Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Soft-boiled Sci Fi

In the inimitable 1980 rendition of Flash Gordon, Voltan
(Brian Blessed) brandishes the Hawk Men's giant crystal
tribute to Ming - that's hard SF, right?
In the October 9th issue of T.P.’s Weekly [1] in 1903, journalist Robert H. Sherard quoted Jules Verne’s comment on his British peer H. G. Wells:

Je pensiez bien que vous alliez me demander cela,’ he said. ‘His books were sent to me, and I have read them. It is very curious, and, I will add, very English. But I do not see the possibility of comparison between his work and mine. We do not proceed in the same manner. It occurs to me that his stories do not repose on very scientific bases. No, there is no rapport between his work and mine. I make use of physics. He invents. I go to the moon in a cannon-ball, discharged from a cannon. Here there is no invention. He goes to Mars in an airship, which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation. Ça c’est très joli,’ cried Monsieur Verne in an animated way, ‘but show me this metal. Let him produce it. (T.P.’s Weekly, ii, 589) [2]

And so it was that one of the arguments of our genre began: hard vs soft.

Fast forward to today, and the battle rages on: does Star Wars count as SF? If not, why not? How about Star Trek? Battlestar Galactica? Avatar? Iron Man? Lord of the Rings?[3]  And of course, the argument boils down to the question of hard vs soft.

Traditionally [4], science fiction has typically been looked at mainly in the context of the science or engineering aspects that are presented, but of course the position these concepts have in the story varies widely.  Now, the concept of “hard” science fiction wasn’t really coined until 1957 [5] and its counterpart “soft” SF not until the 1970s [6] but it should be noted that the three types of SF identified by Asimov in his 1953 essay (which I referenced here) are already beginning to create this distinction, with his scale that goes from (effectively) “explain this thing” through “use this thing” to “how is society changed by this thing” – and of course Verne’s comment tells us that the tension has been present more or less from the beginning.

Asimov, of course, was writing at a special time in SF, more or less at the beginning of a cresting wave of “Campbellian” hard SF popularity that gave rise to the crystallization of science fiction as a discrete genre. [7] Nevertheless, the concept of “hardness” in science fiction has endured, and the modern era has even given rise to a Mohs Scale just for SF.

In general, people think of this hardness scale as having to do with “realism” – that is to say that the more realistic a work is (i.e. how closely it adheres to what we actually know about science and engineering) the harder it is.  Thus, things like A Princess of Mars are at the extremely soft end of the scale, while things like 2001: A Space Odyssey are at the hard end. 

As such things go, the scale is an interesting way to sort science fiction literature, but I see a problem with it:

The scale practically invites fans to argue over whether a work belongs in the category of science fiction at all – it creates an implicit scale of legitimacy, in other words.  Is A Princess of Mars science fiction? Or is it just sword and sorcery fantasy that happens to include other planets and atomic rifles?

Does this distinction even matter?

And in fact I think this is an important question; when you look back at the sorts of work that were being published prior to the Campbellian revolution and the de facto establishment of this scale of hardness, it becomes clear that authors routinely mixed and blended aspects of science, fantasy, and horror in their stories.  True, stories seem to lean heavily in one direction or another, but there’s no hesitation to include fantastic elements in what is essentially a science fiction tale, or to include some esoteric technology in what is essentially a horror or fantasy one. After the philosophical shift that Campbell encouraged, on the other hand, there appeared to be a fairly clear division between fantasy/horror and science fiction – with those works that straddled the gap becoming gradually more uncommon through the 50s and 60s.

Part of what drove this shift was of course the tendency toward hardness in mainstream science fiction, which makes the gap more obvious – but it also leaves some kinds of work (work that harks back to the roots of science fiction itself!) difficult to classify.

And if rigorous realism in speculative fiction is what constitutes “hard science fiction” what are we to make of books like The Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien built rigorously with his knowledge of the mythology and history of the Dark Ages and Middle Ages, and his intricately considered languages? Is this science fiction? Is it “hard fantasy” – can there even be such a thing as “hard fantasy”?

For that matter, how can we deal with magical realism from this kind of perspective?  Is it unusually “soft” science fiction?  Is it fantasy? Is it something else entirely? [8]

And then let's consider this side of things: if a book waves away the technical details of engineering but instead presents a detailed view of the biology and sociology of the world, is that soft? Bearing in mind the fact that the hard/soft dichotomy in SF was in conscious reference to the hard/soft division in the sciences, the answer would seem to be yes...and yet, the story may well be as rigorous a consideration of the sociological aspect as, for example, Niven's Neutron Star is a rigorous treatment of the physics of the situation.  Surely that qualifies as hard? 

I think to answer these questions we have to come to some understanding about what exactly it is that this “hardness” is referring to, and ultimately I think that the problem really lies in that the classification isn’t sufficient to deal with the two key dimensions from which people usually look at science fiction, and for an added bonus it over specifies the one dimension it actually deals with. [9]

In order to try to re-unify the genres into a more coherent means of classification (one that doesn't rely on what are essentially marketing categories rather than literary ones) I suggest that two dimensions (at least) may be needed.


Here's the thing: consistent and coherent trumps nearly anything else when it comes to how satisfying a story is. [10] In essence, most readers will swallow nearly anything so long as it makes sense within the boundaries of the story.  This is one reason why the reflexive habit of thinking "harder" science fiction (in the usual sense) is obviously better is a problem: just because something is ruthlessly rigorous in its science doesn't make it a good story [11] - the story part is just as important.  

So there we have one criterion - or one dimension if you like: internal consistency, rigorous rules. a coherent reality from which the action derives. This, more than realism per se, is the core of what makes hard SF compelling to those who love it. Certainly, those who love what we call hard SF (and I am certainly one) love it because of the way in which the story itself is rooted in concrete facts, and how events follow in a logical progression of cause and effect, taking into account the unchanging rules of the universe.

Niven's Neutron Star is of course an example of this (SPOILER ahead - but then, if you're reading this you're almost certainly familiar with Known Space...right?): the necessity for Beowulf Shaeffer's mission [12] derives from the known characteristics of neutron stars and their consequences. The events of the mission likewise. Beowulf's actions, reactions, and eventual fate are firmly rooted in the cause and effect of known physics.

But the point I want to make here is that while Neutron Star and the many stories like it [13] rely on real-world science and the engineering that can reasonably be extrapolated from it [14] the same principle can be applied not only in SF but in fantasy as well.

No, really - consider:

George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series does contain some iconic fantastic elements, but on the whole the story proceeds according to fairly concrete rules, with very little in the way of deus ex machina introduction of new powers or abilities just to allow the plot to move ahead. In fact, much of the action is, really, grittily grounded in a fairly realistic Dark Ages/Mediaeval style world, despite the dragons and the dread prophesies and the apparently odd climate. Moreover, thus far it appears that Mr. Martin is making a serious effort to ensure that even the fantastic elements operate in a consistent, coherent way - as though they were subject to laws of nature. [15]

Similarly, C. S. Friedman's Black Sun Rising [16] seems on the surface to be fairly fantastic. But we can look more closely, and it quickly becomes clear that Friedman has thought out the implications of the Fae and their impact on Erna very carefully - everything follows rules, the Fae are consistent, and despite the trappings of ritual and myth, the "magic" her characters wield is very much like engineering.

Both science fiction and fantasy can have this characteristic of a coherent set of fundamental rules - what I call integrity - and the degree to which it has this character can vary widely, from the most rigorous examples like Neutron Star and Game of Thrones to what might be thought of as their opposites: Perry Rhodan and Narnia: tales where the rules are flexible and can be bent, broken or replaced according to the needs of the story.

These counter-examples are what make it clear that the ordinary "hardness scale" by which SF is sorted is insufficient (not to mention a useless measure of quality - but that's another argument) by itself.  Clearly, even stories with very flexible integrity can be deeply satisfying to our sense of narrative. This makes it clear that there must be another dimension with which we measure them, but what?

What over-analysis of genre fiction is complete without
some kind of artificial visualization?


One thing that separates Narnia from Game of Thrones, and Black Sun Rising from Neutron Star is the way in which the world is presented - the logic by which it works.

Stories like Neutron Star rely on real world science and engineering for their narrative - they may throw in bells and whistles like a presumed FTL mode of travel, exotic hull materials, or flashy aliens like the Puppeteers, but at base that's all they are: bells and whistles. The story itself runs on the fuel of a gritty, concrete set of rules that drive the cause and effect of the action. But this isn't the only way in which the engine of a story can run.

In Black Sun Rising we have an example of a world which at first glance seems to operate without logic, at the whim of mysterious forces.  As the story progresses, however, we learn that there is a coherence to the rules, but that those rules don't bear much resemblance to the gritty realism of physics - instead, the driving force is symbolism. The world runs on a magical logic, the logic of essential resonance and symbolic harmonies. Cause and effect is still the rule, but the nature of causes - and the nature of effects, of course - is radically different, because the important factor is no longer the physical facts, but the abstract, "Platonic" meaning behind them.

For a similar example, and one where the symbolic nature of the logic is more evident, we can look at a book like Ursula le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea - here the rules are more flexible, but nevertheless there is a fairly coherent pattern of cause and effect, though it is more explicitly founded on a logic of symbol and abstraction. Nowhere is this more evident than in the use of Naming as the foundation of magic, and the use of the Gebbeth as Ged's nemesis, the personification of his inner failure.

This style of storytelling naturally lends itself to fantasy - indeed, where it can most evidently be seen is in things like myth and fairy tales, where the symbolic or abstract dimension is paramount. But that's not to say that symbolism can have no place in science fiction as well.

Look at the way symbolism and abstraction are leveraged in the storytelling we see in superhero comics, for example:

Superman is rendered impotent by the presence of a symbol of his shattered past: crystals of kryptonite.

Captain America lives as a personification of the essence of the democratic revolution of the post-Enlightenment era, a reminder of the ideals that the Allies were fighting for in World War 2 and later the Cold War.

The Hulk - does the symbolism here really need exposition?

Superhero stories are typically presented as rooted in science and engineering, but that's really window-dressing.  The truth is that while science and engineering may play a part, the more powerful fuel for the narrative engine is symbolism. Doctor Doom isn't a super-villain because he has technically superior tools that he uses inappropriately - he's a super-villain because he represents the arrogance of believing that technology can make a person superior, and give the right to dominate others. But the important part is this: what he does, and how he is opposed by the heroes, is driven by this super-structure of representation.

All stories, I believe, contain some degree of rigorous narrative "consequence", some degree of flexibility. All stories likewise contain some degree of concrete realism, some degree of symbol. It's the nature of things - it's the foundation of what makes us love stories that we can blend these aspects together.

Great writers carefully balance these two dimensions - abstraction and integrity - to match the tone and nature of the story being told.

For some stories, granular, concrete reality will work best. For others, symbolic drivers are a better fit.

For some stories, it's critical that effects flow naturally from causes, that the reader can clearly see the nature of the underpinning reality. For others it's less important how characters get from A to B than that they do.

Where a story falls on these dimensions doesn't make it good or bad - but a mismatch between where it lies and the nature of the story being told can be jarring, and that's where the feeling that "harder SF is better" (and its equivalent for other qualities) comes from.


1. One of several publishing ventures by T.P. O’Connor, a penny weekly that featured such names as H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Joseph Conrad.  Interestingly, the journal had been launched less than a year previous to the interview in which Verne made this comment.

2. Having read Verne, the idea of him positioning himself as a technically precise SF author is actually rather amusing – even taking into account the knowledge gained in the past century.

3. No seriously: why is Lord of the Rings not science fiction?

4. Insofar as you can call it tradition with a realm of literature so young, I suppose.

5. Apparently, the first appearance in print was in Astounding Science Fiction (Nov 1957) by SF writer and critic P. Schuyler Miller in his review of the modernized novelization Campbell’s serial Islands of Space which had previously been published in the Spring 1931 issue of Amazing Quarterly. Miller, incidentally, was an amazingly prolific reviewer, with an astounding <snerk> number of entries in nearly every issue of Astounding that year – heck in quite a few years!

6. Unsurprisingly: this corresponds with the peak of New Wave, which in contrast to the Campellian “Golden Age” SF was delving more deeply into sociology, anthropology and psychology – thus the analogy to the academic division of hard and soft sciences.

7. More on this another time, but I believe that the Campbellian revolution was responsible for the “divorce” of science fiction from the more general speculative or weird fiction of the pulp era, and in turn the growth of science fiction and fantasy as independent genres combined with the boom in corporate, mass-market book-sellers in the 80s to cause The Great Delisting, a literary extinction event of amazing proportions that may never have been possible before.

8. I confess to leaning toward “something else” but for the sake of argument, let’s consider it.

9. This isn't so much a criticism of the concept of SF hardness itself, but an observation that it was intended for what is essentially a very arbitrary subset of speculative fiction, and one that doesn't seem to really reflect either the history of the genre or the reality of readers' experiences. 

10. This is part of my reluctance to include magical realism, since...well, it's the nature of the genre to be incoherent. (I mean that in a technical way, not a slur)

11. If you disagree, I have a couple of old Apple II+ operation manuals you might be interested in.

12. Fun fact: Neutron Star (Worlds of If Magazine, August 1966) was Beowulf's first appearance in Niven's universe. Part scientist hero, part Harry Lime lookalike, Beowulf may well be my favorite of Niven's characters.

13. Engineering puzzle box type stories have a long and glorious history well back into the era of the pulps, after all.

14. And in fact in Neutron Star Niven really only relies on "unobtainium" to generate the necessary "frictionless sphere of uniform density" needed to make the calculations work, if you ignore the framing.

15. Of course, Professor Tolkien is the iconic example of what might be described as "hard" fantasy, but the enormous variety of ways in which his work has been re-interpreted - not to mention the range of ways in which he himself wrote in works other than The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings - makes his work a tricky choice here.

16. Incidentally one of my favourite books from the 90s - I thought Black Sun Rising was amazing fantasy in an older ethos when I read it. The rest of the Coldfire Trilogy is also strong, but it was the first book that really caught my imagination.


unwesen said...


Mostly, because it's recent, and by a SF author. It's not about hard vs. soft, though, but about other axes along which to distinguish SF subtypes (or trends).

Kevyn Winkless said...

Well, it's certainly an interesting perspective - I'm not sure I completely agree with Mr. Brin on the "idiot plot" dimension, but he certainly has a point about the pervasive cynical grimness that seems to be so common in SF these days. But this is a discussion about aesthetics and value rather than "taxonomy" really.

He's pointing out a trend, certainly - but he's also implicitly making a value judgement. He's suggesting that the pattern being used in the "idiot plot" is inherently less valid than the patterns he prefers.

He's welcome to that opinion of course, and for that matter I think I probably agree for the most part that in many cases it's used as a lazy crutch. But I'm not sure I agree that the pattern itself is inherently less worthy. The whys and wherefores are maybe best left for another time, though.