Science Fiction has another long standing debate other than when it all began. I’m talking about the clash of hard science fiction versus soft science fiction. Some have popularized the notion that social sciences (“soft sciences”) aren’t rigorous enough to form the backbone of a science fiction novel. But actually, sci-fi has always used more than “hard science” – physics, chemistry, biology – to accomplish its goals.
Hard Science Fiction
This is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy or technical detail or both. The term was first used in print in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller in a review of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Islands of Space in Astounding Science Fiction.
Stories revolving around scientific and technical consistency, hard science fiction, were written as early as the 1870s with the publication of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1870 and Around the World in 80 Days in 1873, among other stories. The attention to detail in Verne’s work became an inspiration for many future scientists and explorers, although Verne himself denied writing as a scientist or seriously predicting machines and technology of the future.
Soft Science Fiction
This is a category of science fiction that uses less probable or realistic science elements. It either explores the “soft” sciences, especially the social sciences (anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, and so on), rather than engineering or the “hard” sciences (physics, astronomy, or chemistry), or is not scientifically accurate, or both.
Soft science fiction of either type is often more concerned with character and speculative societies, rather than scientific or engineering speculations. It is the complement of Hard Science Fiction. The term first appeared in the late 1970s.
Ursula LeGuin exploits the “soft sciences” of sociology and anthropology in her world-building sci-fi novels. Asimov’s Foundation series arguably turns on sociology more than physics, since its focus is “psychohistory,” a branch of mathematical, deterministic sociology. For a long time now, the notion that science fiction exists to be debated by particle physicists and rocket scientists has been exploded.
Different Definitions and Opinions
Ben Stevens, a Bryn Mawr professor who co-edited the 2015 book Classical Traditions in Science Fiction, thinks we’re pretty limited when we talk about science and tech in science fiction.
“If we define science fiction as depending on a technology that technology doesn’t have to be modern techno-scientific. It can be any process that transforms unknown natural materials into knowable cultural products. That opens up a wider range of things that can be identified as technology.”
Another popular definition simply says that Hard Science Fiction is about how natural objects (and machines built out of them) behave in the author’s invented world. While Soft Science Fiction is about how people (and societies built out of them) behave in an invented world.
Note that the people may be human or non-human. The weakness here is that there are sciences whose subject matter is people, so if I accept anthropology as a science, I may have to accept, for example, The Dispossessed as hard science fiction. You be the judge.
Others have suggested that hard sci-fi is simply sci-fi written by and/or for people with the mindset of a “hard” (physical) scientist or engineer.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can leave leave a comment here…