Science Fiction Repair Shop: Hard, Soft, And Squishy

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2020-12-04 21:00:00 No comments

A New Edition of Insomnium :: Matthew Buscemi

I refuse to label my work as either “hard SF” or “soft SF.” The term “soft” is used by certain individuals in a derogatory sense, no matter how much others may try to redeem it. What I began to notice about so-called “hard SF enthusiasts” was that they didn’t so much care about “science” in and of itself, but rather, they had a very particular ideas about what scientific developments would occur at what intervals in the future, and anyone who suggested that technology was taking us on a different path (e.g. complete ecological destruction) was deemed “not intelligent enough” to have comprehended the “actual” way technology would develop in the future.

This kind of snobbery always struck me as being exactly that: snobbery, with a side order of gatekeeping. Labels like "hard" and "soft" SF are useful if you're a taxonomist, but when used to beat people over the head, they're pointless.

I don't care if SF is possible, I care if it's plausible -- that it makes sense in the context of the people experiencing what goes on; that it is credible by the laws of human behavior as we know them. I care about who all this is happening to and what they do about it, not whether or not the things themselves are scientifically correct. Not least of all because our understanding of things expands and changes, but also because what's the point of being such a nitpicker, other than to lord it over others?

That said, I do care if the author has bothered to supply me with goings-on that have internal consistency. One annoying thing that happens in a lot of fantasy is when you either have a) no rules at all for how things can unfold, or b) a burdensome obsession with the rules that borders on the story being a transcription of a tabletop RPG session. A) is bad because in a story where anything can happen, nothing makes any difference; everything's equally possible and interchangeable. B) is bad, at least for me, because I'm not a game-mechanics junkie. An author who spends countless pages lovingly describing for me the workings of their magic system strikes me as someone who'd be having more fun writing RPG supplements anyway. And an author who just handwaves everything might as well not be writing SF&F at all, if they're not even all that interested in what it can do and why.

Side note. One of the really unnerving things of the last four years is how a great many people have acted in ways that would have seemed insane or implausible. You know the joke: someone writes a political thriller that recounts all the madness of the Trump years, and the editor looks at the manuscript and scoffs. But I'm realizing the only reason we would have previously thought all this impossible, or implausible, was because we had never been pushed in the ways we've been pushed. We now know things about ourselves at scale that we didn't before, and that changes forever what we think of as plausible or possible. We now know, in a way we have not known before, how complacent our faith is in our world, and how dangerous that is. And we're still learning the hard way, to the tune of a 9/11's worth of dead bodies every single day of the week, for god knows how long.

Tags: science fiction