Friday, February 15, 2013

How Do You Like Your Sci-Fi?


My recent science fiction posts in multiple settings (Star Trek, Pulp Space, Talislantan Space) has got me thinking about the different levels of "hardness" in science fiction. (A topic that TV Tropes--unsurprisingly--has some thoughts on). This scale is a bit granular and more detailed (and perhaps a bit more judgey). Here's my sort of summary of the basics of both of these:

Hard: So, on one end we've got fairly plausible stuff that mostly extrapolates on current technology. This includes stuff like William Gibson's Sprawl series and the novels of Greg Egan (from the near future mystery Quarantine to the far future Diaspora). A game example is this category would be somethig like GURPS Transhuman Space.

Medium: Getting a little more fantastic, we arrive in the real of a lot of TV shows and computer games. One end of this pretty much only needs you to believe in FTL and artificial gravity but is otherwise pretty hard. Powerful but plausible nanotech might fall here, too (like in John C. Wright's Golden Age triology). The fewer impossible things you're asked to believe (and the better rationalized the ones you are asked to believe in are), the harder it is. The middle of this group adds in something like psionics (Traveller gets in here, and a lot of science fiction novels, like Dune and Hyperion). The softer end throws in a lot of too-human aliens and "pure energy" beings (Babylon 5, most Star Trek).

Soft: Here lies fantasy but with a science fiction veneer and context. Some Star Trek (the animated series, particularly) comes in here, and Farscape. This is also the domain of Star Wars. Simon R. Green's Deathstalker cycle turns up here, too.

Ultra-Soft: Some Star Wars tie-ins in other media come in here, as do things that include magic (or similar fantastic elements} mixed in with an otherwise soft sci-fi universe: This would include superhero sci-fi properties (the Legion of Super-Heroes and Guardians of the Galaxy) and comic book epic sci-fi (what might also be thought of as Heavy Metal sci-fi) like Dreadstar, The Incal, and The Metabarons. It's possible it stops beings science fiction on the mushiest end of this catgory and just becomes "fantasy."

So what consistency of sci-fi is your favorite--particularly in regard to rpgs?

30 comments:

Tim Shorts said...

Hmm, after reading the categories and examples it seems mine would be medium. I guess I like my science fiction to have more science than fantasy otherwise its just fantasy in space. And for some reason this vein allows for the 'wonder' of space. The discovery of something amazing even though they are advanced technology wise.

Porky said...

I'm fond of them all. It's a good question too - I'm not sure they're so easily separated, or even that the continuum is so linear.

On the known-speculation-magic thinking, it's worth bearing in mind that a) re 'known' the essence of the scientific approach is that what we know is only right till it's proven wrong, b) re 'speculation' our credibility as to future likelihoods is shaped by the course of discovery thus far, and so vulnerable to potentially dramatic warping, and c) re 'magic' there may be much that our cultures have overlooked, pushed aside or forgotten and are only now rediscovering or coming into contact with, like the supposedly miracle properties of everyday foods, or ancient and/or non-'occidental' treatments; they were there regardless of whether researchers were looking or not, and more may be too.

JD said...

For Hard SF I'd go with Cyberpunk 2020 and Transmetropolitan (by Warren Ellis) as a setting.

Loved the Deathstalker books and space opera as a sub-genre, so maybe I'd use Star Frontiers and go from there and add some Cowboy Bebop/Firefly.

Using Talislanta is also a nice idea and I always liked Spelljammer, so there is that.

Alas, my players don't like SF, so this will stay science fiction for me.

Bard said...

I'll take any, as long as the story is good, but I have to say that "medium" is what I gravitate toward, largely for the same reasons Tim gave above. Too hard = losing the wonder; too soft = fantasy in space. I like my sci-fi in the goldilocks zone.

Roger the GS said...

I'm fond of "workin' stiffs in space" SF, as exemplified by the films Dark Star, Alien, Silent Running, and more recently Moon.

Jason Carney said...

I think it's intriguing how "hard" science fiction often lines up with militaristic or absolutist political themes, whereas "soft" science fiction is concerned with different worlds, different realities, the confrontation between a "normalcy principle" and "strange otherness." I am thinking Lovecraft versus Heinlein, or Chandler versus Dick. It's as if hard science fiction writers are eager to "pin" reality down, whereas soft science fiction writers glory in the idea that reality is in flux, always changing.

Trey said...

@Roger - Yeah, that's a set up you can probably do at any level. Alien and Heavy Metal do it at a Medium and Soft Medium level , respectively. Moon and Silent Running are more Hard.

Canageek said...

Pretty much everything except super-soft. I like Andre Norton at one end, and various near-future books for the other end.

Trey said...

@Jason -I think you're using a somewhat outdated definition of hard science fiction. The work of the likes if Egan, Nagata, and others presenr a much more malleable and less mundane world often than most soft science fiction. Gibson, (whose seminal work is 30 years old) is neither military focused, nor reactionary.

James C. said...

As game material I'd say I start around medium and can go all the way up to ultra soft if the ideas are interesting ones.

For literature and movies, to me the specific genre and tropes are way less important than the quality of the work.

I take a similar view to Jason's, only I'd expand militaristic and absolutist to include a broader range of "ideas", but agree a lot of hard science fiction tends to focus in on a single, significant speculation. In this light you can fit Gibson and Asimov alongside Heinlein and others.

On the soft side it becomes about "ideas" vs. an idea, if that makes sense.

Gus L said...

I'm not sure that Gibson isn't painting a reactionary world. He's just not on the side of reaction and making the claim that information overload is the enemy of reaction. Think about the end of Johnny Menomic where the ultra rigid perfect assassin for an ancient hierarchy is killed by Molly Millions but is really destroyed by the alien cacophany of the Lo Teks. I think the theme goes through the sprawl book and the ones after. Must like Gravity's Rainbow's focus on "The Counterforce". So yeah not reactionary, but interested in reaction.

Francis Lee said...

I'd have to say soft but at least not ultra soft!

Trey said...

@Gus - Good point.
@James - Again, I think dichotomy is a bit outdated and ignores "transhumanist" sci-fi.

Jay said...

Ha--I was JUST thinking about this very topic last night! I like 'em all for a variety of reasons. But I think for gaming, I'm more of a softy. Hard sci-fi definately has its appeal (Outland, anyone?), but it's fun to smudge up the lens a and just blast things with gusto!

I'd also argue that there's a lot of cross polination that can be done too. You could make Star Trek a lot softer (Hello, JJ Abrams!) and come in a bit harder on Star Wars if you imagined it grittier Blade Runner-like version of psychic police (might have to ditch lightsabers though).

Another way of looking at it is through the lense of genre-mashing. One of my favorite examples is the film (that I'm certain you're familiar with!) Dark City. It's rich with noir/pulp, which should make it much "harder" but when you sprinkle in the mind-controlling aliens, it softens it up quite a bit.

With so many flavors of science fiction/science fantasy it's hard to pick just one!

Trey said...

Good points, Jay. It is sort of a spectrum, and different versions of the same property can be a different shade on the scale.

Joshua Burnett said...

I'm firmly in the rayguns and rocketships camp of soft sci-fi, where ships go faster than light because THEY JUST CAN and a good adventure story is more important that the tech behind it. Psionics and other "space magic" is a bonus.

Brutorz Bill said...

Great question... I'm sort of a soft medium, I don't want ultra soft, but like the openess to pull in other ideas and such. I hope this means you are pondering a new project!!!

Trey said...

@Bill - It's a possibility.

Geoffrey McKinney said...

Soft is my favorite for movies.

Ultra-soft is my favorite for RPGs.

Aos said...

I like the whole range, it is really all about execution. I'd have to say the setting of the story and the type of story are of far more interest to me than anything else. I do, however, have a particular fondness for the absurd.

Trey said...

I'm with you. I like a range.

David Lewis Johnson said...

Same here, I'm a range guy for sure! For reading, I seem to split between the good'n'hard and the spongy soft - Gibson and maybe Stephenson to Reznick's galactic history tales. I like my comic book stories to treat the sci-fi as a backdrop to gonzo storytelling. When I end up discussing ideas about where humans are headed, especially with someone less oriented to sci-fi media, I like to go with the 'hard science.'
I just recently downloaded Eclipse Phase and Stars Without Number, and I think those land somewhere in the middle (and are totally fun reads).

Trey said...

Sounds like you may run into the same problem as me: it can get hard to choose sometimes!

Mark Craddock said...

I respect and enjoy good Hard SF, but for my own stories, I think Soft works best for my and my style.

Paul Schaefer said...

I'm a fan of Alien, Ghost in the Shell, Appleseed. Beyond those I don't know a lot about hard sf.
Most of my exposure comes from comic books, so soft and mushy.
If I were writing something myself that's the way I would go also.
Rifts and Gamma World are two of my favorite games, and they are pretty darn soft in terms of what can be included.

JimShelley said...

Based on your examples, I seem to find myself preferring the Medium for movies and television and Ultra-soft for comics.

If you include the Wild Cards series of books in Ultra-Soft, I would say that's one of the few instances where I preferred that style in books.

Trey said...

Interesting, I don't think we've had much ultra-soft done outside of comics. There are a few movies, maybe, but not really in good movies.

Wild Cards while technically science fiction is really beyond what I was discussing here since it's an alternate history and a superhero work of sorts.

Brett Slocum said...

I like my sci-fi in a variety of ways. I like at least a semblance of reality, but I don't want STL generation ships, except as a nifty thing to explore. I want FTL and anti-gravity. Star Wars-ian space opera is good for the swashbuckling and the evil empires, but it's not the same as Traveller or Star Trek. I still like it.

The one I have the hardest time is gritty totally realistic sci-fi. No thanks.

Roman said...

Being a big fan of Heavy Metal magazine and Epic Illustrated, I definitely prefer the science fantasy / "soft" and "ultra-soft" end of the spectrum.

In fact, I'm not really sure how you're really differentiating soft and ultra-soft--seems pretty much the same thing.

Trey said...

Well, like I said, I think the presence of "magic" (as in, a force which the characters in the setting refer to as magic and operates indistinguishably from fantasy magic) and superheroes (as in people who can lift multiple tons, hang out in airless space, fly at FTL speeds, or grow or shrink) is a pretty bright division line. It's a continuum of course (psionics are powers or magic) but I don't think it's hard to see a difference between Oddjohn and the X-Men despite similar basic ideas.

I would agree with you that some Heavy Metal fantasy may have a less clear division, but I would also put "style over sense" stuff here. A woman riding a mechanical horse through space is ultra-soft.

I should also note that I'm not saying everything in Heavy Metal or epic would fall into this category.