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Dimensions of Science Fiction - Hard to Soft, Optimism to Pessimism

  1. Jan 11, 2013 #1
    How hard is that SF? – Pharyngula mentions a survey that someone once did, asking people to rate various science-fiction movies on two dimensions.
    • Hard: a work "takes great care in accurately presenting then-known scientific facts".
    • Soft: a work "often and casually violates our understanding of science as it was know at the time of its creation".
    • Optimistic/Utopian: a work's main message is "positive and optimistic towards science and technology or that it portrays a utopian future as a direct result of that".
    • Warning/Dystopian: a work's main message is "a warning against the dangers of science and technology or that it portrays a dystopian future as a direct result of that".
    There is another sort of hard vs. soft distinction.
    • Hard: nuts-and-bolts science fiction.
    • Soft: psychological and sociological science fiction.

    Grading Science Fiction for Realism goes into gory detail about the "scientific" hard-vs.-soft dimension.

    • "Present Day Tech" -- Cutting edge Present Day Tech, some developments and speculation, but nothing major that has not been attained today (so no AI). Basic space exploration, very near future -- Technothrillers, Allen Steele's Orbital Decay
    • Ultra Hard (Diamond Hard) -- Plausible developments of contemporary technologies - AI, Constrained Nanotech, DNI, Interplanetary colonisation, Genetically engineered lifeforms. Nothing that conflicts with the laws of physics, chemistry, biology etc as currently understood -- William Gibson, Neil Stephenson, Kim Stanley Robinson's "Mars" Trilogy, Robert Forward
    • Very Hard -- Plausible developments of provocative contemporary ideas, bot nothing that conflicts with the known laws of physics, information theory, etc - Assembler Nanotech, Nano-Goo, Uploads, Interstellar colonisation, Relativistic ships, vacuum-adapted life -- Greg Egan, Linda Nagata, Greg Benford's Galactic Center series, Stephen Baxter's Manifold Series, GURPS Transhuman Space
    • Plausibly Hard -- The above but with the addition of some very speculative themes, some of which may well turn out to be impossible, others may be possible. Requires some modification of current understanding, but nothing that is logically impossible, or has been conclusively proved to be impossible (so no FTL without time travel) - Wormholes, Reactionless Drive, Sub-nanotech (Femto-, Plank, etc), Domain Walls, exotic matter, FTL drive with time travel, etc. -- Stephen Baxter's Xeelee universe, Greg Bear's Forge of God series, Orion's Arm
    • Firm -- As realistic as the above categories were it not for unrealistic/impossible plot devices (e.g. FTL without time travel paradoxes), although these are kept to a minimum as much as possible -- Asimov's "Foundation" Series, "Giants" series by Hogan, Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky
    • Medium -- Similar to the above but with a larger number of unrealistic plot devices; e.g. FTL without real explanation (or with pseudo-explanation), alien biota in some instances very similar to terragen life, psionics, a great many alien civilizations. However still preserves plot and worldbuilding consistency, and the science is good and consistent -- Niven's "Known Space" series, Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, Banks' "Culture" novels, David Brin's "Uplift" series, Frank Herbert's Dune, Traveller RPG
    • Soft -- A number of unscientific themes - e.g. aliens as anthropomorphic "furries", handwavium disintegrator guns, Alien Cultures and psychology all extremely uniform, and so on. However, still retains story consistency -- Various TV series: Babylon 5, Farscape, Andromeda, Matrix, StarGate for the most part
    • Very Soft -- As above but either even more unscientific elements (humanoid of the week, lifeless planets with breathable atmosphere, etc), and story with less consistency -- Various TV and movie series; for the most part the Star Trek Canon and Star Wars Canon
    • Mushy Soft -- As above but even more unscientific (alien races never before encountered speak perfect English without a translator, animals too large to stand in Earth gravity (Godzilla), weapons that make energy beams without putting energy in, interstellar travel without FTL or centuries long voyage, mutants with super energy powers, etc) -- Godzilla, Comic Book Superheros, badly written TV sci fi, elements of some franchises
    Most visual-media SF is well on the soft side, it must be said.

    Arthur C. Clarke's stories are well on the hard side:
    • Present-Day Tech: The Ghost from the Grand Banks (raising the Titanic)
    • Ultra Hard: Fountains of Paradise (space elevator - some nano for diamondoid materials, but completely plausible, rate of current development makes this possible in the very near future)
    • Plausibly Hard: Rama (megastructure spacecraft, logically explained), 2001 (both book and film) ultrahard science except for the monolith, etc.
    The film is some of the hardest space-travel science fiction that's ever appeared in visual media.

    Isaac Asimov's stories are at least Firm, and I'd rate his robot stories Ultra Hard, unless one counts the robots' positronic brains. However, their positronic nature is not necessary for the stories.

    Turning to optimism vs. pessimism, Star Trek is notable for its optimism, for featuring a future where all of humanity and many other species can coexist and work together. I remember someone claiming that much of its competition features people on the run and being chased by various enemies.

    I'd also say that IA's Foundation and robot stories are also on the optimistic side.

    So how does your favorite science fiction rate along these dimensions?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 13, 2013 #2
    Do you have a category of "Overly Optimistic" in regards to humanity always being able to save the day.
  4. Jan 14, 2013 #3
    Yes, one can certainly imagine such a category.
  5. Jan 14, 2013 #4
    Looks like my favorite science fiction falls neatly into "medium". Niven and Herbert are probably my favorite authors. If I were to write my own scifi, I would have the most fun writing medium--introducing new physics that are not observed in real life, but don't break existing physics too badly.
  6. Jan 14, 2013 #5
    On the other extreme of optimism-pessimism is 1984. It's pessimistic in the extreme, to the point that it sometimes seems contrived.

    By the realism classification, it's mostly present-day tech, inspired by Stalinism. Like Big Brother's mustache and Emmanuel Goldstein = Leon Trotsky.
  7. Jan 14, 2013 #6
    Another dimension that can be added is the coherence of the story world.

    The realism classification in my OP seems have have two dimensions in it:
    • Our world behavior -- imagined world behavior
    • Coherent world -- incoherent world

    World incoherence:
    • Inadequate extrapolation, like cars as mechanical horses
    • Poor continuity: lots of retconning necessary for good continuity
    • Technobabble

    The more imagined a story world is, the more difficult it can be to keep that world coherent. Thus the two dimensions together.
  8. Jan 16, 2013 #7
    Hmm. Examining modern Doctor Who, I'd have to classify RTD-era Doctor Who as "soft." Especially the fact that most aliens seem to be humanoid. And somewhat optimistic, as the Human race survives for a few hundred trillion years in some form. (Even though they were a gas species at one point.)

    Moffat-era, I'd also have to classify as "soft," though the science fiction bits don't seem to be too central to the plot. Just aliens trying to take over Earth.
  9. Jan 16, 2013 #8


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    I find the definition of ultra and very hard too soft. It doesn't sit with me that one step removed from present day technology there's a category that contains novels with genetically engineered humans living on Mars occasionally using self replicating robot factories.
  10. Jan 24, 2013 #9
    Very good point about the world coherence dimension, lpetrich! World coherence plays an important part for me in being able to enjoy scifi. Always frustrating when their own physics leaves them with huge plot holes...
  11. Jan 30, 2013 #10


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    Asimov's vary a lot. "The Billiard Ball" has no plausibility, but it's a great short story. "The End of Eternity" isn't remotely hard when it comes to the science, but it is a great story about time travel. I wouldn't rate the Foundation Series (the original trilogy) as hard either when taken as a whole. That book was actually written as a series in a magazine and Asimov really had no idea where he intended the story to go (aside from wanting to make sure the magazine bought the next story in the series). You could say it started out firm, exploring the possibility of predicting the future based on statistics, but he didn't follow the original idea very far. I think his later works were probably a little more firm than his early works.

    Half of Heinlein's books aren't even about science or science fiction. He has some other agenda (how to achieve a moral and responsible government in "Starship Troopers"; what's wrong with incest? in "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister"; etc). Science fiction is just a genre that will sell, making it possible for him to spread some other message. "Friday" is a very good book that's probably firm, though.
  12. Jan 30, 2013 #11

    jim hardy

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    my favorites ??
    two short stories:
    Robert Sheckley - "Specialist"
    Theodore Sturgeon - "Widget Wadget and Boff"

    and Asimov's "The Gods Themselves"

    All 3 have psychological/sociological themes, so soft in OP above,
    and are optimistic,
    probably "firm" on realism.
  13. Feb 1, 2013 #12
    I've read about what was going on in Nazi Germany. It was even worse. Stuff went on that you would not believe. So 1984 doesn't seem contrived to me.

    Big Brother's mustache could have come from just about anyone. It was a very common style in those days. Lord Kitchener had a famous one. Adolph Hitler wore that style in his youth. Even now you can find it in England. It's called the "walrus."

    The "Ignorance is Strength" platform has gained a lot of support in the US these days.
  14. Mar 29, 2013 #13
    Well when I write SciFi I start with a universe that would most likely be classified as Very Soft and transform it into a Medium. If I don't it will get on my nerves that I haven't, although sometimes I'll leave it as Soft or go as far as Firm.

    The SciFi I like is mostly between Very Soft (as in Star Trek), and Medium (as in Dune according to this, although I would disagree with that overly hard analysis of the book). I prefer optimism to pessimism most of the time. I prefer sociological (so Star Trek I guess) to nuts-and-bolts. I don't like having a bunch of retconning but realism isn't necessarily necessary, coherence is good but once again not vital.
  15. Mar 29, 2013 #14
    ImaLooser, I think that there is good reason to think that George Orwell had Stalinism in mind. His personal history had given him good reason to dislike Stalinism, and he wrote a previous work that slammed Stalinism: Animal Farm.

    In the 1930's, he had participated in the Spanish Civil War on the side of a Marxist faction that got attacked by another Marxist faction, one that was supported by the Soviet Union. That's the sort of behavior that inspired the Judean People's Front fighting the People's Front of Judea in Life of Brian.

    He eventually fled Spain, and during WWII, he wrote Animal Farm, which was an animal allegory about Soviet Communism. Old Major = Karl Marx, Snowball = Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, Napoleon = Joseph Stalin, etc.

    A notable feature of the Soviet Union back then was the writing of out-of-favor politicians and leaders out of the history books, and even painting them out of official pictures: http://www.newseum.org/berlinwall/commissar_vanishes/ [Broken]. Leon Trotsky had been a leading Soviet revolutionary, but during the Stalin years, he was officially a nobody, even to being painted out of pictures where he appeared with Lenin and others.

    After Stalin died, his successors did that to him also, barely mentioning him and stating that his big problem was his cult of personality.

    Nazi Germany was not nearly as noted for such rewrites of history.

    George Orwell included some rewriting of history in Animal Farm, like Snowball being changed from a great leader to a traitor.

    Turning to 1984, the story's central character is someone whose job is to rewrite history. Oceania was always at war with Eurasia. Oceania was always at war with Eastasia. Oceania was always at war with Eurasia. Oceania was always at war with Eastasia. ...

    So to me, that's a clear link with Stalinism.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
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