With the new Star Wars out and the Star Trek Alternaverse in full swing, along with films such as Interstellar and The Martian, the hard and soft sci-fi debate has reared up again. Since I write sci-fi, I thought I would weigh in.
Hard sci-fi to me is an attempt by the writer to be as accurate as possible with the things that can be accurate. If the work describes a technology that has yet to be invented, so be it. It’s necessary for the story. This doesn’t automatically make it scientifically soft. But when the work describes the time it takes to travel from, say, Earth to Neptune, given their relative positions to the sun and their current distance from one another, and at a given speed, that number is accurate. The author has done the calculations to make it correct.
By no means does the author have to walk the reader through the math (I would prefer they didn’t). But calculations that can be accurate in the book are accurate, as are descriptions of technology.
I’m sorry, but when I see (old) Spock on that ice planet, looking up into the sky to see Vulcan implode, I’m out of the story. Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury can all be seen from Earth with the naked eye, but not enough to make out any details. At best we get the impression of color. For it to be what the new Star Trek movie showed us, it would have to be as close as Earth’s moon, to say nothing of being in a different solar system.
However, I think the most important aspect of a hard science fiction work is that it remains consistent to itself. When it establishes certain rules, especially regarding that technology, those rules are inviolate and realistic to the universe of the book. If a story says that a ship travels at the speed of light, then it travels at the speed of light, not one hundred times faster than that because it becomes convenient to the story later on.
Changing the rules doesn’t make it soft science fiction, it makes it bad science fiction. It completely disrupts the narrative of the story, taking the reader out of the suspension of disbelief.
Soft science fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t try and make things accurate. It’s not that they couldn’t, it’s that the story doesn’t revolve around that accuracy. The focus is not on that accuracy. Stories like The Martian need those details. It needs to be accurate because there are definite problems to solve that revolve around the science.
My new favorite sci-fi show is Killjoys, which is pretty soft on the science fiction. From how the moons of the Quad system were (mis)terraformed to the specific systems on Lucy, the show doesn’t concern itself with those details. They are building a universe of stories that touch on certain scientific ideas, and what can happen with those ideas in the future. I love the show. I don’t care about the specific travel times between worlds, or nitpick at how compressed the time is because that has never been part of the initial premise of the show. It remains true to itself as a soft science fiction show.
I think works that focus on specific problem-solving, on shows that feature military and space battles, lend themselves to being harder science fiction. There are still fantastic technologies, but the hard science is in the details of how ships maneuver, how weapons work, and what tactics are used.
One last thing: I think that misusing actual scientific terms (I’m looking at you Star Wars and your insistence on misusing parsec) is far worse than inventing technobabble (Let’s realign the dilithium matrix to stabilize the plasma flow from the matter/antimatter reactor, otherwise we risk collapsing the warp field).
One of my degrees should have been in technobabble.