“I define science fiction as the art of the possible. Fantasy is the art of the impossible”
Welcome back to our exploration of literary genres! In the last installment, we talked about magical realism; in this one, we’ll look more closely at science fiction and, more specifically, at the difference between hard and soft science fiction.
Science fiction (SF), in general, deals with the impacts to, or reactions of, humans due to changes in science and technology. Major themes in SF can include cosmology, the future, evolution, space travel, societal structure, alternate histories, artificial life, and artificial intelligence. SF stories can also touch on the ethics about artificial life, sex, gender, and culture. A science fiction story is typically set in a society significantly different from our own and this difference is usually due to some change in the level of science or technology (as opposed to something more indescribable, like magic). It is important to note that SF deals with scenarios and technology that are possible or may realistically be possible based on the actual laws and theories of science. Some SF, such as far-future space opera or time travel, may seem implausible but is still not beyond the realm of scientific theory. Science fiction shouldn’t be completely unbelievable, or it then falls into the genre of fantasy.
There are a couple of differences between hard and soft science fiction. The biggest distinction is that the more realistic or plausible the science or math is, the “harder” the SF is considered to be. Hard science fiction is generally more scientifically rigorous than soft science fiction, which is often flexible in terms of the rules and laws of science. Hard SF, in general, also tends to focus more on the “hard” sciences like physics, astronomy, mathematics, engineering, and chemistry. On the other hand, soft SF usually focuses more on the “soft” sciences such as sociology, anthropology, and psychology.
Science fiction authors and enthusiasts often argue about hard SF versus soft SF, but the general agreement is that hard science fiction is typically characterized by a focus on the hard sciences and more realistic advances from the science we currently understand. The further the extrapolation of the science that is known, or the “softer” the actual science, the softer the science fiction. For a more detailed and interesting discussion of hard versus soft, there’s a great article on science fiction scale of hardness.
No matter how hard or soft you like your science fiction, BCLS has something for you!