Science fiction can be generally divided into two camps: soft and hard. (There are good Wikipedia articles on both, and this post isn’t really about the concepts, but I’ll still give short summaries. Specifically, these summaries will indicate my own thoughts on the subject and the angle from which I am approaching this topic.)
Soft sci-fi deals more with the “fiction” aspect, relegating science to a distant second, third or whatever place. The science here is probably not going to be as thoroughly researched, if at all, and similarly will not be explained, except with an off-hand phrase tossed in at the last moment.
Had sci-fi deals with, or has a special focus, on the science behind the story. The science is either pivotal to the plot or is thoroughly researched and is (or, at least attempting to be) accurate.
I am more a fan of hard sci-fi. I like my science to be consistent and logical. Nothing ruins a story quite like bad science, as Hollywood has been kind enough to demonstrate. That’s not to say that I don’t read or enjoy soft sci-fi. “Replay” is certainly soft, in the sense that no explanation at all is given for the underlying phenomenon. The same goes for S.M. Stirling’s “Conquistador” and “Island in the Sea of Time”. (Nevermind the fact that I didn’t really care for those books, which was unrelated to them being soft sci-fi, but was rather caused by them being identical, long and boring books.) “Jumper” and its related books are also particularly soft (especially “Reflex”, which begins with the absurd assumption that “jumping” is contagious!), yet I love them dearly.
Still, I prefer something more grounded in science, and usually something possible. Yes, I realize there’s a bit of a contradiction in claiming an affinity for possible science-fiction, but that’s what I have. Let me explain.
Consider Clarke’s “Rendezvous with Rama”. The spaceship imagined in the novel is entirely possible, if not with our current state of technology then with some technology. Similarly, “2001: A Space Odyssey” presents space travel and the AI constructs (HAL and the Monolith) that are entirely possible. (In both novels Clarke took leaps in the conclusion, with inertia-less travel of “Rama” and the StarChild of “2001”, but these are minor instances and are still possible, albeit with technology we have not yet discovered. And, of course, we have not yet shown that any of this is impossible…)
Similarly, Stross’ “Accelerando” series of short stories is deeply rooted in current or around-the-corner science. Which is what draws me to (as well as terrifies me about) the series. And, just like Clarke, Stross takes a small leap in imagining a galactic router in orbit around a brown dwarf. And, once again, we have not shown that this is something that is impossible.
Niven’s Known Space works are also someting that I would consider “possible”, though he does take more leaps, such as with teleportation technology (not FTL, since it does operate at the speed of light), the near-indestructible General Products hulls (described as a single molecule bounded with energy fields) and the scrith material that makes up Ringworld (umm, sufficiently advanced technology?). All of these I can accept since (a) the technology presented is self-consistent, (b) is not a deus ex machina and (c) the technology may be possible.
So, after that huge lead-in, what do I want to say? Simply this: I can’t plot soft sci-fi. Here I am, sitting around with oodles of time on my hands, attempting to think of a short story to write, and I can’t seem to come up with anything that’s not based on real (or around-the-corner) technology. Gah! It’s frustrating! Every idea I come up with, every what-if scenario, I dismiss it immediately if I can see no way for it to be possible. And that’s really not the spirit of writing sci-fi, now is it? One shouldn’t keep coming up with ways to foil a story, to put holes in their own concepts, to consistently, time after time find ways that something just won’t work. The spirit of sci-fi is one of possibility. The eternal question of what-if is invariably answered (by actual authors, not by this hack) with a resounding “hell yeah”. The concepts are pushed upon the reader with an authoritative voice, one that almost resounds from the heavens, as if spoken by Zeus himself, and firmly convinces the reader that what they have just glimpsed is not a fantasy but a reality.
Oh well, c’est la vie. Back to “Cryptonomicon”.
Currently listening to The Seed (2.0) by The Roots.