Vorkosiverse dealing with sociological implications of things like uterine replicators, gene-engineering, etc. TSK people being people.

  8. Right, then we’re definitely talking Doris Egan’s Gate of Ivory omnibus, which I remember you already mentioning somewhere else as well. I think the Web Shifters series still might fall under that in-depth exploration angle, although the species in question only consists of very few specimen. They and the way they see life are at the core of the trilogy though, and interaction with one of them, specifically.

  9. You get some exploration of what longevity treatments might do to society in Elizabeth Moon’s series that starts with Hunting Party — a very good book, that one. But it seemed to me Moon might be trying to do to many different things in that series and that exploration got lost.

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