Hard science fiction and soft science fiction: what is that?

Is it difficult to differentiate the type of science fiction when choosing a book? No problem, I think many of us lovers of the genre have gone through this. Maybe too much attachment to technicalities is the main obstacle to science fiction not taking off as a literary genre as much as it deserves, despite having immortalized for decades masterpieces popular with its fans.

What immense authors such as Larry Niven, Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, and Ursula K. Le Guin, for example, have left for posterity is not enough to convince readers avid for mystery, romance, or historical fiction to immerse themselves definitively or at least diving into science fiction, simply because they don’t take seriously the stories that soft science fiction offers and don’t care or enjoy the scientific arguments that underpin any hard science fiction story. To begin with, there is something that we must be clear about: the main division of the genre is in these two large subgenres

Sometimes it is good to browse the networks in spaces of dissemination and discussion of this exciting topic because this issue usually appears. Facebook groups almost always require a request to enter with questions that demonstrate some knowledge of the subject or, at least, a desire to participate seriously. The good thing is that there are real authors, scientists, and educated amateurs with fascinating points of view. The best one I’ve found so far is in English. It is moderated by Damien Walter, a guy with unique ideas who has a personal blog for amateurs and professionals of the genre.

And if it is about being informed and forming an opinion, some blogs are really special, such as El Rincón de Cabal, by David Olier, in which the author is dispatched with this jewel. Or this impeccable publication by Alejandro de Valentín (in a very complete blog), with a different vision and that will surely make you reflect.

But there are in all languages; science fiction brings together millions of people in the world and today you can translate any article in a matter of seconds and quite accurately. English-speaking readers, Spanish or Chinese, do not be lazy and translate it if you are interested because it will be worth it.

Are they rivals? Hard science fiction versus soft science fiction

The question that arises is: how are these two major subgenres different? Simply in the degree of credibility that the story has, which relies on known scientific elements based mainly on the universal laws of physics to create convincing plots, or, on the contrary, the story is developed with fantastic resources that the author does not explain and, sometimes, are contrary to the laws of physics. Of course, in the middle, there is an endless range of grays, because even the most erudite plots of hard science fiction have some element that has not been proven and is, at least, of dubious future confirmation. That is why there are lovers of one, the other, and the two subgenres at the same time. 

Niven’s Ring World, Clarke’s Appointment with Rama, Pohl’s Heechees saga, or the current series by Andy Weir, Brandon Q. Morrison, or Liu Cixin are clear examples of hard science fiction. All of them are scientists who moved into the world of literature and enjoy creating stories that go hand in hand with their vast knowledge. And, of course, there are also talented women writing in the subgenre that, until not long ago, was an almost exclusive space for men, including Mary Shelley herself who, with her Frankenstein, was one of the forerunners of science fiction. But Octavia Butler, Anne Leckie, and Madeline Ashby are some of the others who have written works that are already classics or will be in the future.

In the gray areas is, for example, the very popular Dune, by Frank Herbert, now again brought to the screen for mass consumption. It is a typical sample of that difficult area to define between both concepts; there are social dramas with different ways of life of extraterrestrial beings perfectly possible, and there is credible domestic technology and adaptation to the environment. But there are also strange weapons and shields, a not-too-explained method of interstellar travel that works thanks to a precious product that we don’t know how it acts, and a kind of giant worm that wreaks havoc that we don’t have a biological description of. Their fans swear it’s hard science fiction, their detractors deny it and make them victims of bullying for it.

And if we go to soft science fiction we find basically the space operas, which number dozens, among which stands out the remarkable television creation of Gene Rodenberry, Star Trek (in any of its versions through time), which takes place between great true astronomical phenomena, but also invents a series of concepts for travel, weapons or communications that seem serious by their denominations but are fanciful, and that includes the presence of some characters too powerful to be real. However, many of its fans are scientists and the series’ contribution to the science fiction universe has been gigantic.

That detail can give us a guideline to understand this world: it is not necessary to be too explicit in the technological resources used by the author to develop the plot. It is enough to fit well with the development of the story and with the characters, as long as it does not include nonsense. Because the literary licenses that a science fiction author takes to create wonders are the key to amalgamating that set of ideas that catch the reader. Without these ideas, sometimes wonderful and precursors of true scientific advances, there is no adventure.

So what are we looking for?

The fanciful elements of a fictional story define its character. We can summarize that, if it is hard, we should expect the author to explain to us in broad strokes why the spacecraft can travel between galaxies exceeding the speed of light or almost instantaneously, or how aliens or humans breathe when leaving their ship on a strange planet. If it does so convincingly, it is hard science fiction, if it does not clarify it is soft science fiction. And when I talk about convincing I mean appealing to physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, the sciences from which he or she draws the arguments to explain that this phenomenon of the plot could be real.

And this is where we must stop, because lovers of literature of any genre not only seek logical and detailed clarifications of each species, ship, place, or event to enjoy good reading. It is necessary to capture their attention with the creation of characters with attractive personalities, who move within a universe created for them in a plot that catches us, of which we want to know more as the pages pass. That has nothing to do with scientific explanations that will leave a minority of rigorous science amateurs and lovers of astrophysics and aerospace engineering happy, but that will leave without interest an immense majority of readers who could enjoy the story and who do not need so many technicalities to satisfy their intellect. Because, in short, a novel is not a scientific document.

What’s the measure? Please give me your opinion.


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