Hard Science Fiction vs. Soft Science Fiction

There are two main hard vs. soft science fiction definitions. Just Google it to see.

Hard vs. soft science fiction definition No. 1:
Hard science fiction focuses on the hard sciences.
Soft science fiction focus on the soft sciences.

Hard vs. soft science fiction definition No. 2:
Hard science fiction focuses on the science.
Soft science fiction focuses on the story or characters.

I argue the two definitions are really the same.

First, a little terminology. “Hard science” is one of the natural or physical sciences. Physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and astronomy fall under hard science. “Soft science” is a field that deals with humans. Psychology, sociology, anthropology, and political science are examples of soft science.

If you focus on the story or the character in a science fiction setting, you must focus on one of the soft sciences. The whole point of using a science fiction world is to explore the possibilities of the what-ifs. You really have two options while exploring a what-if: focus on the (hard) science behind it or how it affects the humans (or other sentient forms). Hard science or soft science. Science or story and characters.

Many people think the two definitions are contradictory because of how definition two generally continues. “Soft science fiction does not always bother to use realistic technology, relying on black boxes and vague definitions.” How can something which, by the first definition, focuses on science not bother to be realistic? But if you look at the actual definition of soft science, you will see it focuses on the humans themselves, not the technology. While focusing on science, it doesn’t focus on technology.

When you hear “science” you automatically think of the hard sciences. Lab coats and test tubes and microscopes come to the mind’s eyes. When I first read the definition of soft science, I thought, “Those are sciences? Oh wait, what else could they be. . .” So we skip over “soft” and see “focus on science.” Mixed messages!

As you can see now, the second definition relies on what you automatically think of when you hear “science.”

So, we could redefine definition two to say:
Hard science fiction focuses on the hard science.
Soft science fiction focuses on the humans or the effects on humans.

Sounds like definition one now, doesn’t it?


About Kathrine Roid

I'm an science fiction and fantasy author living in Texas with an undead parakeet and teleporting cat. Think about that for a moment.

Posted on January 18, 2011, in On Writing, Posts by Genre, Science Fiction and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. The Sci-Fi novel I wrote last year was a soft science one. I am writing a new one called ‘Virtual Insanity’ (I know I used a song title), more on technology but still on character development.


  2. Thanks for your clear explanation of this. I also think there’s another aspect that overlaps with what you’re saying somewhat. Some hard SF fans seem to make a contrast with SF that doesn’t have any hard or established science behind it, which therefore makes it soft SF. They don’t focus on the soft sciences as you do in your contrast; instead, they’re referring to the out-of-nowhere black boxes and even fantasy ‘science’ that form the reality of soft SF, which perhaps then becomes SFF. I like your way of looking at it, though, as it’s broader and more complete without it being elitist like some hard SF fans tend to be.

  3. I like your explanation of soft vs. hard science but I don’t think science fiction writers should get hung up on this. It doesn’t matter if you cross lines or make it unclear which science your talking about, as long as your making your readers think.

    • Yes, David, this is certainly one of the things there is no need to sweat about. 😀 Of course you should write the book that is most engaging to the reader. I merely hoped to clear up some confusion I have seen over the two common terms “hard” and “soft” science fiction. If you write science fiction, whoever reads your work is going to assign it one of those two categories in their head, and it’s nice to know what on earth it means when a reviewer calls your novel “delightful soft science fiction.” 😉

  1. Pingback: hard SF depends on soft SF and fantasy | Olsen Jay Nelson

  2. Pingback: Hard SF vs Soft SF | GOLEM 14

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