A Conversation for Science Fiction - Some Hard, Some Soft
Mat Started conversation Aug 31, 2001
Great article. Though I am not sure I agree with some of the qualifiers for Hard or Softness. In my experience the Hard Sf writers are just as guilty of Deus ex machinism as the soft boys.
Also does Hard sf get relegated to Soft when all of the science in it is debunked? That master of the Space Opera E.E. Doc Smith could be considered to be hard sf in the way he writes about the technology!
Hoovooloo Posted Aug 31, 2001
Thanks for the , Mat. I had to write this to explain a comment in another article (Bussard Ramjets, coming to the Front Page real soon). I didn't realise what a can of worms I'd opened - check out the conversation attached to the original entry on my space!
Lively debate at its best, and the result was some sort of consensus, but I don't think anyone could write a definition that would satisfy everyone.
I read Doc Smith's stuff when I was about ten, and it seemed like hard sf at the time! Then I learned some physics and....
I know what you mean though.
Mat Posted Aug 31, 2001
Yes and I liked the article so much I posted my reply 3 times
Poor old Doc! I did love them at the time... (Pulls out his twin DeLamberts and lets rip with twin beams of hellish energy. "Eat that Boskonian scum")
R. Daneel Olivaw -- (User 201118) (Member FFFF, ARS, and DOS) ( -O- ) Posted Aug 21, 2002
I think that hard SF is still hard even if the science in it gets debunked, as long as the science is acurate as of the time it is written. For example, Asimov's Pebble in the Sky is still hard SF even though it doesn't recognize the true dangers of radioactivity, because, at the time it was written, the books premise of a radioactive earth supporting life was reasonablely within accepted science.
Hoovooloo Posted Aug 21, 2002
My favourite example of that happening is Larry Niven's "The Hole Man", which was written after he read about Stephen Hawking's idea that there might be micro-black-holes hanging about...
Unfortunately, cutting edge though his story was, by the time it was anthologised Hawking had done some more hard sums and concluded that such micro-black-holes would evaporate quite quickly, so the story was almost instantly obsolete, scientifically. I'd still call it hard sf, though, and it's still a cracking read.
finnjim, THE Teacher, messing with peoples minds since 1997 Posted Jan 16, 2003
madwombat Posted Jan 30, 2004
The definition of SF, and the importance (or not) of "hard" SF, have both been vexed questions for ever, and won't be resolved any time soon if only because some opinions are so dogmatic and incompatible. Greg Benford (fine writer), for example, insists that any non-hard SF is like "playing tennis with the net down". Others (Ursula le Guin, say -- an equally fine writer) obviously don't care at all about making sure their stories are particularly technologically-orientated. In the introduction to "The Birthday of the World" UlG gently rebukes those who seem to think that "science fiction is written raygun in hand".
In my view, the whole debate is actually a bit pointless. We really only have "science" fiction because Hugo Gernsback and then people like John W Campbell insisted on that term (originally "scientifiction", under Gernsback -- see editorial in first issue of Amazing Stories, April 1926) while they were editing American magazines in the first half of the last century. Campbell, furthermore, was at various times persuaded to believe several... aahhh... =questionable= ideas -- Dean drives and scientology, for example.
Anyway, Gernsback claimed to be operating in the traditions of Verne, Wells and Poe, but that's misleading and he seems to have misled himself (note that he was from Luxembourg, main languages German and French -- handy for Verne, but English was at best his third language when it came to his understanding the other two if not in translation). His central formula was "a charming romance, intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision". Well, Verne did care about real science, but generally didn't predict anything so much as try to apply contemporary knowledge in odd ways, and he frequently got it wrong anyway (probably most famous example: shooting people to the moon using a giant cannon would just obviously not work, or not if you actually want your passengers to survive the launch). Personally I suspect that if Verne was publishing today we'd be calling his novels technothrillers. Wells didn't really care about realistic science in the first place (invisibility potions, time travel, an anti-gravity alloy...), and defended his use of pseudoscience by saying (while comparing himself to Jonathan Swift) that its only purpose in his stories was to facilitate =thought= concerning his real subject: the human story in each case. Poe... well, he flew someone to the moon in a balloon (or was it a hoax...?); and he's largely remembered as an ancestor of modern horror in any case.
Much of the supposedly science-fictional material that Gernsback and his successors published in the American pulp magazines straightforwardly ignored editors' dicta concerning realistic science (or was written by scientific illiterates with no idea to start with). This stuff, however, did form the critical mass of what was still known as "science fiction" in market terminology (because that was an easy way to identify the magazines): the genre with that title included all sorts of "hard" and "soft" material that appealed to a certain kind of mindset whether or not it was literally concerned with science.
The science fiction New Wave (a largely British movement but with American adherents, in the 1960s) understood this, and launched one of the many attempts to have "SF" recast as "speculative fiction". (anyone interested in the New Wave should have a look at "The Entropy Exhibition", Colin Greenland's history of the period, published from his PhD thesis.) These attempts are always inclusive, in that they try to accommodate writers concerned with purely human speculation alongside those fixated upon engineering. They always fail, as well, and always because of a backlash from people (usually writers) who for one reason or another have some kind of vested interest in the idea that "science" fiction is necessarily about (hard) science (and by extension, often, a projected and realistic future), even though it's so easy to demonstrate that that was never true even under the original editors who wanted to claim that it was. Norman Spinrad does a good piece on this ("The Hard Stuff", a chapter in his "Science Fiction in the Real World", I think), where he decides that "hard SF" can be seen less as a real section of material that it's useful to defend and more as a springboard for those who want to attack any chosen victim (New Wave, "Soft" SF, cyberpunk...).
And that's why I think the whole argument's actually specious. I suspect that it might be akin to searching for a literal KEY in a roman a clef: it simply isn't (literally) the point of the label. Science fiction =does= tend to seem successful if it follows through on its novel ideas with consistency; that is, if it embraces the principles of the scientific method, at least. If it's engagingly unreal but made to seem plausible, and if exploring its "unrealness" actually helps to tell the human story in hand on each occasion, then that's what we tend to enjoy as SF. Obviously that includes stories that develop entirely from novel applications of real (or real-seeming) physics ("Mission of Gravity", "Blood Music", loads of others). On the other hand, using that kind of setting doesn't guarantee success as SF, something persistently misunderstood by producers of TV SF. "The Last Train" was one example: giving it a futuristic, post-apocalyptic setting didn't save it from being very boring drama and thte kind of thing that therefore gives SF a bad name. The same goes for "Invasion Earth": the BBC loudly trumpeted that series as its triumphant return to =real= SF (until it actually aired, and then they went very quiet indeed...), but it turned out to be a collection of SF cliches written by someone who obviously believed that a few aliens and special effects straightforwardly defined SF. The producers of the later series of "V" are on record as saying that so long as they used rayguns and aliens they were "guaranteed the sci-fi audience automatically". The series was rubbish, though...
Nothing wrong with hard SF, then, obviously, but it's really not as easy as some would tell us to insist that science, however realistic, defines "science" fiction. It has to be a plausible and engaging drama about people, first and foremost (Ben Bova, also a hard SF writer, has said this as well, while despairing of all the "sci-fi" -- a dirty word -- movies swamping cinemas). Lots of people continue, however, to argue over a label that (in the most literal terms) was more often than not a misnomer in the first place, invented by someone who didn't even understand the authors he was using as examples and not respected (at least not systematically) even in the stuff that the same guy went on to publish.
Hmmm, indeed... That was a lot longer than I'd intended, but I hope that it helps clarify something somewhere.
R. Daneel Olivaw -- (User 201118) (Member FFFF, ARS, and DOS) ( -O- ) Posted Feb 1, 2004
"The definition of SF, and the importance (or not) of "hard" SF, have both been vexed questions for ever, and won't be resolved any time soon if only because some opinions are so dogmatic and incompatible. Greg Benford (fine writer), for example, insists that any non-hard SF is like "playing tennis with the net down". Others (Ursula le Guin, say -- an equally fine writer) obviously don't care at all about making sure their stories are particularly technologically-orientated. In the introduction to "The Birthday of the World" UlG gently rebukes those who seem to think that "science fiction is written raygun in hand"."
I would say that hard SF is generally better and more important than soft SF. It takes more skill to write the average hard SF story, and the average hard SF story has more value. Of course, there are a few authors (such as Ursela LeGuin) who can right soft SF that is really quite good and deserving of a Hugo. However, soft SF in general is not much better than "playing tennis with the net down".
Key: Complain about this post
- 1: Mat (Aug 31, 2001)
- 2: Hoovooloo (Aug 31, 2001)
- 3: Mat (Aug 31, 2001)
- 4: R. Daneel Olivaw -- (User 201118) (Member FFFF, ARS, and DOS) ( -O- ) (Aug 21, 2002)
- 5: Hoovooloo (Aug 21, 2002)
- 6: finnjim, THE Teacher, messing with peoples minds since 1997 (Jan 16, 2003)
- 7: madwombat (Jan 30, 2004)
- 8: R. Daneel Olivaw -- (User 201118) (Member FFFF, ARS, and DOS) ( -O- ) (Feb 1, 2004)