The Writing Zone: Stage 4
With all the time I've been spending on research for my book, one of the questions that came up in a number of conversations with friends was "Are you leaning more towards hard science fiction with your writing?" From there, the popular movie The Martian would come up, as it's probably one of the most mainstream "hard science fiction" movies people have seen today.
That brings me to my topic for today, something that I've thought about ever since I typed the first word in my novel: Would I classify my work as hard science fiction or good old "regular" science fiction? Or would it be soft science fiction? What are these terms anyway? Do they even matter?
As a bit of a sci-fi aficionado, I've read a variety of books that fall into a variety of different ranges between the "hard" and "soft" science fiction. Let's explore these realms to see how they are considered different from each other.
Hard science fiction, or "hard SF" can be best thought of as science fiction that has a strong focus on the "hard" sciences (physics, astronomy) as an integral part of the novel. Another way to think about hard SF: the science and technology that are represented are either already proven in real-world scenarios or are at least theoretically possible, based on our understanding of the laws that govern the universe at the time of writing. Furthermore, whatever technology is used, invented or theoretical, behaves as they would expect to in the world that the author creates.
As you can imagine, when you explore these concepts a bit further, you can start to take apart what "hard SF" really means. For me, there is a range that exists within this definition and is not meant to be so black-and-white. You have books that may spend their entire time on Earth in a near-future setting, extrapolating technological progress and sticking to the ground as a result (Rainbow's End by Vernor Vinge I believe fits this bill perfectly), while others may dive into the future but still leverage concepts that the scientific community accepts today, such as the effects of time dilation (The Forever War by Joe Haldeman). There's also the kind of "hard SF" that does introduce some artistic liberties to make their core ideas work, even if everything else is scientifically sound ("scrith" and point-to-point teleportation from Larry Niven's Ringworld are examples of this).
Soft science fiction, a term I only learned about recently, is meant to represent the exploration of the "soft" sciences, such as psychology and sociology at the expense of scientific accuracy where the rules of the universe are concerned, if they are explored at all. The way that technology actually works and how people managed to colonize thousands of planets over a period of time - none of that really matters; what does is how those people live in the societies that have formed (or collapsed) as a result of these changes over time. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell is a great example of this: a dystopic science fiction novel that introduces us to a future where war truly never ends and the world, as far as we know, is completely reduced to global poverty - unless you were part of the Inner Party. The story does introduce some futuristic technologies, such as wall-sized "telescreens" and microphones embedded everywhere to monitor the people, but how everything actually works plays second-fiddle to the characters themselves and how they experience life every day. On a similar vein is H. G. Wells' The Time Machine - we don't exactly know how it works, but it does - and it rockets our main character over 800,000 years into the future.
The problem I have with definitions like this is that they can make it seem that the social sciences are beneath the others, a position I am in disagreement with. In addition, I feel that it is possible to write a science fiction novel with the technological bent toward hard science while also having very fleshed-out societies for the book's characters to reside - one doesn't have to dominate over the other. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson and Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson are two examples of this, in my opinion: two books that spend a lot of time talking about the technology, as well as obeying the laws of physics, all the while building really detailed worlds that evolve over the course of the books.
Science fiction is, in the end, all about exploring all the possibilities that the future can bring, in all its wondrous, terrifying, and outlandish glory. It is about taking what we know and extrapolate those technologies and concepts decades, hundreds, or even tens of thousands of years into the future, and seeing how mankind evolves with them. It is about taking our understanding of history and flipping it on its head. It's about exploring Earth's that have a single, utopian global society alongside Earth's that are covered in radioactive rain, man-made craters, and man-sized cockroaches. Finally, science fiction just wouldn't be as fun without the... well, you know... fiction, something that one should never forget when reading a "hard-SF" or "soft-SF" novel.
Going back to one of the remaining unanswered questions above, "Where does your book fit?" Hmmmm, I suppose the best way to answer that question would be "half of one, and a half-dozen of the other." Nope, that's totally not helpful. And yup, I know I didn't answer the question.