Soft Science Fiction vs. Hard Science Fiction

by Jessica

Question: What is the difference between soft science fiction and hard science fiction? How do I know which one my novel falls under?

Answer: In general terms, hard science fiction is based on speculation regarding current trends in the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) or technology and how they will affect the future. For instance, stories about humans colonizing other planets began as speculation on where the space programs of 20th century might lead. Genetic engineering, computer technology, and robotics are other new technologies that inspired many SF stories.

On the other hand, soft science fiction is based on speculation regarding the soft or social sciences (psychology, sociology, political science, anthropology, etc.). In these stories, the emphasis is more on how human culture might evolve in the future. Some examples would be Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and Always Coming Home.

Obviously, many science fiction stories include both hard and soft elements, since technology and society generally evolve together and affect each other. New technologies can change society. Cultural and political developments can affect research priorities and determine how technologies are developed.

When you try to classify a SF story as either hard or soft, you need to consider where the emphasis lies, where the key speculation or extrapolation is occurring.

For instance, while the world of The Hunger Games includes advances in technology, the primary emphasis is on changes in human society -- how a new form of totalitarianism that echoes the later stages of the Roman Empire might emerge in a world of post-apocalyptic scarcity. So I would call it soft SF.

On the other hand, I would call Larry Niven's book, The Integral Trees, hard SF because the story world is born from speculation on how the laws of physics might permit sustainable ecosystems to evolve somewhere other than on the surface of a planet.

Of course, Niven does speculate on how human society might adapt to such a strange environment, but it's the hard science aspect that makes the book interesting.

So you have to ask yourself what the most interesting aspect of your story world is. Is it the science and technology? Or is it the culture? Where are you making the most striking speculations? Which of these two areas stands out?

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