Monday, March 28, 2011

Hard SF and Soft, or Girls v. Boys

Because my brain is full of Hild. Because you're probably sick of hearing me talk about that. Because I was reminded of this in the comments of another post. Because, hey, it's my blog and I can do what I want (including ignoring all the rules of grammar)...'s the repost of a squib that first appeared in the Science Fiction Studies symposium: Sexuality in Science Fiction, edited by Rob Latham. (It's meant to be short; it's meant to be polemical; those were two of the editorial requirements.) Enjoy.

Hard Takes Soft, Still

SF as a genre is terrified of the body. As a result, its depictions of physical pleasures are rare. Historically, writers and readers seem to prefer their characters to pop nutrition pills rather than delight in a gourmet meal, dwell 24/7 in sterile environments rather than wander through a wood, and jack into virtual sex rather than touch another human being.

When SF does dare mention sex, the focus is on the intellectual and emotional aspects of the experience. SF still subscribes to Cartesian dualism: the mind is pure, adamantine, and noble, the body bestial, soft, and squicky. (I have talked about this at length elsewhere: see my essay “Writing from the Body.”) Even a hint of body-to-body sex can be enough to earn an sf novel an Approach With Caution warning—that is, categorization as soft SF.

In this regard, the world-view of the SF Old Guard has a lot in common with that of the cultural guardians of Old Iceland. Embedded in the Icelandic sagas is that society’s tendency to divide the world—politics, intelligence, gender, sexuality, the physical properties of objects—into hvatr (hard) and blauĂ´r (soft). Hard equates to bold, independent, powerful, vigorous, sharp, dry, and decisive; soft to weak, powerless, dull, moist, and yielding.

Guess which was deemed the more admirable quality.

Guess which kind of SF, hard or soft, is privileged critically.

For the Old Guard, a novel’s hardness depends to some degree on the biological sex of bodies entwined. Women are perceived as literally and metaphorically softer than men. If the viewpoint character having sex in an SF novel is a woman, the squick factor is doubled. If she’s having sex with another woman, the Old Guard passes out.

Consider reviews of my second novel, Slow River (1995), in which much real estate was devoted to denouncing (I’m paraphrasing) the “exclusively and explicitly lesbian sex.” The thing is, there’s plenty of heterosex; reviewers just couldn’t see past the (to them) Othersex. Given the way they carried on, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was porn. Certainly many dykes read the reviews, thought “Woo-hoo, one-handed reading!” and bought the book. Then they sent me pissed off emails: Where’s all the sex??

Consider, too, a well-known experiment: put ten engineers in a room, three of them women. Ask observers how many are female; they will say “half.” The Other blots out the Norm. (Yes, this experiment is ancient as these things go—dating from the 1960s or 1970s, I think. No doubt observers in today’s brave new world would require as many as, gasp, four women to qualify as “half.”)

This is as true now as it was then. It’s the twenty-first century, yet still I have never seen Slow River—a novel stuffed with shiny hardware, chemistry, and extrapolations about the future—labeled as hard SF. The Old Guard still rules.



  1. Good point.

    My work-in-progress utopian novel "A Late Summer's Discourse" actually involves a plot line dealing with (trans)gender issues.

  2. Huh... I may be showing my ignorance here, but what the heck:

    From my perspective, the term "soft science fiction" is not a pejorative. It's meant in the sense that the story happens to have some sci-fi elements. It's more about plot and characters than space and hardware and creating an alternate universe. (The terms "soft" and "hard" may mean something else to someone else.)

    An analogy would be to compare "soft" crime novels (like those by P.D. James or Tana French) to those by Mickey Spillane or Dashiell Hammett.

    By the same token I'd never (seriously) describe TBP as a "lesbian fiction" any more than I'd describe The Likeness as "heterosexual fiction."

  3. TL, I hope the work goes well.

    Dianne, 'hard' has definitely been privileged over 'soft' in the genre. There again, the genre really likes to have little squabbles every now and again, which boil down to 'character' v. 'ideas', even though it's clothed in 'cyberpunk' v. 'humanist', 'hard' v. 'soft' etc.

  4. I guess there's a reason I haven't read much hard sci fi since I was in college...

  5. Interesting take, which raises any number of questions that might be worth exploring. One that struck me, perhaps unreasonably, is whether there might have been some relationship between what you talk about and the growing dismissal of Heinlein by many of his earlier staunch admirers during the 1960s and later, when he, as far as I can see virtually alone among the giants of early "hard sf", began exploring his characters' emotional and sexual aspects. Of course, a problem is that he was mostly so godawfully bad at it, but at least he did view this as a direction in which he wanted to move sf; I can't remember that anyone even of those who had earlier considered him the first "mature" sf author seemed to consider it a reasonable or interesting step.
    For myself, I do prefer "hard" sf, though possibly my view of it is idiosyncratic; it easily encompasses your work, just as Ursula Le Guin's, Joanna Russ', or Tricia Sullivan's. But I tend to view hard sf as that sf which explores alternatives, possibilities and change within the framework of a physical, knowable and lawbound reality, which would ideally make it a literary form that has the potential to bridge the gap between Snow's two cultures. Sadly, it seldom does, not least because so many of its staunchest defenders place themselves squarely on the "non-humanist" side of the gap. And given that view of hard sf, the least interesting sf written, in my view, is probably the deluge of "military sf", which really explores nothing much at all and in general seems to be only about things exploding, much as modern action movies. I'd hold that the current "posthuman" space opera probably is almost as barren, and as much of a dead end, but I guess that can be saved for another day.

  6. In what way is hard sf "privileged over soft sf in the genre"? Certainly not in sales-- fantasy outsells most everything sfnal these days, but even in the classically-defined SF field, soft-sf dystopias like "Mockingjay" dominate the top of the list these days. Not in critical attention-- I can't recall a lot of papers on hard sf at, say, ICFA; and even relatively obscure works by, say Samuel Delaney get more critical papers written about them than icons of hard sf such as "Neutron Star." Not awards; not since "The Mote In God's Eye," the poster child for deliberately (possibly even egregiously) hard SF, lost the Hugo decisively to "The Dispossessed," probably the greatest sociological SF novel of all time. Not in-- well, as far as I can tell, not in *anything*. Maybe the book review column of _Analog_, but even there, I'm not sure I see much good evidence.
    So, what (if anything) does the word "privileged" mean as you use it here? That a small number of vocal fans really like it?

  7. To me scifi is scifi, I don't feel the need to break it down any further than that.

    So far, in terms of my entertainment, that has worked perfectly fine.

  8. Geoff, the key word is 'historically', which, lazily, I didn't bother to insert in every paragraph. (I haven't read genre magazines for fifteen years or so.) And by 'critically' I don't mean 'academically'. I mean when people make lists of Best Ofs; when people choose what to review, and how much review space to assign. When people write lists of Most Influential etc. Do I have data I can trot out? Nope. Just years of personal experience. (For more on this, see my essay "War Machine, Time Machine."

    BTW, I was specifically talking about SF, not f/sf.

  9. John-Henri, soap opera is whole other rant :)

  10. A friend said "of course there's not much sex in your books."

    After I finished beating my head against the wall and pointed out all the places where there is, in fact, sex (as another friend said after I did a reading, "Whew!" and fanned herself with her hand), she revised her comment to, approximately, "Yes, there is sex, but it's so well integrated into the story..."

    Dammif you do, dammif you don't.

    Maybe I should try putting some sex into my books that's completely and utterly gratuitous...

    (I also always wonder why gratuitous sex is so frowned upon. Why doesn't anybody frown on gratuitous description, gratuitous scenery, gratuitous food? You could gratuitous yourself right out of a novel completely.)


  11. Vonda -- I think gratuitous anything (food, scenery, sex, violence) in a novel is, well, gratuitous. In my opinion, for example, The Lord of the Rings is filled with gratuitous scenery (it reads like a travelogue) and other detail. Many other people disagree.

    I tried reading the mystery/romance Stargazer by Michele Jaffe years ago and finally gave up because every 10 pages or so there was a (what I'd consider) contrived and totally gratuitous sex scene that had absolutely nothing to do with the plot. Most of the "gay/lesbian fiction" I've tried to read has the same format, and that's just not my thing.

  12. Vonda, Dianne, when my mother read my first novel (Ammonite) she said, "Well, yes, Nicola. Very nice. But don't you think there's a bit too much description?" I said, "Well, if I'd thought there was too much, I would've taken it out." One reader's gratuitous is another's deliciousness. Mileage definitely varies.

  13. Very true. But ordinarily too much of anything in a book doesn't get discounted and criticized as "gratuitous" the way sex does. Since it's so important to character, to people, I wondered how it got to be dismissed as gratuitous, even after the time when it stopped being entirely forbidden.

  14. From reading rec.arts.sf.written, I got the impression that there's an emotional dividing line between hard sf and the range from soft sf to fantasy, in the sense that there are more people who only like hard sf and dislike the rest of the spectrum and relatively few who put the like/dislike line between fantasy and science fiction.

    I see hard sf as sf in which the author has made an effort to get the science right, and that science is a significant part of the story.

    For what it's worth, I didn't see evidence that anyone disliked Bujold for including too much girl stuff.

    Faint memory of quote (in other words, no cite) to the effect that sf fans respected Analog, but they were more apt to buy and love the more fantastic sf/f like Brackett and Howard.

  15. Nancy, I tend to see it as a Cartesian divide: body (people, character, sex) on one side, mind (idea, machine, formulae) on the other. As with all such things, the line wobbles.

  16. Thanks for the info about Old Iceland-- it sounds a little like Taoism, though (at least in theory, I don't know how much in fact) Taoism presented yin and yang as being of equal value.

    Do you know of cultures which didn't genderize the universe?

  17. As another hard sf writer, I'll echo Geoff's comments. Whatever the past, I don't see a lot of love these days. For better or worse, the dealer's tables are covered with urban fantasy and steampunk.

    Historically hard sf has always seemed to be assumed to be weak on characters and writing, whatever benefits it enjoyed as a sub genre.

    More to the point, without data it's easy for hard sf writers to feel like me and Geoff, and soft sf writers to feel like you. Confirmation bias is powerful, magnifies any slights, and is easily supported by selected anecdotes.

  18. MIke, oh, yep, cognitive bias will do all that. It's why I tried to make it really clear that this piece takes a deliberate stance and makes no pretense of being disinterested/impartial/judicious (etc.)

    Having said that, to the degree that I identify myself as a 'science fiction writer', I identify as just that, not as 'hard' or 'soft'. SR is stuffed with biology and chemistry (and even nifty hardware). And it's a novel of character. I just love getting people to talk about this stuff.

  19. I'm definitely going to have to read Slow River and send you an email demanding to know where all the, ahem, good parts are. Those being, of course, the descriptions of the 'biology and chemistry (and even nifty hardware)'. Not that I mind some good one-handed reading (and the variety of sex is pretty irrelevant), but I'm not fourteen any longer.

  20. FSJL, enjoy. I'll look forward to hearing what you think.

  21. So where do you see last year's Hugo winner "The City and The City" in this continuum?

    Many critics and reviewers (and award-granting bodies) have characterized it as "fantasy." It is very much people/character.

    But I can't see it as anything but hard SF. No, it's not loaded with tech and gadgets. It's also not loaded with magic. It's strongly grounded in sociology, psychology and anthropology. Soft sciences, sure, but soft sciences hard SF...

  22. bovil, I haven't read it yet. But it doesn't surprise me whenever fiction based on 'people' science is characterised as soft and that on 'physical' science is hard. Human history is littered with difficult-to-understand-in-hindsight distinctions between Us and Them. It seems to be hardwired. Sometimes these distinctions get so granular they become essentially meaningless.

    Eh, but I wrote a whole essay about that. ("Beauty, Brilliance, and Risk"

  23. I remember reading Slow River and thinking it was a pretty good book. I don't remember whether I thought it was hard sf or not. I think I read it during the era I worked for your agent or shortly thereafter.

    The key gender issue as to whether something is considered hard sf or not is the "hard sf attitude." Women who write hard sf are mostly uninterested in adopting the attitude.

    What I remember about the _attitude_ of Slow River was that it was more cyberpunky than hard sf.

  24. Kathryn, yes, I think definitions are based on world view/stance/group affiliation. So it's interesting that you felt SR was cyberpunky. I was not a huge fan of CP.