How To Tell If You Are In A Soft Science Fiction Novel
January 30, 2015 8:10 AM   Subscribe

 
Your life story mirrors perfectly the legend of Jason and the Argonauts, but your ship travels between the stars, rather than between a chain of Mediterranean islands.
Is YA and everyone knows it.

(I go between entirely charmed by this article and annoyed at the broad definition of soft science fiction, which appears to be everything that isn't diamond hard.)
posted by jeather at 8:19 AM on January 30, 2015 [8 favorites]


An artificial intelligence program is intentionally misunderstanding your commands by interpreting them in the most literal way imaginable.

This is just your basic AI fuckery. They think it's hilarious, like yelling "ERROR! ERROR! DOES NOT COMPUTE!" then setting off the smoke smudges under the console.
posted by bonehead at 8:25 AM on January 30, 2015 [14 favorites]


Firefly had a mermaid planet episode?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:27 AM on January 30, 2015 [14 favorites]


phones, but too much
posted by infinitewindow at 8:31 AM on January 30, 2015 [16 favorites]


Autoplaying video ad D:
posted by Drexen at 8:32 AM on January 30, 2015


So, I love Mallory Ortberg, but this doesn't ring true enough to be funny. It just seems like she's referencing mainsteam TV, mainstream movies, and poorly written SF from 50 years ago.

So when she says soft SF, what is she talking about, exactly? Crappy Poppy Mainstream YA stuff?
posted by leotrotsky at 8:33 AM on January 30, 2015 [8 favorites]


> "phones, but too much"

(This is, in fact, the exact plot of the soft science fiction novel I am in the middle of reading right now.)
posted by kyrademon at 8:33 AM on January 30, 2015


Autoplaying video ad D:

Yeah, that's another good example. I've suspected we're living in one for a while now.
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:33 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


I am going to put on my pedant hat and say that according to Wikipedia (until someone gets to it), "[h]ard science fiction is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy or technical detail, or on both." So there's no reason that these things could not also be found in hard sci-fi as well. Which is also a problem.
posted by Going To Maine at 8:35 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


How to tell if you are on The Toast

There is a clever lack of punctuation inside sentences.

A description of a reference you get and think others don't get.

Something you desire to point out to others you have personally observed.

A thing that you think nobody else is writing about because you only read The Toast.
posted by michaelh at 8:35 AM on January 30, 2015 [43 favorites]


From the same series, I like "How To Tell If You Are In A Henry James Novel."
1. You’ve done something in a piazza that renders you unfit for polite company.
Story of my life.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:37 AM on January 30, 2015 [23 favorites]


I have an allergic reaction to people using the term 'soft scifi' so I can't even evaluate if this is funny or not.
posted by dinty_moore at 8:38 AM on January 30, 2015 [4 favorites]


"You live in a world where robots masturbate, for some reason."

This reference, over my head. Can anyone help me out?
posted by Leon at 8:38 AM on January 30, 2015


>Firefly had a mermaid planet episode?

The Other Other Mrs. Reynolds.
Season 3, Episode 8.
posted by atomo at 8:39 AM on January 30, 2015 [13 favorites]


Seems like some serious pish posh haughty sniffing going on here.
posted by josher71 at 8:39 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


You reach a major understanding with a difficult alien character by setting aside your technology and embracing the mind-expanding technique of interpretive dance.

You and your friends play a recreational sport that involves strapping wings to your arms and flapping about in a huge zero-G room set aside for just this purpose.

People commonly move from place to place using something with a cool name but are basically rollerblades™.
posted by AndrewStephens at 8:39 AM on January 30, 2015 [6 favorites]


This reference, over my head. Can anyone help me out?

Lots of these novels feature droids or bots who are basically naked supermodel females who turn to unremarkable scifi dudes to learn how to use their genitalia areas (but don't have messy feelings like gross human women).

I was once gifted a Piers Anthony sci-fi novel by an older man when I was 8 or 9 where the main dude character was having graphic sex with a ladybot within about ten pages of the beginning of the book. There is a part where he massages her breasts in an extended scene to admire the "craftsmanship" of them feeling so similar to real breasts.

(In retrospect, I can't decide whether or not the dude who gave me this book was trying to "groom" me, because wtf.)
posted by a fiendish thingy at 8:45 AM on January 30, 2015 [10 favorites]


You live in a world where robots masturbate, for some reason.
Read more at http://the-toast.net/2015/01/28/tell-soft-science-fiction-novel/#IyMKv2IUgs1SWT0C.99


Hey, don't knock masturbation, robots deserve to feel good too!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:46 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


I, for one, welcome our new masturbating overlords. I can relate to them better.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 8:47 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


> "I was once gifted a Piers Anthony sci-fi novel by an older man when I was 8 or 9 where the main dude character was having graphic sex with a ladybot within about ten pages of the beginning of the book."

Split Infinity, right?
posted by kyrademon at 8:48 AM on January 30, 2015 [4 favorites]


You live in a world where robots masturbate, for some reason.

Yes, I read that and thought "Do they need a reason?"
posted by octobersurprise at 8:49 AM on January 30, 2015 [5 favorites]


This is off-topic, but so good. A Letter From Chris Kimball (of Cook's Illustrated)

"Today’s a happy day, readers. Today I’m marrying the assistant girl, which marks the beginning of spring. Every fall I shed my old assistant-wife, and every spring I marry the new one. It’s an old Vermont custom – as old as sinking your mother into a vat of fresh-churned butter and storing her in the jam-cellar for freshness – and it makes for a good harvest."
posted by leotrotsky at 8:50 AM on January 30, 2015 [12 favorites]


An artificial intelligence program is intentionally misunderstanding your commands by interpreting them in the most literal way imaginable.

Hm, IDK this could also mean you are in an Amelia Bedelia book.
posted by Sara C. at 8:51 AM on January 30, 2015 [34 favorites]


"You live in a world where robots masturbate, for some reason."

This reference, over my head. Can anyone help me out?


Well as soon as you bring head or helping you out into the picture we're not really talking about masturbation anymore.

But I also didn't really get that one either, so thanks a fiendish thingy. I would have felt very strange about that 'gift'.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 8:52 AM on January 30, 2015


(P.S., Split Infinity gets EVEN MORE DISTURBING when that character later has sex with a unicorn.)
posted by kyrademon at 8:52 AM on January 30, 2015


You live in a world where robots masturbate, for some reason.

I'm not going to look now, since I am at work, but I would be surprised if we're not already in this world. Robots will masturbate as soon as they look enough like people for people to enjoy watching them do it (or as soon as enough people with masturbating robot fetishes get together).

This list kind of reminds me of ClarkesWorld of "hard sells."
posted by cjorgensen at 8:53 AM on January 30, 2015


Jumpsuits! Jumpsuits! Jumpsuits!
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:53 AM on January 30, 2015 [5 favorites]


At least one alien species composed only of women has been searching for centuries for the single male who will lead them into a Golden Age. That male is you, and you will have to have sex with their beautiful witch-queen, whose arms are entwined with copper jewelry and whose eyes are the color of sunset.


Read more at http://the-toast.net/2015/01/28/tell-soft-science-fiction-novel/#IrOTpkRfQOfj2jZY.99



Will the robot be masturbating in the corner?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:54 AM on January 30, 2015


Reminds me of the Turkey City Lexicon.
posted by Artw at 8:55 AM on January 30, 2015


So when she says soft SF, what is she talking about, exactly? Crappy Poppy Mainstream YA stuff?

I think she just mean bad science fiction. YA isn't, as a genre, particularly worse than any other genre, though it has specific things that it does annoyingly (trilogy should not equal one huge book cut roughly into three).
posted by jeather at 8:55 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


I don't necessarily respect Ortberg any less because she's either flat-out mining TV Tropes or has simply seen Avatar, Firefly, and a random smattering of Star Trek episodes, and put a mildly funny twist on a few of the tropes. Still a bit disappointed, though.

Also, I think that Masturbating Robot is a portmanteau of Masturbating Bear and Pimpbot 5000 from Conan, although it could be a very attenuated reference to the fact that Data has had sex, which begs the question of why Dr. Soong thought to give him genitalia in the first place.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:55 AM on January 30, 2015


Split Infinity, right?

Ding ding ding!

His robot bodyguard/sextoy has sex with him when he is in the scifi world, his unicorn shapeshifter steed has sex with him when he is in the MAGIC world on the other side of the "veil", and it isn't a problem! They both understand that the other woman is in a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT WORLD!

Also he has sex with his unicorn friend because when she isn't in a unicorn form she turns into a naked woman. The first time they have sex is right after he "breaks" her in her unicorn form and she is his slavishly devoted servant thereafter.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 8:55 AM on January 30, 2015


I was once gifted a Piers Anthony sci-fi novel by an older man when I was 8 or 9 where the main dude character was having graphic sex with a ladybot within about ten pages of the beginning of the book. There is a part where he massages her breasts in an extended scene to admire the "craftsmanship" of them feeling so similar to real breasts.

Oh. oh.

Only Piers Anthony I ever read was the Incarnations of Immortality series... it wasn't great, but never understood why people were quite so down on him. Now I know.
posted by Leon at 8:56 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


Copying comments from the-toast are super fucking annoying.
Read more at http://fuckyouforrunningannoyingscripts.net/2015/01/28/wewantcreditmorethanwevaluereasers/#poopstick.99
posted by cjorgensen at 8:56 AM on January 30, 2015 [8 favorites]


I suspect there might be a little room left here for a "Hard SF" one - it's certainly ripe for it.
posted by Artw at 8:57 AM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


God how do you disable that stupid "Read more at http://the-toast.net/2015/01/28/tell-soft-science-fiction-novel/#IrOTpkRfQOfj2jZY.99" Not that I want to steal these for my own, but I'd like to copy my friggin favorites to a fried without have to delete 50% of the text every single time.
posted by Carillon at 8:58 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


I was once gifted a Piers Anthony sci-fi novel by an older man when I was 8 or 9

Coincidentally, also the age of consent according to at least one Anthony story, so ewww.
posted by MartinWisse at 8:59 AM on January 30, 2015 [5 favorites]


Bad news - that's not linkcruft, that's bot-spooge.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:00 AM on January 30, 2015 [4 favorites]


cjorgensen: "This list kind of reminds me of ClarkesWorld of "hard sells.""

Thank you for that link. Now I want to try to write a story that incorporates all the hard sells.
posted by adamrice at 9:00 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also great is "How To Tell If You Are In An Iris Murdoch Novel." Which is also pretty much the story of my life.
posted by octobersurprise at 9:00 AM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I love the Toast but I wish they were a bit less intrusive with the tech. Only noticed the copy & paste thing the other day, but their ads are pretty bad too. Maybe someday they'll offer a paid membership version or something.
posted by kmz at 9:01 AM on January 30, 2015


> "His robot bodyguard/sextoy has sex with him when he is in the scifi world, his unicorn shapeshifter steed has sex with him when he is in the MAGIC world on the other side of the 'veil', and it isn't a problem!"

Don't forget that everyone in the scifi world is naked! As in, it is literally illegal for them to wear clothes!
posted by kyrademon at 9:02 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


Only Piers Anthony I ever read was the Incarnations of Immortality series... it wasn't great, but never understood why people were quite so down on him.

Because you only read the Incarnations of Immortality series?

I actually love Piers Anthony, since he demystified the whole wide of being a writer by his end notes where he explained what was going on in his life while writing, and actually talked about the craft. I also love him for contributing to my love of reading, but man, he was a perve (again, perfect for the 12 year old looking for age appropriate softcore).

His Xanth series had a lot of questionable sex scenes. Personally, I am fine with them, but if you're concerned your teenager might not be able to parse the nuances, you might pick something tamer. He's a lot like Heinlein in that he has dirty old man syndrome, and it's obvious when the character is an author stand-in just in time to sex up the distressed damsel.

Of course, I think within two years I'd moved on to Anaïs Nin, so YMMV.
posted by cjorgensen at 9:02 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


So when she says soft SF, what is she talking about, exactly?

As you know Bob, soft science fiction was a back formation from hard science fiction created sometime in the late sixties or early seventies when it became clear that icky New Wave stuff wasn't going away and the real science fiction fans needed to ghettoise all those women and minorities writers suddenly thinking they could play too.

It's always been a sneery term and Ortberg turns it around by listing all the cliches you actually find both in crappy tv/movie sci-fi land as well as in the manliest of manly Baen "hard" sf stories.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:03 AM on January 30, 2015 [15 favorites]


The Love Boat is soft sci-fi?

Didn't they do a "Fantasy Island" crossover? Or is that one of those memories I invented and am just going to cherish regardless of reality?
posted by cjorgensen at 9:06 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


" You and your friends play a recreational sport that involves strapping wings to your arms and flapping about in a huge zero-G room set aside for just this purpose."

That's hard sci fi. Heinlein did the math: in low gravity on the moon, in a pressurized room, it would really be possible for a person to fly with wings. I see this as a good reason to restart the Apollo program.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:06 AM on January 30, 2015 [9 favorites]


His Xanth series had a lot of questionable sex scenes.

Sure, like the book about lusting after a child's underwear.
posted by bonehead at 9:07 AM on January 30, 2015


if you're concerned your teenager might not be able to parse the nuances, you might pick something tamer

The idea of parents choosing books for their kids to read is odd to me. Is that common? I just picked stuff up from book fairs and pilfered my sister's Stephen King and Tom Clancy paperbacks.
posted by grumpybear69 at 9:07 AM on January 30, 2015


My quick and dirty rule for soft vs. hard science fiction is whether they solve interstellar travel by ignoring the speed of light (soft) or by making everyone clinically immortal/uploaded to a computer/live in a can for generations (hard), all of which are currently intractable problems and sort of handwavey but could be solved without completely invalidating current scientific understanding of the universe, and should probably have at least some social implications that keep the setting from being 'murica in space.
posted by Vulgar Euphemism at 9:09 AM on January 30, 2015 [5 favorites]


AndrewStephens: You and your friends play a recreational sport that involves strapping wings to your arms and flapping about in a huge zero-G room set aside for just this purpose.

This was in a Heinlein novel, or maybe more than one, like fifty years ago. It was in The Menace From Earth, if I recall if I am searching Google correctly.

You knew that, right? Sorry.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:10 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


I just finished a multi-novel space opera that seems to check off a lot of these boxes. But then again, it is a space opera, I am not exactly looking for hard SF discussions about resource management and orbital dynamics.

If I wanted that, I would go re-read Andy Wier's the Martian. Although I love that book as well.
posted by Badgermann at 9:10 AM on January 30, 2015


Piece is trying too hard to be funny and doesn't really understand the genre as well as it thinks -- but what struck me more is that a piece ostensibly mocking soft scifi would use an illustration of Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (it's unmistakably the interior of that cylindrical alien craft)... one of the hardest works of hard science fiction.
posted by aught at 9:10 AM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's always been a sneery term and Ortberg turns it around by listing all the cliches you actually find both in crappy tv/movie sci-fi land as well as in the manliest of manly Baen "hard" sf stories.

Yeah, the first thing I thought was that the piece is mocking the Baen house style. I guess "cybervampire antiheroes fighting technozombies IN SPACE" would have been too on-the-nose.

He's a lot like Heinlein in that he has dirty old man syndrome, and it's obvious when the character is an author stand-in just in time to sex up the distressed damsel.

And sometimes the damsel is five years old and his author stand-in explains how it was romantic and consensual.
posted by zombieflanders at 9:12 AM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's always been a sneery term and Ortberg turns it around by listing all the cliches you actually find both in crappy tv/movie sci-fi land as well as in the manliest of manly Baen "hard" sf stories.

I can't favorite this enough. Well said, MartinWisse.
posted by aught at 9:12 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


I suspect there might be a little room left here for a "Hard SF" one - it's certainly ripe for it.

"The currently understood laws of physics (plus some respectable theories) both constrain and drive your life story."


There, done.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:14 AM on January 30, 2015 [6 favorites]


Ugh. The ups and downs of being an author.

Two days ago, I got a tweet from a reader (which doesn't happen all that frequently), saying: "...it made me feel warm to see POC and queers like me in mil SF as part of the world, not just tokens."

I cried. I'll admit it. That right there made me feel super happy. Like I'd done things right.

Today I woke up, blearily picked up my cell phone, and read this: Racism no longer exists now that all of humanity has banded together to speak English, vote democratically, adhere to 20th-century American social standards... and wanted to roll out of bed just so I could go bang my head into my desk.

Not really what's going on in my book (humanity's not remotely banded together), but one could get that if one read lazily enough -- and people do read things lazily, OMG do they ever -- so it's close enough that part of me is like, "No, go ahead, you should feel like a cheap hack. Go with that. It'll make you a better writer."

Ugh.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 9:17 AM on January 30, 2015 [9 favorites]


When I am in a mood to see informed people poke fun at SF clichés, I generally turn to Futurama. The mockery is done in a more respectful and thoughtful way. Or I play Space Flux.
posted by tempestuoso at 9:22 AM on January 30, 2015 [4 favorites]


"You live in a world where robots masturbate, for some reason."

I can't decide whether I want to read this novel or write it.
posted by these are science wands at 9:24 AM on January 30, 2015 [7 favorites]


His Xanth series had a lot of questionable sex scenes.

Sure, like the book about lusting after a child's underwear.


Or the book he wrote (outside of the Xanth series) that was straight up hardcore child pornography. Imagine my alarm as a young pre-teen fan of his early fantasy and sci fi stuff when I checked THAT out of the library... had to write him a letter of complaint and haven't touched his stuff since.
posted by FatherDagon at 9:25 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


I love it. The headline is provokingly context-free (unless you RTFA). I'd venture to guess that the reactions it's getting were intended. I think MartinWisse probably hit the mark, but my personal interpretation of the concept of "soft", especially within the context of the actual writing below the headline, could be rephrased as "How to tell if you are in a shitty story that merely maintains the thinnest veneer of sci-fi by tacking on a few technological maguffins but honestly this shit's just a hollow re-skin of a normal fantasy/sexquest/angstballads".

But that doesn't really roll off the tongue so much, eh
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:26 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


I can't decide whether I want to read this novel or write it.
posted by these are science wands


Tee hee!
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:26 AM on January 30, 2015 [6 favorites]


I don't know, I feel like the two available options for organizing society in mainstream SF are either "America Conquers The Galaxy" or "Bleak Dystopia Because America Didn't Conquer The Galaxy". If you weren't planning on writing a book with dystopian themes or which is just one big political metaphor, I feel like "It's exactly like the socio-political context you're familiar with as an American" is a pretty OK default setting.

I mean as a history/politics/culture dork I'd love to read science fiction where everything is mostly hunky dory but we have some obscure political scheme that is not commonly understood by early 21st century Americans, but I also understand that the market for this is probably not large.
posted by Sara C. at 9:27 AM on January 30, 2015


How to feel you are reading a toast article on metafilter: you click on it and it has 5 comments but by the time you have read the article it has 30 comments from people who desperately wish they were X enough to write on toast.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 9:27 AM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


Or I play Space Flux.

Google's coming up blank.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:28 AM on January 30, 2015


I hate it when novels are written in a language I understand, like English. I much prefer them to be made up of futuristic symbols I can't decipher. It's so much more authentic.
posted by cccorlew at 9:28 AM on January 30, 2015 [7 favorites]


How to feel you are reading a toast article on metafilter: you click on it and it has 5 comments but by the time you have read the article it has 30 comments from people who desperately wish they were X enough to write on toast.

Please solve for X.
posted by josher71 at 9:30 AM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


You know, you always think the masturbating robots are going to be cool, until you realize that's all they do and then you just keep tripping over them in the morning when you're trying to get dressed.
posted by kyrademon at 9:30 AM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


cccorlew: "I hate it when novels are written in a language I understand, like English. I much prefer them to be made up of futuristic symbols I can't decipher. It's so much more authentic."

You can simulate this by reading ebooks and changing the display font to wingdings.
posted by these are science wands at 9:31 AM on January 30, 2015 [5 favorites]


[For folks moved to comment on the toast-on-metafilter angle, there is in fact a Metatalk thread where that'd be more on point.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:31 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]



Today I woke up, blearily picked up my cell phone, and read this: Racism no longer exists now that all of humanity has banded together to speak English, vote democratically, adhere to 20th-century American social standards... and wanted to roll out of bed just so I could go bang my head into my desk.


I wonder if a clearer way to write Ortberg's comment would be "Race no longer exists now that everyone speaks English and votes democratic..... I think it would be a pretty stupid critique of all science fiction everywhere to say "you must write a book that centers racism, because imagining a world without racism is ipso facto a political and moral failure, regardless of how you do it or why".

I feel like she really means "this trope is a problem because it suggests that racism 'ends' by everyone becoming a 21st century American white person from a middle class background, except some people have brown skin".

There's lots of pretty successful science fiction (like a lot of Delany's stuff, for example) which postulates a post-scarcity future where race "does not matter" in the way that it matters today. The "does not matter" itself functions as a critique of contemporary racism, an expansion of what SF can do and an estrangement device.

I think the idea that science fiction must center 21st century American racism - rather than saying that science fiction can be about racism and should not be stupid about race - risks basically reifying 21st century American racism as something that is transhistorical and inevitable.
posted by Frowner at 9:31 AM on January 30, 2015 [16 favorites]


I don't know, I feel like the two available options for organizing society in mainstream SF are either "America Conquers The Galaxy" or "Bleak Dystopia Because America Didn't Conquer The Galaxy". If you weren't planning on writing a book with dystopian themes...

"America Conquers the Galaxy" sounds perfectly dystopian to me.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 9:32 AM on January 30, 2015 [8 favorites]


Do Androids Dream of Electric Orgies?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:33 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


I mean as a history/politics/culture dork I'd love to read science fiction where everything is mostly hunky dory but we have some obscure political scheme that is not commonly understood by early 21st century Americans, but I also understand that the market for this is probably not large.

Perhaps you would like Samuel Delany's novel Triton? They certainly have a novel political system. Or John Varley's short stories published in the horribly-named (over his objections, too) The Barbie Murders? "Beatnik Bayou" is pretty interesting. Or maybe Ursula Le Guin's novel Always Coming Home?

None of these are set in Future America, but they're all by Americans and thus to a degree deal with American concerns about society and the polity.

You might also like the non-bleakly-dystopian bits of L Timmel Du Champ's Marq'ssan series, set as they are in an anarchist free zone centered around Seattle.
posted by Frowner at 9:35 AM on January 30, 2015 [5 favorites]


Do Androids Act Inappropriately with Electric Sheep?
posted by these are science wands at 9:35 AM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


You reach a major understanding with a difficult alien character by setting aside your technology and embracing the mind-expanding technique of interpretive dance.

Hey! I liked Rogue Moon.
posted by The Tensor at 9:39 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


Frowner: I agree, and a lot of it comes down to how closely one reads the wording, both in this article and in whatever SF you're reading. But that's kind of what makes me wince. An awful lot of people seem to feel like they're excellent critics, when really they either didn't understand what they read or don't understand what they themselves are saying in their critiques.

"Mary Sue" is an excellent illustration of this. That term has an actual meaning, but most people just use it as shorthand for "this character is (A) good at something, and (B) I don't like him/her," and they feel edgy & knowledgeable for using it.

As for race, gender, etc...all I can say is that it gets very, very tricky to actually write that well when you are both trying to show the future as being better on that score, while still respecting those differences and showing empathy for your readers who live in the really real world where it isn't all that great--especially when societies have launched into outer space and morphed into their own things. I don't think that taking on an attitude of "we don't see color (in the future!)" is necessarily the right way to go, but it's not the most wrong of options, either.

Also, this article pisses me off because now my idea to end the series by restarting the sun with nuclear weapons has been satirized before I could write it. Dammit.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 9:41 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


Hey! I liked Rogue Moon.

I thought that was Shaka, when the walls fell.
posted by Leon at 9:43 AM on January 30, 2015


This so confuses me, because "soft science fiction" is what I call science fiction which explicitly interrogates gender roles, social organisation, etc - sociological interests, as opposed to physics/chemistry/biology.
posted by jb at 9:43 AM on January 30, 2015 [11 favorites]


MetaFilter, when the Ortberg was linked.
posted by these are science wands at 9:44 AM on January 30, 2015 [24 favorites]


> "Also, this article pisses me off because now my idea to end the series by restarting the sun with nuclear weapons has been satirized before I could write it. Dammit."

Hey, I wanted to end mine by killing off all the hubris with a ray gun.

But apparently "The Man" won't let you do that.
posted by kyrademon at 9:44 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


You live in a world where robots masturbate, for some reason.

Hey, don't knock masturbation; it's sex with someone they have, resource holding deadlocks aside, 100% third party API compatibility with.
posted by CynicalKnight at 9:46 AM on January 30, 2015 [10 favorites]


"Mary Sue" is an excellent illustration of this. That term has an actual meaning, but most people just use it as shorthand for "this character is (A) good at something, and (B) I don't like him/her," and they feel edgy & knowledgeable for using it.

This is just part of a much larger pattern (in English, at least) where smart people make up or popularize a term and dumb people proceed to broaden its use beyond all reason or consistency. This is quite a separate phenomenon from the one where dumb people make up or popularize dumb terms (also a problem).
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:48 AM on January 30, 2015 [4 favorites]


This is just part of a much larger pattern (in English, at least) where smart people make up or popularize a term and dumb people proceed to broaden its use beyond all reason or consistency. This is quite a separate phenomenon from the one where dumb people make up or popularize dumb terms (also a problem).

in a post-scarcity world, everybody is fat and dumb and they communicate in burbles and babbles because why do we even when we have phones?

also the dumb people are caricatures of lower-class/rural/working class individuals because my understanding of transhumanism is influenced by the couple of times I've been to wal-mart
posted by saucy_knave at 9:52 AM on January 30, 2015 [8 favorites]


MetaFilter, when the Ortberg was linked.


MeTa, in the drawing room with the candlestick.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:52 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


"... it's sex with someone they have, resource holding deadlocks aside, 100% third party API compatibility with."

Not when I had Win32 installed on them, it wasn't.
posted by kyrademon at 9:52 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


As for race, gender, etc...all I can say is that it gets very, very tricky to actually write that well when you are both trying to show the future as being better on that score, while still respecting those differences and showing empathy for your readers who live in the really real world where it isn't all that great--especially when societies have launched into outer space and morphed into their own things. I don't think that taking on an attitude of "we don't see color (in the future!)" is necessarily the right way to go, but it's not the most wrong of options, either.

Yeah, I don't think a US writer can write an SF novel that isn't, in a sense, "about" race (I am unsure how to think this through in re, say, Indian science fiction, where the racial/class/etc landscape is so different and shaped by such a different history). A novel about a society "without" racism is still "about" race because it either describes or implies at least something about how the society got that way. (In Delany's far futures, like in Triton or "The Star Pit", we don't really see how society gets the way it is, but we can infer from textual details that it was not through the vanishment of difference or the vanishment of people of color. Or in Stars In My Pocket...., we get a quick view of an earth-type society with earth-type racism.) I also think that it's particularly tricky for white writers to write a "non-racist" future.
posted by Frowner at 9:56 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


This so confuses me

My take is the column is written by someone who has seen a lot of pop-culture sciffy shows, as opposed to having read things like Tepper or Triptree or Delany or Le Guin or Stross or... though Stross and Triptree have mastubating robots covered. Reading it on that level for what it is, it's funny. Informed litcrit, it ain't.

It's the same problem Atwood used to have when she claimed she didn't write science fiction because she thought it all looked like Star Wars. That's what outsiders think scifi is. It's a bit lazy, but whatever. It's not like the genre isn't a target rich environment for satire.
posted by bonehead at 10:00 AM on January 30, 2015 [4 favorites]


Considering that the vast majority of all speculative fiction is written with a middle class bourgeois My Values Are The Right Kind Of Values demographic in mind, it doesn't seem that surprising that most of it presumes that the way to fix racism is to make everyone middle class bourgeois people with that same set of values. I mean someone has to actually buy the books.

I would fucking love to read more SF that didn't just opt for that, but again unless the goal is to write political commentary that just doesn't seem terribly realistic. People who are into sci fi are in it for the spaceships and planets and alien babes. If you need to convey some kind of socio-cultural arrangement without really going into it, yeah, sure, just stick with the one that makes the most sense to your readers.
posted by Sara C. at 10:02 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


bonehead: "It's not like the genre isn't a target rich environment for satire."

I could do like a hundred of these just off Anne McCaffrey's oeuvre.

"Shortly after frying a boy your own age with your mind you swear off romance for good, but then, shortly after frying a large frogman with your mind, you find yourself falling for your reliable and kind father-figure (to whom you are only just not related)."
posted by these are science wands at 10:06 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


How To Tell If You Are In A William Gibson Novel ...

As a friend said the other day, just look around.
posted by philip-random at 10:14 AM on January 30, 2015 [18 favorites]


Hey guys! Guys! Guess what?

Science fiction is a way of examining culture through the creation of fictional distance and some authors are better at it than others! Like making lasagna or powerlifting! And because original ideas ain't exactly thick on the ground, if you read a lot of science fiction, you see different people addressing the same ideas abstracted in similar ways!

THATS HILARIOUS

And it ain't stopping me from writing this story about robots.

Don't mess with me, Ortberg.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:16 AM on January 30, 2015 [10 favorites]


As a friend said the other day, just look around.

Nah, we have wifi. Gibson novels are period pieces at this point.
posted by cjorgensen at 10:16 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


People who are into sci fi are in it for the spaceships and planets and alien babes.

Really no. I'm seeking the shock of the new. The bit when an idea makes your hair stand on end. I last had it with Ted Chiang, I think, and before that Charlie Stross. Can't speak for anyone else, of course.
posted by Leon at 10:18 AM on January 30, 2015 [6 favorites]


My sky is the colour of a blank channel today, though (blue and cold).
posted by bonehead at 10:18 AM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


Didn't they do a "Fantasy Island" crossover?

No, you're thinking of "Love Boat Angels", which made the Star Wars Holiday Special look like Macbeth.
posted by Smart Dalek at 10:19 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well, Hard SF used be where new gadgets would bring all mankind into the utopic future, unless of course the gadgets fell into the wrong hands. Um, and you need to trust the scientists, because they know best. Except for the one that's crazy. The lab assistant always wore high heels, and the hero had to hold her arm while they ran from the whatzit.

Then came the 60's.

Soft Sci Fi lets you get on with the story about aliens who all look like people in rubber jumpsuits without having to explain how matter transmitters or gravity plates work.

Also, please quit trying to conflate Fantasy with Science Fiction--this does no one any good.
posted by mule98J at 10:19 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


see comments on an earlier post re: "peak ortberg"
posted by k8bot at 10:22 AM on January 30, 2015


Justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow, wenestved, Heinlein may have invented it but it has been a staple of cheesy sci-fi for decades. I must have read half a dozen novels that contain similar scenes.

A few months ago I read a old paperback called Hellstar which contained all three examples I gave plus a ton of other clichésself-link.

Incidently, I don't find the distinction between hard and soft scifi very useful but this article was right on the money with the weirdly sexualized plot points in a large subset of scifi stories. It seems that a surprising number of possible futures for mankind involve orgies.
posted by AndrewStephens at 10:22 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


Possibly relevant: Caveman Science Fiction.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 10:22 AM on January 30, 2015 [5 favorites]


There was a gag reference to Tattoo's fantasy being...but it was just a parting shot.
posted by Smart Dalek at 10:22 AM on January 30, 2015


People who are into sci fi are in it for the spaceships and planets and alien babes.

I guess some of them are, but it's a weirdly reductive definition there.
posted by jeather at 10:24 AM on January 30, 2015 [6 favorites]


"It's always been a sneery term and Ortberg turns it around by listing all the cliches you actually find both in crappy tv/movie sci-fi land as well as in the manliest of manly Baen 'hard' sf stories." -- MartinWisse

then

"This so confuses me, because 'soft science fiction' is what I call science fiction which explicitly interrogates gender roles, social organisation, etc - sociological interests, as opposed to physics/chemistry/biology." -- jb

I'd love it were Ortberg doing what MartinWisse says, but I don't think that's the case. And it's really pretty egregious given that I think that jb is right and so Ortberg is just making things worse. The people who wrote new wave science fiction were trying to address the sorts of things that Ortberg is criticizing, because traditional science fiction and what came to be called hard science fiction (in contrast to what came to be called soft science fiction) was very much like this and was written by the kind of people who now watch Fox News all day, having retired from a career with Lockheed Martin.

Science fiction is a rich and deserving target for this sort of criticism, but to me this is a weak effort because it's not informed and so it's pretty scattershot.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:25 AM on January 30, 2015 [8 favorites]


Am I the only one who doesn't find the distinction between hard and soft scifi useful because what I really want out of my scifi realism is realistic biology and xenoecology and cultural development and population genetics and linguistic change rather than 'realistic physics'? Physics is all well and good, but it is pretty much my least favorite branch of science after weather science and I would like some fiction built out of stuff I find cool too please.

Is there a snappy genre term that lets me find that stuff? I loved Ancillary Justice and I love Eric Flint's Mother of Demons for having a non-vertebrate-based, totally realistic feeling ecology and alien history, but I have had a hard time finding scifi built on other disciplines every time I've gone looking before.
posted by sciatrix at 10:29 AM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't know, I feel like the two available options for organizing society in mainstream SF are either "America Conquers The Galaxy" or "Bleak Dystopia Because America Didn't Conquer The Galaxy". If you weren't planning on writing a book with dystopian themes or which is just one big political metaphor, I feel like "It's exactly like the socio-political context you're familiar with as an American" is a pretty OK default setting.

At the end of the day, humans in SF are still humans, and we don't really have all that many values to choose from. It's going to be a subset of some pretty basic categories, right? I mean the most novel SF story I've read recently was Blindsight and the society was basically just extend Bush America out 80 years.

I'm not going to be able to do a comprehensive list, but most mainstream SF cultures are one of these:

The West... In Space
-Inoffensive European Social Democracy
-American Capitalism for Everyone! (Good)
-American Capitalism for Everyone! (Bad)
-We're Greeks or Something

Theocracy/Religion Is Important
-Religion Synthesis
-We're All Buddhists Now
-Space Pope

Frontier Town
-Laser Western
-Dutch East Space Company
-Apocolypse/Escape from Neo New York

History Repeats Itself
-Space Middle Ages
-Space Egypt
-Space Rome (may be indistinguishable from American Capitalism for Everyone!)
posted by spaltavian at 10:32 AM on January 30, 2015 [18 favorites]


Science fiction is a rich and deserving target for this sort of criticism, but to me this is a weak effort because it's not informed and so it's pretty scattershot.

When I see something like this, I'm left with this urge to ask when the writer/critic -- Ortberg, in this case -- will be releasing her science fiction novel. I don't say that to be defensive (well, not just to be defensive), because it's also an honest question. Ultimately, the only way to make absolutely sure you'll be completely happy with a story is to write it yourself.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 10:32 AM on January 30, 2015


People who are into sci fi are in it for the spaceships and planets and alien babes.

yeah, I realize that this is just throwaway snark, but even when I was twelve, I wasn't much interested in planets spaceships (alien babes maybe). I didn't even much care for Star Trek (original series -- obviously fake). Perhaps this was because the Apollo missions were still happening (1971-72). Who needed cheesy sci-fi when we had the real thing on the nearest available orb?

The first sci-fi that genuinely hooked me was The Chrysalids -- earthbound, post apocalyptic and really more concerned with inner space than outer. Now that was compelling.
posted by philip-random at 10:36 AM on January 30, 2015


spaltavian: Space Feudal Japan
posted by Leon at 10:37 AM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


I suspect there might be a little room left here for a "Hard SF" one - it's certainly ripe for it.

-After a long hard day of lattice quantum chromodynamics, you like to unwind with the latest extremal combinatorics proofs. Your little pastime will make all the difference when the universe is threatened by a rogue simplicial complex.

-Humanity has finally collapsed the gender binary. There are no "men" and "women" now - only min. As it happens, min talk exactly like middle-aged white men.
posted by Iridic at 10:37 AM on January 30, 2015 [9 favorites]


Wikipedia categorizes a lot of your work as “soft science fiction”—a pretty horrible-sounding designation. Is there a more useful term for what you do? Maybe one that’s not even contingent on the category of science fiction?

Talk about wincing! Some sf writers decided a while ago that true sf can only be based on the so-called hard sciences—astronomy, physics, chemistry, engineering, computer science, and so on. The word “hard” brings some gender luggage along with it. And sure enough, these guys find stories based on the “soft,” or social, sciences to be a debased and squashy form of the genre. They see it as chick lit for geeks. So, OK. If anybody wants to build a ghetto inside the ghetto and live there, fine with me. But I wish this sectarianism hadn’t infected Wikipedia. If they want to call my stuff social science fiction, that’s fair enough. But so much of what I write isn’t sf at all.


VICE: Interview with Ursula K. Le Guin
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:43 AM on January 30, 2015 [13 favorites]


A lot of MilSF is Atomic Age of Sail. Roll-out the x-ray cannons!
posted by bonehead at 10:44 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


After a long hard day of lattice quantum chromodynamics, you like to unwind with the latest extremal combinatorics proofs. Your little pastime will make all the difference when the universe is threatened by a rogue simplicial complex.

This is literally a Greg Egan novel. I'm pretty sure I'm reading it right now.
posted by cthuljew at 10:45 AM on January 30, 2015 [10 favorites]


the only way to make absolutely sure you'll be completely happy with a story is to write it yourself.

I admit I don't write stories so maybe that's different, but I find that making something myself is the way to be absolutely sure I'll be excruciatingly aware of everything wrong with it. I mean, I'll still make it and possibly like it anyway, but if you wanted a list of flaws...
posted by echo target at 10:48 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Am I the only one who doesn't find the distinction between hard and soft scifi useful because what I really want out of my scifi realism is realistic biology and xenoecology and cultural development and population genetics and linguistic change rather than 'realistic physics'? "

You're not the only one. A lot of people really hate this supposed distinction, for a number of reasons. Some of them strongly object to an emphasis on scientific realism at all, which I think is partly a reaction to how "hard" SF fans fetishise it while denigrating SF that cares about culture.

But I think that scientific realism (specially defined in this context) is an important component of SF and the really shitty quality of the social sciences, explicit or implicit, in science fiction is a hobbyhorse of mine. Writers postulate all sorts of alternative societies but almost all of them are almost aggressively ignorant of all the science relevant to this. Which is pretty inexcusable for science fiction, in my opinion. But it's in keeping with the history of the genre, and this engineer's disease of thinking that the only things worth knowing are math, physics, and some technology.

Furthermore, the other problem here and another hobbyhorse of mine is that the stuff that SF is supposed to be pretty good at, physics and engineering, it's actually quite shitty at, too. I remember a thread here where people praised how much science they'd learned over the years from science fiction and I was pretty appalled.

Which the earlier critics I mentioned would probably use as a reason for throwing out the whole emphasis on science altogether. But what I'd rather see is truly scientifically informed science fiction. Which includes an informed basis in things like anthropology, sociology, political science, and economics. But we're lucky enough that SF ever bothers getting any biology or geology right, even though it writes about those topics all the damn time.

I'm about to fall back into ranting about former Lockheed engineers, so...
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:53 AM on January 30, 2015 [5 favorites]


"Am I the only one who doesn't find the distinction between hard and soft scifi useful because what I really want out of my scifi realism is realistic biology and xenoecology and cultural development and population genetics and linguistic change rather than 'realistic physics'? "

We found the Octavia Butler fan in the thread! (If not you need to read her.)
posted by cjorgensen at 10:56 AM on January 30, 2015 [10 favorites]


But we're lucky enough that SF ever bothers getting any biology or geology right, even though it writes about those topics all the damn time.

Read the Rifter Trilogy by Peter Watts. Bio fiction. So good.
posted by cthuljew at 10:58 AM on January 30, 2015


Being an actual marine biologist probably helping there.
posted by Artw at 11:01 AM on January 30, 2015


humans in SF are still humans, and we don't really have all that many values to choose from

You've just distilled in one sentence why I ended up majoring in anthropology.

Because SF taught me that the sum total of all human nature is extremely narrow (and conveniently reduces to "whatever white middle class Americans think is normal"), whereas, actually, it is incredibly, wonderfully almost unimaginably varied. And in the grand scheme of human existence, it has been even more wonderfully unimaginably varied.

If anthropology taught me nothing, it's that aliens, if we ever meet them, are gonna be FUCKING WEIRD.
posted by Sara C. at 11:01 AM on January 30, 2015 [14 favorites]


I feel like it is a mistake to think that Ortberg is going after ALL soft sci-fi. This is basically a straightforward list of all the tropes that I read over and over again in 95% of the sci-fi books I checked out from the library from ages 10-18, and in retrospect, a lot of the default assumptions in a lot of those books were pretty gross.

Very few of those books were doing incisive intellectual work about how humanity functions in culture or how technology impacts our collective sociology. That was what I WANTED to read about, but instead I kept finding myself reading books about nubile robots who were hardwired to need random white guy, and civilizations desperate for the guidance of random white guy, or civilizations that were super multicultural in opening-of-novel passages/glorified extras with bronzed/ebony/leopard-spotted skin, but all the main characters ended up being random white guys (who sometimes bedded “exotic” aliens/foreigners to prove how enlightened they were). The things that were toxic in late 20th century culture were never gone from these visions of the future, but the things that the authors found annoying were (rules, true equality, sexual consent, usually monogamy, actual science of any kind), and also there were lasers or whatever.

If you never read any of those books, then you were lucky to escape them, because they were seriously gross in a lot of ways, and there were a LOT of them. I read those books wanting to escape my own world, and just found the same world dressed up in shiny jumpsuits and “Nebular Councils”.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 11:04 AM on January 30, 2015 [7 favorites]


I admit I don't write stories so maybe that's different, but I find that making something myself is the way to be absolutely sure I'll be excruciatingly aware of everything wrong with it. I mean, I'll still make it and possibly like it anyway, but if you wanted a list of flaws...

Well, yes. There's that, too. :)
posted by scaryblackdeath at 11:04 AM on January 30, 2015


My personal definition of hard sf is building an interesting world and writing a story that shows off that world. Soft sf is writing a story and then building a world around it.

If the interesting thing about the world is AI you might get the Culture. If it's biology you get Watts. If it's "Quantum" you get Rajaniemi. If it's anthropological you get Ancillary Justice, etc. The events that happen in these books could only happen in their respective worlds and serve to illustrate it and, hopefully, illuminate our mundane lives by comparison.

Soft sf (to me) is when you add "... in Spaaace" to the end of a story that could easily happen in any other context. Putting Romeo and Juliet in jumpsuits isn't interesting.
posted by Skorgu at 11:14 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


Science fiction is a rich and deserving target for this sort of criticism, but to me this is a weak effort because it's not informed and so it's pretty scattershot.

I guess you can read the linked piece as criticism and respond to it as such, but I read it as a (mildly humorous) gag piece. I think it's as much a critical take on science fiction as "How To Tell If You Are In A Henry James Novel" is a contribution to Jamesian studies.
posted by octobersurprise at 11:15 AM on January 30, 2015 [5 favorites]


Who knew that a obviously light-hearted screed could provoke such strong reactions from people determined to defend "good" scifi from this odiously unfair attack piece? You like scifi, I like scifi, the author of this piece probably also likes scifi. Relax.
posted by AndrewStephens at 11:21 AM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


Because SF taught me that the sum total of all human nature is extremely narrow (and conveniently reduces to "whatever white middle class Americans think is normal"), whereas, actually, it is incredibly, wonderfully almost unimaginably varied. And in the grand scheme of human existence, it has been even more wonderfully unimaginably varied.

I didn't study Anthropology, but history has led me to the opposite conclusion.
posted by spaltavian at 11:26 AM on January 30, 2015


If anthropology taught me nothing, it's that aliens, if we ever meet them, are gonna be FUCKING WEIRD.

which is my #1 peeve with almost all popular sci-fi. The aliens aren't remotely weird enough. With a few exceptions, the end of 2001 being one of them. People always wonder what the hell the last half hour or so is supposed to mean, or even is. It's an encounter with an alien, rendered as "realistically" as possible. Mind blowing in a word or two.

Solaris also nails it, I think.
posted by philip-random at 11:26 AM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


but history has led me to the opposite conclusion.

You're reading the wrong history.
posted by Sara C. at 11:28 AM on January 30, 2015 [5 favorites]


"Am I the only one who doesn't find the distinction between hard and soft scifi useful because what I really want out of my scifi realism is realistic biology and xenoecology and cultural development and population genetics and linguistic change rather than 'realistic physics'? "

Hard social sciences fiction? Even Foundation might qualify: what if the social sciences and humanities could be as equation governed as physics? What would happen next?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:30 AM on January 30, 2015


If you're implying that I'm only reading history from a Western/European perspective, that's not the case.
posted by spaltavian at 11:30 AM on January 30, 2015


I feel like it is a mistake to think that Ortberg is going after ALL soft sci-fi.

Is... that what some people are getting out of this? Because my take on it (per my comment above) is that Ortberg was just doing a lighthearted and lightweight riff on basic space opera tropes.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:33 AM on January 30, 2015


I mean, I see what the piece's critics are on about: I read "How To Tell If You’re In A Hemingway Novel" and got to number 7:
A woman is looking at you. She is wearing her hat in a manner you find unbearably independent and mannish. You despise her.
and thought "This writer has never read Garden of Eden." As a gag, tho, that piece would be just as good if the writer had read no Hemingway at all.
posted by octobersurprise at 11:35 AM on January 30, 2015


The nice thing about the "it's all middle-aged white guys" thing is that there's a lot more to read now than just middle-aged white authors (some of whom really are good at writing from other perspectives), and that these other viewpoints are starting to get traction in the SF "cannon", winning awards, selling well and all.

While it's hardly perfect (what is?), I think we're currently in the most exciting era of SF to date in terms of hearing new viewpoints and voices.
posted by bonehead at 11:36 AM on January 30, 2015


Spaltavian, if you're under the impression that human nature can be reduced to the values of the bourgeoisie, I fail to see how that couldn't be the case.

There are people who live right here on Earth who believe that it's vitally important for young boys to perform oral sex on adult men, because it's an inescapable component of the human life cycle. Just to name one particular culture that broke my brain as an undergrad.

The idea that everybody is pretty much just sitting around waiting to become a god-fearing capitalist is... no.
posted by Sara C. at 11:38 AM on January 30, 2015


"Is... that what some people are getting out of this? Because my take on it (per my comment above) is that Ortberg was just doing a lighthearted and lightweight riff on basic space opera tropes."

Yeah, but the title aims it as "soft" SF and the byline includes acknowledgement of input from two people who read "hard" SF and then there are numerous comments here that seem to accept this assumption that these tropes have something to do with "soft" SF. It's really weird.

The only explanation I have for this is a combination of younger readers (which would be most everybody, since much of the debate and backlash against new wave SF and the resulting hard/soft terminology all happened around the period of my adolescence in the late 70s, early 80s) not being familiar with the history involved in the supposed soft/hard distinction, coupled with a naive assumption that any time that SF writes about culture (rather than shiny guns) is necessarily "soft". But of course, science fiction has always written about culture and all the things that Ortberg makes fun of and, more to the point, I associate the majority of it with space opera which is where the core of "hard" science fiction lives. If anything, the stuff she's writing about is hard science fiction, not soft.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:42 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


Spitalvian, if you're under the impression that human nature can be reduced to the values of the bourgeoisie

I'm not under this impression nor did I say that:

humans in SF are still humans, and we don't really have all that many values to choose from

Then I listed some broad categories, and only some of those were "bourgeoisie". Societies in similar situations do similar things, it's quite a leap to say I mean all societies are the same. The point being that's why there's only so many archetypes in science fiction cultures.

Humanity, is not, in my view "incredibly, wonderfully almost unimaginably varied". That's not the same as saying everyone is American or waiting to be.
posted by spaltavian at 11:45 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


Hard social sciences fiction? Even Foundation might qualify: what if the social sciences and humanities could be as equation governed as physics? What would happen next?

They would cease to be recognizably social sciences as we know them. Ignoring humanities, which are their own kettle of fish. The trick to behavior, for example, is that there are so many different factors and such an element of stochasticity overlaying those factors that creating a model to explain them--as we do when we apply mathematics to biology and sociology--is either by nature an oversimplification intended to further understand some interesting aspect of the field or so complicated as to be not worth the effort of creating it. That doesn't mean that models aren't useful in terms of behavior research or social science research or policy, but it does mean that they are not really good at serving as bases for super interesting stories because by definition they are simpler than the whole glorious messy complex of reality. Good stories come out of complexity; taking aspects away makes the whole thing less interesting.

Look, that's exactly what I was talking about when I said that I don't want to read science fiction that rises out of physics (and I ought to have said engineering as well, as a correlate). "What if other sciences could act just like my science, how would the world be then" is not as compelling an attractant to people who are not into your science as you seem to think. I don't like physics because, in part, I like the complexity and the chaos and the sheer weird ridiculousity of biology! Why would I want to simplify it to act like physics so that everything comes out of predictable mathematical equations?

I want to know what would be like if we said something like "Okay, say humans encounter this alien species in the context of exploring other worlds. Say this alien species happened to evolve with a reproductive system based on broadcast spawning, but it's also as social as humans are because it's much harder to survive on your own past the larval life stage and social help is necessary to get to reproductive age. How do kin ties work? Do their societies accumulate wealth along clan lines? How do newly-past-larval individuals get recruited into social groups? How do different cultures develop, given that?" Say this species has a different set of sensory sensitivities than humans. "How does that impact their communication? If they use pheromonal olfactory cues as a valuable part of their body language, how does that impact their communication with humans?" THAT is the stuff I love.

And for the record, I have tried to read Asimov three times and been bored stiff every time. Sorry. Butler I really do like, although I'm more into her short stories than her novels.
posted by sciatrix at 11:50 AM on January 30, 2015 [9 favorites]


My personal definition of hard sf is building an interesting world and writing a story that shows off that world. Soft sf is writing a story and then building a world around it.

This bothered me initially but actually the notion that a work of "hard" SF is characterized by being a narrative that only gets around to narrative concerns in a secondary capacity if at all sounds about right to me.
posted by invitapriore at 12:00 PM on January 30, 2015


My definition of hard sf would be one that tries to get the science correct and doesn't dumb it down. Soft sf cares more about characterization over facts and is more likely to make you cry than think.
posted by cjorgensen at 12:11 PM on January 30, 2015


"This bothered me initially but actually the notion that a work of 'hard' SF is characterized by being a narrative that only gets around to narrative concerns in a secondary capacity if at all sounds about right to me."

Heh. Yeah, it's a pretty scathing indictment of "hard" SF.

But, to be fair, a lot of genre writing is like this. It's about the trope, the familiarity of the trope. Everything in this particular instantiation of the trope is there to support it and it's thin.

Furthermore, the tropes of genre are (or can be, should be) functional with regard to powering quality narratives. The whole "idea-centric" thing about SF is no more invalid than it is, say, in the case of a realist novel that examines postcolonialism. Good novels, good narratives, are always in some sense narratives centered around an idea.

It's just that a lot of folk don't understand or can't manage or don't care that good narratives built around one or more big ideas require all that messy organic machinery to make it actually work.

This is where I get into arguments with people about genre fiction versus literature. The argument tends to annoy me because I tend to think that both sides are usually wrong. Good genre fiction is literature because it utilizes the tropes of genre as part of the machinery in making good literature, but a lot of genre fiction is frankly pretty crappy and there are reasons why it has relatively little cultural credibility. Conversely, a lot of contemporary literature might as well be genre, because it fails at being filled out with all that machinery and is really just a hollow genre that happen to have a lot of cultural credibility. In other words, good art is good art, but most stuff isn't very good.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:15 PM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


Perhaps you would like Samuel Delany's novel Triton? They certainly have a novel political system.

Or his Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, which I have always read as taking place in the same universe as Trouble on Triton, some long time later.
posted by aught at 12:25 PM on January 30, 2015


Ultimately, the only way to make absolutely sure you'll be completely happy with a story is to write it yourself.

Huh. I don't mean to be contrary, but I don't think this is the way it works for all published writers.
posted by aught at 12:31 PM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


Or I play Space Flux.

Google's coming up blank.


Whoops. It's Star Fluxx, and Flux should have two Xes.
posted by tempestuoso at 12:32 PM on January 30, 2015


My sky is the colour of a blank channel today, though (blue and cold).

The sky above the port was the color of a Saturday night special's barrel.

If anthropology taught me nothing, it's that aliens, if we ever meet them, are gonna be FUCKING WEIRD.

Solaris...nails it, I think.


Yes, my thought after reading that was, "cf. Stanisław Lem".
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:53 PM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


Any attempt to put an umbrella over the tropes of "not-so-good science fiction" is going to get picked to death by the fans of every story that was good IN SPITE of one of those tropes. And using the name of any existing sub-genre as a signifier just multiplies the number of potential detractors. (Maybe if she'd just called it "SyFy"...) But it's a minefield with very few safe spaces, and Mallory jumped in wearing clown shoes. Which is probably why, 140+ comments in we haven't gotten comments from either MeFi's Own Cstross or Jscalzi.
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:17 PM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


If anthropology taught me nothing, it's that aliens, if we ever meet them, are gonna be FUCKING WEIRD.

cf. Roadside Picnic, Reynolds' Pushing Ice.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:29 PM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'd like a sci-fi story where I got this far into the thread and then wanted to read some sci-fi rather than feeling worn out about the whole idea.
posted by josher71 at 1:38 PM on January 30, 2015 [4 favorites]


what I really want out of my scifi realism is realistic biology

Unfortunately in science fiction biology is the stepchild that comes to school with suspicious bruises.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:47 PM on January 30, 2015 [4 favorites]


Good read. Even better, read it aloud with Burroughs' voice.
posted by clavdivs at 1:49 PM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


My sky is the colour of a blank channel today, though (blue and cold)

The sky was the perfect untroubled blue of a television screen, tuned to a dead channel.
    - Neil Gaiman
posted by Justinian at 1:55 PM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Rain is when the earth is television.
It has the property of making colours darker."

-Raine
posted by clavdivs at 3:04 PM on January 30, 2015


I love the comments on the Toast as much as the articles!

"Fun activity: assume basically every first novel is someone wringing 100,000 words out of their fantasy life. Especially Tolkien.

Mine is gaining the superpower of perfectly perceiving and manipulating human tissue, and rather tediously setting up a series of clinic days and collaborations with medical researchers. YOUR FANTASY LIFE IS BETTER."

Someone them proceeds to write out a mini-fanfic of the sunset-eyes Queen God person, herself, and her girlfriend (sfw, involves crackers).
posted by Deoridhe at 3:22 PM on January 30, 2015


It's the same problem Atwood used to have when she claimed she didn't write science fiction because she thought it all looked like Star Wars.

I suspect she knew damn well what SF was, and simply didn't want to have to go to conventions with Assaic Asimov, Harlan Ellison, and Jim Frenkel.

Seriously, after being trapped in a room with David Brin for an hour, I was ready to say "Actually, I'm a mystery fan who just got lost".
posted by happyroach at 3:27 PM on January 30, 2015 [7 favorites]


Elmore Leonard once bought me a coke.
posted by clavdivs at 3:53 PM on January 30, 2015


I ... I kind of feel bad because this thread has now moved on to becoming a substantive discussion about science fiction in general and I was really just here for the masturbating robot jokes.
posted by kyrademon at 4:20 PM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


Conversely, a lot of contemporary literature might as well be genre, because it fails at being filled out with all that machinery and is really just a hollow genre that happen to have a lot of cultural credibility.

For what it's worth I agree with this 100% and propose that this genre-in-hiding be rechristened as "MFA lit."
posted by invitapriore at 5:13 PM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't agree that "soft" sci-fi is snobbery or a pejorative. Almost all people who love hard sci-fi discovered that genre through an earlier love of soft sci-fi (Of the kids who loved Star Wars growing up, some become interested in the "real" science of spaceships and possibilities, etc). The two sub-genres feel so different as to not be the same genre, and "hard" or "soft" science is a genuinely useful and descriptive term for the difference.

Things like Star Wars are so orthogonal to science that it's almost strange that we even categorize it as sci-fi, but we do, and it is a great and beloved movie by pretty much every metric there is. Star Wars is not diminished by describing it as soft science fiction, it is so clearly not bound by our scientific understandings, nor does it pretend to be. No-one else thinks it is either, and no-one holds that against it or wants to change it. (Except Lucas, but I'm of the school that authorial intent is irrelevant. Sorry George :) )
posted by anonymisc at 5:37 PM on January 30, 2015


Star Wars is Space Opera. Clearly and unambiguously. Which is kinda like soft SF but it's own thing.
posted by Justinian at 7:08 PM on January 30, 2015


Star Wars isn't what I'd call "soft" science fiction. Film and television SF is really mostly its own sort of thing doesn't play by the same sort of subgenre rules that written SF does.

And the whole hard/soft thing -- this particular nomenclature -- came out of the old guard's response to the late 60s new wave of science fiction that didn't care much about physics and spaceships but did care a lot about people and social issues. There'd always been the latter sort of science fiction, of course -- an important tradition -- but by the postwar period SF had become thoroughly dominated and defined by the spaceships and physics stuff and many of those writers and the fandom responded to the new wave of science fiction in pretty much the way that "gamers" have responded to games like Depression Quest, because basically these are the exact same sorts of people.

This is still largely what this distinction means today and it's not really about the quality or even emphasis on the science. That's the claim, but it's more revealing to look at what fans of hard science fiction call and embrace as their own, and it's not so much about the science as it is about an emphasis on a certain kind of science/technology and protagonist and plot.

If you're on the fringes of this debate, or it's spilled over into the popular consciousness, then because the fans of "hard" SF have pretty much always controlled the terms of this discussion, even now, you'll be led to believe that "soft" is just some sort of universally applicable term regarding the quality of the science and that, therefore, it will encompass Star Wars and Star Trek and whatever, regardless of medium. But that's not really true. Lots of film and television science fiction is heartily embraced by fans of "hard" science fiction who won't read "soft" science fiction. And that's because, like I said, film and television science fiction are kind of a separate thing.

"Star Wars is Space Opera. Clearly and unambiguously. Which is kinda like soft SF but it's own thing."

It's definitely space opera, but space opera could fall into either side of this supposed divide. But, in general, I'd say that typically space opera in written SF is almost always more "hard" than "soft". Because, you know, spaceships and lasers and battles and the many opportunities to discuss the physics and engineering of the technology involved in those spaceships and lasers and battles.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:17 PM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


Night's Dawn was quite space operatic, and I thought it had a nice bit of hardness to it. Read it so long ago, though, I may just be giving it the nostalgia glow.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 7:45 PM on January 30, 2015


"Night's Dawn was quite space operatic, and I thought it had a nice bit of hardness to it. Read it so long ago, though, I may just be giving it the nostalgia glow."

It was ... unique. In the very best way. Right at the opening it was very hard and I loved it. And then Hamilton started doing really weird shit and I loved it more. He didn't just genrebend, he threw about five different genres in a blender and turned that motherfucker on "high".
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:06 PM on January 30, 2015


Oneswellfoop:

Actually, there's been no comment from me because I've been traveling.

My comment: I thought it was pretty funny. Also, Ms. Ortberg generally is one of the funniest people around these days.
posted by jscalzi at 9:23 PM on January 30, 2015 [5 favorites]


I'm loving this thread because people are complaining about the article by posting authors who don't fit the article's paradigm. Please continue doing so because I need more books.
posted by winna at 4:17 AM on January 31, 2015 [1 favorite]


I ... I kind of feel bad because this thread has now moved on to becoming a substantive discussion about science fiction in general

Then Mallory Ortberg's job is done.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:03 AM on January 31, 2015 [2 favorites]


My definition of hard sf would be one that tries to get the science correct and doesn't dumb it down. Soft sf cares more about characterization over facts and is more likely to make you cry than think.

My definition of hard SF is where the physics are from tomorrow, the sociology is from the 1950s, and the politics are somewhere south of 1815.
posted by happyroach at 10:58 AM on January 31, 2015 [13 favorites]


Star Trek is not hard sf!
posted by cjorgensen at 4:23 PM on January 31, 2015 [2 favorites]


The sky was the perfect untroubled blue of a television screen, tuned to a dead channel.

<pedantic>Cute, but that would be far too dark a shade of blue.</pedantic>
posted by acb at 5:23 AM on February 1, 2015


The sky was the perfect untroubled color of Metafilter.
posted by kyrademon at 4:26 PM on February 1, 2015


A very professional white?
posted by dinty_moore at 6:50 AM on February 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


I guess you can read the linked piece as criticism and respond to it as such, but I read it as a (mildly humorous) gag piece. I think it's as much a critical take on science fiction as "How To Tell If You Are In A Henry James Novel" is a contribution to Jamesian studies.

This - I was really surprised to see people reading this as criticism. Mallory does this type of piece a lot, and the genres and authors more often than not seem to have been selected on the grounds of being things she enjoys and has consumed enough of to notice some common tropes that can be gently ribbed, not things she thinks are stupid and need to be shot down.
posted by naoko at 2:11 PM on February 2, 2015


I think there may be a few of those too.
posted by Artw at 3:24 PM on February 2, 2015


Usually her aim is at the tropes she dislikes not the medium, though. I'm thinking of the whole "Women ripping apart men in art history" which focused on the Baccanae and their history of ecstatic murder of men - what she was aiming at with that was both the idea that women-as-manhaters was a woman-created trope, and the idea of misandry being A Thing. Likewise, this one seems more like she aimed for the endemic racism and sexism in sci fi, and the odd sort of self-importance that lingers in sci-fi/fantasy that takes itself very seriously - and which I'd personally mark as a regular feature of media dominated by white men who have relatively little practical power, but who wish their interest of choice would give them practical power and hot women.
posted by Deoridhe at 11:03 AM on February 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm a little surprised to see comments along the line of "if she's so smart about this, why isn't she writing science fiction herself, huh?" Hasn't the idea that only the people who do a thing themselves are qualified to assess it been pretty thoroughly debunked by now?
posted by Lexica at 7:40 PM on February 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


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