• C.W. Phelps

Hard vs Soft, Part 2!

Last week I introduced the two main sides to science fiction, hard and soft. Today, we are going to delve a little deeper into these, as we continue our search for what really turns you on to the fanatical worlds built in Sci-Fi.

Let’s go hard first.

Hard science fiction gets off on enabling explaining its meanings with credible logic. It holds to rigorous attention to scientific detail where the world and characters are held to logical repercussions for their actions. But we already talked about that, let’s take a look at an example.

“The Red” Book 1 of The Red Trilogy, by Linda Nagata

Private First Class Dubey Lin is standing on the catwalk, nine feet above the ground, peering through a machine-gun port at the surrounding trees. Dubey over-relies on organic sight, but he’s always ready to go on time and he never argues. Actually, he never says much of anything at all. “Dubey!” I shout. “Get down here.” “Yes, sir!” He jumps to the ground, letting the shocks of his exoskeleton take the impact and startling the dogs, who are so wound up in anticipation of the night’s patrol that they lunge at one another. Vicious growls erupt as they spin around in play fights. Ransom gets in on it, launching a few kung fu kicks and chops in Dubey’s direction, flexing his exoskeleton’s leg and arm struts, but Dubey ignores him, as always. In the LCS ranks, we’ve nicknamed the exoskeletons our “dead sisters” because all the parts except the floating footplates look a lot like human bones. Shocked struts with knee articulation run up the outside of the legs to the hips. Across the back, the rig takes an hourglass shape to minimize profile, ending in a shoulder-spanning arch that easily supports both the weight of a field pack and the leverage that can be generated by the slender arm struts. Packets of microprocessors detect a soldier’s movements, translating them to the rig in customized motion algorithms. A soldier in an exoskeleton can get shot dead and never fall down. I saw that in Bolivia. And if there’s enough power left in the dead sister, it can walk the body back to a safe zone for recovery. I’ve seen that too. Sometimes the dead just keep walking, right through my dreams. Not that I’d ever admit that to Guidance. Jaynie pushes me a little harder. “So if Guidance is listening in on everything you say, sir, why do you keep talking shit?” “We have to play the game, Sergeant. We don’t have to like it. Now, helmets on!” We all disappear behind full-face visors tuned to an opaque black.

Here we can see the importance of the hard elements of science fiction at play. Great care is taken to explain the elements to the character’s exoskeletons. There’s a real, core importance to these machines that the soldiers are wearing. The reader is given the same knowledge base that the character has, to understand the equipment. The character, and now reader, know that these exoskeletons will even keep the dead moving… obviously a traumatic image for the character and now the reader as well. The knowledge of this powerful technology is passed onto the reader, thus creating a shared experience between reader and character.

Let’s relax into it with some Soft Sci-Fi.

While I would argue that the ‘softer’ sciences at play in this medium would be better defined as ‘difficult’ it is still the common descriptor for social sciences. Soft Sci-Fi is more focused on the characters, their roles, connections, and reactions within a science fiction background. The science at large here is within the characters themselves, while the traditional tropes of Sci-Fi like spaceships, artificial intelligence, and intergalactic locales are in the backdrops. Example:

“The Stars Are Legion” by Kameron Hurley

“How many times has this happened to me?” I say. My left hand trembles, and I gaze at it as if it belongs to someone else. It occurs to me that maybe it once did, and that chills me. I want to know what’s happened to my memory, and why there was a body on the floor in my sick room, and why I threw away a child. But I know they aren’t going to be pretty answers. “You are blessed of the War God, sister mine,” Jayd says, but she is looking at Gavatra as she says it. It’s like being a child again, stuck in a room with people who have a deep history between them; too deep and complicated for a child to fathom. Even more curious is that if Jayd is really my sister, then the feeling that stirs my gut when she twines her fingers in my hair is entirely wrong. I lift my gaze to Gavatra and firm my jaw. A grim purpose fills me. “I wish to know what happened to me,” I say. “You can tell me or have me wrest it from you.” I can make both hands into fists now. That action feels more natural than anything I’ve done so far. Gavatra barks out a laugh. She swipes at the table and pulls a nest of dancing lights from its surface and into the air. I watch them tangle above her, fascinated. She swipes them back onto another part of the table. “You’re fulfilling your duty to your mother, the Lord of Katazyrna,” Gavatra says, “as are we all. But perhaps Jayd is right this time. Perhaps it’s time we retire you.” “I feel you owe me a memory,” I say. “Then you must retake the Mokshi,” Gavatra says. “We don’t have your memory here. That ship ate it. It seems to eat it every time. You want your memory, you take the Mokshi . . . and get a squad in there with you this time.” “I will go again, then,” I say. “Mother can’t afford to risk another squad,” Jayd says, “not with the Bhavajas lying in wait for us in orbit around the Mokshi. The Bhavajas have taken another ship since you’ve been gone, Zan.” “What’s a Bhavaja?” I say. Gavatra rolls her eyes. “These cycles get tiring,” she says.

In this example, we are led by the characters in a different view. The reader is following the main protagonist and watching through his eyes. Therefore, we focus first on what he is experiencing, the tingles in his left hand, then onto his fears about what that sensation could mean, a hand that doesn’t belong to him. Then we move onto Gavatra at the table and her conjuring of dancing lights. We already know that these are machine made projections, we don’t need to have it explained how the projections work, that’s not important to the story here.

There is plenty of merit to the elements of hard and soft science fiction. What’s important is the point the story is trying to craft through those elements. Personally, I get off more on soft science fiction as I like the vibrate worlds sci-fi creates, but would rather keep my focus on the characters, their lives, loves, and struggles. But more on that next week.

Which did you prefer? We’d love to hear from you in the comments about your favorite science fiction stories! Tell us what get’s you off, hard or soft science fiction, after all, sharing is caring.

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