Soft science fiction

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Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the significant writers of soft science fiction. Ursula K Le Guin.JPG
Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the significant writers of soft science fiction.

Soft science fiction, or soft SF, is a category of science fiction with two different definitions. It either (1) explores the "soft" sciences, and especially the social sciences (for example, anthropology, sociology, or psychology), rather than engineering or the "hard" sciences (for example, physics, astronomy, or chemistry), or (2) is not scientifically accurate. [1] Soft science fiction of either type is often more concerned with character and speculative societies, rather than speculative science or engineering. [2] It is the opposite of hard science fiction. The term first appeared in the late 1970s and is attributed to Australian literary scholar Peter Nicholls.

Science fiction genre of fiction

Science fiction is a genre of speculative fiction, typically dealing with imaginative concepts such as advanced science and technology, space exploration, time travel, and extraterrestrial life. Science fiction often explores the potential consequences of scientific and other innovations, and has been called a "literature of ideas".

Hard science and soft science are colloquial terms used to compare scientific fields on the basis of perceived methodological rigor, exactitude, and objectivity. Roughly speaking, the natural sciences are considered "hard", whereas the social sciences are usually described as "soft".

Hard science fiction science fiction with emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy

Hard science fiction is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy. The term was first used in print in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller in a review of John W. Campbell's Islands of Space in the November issue of Astounding Science Fiction. The complementary term soft science fiction, formed by analogy to hard science fiction, first appeared in the late 1970s. The term is formed by analogy to the popular distinction between the "hard" (natural) and "soft" (social) sciences. Science fiction critic Gary Westfahl argues that neither term is part of a rigorous taxonomy; instead they are approximate ways of characterizing stories that reviewers and commentators have found useful.



Peter Nicholls, the first person attested to have used the term soft science fiction. Peter Nicholls.jpg
Peter Nicholls, the first person attested to have used the term soft science fiction.

In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction , Peter Nicholls writes that "soft SF" is a "not very precise item of SF terminology" and that the contrast between hard and soft is "sometimes illogical." [3] In fact, the boundaries between "hard" and "soft" are neither definite nor universally agreed-upon, so there is no single standard of scientific "hardness" or "softness." Some readers might consider any deviation from the possible or probable (for example, including faster-than-light travel or paranormal powers) to be a mark of "softness." Others might see an emphasis on character or the social implications of technological change (however possible or probable) as a departure from the science-engineering-technology issues that in their view ought to be the focus of hard SF. Given this lack of objective and well-defined standards, "soft science fiction" does not indicate a genre or subgenre of SF but a tendency or quality—one pole of an axis that has "hard science fiction" at the other pole.

<i>The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction</i> reference work

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is an English language reference work on science fiction, first published in 1979. In October 2011, the third edition was made available for free online.

Peter Nicholls (writer) Australian literary critic

Peter Douglas Nicholls was an Australian literary scholar and critic. He was the creator and a co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction with John Clute.

In Brave New Words , subtitled The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, soft science fiction is given two definitions. The first definition is soft science fiction that is primarily focused on advancements in, or extrapolations of, the soft sciences; that is social sciences and not natural sciences. The second definition is science fiction in which science is not important to the story. [4]

Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction (ISBN 0-19-530567-1) is a book published in 2007 by the Oxford University Press. It was edited by Jeff Prucher, with an introduction by Gene Wolfe. The vocabulary includes words used in science fiction books, TV and film. A second category rises from discussion and criticism of science fiction, and a third category comes from the subculture of fandom. In 2008 it won the Hugo Award for Best Related Book.

Social science is a category of academic disciplines, concerned with society and the relationships among individuals within a society. Social science as a whole has many branches. These social sciences include, but are not limited to: anthropology, archaeology, communication studies, economics, history, human geography, jurisprudence, linguistics, political science, psychology, public health, and sociology. The term is also sometimes used to refer specifically to the field of sociology, the original "science of society", established in the 19th century. For a more detailed list of sub-disciplines within the social sciences see: Outline of social science.

Natural science branch of science about the natural world

Natural science is a branch of science concerned with the description, prediction, and understanding of natural phenomena, based on empirical evidence from observation and experimentation. Mechanisms such as peer review and repeatability of findings are used to try to ensure the validity of scientific advances.


The term soft science fiction was formed as the complement of the earlier term hard science fiction.

The earliest known citation for the term is in "1975: The Year in Science Fiction" by Peter Nicholls, in Nebula Awards Stories 11 (1976). He wrote "The same list reveals that an already established shift from hard sf (chemistry, physics, astronomy, technology) to soft sf (psychology, biology, anthropology, sociology, and even [...] linguistics) is continuing more strongly than ever." [4]


H. G. Wells, an early example of a soft science fiction writer. Herbert George Wells in 1943.jpg
H. G. Wells, an early example of a soft science fiction writer.

Poul Anderson, in Ideas for SF Writers (Sep 1998), described H. G. Wells as the model for soft science fiction: "He concentrated on the characters, their emotions and interactions" rather than any of the science or technology behind, for example, invisible men or time machines. [4] [5] Jeffrey Wallmann suggests that soft science fiction grew out of the gothic fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley. [6]

Poul Anderson American writer

Poul William Anderson was an American science fiction author who began his career in the 1940s and continued to write into the 21st century. Anderson authored several works of fantasy, historical novels, and short stories. His awards include seven Hugo Awards and three Nebula Awards.

H. G. Wells Science fiction writer from England

Herbert George Wells was an English writer. He was prolific in many genres, writing dozens of novels, short stories, and works of social commentary, satire, biography, and autobiography, and even including two books on recreational war games. He is now best remembered for his science fiction novels and is often called a "father of science fiction", along with Jules Verne and Hugo Gernsback.

Gothic fiction, which is largely known by the subgenre of Gothic horror, is a genre or mode of literature and film that combines fiction and horror, death, and at times romance. Its origin is attributed to English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled "A Gothic Story". The effect of Gothic fiction feeds on a pleasing sort of terror, an extension of Romantic literary pleasures that were relatively new at the time of Walpole's novel. It originated in England in the second half of the 18th century where, following Walpole, it was further developed by Clara Reeve, Ann Radcliffe, William Thomas Beckford and Matthew Lewis. The genre had much success in the 19th century, as witnessed in prose by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allan Poe as well as Charles Dickens with his novella, A Christmas Carol, and in poetry in the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Lord Byron. Another well known novel in this genre, dating from the late Victorian era, is Bram Stoker's Dracula. The name Gothic, which originally referred to the Goths, and then came to mean "German", refers to the medieval Gothic architecture, in which many of these stories take place. This extreme form of Romanticism was very popular throughout Europe, especially among English- and German-language writers and artists. The English Gothic novel also led to new novel types such as the German Schauerroman and the French Roman Noir.

Carol McGuirk, in Fiction 2000 (1992), states that the "soft school" of science fiction dominated the genre in the 1950s, with the beginning of the Cold War and an influx of new readers into the science fiction genre. [7] The early members of the soft science fiction genre were Alfred Bester, Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury and James Blish, who were the first to make a "radical" break from the hard science fiction tradition and "take extrapolation explicitly inward", emphasising the characters and their characterisation. [7] In calling out specific examples from this period, McGuirk describes Ursula K. Le Guin's 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness as "a soft SF classic". [7] The New Wave movement in science fiction developed out of soft science fiction in the 1960s and 70s. [7] [8] The conte cruel was the standard narrative form of soft science fiction by the 1980s. [9] During the 1980s cyberpunk developed from soft science fiction. [7]

McGuirk identifies two subgenres of soft science fiction: "Humanist science fiction" (in which human beings, rather than technology, are the cause of advancement or from which change can be extrapolated in the setting; often involving speculation on the human condition) and "Science fiction noir" (focusing on the negative aspects of human nature; often in a dystopian setting). [7]


Audrey Niffenegger, author of the soft science fiction work The Time Traveler's Wife . Audrey Niffenegger.jpg
Audrey Niffenegger, author of the soft science fiction work The Time Traveler's Wife .

George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four might be described as soft science fiction, since it is concerned primarily with how society and interpersonal relationships are altered by a political force that uses technology mercilessly; even though it is the source of many ideas and tropes commonly explored in subsequent science fiction, (even in hard science fiction), such as mind control and surveillance. And yet, its style is uncompromisingly realistic, and despite its then-future setting, very much more like a spy novel or political thriller in terms of its themes and treatment.

Karel Čapek's 1920 play R.U.R. , which supplied the term robot (nearly replacing earlier terms such as automaton) and features a trope-defining climax in which artificial workers unite to overthrow human society, covers such issues as free will, a post-scarcity economy, robot rebellion, and post-apocalyptic culture. The play, subtitled "A Fantastic Melodrama," offers only a general description of the process for creating living workers out of artificial tissue, and thus can be compared to social comedy or literary fantasy.

George S. Elrick, in Science Fiction Handbook for Readers and Writers (1978), cited Brian Aldiss' 1959 short story collection The Canopy of Time (using the US title Galaxies Like Grains of Sand) as an example of soft science fiction based on the soft sciences. [5]

Frank Herbert's Dune series is a landmark of soft science fiction. In it, he deliberately spent little time on the details of its futuristic technology so he could devote it chiefly to addressing the politics of humanity, rather than the future of humanity's technology.

Linguistic relativity (also known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis), the theory that language influences thought and perception, is a subject explored in some soft science fiction works such as Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao (1958) and Samuel R. Delany's Babel-17 (1966). In these works artificial languages are used to control and change people and whole societies. Science fictional linguistics are also the subject of varied works from Ursula K. Le Guin's novel The Dispossessed (1974), to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Darmok" (1991), to Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash (1992).

Films set in outer space

Soft science fiction filmmakers tend to extend to Outer space certain physics that are associated with life on Earth's surface, primarily to make scenes more spectacular or recognizable to the audience. Examples are:

Hard science fiction films try to avoid such artistic license.

Representative works

Planet of the Apes old book cover. Planet of the Apes.jpg
Planet of the Apes old book cover.

Arranged chronologically by publication year.

Short fiction


A Fremen (Fan Art) statue from Dune by Frank Herbert Fremen.jpeg
A Fremen (Fan Art) statue from Dune by Frank Herbert

Film and television

In the sense of a basis in the soft sciences:

Some prime examples of soft science fiction on film and television include:

See also


  1. The short story "Surface Tension" has also been described as an exemplar of hard science fiction. (Hartwell, David G.; Cramer, Kathryn, eds. (1994). The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF . New York: Tom Doherty Associates, Inc. ISBN   9780312855093.)

Related Research Articles

Frank Herbert American writer

Franklin Patrick Herbert, Jr. was an American science fiction writer best known for the novel Dune and its five sequels. Though he became famous for his long novels, he was also a newspaper journalist, photographer, short story writer, book reviewer, ecological consultant and lecturer.

<i>Dune</i> (novel) 1965 science fiction novel by Frank Herbert

Dune is a 1965 science fiction novel by American author Frank Herbert, originally published as two separate serials in Analog magazine. It tied with Roger Zelazny's This Immortal for the Hugo Award in 1966, and it won the inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel. It is the first installment of the Dune saga, and in 2003 was cited as the world's best-selling science fiction novel.

<i>Babel-17</i> novel by Samuel Delany

Babel-17 is a 1966 science fiction novel by American writer Samuel R. Delany in which the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis plays an important part. It was joint winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1967 and was also nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1967.

<i>Galaxy Science Fiction</i> American magazine

Galaxy Science Fiction was an American digest-size science fiction magazine, published from 1950 to 1980. It was founded by a French-Italian company, World Editions, which was looking to break into the American market. World Editions hired as editor H. L. Gold, who rapidly made Galaxy the leading science fiction (sf) magazine of its time, focusing on stories about social issues rather than technology.

Chris Foss British artist

Christopher F. Foss is a British artist and science fiction illustrator. He is best known for his science fiction book covers and the black and white illustrations for the original editions of The Joy of Sex.

Military science fiction science fiction subgenre

Military science fiction is a subgenre of science fiction that features the use of science fiction technology, mainly weapons, for military purposes and usually principal characters that are members of a military organization involved in military activity; occurring sometimes in outer space or on a different planet or planets. It exists in literature, comics, film, and video games.

Skiffy is a deliberate humorous misspelling or mispronunciation of the controversial term "sci-fi", a neologism referring to science fiction.

Planetary romance subgenre of science fiction

Planetary romance is a subgenre of science fiction or science fantasy in which the bulk of the action consists of adventures on one or more exotic alien planets, characterized by distinctive physical and cultural backgrounds. Some planetary romances take place against the background of a future culture where travel between worlds by spaceship is commonplace; others, particularly the earliest examples of the genre, do not, and invoke flying carpets, astral projection, or other methods of getting between planets. In either case, it is the planetside adventures which are the focus of the story, not the mode of travel.

The exploration of politics in science fiction is arguably older than the identification of the genre. One of the earliest works of modern science fiction, H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, is an extrapolation of the class structure of the United Kingdom of his time, an extreme form of Social Darwinism; during tens of thousands of years, human beings have evolved into two different species based on their social class.

Science Fiction Studies (SFS) is an academic journal founded in 1973 by R. D. Mullen. The journal is published three times per year at DePauw University. As the name implies, the journal publishes articles and book reviews on science fiction, but also occasionally on fantasy and horror when the topic also covers some aspect of science fiction as well. Known as one of the major academic publications of its type, Science Fiction Studies is considered the most "theoretical" of the academic journals that publish on science fiction.

Rubber science is a science fiction term describing a quasi-scientific explanation for an aspect of a science fiction setting. Rubber science explanations are fictional but convincing enough to avoid upsetting the suspension of disbelief. Rubber science is a feature of most genres of science fiction, with the exception of hard science fiction. It is also frequently invoked in comic books.

Definitions of science fiction Wikimedia list article

There have been many attempts at defining science fiction. This is a list of definitions that have been offered by authors, editors, critics and fans over the years since science fiction became a genre. Definitions of related terms such as "science fantasy", "speculative fiction", and "fabulation" are included where they are intended as definitions of aspects of science fiction or because they illuminate related definitions—see e.g. Robert Scholes's definitions of "fabulation" and "structural fabulation" below. Some definitions of sub-types of science fiction are included, too; for example see David Ketterer's definition of "philosophically-oriented science fiction". In addition, some definitions are included that define, for example, a science fiction story, rather than science fiction itself, since these also illuminate an underlying definition of science fiction.

Artificial intelligence in fiction

Artificial intelligence is a recurrent theme in science fiction, whether utopian, emphasising the potential benefits, or dystopian, emphasising the dangers.

Science in science fiction is the study of how science is portrayed in works of science fiction. It covers a large range of topics, since science takes on many roles in science fiction. Hard science fiction is based on engineering or the "hard" sciences, whereas soft science fiction is based on the "soft" sciences, and especially the social sciences. Likewise, the accuracy of the science portrayed spans a wide range - sometimes it is an extrapolation of existing technology, sometimes it is a physically realistic portrayal of a far-out technology, and sometimes it is simply a plot device that looks scientific, but has no basis in science. Examples are:

Raygun science fiction weapon

A raygun is a science fiction particle-beam weapon that fires what is usually destructive energy. They have various alternate names: ray gun, death ray, beam gun, blaster, laser gun, laser pistol, phaser, zap gun, etc. In most stories, when activated, a raygun emits a ray, typically visible, usually lethal if it hits a human target, often destructive if it hits mechanical objects, with properties and other effects unspecified or varying.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to science fiction:

Space opera subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes romantic, often focused on adventures

Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes space warfare, melodramatic adventure, interplanetary battles, chivalric romance, and risk-taking. Set mainly or entirely in outer space, it usually involves conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, futuristic weapons, and other sophisticated technology. The term has no relation to music, but is instead a play on the terms "soap opera" and "horse opera", the latter of which was coined during the 1930s to indicate clichéd and formulaic Western movies. Space operas emerged in the 1930s and continue to be produced in literature, film, comics, television and video games.


  1. "Soft SF". Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. 2011-12-20.
  2. "science fiction (literature and performance) - Encyclopædia Britannica". Retrieved 2013-09-09.
  3. "Soft SF," Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, ed. John Clute and Peter Nicholls, 1995, ISBN   0-312-13486-X.
  4. 1 2 3 4 Prucher, Jeff, ed. (2007). Brave New Words. Oxford University Press. p. 191. ISBN   9780195305678.
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  8. Caroti, Simone (2011). The Generation Starship in Science Fiction. McFarland. p. 156. ISBN   9780786485765.
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