A Discussion on Science Fiction – Part 1: Hard vs Soft Science fictionLeave a Comment
Science Fiction. Just like with any genre, it comes in many flavors. Some of the more common terms you may have heard include: hard science fiction, soft science fiction, steampunk, space opera, science fantasy, cyberpunk. There are also plenty of other genres that often have a lot in common with science fiction which, for this post, I’ll call crossover categories: things like post-apocalyptic fiction or dystopias that can often be labeled as science fiction.
This is the first post in a series of posts on science fiction. I’m hoping by sharing my thoughts here, you’ll gain some insight into what I think can reasonably be called science fiction (and my feelings on the debate around “hard science fiction being the superior science fiction”), why I write the science fiction the way I do, how I research the probability of scientific advancements that I might include in my books and when I decide to take a theoretical leap of faith to create a new technology.
In this first post, I’m going to discuss my feelings on the genre as a whole, and the gatekeeping behavior I see being deployed on the internet by some science fiction fans. I want this post to be first because I feel there is a negative undercurrent to the ideas expressed by some fans that certain things can’t be science fiction because they aren’t accurate enough and are therefore lesser somehow.
To begin, I should define what I mean when I say science fiction so we’re all on the same page. For determining a genre, I go back to what I learned in my writing classes at school, because it’s the simplest way to categorize for me, especially since there are so many intellectual pieces on what defines science fiction that are more difficult to pin down. I’ve linked to the Wikipedia entry for what Science Fiction means, and they discuss several there if you are interested, but for our purposes here, I’ll just assume you know science stuff when you see it, and this is more of a practical approach to defining the genre.
If you can tell the story without any of the science-y bits, and it loses nothing, then the science-y bits are window dressing. The book isn’t science fiction. But if there are some fundamental elements to the story that can’t be told without the science-y bits, then it’s science fiction. What do I mean here? Well, similar to how a romance can’t really be regency unless the characters live within a ruleset of that era (for instance, women are equal to men and that’s “normal” in the story, as in, no one remarks on how odd it is that women can do what they please without societal repercussions) then it’s just a romance with fancy dresses, not a regency. I honestly feel that this is why a lot of romance writers write in the sub-genre of fantasy – they can set the style in the medieval period, without conforming to the societal rules of the medieval period. It’s a fun genre mashup without the constraints of the source material, and I understand why it has appeal. But I digress. If your science fiction story is a coming of age story of a teenager on a spaceship, but it all takes place in “space high” and there really is no plot element that requires it be in space, then it’s just a YA novel set in space, not really science fiction. The science element has to have some role other than being there for most readers to consider it science fiction.
Other than that, however, there are some readers that disagree on how to categorize science fiction, and they tend to denigrate one type while elevating another. In particular, there is what I like to call a snooty strain of reader that puts everything that isn’t “hard science fiction” into the “science fantasy” area. Everybody has their tastes. I totally understand why you’d want to read Artemis, and not Star Wars. The issue I take with the complaints I see on a lot of science fiction reviews is the idea that books that don’t adhere to some imaginary, strict code of science are garbage science fiction, less worthy of reading because they aren’t “hard” science fiction.
It’s pretty easy to find reddit threads, or reviews for books, that make the argument that some science fiction isn’t worthy of the label. I’m not going to link them here, because I don’t really want to add more fuel to this fire one way or the other, but if you look up terms like “Hard sci fi vs soft sci fi” or “Is Star wars sci fi” you’ll find lots of stuff. And if you’ve spent any time reading through reviews of science fiction, you’ve inevitably run across more than a few that say the book is bad because the science in it is implausible. I even recently read a post where someone said with absolute authority that science fiction couldn’t be speculative fiction because it’s rooted in fact – an idea I simply couldn’t wrap my head around.
First, I question the veracity of the knowledge behind some of these arguments. The vast majority of readers aren’t educated scientists. I know this is true because most people aren’t scientists. Graduates in the STEM fields made up 18% of degrees in 2015-2016. So how many people have degrees, you may ask? Roughly a third of Americans have an undergraduate degree. If you do the math, that means around 6% of the population in America has some sort of educational background in science. While some of the people complaining about accuracy in science fiction are probably scientists of one kind or another, I’d be willing to wager most of them do not have formal education on the matter.
I don’t doubt they have some knowledge they’re basing their complaints on, but without a deep understanding of scientific theories, which most people won’t have, it’s difficult for me to put any stock in a statement like, Star Trek is less scientific than The Expanse. An awful lot of Star Trek’s speculative science has proved out over the years, with things like instant transportation just beginning to be understood as we learn more about quantum mechanics. We’ll have to wait and see on The Expanse and its physics-altering AI proto-molecule as to whether or not that’s a thing that can ever be accomplished.
The difference between something like The Expanse and Star Trek is, because Star Trek takes big, speculative swings, there are so many more examples of what they predicted than something more in the “hard” camp, like The Expanse, will ever be able to achieve. The Expanse’s major speculative inventions are faster-than-we-currently-have space travel and the AI protomolecule which does most of the work in the series as far as super advanced technology goes. The protomolecule makes all the inventions that are truly speculative, not the humans, and it does so in incomprehensible, unexplained ways. Yet the series is still considered “hard sci fi” because most of the technology in it is stuff we are already working on to one extent or another – the “mundane science” as some put it.
Hard sci fi is rooted in the “what we know now” whereas soft sci fi is more “what might we be able to accomplish in the future?” Both types of science fiction are equally science-y, one is just easier for people with a basic understanding of science to suspend their disbelief for because it’s rooted in the science of today, and the other requires either a strong understanding of highly theoretical underlying scientific ideas to buy into it, or a willingness to allow the imagination room for what some might consider inconceivable. Both are perfectly fine types of science fiction – it’s all about your comfort level with science and speculation in that field. There are certainly aspects of Star Trek I find too outlandish to think possible – hundreds of bi-pedal, humanoid aliens who can apparently consume and get nourishment from carbon-based foods and breathe oxygen? Really? Does no one on this show know the odds that mammals were the dominant species here, let alone humans? And they can mate? Does “species” mean something different in the future? – yet I adore that series. But I’m fine with suspending my disbelief and can find enjoyment in that series despite its (imo) scientific absurdities because it’s fun, and in the end, it often tells a good story, which is important no matter what kind of book or media you are reading or consuming. Similarly, I enjoy The Expanse even though I’m not a huge fan of hard science fiction (I find too much time spent on narrating the specific difficulties of space travel to be dull. I know how long and tedious space flight is, how low gravity and high Gs effect human bodies, how intricate biomes work, etc., etc. Please stop explaining science like I’m reading a textbook and take me back to the political intrigue thankyouverymuch) because the story and characters are interesting and exciting. And in both cases, I can absolutely see why people would like the things I specifically do not like. But this is a difference in taste, not in quality, which is why I take issue with that kind of statement.
Another issue I take with these types of complaints is that even if you are a physicist, that does not make you an expert on biology or chemistry or medicine. You are an expert on physics. I’ve worked in higher education for a long time. It’s not uncommon to run into faculty that believe because they’ve done the hard work of getting that PhD, they are more of an expert on anything and everything than anyone without a PhD. I want to be clear – most of the professors I’ve worked with are not like this. But you can find the ones that are easily enough. I still recall sitting in my chemistry professor’s office worrying that I was only getting a C in the class and how my grades were stacking up compared to people I knew on campus. “Oh, you’re doing fine. This is a hard class. Those other disciplines, we don’t think much of them. It’s easy to get an A in them.”
Fortunately, this kind of thinking wasn’t cemented in my head. Shortly after I graduated, I had the opportunity to help a mechanical engineer with his two-page paper for a technical writing class. He had spent all week working on it and the professor still told him it was an F paper. This was a guy who designed and fabricated a drill bit the size of my arm that was 6% more efficient than any other drill bit that size. And he was banging his head over a two-page paper and thought what I was doing was magic when I fixed it for him.
For me, intelligence isn’t a black or white issue. You aren’t smart because you know how to titrate. You aren’t dumb because you don’t. Intelligence is a spectrum – there are many flavors. That mechanical engineer had high marks for his type of intelligence, but low marks in other areas. A chef has high marks on intelligence for creating food that tastes amazing but might not be able to fix a car. The brain is involved in all these activities, so I refuse to accept that being able to do “handiwork” isn’t a type of intelligence. It seems too reductive to me to decide that only STEM folks are geniuses, but the person who can design a dress that looks like it defies gravity is not.
Every skill requires brainwork. Warren Buffet has said on a number of occasions he was lucky to be born where and how he was, because his skills would have been worthless otherwise. To which Bill Gates quipped, if Buffett were born in an earlier era, he would have been something’s lunch. It’s an idea they call the “lottery of birth.” What is considered intelligent today, was not in time’s past. Knowing how best to hunt in ancient times would have been the most valuable and powerful type of intelligence then. Now we joke and call those people cavemen. But in truth, cavemen would have whooped all our butts a few thousand years ago.
Finally, aside from all those flaws with the argument that only “hard science fiction” is science fiction and everything else is fantasy, I need to go to the root of my problem with this type of complaint.
One of the things that always bothered me the most in my upbringing was this attitude that there was entertainment that made you stupid. Entertainment is entertainment. It’s not going to drain away your education. I’ve always preferred the term “pleasure reading” as opposed to “guilty pleasure” because I don’t think people should feel guilty for reading certain genres. I feel like it’s similar to berating someone who likes vanilla over chocolate, or swings over merry-go-rounds. What does it matter if they like something you don’t? Having fun is subjective.
I heard a phrase recently at a seminar, “Don’t yuck someone’s yum.” I like this. I like the simplicity of the statement and the meaning behind it. When we’re talking about taste, it’s odd to me that certain people’s first instinct when someone near them expresses delight over something, is to say, “No, that thing sucks.” I’ve started wondering, what is the point of this type of opinion? I can’t see anything other than the intention to inflict negativity onto someone for liking something you don’t. That is pointlessly mean, and that’s not something I think we need more of. “No thanks, I’m more of a sour foodie than a spicy foodie,” is a much more informative and polite way to say you don’t like spicy food. Now the person knows what you like and might make suggestions more to your taste. And you don’t make them feel like it’s an insult to like something. I think we all could use to think about the intentions of what we say before we say things. Is our intention good? Or are we just being mean because we get a little thrill from it? I can tell you from much experience, the joy of a mutual appreciation of a thing is much longer lasting and powerful than the brief thrill of insulting someone’s preferences.
TL:DR Science fiction comes in many flavors. No one kind is more valid than any other kind. Sure, Star Wars has elements of medieval fantasy on spaceships, but I’m sure most adults who enjoy it have heard your arguments before and don’t care if it’s really “science fantasy,” and you don’t need to lob that term at people as if it’s an insult (and to make sure I don’t have folks writing to me saying, “I’m just clarifying my tastes to others by saying I only like hard science fiction, not insulting them” – you know it’s not you who I am addressing, then). It’s science fiction because the technology they have is essential to the story. The aliens are essential to the story. The sociological differences explored between species are essential to the story. And all of that is science-based speculation. Yes, the force is probably magic – despite the weird midichlorians retcon (which I feel is one of the best examples of the pressure of this type of argument altering a story in a bad way). And if somebody does try to gatekeep and tell you your favorite stories aren’t science fiction, but fantasy, just say, “Okay!” and move on. Like what you want to like. Don’t let other’s judgement of your favorite kind of science fiction ruin your enjoyment of it.
Further reading: Here is a great article where several authors discuss the ideas of hard science fiction versus soft at length. They bring up several excellent points I only allude to, in particular the idea that the social sciences are not sciences (elitist nonsense).
For my next post, I’ll go more specifically into my background and how it informs my science fiction writing. Until next week!