People love to debate what is “real” science fiction. Is hard SF the only real SF? Where is the line between soft science fiction and science fantasy, and should both simply be called fantasy?
According to the Henderson Institute of Knowing Knowledge, there are three general levels of science fiction. There used to be six, but one was erased in a time paradox, one was converted into pure energy, and one was confiscated by Area 51 and cannot be discussed. The three remaining levels are:
• Hard Science Fiction
• Soft Science Fiction
• Science Fantasy
The three levels are not to be confused with definitions like cyberpunk, steampunk, space opera, social scifi, military scifi, etcetera scifi. Those are science fiction subgenres, not levels, and all of the subgenres can potentially fall into any of the three levels. And now I feel like I’m trying to describe ninth dimensional space, so let’s move on.
Despite popular rumor, hard science fiction is not named thus just because most people find it hard to read. Rather, “hardu” is from the ancient mesoarcasian for “technology.” Or possibly “bowel obstruction.” But given the context, we’ll go with technology. Thus, hard science fiction has science or technology that is central to the plot, and all of the key science or technology is explained and entirely possible given currently known scientific laws, theories and constraints. It involves no magical or supernatural elements. And yes, space zombies are supernatural even though they are from space.
Soft science fiction is like hard science fiction, but not as scientifical. Perhaps the plausible science or technology is not explained — they have hyperdrive spaceships that work by pushing a big shiny button. Or the explanation is pseudo-science that sounds plausibly whiz-bangy but doesn’t really explain anything. Also, stories whose scientific elements are the “soft sciences” – sociology, psychology, anthropology – would likely be considered soft science fiction no matter how detailed and possible. There are still no purely impossible elements involved.
Then we come to the poor bastard child of science fiction – science fantasy. Science fantasy is like hard or soft scifi but mixed with magical or supernatural elements, or that uses alternate or imaginary science and technology that is simply impossible given all known scientific laws, theories and constraints.
Star Wars is popularly considered science fantasy, with its mix of spaceships and the supernatural Force. As are Shadowrun-style worlds where hackers and cyborgs work beside mages, elves and orcs. Religious science fiction (involving miracles, angels, demons, etcetera) would also fall under this category. This is not to say religion is fantasy (that’s a separate debate), but simply that the religious elements cannot be proven scientifically.
For some people, the lines between soft science fiction and science fantasy are blurry however. It is commonly argued that the definition is, in fact, subjective. So I will now subjectivate it to my will and definitive definition once and for all.
The difference is that if the story includes a mix of possible science fiction (i.e. scientifically possible future or alternate events or technology) and something that is impossible (no matter how plausible the author makes it sound), then it is science fantasy.
Of course, the word “possible” is often the sticking point here.
For example, while I would consider a very scientific book about detecting and communicating with ghosts to be science fantasy, others might argue over the definition based on their belief that ghosts could possibly exist given the evidence gathered by Ghost Hunters.
Also, there’s the argument that all technology sufficiently advanced will seem like magic to the less advanced. As our understanding of the universe continues to change, and technology continues to evolve, who knows what will be considered “possible” in a hundred years?
But this is a cheat where the three levels definition is concerned. When we discuss whether something is possible for purposes of categorizing a story today, we mean in the framework of our current science, understanding, and technological feasibility, as defined by scientific community consensus.
So why isn’t science fantasy just called fantasy? Well, for one, even the most entertaining sci-fantasy story may not appeal to someone who strictly enjoys high fantasy, and vice versa. A pure fantasy reader may not want spaceships, lasers, or AIs, even if elves are the ones using them. The hard science fiction fan will hate the inclusion of elves. The science fiction elements make it not pure fantasy, but the fantasy elements make it not purely hard or soft science fiction either.
Sadly, publishers and bookstores have yet to adopt these perfect and unassailable definitions. They tend to just mush science fiction and fantasy all together, or use a percentage-based judgment — if it has magically talking pigs flying spaceships and having laser battles, it is 80 percent scifi, 20 percent fantasy (and 100 percent Muppet awesome) and therefore would be filed as science fiction.
According to Wikipedia, the three great pyramids of Giza were actually built to house three libraries – one for hard science fiction, one for soft science fiction, and one for science fantasy. Well, I’m sure it says that, I didn’t actually check. But the point is, these three clear definitions go back for as long as I can remember thinking about them, and I think it is well past time the world adopted them.