A Hard Take at Soft Science Fiction

This is a post I recently sent to a science fiction mailing list. A post I fully expect to be skewered for, but it was too much to stay silent about.

Also titled: The Science Fiction Barbarians at the Gate

I’ve been staying silent on some of the recent conversations. Oh dear. Why do I get the feeling that I will be a horribly hated author in this group?

Because I like a ‘sense of wonder’ and I’m not about to let things like “make all aliens inexplicably alien so they are “realistic’ ” or “completely nonhuman” get in the way of a good story (Um, there should be SOME way for the reader to connect, and typically that reader is human. Ergo, some human connection needs to be made). Because I’m not going to limit the technology and possibilities to only the things thought of as possible today. Because I want to explore, either through reading or writing, the more positive possibilities out there and not constantly the dark underbelly of existence.

I love adventure. I love a “Sense of Wonder”, which to me means a sense of fun along with all the other definitions. I love good characters that are the focus of the story, watching the impact on their lives with extraordinary circumstances, technology, or alien contact. I love having fun with other worlds, environments, and aliens. I love to write and read entertaining accessible prose.

In otherwords, give me a story. A good story. A story where I CARE what happens to the characters and don’t want them all dead just to get it all over with.

I freely admit I write soft science fiction because so much of hard science fiction bores me, and I do not find it entertaining. I read to be entertained. I don’t think this is something to be ashamed of.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch in articles such as here and here talks about many of the feelings I have towards science fiction, but articulates them much better. (I also like some of what Beth Meacham has to say towards the bottom of the page here.)

I won’t repeat what she said other than two very important paragraphs in the last link:

But I’m a barbarian. Of the 1,417 original books published in sf last years, I read ten of them. Six of those books were short story collections. Two of them I wrote. The other two were novels by people whose sf I’d read before and liked. Of the remaining 1,407 books, I probably handled 750 of them and replaced them on the shelf. Honestly, most of the 750 novels I put back looked like work.

I read fiction for entertainment, relaxation, and enjoyment. If I want to work, I read the history, literary essays, biography, science, and legal books that grace my shelves.

She refers to people who want science fiction that is entertaining and enjoyable without having to ‘work’ at reading it as “the Barbarians at the Gate.”

I’m writing the kind of science fiction I haven’t been able to find in years because apparently the traditional publishing buyers of SF have dictated on behalf of the readers that the readership has moved on. Only, they are wrong. Not all of us have moved on. The traditional publishers of SF left me in the dust with only old classics to read and the occasional new book that slipped through.

By the way, the publishing game has changed. Read up on it, it’s really interesting. Traditional publishing doesn’t always make good BUSINESS SENSE anymore. And I’m approaching this like a business person who is taking charge of their writing career, not a helpless ‘artist’ that doesn’t have a lick of business sense and has to be taken care of. That means writing a good book, having it edited and proofed, the whole bit. And heck, if I have to do all or most of the marketing anyway, I want a lot more than the typical 6-15% royalties (depending on hardcover or mass paperback).

Am I going to be an indie-publisher? You bet. Because there are other readers out there like me that have been forgotten. Sure, it might be a small niche and it might be hard to find them at first, but it will be a niche I will greatly enjoy providing reading material for. And who knows, I might find a bigger readership than expected.

I also don’t need traditional publishers ‘validating’ the kinds of stories they have ignored for years. Their form of ‘validation’ has proved useless to me as a science fiction reader. Not having the traditional type of validation doesn’t make me any less of an author than one who does.

So, does the above mean I’m about to be skewered? Probably, but there are other readers like me who understand this is “fiction.” As in, stories to entertain and enjoy. I talk to them all the time. We’re tired of being attacked for liking what we like, which is escapism entertainment. Of not being provided for when we want to spend the money on entertaining good reads.

So, I’ll go shut up now and continue writing. Writing with a “Sense of Wonder” and consider myself what Kristine calls “The Barbarians at the Gate.”

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10 thoughts on “A Hard Take at Soft Science Fiction

    • I love many of the books by Anne McCaffrey, especially the Pern series (some of that is marginal SF, but still lots of fun), the Rowan family series and Crystal Singer. Wrinkle in Time and the other books in the series by Madeleine L’Engle. “The Trumpets of Tagan” by Simon Lang (if you can find it). The Tripod Series by John Christopher. Girl with the Silver Eyes (I forget the author name). Space Cat series, if you can find it, although that is for a younger audience. Still fun, though. “The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet” by Eleanor Cameron (younger YA SF).

      And that’s just off the top of my head. There are so many more. I also enjoy Niven’s Ringworld series and Asimov’s Foundations series (although I didn’t like what he did to a few characters).

  1. I’m always looking for soft SF myself. Anything to read that is an enjoyable ride. I’m still eagerly awaiting the arrival of Grimspace, which is supposed to be like reading paranormal fantasy.

    Writing the genre myself, I think that we should flood the market any way we know how. Indie marketing seems like the way to do it.

  2. What you are talking about “science fiction that is entertaining and enjoyable” sounds an awful lot like the so called Juvenile Science Fiction stories of my youth. I know you don’t care for his work, but Robert Heinlein wrote many Juvenile’s before he started in on his more well-known “adult” novels. Asimov even wrote a few Juveniles. Many of Norton’s works could be considered Juveniles. I like the Juveniles. Not everything has to be doom and gloom, gritty, realistic, or (dare I say it) politically correct. Sometimes you just want a fun story. That’s why I will still pull those books off my shelves and read them 20 some years after I discovered them. And why I loved shows like Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century and Space Academy and will still watch them on DVD. ((I am referring to the 1978 BSG here, not the blasphemy that Ron Moore put out.)) They were FUN.

    Yes, I like a touch of realism and hard science. I love Doc Smith’s Lensmen even though I hardly understand what he is saying. I found Niven’s Ringworld fascinating. However, trying to visualize the Ringworld about turned my poor brain into mush. It also took me a while to work my way through the book. But if I want a fun story, something that doesn’t tax my brain, I could just as well reach for “The Starbeast”, “The Norby Chronicals” or “Dragonmagic” as “Lost Dorsai”, “Foundation”, or “The Beastmaster”. (or one of the Trek novels)

    I guess I am trying to say I agree with you, with a small caveat: to me, it is possible to like both Hard Science and Soft Science Fiction. It is the quality of the story that will decide if the book sits on my shelf collecting dust or gets pulled out time and time again. If a story is well written, the characters “real” enough, I will plow my way through the science (or the fantasy) to get to the meat. ((See above examples)) If the story isn’t well written, is too predictable, or the characters too bland, it will sit there for years until I sell the book or give it to the library regardless of where it falls in the Hard vs Soft Science battle. ((Anything by McCaffrey and/or Lackey after 1986. Dickson’s Young Bleys, Heinlein’s Number of the Beast)) Give me a good story and I won’t care overly much if it is hard science like Ringworld, a space opera like Lensmen, political intrigue like Chanur or fantasy like Dragon Knight, just so long as I enjoy it.

    • Oh, I don’t mind good science. In fact I prefer it. But I do not enjoy it when it takes over the story from the plot and characters. Or have to swim through it to get to the actual story.

      And I don’t think these have to be ‘juvenile’ books. So many adults like and want them, like me. The media tie-in novels get it. Fantasy gets it. They are driving the majority of sales in science fiction because they get it. Too many of the regular publishers do not, which is why fewer and fewer offer to publish it. Science fiction novels within the ‘village’ has become too insular. On that I totally agree with Kristine.

      I’m an adult. Give me good adult science fiction with a story and I will buy. Simple as that.

      Hehe, and I do agree with what you said. 😉

  3. I’m always looking for soft SF myself. Anything to read that is an enjoyable ride. I’m still eagerly awaiting the arrival of Grimspace, which is supposed to be like reading paranormal fantasy. Writing the genre myself, I think that we should flood the market any way we know how. Indie marketing seems like the way to do it.

  4. I agree with you, JA. Aliens can have a lot about them that is, will, alien, but there’s got to be something about them that I can relate to. And if there’s science, it had better stand up for itself and it better matter to the story. Maybe that’s why paranormal fantasy is so popular right now. Vampires and werewolves are both alien and human.

    Happy New Year! :)TX

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