Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Soft Sci Fi is Hard

This is about Mass Effect.

There's a lot of ways to portray science fiction. In most people's minds, you can split it into two categories - "hard" sci fi and "soft" sci fi. And they theoretically judge this based on whether the science in the fiction is sciencey enough.

In practice, the situation is not about how sciencey the science is, but about how much it overshadows the people.

"Hard" sci fi is usually about lives buried beneath machinery. The technology is typically shown to be big and clunky - obvious mechanical arms, giant ventilation systems, big explosions, death any time a machine hiccups. It's easy to be "sciencey" when the machines are so clunky, because you can dedicate so much of your story to them.

On the other hand, "soft" sci fi is usually about lives lifted up by machinery. The technology is typically almost invisible, appearing or disappearing at need. The stories that get told tend to be about how people live when they are allowed to be who they are.

Neither of these approaches is inherently more or less valid, more or less sciencey. And there are a lot of other variations that can be analyzed in this way, like the ever-more-popular military sci fi. It's not particularly realistic, but it does talk about people living lives buried beneath machinery.

Because of this, rather than "hard" and "soft", I might prefer "heavy" and "light".

Clearly, oldschool Star Trek is king of "light" sci fi. You need healing? Here's a smartphone and an injector the size of your thumb, all better. Need to go from A to B? Here's a patch of floor to send you wherever. Need an epic space battle? Turns out your house is armed with lasers and shakes delightfully when struck. While there are massive pieces of science, their impact on daily life is either invisible or entirely supportive: the cool space station lets people do super-cool science, but is otherwise basically an office building.

Mass Effect is a prince of "light" sci fi.

Well, no surprise. Mass Effect was an attempt to modernize 60s pulp, and it largely succeeded. Computers literally appear and disappear out of thin air. Space stations and ships all have artificial gravity and huge windows. Healing is even faster and easier than in Star Trek, and guns fire magic bullets.

The clean curves and crisp edges of the designs highlight this. While there is a lot of detailing, there's no clutter. This is true of interiors, exteriors, clothes, armor, even guns.

The stories are about people living lives enabled by technology. Sure, there are still desperate people, dangers and evils. The technology is used to highlight and isolate those stories so they can be told crisply and cleanly, unburdened by the expectations of the real world or the forced clutter of heavy science fiction.

Those things can be introduced. Whenever it'd be useful. But we can use the freedom of soft science fiction to tell the stories exactly as we want to.

Moreover, this affects the ambiance of the civilizations we find. Things like armor or even jackets are likely to be rare, and we're likely to meet a lot of people delving into their own interests instead of being desperate to make enough money to survive. There are still likely to be poor and desperate people, but those elements tend to be downplayed. In ME, even the destitute colonists are portrayed as hopefuls building a new life.

People usually live a rather minimalist lifestyle in soft sci fi. They don't need clutter, not unless the story demands it. They don't need pockets, not unless the story demands it. They don't need medical conditions, not unless the story demands it.

Whichever angle the devs choose, it's supported by the soft technologies. If we need the colonists to be worried about the power supply, here's a box they are fussing with, and here's the side quest where you help them in some arbitrary way. If there's monsters attacking, here's as many or as few automated defenses as the story needs. If someone is corrupt, here's a technology that highlights and enables that. If someone's sick, here's an arbitrarily convoluted technology for treating them.

And... this is something authors simply don't understand.

They inherit a great story, and they want to tell more stories in that universe. They want to punch it up a notch, even. So they take the supporting elements that people will remember, and they make them permanent. They begin to clutter up the stories even when they aren't needed. The whole series trends towards "harder" sci fi, more and more clutter, and the genre changes.

I call this "calcification". Turning "soft" sci fi into "hard" sci fi - or light into heavy, if you prefer.

This happens all the time. It happened in Star Trek, which gradually became military sci fi. Hell, it even happened with Batman and Superman.

It's happening right now with Mass Effect.

I think this is why science fiction IPs tend to become grimmer and grittier. Not because everyone thinks grimmer and grittier sells better, but because if you let your stories build up clutter, you have to start telling stories about people being crushed by that clutter.

Don't fall for it. You can keep your stories uncluttered. You can even tell grim and gritty stories.

Keeping soft sci fi light and flexible is difficult, but it's key. When your science fiction can't touch its own toes any more, you've calcified and need to limber up again.

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