Is SF generally better the harder it is?

The title says it all, really, but some background - this was prompted by a post in another thread where one poster was using “hardness” almost as a recommendation in-and-of itself, that a certain series was worth checking out because it was “hard”.

Now, definitions of SF “hardness” are legion, but I’m not interested in debating that. I’m interested in if, by your own definition, you think “hard” Sf is better than “soft”. NOT whether you just prefer it, but also whether you think it’s objectively better by any metric.

I think hard SF is maybe more effort to write well, because (by my own definition of “hard” ) it removes a lot of the crutches like Psi and FTL. And that’s admirable.

But then I think of the SF properties I really like, and they’re an about equal mix of soft and hard, and hardness isn’t really a criterion I use very often.

When I do, I notice I’m doing it. Like, I read LeGuin, and generally she’s considered “soft”, but then I note the Ekumen doesn’t have FTL. Or I’m reading the Expanse series (beginning book 3, no spoilers!), and it’s generally quite hard, so the magic tech bits really jump out at me.

Anyone else do that occasional recategorization? And what do you think of the title question?

I’m not sure I’d say hardness. I’d say that Sci Fi (and most fiction) is at its very best, and elevated above mere “entertainment”, when it’s exploratory in some way. Scientific hardness and thinking about what life might be like and how people may act under certain plausible conditions is one way, and possibly the easiest way, to attain that. However, aliens, FTL, strong AI*, and psychic powers can all be used to explore human nature, philosophy of self, the social contract, and any number of other questions in a novel way without being pulp.

In addition, small deviations from reality are almost always necessary in all fiction (barring experimental stuff). You need to take refuge in a certain amount of convenience in order to get your point across.

Of course, pulp can be exceedingly entertaining and important. Star Wars, while being a wholly implausible film that only barely touches on any meaty philosophies or questions, had an immense effect on cinema and art, and while the film itself may tell us very little, its popularity and influences tell us a lot about ourselves and the way we consume media.

  • As an AI researcher, I’d say that strong AI could be “hard”, but not in the way it’s usually executed.

As you say, there is doubt about the definition of ‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ SF.

For me, good SF involves:

  • change in known technology (preferably just one e.g. easy space travel or fully functioning AI)
  • how this change logically affects society
  • well drawn characters and dialogue (as in all fiction :wink: )

Obligatory Party Down clip.

I think SF is best when the technology is well thought out and, most importantly, consistent. It doesn’t matter if there is FTL or force fields as long as they operate by a realistic set of rules and those rules are observed consistently throughout the book/series of books.

I’ve read some very hard SF (defined as realistic science) that was pretty crap writing so no, it’s not always better.

And some of the stone cold classics of the genre, like Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light or Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, are as “soft” as they get.


First of all, science fiction isn’t about science any more than Welsh rabbit is rabbit. It’s the name for the genre, not a description of it.

Science fiction, at best, is about how extrapolations of social trends and scientific knowledge affects people. Scientific “accuracy” in the genre is a fairly new conceit; previously, the point was not to do anything that contradicted the facts, and from the beginning, the main point of the genre was simple (and it still applies today): Tell a good story.

This can be done with great scientific accuracy, or it can be done with merely extrapolating social conditions and handwaving the science. Remember, some of the great hard SF of all time was based on scientific mistakes: the Ringworld is unstable, the gravity of Mesklin was wrongly calculated (and Mission of Gravit assumes FTL travel)*. Heinlein wrote stories about Venus that completely ignored what was known about the planet at the time, and Asimov wrote an entire novel (The Gods Themselves) based entirely on a scientific error.

On the other side, there were truly great SF novels that had nothing to do with scientific accuracy, including Dune, The Left Hand of Darkness, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Thinner Than Thou, The Carpet Makers, Dhalgren, Davy and others. Connie Willis – the most honored writer in the field – writes almost exclusively about time travel.

Ultimately the answer is that both hard and soft SF can be excellent. The scientific accuracy element is there in service to the story and if the story is good, then the fact that it’s based upon fanciful science is irrelevant.

(And, as an aside, writing “soft” SF – and even fantasy – requires as much, if not more research than writing hard SF. It’s just different research.)

*This isn’t a knock. It’s still one of the greatest SF novels, and it practically birthed the concept of hard SF as it’s thought of today. And Hal was one of the nicest men in the field.

RealityChuck has already said it, and made a good argument for it, but I’ll say what I meant to when I entered this thread.
There really is no single good “metric” for what makes science fiction (or any genre of literature) “better”. It is true that “hard” sf is more taxing in many ways to write – getting your facts and figures and technology straight is a chore. But you can writer extremely precise science fiction that is an utter bore to read.In that case, who cares if you got the right number of decimal places?

On the other hand, some of my favorite stories have been written by people with little or no practical science knowledge. Fredric Brown is one of the Great Writers (I think so, any way. (Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Ayn Rand, and Mickey Spillane agree – a pretty mixed bag. His “Arena” is in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and is arguably the most ripped-off short SF story), but his scientific errors are laughable and obvious. I don’t think Jack Chalker knew much science (it shows) as RC shows, many classic Sf writers write on topics with little or no real Scientific justification (Time Travel, FTL travel, Higher Dimensions, Psi Powers, etc.) Writers have been takinh libertiers with reality in order to tell entertaining stories ever since Edgar Allen Poe and Jules Verne.

I’m tired, I read this as Jack Chick and was very confused for a second.

In college, for English credits, I took a course called Physics in Science Fiction. I was a biology major and I took the course to show my contempt for the required humanities. My classmates were mostly physics majors, and it was one of the most difficult courses I took, even though it was supposed to be fun.

So, yeah. :wink:

Jack Chick wrote fantasy, not science fiction.

Boy, this could not be more true.

In the true sense of the word, “Star Wars” isn’t really science fiction, but it’s not because the tech is hard or soft or whatever; it’s because Star Wars isn’t really about the things science fiction is about. The characters in Star Wars (which I love, btw) are behaving in a manner reasonably consistent with the way people behaved in any number of World War II films, which of course was the point.

Science fiction should explore a question; how would people behave if X was different? Watch the Black Mirror episode “The Entire History of You,” which touches in the question, what if absolutely everything you ever heard or did was recorded for you and you could replay it at any time? It’s not the greatest work of cinema in the history of the world but it’s true science fiction; it takes people, adds a radical new flavor of technology, and cuts them loose to see how it would change people.

I think this is a lot like the hard sciences and the not-so-hard sciences. The best psychologists, philosophers etc are just as good if not better than the best physicists. But the average is much worse because the natural sciences are limited by what works in nature, while other sciences have no such limitation and thus accrue large amounts of nonsense.

Also interesting how so much stuff is “based” on a true story. Apparently trueness is something we care about, even if it’s in name only like for instance with the recent “Steve Jobs” movie which has very little to do with any real events in the life of the titular character.

So I’d say that bad hard SF is a lot better than bad soft SF, because even if the story and/or the writing sucks, at least there is something real underlying the whole thing. And probably the best hard SF is better than the best soft SF, because in addition to a great story and great writing there is also reality. Although I guess imagination may be more valuable than realness.

The problem with really soft SF and fantasy is that anything can happen through magic or implausible technology, so it’s much harder to create situations we care about. With long-running stories it’s not too terrible because you have characters that you care about, but for one-off stories it’s the worst. For instance, I recently rewatched LotR Return of the King, and it’s just arbitrary people doing arbitrary things for arbitrary reasons. Compare this to a book/movie like The Martian, where the feasibility of a fast return orbit to mars is an important plot point. (Of course many variables such as the amount of food are still completely arbitrary.)

The worst are authors who have a disdain for accuracy and just “want to tell a good story”, invariably not doing a very good job at that: a good story with fudged science is better when you can make the science more accurate.

Of course it is true that we like SF not just for the S but also for the F, so yes, the story is important, too.

A Jack Chick tract written by a resurrected Jack Chalker would be very interesting.

There was plenty of abysmally bad young-adult science fiction in the 50s and 60s that was all focused around some new technology and how it would affect people, but where the dialog and plot development was all “Gee, Wally, rockets!” level crap.

Like any other genre, science fiction is good when it is entertaining. I tend to prefer it to have at least one provocatively different premise and explore how that affects people and how people’s lives could possibly be different, but if the plotting and character dev is sharp and compelling I’m also OK with it just being a good drama that just happens to be set in the catacombs of Eta Taurus III or something.

This points out the problem with the OPs theory. The Mohs scale is not useful in evaluating the quality of SF. Some people may prefer harder or softer SF, but in the end the same qualities that apply to all genres determine the quality of SF. Writing makes the differences, the characters, the plot, the author’s ability to convey emotion and detail, these things don’t favor one sub-genre over another.

When you say “hardness,” do you mean the degree to which it conforms to the laws of science, or the degree to which it’s about those laws?

From my perspective, “hard” sci-fi is often WORSE, because the writers interests are often more directed to the technical realism and exploring the “technology” which I find dry and tiresome, and which often results in their characters being kindof halfassed and/or Gary Stu-ish.

For someone more interested in the technological speculation side, like, presumably, the authors of most “hard” sci fi, the reverse may be true.

What people *usually *mean, particularly if they refer to the “Mohs scale”, is explained here.