Hard and Soft Science Fiction: The Connection Between Technology and Society

Last week I made a post comparing the genres of science fiction and fantasy.  To those who know me or follow this blog, it should come as no surprise that I am a bigger fan of science fiction than fantasy.  I find fantasy sort of boring, at least in its modern incarnation.  It’s been reduced to the point where it’s always swords and sorcery in a medieval style world.  And there’s dragons of course.  There’s always dragons (kinda like how every horror movie these days has to involve demons…but I’ll leave that for some other time…the at least five other times I’ve complained about it).

So while fantasy has never really struck my interest that much, I’ve always enjoyed science fiction.  There are, in particular, two big categories for science fiction: hard and soft.  Hard science fiction focuses a lot on scientific accuracy and technological advancement, placing emphasis on the details of the technology rather than its impacts on society.  Soft science fiction generally deals with the social sciences: psychology, sociology, and so on.  It also focuses on the impact of technology on a societal or human level.

But calling these two separate sub-genres of science fiction would be doing them a disservice.  In fact, most scholars of science fiction tend to agree that the two of them are pretty much present in almost all stories.

Let’s use a modern example.  Take Andy Weir’s The Martian (which is being made into a movie that’s coming out this fall in fact).  On its surface, The Martian is a hard science-fiction survival story.  It follows NASA astronaut Mark Watney as he struggles to survive on Mars after being presumed dead by his follow teammates.  A large portion of the story is devoted to Watney brainstorming ways to grow food, generate oxygen, generate water, and so on.  It isn’t until past the first hundred pages or so I believe that the soft science fiction aspect of the story comes into play.  It’s when (minor spoilers ahead) the people back on Earth realize that Watney is still alive that we see the more societal aspect of the story.  It’s also well represented in Matt Damon’s voiceover at the beginning of the teaser trailer.  Take a listen:



So you can see that while the story (at least in the book) places a lot of emphasis on the scientific details of survival on the red planet, it also touches on the aspects of society banding together to help someone in trouble.  As Damon says in the trailer, “if a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people coordinate a search”.

But The Martian is by no means the only place we see this intermingling of hard and soft sci-fi.  2001: A Space Odyssey is a movie well-remembered by many people, even if only for the LSD light show at the end that lasts for almost ten minutes.  Despite the incredibly metaphysical nature of the movie’s ending, there are a lot of elements of hard science fiction in there as well.  The depictions of space travel are incredibly accurate for the most part, with the shuttle docking sequence and the depiction of the time it would take for the Discovery to travel to Jupiter.  There’s another example that you can see in the book version as well.  In the book, Dave Bowman and Frank Poole aren’t headed for Jupiter, but rather for Saturn (the location was changed for the movie because they thought making Saturn’s rings would have been too expensive).  To make it to Saturn in decent time, they preform a slingshot maneuver around Jupiter, using the gas giant’s gravity to propel them toward Saturn, and all without wasting too much fuel.

Despite all this, there are stories that embody mostly one or the other type.  For soft science fiction, a great example of this would be Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, a book which takes place in a dystopian society where books are banned and everyone spends almost all their time watching television.  There are no great attempts at describing future technology and how it works.  Farenheit 451 is probably one of the closest to pure soft sci-fi.

Hard science fiction is a little harder to find.  The Martian is a great example of hard science-fiction, but to get closer to pure hard sci-fi, we’d probably have to look in the direction of the Mars Trilogy, a series of books by Kim Stanley Robinson which chronicles the colonization of Mars in painstaking detail.  I’ve never read any of the books (nor will I most likely…I never much cared for that type of story), but from what I’ve heard about them, they are mainly hard sci-fi.  There are still elements of soft science fiction in there (the books are set in a future where Earth suffers from overpopulation and an ecological disaster, which is what prompts the colonization of Mars), but the stories seem to mainly focus on the technological details of colonizing and terraforming a planet.

Like most genres and sub-genres, hard and soft science fiction aren’t mutually exclusive.  They mix and match to make impossible worlds seem plausible.  They use technology to show us a side of ourselves that we’ve never considered or perhaps wanted to ignore.  War, poverty, interstellar travel, environmentalism, and more all have a place under the banner of science fiction, which is probably why I like it so much.  Science fiction is the genre that has a lot to say, if we give it the right tools to say it.

Escapism is the main reason we enjoy fiction and literature, and sci-fi is great at it.  But sci-fi is great at revealing the truths in the world around us, even if they are not always to our liking…


Well that’s all I have for you this time.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!