Soft science fiction

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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 that uses less probable or realistic science elements.[1] It either (1) explores the "soft" sciences, and especially the social sciences (anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, and so on), rather than engineering or the "hard" sciences (for example, physics, astronomy, or chemistry), or (2) is not scientifically accurate, or (3) both of the former.[2] Soft science fiction of either type is often more concerned with character and speculative societies, rather than scientific or engineering speculations.[3] It is the complement of hard science fiction. The term first appeared in the late 1970s.


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."[4] 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.

In Brave New Words, subtitled The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, soft science fiction is given two definitions. The first definition is 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.[5]


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."[5]


Black and white photograph of H. G. Wells standing and wearing a suit
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.[5][6] Jeffrey Wallmann suggests that soft science fiction grew out of the gothic fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley.[7]

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.[8] 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.[8] 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".[8] The New Wave movement in science fiction developed out of soft science fiction in the 1960s and 70s.[8][9] The conte cruel was the standard narrative form of soft science fiction by the 1980s.[10] During the 1980s cyberpunk developed from soft science fiction.[8]

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).[8]


For example, a book like 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 which 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.

Another example of soft science fiction would be the film The Invention of Lying, written by Ricky Gervais which explores an alternate setting where lying is impossible. However, the setting appears to be relatively similar to our own world in terms of aesthetics and industrial progression.

By contrast, Karel Čapek's R.U.R., though the original source for the robot found with near-ubiquity in much subsequent science fiction, is un-scientific in its style and approach. Čapek's robots are manufactured like gingerbread men, implying that for all his concerns with free will and ideas of personal liberty, his play is essentially a kind of soft science fiction, or even a 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.[6]

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.

Films set in outer space[edit]

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:

  • Presence of gravity without use of an artificial gravity system.
  • A spaceship's engines or an explosion generating sound despite the vacuum of space.[11]
  • Spaceships changing directions without any visible thrusting activity.
  • Spaceship occupants enduring without any visible effort the enormous g-forces generated from a spaceship's extreme maneuvering (e.g. in a dogfight situation) or launch.
  • Astronauts preferring the agonizing death by hypercapnia over the painless death by hypoxia, given that the latter can be easily achieved by slowly releasing the spaceship's atmosphere into outer-space.
  • Laser beams being visible at all despite the lack of dust particles or air molecules in vacuum to scatter the beam's light.
  • Spacecraft which suffer engine failures "falling" or coming to a stop, instead of continuing along their current trajectory or orbit as per inertia.

Hard science fiction films try to avoid such artistic license.

Representative works[edit]

Photograph of Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury, author of soft science fiction works such as The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451.

Arranged chronologically by publication year.

Short fiction[edit]


Film and television[edit]

In the sense of a basis in the soft sciences:

  • Episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–1994) like the fifth season's "Darmok" (S5E02; September 30, 1991) are based on soft science concepts; in this case, linguistics.

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


  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. )


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  2. ^
  3. ^ "science fiction (literature and performance) - Encyclopedia Britannica". Retrieved 2013-09-09. 
  4. ^ "Soft SF," Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, ed. John Clute and Peter Nicholls, 1995, ISBN 0-312-13486-X.
  5. ^ a b c d Prucher, Jeff, ed. (2007). Brave New Words. Oxford University Press. p. 191. ISBN 9780195305678. 
  6. ^ a b c Prucher, Jeff; Farmer, Malcolm (6 July 2008). "Soft science fiction (n)". SF Citations for OED. Retrieved 2014-05-21.  See also the alternative Soft science fiction (n) for the second definition.
  7. ^ Wallmann, Jeffrey M. (1997). Wolf, Milton T., ed. Evolutionary Machinery: Foreshadowings of Science Fiction in Bernard Shaw's Dramas. Shaw and Science Fiction (Penn State Press). p. 81. ISBN 9780271016818. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o McGuirk, Carol (1992). "The 'New' Romancers". In Slusser, George Edgar; Shippey, T. A. Fiction 2000. University of Georgia Press. pp. 109–125. ISBN 9780820314495. 
  9. ^ Caroti, Simone (2011). The Generation Starship in Science Fiction. McFarland. p. 156. ISBN 9780786485765. 
  10. ^ Brian M. Stableford (1 January 2004). Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Literature. Scarecrow Press. pp. 73–. ISBN 978-0-8108-4938-9. 
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  12. ^ a b Stableford, Brian (2006). Science Fact and Science Fiction. Taylor & Francis. p. 227. ISBN 9780415974608. 
  13. ^ a b Duvall, John N., ed. (2012). The Cambridge Companion to American Fiction After 1945. Cambridge University Press. p. 59. ISBN 9780521196314. 
  14. ^ a b c d e Bertens, Hans; D'haen, Theo (2013). American Literature: A History. Routledge. p. 229. ISBN 9781135104580. 
  15. ^ a b c Lamb, Nancy (2008). The Art And Craft Of Storytelling. Writer's Digest Books. p. 255. ISBN 9781582975597. 
  16. ^ Matthew, Robert (2003). Japanese Science Fiction. Routledge. ISBN 9781134983605. 
  17. ^ a b Bee, Robert (June 2008). "Linguistics, Cultural Engineering, and World Building in Languages of Pao and Babel-17". Internet Review of Science Fiction. Retrieved 2014-06-04. 
  18. ^ Logan, Peter Melville, ed. (2014). The Encyclopedia of the Novel. John Wiley & Sons. p. 582. ISBN 9781118779064. 
  19. ^ "Locus Online News » Cixin Liu Wins Xingyun Award". Retrieved 2015-10-20.