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What Is Hard Science Fiction?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Hard science fiction is a subgenre within the larger science fiction genre of writing and creative work that is identified by a few commonalities. Most of this work, for example, is written to be very realistic in how science and various aspects of the world in which the story takes place are portrayed. Even though such works are still fictional, an effort is made to ensure the fictional details are realistic and based on available scientific knowledge. Hard science fiction can also be more speculative and fanciful in nature, but still adheres to an overall comprehensive and consistent vision of the story’s universe.

The term “hard science fiction” is typically used in contrast to “soft science fiction” and is used as a way to indicate how realistic the work is in its portrayal of the fictional universe. In this usage, “hard” and “soft” are used to refer to works that are created in a way that is more or less realistic. Hard science fiction, for example, is often created with an eye toward what is possible or real within the limits of current scientific understanding. This means that characters in such a work are usually restricted by realistic limitations such as the effects of low gravity, a lack of combustion within outer space, and a need for full body suits and breathing apparatuses while exploring alien worlds.

Soft science fiction, in contrast, usually less closely adheres to realistic aspects of scientific writing. These works may include unrealistic details such as sound or fiery explosions in the vacuum of outer space, characters exploring alien worlds without protective coverings, and more fantastical elements within the universe of the story. There are some elements that may be present in both soft and hard science fiction, though “hard” works usually deal with these elements in more consistent ways.

Concepts such as faster than light travel, for example, can often be found in soft science fiction and may be somewhat controversial in hard science fiction. As far as modern science can explain, such travel is relatively impossible. There are certain ways to work around this limitation, however, and hard science fiction is usually written to work around such limitations in a way that still feels true to the universe in which the story is set. These works are likely to present technology that solves such issues in a way that is fully developed, and not merely explain it through a “miracle” of science.

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Discussion Comments

By Mor — On Aug 02, 2012

@umbra21 - See, I think of the term "hard science fiction" as more of a guideline than anything. I do like it when my fiction has been thought through and the author hasn't thrown random bits of technology into it at a whim, but that's going to be true of every part of the story. It's no different from writing a good character, the personality and history has to make sense, but you don't have to fill in every detail.

There is never going to be a consensus on what the definition of hard science fiction and soft science fiction really are, and even if there was it could only ever be a sliding scale, rather than a definitive term. Use it as much as you like to look for things that appeal to you but don't get too caught up in the idea.

By umbra21 — On Aug 01, 2012

@pastanaga - I find it can be difficult to draw a line between hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi sometimes, though, once you get beyond the obvious, like Star Wars. No matter how much you enjoy the possibilities of future technology, you need a story with which to explore those possibilities and often I feel like the categorization hinges on that story. If there is more emphasis on the technology, or the impact of the technology, it's usually hard sci-fi, if there's more emphasis on the people then it's soft sci-fi.

You do have to remember that just because it's soft science fiction doesn't mean it's bad science fiction. Some of the best of science fiction is "soft".

By pastanaga — On Jul 31, 2012

I find that often hard science fiction includes more details about the science rather than just brushing over it as well. It's not so much that the soft science fiction novels are only including unrealistic science, its that they don't focus all that much on the science at all. They can get to the point where they are really a different genre (like fantasy, or romance) that happens to be taking place in the future, or in space.

Whereas hard science fiction includes the details of all the science and technology that is involved. An example of this comparison might be made when looking at Star Wars vs. Star Trek. Star Wars is much more focused on the adventure and merely uses the gadgets as props. They could just as easily be waving actual swords instead of light sabers. It's more of a fantasy film than a science fiction film.

While Star Trek often incorporates important storylines with alien psychology or technology and its impact. Star Trek is definitely based around science fiction staples.

Star Trek can't really be called hard science fiction either, since it's got very unrealistic technology, but this comparison can show you how sometimes other genres can masquerade as science fiction.

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