Soft science fiction, or soft SF, is a category of science fiction with two different definitions, defined in contrast to hard science fiction. It can refer to science fiction that explores the "soft" sciences (e.g. psychology, political science, anthropology), as opposed to hard science fiction, which explores the "hard" sciences (e.g. physics, astronomy, biology). It can also refer to science fiction which prioritizes human emotions over the scientific accuracy or plausibility of hard science fiction.
Soft science fiction of either type is often more concerned with speculative societies and relationships between characters, rather than speculative science or engineering. The term first appeared in the late 1970s and is attributed to Australian literary scholar Peter Nicholls.
In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Peter Nicholls writes that "soft SF" is a "not very precise item of SF terminology" and that the contrast between hard and soft is "sometimes illogical." In fact, the boundaries between "hard" and "soft" are neither definite nor universally agreed-upon, so there is no single standard of scientific "hardness" or "softness." Some readers might consider any deviation from the possible or probable (for example, including faster-than-light travel or paranormal powers) to be a mark of "softness." Others might see an emphasis on character or the social implications of technological change (however possible or probable) as a departure from the science-engineering-technology issues that in their view ought to be the focus of hard SF. Given this lack of objective and well-defined standards, "soft science fiction" does not indicate a genre or subgenre of SF but a tendency or quality—one pole of an axis that has "hard science fiction" at the other pole.
In Brave New Words, subtitled The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, soft science fiction is given two definitions. The first definition is fiction that is primarily focused on advancements in, or extrapolations of, the soft sciences; that is social sciences and not natural sciences. The second definition is science fiction in which science is not important to the story.
The term soft science fiction was formed as the complement of the earlier term hard science fiction.
The earliest known citation for the term is in "1975: The Year in Science Fiction" by Peter Nicholls, in Nebula Awards Stories 11 (1976). He wrote "The same list reveals that an already established shift from hard sf (chemistry, physics, astronomy, technology) to soft sf (psychology, biology, anthropology, sociology, and even [...] linguistics) is continuing more strongly than ever."
Poul Anderson, in Ideas for SF Writers (Sep 1998), described H. G. Wells as the model for soft science fiction: "He concentrated on the characters, their emotions and interactions" rather than any of the science or technology behind, for example, invisible men or time machines. Jeffrey Wallmann suggests that soft science fiction grew out of the gothic fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley.
Carol McGuirk, in Fiction 2000 (1992), states that the "soft school" of science fiction dominated the genre in the 1950s, with the beginning of the Cold War and an influx of new readers into the science fiction genre. The early members of the soft science fiction genre were Alfred Bester, Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury and James Blish, who were the first to make a "radical" break from the hard science fiction tradition and "take extrapolation explicitly inward", emphasising the characters and their characterisation. In calling out specific examples from this period, McGuirk describes Ursula K. Le Guin's 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness as "a soft SF classic". The New Wave movement in science fiction developed out of soft science fiction in the 1960s and 70s. The conte cruel was the standard narrative form of soft science fiction by the 1980s. During the 1980s cyberpunk developed from soft science fiction.
McGuirk identifies two subgenres of soft science fiction: "Humanist science fiction" (in which human beings, rather than technology, are the cause of advancement or from which change can be extrapolated in the setting; often involving speculation on the human condition) and "Science fiction noir" (focusing on the negative aspects of human nature; often in a dystopian setting).
George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four might be described as soft science fiction, since it is concerned primarily with how society and interpersonal relationships are altered by a political force that uses technology mercilessly; even though it is the source of many ideas and tropes commonly explored in subsequent science fiction, (even in hard science fiction), such as mind control and surveillance. And yet, its style is uncompromisingly realistic, and despite its then-future setting, very much more like a spy novel or political thriller in terms of its themes and treatment.
Karel Čapek's 1920 play R.U.R., which supplied the term robot (nearly replacing earlier terms such as automaton) and features a trope-defining climax in which artificial workers unite to overthrow human society, covers such issues as free will, a post-scarcity economy, robot rebellion, and post-apocalyptic culture. The play, subtitled "A Fantastic Melodrama", offers only a general description of the process for creating living workers out of artificial tissue, and thus can be compared to social comedy or literary fantasy.
George S. Elrick, in Science Fiction Handbook for Readers and Writers (1978), cited Brian Aldiss' 1959 short story collection The Canopy of Time (using the US title Galaxies Like Grains of Sand) as an example of soft science fiction based on the soft sciences.
Frank Herbert's Dune series is a landmark of soft science fiction. In it, he deliberately spent little time on the details of its futuristic technology so he could devote it chiefly to addressing the politics of humanity, rather than the future of humanity's technology.
Linguistic relativity (also known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis), the theory that language influences thought and perception, is a subject explored in some soft science fiction works such as Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao (1958) and Samuel R. Delany's Babel-17 (1966). In these works artificial languages are used to control and change people and whole societies. Science fictional linguistics are also the subject of varied works from Ursula K. Le Guin's novel The Dispossessed (1974), to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Darmok" (1991), to Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash (1992), to the film Arrival (2016).
Soft science fiction filmmakers tend to extend to outer space certain physics that are associated with life on Earth's surface, primarily to make scenes more spectacular or recognizable to the audience. Examples are:
Hard science fiction films try to avoid such artistic license.
Arranged chronologically by publication year.
In the sense of a basis in the soft sciences:
Some prime examples of soft science fiction on film and television include: