Science Fiction: Hard to Soft

First. what is science fiction? This has been a contentious issue for nearly a century. Definitions of science fiction – Wikipedia lists numerous proposed definitions. science fiction – Wiktionary has a very simple one: “Fiction in which advanced technology or science is a key element.” In What Science-Fiction Magazines Look For | NexusZine I mentioned Analog magazine’s preferences: stories where future science and/or technology is an essential part. If it was absent, there would be no story. Nevertheless, science fiction is not just about technology. It’s also about what people do with it: Isaac Asimov on Science Fiction: the Reaction, not the Action | NexusZine. Like if self-driving cars became practical, what happens to manual driving? Isaac Asimov once wrote a story, “Sally”, in which it was outlawed as needlessly dangerous, a move that caused a lot of controversy.

Within science fiction itself, there are two axes that have been called hard to soft:

  1. Nuts-and-bolts to sociological
  2. Present-day technology to plausible future technology to implausible future technology to fantasy

The first of the axes runs from (focus on nonbiological technology) to (focus on biological technology) to (focus on psychological and sociological features). The latter includes dystopias with some advanced technology (Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World), very little (George Orwell’s 1984), and none (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale). Brave New World includes technology for external pregnancy and for stunting people’s mental abilities. As a result, the society is divided into castes, Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon, in order of smartest to dumbest. 1984 is much more like the Stalinist Soviet Union taken to gruesome extremes than like some advanced society. Big Brother looks like Joseph Stalin, mustache and all, and the big villain, Emmanuel Goldstein, looks much like Leon Trotsky. Its main advanced technology is two-way TV’s and novel-writing machines. The Handmaid’s Tale is all sociology with little or no advanced technology — only a society with present-day technology that goes in a very horrible direction.

The second of the axes runs from technothrillers and other mundane fiction featuring present-day technology, as it might be called, to outright fantasy. Grading Science Fiction for Realism goes into gory detail about this axis.

High-tech mundane fiction? Mundane fiction is what we may call fiction based on what actually exists in the present or past. The “past” part refers to historical fiction. When I read Lee Correy’s story “Shuttle Down” in Analog Science Fiction, I was rather surprised that it was in there, since it had nothing that did not exist in the present — it was a mundane-fiction story. But it was about advanced present-day technology and the problems that it can cause, like landing on a small island and having no identification papers when in another nation. As a result, the Space Shuttle operators eventually included some ID papers in the Shuttles.

The opposite of mundane fiction is speculative fiction, fiction where at least some of what it’s based on is things that do not exist in the present or past. However, those absent things might exist in the future. Science fiction itself is a subgenre of speculative fiction, for the most part, though its amount of speculativeness varies widely.

Back to the second axis, we have from the above link

  • Present-day technology (high-tech mundane fiction)
  • Ultra hard SF: plausible developments of contemporary technologies like artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and interplanetary colonization.
  • Very hard SF: plausible developments of contemporary theorizing like nano-goo, mind uploads, relativistic spaceships, and interstellar colonization.
  • Plausibly Hard: very speculative but hard to rule out things like faster-than-light drives (FTL) with time travel and various sorts of exotic matter.
  • Firm: like the above but with less plausible variants, like FTL drives without time travel.
  • Medium: like the above but with lots of unrealistic plot devices, like psionics and lots of alien civilizations.
  • Soft: lots of unrealistic features like aliens as anthropomorphic “furries” and handwavium disintegrator guns, and alien societies very uniform.
  • Very soft: like the above but with even more unrealistic features, like humanoids of the week and lifeless planets with breathable atmospheres.
  • Mushy soft: like the above but with super unrealistic features, like giant animals that are nevertheless able to move (Godzilla), energy weapons with no power sources apparent, and mutants with super energy powers.

The bottom of this list is essentially fantasy, and drawing a line between science fiction and fantasy can be difficult. In fact, there is a crossover genre called science fantasy. So that is why SF and fantasy are often grouped together.

Fantasy itself has several subgenres like sword and sorcery (set in pseudo-medieval worlds), and urban fantasy (vampires and the like in a modern setting).

There are other genres of speculative fiction, like alternate history. In it, one relates the history of humanity or some part of it after a change at some part of departure. It can be handled as mundane fiction, science fiction, or fantasy. Another one is timepunk. This is high-tech mundane fiction or hard SF set in various time periods, like steampunk for Victorian Britain.

Then there is sociological speculative fiction, like utopian and dystopian literature. I’d mentioned how dystopian literature has backgrounds ranging from the mundane (The Handmaid’s Tale) to the science-fictional (Brave New World).

Genres like horror and romance can be either mundane or speculative, thus crossing these boundaries. Consider a classic horror theme. If someone kills people with an ax, then it’s mundane. If he/she kills people with a swarm of mini-robots that look like tarantulas, then it’s science fiction. If he/she kills people with magic spells, then it’s fantasy. Likewise, a romance can be set in the present day, in some past society, some future society, or in a sword-and-sorcery realm.

I think I’ll end here.

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