14 January 2012

FWS Topics: Hard or Soft?

How do you like your science-fiction? One filled with near fantasy, but lean on the science, or one that keeps a hard line with being textbook correct. That question that the vast majority of science-fiction creators asked themselves this about the type of science fiction they are developing, and the fork in the road is: Hard or Soft. This seems to be a question raised about how you like your eggs, or martial arts, or even a dirty joke, but what the author or creator chooses will define his fictional work. To illustrate the difference between the two paths, just examine the 1979 Battlestar Galactica and the 2003 Ronald Moore relaunch, while one took their look and soft-serve science from Star Wars, the new BSG was under the commandment "Thou shall be real", in the series bible, Ron Moore called it "naturalized science fiction". To be clear, I'm not saying that one type of sci-fi is better than another, some of the most successful sci-fi works are as soft as frozen yogurt, like Star Wars and Stargate SG-1. Some softer science fiction works can just or even more compelling than 100% hard sci-fi, like  DUNE, and one can see in the 1968 2001 how boring hard sci-fi can be, or how great in 2009 Virtuality pilot or the 1972 Soviet Solaris.
We discuss the subject of realism, while I am working on a blogpost about realism and MSF, it would seem that realism would be firmly in the realm of hard science fiction, real science=realism, right? Well, not really. One of the more hard sci-fi movies 2001: A Space Odyssey, is frankly, a bore, the humans characters are woody, and the best character of them all is the HAL-9000! Then we take the example of ALIENS, the futuristic military and space travel is all realistic, the atmosphere processor seems like real science, but overall, its quasi-soft sci-fi, and one of the best science fiction movies ever made. It's not just with machines or technology that a creator gives realism to a fictional work, its with the characters, the situation, and how they conduct themselves. Here is my rubic for the requirements and their examples of the science seen in science-fiction.


Real, one hundred percent hard science fiction were the creator puts Sir Issac Newton in the driver seat, is rare. Partly this has to do with the extreme popularity of Star War and Star Trek, coloring the pool of future writers, along with the extreme amount of research needed to generate a hard science fictional space tale that can pass the acid test (just look at the atomic rocket website!). To maintain the "hard" label, these fictional story must conform to the current understanding of science, which means in short: no aliens, no FTL, and starships that use heat radiator.
Most works that are considered hard sci-fi often revert to fast-than-travel devices or space aliens, and this rules them more to the quasi-hard sci-fi section, because Dr. Freeman nor Dr. Kaku have discovered hyperspace or xenomorphs living on LV-426. Some might consider the films 2001 and 2010 hard science works, however, the Hubble telescope as yet to discovery any floating menacing black monoliths near Jupiter...or maybe NASA is covering them up?  


Hard science fiction exists more in the realm of the printed word than movies or TV shows, however, the few that do are well worth the time. One of my favorites is the failed 2009 pilot for FOX by Ronald Moore called Virtuality, where Earth's first nuclear pulse propulsion vessel (one of the rare examples), the Phaeton is about to break away from the Sol system towards Epsilon Eridani to search for a habitual planet since Earth is dying. The crew is realistic in jobs, and daily life is shown along with spinning sections to provide gravity. to relax the dozen members of the Phaeton jack into a VR program. This show could have been one of the best ever made for the idiot box, but was never picked up, the two-hour pilot is on DVD, and is worth picking up.
One of the best known, and not really thought of has hard science is the much loved Firefly, where space as no sound, there is no aliens or FTL, and colonized worlds of the 'verse are products of Terraforming. We also see the good crew of the firefly class vessel, the Serenity, concerned over fuel, finding work to pay for their next meal, and not crashlanding. Truly, Firefly was one of the most enjoyable hard sci-fi series ever.
Another rare example comes from Anime, which is not known for scientifically accurate sci-fi program, but Makoto Yukimura's 26 episode epic called Planets is concerned 100% hard science, even having the Japanese space agency involved with the series, which even has the medical impact of long-term zero-gee exposure. The story itself is about in orbit space junk clean-up crews, the exportation of Jupiter and space terrorism. In 2004, another small-screen work by the BBC, called Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets followed a group of astronauts on a tour of the solar system in a nuclear thermal rocket called the Pegasus. Here is the opening to the BBC Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets (2004):


To most consumers of sci-fi, the works that fall into quasi-hard science fiction seem like scientific accurate works, however they normally involve the story containing aliens, and/or faster-than-light propulsion, or some other small element that makes no sense to laws of physics. Most of these works are 70%-90% scientifically accurate, but are forced to hand wave certain elements, like ET life and/or FTL to make the story happen as the author sees it. Two of the real-science technologies left out regards starship design: artificial gravity via spinning sections, and heat radiators.This is the same reason that Avatar, while presenting one of the most scientifically accurate starship ever seen onscreen and realistic future ground forces didn't make the hard sci-fi cut: big smurf feline smurfs.
One of fine example is the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, where 80% of the science is correct, but there is still unscientific elements, like the use of space fighters (most hard sci-fi sites, like Atomic Rockets says that fighters are a no-no in hard sci-fi), FTL, no heat radiators, and unknown methods of generating Earth-normal gravity, however, to credit, BSG, they present the FTL with more much realism than most works, especially ones on TV. In Ronald Moore's Battlestar, the Galactica must use maps, telescopes, and scouting expedition to pick jump-sights, to avoid jumping into a solid mass. The fighters of both Cylon and the Colonies use chemically propelled 30mm cannons, and mostly of the ACM tactics seem geared to the reality of outer space than retrofitted Earth-bound dogfights. 
One thing I noticed to day, while watching BSG, is that the Galactica and other members of the ragtag fleet always have their Tylium-fueled engine motors on full. Why? It seemed that Mr. Moore forgot about the law of motion as it applies in space.
 It's these little elements that keep shows like BSG and ABC's 2009 more-or-less hard science Defying Gravity from being 100% hard science. Where it was space fighters and FTL that kept BSG from hard science fiction rating, it was a mysterious life form that picked up on Mars that was hitchhiking on the hard science designed Antares space ship on its cruiser around the solar system. An interesting note, the hard sci-fi BBC Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets that inspirited the creation of American Defying Gravity.  


One of my favorite quasi-hard sci-fi novels, is The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, where the alien music is picked up and the Jesuit order decides to fund an expedition to the Alpha Centurai system, to get there, a hallowed asteroid is used as the basis for a starship. Along with this, the alien species is realistic designed and novel is one of the finest sci-fi novels written. In the realm of military science fiction, the first book by Robert Buettner, former CIA employee, The Orphanage is more or less hard science, save for the "slug" aliens that attempt to wage a distinct war with the Earth via kinetic projectiles that wiped out cities.
The Earth was at peace until the Slugs showed up, and military technology along with space exploration has all regressed. The novel details an emergency military expedition with modified Vietnam-era kit to Ganymede, the home to the Slug's bomb base. Then there is one of the finest sci-fi writers and his best-known novel, Stanislaw Lem's 1961 masterpiece Solarius,which is one of Nigel's favorites as well, details are more realistic encounter with alien life and shows realistic space travel.


This type of science-fiction normally has its fans or even the show itself insisting on its hard scientific credentials by the creators' using some scientific theories, consulting with NASA, and of these, none meet the title as justly as Star Trek, especially, The Next Generation. This quasi-soft science fiction, like most, uses some elements of real science,Matter/anti-Matter energy generation, or deflector arrays to protect the Enterprise-D from micro-meteors, and even the ingenious inertial dampers, to avoid, as the technical manual put, "turning the crew into chucky salsa". However, at its heart, these quasi-soft sci-fi works do not obey some basic laws of physics, like Star Trek using weapons at supra-light speeds, and lack of time dilation, for the sake of the story. This makes quasi-soft science fiction and its relationship with hard science a marriage of convenience.


Along with the entire Star Trek saga being relegated to this rating, there is another science fiction series offer boasts about being hard science, Babylon 5. While its true that B5 did use real science and scientific theory in designing the Babylon Five O'Neil station, the warships of the Earth Force that seem use the USSR Leonov from 2010 as a template, especially the Omega class. Then there are the Earth Force Starfury fighters, which could be the most hard science design for a space fighter seen on screen. But, that is where B5 ends its brief love affair with hard science, because if we look at the more advanced races of the Babylon 5 universe, the Minbari and Vorlon and their advanced technology, it seems to say that you can overcome the laws of physics via higher knowledge. When the series and the wars came to end, we see the Earth Force use new technology in their Warlock warship to "overcome" those pesky laws.
Another example is from wayback in 1988, called Earth Star Voyager, this Disney/ABC production was a sci-fi series plot, turned into a movie for young people (like me! Well, in 1988) to show how cool science was so we would major in it, and then kick collective USSR ass later in the future. The basic plot was similar in some aspect to 2009's Virtuality where a dying Earth sends out a long-range explorer vessel to a relatively nearby star system to hunt for a Goldilocks planet. The kicker was that most of the crew was beyond 18 years old, due to the length of the journey there and back again. During the several hours of bad 80's writing, and model SFX, the pimple-faced crew of the Earth Star Voyager construct a homebrew magnetic gun and "solar laser".    

Some of the most familiar science fiction works, especially those on the big and small screen, are scientifically hard as frozen yogurt, and chief among them is Star Wars. Within soft sci-fi, there are works that break the most basic laws of physics and nature, I've seen people survive the vacuum of space (see Robotech), and destroy entire worlds with ancient Imperial Japanese battleship.
As I've stated above, just because a sci-fi work is mushy on the science, doesn't translate to the story being bad, or unworthy of praise. Some of the greatest sci-fi stories are soft science, like the Star Wars saga, HALO, Doctor Who, the Fifth Element and the greatest science fiction novel of all time: DUNE. For a story to bridge the gap between the textbook and the realm of fantasy that the audience can believe, than that is up to the story teller to weave a great tale, and it seems to help if they have kick ass toys as well.


There can be no better example of soft-serve sci-fi than mystic Samurai-like warriors that wear flammable robes using an energy sword to intersect and counter incoming laser blaster bolts. There is simply no spiritual training or secret martial art that can enable the human body react fast enough to block a laser beam, even if it's not going lightspeed, but of course, Lucas as trouble remembering what a parsec is! Then there is another popular sci-fi saga, Stargate, which also throws out the science textbook to have some portal-jumping fun! I've never really liked any of the Stargate series that much, never felt like they lived up to the promise of the concept.
Of course, it does help that when they use real-science weaponry, like railguns mounted to the Daedalus Earth battlecruiser, and fail to do the research. When I applied the rubric of types of sci-fi, I was forced to put a few of my favorites on this soft-serve list: Robotech, Space Cruiser Yamato,and HALO.   


  1. another short lived FOX series was Space Above And Beyond, I thought it did a reasonably good
    hard science take on space flight and other aspects of the genera...apart from using highly trained pilots as infantry!

  2. Interestingly the British version of Space Odyssey: Voyage To The Planets had them travel out to Pluto, and during that time found primitive life in one of the samples taken on Mars. The American version was slightly shorter and had them return to Earth after visiting Saturn.

    Defying Gravity had some silly explanations for why the crew didn't float around inside the ship when not in the rotating sections. Apparently their clothing was full of nanites with magnets that attract to the metal hull of the ship. This also applied to "nano-spray" which was basically hairspray with the magnetic nanites which made their hair attract to itself and therefore resemble what hair would look like in normal Earth gravity. Nice way to save on special effects budget I suppose.

  3. I guess to me personnally it all revolves around the story and (main) characters. I really loved B5, but also Farscape, Dune and "2010" are absolute favorites. In my Top Two resides Blade Runner as well.

    If the story is good enough, than I'll accept 'soft' scifi (Blakes7), though I also have to admit that I'm overtly critical at times; one devastatingly wrong 'hard' science fact and it will kill my interest in 'hard' scifi faster than you can say "That's No Moon".

  4. Thanks to everyone for posting comments! Space: Above and Beyond was a life changing series for me, it made me abandon Star Trek and learn about MSF. I had trouble putting SAAB into a rating, maybe Quasi-Hard?
    Defying Gravity was a good show that couldn't find an audience, and it was sold to the network as "grey's anatomy in space", that little bit work about the hair not moving was kewl little element, but I agree, it was to save on SFX money.
    I would agree with you, Marcase, characters are the most important element within a story, it can be hard as hard, or soft as heated butter, but a good character, like Rick Deckard, will carry it through even when the story drops on skin-job mid-way through. That is one of the elements I paid close attention to in both books, I'm currently working on.

  5. SAAB straddles the line between Quasi Hard and Quasi Soft. I really enjoyed it, but Fox managed to kill it like it did Firefly years later. As for me, I like the story to be in the quasi hard or quasi soft. Too hard and it kills the potentiality for the author to introduce new concepts (not necessarily new technologies). For example, take the Vorkosigan saga by Bujold. It is probably quasi soft (when it concerns it self with technology at all). What they really end up being are questions about what the author thinks life is about and how we can look at it in different ways and maybe see alternatives that did not occur to us without the macguffin forcing us to think differently.

  6. Atomic Rockets is a great site, but it certainly isn't free of any bias - anyone who theorizes that A (such as space fighters) is completely impossible because of X (because drones, stupid!) is inviting egg on their face. As far as hard vs soft sci-fi is concerned, I have always felt, "Why bother?" Hard elements in media can really add punch to a verse, but obsessing about it can result in lunacy like 2001 (one of the most overrated movies of all time, in my honest opinion). Firefly may have omitted "space sound" (which is pretty hard for a tv show), but it also had a verse steeped in "Wild West" aesthetics and lore (which is melted-butter level soft, and fortunately averted in the rather brilliant movie). As long as you're having fun with your verse, I say don't worry about it. Go as hard or as soft as you feel you need to. What matters is whether it's good at the end. How people classify it afterward is their problem, not the authors'.