Hard vs soft sci-fi – what’s the difference?

Apr 19, 2023 | Just for fun | 0 comments

I’ve been reading and watching a lot of sci-fi lately as I write the first draft of Cyber. Personally, I find that the more I immerse myself within my chosen genre(s), the easier I find it write – so when I return to writing my fantasy series, you can guarantee I’ll be re-reading The Name of the Wind for the 100th time, or watching LOTR on repeat. For now, however, I’m enjoying reading Gareth L. Powell’s Embers of War series and watching any kind of sci-fi film I can get my hands on (this week’s examples include Star Trek, Free Guy, and Prometheus). Reading and watching all these different kinds of sci-fi got me thinking: what’s the real difference between hard and soft sci-fi?

NOTE: I’m talking about hard/soft sci-fi in the most ‘traditional’ sense, but there are loads of films and books which are crossovers/a hybrid of the two. I’m always up for learning something new, so if you disagree or have another point of view, please let me know in the comments!

Think about your own favourite sci-fi novel or film – what kind of elements has it got? Does it explain in-depth the scientific and technological advances in society, and how the technology works; is that tech integral to the plot? Or does it have futuristic elements and cool tech, but they’re not necessarily explained in great detail?

If you chose the first option, you’re probably thinking about hard sci-fi – this is science fiction which, although it may be set on a different planet or use futuristic technology, is still firmly rooted in reality. The science has got to check out. Often, especially in novels, the science behind the technology will be explained in great detail and it should all make sense reality-wise.

Take, for example, The Martian (one of my favourite films and a fantastic book) – Mark Watney has to use his intellect and wits to survive on Mars until the crew of the Hermes can make it back to him. Honestly, when I found that Andy Weir isn’t, in fact, an astronaut, my mind was blown. He does have a background in computer science, and he deliberately wanted the book to be as scientifically accurate as possible so he based everything on existing technology. No aliens with superior spacecraft to save the day here! It still blows my mind a little bit when I think about how much research he must’ve done to make sure that book was scientifically accurate. That, my friends, is the definition of hard sci-fi right there.


So what about soft sci-fi? Well, novel-wise, this would be books such as Embers of War, Dune, and Synthetica by me (*cough* shameless plug *cough*). Although Embers of War does explain some of the technology used (e.g. the biological elements of the Trouble Dog), it’s not rooted in reality. That kind of tech will only exist in the far far future (if at all) and the tech isn’t integral to the plot – the characters’ motivations and actions because of the Archipelago War are. Similarly, when I wrote Synthetica, I wanted to include futuristic tech, but I wanted to explore more how this technology has shaped society, rather than the plot hinging on realistic technology. Plus, I just really love creating far-fetched tech and seeing how far I can push certain concepts. Essentially, one could argue that soft sci-fi is more entertaining ‘for the masses’ than hard sci-fi, because it focuses more on characters and society than the science behind it all – but personally I enjoy both.

Soft sci-fi films would include Star Wars, Star Trek and Dune. I haven’t read the book, but based on the worldbuilding in the film, there’s part of me that reaaalllly wants to put Dune down as hard sci-fi, because it’s so bloody good, but let’s face it – it’s not really rooted in reality, and as far as I can tell, the plot focuses on the characters rather than the tech. However, for those of you who have read the book, please feel free to disagree with me – I’d love to hear more about the novel!

Here’s one example that’s a little tricker – Interstellar [spoilers coming up – stop reading now if you haven’t seen the film!]. Another fantastic film which does a brilliant job of setting the scene of a dying earth and explaining the science behind Cooper’s mission. So far, so sci-fi. But then the film suddenly takes a left turn when Cooper decides to fly into the black hole. Look, I get that we don’t really know what goes on inside a black hole – but the whole time travel/higher being thing? For me, this is where the film loses a little bit of its credibility, because tonally it jars with the rest of the film.

Bear in mind that these are a) subjective examples based on my own personal sci-fi preferences and b) there can be crossovers. There a thousand different shades of science fiction out there, and it’s impossible to categorise them all into hard or soft sci-fi – but if you’re just starting out on your own sci-fi reading and writing adventure, then these definitions can be a good starting point to figure out what you like.

What do you think about hard and soft sci-fi? What books and films would you include in each category?

Z xx


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