FeatherPenClipArtBesides proposing a hardness scale for SF, the TVTropes article made some interesting comments on the science fiction genre as a whole. First, it discussed the term “soft SF.”

On one hand, a distinction pretty much falls out from use of the term “hard SF.” Once we’ve identified “hard SF”, this suggests everything else must be soft, particularly works that use only a science fictional setting to discuss something else. Soft SF is generally expected to encompass literary SF stories that concentrate more on qualities like message, characterization, symbolism, imagery, theme and story structure, rather than the actual science of the situation.

On the other hand, there are “hard” and “soft” sciences, based on perceived methodological rigor and objectivity of the research and application. Hard sciences are considered to be disciplines like physics, chemistry and engineering that use mathematical calculations to apply natural laws. Soft sciences are generally considered to be social science disciplines like psychology, political science, sociology, geography, history, medical science and economics that have to use statistics to identify and predict population trends in order to form theories and models to predict results.

The existence of these different classifications is one thing that confuses our expectations of what hard vs soft SF really is. As Stanley Schmidt commented, the reigning definition for hard SF in the public mind seems to be about engineering (i.e. clanking hardware), and possibly about extensive and boring discussions of quantum mechanics. However, if you include the “soft” sciences in your definition of what science really is, then you’ve got a much broader base for what’s actually real, science-based science fiction. It doesn’t have to be all about clanking hardware.