Soft-serve Sci-Fi

Over the course of my lifetime, science fiction has gone from a niche-market storyform aimed at geeks and propeller-heads to a cultural juggernaut consumed by the masses. So you would think that, as a one-time card-carrying member of the Junior Space Ranger’s Adventure Club, I would be delighted by the scifi-rich world I now find myself living in.

But I’m not.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against this strange new form of SF that sets traditional soap operas on space ships and colony planets. But in the rush to serve the masses anything with blinking lights and technobabble, the kind of SF I crave seems to have been shuffled out an air-lock to make room.

Classifying science fiction
Anyone familiar with the field will likely know the distinction that is often made between “hard” SF and “soft.” As they are usually defined, those terms distinguish between stories that are steeped in provocative scientific or technical ideas (the hard stuff), and the ones that lean on the softer sciences, which also tend to put greater emphasis on other aspects of the story-builder’s toolkit, like character development, and plot.

But that hard/soft distinction has never served much use for me, because it doesn’t help me to find the kinds of stories I’ll like, or to avoid the ones I don’t. I think of myself as an equal-opportunity reader on the SF hardness spectrum, and have enjoyed plenty of stories of both kinds.

There is, however, a bisection I can make of the field that does serve as a helpful razor. I call the two camps “structural” vs “ornamental” science fiction.

All science fiction stories are based on at least one disjunctive premise; one idea or assumption that is taken as true, but is contrary to the truth of the present world. Maybe it’s that humanity has expanded to other worlds, or that time travel is possible. Maybe aliens have made contact, or perhaps the world around us is a lie being fed to us by our computer overlords. But whatever form the premise takes, the story unfolds in a world where it is true. That’s what makes it science fiction.

So why is it that so much of the science fiction being made these days is so hollow and unsatisfying to me? In a word, it’s because it’s all in the “ornamental” camp, while I’m looking for the “structural” ones.

The test for which camp a story falls into is simple: Remove the disjunctive premise. Move the story back into the real world by trading “space ship” for “cruise ship”, “colony village” for “fishing village” or whatever transformation does the job. Now, does the story still work? Is it still just as dramatically engaging? If so, you are probably looking at an ornamental SF story, because structural SF cannot function without its disjunctive premise.

Think about Larry Niven’s Ringworld. You could remove the two-headed alien or even the General Products spaceship hull and still have essentially the same story. But there’s no way you could remove the Ringworld itself. Without that colossal achievement of far-future engineering, there’s nothing left to talk about. No story at all.

Or try the same thing with Asimov’s Foundation series. Here the focus is on more human stories, but if you take away the disjunctive premise of the two foundations guiding human social evolution, the entire thing becomes meaningless. You might just as well try to pull off The Matrix without including virtual reality, machine overlords, or sentient Agent programs.

To me, structural dependence on the premise is what makes science fiction worth reading. But sadly, those stories are not only rare today; they’re getting rarer. Perhaps because most people who self-identify as science fiction fans these days are happy enough with the ornamental varieties. To them, the tech-infused setting is all that’s needed to scratch their itch. And in a way, I envy them. Their style of SF is on the rise and it’s just going to keep on climbing.

By its nature, structural SF is harder to write and more challenging to read, so not only are fewer writers qualified to write it, the market is smaller as well. And then, once such a tale has been written, it still has to compete with ornamental stories for the attention of executives who don’t know the difference. And since ornamental can be appreciated by a much larger audience, they are much more likely to get the green light. It almost makes you wonder why anybody would bother writing structural tales anymore.

But they say, “Write the stories you wish to see in the world,” and those are the ones I’m looking for, so you can be sure that my first SF novel (which I’m working on now, nestled in among my other fantasy projects) will not be ornamental. I don’t yet know where readers will place it on the hard-soft spectrum, but I defy anybody to call it ornamental.

Go ahead. I dare you.

(PS: Has anybody read anything recent that they’d classify as structural SF? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Tell me what you thought via reply email and maybe I’ll share your report with the entire class.)

Reports from other lands: The Haunting of Hill House

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.