Friday, January 14, 2011

Hard and Soft SF - What's the Nature of Your Change?

We like to differentiate between science fiction and fantasy, yes, but then we carry the differentiation still further into "hard" versus "soft" SF.  Does the story depend upon the "hard" sciences of math and engineering?  Or does the story instead examine the more psychological aspect of the human condition?

Choosing Between the Sciences
Your choice of which style to write will mostly depend on personal inclination.  If you revel in the the physics of folding spacetime and the layout of microprocessors inside an android's brain, you may well find yourself writing hard SF.  If, on the other hand, you're more interested in exploring the social and cultural norms of a planet as it comes to greet the first android visitor from a distant planet, then you may prefer writing soft SF.

This is why soft SF is almost always referred to as "soft, psychological sci fi."  Good science fiction always has a strong focus on character - the best soft SF uses that focus as the main driver of the universe.  Soft SF unravels the ways that characters and societies behave in the face of a changing universe.  Hard SF also does this, but the focus of the detail is geared far closer to the actual technology.  It isn't enough to show the technology and reveal its effects - for the hard SF writer, half of the book may come down to showing the reader exactly how the technology comes to exist and why it works.

The best works of science fiction will incorporate elements of both hard and soft SF.  Our novel for next week, Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, is an excellent example of how specific scientific details from physics and engineering can be incorporated into a taught novel about the inner struggles of a human being.

Overcoming Bias
For better or for worse, there are biases within the science fiction field.  "Hard SF" is often used as a badge of respectability for novels that plunge into detailed, sophisticated bits of scientific magic.  If you enter "the best hard science fiction" in Google, you'll come up with lists of books to choose from, works that promoters will label as some of the best that science fiction has to offer.  Entering "the best soft science fiction" brings up a very different list.  This search will turn up dozens of explanations and definitions of soft SF, but few lists of books.  You won't find many books labelled "Best Soft SF of the Year!"  Rather than a badge of honor, soft SF is more often used as a kind of write-off, denigrating works the don't have "enough" science to meet an arbitrary standard.

Don't let this bias affect your writing.  Some of the best science fiction novels out there are the kind of introspective explorations of character exemplified by psychological "soft" fiction.  Our novel for Week Three, The Left Hand of Darkness, is one such work.  Although there are many details of Gethen biology and some descriptions of NAFAL ship and that curious ansible, the focus is on the societies.  We learn how the Gethenians react to Genly Ai's presence, and we see how they interact together as a group.  It's not that the NAFAL drive and the ansible aren't important - the story would be impossible without some way for our Envoy to bridge the light years of space - it's that they aren't the focus of the story.  They don't drive the plot.  Instead, the plot is pushed forward by Genly Ai's desire to bring the planet Winter into the Ekumenical fold and the varying forms of acceptance and resistance there to greet him.