Is the problem with SF short stories something to do with the definition of hard SF? Stanley Schmidt, in his parting interview with Locus Magazine, seemed to suggest the term should be retired. He said, ‘‘While, in one sense, I’m proud to keep Analog as hard science fiction, I also sometimes wish that term would go away. So many people use it in a way that they think is what I mean by it, and it’s completely different from what I really mean.”

He went on to say that most people seem to think hard SF is about “clanking hardware,” which is not what he considers hard SF. Instead, he sets two requirements:

1) Science or technology so integral to the story that the plot would fail without it.
2) Some attempt to make the science or technology speculation plausible.

This is pretty much still the definition of what Analog wants as stated in their submission guidelines here. They also note that the science could be soft science like psychology or sociology, or hard science like physics or math. Schmidt mentions “ Flowers for Algernon” as a prime example of his definition of hard SF. For anyone who hasn’t read it, the story by Daniel Keyes is heavily character driven and focuses on ethical and moral themes related to the mentally disabled. According to Schmidt, many people don’t even consider it science fiction, much less hard SF.

So, would abolishing the term “hard SF” actually simplify things? We expect that science fiction, by definition, should have a scientific base. This is what separates it from fantasy or magical realism. Using this strict definition, a lot of what’s out there now as science fiction wouldn’t qualify. Space opera wouldn’t, for example, regardless that it uses spaceships and exotic, futuristic weapons. That falls more into a space adventure category. Stories that use a SF setting to investigate social, political or moral ideas might be better called speculative fiction.

Can we agree that all science fiction needs a science base? Or, do we still need that adjective “hard” to indicate where there’s clanking hardware?