Science Fiction — or rather Speculative Fiction — has the general quality that it contains all other fiction genres. There is mystery and detective science fiction. There is romance (and sexual) science fiction. Action? Horror? Psychological thriller? Drama and pathos? Allegory? Westerns? Science fiction has them all and more.
In a sense, SF is just a property that fiction can have. I’ve tried to explain what I think that property is. I also took a stab at separating science fiction from fantasy. Now that thread resumes to explore the idea of SF hardness.
But first we return to and start with…
SF & Fantasy
Every fan knows the difference — we know it when we see it. But we vary a little in where we draw the line. Is Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon Riders series fantasy because it has dragons? Or SF because the dragons are scientifically engineered beings designed to fight Thread? My Eight Ball says: SF — the science part trumps.
Spells, however, pretty much scream magic (which is fantasy). I don’t care how mathematical or science-ological you make spells. Spells are spells; spells are magic; magic are fantasy.
Wizards? Wizards do spells. See above. Likewise Witches. Also likewise — and pretty much by definition — any form of elf, gnome, troll, nymph, sprite, fairy, etc. Basically anything that looks like a human, but isn’t. That includes werewolves and vampires, voodoo zombies and mummies, angels and demons,… at least in most cases.
Then there are the beasts and monsters. Dragons are usually fantasy (but see above). So are unicorns and any clearly mythical beast. On the other hand, Godzilla and Friends play the science card; they seem SF-ish. Monsters are often science-y in their origin.
Frankenstein is not only SF, it’s a story about science (as in: the evils of). (Remember that, metaphorically, Frankenstein is actually Prometheus. The story is actually mythical. Fantasy. But it’s actually actually about hubris. So really it’s allegorical.) By the way: Godzilla? Also about science (the atom bomb).
Spell use is a key. There could be gnomes as real beings so long as they weren’t magical or spell-users. That essentially makes them aliens in a science fiction story. Voodoo uses spells, but many zombies are science zombies. They’re created by meteor dust, or a genetic virus, or biological chemical leaks.
Saying a spell, waving complex hand patterns, scribing symbols; these do not — as far as we know — actually cause anything to happen. (And those are just some of the science-says-huh? ways of doing spells. If you’re going to say spells work, you need to explain that somehow. Doing so usually distinguishes between science or magic.
I ran into this a really long time ago:
If I transport somewhere across the galaxy (or planet (heck, or room)), and I have a machine that enables this, that’s science fiction. Anyone having the same machine could do the same.
If I transport somewhere across the galaxy (or etc.), and it’s because of some power or skill of mine — usually one that makes me somewhat unique — that’s fantasy. Spells, in particular, suggest fantasy.
Machines are science (nearly always — exceptions except). The long form is: machines are engineering; engineering is applied science; science is the study of natural laws anyone can learn and use. To do engineering. To make machines. Machines are science.
You know… Usually. (In some cases, machines are magical objects!)
It’s less clear if magic is based on natural laws anyone can learn and use. Is it science now? Isn’t that what science is?
If Spells are actually just complex mathematical equations anyone can learn and use… science? When do you stop calling them Spells and start calling them Equations?
Whatever they are, if only certain people are endowed with the power to use them, that seems pretty magical. Be it personal power, personal will, or family tree, if it’s personal, it’s probably magic.
But it’s harder to draw a line just on the basis of natural (science) laws versus magical laws. One assumes magical laws are consistent and invariant (which is the thing about natural laws). Some stories do, in fact, posit magic as just another form of science. In some cases the “physics” of a different world are said to support magic but not science. (Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books somewhat take this tack.)
We know it when we see it.
Wizards and witches need magic to be natural law to be considered SF. Mad scientists and insane inventors on the other had — it’s hard for them not to be SF.
Which, obliquely, references the real point: SF Hardness.
I just had to swing past fantasy to get here. It needed to be recognized and then set aside for the moment. This is about not-fantasy.
Among fans of not-fantasy there is a spectrum of soft-to-hard SF. Drawing a line here is more complicated than the SF versus fantasy line, because it is a spectrum. Unlike the Yin-Yang of SF-Fantasy — which are true opposites — science fiction has a hardness property. Soft SF, therefore, is science fiction lacking in hardness.
Note that SF hardness has neither a positive nor negative connotation. It is merely the degree to which the science plays a key role in the narrative. If SF is the fiction of ideas, hard SF is the fiction of really science-y ideas. This includes the extension of science into awesome feats of engineering and technology.
I’ve mentioned (yes, I know, repeatedly) Larry Niven’s Ringworld. That’s rock-hard SF. Most of Niven is hard SF (but he did venture into fantasy; Inferno, for example). More recent authors known for hard SF include David Brin (a favorite of mine) and Greg Egan (whose work I also really enjoy).
And I always liked James Hogan. He’s squarely in the hard SF club. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be guilty about liking him or not. For that matter, Orson Scott Card is another hard SF author whose work I like, but whose personal views seem questionable. But Ender’s Game (and sequels)? Hard SF. (Really good hard SF!)
For contrast, the classic Dune. That’s less hard. It has witches. And visions that come true. And Spice — let’s face it — is magic pixie dust. Part of what makes Dune so cool is how even the science bits seem tinted with magic.
Alien, for all its trappings, is fairly soft SF.
A lot of horror or monster science fiction is pretty soft. Often they only qualify as SF because they take place in space and — necessarily — on a spaceship. Mindless marauding monsters who fly spaceships are such soft SF as to be essentially fantasy (or in some cases, allegory).
In general, science fiction action movies are typically softer SF. (Most monster or horror movies are just types of action movie.) They all often qualify as SF only in virtue of their trappings and locations. A purist might not consider them true SF at all.
Star Wars, again despite the trappings, is so soft that I file it under Fairy Tale. It essentially begins with “Once upon a time,” has evil wizards and emperors, black and white “magic,” sword fighting, a prince, a princess, and a knight with a dashing steed and a faithful squire. There’s a reason little kids adore Star Wars!
To some extent, if you can remove the science fiction element, and still have basically the same story, it’s less science fiction-y. Time travel SF is a good example of requiring the SF element to tell the story. (Keep in mind: none of this is bad. There’s nothing wrong with a good story with sci-fi trappings. They can be just the local color.)
I absolutely lean towards SF when it comes to fiction. My tastes span the gamut, from fantasy to all degrees of SF hardness. But I love me some diamond-hard SF! I love stories about ideas that might actually happen, at least in theory. (“Theory” generously includes things like time travel and warp drive, which we think are probably impossible.)
George O. Smith wrote short stories where the plot often centers around the use of vacuum tubes. In space. Where they don’t need glass envelopes. Because in space everything is in a vacuum. But in his The Fourth “R” he swings the other way, focusing on character and plot.
Hal Clement (another big favorite of mine) wrote amazing novels, each completely different (minus a few sequels). Each one hangs on a scientific idea that is manifested as an essential plot element. They’re cool because they’re not obviously hard — almost covertly hard. (Unlike Smith above, who is unabashedly hard.)
Hardness is a basic quality; just a property of the narrative. If the science is really interesting, sometimes that’s enough — especially with short stories. Sometimes it’s fun to read about just a clever idea or obscure part of science. Some of my early science training came from SF!
What elevates any fiction is quality narrative, and that’s something else.
Quality hard SF is, for example, Clement. The science-y stuff that hardens SF needs to be subsumed in something necessary to the narrative. I like David Brin so much because of how he puts amazing technology to use in telling a story. In Sundiver, the explorer ship is central to the story (no ship, no story), plus it’s really cool technology.
Brin, like another favorite, Robert Forward, is a scientist who turned to writing science fiction. (Isaac Asimov is another with a science background who wrote SF.) Due to their backgrounds, they tend to write very hard SF well-grounded in physics which makes them favorites among readers with science backgrounds.
I very much suspect that a love of hard SF is directly related to a love of science. I’ve never really understood why some don’t find any kind of science fiction interesting, but I have known many who don’t. My parents, despite many efforts over the years, never found it interesting. (They both enjoyed mystery and detective fiction, so we shared that.)
I used to think science fiction needed to be discovered at a young age, but over time I’ve met too many exceptions to that rule. It appears to require a certain kind of mindset, but I couldn’t begin to describe it.
It’s hard enough just describing science fiction!