Soft science fiction


Which immediately inspires the question: so what do YOU mean by “soft” science fiction? What *I* think of first when I hear that term is sociological science fiction, but I could imagine this term being used to mean science fantasy, for example. No doubt we could come up with a top-ten list of possible meanings for the term “soft science fiction.” The only thing we can be sure of — can we be sure of this? — is that there won’t be appendices at the back of the novel explaining the math and/or physics underlying the plot. Appendices or not, there won’t be any books like Dragon’s Egg by Robert Forward on a list of “soft” science fiction.

Here, by the way, is a post that picks out some of what it calls great hard SF novels. I have my doubts about this post, which reminded me about Dragon’s Egg. That is a great example of hard SF, but also includes Ancillary Justice, which is hardly a book I’d personally tag that way. Oh, good heavens, they also include Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler! Wow, so THIS post is DEFINITELY including sociological science fiction as “hard” rather than “soft.” Lots of good examples on their list, thought, click through if you have a minute and then we’ll go on to the Book Riot post.

Okay, well, after checking out the above list, now I’m wondering even more what Book Riot will call “soft” science fiction. Since this is Book Riot, I am of course wondering if Watership Down might possibly be on their list. (No, they are never going to live that down. This blog will remember that Book Riot post forever.)

So here we go:

In general, hardsci-fi is closer to current science, whereas science fiction that gets further away from what is presently known is considered soft. 

Oh! Well, that is not a definition I had in mind personally. I don’t agree! I can easily think of many books that aren’t anywhere close to current science and technology but are definitely hard science fiction — Ringworld, for example — and others that take place practically tomorrow that *I* would call soft science fiction, such as Persona by Genevieve Valentine.

On the other hand, a paragraph or two later, we see that this post does indeed peg sociological SF as “soft.” Well, that is hardly the same thing as “close to current science!” I think this post is simultaneously using two quite different definitions that point in different directions.

But okay, let’s see what examples this Book Riot post picks out as “soft.”

Ah! Here again is Lilith’s Brood! That means this series is on BOTH the hard SF list I linked AND the soft SF post at Book Riot! Wow, that’s fantastic! I would absolutely have located these two posts on purpose to juxtapose these completely different takes on what is meant by “hard” and “soft,” but truly, this was pure happenstance. All I did was google “classic hard science fiction novels” to remind myself of some titles and now here we are.

Okay, back to the Book Riot post. Ah, honestly, I have to say, the author is not sticking to either of his own definitions very closely. Look at this:


If you want to read detective fiction mixed with some end-is-nigh apocalypse action, then look no further than The Last Policeman. In Winters’s novel an asteroid is bearing down upon Earth, spelling certain doom for the planet. Society has fallen apart, but Detective Hank Palace is still trying to solve murder cases. Winters is good at infusing large philosophical questions into his soft sci-fi murder mystery. The Last Policeman is the first installment of a trilogy dealing with Earth before the asteroid apocalypse.

That’s near future AND it deals with ordinary science! Asteroid impacts! Those are hard! I’m thinking of Seveneves, here. That’s a great example of a hard SF novel! This one has a murder mystery, fine, but that doesn’t make it look like soft science fiction to me. It makes it look like a murder mystery with a science fiction setting. That’s not the same thing!

Well, I will say, this is a list that’s heavy on sociological science fiction. Then it’s got some oddball stuff on the list as well. I personally think the list would’ve been more coherent if the author had labeled it “Great sociological science fiction” and stuck to that.

Let’s end by asking, How do you define soft science fiction?

  1. Sociological emphasis
  2. Far future and/or weird technology
  3. Science fantasy
  4. Really a different genre, like mystery, but with science fiction trappings
  5. Other

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5 thoughts on “Soft science fiction”

  1. Kathryn McConaughy

    I really dislike it when all SF with a sociological emphasis is classed together as soft, because that includes both masterworks of anthropology and linguistics like Kagan’s Hellspark and books where the author didn’t feel like doing research so they made some stuff up… So that’s my rant on the subject. I guess what I would mean by “soft SF” would be “poorly researched SF.”

  2. Science fiction is HARD if the author had to solve an equation or perform some other calculation to write the book. Otherwise, it is SOFT.

  3. I think of it as, the more effort the author makes to explain the science (whatever science that might be) that makes it sci fi, the harder it is. The more hand-wavy it is, the more backgrounded the science is, the softer it is. But, I think the soft label is dismissive and a lot less useful than the hard one, precisely because there’s so little consensus on what it means

  4. I am with the others. Is “A Woman of the Iron People”, by Eleanor Arnason hard or soft? It is about a group of anthropologists who hold on a one-way sub-light trip to observe a neolithic culture.

  5. To me, “soft” science fiction is less about the subject matter and more about the way it’s approached. When technology works because *reasons*, it’s soft, when there’s a how and why, it’s hard.

    Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series and Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers explore the sociology of survival in the aftermath of a world-ending event (among other things!), but their dedication to getting the science right makes those books hard sci-fi, in my mind.

    Lois McMaster Bujold, however, has a military science fiction universe in the Vorkosigan saga where ships fly and guns fire because they need to for plot purposes, so I consider them soft sci-fi. (Not a popular opinion in many discussion circles, but I stand by it…)

    There are MANY shades of softness, though, and I always find it fascinating how other people define them.

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