Softer Science – Ten tips for writing “soft” science fiction

Following from the previous article disscussing hard science fiction, today we discuss some of the points to consider when writing with looser, or “softer” science.

1 – Set the tone early.

You should try to communicate the tone you are aiming for and the looseness of the science as quickly as possible. Otherwise the audience is probably going to make their own mind up, which can be very jarring if the tone seems to departs from that half way through the story.

2 – Soft doesn’t have to mean stupid

A story can still examine very complicated concepts or themes while playing fast and loose in other areas. There are a lot of concepts that are near impossible to work into a really hard science story because of some other insurmountable issue. Time travel is notoriously difficult to write about in a realistic way, and many of the best examinations of it have been very light in tone just because they can get away with a lot more, Back to the Future, for example,  has an incredibly clever script.

Futurama is another great show that plays as fast and loose with the facts as you’d expect, but is not afraid to make very clever jokes about science.

And do the research anyway; just like the best parodies should work as an example of the genre, you really need to understand the rules before you can break them properly.

3 – Soft probably shouldn’t mean inconsistent.

Unless you are taking a very light tone, you should pay attention to what you are saying and try not to contradict it in future. This may actually be harder to do with soft science than with hard, because you are effectively making up your own rules rather than following existing ones. In particular Space Opera seems to attract fans that can be fanatical about canon.

If you are producing a long running series, then pay attention to what the guest writers are writing. Even if they are celebrities.

4 – You can get away with more if there is a payoff

Your audience is more likely to overlook something stupid if the concept is cool enough or it leads to some interesting some character development or examination of a problem. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t look for a more plausible way to achieve the same thing, but sometimes it’s worth running with something silly that you can get a lot of mileage out of.

5 – Soft science isn’t a blank check

Just because you are representing your story as space opera, doesn’t mean that you are exempt from suspending your audience’s disbelief. No matter how wacky the tone, it’s still going to be possible for the story to feel stupid, or inconsistent, or the resolution to be overly convenient.

Star Trek has always been very soft in its science but “Threshold” is a great example of an episode that pushed it too far.

6 – If you can’t hide it, consider hanging a lampshade on it

You can get away with a lot of stuff by acknowledging the problem with a wink to the audience. In doing so, you acknowledge the problem and ask them to overlook it. As long as you don’t get carried away with this, it can work surprisingly well. This is obviously easier with a lighter tone, but even with harder stuff, having a character actually state that something doesn’t really make sense or pointing out the impossibility and shrugging about it might be better than not saying anything.

Just make sure that you aren’t too clever or obscure in how you do it. Avatar got a lot of stick for its “Unobtanium” from people who didn’t catch the reference.

7 – Be alert for stray implications

One problem with soft science is that it can easily leave a lot of loose threads unacknowledged. This was the bane of Star Trek’s existence. If you have characters invent something that could logically be used to raise the dead, end poverty, cure cancer or otherwise transform their society, make sure that you address the reasons that they don’t.

Even a rather lazy “we will destroy this thing, because mankind is not ready for it” is better than bringing the captain back from the dead without comment and then forgetting about it completely when the first officer dies three weeks later.

8 – Tone can change, but it shouldn’t happen accidentally

It’s probably less damaging for soft science fiction to take a harder line on something, than the other way round, but it’s worth paying attention to. And consider the extent to which your hard science could be weakened by the softer foundations.

9 – Soft science work better in some places than others

Traditionally softer science works well with a lighter tone of story. Some genre’s such as pulp or steampunk practically require the science to be soft. Space Opera also arguably requires softer science, but the term is sometimes used to encompass work that is significantly harder, especially where very advanced technology is involved. Horror stories are often hard in tone, because it supports a more unforgiving tone of story, but this is certainly not an insurmountable problem.

10 – It’s fun to be stupid sometimes

Even harder science stuff can be a lot of fun when you play fast and loose with it. This is the reason that Halloween episodes or reality alteration stories can be so much fun. “It was all a dream”, however, can probably be considered as having been played out by about the time that Shakespeare was doing it.

1 Comment

  • By jobv, January 23, 2012 @ 11:53 am


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