In defence of ‘soft’ science fiction

This isn’t a rant. Well, maybe it’s a little bit of a rant. Mostly, it’s just my rambling thoughts on why I love so-called ‘soft’ science fiction and why I find it frustrating when it’s not considered serious or ‘real’ science fiction.

Sometimes there’s a tendency when talking about science fiction to assume the default should be ‘hard’ science, and that all the other facets of the genre, whether it’s ‘soft’ sci-fi, space opera or science fantasy, should be classified as something different. Something less than. They come with caveats. It can even come across as a little bit like gatekeeping—as if only the hard, technical stories are real science fiction and everything else is a subset.

Don’t get me wrong—I enjoy reading sci-fi that’s got a bit of explanation and theory to it that justifies the technology and makes you think about practicalities and plausibility. But I’m equally as happy suspending my disbelief and being taken on a journey a little less grounded in reality but filled with wonder and the unknown.

Silhouette of person standing looking up at colourful galaxy

For me, the most important thing is the story. I can forgive a lot if the story justifies it, if I’ve got characters that pull me in and worlds I can get lost in. In my own writing, characters and relationships resonate more with me than in-depth explanations of science and technology. I try to give justification and plausibility where I can, but I never want it to distract or get in the way of telling the story.

If I really want to explain how something works, it tends to just be a couple of lines here or there to give the rough flavour, rather than comprehensive details. For example, I might mention inertial dampeners to show why my characters are able to withstand extreme acceleration in space. But I won’t go deep into the technology of how inertial dampeners work, as I don’t think it adds anything to the story I’m trying to tell.

Put it this way—I don’t need to know why something is possible as long as it follows its own rules and makes sense in context. It’s enough to know that faster-than-light travel exists. I don’t need to know how it exists to enjoy the story.

If I think more unrealistic or even fantastical elements will enrich my setting or enhance my story, I’ll include them. As a reader, I’m happy to suspend my disbelief for a lot of things if the story is strong enough to justify it. As a writer, I try not to be constrained by things I can’t fully explain. I’d rather leave things a little unexplained, a little hard to believe, to achieve what I’m trying to tell in the story.

My current project has faster-than-light travel in the form of lightly-explained tunnel-punching technology. It has aliens that can absorb radiation into their skin to release it in powerful bursts of energy. It has warriors who have visions of the past. It’s rooted in characters, in people, rather than technology. It shares more similarities with Star Wars than The Martian. But it can be all these things and still be science fiction—without caveats, without apology.

One of the best things about science fiction is how broad and all-encompassing it is. It’s a genre that has room for the detailed explanations of science and technology of Alastair Reynolds as well as the cosy, slice-of-life charm of Becky Chambers. And that’s a good thing. So whether you prefer harder or softer science or enjoy both, let’s just be glad that we have a huge variety of stories under one big sci-fi umbrella.

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