Soft science fiction, or soft SF, is a category of science fiction with two different definitions.
Soft science fiction of either type is often more concerned with character and speculative societies, rather than speculative science or engineering. The term first appeared in the late 1970s and is attributed to Australian literary scholar Peter Nicholls.
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." 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 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.
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."
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. Jeffrey Wallmann suggests that soft science fiction grew out of the gothic fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley.
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. 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. 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". The New Wave movement in science fiction developed out of soft science fiction in the 1960s and 70s. The conte cruel was the standard narrative form of soft science fiction by the 1980s. During the 1980s cyberpunk developed from soft science fiction.
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).
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.
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).
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:
Arranged chronologically by publication year.
In the sense of a basis in the soft sciences:
Some prime examples of soft science fiction on film and television include:
Automan is an American soft science fiction superhero television series produced by Glen A. Larson. It aired for 12 episodes (although 13 were made) on ABC between 1983 and 1984. It consciously emulates the stylistic trappings of the Walt Disney Pictures live-action film, Tron, in the context of a superhero TV series. The series was later shown in reruns on the Sci-Fi Channel.Comic science fiction
Comic science fiction or comedy science fiction is a subgenre of soft science fiction or science fantasy that exploits the science-fiction (SF) genre's conventions for comedic effect. Comic science fiction often mocks or satirizes standard SF conventions - such as alien invasion of Earth, interstellar travel, or futuristic technology. It can also satirize and criticize present-day society.An early example was the Pete Manx series by Henry Kuttner and Arthur K. Barnes (sometimes writing together and sometimes separately, under the house pen-name of Kelvin Kent). Published in Thrilling Wonder Stories in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the series featured a time-traveling carnival barker who uses his con-man abilities to get out of trouble. Two later series cemented Kuttner's reputation as one of the most popular early writers of comic science fiction: the Gallegher series (about a drunken inventor and his narcissistic robot) and the Hogben series (about a family of mutant hillbillies). The former appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in 1943 and 1948 and was collected in hardcover as Robots Have No Tails (Gnome, 1952), and the latter appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories in the late 1940s. In the 1950s comedy became more common in science fiction. Some of the authors contributing included: Alfred Bester, Harry Harrison, C.M. Kornbluth, Frederik Pohl, and Robert Sheckley.The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a comic science-fiction series written by Douglas Adams. Originally a radio comedy broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 1978, it later morphed into other formats, including stage shows, novels, comic books, a 1981 TV series, a 1984 computer game, and 2005 feature film. A prominent series in British popular culture, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has become an international multi-media phenomenon; the novels are the most widely distributed, having been translated into more than 30 languages by 2005.Terry Pratchett's 1981 novel Strata also exemplifies the comic science fiction genre.Red Dwarf primarily consists of a television sitcom that aired on BBC Two between 1988 and 1999, and on Dave since 2009, gaining a cult following. As of 2018 eleven full series of the show plus one "special" miniseries have aired. The latest series, dubbed Red Dwarf XII, started airing in October 2017.Conte cruel
The conte cruel is, as The A to Z of Fantasy Literature by Brian Stableford states, a "short-story genre that takes its name from an 1883 collection by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, although previous examples had been provided by such writers as Edgar Allan Poe. Some critics use the label to refer only to non-supernatural horror stories, especially those that have nasty climactic twists, but it is applicable to any story whose conclusion exploits the cruel aspects of the 'irony of fate.' The collection from which the short-story genre of the conte cruel takes its name is Contes cruels (1883, tr. Sardonic Tales, 1927) by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. Also taking its name from this collection is Contes cruels ("Cruel Tales"), a two-volume set of about 150 tales and short stories by the 19th-century French writer Octave Mirbeau, collected and edited by Pierre Michel and Jean-François Nivet and published in two volumes in 1990 by Librairie Séguier.
Some noted writers in the conte cruel genre are Charles Birkin, Maurice Level, Patricia Highsmith and Roald Dahl, the latter of whom originated Tales of the Unexpected. H. P. Lovecraft observed of Level's fiction in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927): "This type, however, is less a part of the weird tradition than a class peculiar to itself—the so-called conte cruel, in which the wrenching of the emotions is accomplished through dramatic tantalizations, frustrations, and gruesome physical horrors".Brian M. Stableford has observed that, by the 1980s, the conte cruel was the standard narrative form of soft science fiction, in particular the works of Thomas M. Disch and John Sladek.Countdown City
Countdown City is a 2013 American soft science fiction mystery novel by Ben H. Winters. It is the sequel to The Last Policeman and follows the exploits of former detective Henry Palace as he investigates the disappearance of Brett Cavatone, the husband of his childhood nanny, Martha. The book is set in a world preparing for the impact of 2011GV1, an asteroid that will wipe out humanity, which will occur in 77 days, within the archipelago of Indonesia. As with The Last Policeman, Countdown City examines the psychological, cultural and metaphysical consequences of the apocalypse.Dune (film)
Dune is a 1984 American epic science fiction film written and directed by David Lynch and based on the 1965 Frank Herbert novel of the same name. The film stars Kyle MacLachlan as young nobleman Paul Atreides, and includes an ensemble of well-known American and European actors in supporting roles. It was filmed at the Churubusco Studios in Mexico City and included a soundtrack by the rock band Toto, as well as Brian Eno.
Set in the distant future, the film chronicles the conflict between rival noble families as they battle for control of the extremely harsh desert planet Arrakis, also known as "Dune". The planet is the only source of the drug melange—also called "the spice"—which allows prescience and is vital to space travel, making it the most essential and valuable commodity in the universe. The main protagonist of the film is Paul Atreides, portrayed by Kyle MacLachlan. Paul is the scion and heir of a powerful noble family, whose inheritance of control over Arrakis brings them into conflict with its former overlords, House Harkonnen. Paul is also a candidate for the Kwisatz Haderach, a messianic figure in the Bene Gesserit religion. Besides MacLachlan, the film features a large ensemble cast of supporting actors, including Patrick Stewart, Dean Stockwell, Virginia Madsen, José Ferrer, Sting, and Max von Sydow, among others.
After the novel's initial success, attempts to adapt Dune as a film began as early as 1971. A lengthy process of development followed throughout the 1970s, during which Arthur P. Jacobs, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Ridley Scott unsuccessfully tried to bring their visions to the screen. In 1981, executive producer Dino De Laurentiis hired Lynch as director.
The film was negatively reviewed by critics and was a box-office failure, grossing $30.9 million from a $40 million budget. Upon release, Lynch distanced himself from the project, stating that pressure from both producers and financiers restrained his artistic control and denied him final cut privilege. At least three versions have been released worldwide. In some cuts, Lynch's name is replaced in the credits with the name Alan Smithee, a pseudonym used by directors who wish not to be associated with a film for which they would normally be credited. The extended and television versions additionally credit writer Lynch as Judas Booth. The film has developed a cult following over time, but opinion varies among fans of the novel and fans of Lynch's films.Dune (franchise)
Dune is a science fiction media franchise that originated with the 1965 novel Dune by Frank Herbert. Dune is frequently cited as the best-selling science fiction novel in history. It won the 1966 Hugo Award and the inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel, and was later adapted into a 1984 film and a 2000 television miniseries. Herbert wrote five sequels, and the first two were presented as a miniseries in 2003. The Dune universe has also inspired some traditional games and a series of video games. Since 2009, the names of planets from the Dune novels have been adopted for the real-world nomenclature of plains and other features on Saturn's moon Titan.Frank Herbert died in 1986. Beginning in 1999, his son Brian Herbert and science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson published a number of prequel novels, as well as two which complete the original Dune series (Hunters of Dune in 2006 and Sandworms of Dune in 2007), partially based on Frank Herbert's notes discovered a decade after his death.The political, scientific, and social fictional setting of Herbert's novels and derivative works is known as the Dune universe, or Duniverse. Set tens of thousands of years in the future, the saga chronicles a civilization which has banned artificial intelligence but has also developed advanced technology and mental and physical abilities. Vital to this empire is the harsh desert planet Arrakis, only known source of the spice melange, the most valuable substance in the universe.
Due to the similarities between some of Herbert's terms and ideas and actual words and concepts in the Arabic language—as well as the series' "Islamic undertones" and themes—a Middle Eastern influence on Herbert's works has been noted repeatedly.Ella (novel)
Ella, or Ella: A Psychic Thriller, is a science fiction novel by Israeli illusionist and self-proclaimed psychic Uri Geller, first published in 1998. The novel tells the story of Ella Wallis, an abused 14-year-old girl living in Bristol, England, who develops telekinesis, levitation, and other psychic powers and achieves fame while at the midst of a power struggle between adults who want to control her.Fireworks (2017 film)
Fireworks (打ち上げ花火、下から見るか? 横から見るか?, Uchiage Hanabi, Shita kara Miru ka? Yoko kara Miru ka?, lit. "Skyrockets, Watch from Below? Watch from the Side?", also known as Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?) is a 2017 Japanese animated romantic drama film produced by Shaft and distributed by Toho. It is based on the 1993 Japanese live-action television play of the same name, also released in cinemas in 1995, by Shunji Iwai. The film was directed by Akiyuki Shinbo and Nobuyuki Takeuchi from a screenplay written by Hitoshi Ohne, and stars the voices of Suzu Hirose, Masaki Suda and Mamoru Miyano. Satoru Kōsaki composed the film's music.
The film was released in Japan on August 18, 2017, and received mixed reviews from critics, who praised the film for its music and animation, but criticized the narrative and characterization. The film has grossed $26 million worldwide, becoming the seventh highest-grossing anime film of 2017 and Shaft's highest-grossing film. Internationally, it was released in cinemas on October 5, 2017 in Australia and New Zealand by Madman Films, and on November 15, 2017 in the United Kingdom and Ireland by Anime Limited. It was released theatrically on July 4, 2018 in the United States and Canada by GKIDS.Hard and soft magic systems
The idea of hard magic and soft magic was created by Brandon Sanderson for world building and creating magic systems in fictional writing. The terminology of hard and soft originate from hard and soft sciences, hard science fiction, hard fantasy and soft science fiction and both terms are approximate ways of characterising two ends of a spectrum. Hard magic systems follow specific rules, the magic is controlled and explained to the reader cohesively and scientifically, and can be used for building interesting worlds that revolve around the magic system. Soft magic systems do not have clearly defined rules or limitations and are used to create a sense of wonder to the reader.
Brandon Sanderson created Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic, which are guidelines rather than actual laws and can be used to create interesting magic systems and world building for fantasy writing.Hard science fiction
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.Stories revolving around scientific and technical consistency were written as early as the 1870s with the publication of Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1870 and Around the World in Eighty Days in 1873, among other stories. The attention to detail in Verne's work became an inspiration for many future scientists and explorers, although Verne himself denied writing as a scientist or seriously predicting machines and technology of the future.Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a 2008 American action-adventure film directed by Steven Spielberg and the fourth installment in the Indiana Jones series. Released nineteen years after the previous film, the film is set in 1957, pitting Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) against Soviet agents—led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett)—searching for a telepathic crystal skull. Jones is aided by his former lover, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), and her son, Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf). Ray Winstone, John Hurt, and Jim Broadbent are also part of the supporting cast.
Screenwriters Jeb Stuart, Jeffrey Boam, Frank Darabont, and Jeff Nathanson wrote drafts before David Koepp's script satisfied the producers. The filmmakers intended to pay tribute to the science fiction B-movies of the 1950s era. Shooting began on June 18, 2007, at various locations in New Mexico, New Haven, Connecticut, Hawaii, and Fresno, California, as well as on sound stages in Los Angeles. To maintain aesthetic continuity with the previous films, the crew relied on traditional stunt work instead of computer-generated stunt doubles, and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński studied Douglas Slocombe's style from the previous films.
The film premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival on May 18, 2008, and was released worldwide on May 22, 2008 to generally positive reviews from critics, although audience reception was more mixed. There was praise for the performances, action scenes, John Williams' musical score, and the costume design. Criticism, however, focused on the dialogue, storyline, pacing, and overuse of CGI. It was also a financial success like the previous three films in the series, grossing over $786 million worldwide, becoming the franchise's highest-grossing film when not adjusted for inflation, as well as the second-highest-grossing film of 2008. The film is scheduled to be followed by an untitled fifth film, planned for release on July 9, 2021, with both Spielberg and Ford returning.Science in science fiction
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 (for example, physics, astronomy, or chemistry), whereas soft science fiction is based on the "soft" sciences, and especially the social sciences (anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, and so on).
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:
Realistic case: In 1944, the science fiction story Deadline by Cleve Cartmill depicted the atomic bomb. This technology was real, unknown to the author.
Extrapolation: Arthur C. Clarke wrote about space elevators, basically a long cable extending from the Earth's surface to geosynchronous orbit. While we cannot build one today, it violates no physical principles.
Plot device: The classic example of an unsupported plot device is faster-than-light drive. It is unsupported by physics as we know it, but needed for galaxy-wide plots with human lifespans.Social science fiction
Social science fiction is a subgenre of science fiction, usually (but not necessarily) soft science fiction, concerned less with technology/space opera and more with speculation about society. In other words, it "absorbs and discusses anthropology" and speculates about human behavior and interactions.Exploration of fictional societies is a significant aspect of science fiction, allowing it to perform predictive (The Time Machine (1895); The Final Circle of Paradise, 1965) and precautionary (Brave New World, 1932; Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949; Childhood's End, Fahrenheit 451, 1953) functions, to criticize the contemporary world (Gulliver's Travels, 1726; the works of Alexander Gromov, 1995 - Present) and to present solutions (Walden Two, Freedom™), to portray alternative societies (World of the Noon) and to examine the implications of ethical principles, as for example in the works of Sergei Lukyanenko.Storm (Don Lawrence)
Storm is a soft science fiction/fantasy comic book series originally (and for most albums) drawn by Don Lawrence. The series is primarily available in Dutch, although all the books are translated into English and German, and some in French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, Danish, Finnish, Greek, Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian and Indonesian. The books are published by Big Balloon, Uitgeverij Oberon (both Dutch), Egmont Ehapa Verlag, Norbert Hethke Verlag (both German), Star Comics and Esperos Comics (both Greek), Incal (Polish), and Glénat (French). English copies are published in the Don Lawrence collection. The Living Planet and The Slayer of Eriban were also published in Heavy Metal magazine in January 1997 and March 1999. The Navel of the Double God had an early publication in the Dutch magazine Myx.The Iron Heel
The Iron Heel is a dystopian novel by American writer Jack London, first published in 1907.
Generally considered to be "the earliest of the modern dystopian" fiction, it chronicles the rise of an oligarchic tyranny in the United States. It is arguably the novel in which Jack London's socialist views are most explicitly on display. A forerunner of soft science fiction novels and stories of the 1960s and '70s, the book stresses future changes in society and politics while paying much less attention to technological changes.The book is unusual among London's writings (and in the literature of the time in general) in being a first-person narrative of a woman protagonist written by a man. Much of the narrative is set in the San Francisco Bay Area, including events in San Francisco and Sonoma County.The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire
(Documents Relating to) The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire is a 1983 science fiction novel by Doris Lessing. It is the fifth book in her five-book Canopus in Argos series and comprises a set of documents that describe the final days of the Volyen Empire, located at the edge of our galaxy and under the influence of three other galactic empires, the benevolent Canopus, the tyrannical Sirius, and the malicious Shammat of Puttiora. It was first published in the United States in March 1983 by Alfred A. Knopf, and in the United Kingdom in May 1983 by Jonathan Cape.
The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire is a social satire written in the tradition of Jonathan Swift and George Orwell, and focuses on the debasement of language in political rhetoric. In Lessing's fictional universe it is propaganda that keeps the fragile empires afloat, and when language becomes too distorted, some of her characters succumb to a condition called "undulant rhetoric" and are placed in a Hospital for Rhetorical Diseases.Because of its focus on characterisation and social/cultural issues, and the de-emphasis of technological details, this book is not strictly science fiction but soft science fiction, or "space fiction" as Lessing calls her Canopus in Argos series. While The Sentimental Agents can be read as a stand-alone book, Lessing does continue with the history of the Sirian Empire, picking up from where she left off in The Sirian Experiments (1980), the third book in the Canopus series.Viktor Kolupaev
Viktor Dmitrievič Kolupaev (September 19, 1936 – June 4, 2001) was a Russian scientist and soft science fiction author who won the Aelita Prize in 1986 and 1988. Kolupaev was born in Nezametny, Yakutia, attended school in Krasnoyarsk and moved in 1954 to Tomsk where he attended the Tomsk Polytechnic Institute and became a member of the Siberian Physical-Technical Institute of the Tomsk State University, where he worked in mathematics and bionics. He started writing fiction in 1970.World of Trouble
World of Trouble is a 2014 American soft science fiction mystery novel by Ben H. Winters and published by Quirk Books. It is the third and last installment of the Last Policeman trilogy.